The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton

In the introduction to the book Larry Taunton worries about exploiting his dead friend. And he should not have dismissed those concerns and written this book. It is the kind of manipulative, predatory, and piously insulting thing that gives Christians a bad name. He puts words in Christopher Hitchens' mouth and assigns him thoughts that he can't repudiate from the grave. The author seems to ignore the possibility that Hitchens just liked hearing people of conviction talk about their beliefs, and wasn't himself discovering he may share that faith. The notion that he might have just enjoyed debate is hardly considered. An intellectually curious person can want to learn more about faith, but still not feel it. Atheists are often just as intrigued as they are disgusted by people who believe in God. 

Taunton would have the readers of this book believe that Christopher Hitchens was afraid to tell people he was dabbling in faith in his last few months for fear of disillusioning his acolytes. This strikes this ardent lover of the work of Hitchens as absurd. He was about as shy and retiring as a gun. And he thrived on controversy. This is a man who wrote a book in which he called Mother Teresa a hypocrite and a fame whore. He ardently supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while his liberal contemporaries where aghast and convinced he'd lost his mind. And once on the Bill Mauer show when he was giving his hawkish thoughts and the audience began to gasp and turn on him, he didn't equivocate. He gave the audience the finger. 

The author claims that Hitchens metaphorically kept two sets of books, one set public and the other set private. And his tentative embrace of faith was something he kept private. It was something he only expressed to Larry Taunton when there were no other witnesses. This is very convenient for Mr. Taunton. 

Christopher Hitchens worried about someone crediting a deathbed conversion to him. So he inoculated his legacy with this statement, "The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain. I can't guarantee that such an entity wouldn't make such a ridiculous remark. But no one recognizable as myself would ever make such a ridiculous remark." The author of this book claims he only said that to make his atheist friends happy. When did Hitch give a crap about making anyone happy?

As a person of faith, I would feel like a hypocrite if I didn't at least entertain the possibility that Christopher Hitchens towards the end of his life, facing the black implacable wall of death,  wanted to believe there was something on the other side of it. But I find it much more likely that Mr. Taunton wants to believe it, and he heard what he wanted to hear, and the thought he could sell some books by convincing his fellow Evangelicals that it is impossible for man to live a dissolute life without higher purpose and meaning, and die unrepentant without the crutch that is God. This is a very cynical book.


Swing Time by Zadie Smith

When I finished this book my first thought was, "Damn she's good." My second and third thoughts involved frustration and disappointment. I am frustrated because I don't necessarily have time to read all Zadie Smith's other books right now, and disappointed that I waited so long to read her at all. 

I think what had kept me away was that I didn't think her voice would appeal to me and that her books might be the type we all pretend to love but we don't really get them. (I'm looking at you Infinite JestThe plots of all her books are rooted in London and involve immigrant tales. I'm as American as a gal can get and the immigrant experience always strikes me as so different in Great Britain. This fear that I wouldn't be able to connect to the story kept me away. I'm glad I eventually took the risk.  If her other books are half as good as this one she will have a fan for life.

I adored the warmth and affection she has for her characters. Even when someone is acting out, even when they're being awful you can feel the love she has for her creations. Often in books antagonistic and contrary characters are presented in a way that as a reader I don't feel like I am given the choice but to hate them. The author points at the monster they've created and and we all boo and hiss. While Zadie Smith creates a character and makes them feel like family. Members of your family may be terrible and do things you hate but you see the entire person, all the good and bad, and all your history with them. And you can't afford to hate your family because you're in it together. And that is how I felt about the characters in Swing Time. I didn't always like the things they did but we were going to be together for 453 pages. We were going to fall in and out of love and disagree and I wasn't going to like them, but we were in it together.

I can't remember reading a book recently that didn't have a single poorly drawn character or an implausible plot point or anything I would call a flaw. I find it easy to read a book and think of all the ways it could've been written better, but not Swing Time.

My sole complaint is that there was so much tension and foreshadowing of secrets and betrayals. And when the secrets came out and the betrayals happened I was a bit underwhelmed. In this way, and this way only, if I'd known nothing about the author would I have known Swing Time was written by a woman. In my own life as a woman I have seen something small feel devastating. A paper cut is minor but it can hurt a thousand times worse when it's in a tender place. And the women in the novel hurt each other in each woman's most tender place. 

Zadie Smith and I are of the same generation and her cultural shout outs and touchstones were appreciated and admired. And as a woman of color the way she writes about ethnicity and constantly placing yourself and asserting your identity was both powerful and calming. Race politics can be frightening. We spend so much time trying not to step on a landmine. While the main character and her frenemy Tracey take it slowly and in bite-sized pieces. As if to say you don't have to be all the different parts of yourself all at once and it's okay to decide who you are and what your color means in that moment, and possibly be someone else a few moments later.  

This book has an amazing sense of location. The events of the book happen primarily in three places, London, New York, and a small African village. And I love a writer who is obviously not just creative but a great technician with language. I knew she was clever but I never saw her being clever. I never felt like she was trying. Much of the book talks about dance and how hard a dancer works to make it look effortless. I have no doubt Zadie Smith works hard but I didn't see it. It was smooth. It was ballet. I am applauding.