crap i have read recently #11

anansiArguably (Christopher Hitchens, 2011):  I first developed a powerful intellectual crush on Christopher Hitchens when I read excerpts from his brutal and unapologetic writing about Mother Teresa.  When he made an excellent case for indicting Henry Kissinger for war crimes my ardor only increased.  I followed his book reviews in The Atlantic and took up a subscription to Vanity Fair solely because he was a co-editor and frequent columnist.   He was one of those rare-and-getting-rarer people who defy our natural tendencies to categorize.  He was a socialist, a neo-con, a liberal, a conservative, a radical, an antitotalitarian, a leftist, a contrarian, an antitheist, a cynic, and a curmudgeon.  He was, quite simply, one of the best writers I’ve ever had the privilege to read, on any topic.

Arguably is a series of book reviews and essays from The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, The Guardian, and many other sources.   I love the book reviews the best.  Hitchens reviews writers all over the map:  Nabokov, Orwell, Powell, Rowling, Updike.  He reviews biographies of Churchill, Samuel Johnson, P.G. Wodehouse, and John Brown.  He reviews books on the history of the French Revolution, the Algerian war for indepedence, the religious beliefs of the founding fathers, and the journalism of Karl Marx.  He includes his introductions to books by George Orwell, Rebecca West, Graham Green, and Isabelle Allende.   Despite the eclectic subject matter Hitchens appears to be extraordinarily well versed in all these areas and his eloquent enthusiasm for many of these books has convinced me to read (or reread) many of them.  The other essays in the book are nearly all informed by his outsized reading library and are commonly accompanied by well placed quotations by Kipling or Auden.  He travels to Iran and Kabul, submits to waterboarding, rewrites the Ten Commandments, excoriates Prince Charles and Stieg Larrson, discusses the legacy of partition in the Middle East and the lingering effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and evokes for us the horrors that are North Korea and the specter of a restored caliphate.  For good measure, he also composes a hilarious history of the American blowjob.

It’s a big book (800 pages or damn near) and some of the essays are less compelling than others.  For instance, the pair of articles on Edward Said and Orientalism didn’t do much for me and (rarely for a Hitchens article) I did not finish them feeling like I knew more about the topic than I did when I started.  Occasionally he reaches for low hanging fruit (Prince Charles, really?) or appears unduly harsh toward someone who really doesn’t deserve it (Martin Amis).  On the whole though, the essays are short enough and of a wide enough variety that this is an excellent book to read in bits and pieces, while on a plane, while cooking dinner, between other books.   He is well known for dry wit; when he wants to be funny he is very funny and even the more serious essays usually  have a well-placed bon mot or two.  Nearly every piece in the book is truly food for extended thought, additional reading, and better understanding, regardless of the topic.

Hitchens chronicled his own impending death with grace and dry wit but I cannot bring myself to reread those articles.  I cancelled my subscription to Vanity Fair the day after his last essay for the magazine was posthumously published.  I miss him still.

Score:  Meh

Anansi Boys (Neil Gaiman, 2005): I read Gaiman’s American Gods in November 2010 mostly while traveling across Japan on the Shinkansen.  I really enjoyed the book; I didn’t, at the time, have much familiarity with Gaiman’s work and thus had no real idea of what to expect.  The down-to-earth otherwordly (if that makes sense) subject matter suited my travels very well so for my return trip to Asia (Vietnam and Japan, this time) I took along Anansi Boys.  While not a sequel to American Gods it is set in the same old-god infested world and concerns one of its characters, Mr. Nancy.

“Fat Charlie” Nancy (who is not actually fat) has many troubles in his life:  his fiance insists on saving sex for their wedding night, her mother is an atrocious harridan, his job is precarious, he passively accepts his half-lived life.  But it is not until his father dies that Charlie’s trials really begin.   In Florida for the funeral he meets four eccentric old women who tell him two things he didn’t know:  not only was Mr. Nancy an incarnation of Anansi (a trickster god of African and later West Indian and African American mythology) but Fat Charlie is not an only child.  He has a brother and this brother inherited the magical powers in the family.  Charlie is told he can contact his wayward brother by talking to a spider but he discounts this and mostly forgets about it.  One night while drunk he mentions to a small spider that he’d like a visit from his brother and the next morning the well dressed and smooth talking Spider appears at his door.  Things in Charlie’s life go rapidly downhill from there.  Spider falls in love with his fiance, impersonates him at his job, and manages to get Charlie arrested for embezzlement.  In desperation to get rid of Spider, Charlie turns to the old women in Florida who send him off to beg help from the other gods.  The bargain Charlie makes there and the things he has to do to fix it lead him to revelations about Spider, about his father, and about himself.

Magic, trickery, and deceit propel the story and it reads like an extended folk tale, which I suppose it is.  There are wise women, vengeful ghosts, animal gods, tall tales, strange bargains, old grudges, and fabulous consequences; all the components of the myths and fairy tales we grew up knowing, regardless of our culture.  The plot is a bit thin and contrived and many things just sort of “happen” mysteriously.  But long and short, this is a story about stories, about the stories we learn, and the stories we tell, and the stories we write.  It’s no American Gods but it’s a pretty good read all the same.    Even if part of me suspects Gaiman wrote it just for the pun in the title.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on April 24, 2013.

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