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Review: Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens

The last word on the last words of Christopher Hitchens

Mortality keeps atheism's faith, but falters in the delivery

The Winter 2012/2013 issue of the magazine Humanist Perspectives published my review of the late Christopher Hitchens' last book, Mortality.

Naturally, all of you who can find a copy at your local newsstand should rush right out and buy a copy of the magazine before it's gone forever.

But for those who won't (or can't), I have now posted said review on my website.

The TL/DR version is this.

Mortality's eight brief chapters are typical Hitchens. Often caustic, sometimes thoughtful, occasionally even moving, Hitchens' uncompromising look at his affliction with cancer has some lovely moments. The chapter on intercessory prayer (there were Christians praying for the recovery of the outspoken atheist, but at least as many were praying for his death and subsequent eternal torture in the Lake of Fire) is particularly strong. Even in his last days Hitchens remained an entertaining and sometimes even moving polemicist. But he was by no means a deep thinker.

Too often, Hitchens takes the easy road, scoring cheap points and relying on his delivery, rather than rigorous thinking, to make his argument. In his introduction, Vanity Fair's Editor, Graydon Carter, notes that Hitchens, awash in scotch, could bang out a serviceable column in an hour. A rather impressive feat, but one wonders what the man could have accomplished if the words hadn't come, quite, that easily to him.

Cut short by his death, Christopher Hitchens might have been better served had these final essays been left to the impermanent pages of back issues of Vanity Fair or the more permanent, but less tangible, archives of the internet.

As always, comments here or on my site are more than welcome. Was Christopher Hitchens a hero, a villain, or just another too-erudite and too-emotional Englishman who loved a good fight almost as much as he enjoyed his cigarettes and liquor?

The full review lives at

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  • ed_rex

Review: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Return to Middle Earth: The Hobbit

Believe it or not, Peter Jackson's latest film is only indirectly responsible for my decision to re-read The Hobbit (again). The proximal cause was's (no-doubt entirely commercial) decision to ask the redoubtable Kate Nepveu to lead a weekly, chapter-by-chapter "re-read" of the novel in conjunction with the release of the first (of three!) movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's 300 page children's story.

My intention had been to follow along at Nepveu's chapter-a-week pace and, perhaps, to contribute to the ongoing conversation she was (and is!) sure to inspire, but Tolkien's deceptively simple prose and thematically complex fairy story swept me away (as it has a number of times before). I finished the book in a couple of days.

The short version is that The Hobbit remains a delightful adventure story and fairy tale, even if it is the work of a writer who has yet to reach the full extent of his creative powers.

That said, it also a very strange book, that strays very far indeed from a typical heroic path in favour of wandering the fields of moral complexity and (relatively) complex characterizations. The protagonists are far from perfect and even the villains show surprising signs of humanity.

A lovely book to read aloud to a child, there is every chance that you will have to read it twice, since you'll likely treat yourself to the whole thing before you sit down for Chapter Two with said youngster.

The long version lives on my site. (As usual, there are spoilers.)


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  • ed_rex

The Chaos: Nalo Hopkinson's nightmare of Blackness

Drawing on myths from Jamaica to Russia, on folk tales of Coyote and Brer Rabbit, and maybe from sources as disparate as Chuck Jones, J.R.R. Tolkien and Mervyn Peake (not to mention Lewis Carroll), Nalo Hopkinson's "Young Adult" debut is as singular a creation as it has been my pleasure to read in a very long time.</p>

All at once a surreal adventure, a subtle exploration of privilege in caste-ridden society and a daring push against the walls of narrative fiction itself, The Chaos has no villain and its (black, Canadian) heroine never wields a blade nor fires a gun.

Though questions of race and identify form organic parts of how the novel's characters view and interact with the world (none of the book's major characters is white), race is not what the book is about. Hopkinson is telling a story, she is not preaching.

Narrated by probably the most fully-realized teenager I have come across in fiction, The Chaos is always surprising, a thoroughly unconventional page-turner you owe it to yourself to read — to pass on to any literate young person you know.

For my full review, click, "When I cried, the tears were black."

Cats and books

Murder Beneath the Buried Sky by Keith Hartman

Just finished. Short read, about 125 pages, but it's new fiction from Hartman, whom I love.

The plot centers around Calvin, trapped in a city in a cave, filled with people who originally moved into the cave around 15-20 (the time is kind of vague in this. Mind you, I assume this has to do with living in a cave with no natural light. Although that vagueness does become clear in the end.) years ago to escape "The Burn", the time when all the nukes got launched. Due to the radiation, the cave is sealed off, and geiger counters are positioned near the only exit so that when the radiation clears, the survivors can return and start working the Earth. Problem is, they really only planned to be in the cave for about 5 years. Calvin is the First Born, his mother having entered the cave pregnant. After 5 years, they ran out of birth control, and new kids were born.

As the book starts, we get a feel for the setting. Calvin lives in what once was a supply closet with 5 other boys. Which leads to a real lack of privacy, Particularly when one of his roommates brings home an older woman for vampire sex games. (I'm cheaply amused by this, since later on, he runs across them again, only this time the roommate is an Athenian slave boy and she's the Empress. Also, it's pointed out that most of the younger population of the cave and the adults for that matter, are functionally bisexual.) Anyway, as the story progresses, we find out Calvin's estranged father has been murdered, and Calvin is the prime suspect. And the ruling Council isn't inclined to give him a trial as much as kill him to get it under the rug. As the book goes on, it begins looking at issues with the situation, such as starvation as the Grow Lights start dying off, paranoia inherent in a closed, society, etc.

Anyway, as could be expected in a mystery, the ending brings resolution of a sort, as we, the readers find out what's really been going on beneath the Earth.

And in the notes, Mr. Hartman discusses that his inspiration for the whole thing comes straight from Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Although really, it shares common themes with The Matrix, The Dome, Logan's Run, and even Crowley's Book of the Law. Basically, once again, the idea that someone finds knowledge, tries to return with it, and instead gets attacked by people who either don't want to believe or can't cope with it.

All in all, a very good read, and highly recommended, particularly if you're one of the 20 people who read his other books.
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Joanne Harris - "Gentlemen and players"

I adore Joanne Harris (ah, Joanne Harris, mon amour))).
And I really, really loved "Gentlemen and players" which isn't among her most famous books.

Just like "Chocolat" it is a story told by two voices.
One of these voices is a kid whose dream is to study in a prestigious school for boys. Another storyteller is an adult, one of the school's professors. We see the story from two angles at a time.
Seeing from different angles is smth which helps you in this life... And when you may see the plot of a movie or that of a book like that... It's also very interesting).
One day the kid achieved his dream. He joined the school anonymously. But he was alrealy an adult. And he had a vicious plan about it (mhm-mhm, what is it about?)))
I adore Joanne Harris (ah, Joanne Harris, mon amour))).
And I really, really loved "Gentlemen and players" which isn't among her most famous books.

But... We don't know WHO this kid is. We see different teachers, we see school's staff. But which one among them is that kid hurt in his childhood, whose words have a double meaninh, whose smiles are fake, whose gestures are well calculated?
We don't know that, it is a mystery).
This book is very much like a detective story, and also it is a love story with a most unexpected end. This story reminds of how it may be horrible, difficult and painful to be a teenager, when everyone thinks you live in a paradise naive world... And one may go through dramas. All these kids around us... sometimes they go through real great dramas, they feel love without knowing their dramas may pass, they feel like everything is new and way too powerful.
They are to be treated carefully, otherwise they may turn into a person with a cracked heart, much like the brilliant but sad hero of this amazing story.
Joanne Harris was a teacher one day and she is really BRILLIANT in describing this universe of teen age.
The end of this book is one of the most unexpected ends you could imagine).

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Awesome book recommendation

Today one of my favourite authors is blogging at about how she came to write novels on the blog of Long and Short Reviews.
You can also participate in the blog’s weekly CONTEST, if you answer following question correctly and mail the answer to What language is Julia Fellner’s mother tongue?
It’s totally awesome, so I can only advise you to check it out.
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  • ed_rex

Review: All the Lives He Led, by Frederik Pohl

All the covers I ruined

I have a confession. Back in the lonely days of my early adolescence, I spent a lot of my free time haunting bookstores and there developed a peculiar and unsavoury habit. Not shop-lifting, but vandalism.

I had it in for Fred Pohl's brilliant novel of missing aliens and absent lovers, Gateway. Y'see, the Del Rey paperback (pictured at right) was, to put it bluntly, crap. Usually, simply opening the book wide enough to scan the middle pages was enough to detach the cover from the book's spine.

At a buck-ninety-five a copy I thought Del Rey owed its readers something better, and so made it my mission to open every copy in every bookstore I entered. I was, I self-justified, protecting my fellow readers from shoddy merchandise and, maybe, encouraging the publisher to try again. It must have worked, as I don't think Gateway has ever been out of print.

Little did I know that some years later circumstances would see me become friends with Pohl's former wife Judy Merril, or that she would one day introduce me to him at a conference she had been involved in organizing in Toronto.

That meeting didn't go so well. Though we huddled together in a doorway while sharing a smoke, I didn't want to bore him by telling him how much I'd enjoyed Gateway and Man Plus and Jem and The Space Merchants and that I had the advantage of him because I had also read his autobiography, The Way the Future Was. Worse, I was even worse with small-talk than I am now, and Pohl didn't seem to think it necessary either.

We grunted about the lousy weather and that was about it. But I digress.

In 1979, Pohl had been a professional for 40 years. When I met him in person he had been at it for about 50 and seemed to me, if not quite ancient, then certainly old. He was tall but stooped, his body showing signs of that inevitable surrender to entropy and gravity that faces all who live long enough to endure it.

In 2011, Pohl has been a pro for more than 70 years and is not only regularly writing a Hugo-winning blog, he is still writing fiction.

And so I recently scrounged up the coin to pick up his latest book — in hard-cover, no less. And frankly, given my recent experiences with paying good money for one lousy book or another I put down my money kind of nervously.

So I am doubly-pleased to be able to say that All the Lives He Led is one of the best SF novels — best novels — I've read in a while and with nary a rocket ship or time machine in sight.

The full review is at Edifice Rex Online, with very little in the way of spoilers.

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Paul Theroux – Riding the iron rooster


Paul Theroux – China per trein

For the younger generation he is the father of Louis. For the oldies he is the best travel author in the world. Actually he is both. He is a typical loner who loves to travel his own way and doesn’t like advice or rules from others. That makes him sometimes cynical, but always honest and open. If something resembles a tourist trap, he will avoid it or just say it isn’t worth it.

Several of his books have found their way on my bookshelves, also some of his fiction. Not bad either, but I certainly prefer his travel books. This story starts on a group journey from London through Paris, Berlin and Moscow towards Mongolia, the author already could have written a whole book about his trip and his fellow passengers before he actually enters China on page 66.

Theroux takes time to get to know a destination. He is not there to write an article, to see some highlights; he is there to understand a place, to get a feel for the country. This to me is the essence of travelling. Theroux will never be a tourist; he is the ultimate traveller. He even seems to read a bit of the language. Language is an important part of communication, to me an inevitable part. This is also the main reason that I have not travelled a lot in Asia. I love to be able to talk to locals in their own lingo. I can’t do that in bad English.

Therefore I’m quite pleased that Theroux does travel there, giving me the opportunity as an armchair traveller to follow his expedition through a country that is not high on my to-do list. China is a world on its own; it is quite difficult to say anything that goes for the entire country. The differences between city and country, between north and south, between east and west are huge.

Often did I return to page 10/11 to have a quick glance on the map, to see where Theroux was at the time. I like him travelling by train, as it does give the book more depth, it tells me a lot more about the Chinese compared to taking flights within the country.

Even though it took me ages to read the nearly 500 pages of this book, the book doesn’t get boring. It does get confusing at times though, but that is mainly because of my lack of knowledge before reading this book. There are cities in China bigger than most big cities I know, yet even though a few million people live there, I had never heard of the place and, dare admitting it, have since forgotten the name again.

Theroux is cynical at times, especially as he encounters the lack of liberty he likes. He gets chaperoned and is incredibly annoyed by that. I can imagine as well. Not sure how these days travelling in China goes, though in the eighties when he wrote this volume, the world had a completely different look, the political climate was a bit different from what we know these days.

Yet, even given the troubles he encounters wherever he goes, he makes the most of it and manages to get to know big parts of the country. His eye for detail, a great memory, everything he notes must be jotted down soon afterwards, makes this book a great read. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it and hopefully will read many more travel book by Paul Theroux.

Quote: “Wanneer een land brulde dat het tot de laatste druppel bloed zou vechten, betekende dat meestal dat het op het punt stond zich over te geven; en in China kon je over het algemeen niets als waar beschouwen totdat het onkend was. Alles wat officieel ontkend werd, was waarschijnlijk waar.”

Quote: “When a country screams that it would fight until the last drop of blood, most of the time this means that it was at the point of surrender; in China nothing could be considered the truth until it had been denied. Everything that was officially denied was probably true.” (p. 136)

Number: 10-069
Title: China per trein (Orig.: Riding the iron rooster)
Author: Paul Theroux
Language: Dutch (Orig.: English)
Year: 1988
# Pages: 496 (13420)
Category: Travel
ISBN: 90-450-0817-3

More Paul Theroux:
Riding the iron rooster
Review 1
Review 2

Other books by Theroux read by me:
Slow trains to Simla
The Mosquito coast