Tag Archives: Christopher Hitchens

“What Happens to People is All About People”

Living with a Wild God

Barbara Ehrenreich’s memoir, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, came out recently, from the same publisher who brought us Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22. And like the Hitchens book, Ehrenreich’s seems destined to become a classic of the enlightened atheist canon. There’s a good Q&A with Ehrenreich over at Harper’s, but I want to share my favorite quote from the book with you here.

When someone wanders so far from the flock, people, in their collective vanity, tend to blame the flock. Anyone who wanders off must have been actively pushed away—by family dysfunction, social disappointment, sexual rejection, whatever. Or maybe it was the wanderer’s fault, and, like one of Conrad’s characters, she lost her way because she failed to cultivate the appropriate intraspecies bonds; she forgot about love. Either way, the idea is that what happens to people is all about people; no other factors merit consideration. Try telling a therapist or other member of the helping professions that you are menaced by hazy sunlight or that the sumac trees growing like weeds along the railroad tracks fill you with dread, and he or she will want to hear accounts of childhood abuse. This is the conceit of psychiatry and unfortunately of so many novels, even some of the best and most riveting ones: that except for the occasional disease or disaster, the only forces shaping our lives are other humans, and that outside of our web of human interactions there is nothing worth looking into.

– Brian Hurley

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Teju Cole

Today we salute an old-fashioned novelist from the developing world, a wizard who uses Twitter to slow down time, a super-citizen who can shift the tone of a public debate with a few well-chosen words.

Teju Cole earned his literary bona fides all at once, when his debut novel Open City was compared to W. G. Sebald and celebrated by critics like James Wood. But he didn’t just hole up and start working on a second novel. Instead he brought his work directly to the masses with a Twitter project called “Small Fates,” in which he turned the latest news from his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria into condensed epics of human drama, just like Félix Fénéon did in Paris in 1906.

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The Hitchens Trajectory

The Hitchens Trajectory

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I first read Christopher Hitchens in college, when I was gifted a copy of The Trial of Henry Kissinger. This was in the post-9/11, Bush Administration days when I was reading books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, marching in rallies, and attending lectures like the one where I picked up a large, yellow, homemade button reading I KNOW KISSINGER IS A CRIMINAL and quickly pinned it to my messenger bag. The childhood naiveté I had recently shed left me vulnerable to Hitchens’ moral confidence and chilled outrage, and I adopted a more adult naiveté, where solutions took the form of boycotting logos, starting zines, going to poetry readings in campus common rooms and calling on the Hague to bring a former American official to trial on war crimes.

My affinity didn’t last. Hitchens had a book out about how Mother Teresa was some kind of monster. This seemed odd, but not damning. My greater concern was Hitchens’ great complaints about Bill Clinton — which I actually could have accepted had they not been followed by his support of George W. Bush, a man who couldn’t match Clinton in competence, intelligence, or even folksiness. And yet here was Hitch, mobilizing a mind fortified by philosophy, history, literature and poetry to defend a dangerously incurious and incompetent president. I gave Hitch’s line on Iraq no quarter because it coincided with the Bush line, and ultimately concluded that Hitchens was someone who didn’t mind a few thousand people dying if it meant that we could forcibly shove The Enlightenment into new acreage.  Continue reading

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Polling the Reads

I don’t normally like much of anything Amazon does, but this map of the sales of “red” and “blue” non-fiction books is cool. Unfortunately, it’s also kind of sad. And also kind of terrifying to see Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as the top selling “red” book in Washington, DC.

Buyers of “blue” books seem to like history, hate racism and partisanship, and have a serious beef with the concept of God. Buyers of the “red” books either really hate Barack Obama and/or really like buying books where the author is pictured on the cover with crossed arms.

George W. Bush is the only “author” to show up on both sides, with Decision Points at numbers 41 on red and 80 on the blue list.  Less strange but still an odd fit is Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably, which is the 89th most purchased “red” book.

All in all, I guess this is one of those times when you say, “At least people are reading.”

– Michael Moats

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CH v. HC

I FINALLY GOT BURNED by Christopher Hitchens.

I’ve been able to stomach some of the Iraq justifications, and even kind of look past the “women aren’t funny” thing. But this one, from a final piece  for Vanity Fair about Charles Dickens, is tough:

Opening his own memoir, the most inept fictional narrator of my generation showed that he was out of his depth by dismissing “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” Mr. Holden Caulfield may one day be forgotten, but the man who stumbled across the little boy trapped in the sweatshop basement, and realized their kinship, will never be.

If you didn’t know, I’m kind of a fan of Holden Caulfield. I’m confident there are any number of more inept fictional narrators from Hitchens’ generation. And apparently Hitch never saw this pulp-style cover for “The Catcher in the Rye” guaranteeing that “you will never forget it.”

Let’s also note that in this same piece, he refers to Christmas as a “protracted obligatory celebration now darkening our Decembers.” If that gives you a better sense of where he’s coming from.

All that aside, the rest of the Hitchens piece is worth reading.

And, in the fashion of one of the most inept greatest fictional narrators of Hitchens’ anyone’s generation, I can’t help, as I tell you this, but miss the guy a little bit.

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The Best of 2011

AFTER A LONG YEARFiction Advocate and Trade Paperbacks asked readers and writers what they loved reading in 2011. Here’s what they said:



Ismet Prcic, author of “Shards”

“Widow” by Michelle Latiolais — Brutal and honest and well-fucking-written.


Matthew Gallaway, author of “The Metropolis Case”

“Pilcrow” by Adam Mars-Jones — I’ve loved many books in 2011, the most recent being “Pilcrow” by Adam Mars-Jones. Set in 1950s England, the story is narrated by a young boy who grows up with a joint disease that keeps him bed-ridden until he’s nine or ten, after which he attends a series of boarding schools for the disabled. Far from being depressing, however, the narrator views the world with an infectious sense of wonder, detail, and mischief, which along with the fact that he’s gay (not that he uses the term) makes for a completely illuminating read. In my experience, far too many books assume that children are asexual or heterosexual until proven otherwise, so it was amazing for me to read something that captures a sense of knowing that you’re different and presenting this difference with a sensual awareness/optimism that captures the excitement of what it means to be young and alive and filled with dreams.


Michelle Lipinski, book editor

“The Metropolis Case” by Matthew Gallaway — Matthew Gallaway’s novel stands out because it does something few novels do: it welcomes novices as well as old hands with the simple hook of an extremely well-executed and dramatic tale. One doesn’t have to know about New York, Paris, opera, or punk rock to see that the language is stunning, the prose is lyrical, and nothing is out of place. There is a distinct reality in Gallaway’s sometimes surreal story, a reality that contains a “painfully stretched-out sense of longing” (as Scott Timberg says in the New York Times) which rolls in and out of the intertwined stories like fog, touches upon some truth, then quickly burns off in the sun.


Jane Lui, musician

“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: A Commemorative Pop-Up” by Robert Sabuda and “Cinderella: A Pop-Up Fairy Tale” by Matthew Reinhart — Honestly, if kids got their hands on these, the books would get ripped apart. To me, these are meant to be appreciated in detail by adults: engineers, hipsters, retired physicists, middle-aged Disneyland nerds, and your mom. Not only do the images pop, but they’ve made the pop-ups move with the motion of the turning pages. On the first page of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, the pop-up hurricane turns in a circular motion as you open it. It’s fascinating and beautiful. Just please don’t give it to a child.



Karl Wirsing, contributor to Trade Paperbacks and Communications Director at Rails to Trails Conservancy

“The Wave” by Susan Casey — In this participant/author exploration, Casey follows extreme surfer Laird Hamilton in his quest for the giants of the sea (waves 50 feet and taller, with the kind of power to skin a tree), alternating the narrative between his story and the greater threats of rogue waves–often related to climate change–in the ocean. It’s the kind of book where you think Casey has peaked with her stories and extremes by the first few chapters, yet she somehow manages to extend and accelerate the tension. She sometimes loses herself in the prose, tying herself in sensational knots as she attempts to capture the crushing force of these waves. But through it all the message is clear and riveting: Fear the waves, dude. They’re out there. They’re getting bigger. And they will mess you up.


Laura West, blogger and PhD Candidate in the Georgetown University Department of Linguistics

“A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin — The average sentence I read in 2011 went something like this: “One might think that interactants’ insistence on the assertion of relative epistemic rights is an ugly contaminant of courses of action which otherwise are the essence of consensus building.” That’s why George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” was my best book of 2011; the fantasy is the perfect balance to the academic articles that threaten to strangle a student’s love of reading. That’s not to say “A Game of Thrones” lacks complexity. Martin can overwhelm with multiple characters and plots (and disappoint those who expect good to always triumph — he kills off more than a hero or two). Still, it’s impossible not to get sucked into each new storyline and twist in the saga. One caution to those who prefer PG-rated material: the books are full of rape, torture, blood and guts, though Queen Cersie does give fair warning in the first book: when you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die.


Robert Repino, writer and book editor

“God and Sex” by Michael Coogan — This is an entertaining and informative rebuttal to both backward-looking fundamentalists and wishy-washy liberals.


Jessa Lingel, librarian

“Doc and Fluff” by Pat Califia — It’s not every day you find a lesbian dystopian novel to keep you entertained with gore and biker gangs and the occasional lesbian sex scene.



Brian Hurley, editor of Fiction Advocate

“How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive” by Christopher Boucher — This book is a story and a game. The story is about a single father in rural Massachusetts hitting rock bottom after the death of his own father. The game is making sense of his metaphors, which are so cracked out that you fear for his sanity. He talks about his son and his Volkswagen Beetle as if they’re the same entity. He explains his father’s death by saying a Heart Attack Tree came along while his father was sitting inside an Invisible Pickup Truck and ripped all the stories out of his father’s chest. The metaphors end up making an eerie kind of sense, and you realize that the book is re-wiring the way look at the world.


Michael Moats, author of “The Real Holden Caulfield” and editor/contributor at Trade Paperbacks

“Arguably” by Christopher Hitchens/“Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace — The best book I read in 2011 was “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. I think it’s one of the best books you can read, and I happened to read it this year. More on that here. But the best book I read from 2011 was “Arguably” by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was known for being disagreeable, and “Arguably” has plenty of contrarianism in its 700-plus pages. But more than his combative side, this last collection before his death demonstrated Hitch’s passionate love of life, and the poetry, wine, history and debate with which he filled his own. More on that here. Finally, the best book I didn’t read from 2011 was either “Pulphead” by John Jeremiah Sullivan or “Parallel Stories” by Peter Nadas. I will have to let you know in 2012.


Matt Tanner, art director of Fiction Advocate

Boys and Girls Like You and Me” by Aryn Kyle — I came to “A Visit from the Goon Squad” late and somewhat skeptically but was absolutely floored by it. Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” is as majestic and mysterious as any of his other books. Still, my favorite book of the year was Aryn Kyle’s “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” which I found by accident when I picked it up to see who designed the strange and wonderful cover (Evan Gaffney, it turns out). As a designer, I know full well that books don’t necessarily get the covers they deserve. So when I picked up “Boys and Girls,” I wasn’t expecting to be enticed by the first few line or to walk out of the store with the book. Nor was I expecting to discover a collection of beautiful, exquisitely brutal stories about young people–almost all female. I’m not sure I understand women any better, but I am more afraid of them than ever.


Andra Belknap, contributor to Trade Paperbacks

The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach — If you haven’t already, you should really read “The Art of Fielding,” the story of college shortstop Henry Skrimshander. Henry idolizes the famed (and fictional) Cardinals shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez and subscribes to his baseball wisdom, written in his book “The Art of Fielding.” “Fielding” is Henry’s baseball Bible. The conflict that drives the story, of course, is how Henry loses his religion alongside his baseball skills, and searches for something to worship in place of Aparico’s words. During his existential crisis, Henry looks to a mental health professional for guidance. I particularly liked this exchange he had with his therapist:

“I found it interesting, said Dr. Rachels, “that you chose to say Laying down a bunt the way a person might say Laying down my life.”… “I didn’t choose to say it that way,” Henry said, “Lay down a bunt. Everybody says that.”

Indeed, everybody says that. Chad Harbach, in his first novel, encourages his readers to ask why.


What about you? What did you love reading in 2011? Tell us in the comments below… 


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