The dead and the living – Five books of essays – a review.

My latest selection of books from our local library. All essay collections.

I guess the main question to be asked is why choose to read 5 books of essays? The answer…my answer at any rate is….to learn. The way I write my blog, and how many other bloggers write, is in essay form. So, what is an essay?

Literary Devices.Net defines it as – Essay is derived from the French word essayer, which means “to attempt,” or “to try.” An essay is a short form of literary composition based on a single subject matter, and often gives the personal opinion of the author. A famous English essayist, Aldous Huxley defines essays as, “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” The Oxford Dictionary describes it as “a short piece of writing on a particular subject.”

The all knowing Wikipedia says – An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper, an article, a pamphlet, and a short story. Essays have traditionally been sub-classified as formal and informal. Formal essays are characterized by “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,” whereas the informal essay is characterized by “the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme,” etc. Essays are commonly used as literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author.

So there we have it. Looking at the writers of these 5 books, they are hailed as some of the best essayists around so hopefully I can learn from them, as well as enjoy reading them.

Just updating this post. Rather than make this one lengthy or over lengthy post I may possibly split it into two parts. The First part….this part….covering the 3 Essayists who are now deceased (the top line in the photo – of 3 books) and a second post about the two remaining live essayists will follow at a later date. OK, on with the post…..

First book out of the starting blocks, just because I liked the title, is Consider the Lobster…and other essays – by David Foster Wallace. He is obviously well respected as a writer if the blurb on the back of the book is to be believed. Comments such as the following praise him to the sky.

Long renowned as one of the smartest writers on the loose, in Consider the Lobster David Foster Wallace also reveals himself to be one of the funniest……Wallace delights and confirms that he is a ‘writer of virtuosic talents’ (New York Times)

‘…a superb comedian of culture….his exuberance and intellectual impishness are a delight’ James Woods, Guardian

‘He induces the kind of laughter which, when read in bed with a sleeping partner, wakes said sleeping partner up……He’s damn good’ Nicholas Lezard, Guardian

There are a collection of 10 rather lengthy essays in this book, and I know from the comments about the book that I should be swept away by Mr Wallace’s brilliance, but….(pause while I attempt to think of something tactful to say)….to paraphrase Obi wan Kenobi – ‘This is not the essayist you are looking for’. I have struggled to maintain consciousness through the first four essays and haven’t yet arrived at the start of the actual Consider the Lobster essay. The first essay titled Big Red Son – about the porn industry awards night – appeared to have been written by an adolescent schoolboy with a fetish for large breasts, who is obsessed by the size of the male porn stars er…package and makes constant comments about the amount and regularity of their ejaculations. I have to ask myself, do I want to invest more of my time in trying to understand why so many people rate Mr Wallace so highly? I find myself agreeing with the host of TV’s The Hotel Inspector, Alex Polizzi when offered instant coffee to drink instead of her usual espresso, her response of…’I’d rather drink my own urine’….mirrors my reluctance to read any more of Wallace’s drivel. Needless to say that I, for one, was not swept away by his impish delight…..more a case of being dragged away kicking and screaming!

In a bid to not judge Mr Wallace too harshly (oops…too late for that), as I hate to speak ill of the dead, I decided to sleep on it, give the Lobster due consideration and give it another try. I don’t suppose David Foster Wallace would lose any sleep over my less than flattering review anyway, and since he is dead, that is of course, neither here nor there. So, 24 hours or so later, I have read the feature article about the Maine Lobster Festival and it was actually quite good. It informed and educated me about lobsters in general and about the MLF. He didn’t however entertain me with his writing. I have yet to discover the humour in his writing that some critics bang on about, and the article tended to be repetitive in parts….he could have cut it by a couple of pages or more and actually improved it (IMHO). As you may or may not be aware Wallace took his own life at the age of 46 and had been consumed by depression for over 20 years. Having now read 5 of his essays I can see why. You may think that my last sentence was uncalled for. All I can say is please read some of Mr Wallace’s work and draw your own conclusions…but first hide all the kitchen knives. Best to keep temptation at arms length.

Of the remaining 4 books of essays two more are also by writers who have passed on to that great typewriter in the sky and thankfully the final two are still very much alive and kicking. I’ll carry on now with two times Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Mailer’s book Mind of an Outlaw, and pray that it’s an improvement on Consider the Lobster.

Even before I open Mailer’s book I am hopeful. He was married 6 times, which would indicate that he had a sense of humour. However he stabbed one wife with a penknife almost killing her…so maybe a sick sense of humour should be expected. Woody Allen once quipped that when Mailer dies, his ego would be donated to Harvard Medical School for research.

Mailer died in 2007, aged 84, (I have no idea what happened to his Ego…) and this collection of essays was published posthumously in 2013, said to contain many of his best works, (scoring 5 out of 5 on Amazon and 4 out of 5 on Goodreads) I remain hopeful as I scan the list of essays.

Unlike Wallace’s essays that run on almost endlessly, page after page, mile after ponderous mile… and bored me silly, Mailer’s run for just a few pages each and so we have around 50 to cherry pick from six decades of writing. Having read the first seven essays, so far, I believe without a doubt that he is, as mentioned by Woody Allen, egotistical. He is one of those writers who is very good at his craft – and knows it – and likes to tell everyone exactly how good he is…..or rather how lucky the reader is that he’s allowing us into his world. This being said, he is (or I should say was) a gifted writer and I am enjoying his somewhat self indulgent essays.

In one essay written in the 1950’s and titled The Homosexual Villain, he writes about what it is to be a writer, how important it is to nurture and grow that inner writer, and why we must not let our uninformed prejudices stunt our growth. I think he absolutely nails it….A writer has his talent, and for all one knows, he is born with it, but whether his talent develops is to some degree responsive to his use of it. He can grow as a person or he can shrink, and by this I don’t intend any facile parallels between moral and artistic growth. The writer can become a bigger hoodlum if need be, but his alertness, his curiosity, his reaction to life must not diminish. The fatal thing is to shrink, to be interested in less, sympathetic to less, desiccating to the point where life itself loses its flavor, and one’s passion for human understanding changes to weariness and distaste.

My plan was to select a couple of essays from each decade to read, but I am enjoying them so much that I’m probably going to read the entire 50. This review could therefore take somewhat longer than I had anticipated.

His essay in 1956 endorsing Ernest Hemingway for political office, although written slightly tongue in cheek, makes a good argument for why the American public would choose Hemingway over Eisenhower. Of course since Hemingway had no political aspirations it becomes a moot point. An interesting piece all the same. Just as a matter of interest, Mailer wrote that in his opinion, the two writers to have had the most influence on the American public were Hemingway and Faulkner – which is quite an interesting choice when Mailer himself admits that he is not overall a fan of Hemingway’s writing. In fact in a later essay in the book he actually says that he got to the point early on in his writing career that he was sick and tired of hearing about both Hemingway and Faulkner.

Modern writers fare no better. Jonathan Franzen’s book – The Corrections was lauded by his contemporaries as an outstanding piece of literature and attracted high praise all around. Mailer’s opinion was that The Corrections is “the book of a generation that wants to wipe the slate clean and offer a new literary movement”, and that “todays writers are sick of Roth, Bellow, Updike and myself.” He then goes on to say that the book is “very good indeed, and yet most unpleasant now that it sits in memory, as if one has been wearing the same clothes for too many days.” He then goes on talking about Franzen’s intelligence. “He may have the highest IQ of any American novelist writing today, but unhappily, he rewards us with more work than exhilaration, since rare is any page in The Corrections that could not be five to ten lines shorter.” Mailer obviously hates to give any other writer any credit at all.

As far as his contemporaries are concerned, Mailer tells us in no uncertain terms that there are barely any of his fellow writers who he feels are as good as, if not better than himself. The one exception being James Jones, who won the 1952 National Book Award for his first published novel, From Here to Eternity. This of course was made into a movie and later into a TV series. Mailer says in his essay Quick Evaluations on the Talent in the Room that James Jones had more talent than he did, and waxes lyrical about him for the best part of a paragraph, before pulling him apart and accusing him of selling out over the years since the publication of his first book. He then goes on to run his sword through a number of other distinguished writers including William Styron, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac and Saul Bellow, dismissing them all as inferior to him.

I suspected that it was too good to be true that Mailer actually felt inferior to another writer. He has such a huge ego that he needed two houses to live in – one of standard size for his physical being and a hundred room mansion for his ego. I’m not sure if Mailer owned a car or not, but if he did, I have no doubt that his number plate/licence plate would be FIGJAM – as in Fuck I‘m Great Just Ask Me.

Although he was undoubtedly a huge narcissist, an egotistic megalomaniac, there is no escaping the fact that he was a brilliant writer and I can’t help but admire his work. He could look at both sides of an argument and make compelling points in support of one side, only to then give equal merit to the opposing side. I must admit to being totally flummoxed in trying to follow his take on existentialism though.

I’ll finish with a quote from the Amazon books website about the book…. Incendiary, erudite, and unrepentantly outrageous, Norman Mailer was a dominating force on the battlefield of ideas. Featuring an incisive Introduction by Jonathan Lethem, Mind of an Outlaw forms a fascinating portrait of Mailer’s intellectual development across the span of his career as well as the preoccupations of a nation in the last half of the American century.

And we move on to our 3rd deceased Essayist – Christopher Hitchens. Christopher Eric Hitchens was an English-American author, columnist, essayist, orator, journalist, and social critic. Hitchens was the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of over 30 books, including five collections of essays on culture, politics, and literature. Hitchens, who died of cancer aged 62, in 2011, was a huge critic of organized religion and I have seen videos of him, on many occasions, having a good old rant against the many religions including, and in particular, Christianity. He enjoyed a smoke and a fine malt whisky, and fully admits that this contributed to his cancer diagnosis. He could be caustic and sarcastic but also witty and humorous and always put forward a good, intelligent argument. A public intellectual and a controversial public figure – and I looked forward to reading his collection of essays titled …And Yet.

And yet….before I start his book I must, just quickly, bring to your attention one of Hitchens’ typical quotes that I wish I had said myself.

“My own view is that this planet is used as a penal colony, lunatic asylum and dumping ground by a superior civilisation, to get rid of the undesirable and unfit. I can’t prove it, but you can’t disprove it either.”

OK…that’s out of the way, let’s get on with the review.

And Yet….and other essays was published in 2015 – 4 years after Hitchens death, but is like a breath of fresh air – a last blast from this devout non-conformist – and lifelong atheist. Indeed he takes a swipe at the very idea of Christmas in his essay Bah Humbug which features an account of being physically barred from a ‘Bible Belt’ talk show, even though he’d been invited on it, for observing that “Christmas trees, Yule logs, and the rest were symbols of the winter solstice holidays before any birth had been registered in the greater Bethlehem area.” Therefore pagan rather than Christian iconic items. His host took exception to this.

Born and raised in Britain and later becoming an American citizen gave Hitchens two political systems to pull apart with equal ferocity. It’s a pity that he died before Donald Trump entered the political arena – I would have loved to have heard his opinion of The Don. In this series of essays he takes several swipes at Hillary Clinton. In one essay he characterises her as being “indifferent to truth, willing to use police state tactics and vulgar libels against inconvenient witnesses, hopeless on healthcare and flippant and fast and loose with national security.”

Her ex president husband Bill fares no better. In his essay titled The Case Against Hillary Clinton, Hitchens not only accuses both Hillary and him of being self serving liars…several times over, but also makes strong suggestions that Bill was also a rapist. Many women accused Bill of improper sexual behaviour including Gennifer Flowers, Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick…..and who can forget the infamous incident with Monica Lewinsky – I did not have sexual relations with that woman – yeah right! Indeed in an earlier book, No One Left To Lie To, Hitchens penned an essay by the title of Is there a Rapist in the Oval Office?

But it’s not only American politicians who come under fire. No politician anywhere in the world who lies or goes back on promises were safe from Hitchens’ barbed tongue. He even had a go, and quite rightly so, at the Dutch government – who have long enjoyed the reputation for peaceful and democratic consensus – on two counts. The first being in July 1995 when Dutch forces in Bosnia abandoned the population of the UN-protected “safe haven” at Srebrenica enabling the worst massacre of civilians on European soil since WW2. He says Dutch officers were photographed hoisting champagne glasses with the sadistic goons of Ratko Mladic’s militia before leaving the helpless Muslim population to a fate that anyone could have predicted.

The second issue was when the Dutch withdrew their protection of former member of the Dutch Parliament – Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a refugee from genital mutilation, forced marriage, and civil war in her native Somalia, who collaborated with Theo van Gogh on the film Submission that highlighted the maltreatment of Muslim immigrant women living in Holland. Van Gogh was murdered on an Amsterdam street in 2004 with a note pinned to his body promising that the next victim would be Hirsi Ali. Initially the Dutch vowed to give security protection to her, but after a while decided it was costing them too much so they announced in the press that after a certain date had been reached, Hirsi Ali would be unprotected, in effect tipping off the Islamist death squads responsible for the death of van Gogh earlier.

Hitchens was without doubt an exceptional writer with a strong sense of justice. Highly opinionated maybe, highly critical of those in positions of power (be it religious power or political power) – absolutely, but a damn good writer and generally well respected. His book AND YET… with its collection of almost 50 essays is an entertaining and interesting read. If you’ve never read anything by Hitchens, and you are not offended by his stance on religion, his writing offers some real gems.

On the back of the book – “Few writers can match his cerebral pyrotechnics. Fewer still can emulate his punch as an intellectual character assassin. It is hard not to admire the sheer virtuosity of his prose” – Edward Luce, Financial Times. AND “If Hitchens didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to invent him” – Ian McEwan.

I’ll leave you with a couple more quotes from Hitchens about himself, in closing.

I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn’t ever have to rely on the press for my information. AND
I don’t have any terrific self-esteem issues but I do sometimes realise I’ve been too lucky and that I’m over-praised. It makes me nervous. I have this sense of being overrated.

This brings a close to the first, of my two part, review of the five books of essays. Three deceased writers down, two live ones yet to come. Thank you as usual for reading. Your comments etc., are much appreciated.

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