If you haven’t seen Jojo Rabbit….the movie…..it’s worth seeing. The plot line is a little thin, but the comic scenes and the interaction between Jojo and his imaginary friend Adolf more than make up for it, as do the scenes at the Hitler Youth training camp – where the kids get to throw real hand grenades and shoot off live ammunition. The soundtrack is awesome with some classic hits from the likes of the Beatles, the Monkeys and even David Bowie sung in German, naturally….or should I say “naturlich”.
The child actors steal the show from the adults in this soon to be classic comedy from man of the moment, New Zealander, Taika Waititi, who not only directed the movie and wrote the screenplay, but also co-starred as a rather bizarre version of Adolf Hitler. Outstanding performances from Roman Griffin Davis as the lead character Jojo and Archie Yates as his bespectacled pudgy sidekick Yorki. This is not to say that the adults acted badly, just that the kids excelled. The supporting cast includes Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant who all played outstanding comic roles. The movie is set in Nazi Germany (but filmed at several locations in the Czech Republic) toward the end of WW2 where Jojo’s mother (played by Scarlett Johansson) is illegally hiding a young Jewish girl in a secret wall space in their house. (Thomasin McKenzie plays Elsa – the Jewish girl in the wall). Jojo’s mother hasn’t told Jojo about Elsa…..because HE, at only 10 years of age, is a fervent member of the Hitler Youth.
As you’d expect from a Waititi script there are a lot of funny one liners and puns. When Jojo finds the young girl hiding in the wall, she confronts him and tells him to “say what I am”….he naturally blurts out “A Jew”…..to which she responds “Gezundheit”! I have copied in the movie trailer below so you can see what I mean. Enjoy.
Admittedly there will be people who think that making a comedy about Hitler in this manner, with young kids throwing Nazi Salutes and yelling “Heil Hitler” at one another, is an insult to holocaust victims…..but if you can get past the matter of 6 million victims of the concentration camps, and see the movie for what it is…satire….a black comedy, you’ll have a blast.
There is a serious side to the movie with morals and relationships thrown into the mix, but these simmer just beneath the comedy surface. Definitely more than meets the eye. Rotten Tomatoes rates the movie at 76% which I think is just about right.
That phrase “Variety is the spice of life“, is something that I’ve heard many times during my lifetime, but I’ve never really thought about what it means. Recently I came across Mark Boyle’s book – Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi and he pretty much explained it in a simple paragraph….but since I don’t want to get stung for copyright infringement I’ll try to paraphrase him.
He was talking about how the industrial age, or as he calls it The Machine, has taken us over, making specialists of us, pigeon-holing us into strictly limited roles, making us no more than a cog in the machine. There’s no diversity. Meantime we play our part, as a part of the system, by consuming products and services. He reminds us that it didn’t used to be that way. We used to fully participate in life, in community – rather than distancing ourselves from it. We foraged, grew, produced and cooked our own food. Made our own entertainment, played music, made up songs, poems and stories to share around a communal fire. We made the things we needed, be it a wooden spoon or a woven fabric. Made our own wines, beers, mead, cheeses, butter, jam and preserves to share with our family and neighbours, as part of a living, breathing village. Our lives were rich with diversity with the freedom to express ourselves in a variety of ways. We could be a hunter one day, a farmer the next, a furniture maker, artist, poet. Life was interesting and fluid. Variety was the spice of life. These days for the sake of “maximum efficiency” we are reduced to rigid conformity, a cog in the wheel of industry, doing the same repetitive thing over and over again.
Don’t you think it’s time to take back our lives? To make them varied and interesting again?
We have come to rely too much on the system, on the Machine and what it delivers. Sooner or later, (I fear it will be sooner rather than later, the way that the world is heading) the system will break down and our specialist pigeon-holed existence will be our downfall. We won’t have the individual skills to survive, because we’ve lost that variety in our lives. We tend to know how to do one thing, a narrow field of view. We’ve become an expert, skilled in one thing and lost the ability to perform a hundred other tasks. We will not be prepared….thanks in the most part to what we have viewed as “progress”.
For anyone interested in Mark’s book, I’ve pasted the link to the goodread’s page for the book Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi below. I will probably be making further posts about the contents of this and others of Boyles books later on. I’m less than half way through the book and have learned so much already. As usual many thanks for reading and your comments etc are most appreciated.
Hi all. The 15th of November 2019 sees me hitting the big 60….whatever that means. Personally I find it quite odd how birthdays with a zero after them acquire more significance than any other birthday…or indeed any other day, period.
I was at my brothers house for dinner today….I’m writing this on 19th Oct…so several weeks earlier. And, like me, my brother doesn’t see anything significant to be celebrated at 60 that couldn’t equally be celebrated at 59 or 58 or 61 for that matter. As Paul McCartney said in his 1970 hit…It’s just “another day”.
BUT my wife and my sister-in-law insist that it should be celebrated. Have a party, have friends round, do something exciting. What would you like to do….Hmmm…?
It’s really not that easy.
I don’t want to insult or upset anyone’s good intentions. I honestly don’t. I was born in November 1959 in England. I was brought up in a small village, to the north of the city of Sheffield, called Grenoside. The kids I went to school with at the age of 5 or 6….THEY are my friends. The are the ones I hold most dear…as sad and pathetic as that may sound. Some of whom I kept in touch with, some who have already died….so relatively young for these days… and others who I’ve unfortunately lost contact with over the passing years, BUT I still think of all of them as good friends.
At the age of almost 30 my family emigrated to New Zealand and life thereafter tended to revolve around my kids (as it does)…..their school activities, sports etc. The people I associated with here in NZ were to do with school or football (I coached football/soccer at kids and adults level for around 15 years)….or from work. Once each phase ended, the kids grew up, moved out, injury stopped me from playing and coaching football….most of the “friends” I had made just drifted off. Sure I’d keep in touch on Facebook or say “hi” if we bumped into one another at the supermarket and we’d say to each other “Hey must catch up for a beer sometime” and we never do….but otherwise, pretty much nothing. Likewise with work mates. Once they changed jobs, or I moved on, either to another job or to the semi-retired state I find myself in today….no real contact (and yes I do realize that it’s a two way street and I could have made more of an effort than I have).
So, the years pass and something seemingly as simple as inviting my friends round to celebrate my birthday isn’t actually simple at all. As a human being….I am a bit sad and pathetic really…I admit it. My kids have moved on, got their own lives, got married…moved away from home, one’s even moved out of the country. My parents are both dead – for almost 5 years – and I miss speaking with them so much. It still feels strange not being able to call in to see them and spend some time. Other than my school friends back home in England, and my brother with whom I’ll enjoy an occasional beer, my best friends are my wife and my cat….and that’s the fact of it.
What do I want to do for my 60th? Do I want to have a BBQ, a party, go to the pub, have a weekend away at Lake Taupo? Not really no.
What I’d like to do firstly, is to walk in the woods where I used to play as a child, and where the ashes of my parents and my dad’s parents are scattered (so I can stand by a tree – apparently talking to myself – and blubber…probably) and then, to have a hand pulled pint of beer in the Old Red Lion pub back in my home village of Grenoside….and invite all the kids, who I started school with 55 years ago, to have a pint with me and reminisce. The next day suitably hung over, I’d hop on a train and go under the channel tunnel to Paris, attend a reading at Shakespeare & Company book shop on the banks of the Seine…and buy a book (preferably a signed first edition by a favourite author). The next day I’d spend outside a typical Parisian café, under trees, in dappled sunshine (not likely in November but hey it’s my birthday, my fantasy), drinking good coffee, or sipping a full bodied French wine and reading my book. Then later perhaps, go on a literary walk around Paris guided by, Australian born writer and Francophile, John Baxter. The cat would sadly have to stay at home, but my wife is most welcome to come….
This is the second part of my (former) post of reviews of what was to be 5 books of essays….3 by writers now dead (already covered in an earlier post) and this is a review of the remaining 2 books by writers still very much alive – plus another live writer thrown in for good measure.
OK, so now I have managed to confuse you….the books being covered are TEJU COLE – Known and Strange Things, PAUL KINGSNORTH – Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and other essays, and REBECCA SOLNIT – The Faraway Nearby. I’ll work my way from left to right on the photo.
Teju Cole’s book Known and Strange Things….To be perfectly honest with you, despite the endorsement on the cover of this book, by fellow essayist Rebecca Solnit, I struggled initially to connect with Teju Cole’s writing. That was until I found the essay titled Shadows in Sao Paulo, which is about the writers attempt to locate the exact spot that Magnum photographer Rene Burri took his famous photo of “Men on a Rooftop”.
It’s a black and white photo of 4 men on a rooftop of one of the many skyscrapers in Sao Paulo, casting long shadows as they walk toward the camera. To the left of them and far down below the street scene unfolds….the cars and trams also throwing long shadows down the street. The tram lines adding to the series of straight lines provided by the street, the walls of the buildings, the lines created by the many windows, and the edges of the rooftop. The photo taken in 1960 is from a higher vantage point and it’s this building that Teju Cole tries to locate. Being as I am, a huge fan of most, if not all, of the photographers who have worked for the Magnum Photo Agency – this essay is the one in which Cole and I hit on common ground, a common interest. From here on in I was able to enjoy his writing more (strange as it may seem).
The essays in this book were originally published mainly in the New Yorker, and elsewhere and, once I got connected with Cole via the Rene Burri essay I quite enjoyed the majority of his essays. However the “white saviour industrial complex” essay left a kind of nasty taste in my mouth….if that’s possible from reading something? It just seemed to be much of a rant rather than a serious piece of writing. I guess reading essays, just like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…..what suits me may not suit you, your reaction may not be the same as mine.
Petina Gappah of the Guardian newspaper – obviously a fan of Cole’s – writes… He ranges over his interests with voracious keenness, laser-sharp prose, an open heart and a clear eye. His subjects are diverse and disparate. Readers are certain to find a personal favourite: I loved Always Returning, an affecting meditation on the death of WG Sebald in which Cole wanders through the cemetery of St Andrew’s in Framingham Earl, Norfolk, looking for Sebald’s grave and trying, at the same time, to have a coherent conversation about his pilgrimage with Jason, the taxi driver who got him there. The interplay between the externals of conversations with Jason and the deep interiority of Cole’s response to seeing Sebald’s grave is masterfully written, with Cole straining to act as a mediator between the worlds inhabited by these two very different men.
By contrast I found Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist to be a very easy, entertaining and interesting read. Kingsnorth was one of those crazy environmentalists (and I use crazy by way of admiration rather than criticism), who used to chain himself to bulldozers and other machinery to try to stop developers from levelling another of natures hilly places – to put a motorway through….or wiping out old growth forest, so that Ikea and similar businesses can make more kitset furniture. I say WAS because now he’s taken a step back physically, if not spiritually from the “war against environmental destruction”. He sees the entire environmental movement as having been hijacked and watered down by factions of the Green movement, who in a bid to communicate natures value to society have now put a dollar value on it. Of course the problem with that, as Kingsnorth points out, is that once nature is given a dollar value, a businessman will justify buying and destroying it based on that valuation.
The essays in this book first appeared in various newspapers and on the website co-founded by Kingsnorth, called The Dark Mountain Project. Each one will provide an insight to the problems the world faces daily as our natural world shrinks past crisis point and consumerist growth economies grow and grow to unsustainable size, until their inevitable collapse and chaos that are surely just around the corner.
Although Kingsnorth has pulled back from being a placard waving demonstrator, his passion for nature and his attempts to convince us, the readers, that nature is worth fighting for…..even if we may be already too late to save it….is as strong as ever. He and his family have retreated to a smallholding in the west of Ireland where they practice what they preach and are as gentle with nature as possible in an attempt to become part of nature again…as mankind used to be….and to help the natural world regenerate. It’s a book that I believe should be mandatory reading in all schools AND for all politicians.
In the book Kingsnorth rejoices in the small wins that the family achieve in their bid to help nature fight back….and in helping his children to understand the magical natural world….how everything is inter-dependent, so that he knows that the next generation will be there on natures side.
In the essay A Short History of Loss, Kingsnorth looks at the problem that beekeepers are having with colony collapse and how a Harvard study linked the death of bees to certain insecticides used on farms – then continues to say that another Harvard group of scientists are working on designing robotic bees. A typical science response – rather than stop using insecticide and saving the lives of real bees, we’ll just make artificial bees and try to program them to act like real bees. It’s like the idea of colonising Mars because we’re destroying the environment here on Earth. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to stop the destruction here?
Kingsnorth then goes on to say that mankind…(or is it more PC these days to call it Humankind?) has experienced a Fall – just like the Bible story of Adam and Eve’s experience of a fall in their eviction from the Garden of Eden. He then tries to identify where the Fall happened….where and when… giving several possible examples. It makes interesting and thought provoking reading.
Another very down to earth and slightly stinky essay about composting human manure in Learning What to Make of It – is a more hands on approach to conserving the environment. It’s a fact that we, as humans, produce waste….so what’s the best way of dealing with it? We can’t continue to pour raw sewage into the rivers, lakes and oceans. So what’s the answer? Read this essay to find out.
Another essay The Barcode Moment – touches on conspiracy theory and the possible future of the monetary system. That at some point we may end up wearing a barcode on the skin, (or possibly a chip under the skin…in my own opinion), to use when making purchases, rather than a bank card or actual money. Thought provoking again.
In other essays he tells us about writers who’s works have formed him as a writer, revolutionaries and the ethics involved in fighting for what we believe in.
I’ll finish with a couple of quotes from the back cover of the book, and to urge you all to please read this book and try to understand where we are in the race against time.
Paul Kingsnorth reads carefully from the book of nature, and also from the great literature of the natural world; they give him, and the reader, one path out of the despair that comes from knowing a bit too much about our condition. – Bill McKibben
…as the environmental movement began to focus on “sustainability” rather than the defence of wild places for their own sake, and as global conditions worsened, he grew disenchanted with the movement that he once embraced. He gave up what he saw as false hope that the residents of the first world would ever make the kind of sacrifices that might avert the severe consequences of climate change…..Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist gathers the wave-making essays that have charted the change in Kingsnorth’s thinking. In them he articulates a new vision, one that stands firmly in opposition to the belief that technology can save us, and he argues for a renewed balance between the human and the non-human worlds.
And so to the final of the three books – Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby – published in 2013.
I’ll jump straight to the back cover blurb to begin with….Gifts come in many guises. One summer Rebecca Solnit was given a box of ripening apricots, fruit from a neglected tree that her mother, gradually succumbing to memory loss, could no longer tend to. From this unexpected inheritance Solnit weaves together memoir, fairytales and the lives of others into a meditation of the art of storytelling. Encompassing explorers and monsters, the Marquis de Sade and Mary Shelley, a library of water in Iceland and the depths of the Grand Canyon, the result is a literary treasure trove from a writer of limitless talent and imagination.
Wow….some build up. Lets hope the book lives up to it. Back soon….
I may end up writing this piecemeal – as I find essays that I connect with, that resonate with me. The first of which is the first essay in the book…essay 1 titled Apricots. In this essay Solnit becomes the owner of a huge box of apricots….from her mothers tree, after her mother who is suffering from dementia, can’t cope with them. She writes about the trials and tribulations, sadness and confusion of having a parent who is losing their faculties. It’s a heartfelt piece and something that I am more than familiar with having lost my own mother to Alzheimer’s over 4 years ago and my dad 6 months earlier who had another dementia related illness. She writes very well about the various stages of confusion and frustration that her mother went through as she slowly but surely lost her mind and her identity. In reading Apricots, it opened up some old wounds that I thought were forgotten. Which I guess shows what a good writer Solnit is. I’m now wondering if writing my own essay as another blog post about my experience with my own parents would help to heal those freshly opened wounds? I’ll think on it. If I do, I’ll call it “An evil Bastard called Al” (as in AL-zheimers), as it is an evil and vicious illness. Meantime, back to the next essay from the book.
In my younger years I used to love watching the old black and white “Hammer House of Horror” movies on TV. The classic stories were the best….the ones about the Wolf-man, or Dracula…or Frankenstein. So Solnit’s 3rd essay in the book, entitled simplyIceis my next port of call. This essay is for the most part about Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, the writing of the book, and her life and marriage to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley….Solnit also touches on the life of Mary Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to her daughter. As one would expect of Solnit’s writing, it’s a well researched and well crafted piece. Quite fascinating to read. I don’t want to say anymore…please read it yourself.
The 5th Essay titled Breath begins briefly about the Marquis de Sade, but is about life and death, degeneration and regeneration and how everything is in a constant state of change. It brings together The Marquis de Sade, Zen Buddhism, the god Apollo and even the joys of cooking. Art as life, life as art, artists and philosophers, travel and cancer detection…and of course life as a journey from birth to death and everything in between.. are all woven into an intricate, almost spellbinding essay.
I could summarise every essay, as they are all well worth reading, but we’d be here all day so I’ll slide along to the end of the book instead. The final, and 13th essay of the book is titled Apricots (as was essay number 1) and we come full circle as Solnit compares the apricots and the things she made from them, thus preserving them, to life and a number of incidents either in her life or the lives of others. She includes many stories – one particular story about a young girl who fell into and became trapped down a well, deep underground, and had to be rescued by drilling a parallel tunnel and lowering a man, face down, down the tunnel to free the girl. It was a long and dangerous mission. Happily she lived and the publicity her rescue generated brought in donations of over a million dollars to give her and her parents an easier life than they would have otherwise had. Her rescuer became famous. BUT there are two sides to every coin and where a story brings good news, it can also bring bad. The man who rescued her, was so traumatised by the experience that he later took his own life. In effect trading his life for hers. The Grim Reaper’s way of balancing the books perhaps? Thus emphasizing how both fame and life are transitory. Life is an adventure and an unpredictable adventure at that. It tosses you a ball to hit out of the park one day and throws you a curve ball, that hit’s you right on the bridge of the nose, the next. One of Solnit’s mantras is “Never turn down an adventure without a really good reason”. If you have to have a mantra I reckon that’s a pretty good one to have.
I have said in an earlier post that I am an admirer of Solnit’s work, having bought one of her books on a visit to San Francisco earlier this year. This book of essays goes a long way in confirming my earlier opinion.
And that brings to an end my round up of books by three living essayists to counter balance my earlier post about the three dead ones. Again, thank you for reading and I am always grateful for any likes, shares, comments, or recommendations of other essayists worth reading.
At the beginning of this week I had never heard of the city, the poem, or the movie called Paterson. Nor had I heard the name William Carlos Williams. A couple of photos on a friends Facebook page changed all that.
The photos were of a building with a bridge behind it and a waterfall beyond that. The resulting river flowing toward the viewer and in the foreground a couple of green painted benches. The second photo was of rubbish bin with the words “City of Paterson” on it. And in the comments under the post it said “It was William Carlos Williams or Carlos Williams Carlos? Well it is Paterson one of the best movies from Jarmusch…”
And so a Google and a visit to the local library later finds me reading the poetry of William Carlos Williams – who was not only a poet of some renown, but also a doctor of pediatrics and general medicine. His epic poem Paterson began life as a 85 line poem but morphed over the years into 5 volumes of books.
The poem was published between 1946 and 1958 and was an account of the history, people, and the place – Paterson, New Jersey. Williams examined the role of the poet in American society and summarized his poetic method in the phrase “No ideas but in things” – originally a line from his poem “A Sort of a Song” but also used as a recurring theme in Paterson.
As I said earlier I had no idea who Williams was until this week, which is surprising as he mentored several other poets including ‘Beat’ poet Allen Ginsberg – who’s work I know well. He even wrote the forward/intro to Ginsberg’s first and probably most famous (or infamous) book “Howl and other poems” (1956).
Anyhow….back to Paterson. Now a movie, inspired by the poem. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch and released at the end of December 2016. Rotten Tomatoes rates it at a staggering 96% – and frankly I must agree.
The blurb on the Rotten Tomatoes website reads ” Paterson is a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey–they share the name. Every day, Paterson adheres to a simple routine: he drives his daily route, observing the city as it drifts across his windshield and overhearing fragments of conversation swirling around him; he writes poetry into a notebook; he walks his dog; he stops in a bar and drinks exactly one beer; he goes home to his wife, Laura. By contrast, Laura’s world is ever changing. New dreams come to her almost daily. Paterson loves Laura and she loves him. He supports her newfound ambitions; she champions his gift for poetry. The film quietly observes the triumphs and defeats of daily life, along with the poetry evident in its smallest details. “
There are numerous scenes in the movie shot beside the waterfall shown in my friends photo. It’s the place that Paterson, the bus driving poet, likes to sit and contemplate life. He cares about the city and he cares about the people who live there. It’s a beautiful and a quietly inspirational movie. It moves you in a subtle way…like all good poetry and good movies should.
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 literarycriticism, 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 thatThe 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, FromHere 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.