Tag Archives: Christopher HItchens

This Land is Our Land.

4 Oct


As this presidential election continues apace, I am regularly reminded of the paucity of fearless and insightful observers of the American Political Circus. Hitchens (no matter his current politics) was regularly informative and original. Gore Vidal was, well, Gore Vidal.Howard Zinn peeled back the sophistry,demagoguery and hypocrisy of our regnent oligarchy.Gore Vidal was, well, Gore Vidal. There are Matt Taibbi,Rachel Maddow and Barbra Ehrenreich (and to some extent, Chris Hedges and Robert Scheer). Who (what) do we have as putatively as commentators on our civilization, in or proximal to the orthodox media? Wolf Blitzer? Oy! That Gregory guy(I ‘m not talking Dick—I don’t care enough to search engine his first name)? Uh,uh, uh…

Which brings me offering some current instructional aids for the politically engaged. Hedrick Smith (The Power Game) has written Who Stole The American Dream? (Random House) which, even if you know or think you can answer that question, is a useful and well-ordered survey of the last forty years of oligarchical power grabbing. Some remarks about media complicity in this mess would have been welcome but Smith has assembled a time line that is a refresher in recalling the chicanery and villainy of the not-so- distant past.

A terrific complement to Smith’s book is the documentary produced by Frances Causey and Donald Goldmacher, Heist: Who Stole the American Dream.

Watch it on an empty stomach.

Thomas Frank and the resuscitated Baffler of course are valuable spotlights on the state of the nation and Frank’s latest opus Pity The Billionaire frames the puzzling issue of how the steroid rich’s class war has continued to bamboozle the rest of America especially working men and women. Frank expiates on Democracy Now.

I Told You So Gore Vidal Talks Politics with Jon Weiner


Setting aside Gore VIdal’s indecipherable last few years, he did have a long run as a brilliant analyst, gadfly and gossip of how politics is practiced in the USA. There is no better history of the UnIted States (excepting Zinn’s People’s History)than Vidal’s Empire novels. No doubt there will be a steady stream of posthumous publications by and about him and one of the first is I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics Interviews with Jon Wiener(OR Books).The title is taken from Vidal’s quip, “The four most beautiful words in our common language: ‘I told you so.’ ”. This slim volume contains 4 interviews that took place over a 20 year period from 1988 to 2008.The following adorns this book’s website:

I exist to say, ‘No, that isn’t the way it is,’ or ‘What you believe to be true is not true for the following reasons.’ I am a master of the obvious. I mean, if there’s a hole in the road, I will, viciously, outrageously, say there’s a hole in the road and if you don’t fill it in you’ll break the axle of your car. One is not loved for being helpful.

Zinn: A Life on The Left by Martin Duberman

A steady stream of material is also amassing about and by Howard Zinn, a prolific historian and a tireless and much beloved activist. Martin Duberman has written a competent biography of Zinn, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left (The News Press) and City Lights has published The Historic Unfulfilled Promise. The New Press has also publishedThe Indispensible Zinn: The Essential Writings of the People’s Historian edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy with excerpts from A People’s History of the United States and Zinn’s memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

When you’re done with this assignment, I have more…

Currently reading News from Spain by Joan Wickersham (KNOPF)

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Good Bye Hitch

16 Dec

Christopher Hitchens circa 2001 Copyright 2011 Robert Birnbaum


One of the reasons that there will be an inordinate amount of ink, literal and virtual,spent on the passing of the mighty Christopher Hitchens is that, unquestionably, his talents were the envy of anyone who ever aspired to reportage and or writing. To say that his prodigious output seemed effortlessly achieved is attested to by everyone who ever worked with him or watched him work. Now he has passed on and all those of us who knew him or of him can behold in wonder what he had wrought.

I am pleased to recall a few hours I spent with (so-called) Hitch on 2 separate occasions— one a leisurely summer mid day where he impressed with his legendary capacity for distilled liquids and conversation and another in which we briskly discussed his energetic little feulliton, Letters to A Young Contrarian It should not go unsaid that I recall those occasions vividly.

Since there will be an oceanic outpouring allow me to guide you to two invaluable sources on Mr Hitchens. One,by his dear friend Martin Amis who recently had pause to comment on the coming departure of his dearest friend— the headline of which bellowed ‘He’s one of the most terrifying rhetoricians the world has seen’ He concludes

…The science of cosmology is an awesome construct, while remaining embarrassingly incomplete and approximate; and over the last 30 years it has garnered little but a series of humiliations. So when I hear a man declare himself to be an atheist, I sometimes think of the enterprising termite who, while continuing to go about his tasks, declares himself to be an individualist. It cannot be altogether frivolous or wishful to talk of a “higher intelligence” – because the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot.

Anyway, we do know what is going to happen to you, and to everyone else who will ever live on this planet. Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly. The parent star, that steady-state H-bomb we call the sun, will eventually turn from yellow dwarf to red giant, and will swell out to consume what is left of us, about six billion years from now.

Also there is an inspired précis of Hitchen’s recently published essay anthology, Arguably (Twelve)by the insufficiently celebrated George Sciallaba.Scialabba turns the wonderful trick of viewing Hitchens as a latter day Edmund Burke quoting William Hazlitt:

Burke was an acute and accomplished man of letters—an ingenious political essayist. … He had the power of throwing true or false weights into the scales of political casuistry, but not firmness of mind enough (or shall we say, honesty enough) to hold the balance. When he took a side, his vanity or his spleen more frequently gave the casting vote than his judgment; and the fieriness of his zeal was in exact proportion to the levity of his understanding, and the want of conscious sincerity.

Rest in peace does not strike me as quite the right tone with which to bid Christopher Hitchens adieu— I’ll best remember him quoting the inscription he claimed adorned the Freud memorial in Vienna: “The voice of reason is small but persistent”

Currently reading The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenfield (Simon & Schuster)

Tea Kettle

13 Dec

I thought I would emulate the irrepressible Christopher Hitchens and collect some declarative imperatives on a subject I have been, recently, taken with— the teapot

Way back when I was on the up escalator to the good life I actually purchased a Michael Graves teapot (with birdie whistler)

ALessi Michael Graves Tea Kettle

The irony of this kettle is that it was Graves’s reason for designing for Target—claiming, “he couldn’t afford his own designs” Which brings me to my current tear kettle, the Target Graves tea kettle (which is about 1/5 th of the price of the Alsessi)

Michael GRAVES design for Target

In between I had a Kitchen Aid kettle which surprisingly was a ineptly designed

Kitchen AID Tea Kettle

Michael Graves understood what a number of tea pot designer missed(including Kitchen Aid —the handle of the kettle
needs to be a good distance from superheated steam that escapes when the hot water is being poured.

Currently reading The Harbor by Edward Poole (Penguin)

By George

1 Dec

I am not inclined to read book reviews —in large part because American media venues have so degraded the enterprise that I have found very little to be learned by attending to what seems to pass for literary criticism (except maybe the airing of various grudges and petty jealousies). Occasionally I do find something worth reading, as in the recent New Yorker publication of Martin Amis’s enthusiastic appraisal of Don Delillo and his recent (and first) story collection.

Now I have stumbled across (well okay I have Katherine Powers to thank for pointing the way) a superb survey of Christopher Hitchens by the inestimable George Scialabba. Hitchens, a thinker to be reckoned with is in excellent hands—clearly Mr.Scialabba is familiar with both Hitchen’s literary efforts( a prodigious oeuvre) and his evolving politics as well as maintaining an even handed view of Hitch as a public figure. The essay ends quoting William Hazlitt on Edmund Burke:

Burke was an acute and accomplished man of letters—an ingenious political essayist. … He had the power of throwing true or false weights into the scales of political casuistry, but not firmness of mind enough (or shall we say, honesty enough) to hold the balance. When he took a side, his vanity or his spleen more frequently gave the casting vote than his judgment; and the fieriness of his zeal was in exact proportion to the levity of his understanding, and the want of conscious sincerity.

To which Scialabba appends, “Whether or not one finds this true of Burke, it is Hitchens to the life.

By the way,The Modern Predicament (Pressed Wafer)

George Scialabba copyright 2011 George Scialabba

George’s (if I may be so familiar) new opus is one of the subjects I hope to take up in conversation with the author in the coming year or in the fullness of time.

Here’a an insightful snapshot of George Scialabba by Scot McLemme

… it is about time someone brought out a collection of Scialabba’s work. That it’s only happening now (15 years after the National Book Critics Circle gave him its first award for excellence in reviewing) is a sign that things are not quite right in the world of belles lettres. He writes in what William Hazlitt — the patron saint of generalist essayists — called the “the familiar style,” and he is sometimes disarmingly explicit about the difficulties, even the pain, he experiences in trying to resolve cultural contradictions. That is no way to create the aura of mystery and mastery so crucial for awesome intellectual authority.

Currently reading Bloodland by Alan Glynn (Picador)

Ain’t That a Hitch

9 Sep

For someone interested in both culture (literary) and politics (that would be me) the inimitable Christopher Hitchens is a font, nay, a roaring stream of information and provocation. And the publication of almost anything by the preternaturally gifted writer is cause of much stirring and clattering amongst the chattering class. Hitch (as he is frequently referred) has a new tome,Arguably (Twelve), a book of essays described by hits publisher as encompassing subjects ranging from:

…ruminations on why Charles Dickens was among the best of writers and the worst of men to the haunting science fiction of J.G. Ballard; from the enduring legacies of Thomas Jefferson and George Orwell to the persistent agonies of anti- Semitism and jihad. Hitchens even looks at the recent financial crisis and argues for the enduring relevance” of Karl Marx…

Amongst the fanfare attendant to Hitchen’s new opus is an excellent article from Australia,There’s Just One Hitch a shrewd and observant snapshot of the irascible writer:

Hitchens, especially when his blood is up, is capable of advancing poor arguments along with good ones. But we wouldn’t want to be without his readiness to get personally involved. For Hitchens, the life and the work are thoroughly intertwined. His famous essay on waterboarding is here: the one in which he researched that procedure by volunteering to undergo it himself. Believe Me, It’s Torture runs the title of his essay. In Vietnam he visits a hospital for victims of Agent Orange and emerges with almost unbearably vivid descriptions of the malformed children inside. “One should not run out of vocabulary to the point where one calls a child a monster,” he writes, “but the temptation is there.” It’s a rare writer who can strike a note like that and also, at the other end of the register, make you laugh out loud. Ripping into waiters who top up your wine while you’re trying to talk, Hitchens is brilliant. His famously close-to-the-wind piece Why Women Aren’t Funny is here too. “Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about,” he says in that essay: a phrase that would have made an apt title for the whole book, if an unfeasibly long one.

In 2001 I had the great pleasure of twice chatting with Hitchens, once at the Plough and Stars in Cambridge where he did his reputation for a monumental thirst proud. My second encounter was equally worthy and I am frequently buoyed by a citation Hitch offered in our tête-à-tête:”The voice of reason is small but persistent.”-an inscription from the Sigmund Freud memorial in Vienna.

As is common knowledge Christopher Hitchens is battling a lethal cancer and has in recent times lost his hair and his voice( one wonders why the press materials picture a pre-hair loss Hitch) and sadly (for me and many others) the above conversations with Hitchens will not be appended.

So it goes.

Currently reading Triple Crossing Sebastian Rotella (Mulholland Books)

Mamet, Schmamet—What Hitchens Said

22 Jun

I don’t get David Mamet and for years have nursed an animus toward my fellow Chicago expatriate. Mostly for the (imagined?) crime of
inauthenticity. Now I can regard the author of Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal with substantial and justified disdain. He is the author of THE SECRET KNOWLEDGE On the Dismantling of American Culture (Sentinel) and brays out more of his recent conversion or rehabilitation or whatever you want to call his current apostasy.

Since I don’t see my work as being to review (such) books and no doubt Christopher Hitchens falls short of no man or woman in that pursuit, here’s the Hitch’s take:

This is an extraordinarily irritating book, written by one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason.

Propagandistic writing of this kind can be even more boring than it is irritating. For example, Mamet writes in “The Secret Knowledge” that “the Israelis would like to live in peace within their borders; the Arabs would like to kill them all.” Whatever one’s opinion of that conflict may be, this (twice-made) claim of his abolishes any need to analyze or even discuss it. It has a long way to go before it can even be called simplistic. By now, perhaps, you will not be surprised to know that Mamet regards global warming as a false alarm, and demands to be told “by what magical process” bumper stickers can “save whales, and free Tibet.” This again is not uncharacteristic of his pointlessly aggressive style: who on earth maintains that they can? If I were as prone to sloganizing as Mamet, I’d keep clear of bumper-sticker comparisons altogether.

If you can stomach it, here’s a Fox TV felation:

Yes indeed, what Hitch said.

Hitch & Marty

17 May

In thinking about a new compendium, Quotable Hitchens From Alcohol to Zionism–The Very Best of Christopher Hitchens edited by Windsor Mann (Da Capo Press) i couldn’t help recall the old saw about putting 40,000 monkeys at typewriters—resulting in the contents of the British Library. This, is of course only a reference to Christopher Hitchens prodigious output and the the ubiquity of his many genred (except poetry and fiction) outpourings. From Alcohol to Zionism is some range of topics but that’s Hitchens: now I could be hallucinating but I believe I recently read his instructional on the proper way to brew tea.

It is of course no small tribute to have such a book affixed to one’s name. Although, when you stop and think about it is there any one else writing or cogitating to day about whom such a volume could be justifiably collected(Settin g aside Jacob Weissberg’s collection of Bush malpropisms)? I think not.

Martin Amis, Hitchens’ confrere offers this

Christopher is one of the most terrifying rhetoricians that the world has yetseen. Lenin used to boast that his objective, in debate, was not rebuttal and then refutation: it was the “destruction” of his interlocutor. This isn’t Christopher’s policy –but it is his practice. Towards the very end of the last century, all the greatest chessplayers, including Garry Kasparov, began to succumb to a computer (named Deep
Blue); I had the opportunity to ask two grandmasters to describe the Deep Blue experience, and they both said: “It’s like a wall coming at you.” In argument, Christopher is that wall. The prototype of Deep Blue was known as Deep Thought. And there’s a case for calling Christopher Deep Speech. With his vast array of geohistorical references and precedents, he is almost Google-like; but Google (with, say, its 10million “results” in 0.7 seconds) something of an idiot savant, and Christopher’s search engine is much more finely tuned. In debate, no matter what the motion, I would back him against Cicero, against Demosthenes

And as long as Amis has ventured on stage here,one might note he has recently made some news or noise, if you will in England (which he is unquietly quitting to come to America) by disparaging England in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur a French magazine. Amis, of course,is not reticent about mentioning that his feelings and criticisms are richly present in his next and not quite forthcoming novel State of England.

Don Henley did say it well in a song:

Sometimes the light is best from a burning bridge.

This and That

20 Apr

One of the more cherished legacies of Spy Magazine is the coinage of the phrase and its attachment to New York real estate huckster Donald Trump. These days there is an inglorious din in the media shitstream coming from the attention paid to Trump, grugged psycho Charlie Sheen and congressional viper and Ayn Rand devotee Paul Ryan. So much so, that you may have missed some interesting items that actually can be categorized as news.

Cuba’s first Communist Party assembly in 14 years brought some attention to Uncle Sam’s feisty little nephew in the Caribbean giving the usual suspects the opportunity to trot out predictable and stale rhetoric. Which makes this an opportune time to mention Yoani Sanchez and her newly published Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth about Cuba Today (Melville House).The much celebrated Sanchez is a young woman who has been hosting a Havana based weblog Generation Y which simply reports what life is like in Havana today—reportage which has made her troublesome to the current regime

And speaking of Cuba, my conversation with Havana born,Yale historian Carlos Eire revolves around his two memoirs—the award winning Waiting for Snow in Havana, and his latest, Learning to Die in Miami. You can find that chat over at The Morning News.

Jennifer Egan has achieved wide-spread laudation for her latest novel Visit from the Goon Squad—not the least is the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I’ve chatted with Ms Egan a number of times over the years, latest being last summer. You can also find that tete et tete at the Morning News.

There is lots to be said about David Foster Wallace’s recently pots humously published opus The Pale King (Little Brown) And apparently everyone of a literary bent is trying to say it. I’ve had my say here and of all the commentary and ululating about Foster Wallace’s genius and whatever, his editor Michael Pietsch has some useful and valuable things to say about how he made sense out of the inchoate mass of papers David Foster Wallace left behind.

Brilliant Christopher HItchens, of course, plays out his role as an iconoclastic icon with much brio and alacrity. The maturation of his politic did cause him to be become alienated from his progressive comrades and his legions of lefty fans. Now, battling cancer, suggests that his body of work may be limited by his mortality (and thus cheating his readers and the public cultural conversation of a genuine and original voice. His recent piece on the upcoming British royalty nuptials is a wonderful reminder of his mastery of limber and sharp edged prose and a prodigious memory keenly attuned to the whole wide world. I spoke with HItchens over ten years ago, one before the crucible of 9/11 and once after.

These days there seems no end to the efforts to conceive and publish small literary journals. Thus bookstore chain bankruptcies not withstanding while it may be all gloom and doom for the commerce of literature. the ranks of commentators are swelling. The latest entry being the Los Angeles Review of Books which is a good thing especially since the neophyte journal has not yet offended anyone.

Chicago chef Grant Achatz, whose battle with cancer is well noticed has written about his experience in Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat with Nick Kokonas (Gotham Books). Achatz also recently made news by selling tickets to his restaurant Next sparking the headline,”Bidding Frenzy for Tickets to Eat at Next in Chicago” and an article in the New York Times.

My chat with Carlos Eire makes mention of the sad case of Alan Gross, an American recently sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison— this after spending a year incarcerated without charges. Gross’s family is leaving a seat open for him at their Passover seder as his wife Judy asks for her husband’s release. Good luck with that.

If you have any influence or concern about Gross’s imprisonment, by all means, do something. That’s all, folks.