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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Hitchens’

While I usually aim to post more than just links to other sites, there are a few recent items out there I happily recommend:

  •  The Detroit News profiles blues guitarist Johnnie Bassett today. The article includes info on some of his upcoming appearances but fails to mention that he’s slated to sit in this evening (7 pm) at the M.L. Liebler-orchestrated Detroit Tonight Live event at the UDetroit Café (1427 Randolph Street) along with the RJ Spangler Trio. Andrea Daniels, Steven Gulvezan, Zilka Joseph and I will also read some poetry. Bassett’s latest record kicks off with “Proud to Be from Detroit,” which I look forward to hearing.
  • This past weekend, The Free Press ran a long piece on saxophonist James Carter that also merits a look. Having seen Carter perform many times in various places over the years, I definitely consider myself a fan.
  • Poet Terry Blackhawk has a moving piece on the power of poetry over at Huffpost Detroit.
  • Vanity Fair spotlights two of my favorite writer via an excerpt from Christopher Hitchens’s introduction to George Orwell’s Diaries.
  • Finally, my article on the Downtown Boxing Gym can be read in the summer issue of Critical Moment and on the paper’s website.
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Christopher Hitchens’s greatest achievements were as a literary stylist rather than as a political thinker, or so I contend in an essay that can be read over at Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture: http://logosjournal.com/2012/winter_rodwan/.

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Lost Voice

I learned of Christopher Hitchens’s death via an email from the American Humanist Association. The subject line read: “Humanists Mourn Christopher Hitchens: Stalwart for Atheism.”

I don’t dispute the truth of that statement. Yet even as someone who borrowed for personal use Hitchens’s self-description as not so much an atheist as an anti-theist, I didn’t think of him mainly as an ally, as someone with whom I had a lack of religious belief in common. Instead, I regarded him mainly as a writer, and I’ll miss reading the steady stream of excellent essays. I’ll miss the well-carpentered sentences. I’ll miss the voice.

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Back in August 2010, I predicted – correctly – that one of Christopher Hitchens’s Vanity Fair essays on his cancer would end up in The Best American Series. Editor Edwidge Danticat selected “Topic of Cancer” for the 2011 edition of the anthology, which, as usual, also features several other pieces on medical matters, such as Katy Butler on the perversity of a healthcare system that extends suffering in pursuit of profits, Victor LaValle on his life (or, more specifically, his sex life) before and after major weight loss, Bridget Potter recounting an abortion she had as a teenager in 1962, and Rachel Riederer describing recuperating after being run over by a bus.

Although Hitchens refers to his illness in the introduction to Arguably (and thanks his doctors in the acknowledgments), he did not include the Vanity Fair essays of illness in the collection. He reiterates his goal of wanting to “write posthumously,” and I can’t help suspecting he envisions the eventual appearance of at least one more volume, gathering his personal reflection on mortality, perhaps. I make no prediction this time, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

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The fact that I’ve written a fair amount about both Christopher Hitchens and Philip Larkin alone would be a sufficient reason for me to direct readers to “Philip Larkin, the Impossible Man,” Hitchens’s review of Larkin’s Letters to Monica in the May 2011 issue of The Atlantic. Both authors factor in “Dedicated Writers,” for instance, an essay included in my Fighters & Writers. In passing, Hitchens notes that Larkin’s uneasy affection for jazz “helps furnish a key to his muse,” an idea I examine closely in “Ugly on Purpose.”

But a more substantive explanation also exists. Hitchens echoes points I’ve tried repeatedly to make, and I welcome the amplification. He argues that individuals with repellent characters can still produce exceptional art. Perhaps it’s inevitable that some readers will look to writers’ lives to make sense of their work. “It is inescapable that we should wonder how and why poetry manages to transmute the dross of existence into magic or gold, and the contrast in Larkin’s case is a specially acute one,” Hitchens writes. Still, biography can’t explain literary alchemy any more than it should be used to condemn or dismiss the fine work of wretched men. One can be a loutish bungler and still be a great writer – a point I stress in another Fighters & Writers piece, one about George Orwell (whom Hitchens invokes in the Atlantic article).

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In order to write about them for The Oregonian, The American Interest and other publications, I read a fair number of brand new books in 2010. Nevertheless, I can’t make an honest top-ten list. Here are six that truly stood as exceptional:

  1. Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow (Alfred A. Knopf)
  2. Kevin Canty’s Everything (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
  3. Don DeLillo’s Point Omega (Scribner)
  4. Charles Goodrich’s Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden (Silverfish Review Press)
  5. Randy Robert’s Joe Louis: Hard Times Man (Yale University Press)
  6. Richard Williams’s The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music (W.W. Norton & Company)

The short list reflects my tendency to read roughly proportional amounts of fiction and nonfiction. I probably read more poetry in 2010 than in most years, and Goodrich’s small volume was my favorite of several contenders.

The year 2010 saw new books by authors I once thought of as reliably remarkable – Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan, Milan Kundera – that I found disappointingly inferior to their earlier efforts. I could name several very good but not quite excellent books. Here’s one: George Kimball and John Schulian assembled a fine collection of boxing-related poems in The Fighter Still Remains. A few years earlier, however, Robert Hedin and Michael Waters edited Perfect in Their Art, an anthology containing much of the same material – and a great deal more.

This leads to the Achilles heel of year-end lists: the absence of the great older stuff. While I read many books published during 2010, I also read many from other years, which are automatically disqualified from “best of” contention but deserve mention all the same. I reread some classics, like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. (I also read several books about Mailer, but these weren’t so good.) I also finally got around to some wonderful books I should have read much sooner, such as Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. If I were to list the ten books I most enjoyed during 2010 regardless of publication date, the four named in this paragraph could be added to the six above.

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In what feels to me like an almost perfect development, something I wrote made the list of Notable Essays of 2009 in The Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens.

I say “almost” because it would have been better to best rather than notable, but I happily take the honor. The proximity to perfection relates to an earlier post in which I mentioned both Hitchens’s editorship and his writing about his own health. I predicted that the anthology would include what I called “essays of illness.” (It does. Nurse Jane Churchon writes about pronouncing people dead. Ron Rindo describes life with Ménière’s disease.) I also mentioned my own contribution to the genre, the very work declared notable: “Weight Loss: A Love Story,” which first appeared in Blood & Thunder: Musing on the Art of Medicine and is also included in Fighters & Writers.

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