Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

I first came across Christopher Hitchens’ writing in the columns and articles he wrote for Vanity Fair magazine. This had two effects – one, it made me realise that Vanity Fair was much more than just a fashion magazine, and two, it made me a fan of Hitchen’s writing.

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Hitchens was a talented journalist, initially in Britain and then America. He was a prolific writer, not only of columns, but also of numerous biographies (ranging from Mother Teresa to the Clintons) and a controversial bestseller, god is not Great (I’ve not read it  yet but will soon), in which he tackles the sensitive subject of religion. His memoir, Hitch-22, was also a bestseller.

Hitchens died in 2011 of oesophageal cancer and Mortality is the short book that he wrote as he was dying. It is a reflection of his thoughts about cancer and death, yet it is never morbid, never self-pitying. There is an underlying chronological order to the text, however this is not account of what-his-cancer-did-next. He writes about religion, about pain, the side-effects of chemo, the knowledge that he might lose his voice – and he was such a vocal man, both literally and through his writings – and many other issues he encountered along the way.

He refers to cancer as being another land, where the cancer patient has leave his old domicile and move to a new country:

The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. 

He refers to the image that is so often brought up with cancer – people don’t have cancer, they battle cancer – ‘you can beat this‘. He tells, however, that while sitting having chemo dripping into his arm, he felt merely ‘swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water‘.

He manages to look at his life with such objectivity that I found the book a joy to read. For example, he says:

The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a good deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism…while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival.

I felt sad reading the book, knowing that he was doing to die, but I never felt pity for him. The last chapter is made up of fragmentary jottings that were left unfinished at the time of his death and these, for me, are the most poignant, as they are private insights into a dying man’s thoughts.

Both the foreword and the afterword paint a picture of a man greatly liked and highly respected as an intellect.

In the foreword, Graydon Carter (present editor of Vanity Fair) says Hitchens was, “a wit, a charmer, a trouble-maker, and a dear and devoted friend. He was a man of insatiable appetites – for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing and, above all, for conversation.”

Carter tells of Hitchen’s enthusiasm when writing for Vanity Fair – how Carter persuaded him to go on a course of self-improvement, which included dental treatment and a ‘sack, back and crack’. Apparently he paled when Carter explained what that was, yet agreed, saying “In for a penny…” (in case you don’t know, it is a wax to remove hair from the back and the other nether regions).

The afterword is written by his wife, Carol Blue, and she write about his larger than life personality, even when he had cancer – amongst others, how he organised a huge family gathering in Toronto for Thanksgiving even when he was sick from the effects of chemo. She tells us that his charisma never left him, his ‘artful conversation’ never ceased. She also writes, however, with the wistful tone of being the one who got left behind.

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens

I miss his perfect voice…I miss the first happy trills when he woke; the low octaves of ‘his morning voice’…his last soothing, pianissimo chatterings on retiring late at night. 

I miss the unpublished Hitch: the countless notes he left for me in the entryway, on my pillow, the emails he would send when we sat in different rooms…and when he was on the road.

Mortality was a quick read but I found it to be an intensely personal book at the end of which I felt I privileged to have read it.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson has written an autobiography of such exquisite honesty that it rates as the best autobiography I have read in many years. It is essentially a book about Winterson’s pursuit of happiness, an emotion that her adoptive mother did not believe in. It is a book about searching for love, an identity, a place to call home, and the need for a real mother.

Winterson was adopted by a couple who should never had had children and who live in the grim, industrial working-class part of Manchester. She describes her adoptive mother as a ‘flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer and bullets in a tin of Pledge.” This was a woman who would stay up all night baking so she didn’t have to share the bed with her husband, and who had two sets of false teeth, one for everyday life, the others for guests. She and her husband were the worst sort of religious people – fervently Christian, avid bible-readers and abusive to their adoptive daughter. The husband does not appear much in the book, as he did not have great an influence on Winterson’s life. It was her mother who when angry would say, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.” It was her mother who would lock her out the house, leaving her to sit on the front step all night. She sent Jeanette to school a year late, because it was the ”Breeding Ground’ – like the sink would be if she didn’t put bleach down it.

Winterson writes: “My mother, Mrs Winterson, didn’t love life. She didn’t believe anything would make life better. She once told me that the universe was a cosmic dustbin.”

There were a total of six books in their household, one of which was the Bible. Her mother believed books would have a secular influence on Winterson and banned her from reading fiction (although she would send Jeanette to the library to collect her stash of murder mysteries). As a result, Winterson began to read books in secret, escaping into stories that took away from the grimness of daily life. “Books, for me, are a home...,” she writes, “…I sit down with a book and I am warm. I know that from the chilly nights on the doorstep.”

As a result of such a dysfunctional relationship with her parents, Winterson tells us how her need and her search for love began and how she sought for it through her life. “Unconditional love is what a child should expect from a parent….I didn’t have that and I was a very nervous, watchful child…..I never did drugs, I did love – the crazy reckless kind, more damage than healing, more heartbreak than health.”

At 15, she does the worst thing possible in her mother’s eyes – she falls in love with another girl. When her mother finds out, ‘then the air raid happened.’ Jeanette was locked in the parlour for three days with the curtains closed, with no food, or heating. One of the elders of the church forced her to repent, by pushing her to her knees, and trying to kiss her because it’s better with a man than a girl, it’s normal.

She leaves home at 16, lives in various places, survives and most of all, though, applies to Oxford to read English, ‘because it was the most impossible thing I could do.” She does get in, despite being told by her tutor on her first evening there that she was the working class experiment, and another woman was told she was the black experiment. “We soon realised that our tutor was malevolently gay and that the five women in our year would receive no tuition. We were going to have to educate themselves.” Winterson finds happiness in her studies, being amongst women with similar passions for reading, thinking, knowing and discussing.

She leaves university and starts writing, achieving success, yet her life is never happy. After a break up with a girlfriend, Winterson descends into ‘madness’ and tries to commit suicide, although she survives. As a reader, I was almost flattered to be allowed to read Winterson’s understanding of her mental state and sometimes psychosis: “There was a person in me – a piece of me – however you want to describe it – so damaged that she was prepared to see me dead to find peace…she was the war casualty. She was the sacrifice. She hated me. She hated life…This misshapen murderous creature with its supernatural strength need to be invited home – but on the right terms.”

Winterson starts working again, and slowly pulls her life together. She decides to try to find her biological mother and starts a long journey that does, in the end, result in meeting her. That is the end of the book, in a way, although there is no linear form to this story, and we grow with Winterson as she discovers herself. I wish there were more, or that she would write another – I became so invested in her life.

This book is an autobiography, but I found it more than that. It is a psychological insight into a person who has been so damaged by relationships with family that she battles to relate to anyone; it is also a reflection of the redemptive power of words, fiction, and poetry. It is about the deep need for love and affection that humans have, and for a place to call home. It is also – luckily – very funny in parts.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chuan

This book left me pondering over my parenting skills, and it still does, weeks after I finished the book. Part of me thinks I have been a deficient mother, not pushing my children enough to achieve their potential; the other part of me thinks that Amy Chuan bordered on child abuse with her children and I’m glad I’ve left mine to make their own decisions.

Amy Chua exposes herself in this book by revealing how she applied ‘Chinese mothering’ to her two children, Sophia and Lulu. She speaks of how she brought up girls who were musical prodigies and academic wizards. On the first page, she lists how she did it – her children were not allowed to watch TV, have a playdate, go on sleepovers, get any grades less than an A, decide which extracurricular activities to do, and most of all, they HAD to play either the piano or the violin.

She rigidly ensured that this is what they did, sometimes in the most extreme ways. She pushed her three-year-old daughter out of the back door in freezing weather because she wouldn’t play the piano how her mother wanted. She insisted that her children practise when away on holiday – even overseas – sometimes for five hours a day. I was riveted by her actions, amazed and repulsed.

She also exposes her beliefs about the deficits of Western parenting: she says, “… watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks – drawing a squiggle or waving a stick …” This made her realise that Chinese parents have two things over Western parents – higher dreams for their children, and higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.

Part of me agrees with that. I know my boys could be better at music than they are, but I have never pushed them, believing that it is their choice. Amy believed that they could achieve their potential with the help of ‘Chinese mothering’. When Lulu couldn’t get one part of her piece right on the violin, Amy made her keep going till 2am, until she got it right. Amy points out that Lulu was then proud of herself for having achieved that. But at 2am? I’m not sure.

What makes this read even more fascinating, though, is that Lulu – the younger daughter – clashes with her mother and rebels. It is like watching a cat fight, both sides lashing out at each other. It culminates in two crises; the first being Lulu chopping her hair off with blunt scissors, the second being the time she loses it in a restaurant and screams at her mother, “I’m not what you want … I’m not Chinese … I hate you and I hate my family.”

Amy wrote this book with her family’s full consent, having shown it to them as she wrote it. Sophia apparently pointed out that Lulu is made to look like the rebel, whereas Sophia also defied her mother. Her parents were horrified and told her she mustn’t expose herself and the methods of Eastern parenting to the world. Her husband, Jed – a successful author himself – warned her that it would cause extreme reactions. Looking back on it, she says, she regrets that she didn’t emphasise the good times that they had as a family. The girls don’t seem to resent their mother and have good relationships with her.

One query that came up for me when reading it, was where was Jed in all of this? He came from a liberal, Jewish background seemed to watch from the sidelines and only interfere when Amy got too extreme. Amy has said that he agreed with strict parenting and that she did most the parenting in the house, and Sophia has commented that she has the utmost respect for how her father stuck by her mother in all her decisions.

It is a much more readable book than I expected. It’s written in a chatty style and Amy, thank heavens, is able to laugh at herself. It’s worth reading for the autobiographical aspect of it, but also for its way of opening the debate of whether Western or Eastern parenting is a better way of bringing up children. It left me believing that the Western way is better, although there is a part of me that wishes I had pushed my children a little bit more to enable them to have more belief in themselves and their abilities.

Even Silence Has An End by Ingrid Betancourt

This is one of the most incredible books I have ever read, and I have read many. I had vaguely heard of Ingrid Betancourt before I read the book and knew that she had been a hostage who had been released a couple of years ago, and that was about it. Now I know she is a woman who endured six and half years in the Columbian jungle as a hostage under the harshest conditions and was eventually rescued by the Columbian army.

Ingrid Betancourt was a presidential candidate in Columbia in 2002 when she was kidnapped and taken hostage. She had been going to fly into a military-controlled region, but her place on the plane was cancelled and, as a result, she was driven there. She never made her destination. As a candidate, she was aware of the risks of potential kidnapping and remembered being given advice once: if the men are wearing leather boots, they are the army; if they are wearing rubber boots, they are FARC (a guerrilla organisation in conflict with the government). The men who took her were wearing rubber boots. One of her assistants, Clara Roja, was kidnapped with her.

They was driven further and further into the jungle, till eventually they got out of their vehicles and walked into the depths of it until they reached a temporary camp. Here they got their first inkling what life as a hostage was going to be like as they were put in a small enclosure with a mosquito net as a roof and a bed to share. Later on they were moved to a bigger camp along with other hostages.

There isn’t space here to mention the number of times they had to move camp, march in the pouring rain, deal with biting wasps, mosquitoes, bees. The conditions were horrific, but the psychological elements were the more difficult to handle for Betancourt. She and Clara soon began to irritate each other in such a confined space and, once they were with other hostages, she found they all began to vie for food and attention. The guards had complete control over them physically and psychologically and played with them, cruelly.

Ingrid tried escaping three times, each account of which I found fascinating. The determination it must have taken to attempt to flee into an unknown jungle with no sense of where she was heading, with very few resources, made me admire her determination and self-will. I suspect I would have wilted, slid into depression and done whatever the captors wanted. Ingrid stood up for herself all the way, often making herself unpopular with other hostages (two of the American hostages have since written a book in which they criticise her behaviour and how she got beneficial treatment).

What I found so interesting about this book was the relationship between the guerrillas and the hostages – what they allowed the prisoners to have or not, like giving Ingrid a dictionary when she asked for one, or baking a cake in honour of her daughter’s 17th birthday. How some of them almost became friends with Ingrid. How cruel they were to the hostages. Ingrid was often chained up, especially after her escape attempts. Chained around the neck, and either to a tree or another hostage. One particular guard who didn’t like her, always tightened the chain around her neck so that she could barely swallow. She still has faint marks on her neck from the chains.

In the book, she explains how one of the most difficult things was having to face herself – often she found she didn’t like her behaviour towards the other prisoners when she became spiteful, greedy or hateful. Slowly she worked out that she could choose to be how she wanted to be, and from then on tried to remain non-judgemental. I honestly don’t know how she managed it. I don’t think I would have been able to.

One of the things that kept her going was the radio which the prisoners were allowed (amazingly, I think) to listen to. Once a week there was a slot in which the hostages’ families were able to send them messages and for six and a half years, ingrid received messages from her mother – who didn’t even know whether Ingrid was alive any more. The strength of the love between them kept Ingrid going through the worst times (of which there were countless).

Towards the end of her captivity she became extremely ill with hepatitis, at a time in which the guerrillas were marching them further and further into the jungle to escape the army. She was so ill that she often had to be carried by the guerrillas, some of whom were very kind to her and others of whom treated her like a sac of potatoes. Some of the other hostages resented that she was getting special treatment.

In the end, Ingrid wasn’t released by the guerrillas but rescued by the army who deceived the leader of the camp into believing that they were FARC officials coming to take some of the hostages to another area. Ingrid and a few of the others were rushed into an airplane and once on board heard the incredible words, “You’re free”.

In so many ways this is a horrific read with the details of the experiences of a political prisoner held in utterly inhumane conditions, but in so many other ways it is an incredible story of strength and courage. Next time I think I’m having a shitty day, I’ll remember Ingrid Betancourt.

For Better, For Worse by Damian and Siobhan Horner

This is a fun book, a good holiday read, or one to read with a glass of wine at the end of a shitty day where after two glasses you are beginning to think that you, too, are brave enough to embark on the kind of journey that these two did.

After a few glasses of wine themselves, Damian and Siobhan looked at their frazzled lives in London and decided to throw it all in, get on the barge that Damian had been restoring for years and go barging down the French canals – with a two-year-old son and a daughter who was just one. I hope I never get that drunk.

Damian was worried that his career in advertising was turning him into a horrid bastard and Siobhan was worried she was turning into a boring housewife with no ambition. So they really did it; instead of keeping the idea as a ‘wouldn’t that be wonderful’ one, they kitted up their barge and headed off for the French waters.

The sketches at the front of the book give you some idea of what the barge looked like once they had prepared it for two children, one of whom could walk and another who couldn’t yet, but you have to go online and have a look at what it really looked like. No wonder the French stared at them with amazement. I liked them more once I had seen that photograph, because I found myself jealously irritated by them. She’s blonde and pretty, he’s good looking, and they have interesting names like Damian and Siobhan (even if that looks like a word to describe a bad taste in your mouth). He calls her Shiv, by the way.

The book is written alternately by them, with different typefaces for their voices. Although the chopping around can be tiresome sometimes, it is a clever device as it gives us insight into how each of them reacts to the same experience.

I loved how Damian found it so difficult to be a father initially – having never actually looked after his children during the day, he found new respect for Siobhan how she managed to do all she did with the children and keep it together. I know that sounds mean, but I really believe that most men have no idea how much work goes into being a mother, especially of toddlers. It’s also interesting to see how long it takes for him to truly relax and adjust to the slower pace of their new life.

Siobhan finds it difficult to adjust to the cramped space of the barge and finds that Damian really irritates her initially. I can tell you now, I couldn’t do that barge on my own, let alone with a partner and children. They didn’t have a flushing toilet, the kitchen was virtually non-existent and they had to make their bed on top of flat hard seats in the kitchen every night, because the children had the comfy nook up front. They had to strap the children to netting on the sides of the boat to stop them from falling off.

Despite this chaos, they started to enjoy their journey along the canals of France and the freedom of choosing where to go, with no time limits. Some parts of the book are very funny, especially their encounters with other barges, and Damian’s attempts at mechanical challenges. The descriptions of their forays into the French villages is envy-making; bicycles, fresh bread, cheese, tiny shops.

I found myself getting bored towards the end of the book; I think because I had read enough about barging, and started skipping through the pages. But I was interested enough to go onto their website and feel even more jealous about their present life (you’ll have to go online to read about it).

Achieving the Impossible by Lewis Pugh

Lewis Pugh is the type of man I used to dream about when I was a teenager – you know, the one I was going to marry. He is an ‘explorer, athlete, polar protector’ and to me, thoroughly good-looking as well. And he sounds like a good guy. (Someone I know sat next to him at a dinner and said he was very likeable – and also mentioned how good-looking he was.) Got to say, he didn’t have much money for a long time as he spent anything he had getting to remote, freezing cold parts of the world to do icy swims, sometimes just because he could.

I started reading this book in a desultory sort of way, thinking I might skim through it, but it kept me gripped throughout and I was fascinated by the man. Not only did he test his body to the ultimate limits through swimming, he also joined the British Army’s toughest regiment, the SAS, which had the most gruelling admission tests. He failed once, and that didn’t even stop him. It seems that nothing is impossible for this man. Once he has set his mind on doing something, he makes sure he achieves it, however much it might test his body.

He is best know for his Arctic swim, which took place in July 2007, in water that was minus 1.7 degrees. I couldn’t even put a finger in that without crying. He wore only a speedo and swimming goggles (and a layer of fat – he had to put on 10kgs to do the swim).  He had trained his body for these icy temperatures by sitting in an inflatable pool at the I&J factory in Cape Town, where workers constantly shovelled ice around his body.  Can you imagine even standing on the ice with nothing on but your swimming costume?

He was not ignorant of that fact that what he was doing could kill him and, in fact, wrote a letter to two members of his back-up team (one of whom was Tim Noakes) saying that he was doing the swim totally of his own free will, and that they must show the letter to the media should he die doing it.

The incredible thing about Lewis Pugh is that he is able to raise his body’s core temperature at will and this is what enables him to survive waters of these freezing temperatures. Reading about how he psyches himself up before diving into the waters is fascinating and it is during those moments that he raises his body temperature. Reading about his recovery after the swim is also fascinating, in a scary sort of way.

As fascinating as the North Pole swim is, his other swims are just as interesting. Two of them were city swims – one down the Thames and the other in the Sydney Harbout (illegally). Others take him to remote places in the world, and  his descriptions of the beauty of Norway made me want to go there.

It is during all his swims that Lewis’ eyes are opened to the damage that humans are doing to nature – there is one particularly eerie description of him swimming over a huge graveyard of whale bones – and that motivates him to become an ardent environmentalist. Thank heavens this is how he starts making money; I was starting to worry (along with him) that he would still be living at home aged 40.

Sadly for me, but very happily for him, he met a gorgeous woman and married her.

I haven’t done the book justice in this review, as I would write for too long and you would get bored. It is a fascinating book about a man who has achieved incredible things but seems to have stayed modest, who has so much attention focused on him, but who acknowledges he could never have done any of his swims without his fantastic back-up teams.

It is well worth reading, whether you like biographies or not, as it is so incredible that it could almost be fiction.

Half Broke Horses and The Glass Castle

Have any of you read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls? If you haven’t, you must because it is an unbelievable (in all senses) autobiography of a girl and her three siblings growing up with parents who are so neglectful that it borders on child abuse.  Her parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls, drag their children around America from one small mining town to another; their father, brilliant when sober, drinks most of their money away, and their mother harbours artistic desires that prevent her from ever holding down a real job – “I’m an excitement addict,” her mother says. So the children bring themselves up against the most impossible odds, surviving by doing things like sleeping in cardboard boxes, eating margarine and cat food and hiding money away from their father.

Somehow Jeannette Walls manages even to bring humour into the story that left me with my mouth gaping open sometimes. She also somehow speaks of her parents with affection and most of all, she somehow managed to drag herself out of that situation and lead a normal life with a good job in New York when she grew up.

If for nothing else, read the book for the opening chapter. It gripped me straight away.

So back to Half Broke Horses – this is the story of Jeannette Walls’ grandmother, Lily Casey. Walls calls it a “true-life novel”, as it is her grandmother’s story, but she has fictionalised dialogue etc. As a novel alone, this is a wonderful story, but know that it’s based on someone’s life makes it more incredible.

I live a very boring life.  I didn’t start life in a mud dugout in west Texas. I didn’t learn to ride before I was 5 years old. I didn’t become a teacher and leave home to trek across states to a teaching job at the age of 15. I haven’t been a bootlegger, a ranch wife, a bush pilot, a horse breaker or a poker player. I haven’t driven across America with my dead father in the back, stopping to beg for petrol from truckers.

Lily Casey did all this – and have two children. I had two children and landed up in a clinic.

The book takes us as far as her daughter, Rose Mary, marrying Rex the Scoundrel. And those two are Jeannette Walls’ parents. It was very satisfying to finish a book and know how the characters carry on living. Often I’m left hanging, wondering what happens to characters I’ve grown to like while reading a book. And now I know the background of the very weird mother, Rose Mary, in the Glass Castle. Although I don’t think anything excuses her behaviour. Ever.

I think you can read the two books either way round; it doesn’t really make a difference to either story. Both are fascinating, absorbing reads.

Tears while I read The Elephant Whisperer

I don’t often cry when I read books. I don’t often cry altogether. So it really took me by surprise when I found myself crying on Saturday night while reading The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony. Okay, I was on my own for the weekend and Saturday nights can be long sometimes, but I started reading the book on Friday night and finished late on Saturday night because I had to know what happened.

I can’t write much about it, because that’ll ruin the story for you. But it’s a short, easy- to- read book and a fascinating insight into animal communication. Lawrence Anthony is a South African conservationist who owns a game reserve in KwaZulu Natal called Thula Thula. He takes on a herd of “rogue” elephants that is going to be culled if he doesn’t. He has had no experience with elephants and these ones are traumatised and furious elephants, abandoned after most of their herd was killed. Everyone thinks he’s mad to take them; he thinks he’s mad to take them, but he does and so the story goes and I won’t tell you any more.

I heard him talking at the Book Fair – he’s a rough looking “oke” in his khaki shorts and shirt, a hairy white beard and big hands. But he is passionate about his elephants and reading his book is like listening to him speak. It is not scientific, he has no academic facts backing him up – he just tells his story and it is a wonderful, funny, sad and eye-opening book.

And I’m glad to tell you that my puppy-who-drives-me-mad came and put her head on my lap when I was crying, so there is something about animal/human communication that we don’t yet understand.