While I may not have always agreed with Christopher Hitchens, I always admired him. He was a light whose brilliance could not be denied, a writer and thinker whose unique voice resounded through the last 40 years of British and American culture. Mortality is a short collection of essays written by Hitchens in the last 18 months of his life, a clear-eyed view of his experience with esophageal cancer and the various treatments he endured in hopes of buying some time.
The thing I loved most about Hitch is that he was never afraid to say out loud or in print what other people were probably thinking but generally kept to themselves. Here, he has plenty to say about clichéed cancer metaphors and euphemisms (like "battling cancer," which comes with the built-in assumption that those who "lose the battle" just haven't fought hard enough). He's at his best telling stories about the hypocrites around him, like the woman in a checkout line who tells him about a relative who had liver cancer, beat it for awhile, then got it again and died--in her opinion, "because he was gay." Was this intended to give Hitchens--a staunch atheist--hope, push him towards a god who would be so feebly vengeful ("Why not a lightning bolt?"), or what? Hitchens is also brutally honest about the devastation of both cancer and chemotherapy--honest, but without wallowing in self-pity. It's as if his own body has become a subject of observation and investigation.
While it's sad, yes, to have lost Christopher Hitchens, Mortality isn't the depressing read you might imagine. It reflects the humor, brilliance, vitality, and clear-eyed realism that readers came to expect from him.
Very finely read by Simon Prebble, with a heartbreaking epilogue by written and read by Hitchens's wife, Carol Blue.
Effie Gray was only twelve when she met the celebrated young art critic John Ruskin in 1841. A friendship developed, and within a few years, he proposed; the two married when Effie was nineteen, Ruskin 29. Effie imagined the two of them as the perfect couple, her social charm as asset to his brilliance. But on their wedding night, something went terribly wrong. Despite her innocence, Effie knew that there had to be more to marriage than taking walks along the riverbank: Ruskin either would not or could not consummate their union. In a letter to her parents, she wrote:
"He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason... that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April 1848."
Ashamed, Effie remained in the marriage for six years before formally filing for an annulment. She was subjected to a physical examination to verify her chastity and humiliated by Ruskin's testimony that "though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it." The doctor who examined her declared that she was normal in every way; it has been speculated that Ruskin might have been repelled by his wife's pubic hair, or that she was menstruating. As one would expect, the case created a scandal in Victorian England.
Fortunately, a happier future was in store. Effie had posed for Ruskin's friend, the artist John Everett Millais, who accompanied the couple on a trip to Scotland. The two fell in love and were married a year after the annulment was granted. Fagence devotes the first half of her biography to the scandal, but the second details Effie's 42-year marriage, which, despite some losses and difficulties, was a happy one. Effie continued to model for Millais (as did her siblings, her eight children, and later their grandchildren), and "Everett," as she called him, eventually earned great success as a painter, as well as a baronetcy. But her one disappointment was that the queen would not receive "a divorced person" at court. It seemed she would never quite shake the scandal of NOT being a wife to Ruskin. And Ruskin, who apparently never learned when not to speak, publicly blamed Effie for 'ruining' Millais's potential as an artist, the necessity of feeding a family turning him to a more lucrative style.
Cooper does an admirable job of presenting this slice of Victorian scandal and a peek into the world of art. We learn not only about the three persons mentioned in her lengthy title, but also about her travels in Italy, the elder Ruskins, Effie's family in Scotland, the Millais children, and the friends who stood by her. I did find the second half a bit confusing at times, partly because of the profusion of Johns, Georges, Sophias and Effies, but also because of the author's tendency to jump back and forth through time.
Joseph Anton is Rushdie's memoir of the years he spent, mostly in hiding, under the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa. The fatwa, which was announced on Valentine's Day, 1989, has never been officially revoked; in 1998, the Iranian government proclaimed that it would neither support nor hinder attempts to assassinate the author, but there is still a $3 million-plus bounty on his head. The title of the book is the name Rushdie assumed while in Scotland Yard's protection and is taken from two of his favorite writers: "Joseph" from Conrad and "Anton" from Chekhov. In a recent interview, Rushdie claimed that during this time he felt as if he was watching another person's life from a distance, a person separate from himself--hence the book is written in third person.
It's hard to imagine what life would be like if you were forced to move at a moment's notice--dozens of times. To live with a squad of armed policemen (one of whom accidentally blew a hole through a wall). To be unable to visit a dying parent, have dinner with friends, attend a memorial or an activity at your child's school, or, as a writer, give public readings of your work. Rushdie details all of this, as well as his efforts to live as normal a life as possible. For this, he credits a cadre of trusted friends, including Christopher Hitchens, Paul Auster, Bill Buford, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Bono, among others. Rushdie also engaged in a constant legal battle to get The Satanic Verses distributed worldwide in paperback format.
Of course, Rushdie's personal life suffered during this time. His greatest regret is the difficulty the fatwa caused for his son Zafar, who was 10 at the time it all began. Although divorced from his first wife, Clarissa Luard, the two remained friendly and strove to maintain as normal a relationship as possible for father and son. Marianne Wiggins, his second wife, to whom he was married when the fatwa was pronounced, does not come off so well; in fact, the American writer is depicted as a selfish, self-promoting wacko. Rushdie met his third wife, Elizabeth West, the mother of his second son, while under protection. Initially, West seems almost saint-like in her patience and devotion, but this image falls apart as the marriage falters due to her depression over not bearing more children and Rushdie's desire to move to the US, where he felt he could live a more open, normal life. Wife Number Four, model, would-be actress, and reality show host Padma Lakshmi,is referred to as "The Illusion," and Rushdie rather shamefacedly admits to falling into a fairly typical mid-life crisis (homely older man, beautiful younger woman), as well as pursuing a somewhat elusive American dream that she came to represent. Lakshmi, like Wiggins, comes off as self-absorbed and ambitious (when he attempts to visit her in LA after a new threat has been announced, she says she is going on a lingerie shoot), and Rushdie makes short shrift of her.
On the whole, Rushdie's memoir is insightful and engaging. If one thing is made clear, it is that he wouldn't have endured, had it not been for the love, help, and encouragement of his close friends, family, and associates. And it is this humanization of Salman Rushdie, more than his literary achievements or politicized position, that allows readers to relate to his plight.
The reader, Sam Dastoor, was brilliant, with one caveat: his American accent, which never varied. Whether he was impersonating Bill Clinton, Kurt Vonnegut, George Stephanopoulos, or Susan Sontag, they all sounded like sarcastic cowboys.
I have to admit that the Truman Capote story on Marlon Brando was a bit disappointing. But the rest, oh my! What a wonderful book of stories; it starts with Lillian Ross on Earnest Hemingway; then goes to Katherine White, one of the founding editors of the New Yorker; then goes on to profile boxers, "cool finders", a tightrope walker; Heloise (from Hints from Heloise); Edna Buchanan (Miami crime beat reporter); Isadora Duncan, and even a champion show dog. My two favorites were Mr. Hunter's Grave by Joseph Mitchell and A Pryor Love (about Richard Pryor) by Hilton Als. Mr. Hunter's Grave was not really about a person so much as about a small town on Staten Island; I know, I don't make it sound like much, but really, I hated to have it end. The story on Richard Pryor was insightful -- it showed the flaws in the man with such compassion and with enough understanding of Mr. Pryor's past to show how it all worked together first to make him into a celebrity, and then brought him down again.
The narration on all the stories is good, but it is the writing that really makes this book stand out. It is the sort of writing that transports you from where ever you are into the world being profiled. You come away wanting to know more about the people discussed, and feeling like you may have met some new friends. 10 hours is not enough for this book; I hope they will put out the unabridged edition. I will go back and listen to these stories again.