Don DeLillo – White Noise

white_noise.largeTitle: White Noise
Author: Don DeLillo
Year: 1985
Publisher: Viking Adult
Date Read: January 29, 2013

Goodreads Rating: ~ 7.5

My Rating: 6.5

By the time White Noise was published, Don DeLillo (1936 – ) was already an established author, with this novel being his ninth piece. The novel follows the life of Jack Gladney, who is the most renown professor of Hitler studies, and he lives with his family in College-on-the-Hill. He begins to have doubts regarding almost every aspect of his life, both professional and personal, and he makes attempts at improving his lot after a chemical spill releases its toxins into the atmosphere in the town.

DeLillo’s writing style in White Noise is not necessarily appealing. He does definitely demonstrate why he’s an acclaimed author, but it isn’t the dramatic tension felt by the reader or an attachment to the characters that draws someone in to this novel. Rather, it’s the plot path that DeLillo chooses to employ.

At the beginning of the novel, the reader becomes aware that something is amiss in Gladney’s college town on top of the fact that he does not get much fulfillment out of his life. Strange occurrences take place leading up to the chemical spill that serves as a major climactic moment part-way through the novel. If you read my review of Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down, you will remember my opinion that the climax of the book takes place essentially immediately, and then it declines from there. White Noise does this in a sense, but DeLillo uses it to his advantage. He baits the reader in an interesting way and changes the focus of the novel. Perhaps it only appears to be a change of focus, when actually the reader was only paying attention to the minor details of a larger plot.

As I read this novel, I was under the growing impression that it would be some sort of fallout scenario. It is, in some aspects, but the chemical fiasco and clean up is only a background event both before and after it happens. A few dozen pages are devoted to how the Gladney’s family deals with the event, but it mainly serves as a catalyst to draw out the insecurities and doubts of every member of the family. DeLillo heightens the reader’s attention with the biohazard in the city, and redirects that attention to the mindset of the characters. The chemical spill doesn’t directly cause any immediate concern for the members of the Gladney family, but the threat of catastrophe causes long-standing problems to completely surface.

As I mentioned before, though, I was not very impressed with the actual writing style. I really enjoyed how DeLillo approached the overall plot of this novel, but not so much how he executed the narrative from page to page.

“The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error.”

“Is it better to commit evil and attempt to balance it with an exalted act than to live a resolutely neutral life?”

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Evelyn Waugh – Decline and Fall

360673Title: Decline and Fall
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Year: 1928
Publisher: Chapman and Hall
Date Read: February 16, 2013

Goodreads Rating: ~ 8.0 / 10

My Rating: 7.0 / 10

Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh’s (1903 – 1966, and male) first published novel, is a satirical portrayal of British society and education system in the 1920’s. Paul Pennyfeather, the novel’s main character, consistently finds himself in bad circumstances, none of which are entirely his fault. After a run-in with Oxford’s Bollinger Club, he is dismissed from the university and takes a job teaching a public school for young boys. He later marries one of his student’s mother, who causes him to take the fall for her after her human trafficking and prostitution.

Critics are typically under the impression that Waugh makes the claim that society is constantly falling from the standards it had in bygone eras. Decline and Fall follows this presumption to a certain extent. Commentary on society is made by several characters through dialogue with Pennyfeather, as his peers seem to constantly have an opinion on their lot as well as civilization in general. Sometimes, the criticism seems genuine and would reflect the author’s views, while on other occasions, the commentary is blatantly invalid and shows Waugh’s disfavor for individuals that think this way.

The dialogue between characters makes this novel. Waugh excellently crafts ideas for everyone to say that are crude, tasteful, or humorous all when they need to be. However, the passivity of Paul Pennyfeather is the only thing that truly kept me from enjoying Decline and Fall. Despite constantly having misfortune fall upon him that he could object to, he just allows every bad event to happen and accepts consequences without any thought. A lead character in this sort of story, I will admit, must demonstrate passivity to some extent so that the calamities that are being criticized can actually happen, but Pennyfeather has almost no for argument. Instead, he functions almost as the reader: just an observer.

Because this novel takes place in the British 1920’s and serves as commentary on the lifestyle and social strata at the time, I would highly recommend reading this immediately before or after reading Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Both novels take place, entirely or mostly, in the 1920’s and early 1930’s and exemplify the expected standards of individuals at that time. Interestingly, Decline and Fall was contemporary for the time period, while The Remains of the Day was written decades later, but both novels provide similar accounts and are enjoyable in conjunction with one another.

“In fact, the whole of this book is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather, so that readers must not complain if the shadow which took his name does not amply fill the important part of hero which he was originally cast.”

“But Paul had very little appetite, for he was greatly pained at how little he was pained by the events of the afternoon.”

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Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day

9780679731726Title: The Remains of the Day
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Year: 1988
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Date Read: March 8, 2013

Goodreads Rating: ~ 8.0 / 10

My Rating: 8.5 / 10

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro’s (1954 – ) third novel, is impressively subtle in the way its plot unfolds. The reader is immediately introduced to the protagonist, James Stevens, who is frequently referred to as only Stevens. The entirety of the novel is told from his perspective, and Ishiguro demonstrates his full capability of drafting memorable characters through him. Stevens is the head butler of Darlington Hall, the previous residence of Lord Darlington, now under the ownership of a Mr. Farraday. Stevens, after noticing minute mistakes that he’s been making in his work routine at the manor, agrees to take a vacation to visit with a former coworker, Miss Kenton, or Mrs. Benn. The story frequently cuts back and forth between Stevens’ analysis of his current trip and recollections of his time spent serving Lord Darlington.

I initially thought that Stevens’ flashbacks were used to simply provide an in depth characterization of the butler, and I became more concerned as the novel progressed because little seemed to be happening in the present in the novel. I remember thinking to myself for almost half of my reading This novel is hardly progressing and is, instead, lingering in the memory of this character. However, after reaching a certain point, the actual intent of the plot line became much more clear, which is why Ishiguro’s style is so compelling. By understanding everything that Stevens values in his occupation, life, and personality through his recalling the past, the impact of singular events of his present journey become so much more significant. Stevens finally meets with Miss Keaton with only a few pages of the novel to spare, and, by this point, the reader is fully aware of why his identity and sense of purpose seemingly become shattered, or at least disassembled, in this encounter. 

Stevens explains what he values in a butler, and occasionally in any individual, in his defense of his father, his employer, and himself. The reader comes to sympathize with Stevens, especially considering how realistic and sensible the main character is. However, Stevens reveals how flawed his logic is – he tries to be as professional as he possibly can, at the cost of having any individual personality or opinion. He praises himself for the majority of the novel, claiming that his professionalism perhaps made him “dignified,” but as the novel advances, he feels the need to defend the actions of his former employer, Lord Darlington. In his defense, he comes to realize how futile the efforts of Lord Darlington were in regard to the reputation the Gentleman eventually received. Because of this, he questions whether or not he actually served his employer loyally – by not having any judgement of the man’s actions – and whether or not his life served any real purpose. All of these identity crises are catalyzed by the encounters that Stevens has on his trip, and especially so by his awaited encounter with Miss Keaton.

Ishiguro fantastically keeps the climactic series of realizations in the back burner of the reader’s mind, allowing him or her to make conclusions naturally, instead of force feeding every major plot point. The characterization in the novel is incredibly indicative of how a reader would expect an individual in each character’s position to behave. His subtle method of introducing ideas to the reader without overtly stating the purpose of each one is also very well done, making this novel a great process of discovery and disclosure. Ishiguro, in a telling narrative, shows the struggle between priding oneself in the professional world and maintaining a healthy personal life.

“I did perhaps display, in the face of everything, at least in some modest degree a ‘dignity’ worthy of someone like Mr Marshall – or come to that, my father. Indeed, why should I deny it? For all its sad associations, whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph.”

“It is essential, then, to keep one’s attention focused on the present; to guard against any complacency creeping in on account of what one may have achieved in the past.”

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A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby

alongwaydownTitle: A Long Way Down
Author: Nick Hornby
Year: 2005
Publisher: Viking Books
Date Read: February 6, 2013

Goodreads Rating: ~ 7.0 / 10

My Rating: 4.5 / 10

Nick Hornby’s (1957 – ) A Long Way Down is incredibly reminiscent of Mitch Albom’s books (Five People You Meet in Heaven, For One More Day) for me, and, upon reading it, I had to look up his works that I’ve read to make sure it wasn’t the same author. Hornby’s style is very sentimental which can be uplifting to read, but the reader is always assured that seemingly everything will work out in the end and that the characters will come to some realization or revelation about how they’re living their lives. Throughout the entirety of the novel, I was frequently thinking surely something will actually happen.

A Long Way Down follows four individuals that all decide to commit suicide by jumping off of Topper’s House on New Year’s Eve. Because they all meet at the top of the building, none of them decide to jump, and the group agrees to reassess their lives and meet again to make an ultimate decision on a later date. What then ensues is a series of conflicts, discussions, and reflections by each of the characters as they come to terms with their understanding of life.

The idea of the novel is creative, and I enjoyed the premise. However, that’s about as far as my interest ran. The characters are archetypal and behave almost exactly as you would expect them to. The conflicts that arise between them are realistic in the sense that the characters are genuine to their principles, regardless of how predictable those may be.

The main problem I have with the plot, and as a result the novel itself, is that the climax occurs the first time the group is on the roof together. The tension the reader feels as each character debates falling from the roof is never reached again in the novel. At no point after the first meeting did I ever think that any of the characters would succumb to their doubts and decide to commit suicide, making the last three quarters of the book just a resolution to the problem that was all but solved at the outset of the novel. I thought for the last hundred pages or so that one of the characters was going to die to something unexpected, be it a car wreck or something similar, but instead, they all slowly reorganize their lives.

What could have helped the progression in the book would have been to structure it differently, in my opinion. The characters are all given a voice which makes each one more personable, but without an objective or omniscient narrator, the reader has a difficult time forming his or her own opinion of each character. The novel would have dramatically benefited from a third person lead in to the climactic meeting at the top of Topper’s House so that the reader can fully comprehend what brought each character there. Without it, there’s little sympathy exhibited from the reader when it’s most necessary.

Had the novel been shaped in a way to build up to a climactic engagement at the top of the roof, instead of starting with one, Hornby’s suicidal Breakfast Club would have been much, much more appealing.

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My Name Is Red – Orhan Pamuk

$(KGrHqN,!qUFCwE22EEcBQ3f6TO+G!~~60_35Title: My Name Is Red (Turkish – Benim Adım Kırmızı)
Author: Orhan Pamuk (Translator – Erdağ M. Göknar)
Year: 1998
Publisher: Knopf
Date Read: February 28, 2013

Goodreads Rating: ~ 7.5 / 10

My Rating: 6.5 / 10

In my analysis on the influence of translators in my previous post, I neglected to mention the work done by Erdağ M. Göknar in translating Orhan Pamuk’s (1952 – ) novel My Name Is Red. Not only did Göknar face the task of reworking the original Turkish text into English, he also had to maintain the style of the novel and make it accessible to a Western audience. The translated work made Pamuk a significant contender to become a Nobel Laureate which he achieved in 2006, a true testimony to the influence of good translating.

Interestingly, the notion of conflicting ideologies between the East and West is a central theme in the novel. Based in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire, a group of miniaturists are faced with the daunting task of creating a piece that satisfies the religious tendencies of Eastern art with the realistic portrayals in those of the West. The notion of depicting characters and scenes as they truly appear is taboo in the culture that the novel is based in, and the growing tension results in murder, conspiracy, and secrecy. Pamuk also manages to interweave a love story within the confines of the novel through a fantastic use of multiple perspectives.

The use of several different perspectives is something that I’ve always admired in lengthy novels, with Stephen King and Harry Turtledove being my two favorites that have mastered this method of storytelling. However, I put a certain emphasis that I enjoy this in lengthy novels. My Name Is Red is about 400 pages long, making it just too short for this style to reach its most effective state, in my opinion. Using multiple perspectives, especially in the case of this novel’s use of 19 narrators spanning 59 chapters, allows for a diverse look into the different intricacies of the plot. Simultaneous events can easily be described, unique thoughts can be elaborated on, and crucial accounts can be highlighted. However, if the novel is too short, as I believe the case of this one to be, the use of many perspectives crowds the flow of the plot and forces too much into too little space.

All of that being said, Pamuk creates a plethora of enjoyable angles to view the plot unfold. Most of such outlooks are through the eyes of the human characters, but occasional exceptions are made for illustrations, objects, and ideas to be able to speak. In a sense, the “fly on the wall” that would usually be ignored is given the opportunity to reveal things that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. Also, the naming convention for the miniaturists (Elegant, Butterfly, Olive, and Stork) themselves is something I found very appealing.

My Name Is Red employs several traits that are creative and clever, but the story doesn’t meet the sum of its parts. While each individual stylistic choice has its merits, they do not combine cohesively enough to make an enjoyable read a great book. While reading Pamuk’s work, I came to be under the impression that some portions of the novel could have been omitted to make more room for more crucial inclusions. The unnecessary bits, though, are still incredibly well written and weren’t, by any means, detrimental – only superfluous. The romantic side of the novel, that is otherwise exclusively a murder mystery with philosophical implications, seems tangent to the overarching plot other than the fact that it appears to be a tool to tie loose ends together.

As previously mentioned, one of the principle ideas in the novel is whether or not to embrace the different ideas unique to Eastern and Western thought in art and style, and the elevated notion of what qualifies something as a true and pure art or form. This was an interesting thing to keep in mind while reading the book, considering that I am an American reading an originally Turkish book, i.e. a Western reader of an Eastern text. This thought contributed significantly to how I value the work of translators in preserving the original flow, style, and the connotative diction of the original author.

“They depict what the eye sees just as the eye sees it. Indeed, they paint what they see, whereas we paint what we look at.”

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Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – Anne Tyler

77699Title: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
Author: Anne Tyler
Year: 1982
Publisher: Knopf
Date Read: January 24, 2013

Goodreads Rating: ~ 7.5 / 10

My Rating: 9.0 / 10

Anne Tyler’s (1941 – ) Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is a heartbreaking glimpse of a dysfunctional American family. After being abandoned by their husband and father, Pearl Tull and her three children,  Cody, Ezra, and Jenny, are faced with the task of overcoming the family’s and each others’ shortcomings. Spanning several decades, the story follows each member of the family as the group slowly separates and communication between them falls apart.

The effectiveness of the family’s portrayal is dramatically magnified by two impressive feats of Tyler. First, she masterfully constructs unique identities for each character. Pearl, Cody, Ezra, and Jenny all have their own individual temperaments and dispositions. Each of them behave exactly as they are characterized to, and the perspective of each is exclusively representative of the character presenting it. Also, the different members of the family see the same events in very different ways which is incredibly indicative of how such occurrences would be perceived in reality. Interestingly, the characters recall events at different points in their lives that others had recalled much earlier which adds the deterioration and distortion of memory to the already particular accounts.

Second, Tyler is able to capture feelings that have built up and developed for years in the characters to be clearly evident in very specific and precise moments. When the family meets for the dinners that the novel is titled after, as well as in several other circumstances, the reader is readily able to grasp how everyone observes and reacts to different provocations. The conflicts that seemingly arise out of nowhere between the Tulls are rooted in longstanding issues between the characters that the reader comes to terms with throughout the novel.

The actual dinners at the Homesick Restaurant become the focal points of the novel, and every instance is memorable. The resentment that builds in each character’s mind becomes manifest when the separated family is sporadically reunited. Tyler does a fantastic job of spacing climactic moments with periods of brooding and recollection, making the novel a series of steady crescendos that do not disappoint when they peak.

“Supposedly, Jenny Tull was going to be a beauty someday, but the people who told her that were so old they might easily be dead by the time that day arrived, and no one her own age saw much promise in her.”

“Their growing up amounted, therefore, to a gradual dimming of the light at her bedroom door, as if they took some radiance with them as they moved away from her.”

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The Cider House Rules – John Irving

CiderHouseRulesTitle: The Cider House Rules
Author: John Irving
Year: 1985
Publisher: William Morrow
Date Read: March 5, 2013

Goodreads Rating: ~ 8.0 / 10

My Rating: 9.0 / 10

The Cider House Rules, John Irving’s (1942 – ) sixth novel is riddled with intricacies that make an already rich narrative all the more compelling. Initially centered around the adolescent development of Homer Wells, an orphan at Saint Cloud’s, and the orphanage’s director Wilbur Larch, the novel gradually expands to encompass a broader setting consisting of several areas in Maine as well as a growing set of perspectives and storylines. This expansion is masterfully done by Irving. The chapters slowly grow in length (beginning at around 35 pages and getting a little longer with each addition), and the spectrum of what each chapter takes in goes from isolation to being grand, yet interlaced.

The novel focuses thematically on the dilemma of deciding whether or not withholding information or lying is beneficial for others. This idea is at the forefront of the characters’ and reader’s conscience throughout the majority of the book, and, as a reader, I had as much difficulty as the characters did on choosing whether or not they should reveal their secrets. The Cider House Rules also deals with the ideas of abandonment and self worth, aptly labeled by Irving’s characters as being “of use.”

The characters themselves are brilliantly crafted by Irving. He shift perspectives more as the narrator’s omniscience grows and seamlessly switches between them without a moment’s notice. Despite the shifts being rapid, the new perspective thematically matches that of each previous one so that each transition is incredibly smooth. The characters each have unique attitude, and all of them stay true to form for the entirety of the novel.

Irving plays with language at different parts of the novel which causes the reader to make connections between different occurrences. Sometimes these instances are overt, yet at other times the association occurs almost unconsciously for the reader. One example that particularly struck me involved the character Homer Wells identifying himself as a Bedouin while Dr. Larch decides that Wells’ imagined persona attended Bowdoin College. The corollary between Bedouin and Bowdoin may not have been intentional on Irving’s part, although I am under the strong impression that it is, the similarity in the sounds of the self implied description of Bedouin and the college Bowdoin creates an echo and brings the idea that Homer is without a permanent home (the essential meaning the book uses for Bedouin) to the forefront of the reader’s mind.

The scenarios that play out in Irving’s novel are stretched to the point of almost (significant emphasis on almost) being completely unbelievable. Characters are seemingly fated to be reunited for different purposes and to destined to fulfill certain roles. That being said, though, the novel is one of few I’ve read recently where the plot is laid out as soon as the reader understands what the conflict is. Irving does an excellent job of keeping every reveal a surprise and hiding the direction that the novel is going until the twilight of the book, keeping the reader fully attentive to the plot and the intricate web that the characters find themselves in.

“That’s when he learned how to make the make-believe matter to him more than real life mattered to him; that’s when he learned how to paint a picture that was not real and never would be real, but in order to be believed at all – even on a sunny Indian summer day – it had to be better made and seem more real than real; it had to sound at least probable.”

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The Cider House Rules also became a film. Screenplay by John Irving.

This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – David Wong

ImageTitle: This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It
Author: David Wong (Jason Pargin)
Year: 2012
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Date Read: January 20, 2013

Goodreads Rating: ~ 8.5

My Rating: 8.5

I was ecstatic when I saw that this book had finally been published. I downloaded it onto my Kindle app (one of the rare occasions that I don’t require a hard copy of a book) upon departing on a twelve hour road trip. Luckily, I rode in the passenger seat the entire way and finished the novel exactly when we arrived at our destination. Since I read it on my phone, the implication in the title wasn’t as relevant, but it’s still incredibly clever and grabs a potential reader’s attention.

This Book Is Full of Spiders is the sequel to the combination horror/comedy novel John Dies at the End by David Wong (1975 -), senior editor of John Dies at the End is a book that I frequently recommend to my friends, both those that read for pleasure and those that don’t. It’s a book that is extremely entertaining, so much so that it recently became a movie. David Wong, in both books, engages the reader directly, and plays with the conventions that are typically seen in novels. The title of the first book in, according to an AMA on Reddit, a trilogy, John Dies at the End, toys with the reader’s perception by seemingly spoiling the ending with the title of the book (I won’t specify whether or not John actually does, indeed, die [he does {but not at the end <I’m sorry for the spoilers>}]). Wong frequently employs different tactics of addressing the reader or making the books seem like an impromptu retelling that is both interesting and fresh. He succeeds in writing, in a sense, a meta-novel – where the fact that the novel is a novel is acknowledged, allowing the author and narrator (both of which are David Wong) to do things that other novels can’t. Hopefully that statement makes any sense. Moving on.

If you watched the trailer that I hyperlinked, I would think that you are undoubtedly confused as to what the premise of John Dies at the End is. It’s probably to be expected. Both novels read almost like a dream which is what I particularly love about Wong’s writing style. The content throughout is entirely absurd and it seems impossible to suspend disbelief at any point. However, the ridiculous details of the plot of This Book Is Full of Spiders, along with Wong’s first novel, only seem so when viewed individually. When progressing through the novel, the reader doesn’t find the fact that a cluster of turkeys (or gaggle? I don’t know what the proper term for a group of turkeys is.) conjoin to form the figure of a human – think Power Rangers or Voltron – is out of place enough to lose the suspension of disbelief. The process is comparable to how over top the events in dreams are, but they rarely wake up the sleeper. Similarly, explaining This Book Is Full of Spiders to someone, or reading a quote from it, is like explaining a nightmare: only after you finish do you realize how strange everything actually is. When I told my friend about a humorous portion of the book while on our road trip, and there are many portions worth reading aloud to friends, the reaction was, not surprisingly, “What the Hell are you reading?”

The plot of the novel follows David and John after the events of John Dies at the End, and details the exploits of the two when their city of [Undisclosed] is infested with body-snatching life forms that resemble giant spiders. The dilemma spirals out of control quickly which is to be expected if you’ve read John Dies at the End before opening this book – against Wong’s suggestion not to, no less. The two rely on a mysterious drug called Soy Sauce that has several supernatural effects on the unfortunate duo, one of which being the ability to actually see the creatures that have invaded the city.

This Book Is Full of Spiders is a mixed bag when viewed as a sequel. It obviously uses the same characters and general thematic elements of the first book, but some of the primary features of the first novel that would be expected in the second are notably absent, or thrown in very, very sparingly. The primary offender is the Soy Sauce. John Dies at the End is essentially all about how the friends deal with the effects of the drug. Its sequel uses it only to advance the plot when there is no other way to do so. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Both David and John would know exactly how to handle the Sauce by the time this novel takes place, so it shouldn’t be as prominently featured. Also, the conflict in Full of Spiders is centered more around trust, appearance, and perception of humans instead of using the strictly Man versus Supernatural elements of the first book. Full of Spiders is also a much more linear novel instead of being episodic like the first. Again, this isn’t a problem unless the reader anticipated everything to be exactly the same between the novels. John Dies was written in an episodic manner, with some portions being available for free online years before the novel was fully compiled, edited, and published while Full of Spiders was written, presumably, from beginning to end instead of in independent segments.

This Book Is Full of Spiders is a pleasure to read. The combination of horror with comedy is masterfully achieved yet again by David Wong. Portions will have the reader laughing out loud (Both of Wong’s novels are two of the very few works that have managed to make me do so.), and others will have the reader held in suspense. The movie for John Dies at the End is also particularly entertaining, and it does the book justice despite having a huge challenge in how ridiculous the source material can be.

“The X-shaped cluster of turkeys rose as one body, as tall as a man. Two rows of turkeys forming legs, two forming arms. The turkey Voltron took tentative, lumbering steps toward John. He couldn’t help noticing that after a few steps, the two turkeys it was using as feet had been pulverized into a pink, feathery mess. John stood frozen for several seconds while he tried to decide if any of this was in fact happening. He decided that running was the best option either way.’

Buy or see this book on Amazon.

Or check out the first novel.

The movie is also available for rent online.

Letters to a Young Contrarian – Christopher Hitchens

Title: Letters to a Young Contrarian
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Year: 2001
PublisherBasic Books
Date Read: January 14, 2013

Goodreads Rating: ~ 8.0 / 10

My Rating: 8.5 / 10

Christopher Hitchens’ (1949 – 2011) Letters to a Young Contrarian is one of many publications in the Art of Mentoring series from Basic Books (Other entries include Letters to a Young Therapist by Mary Pipher and Letters to a Young Catholic by George Weigel.). Hitchens is probably known to most for his 2007 book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and his public debates and discourse with prominent religious figures. While his spirituality, or notable lack thereof, is discussed in Letters to a Young Contrarian, the guidance he provides can be absorbed by any reader, religious or otherwise.

Each entry in the book is, as you would guess, a letter, written to “My Dear X,” and serves as Hitchens’ participation in a dialogue between him and his addressee. Although he does respond to specific inquiries, the discourse typically follows the thought process that the reader assumes. The letters consist primarily of Hitchens’ advice on how the reader can come to his or her own conclusions on a variety of issues, whether they be political, social, or religious. He advocates standing in opposition to – if not authority, then – the rank and file conception of standardized institutions (So much so that he spends pages comically musing on what to exactly call his ideal individual before settling on “contrarian.” “Dissenter,” “bad boy,” “curmudgeon,” “oppositionist,” and my favorite “professional nay-sayer.).

While Hitchens does provide clear cut advice, most of his mentoring comes in the way of anecdotes and references to other prominent figures, spanning from Aldous Huxley to Oscar Wilde to Thomas Paine. Hitchens explains how he came to his own opinion on numerous matters seemingly with the hope that his “Dear X,” or the reader, will come to his own conclusions through his own observation and analysis. Almost in a way reminiscent of Emerson, he promotes the reader to think independently, but details his own position so well that the reader is hard pressed to disagree with him, despite his opinions being significantly polarizing, especially when he approaches religion. However, Hitchens explicitly desires that the way of thinking of a dissenter is the goal of his guidance, as opposed to providing the specific perspective the reader should assume. In my opinion, he fulfills this desire which allows the reader to feel empowered and more convicted in his or her beliefs.

In light of beliefs, Hitchens’ arguments regarding religion are worth pointing out. Christopher Hitchens was, if you haven’t already presumed or previously known, a very prominent atheist, and he explains his contention with established religion, specifically Christianity, in his letters. While his position may be unsettling to the faithful (I mean, he does make the claim that Mother Teresa was a malevolent and uncharitable person, among with criticism in similar veins in his letters, books, and debates.), do not be deterred. He explains his position in a well mannered way instead of the confrontational and hostile methods seen in his other works, both written and oral. After all, Hitchens would welcome the idea of his reader disagreeing with him, if he so desires to, on the presumption that the individual reached his perspective through his own inquiry and is capable of arguing in favor of his own opinion.

“To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, not something you do.”

“If you want to stay in for the long haul, and lead a life that is free from illusions either propagated by you or embraced by you, then I suggest you learn to recognise and avoid the symptoms of the zealot and the person who knows that he is right. For the dissenter, the skeptical mentality is at least as important as any armor of principle.”

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