Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

16 December 2011: Re-posting this review in memory of Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011. You were always an inspiration. An atheist in a foxhole. RIP

Christopher Hitchens, whose previous targets have even included Mother Teresa and Princess Diana … No, I’m kidding. This recycled introduction to one of our age’s most courageous and accomplished writers is put forth in the preface to his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian. The habit of writing reviews from clippings of other reviews is, Hitchens says, the “surreptitious way in which dissenting views are marginalised, or patronised to death.” And so, on that note, I’d encourage readers to get their hands on Love, Poetry and War – a compilation of Hitchens’ essays covering some of his more controversial (yet always well-reasoned and argued) views.

I read Letters to a Young Contrarian while living in Århus, Denmark and studying at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, at a time when I found myself among a disconcertingly small minority of students who didn’t think the publishers of those notorious cartoons depicting Mohammed deserved in some way the backlash they (and a lot of other unconnected and innocent Danes) received. Similarly, I was excited to meet the several Dutch students in my rather cosmopolitan class and discuss one of their politicians whose book, Infidel, I had recently read. When I mentioned Ayaan Hirsi Ali, they looked at me as though I’d just raised my hand in the Nazi salute and cried Heil Hitler! She’s a racist, they said. An islamaphobe! But surely, I thought, if anyone has the right to fear the ideas inherent in Islamic dogma, it’s a woman who has endured abuse and oppression of the worse kind at its hands? If there’s anyone we should be listening to, it’s her?

Finding myself far less equipped to defend my bourgeoning opinions than someone like Christopher Hitchens, I was delighted when his book turned up as a gift from a faraway loved one in the post.

Living a long way from home, the epistolary style was perfectly timed – I was writing more letters and emails to old friends and family than I ever had before. These letters from Hitchens, addressed to the reader in the second person, seemed like an extension of that and felt thrillingly intimate, as if he was writing directly to me.

Not that I would necessarily call myself a Young Contrarian. One of Hitchens’ traits that I admire and wish I could emulate more is his courage of conviction – and willingness, where necessary, to be disliked; to have enemies. I sometimes find myself far too eager to please – or, more realistically, avoid confrontation – which means I resort to softening my views or holding back in order to keep the peace. It’s something I hope to work on, and am inspired to do so by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, and many of his colleagues and peers.

I was genuinely saddened when I heard of Hitchens’ oesophageal cancer, from which it seems his long-term survival is unlikely. I recently heard him say that he envies the young generation today – for the changes they will see in the world, the developments in science and technology and, I imagine, the opportunities they have ahead of them to express their mind, challenge hypocrisy and, importantly, to tell the truth.

Winston Churchill is quoted as having once said: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

I may just pick up my copy of Letters to a Young Contrarian again soon to reignite the flame. Because, if there’s one way I can show my respects to a dying writer I admire, it’s to retain the courage of conviction he espouses, even when contrary to the mainstream, and even if I make a few enemies along the way.



Holy Cow! by Sarah MacDonald

I received Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure as a birthday gift, having expressed an interest in travelling to India (which, sadly, remains on my to-do list almost a year later). Even my birthday dinner was Indian themed and involved sarongs fashioned into saris, home-made curries, store-bought samosas and bindis drawn on with lip liner.

Having recently taken on the imagination tour de force that is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which I’ll save for when or if I feel I can do the Booker of Bookers justice), I was delighted to sit down with my shiny new paperback copy of Holy Cow!

After all, here was a book written by a fellow young Australian woman – a journalist based in Sydney, no less. So while Rushdie sent my head spinning with his eccentric characters, intricately weaved plot and fantastical vision of his own country, Sarah could take me there like an old friend gossiping in a coffee shop.

And like the coffee gone cold, or the phone hot against my ear, I couldn’t put it down.

Having vowed never to return to India after travelling the country as part of her “middle class rite of passage” backpackers adventure over a decade earlier, Sarah finds herself back in the over-crowded, pungent place of her nightmares in the name of love: Her soon-to-be husband has taken a work placement there as the ABC’s (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) south-east Asian correspondent.

The bulk of the book covers Sarah’s search for spirituality in a country where mysticism and idolatry are available in bulk – and for a budget price. She spends ten days in silence at an ashram, and rather than preaching the virtues, her frustrated honesty is refreshing – and often hilarious. She spends hours waiting in sweaty, oppressive crowds to be smothered by the ample breast of a world-famous matriarchal guru and contracts a serious illness from the holy but filthy Ganges.

She calls herself a reformed atheist, replacing her steadfast views with curiosity. And fair enough – she went about it the wrong way. Atheism can only be founded in curiosity and is in fact a rejection of religion, which by definition discourages it. But that’s for another blog…

You can almost taste the stark contrast when she returns home to (what is also my home) Sydney, Australia, and relishes in the enormous blue sky and clean air, but you can also relate to her angst, her sense of something missing. Something like a connection with reality. This is why India remains at the top of my list of countries to visit. And I will get there one day, but when I do, I probably won’t write a book about it: The market for ‘young white person finds themselves in India’ has already been covered – and quite adeptly so – with this book.

Land’s Edge by Tim Winton

Entropy, 2006 from New Colour Works, Narelle Autio

Australian author Tim Winton has a way of witnessing the magical in the mundane; the poetry of the everyday, and this is especially so when it comes to coastal Australia. The beach.

Ever since Cloudstreet was compulsory highschool reading, I’ve been hooked on Winton’s words: Dirt Music, The Riders, An Open Swimmer, Breath, The Turning and, more recently, Land’s Edge. In almost all of his works, the ocean plays a pivotal role, if not a key character.

This short (just 104 pages) ‘coastal memoir’ looks back on the author’s own life lived in coastal suburbia, and his pursuit of a childhood dream of hot, sunburnt days at the beach, followed by long afternoons (cooled by the Fremantle Doctor) of escapism into the world of literature. His blunt, raw honesty is inseparable from his deep spirituality and sense of awe in the face of nature’s “blessings” and “miracles”. (“Blame it on a childhood of Sunday Schools… Call them marvels or natural wonders.”)

Winton’s vision of coastal Australia is perfectly complimented by the dream-like underwater prints of Sydney-based photographer Narelle Autio. Any Australian that grew up on the coast – the edge – will see themselves and their own stories in this tiny, poetic book, in which Winton manages so adeptly to explain the inexplicable. It’ll make you proud to be an Aussie kid that grew up in the ‘burbs.

“Robert Drewe has long argued that almost every Australian rite of passage occurs on or near the beach. The beach is where we test and prove our physical prowess, where we discover sex; it is often the site of our adulterous assignations, and where we go to face our grown-up failures. In the end, it is where we retire in the sun to await the unknown.” – Tim Winton, Land’s Edge

Fallen by Lauren Kate

On October 31 I tweeted about the recent Man Booker prize controversy surrounding the introduction of a readability judging criteria. Need there be a difference, I asked? A similar sentiment was expressed far more eloquently by poet laureate Andrew Motion, who argued that the inclusion of readability as a new judging criteria “opens up a completely false divide between what is high end and what is readable, as if they are somehow in opposition to one other, which is patently not true”.

He is right, of course. But as this debate circulated (and after my related Twittering) I was also reading the teen cult book Fallen by Lauren Kate, which is, I feel, direct proof that while readability and quality are by no means mutually exclusive, they can also quite happily stand alone.

Somewhere into the first chapter of Fallen I decided I probably won’t read the rest of the popular four-book series – and yet that wasn’t because I found the first installment a drag to read. It frequently produces cringe-inducing clichés and is terribly predictable (I mean, really, trick us a little bit more before the disarmingly good-looking boy produces the serpent necklace and announces himself in the first quarter of the novel as the bad guy), but then again, I’m not a 13-year-old girl, and it’s from that perspective that this book should be judged – and it is from that perspective that it has been hugely successful.

But that brings us back to the relationship between readability and quality. According to the Fallen website (hosted by publisher Random House), the series is “intensely addictive” – and I can’t deny that. I looked forward to pulling it out of my bag every afternoon on the train commute home, in the same way I look forward to the next episode of my (until now) secret soap-opera obsession, Greys Anatomy. But let’s look at that word addictive. Like sugar. Or heroin. I once heard watching television described as sitting in a lukewarm bath, which seems to fit with my experience of reading this book: you become increasingly restless and uncomfortable, but lying there is just too easy to really think about doing anything else. The question is, is that a bad thing? Is it worse than reading something so impenetrable that you get through a chapter and realise you’ve somehow been thinking about something completely unrelated the whole time?

Maybe I should re-read some of the books from my old favourite series, The Babysitters Club and see if I’ve simply lost the ability to relate to my 13 year old self. Except that I only have to think about other books I enjoyed at around that age: the Tomorrow When the War Began series (and, also from John Marsden, Letters from the Inside, So Much to Tell You, Dear Miffy), or Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, and it’s clear which books have had more of an impact and stayed with me far longer – and which I would likely enjoy just as much today as I did a decade ago. Perhaps that’s the difference.

Or maybe I’m just jealous of Lauren Kate’s enormous success, because I can’t argue with what is surely indisputable proof she’s done something very right with Fallen. So good on her.

Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux

Reading this travel tome from start to finish is almost as mammoth a journey as the one undertook by Theroux himself: island hopping with just his collapsible kayak as company throughout the Pacific from New Zealand all the way to Hawaii.

Theroux’s success as a travel writer comes just as much from his astuteness as an observer as from his uncompromising and unforgiving honesty. Any visions of paradise are quickly tempered with images of shit-covered beaches (“The village beach was the toilet in the Solomons; it was where people shat”); obese islanders gorging tinned spam – circumstantial evidence, Theroux felt, for past cannibalism; and over-zealous Christian missionaries pilfering souls.

The narrative is carried by Theroux’s personal struggles, which were also the catalyst for his epic journey in the first place; his wife leaving him and a thankfully short-lived cancer scare (“I heard melanoma and thought Melanesia”).

While I couldn’t help but cringe at some of the author’s more partial observations (“bandy-legged” Japanese businessmen “Nipponizing” virgin islands), I was impressed at least by the sincerity of his opinions – you get the feeling that nothing is held back, and I also had to take it on the chin as he described his experiences of my own Meganesian countrymen and women.

The pages of Happy Isles are lined with comedy, tragedy, politics and a credible touch of the mundane. A Pacific Island tourism organisation might hesitate to use the book in their marketing, but they’d be foolish not to. Any perceptive reader with a sense of adventure couldn’t help but feel drawn to the islands as Theroux describes them – their idiosyncrasies, history, culture, beauty and repulsiveness in equal measure – which speckle the Pacific Ocean like stars in the night sky.

There were stars everywhere, above us, and reflected in the sea along with the sparkle of phosphorescence streaming from the bow wave. When I poked an oar in the ocean and stirred it, the sea glittered with twinkling sea-life. … It was as though we were in an old rickety rocket ship.

It was an image that afterwards often came to me when I was travelling in the Pacific, that this ocean was as vast as outer space, and being on this boat was like shooting from one star to another, the archipelagoes like galaxies, and the islands like isolated stars in an empty immensity of watery darkness, and this sailing was like going slowly from star to star, in vitreous night.” – Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific

Making History by Stephen Fry

The fabulous Stephen Fry first came to my attention during a heartfelt speech he gave on religion at the Intelligence Squared debate I was watching for another writer I admire, Christopher Hitchens.

I then realised this same man graces my television every Tuesday evening as host of QI, and then – low and behold – it turns out we even have one of his books on our shelf. Who it belongs to or where it came from I can’t say, but I extracted it with relish, and was immediately engrossed.

Fry’s presence in the pages is evident from the start. You can almost picture him giggling to himself as his larger-than-life characters gradually materialise on the page. The discernible presence of the author might not be ideal, but to learn more about Fry, to gain some insight into the man, is the reason I picked up his book, so I was delighted to find him right there speaking through the silly, lovable Michael Young (aka Puppy) about the past, the future, life, love , hope and regret, and asking, most importantly, what if?

When Michael Young’s history thesis is laughingly rejected by his cheesecloth and rope-soled sandal-wearing professor on the same day his girlfriend disowns him, he meets an intriguing man and makes a decision that will turn not only his life, but the entire world on its head.

Sprinkled with such gems as “the last granules of dream fizz away” and “the cheering of the men grew and swelled inside him until it burst from his eyes in a flood of hot, disgusted tears” and “you could hardly blame a kid who grew up in Cambridge for redesigning himself as a class warrior”, Making History will have you laughing out loud just as soon as it has you vying for revenge or blinking back an unexpected tear.

Broaching the subject of time travel is fraught with difficulties and the potential for unanswerable questions. In this case it works, because this is a book that – like Fry – doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Next on my list of books to read: The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography.

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

I can’t say why I chose to pick this dusty, dog-eared second-hand book off the shelf when I did, one clear morning at a café in the New South Wales southern highlands. I’d never previously had any interest in its principle subject: the tragic, beautiful Marilyn Monroe. Something in the news or popular media may have spiked my interest, or the book may have simply beckoned more interest than it’s shelved neighbours.

Prior to even the book’s dedication page comes a disclaimer from Oates herself that “Blonde should be read solely as a work of fiction, not as a biography of Marilyn Monroe.” So it is testament to Oates’ writing that I turned the final page feeling as though I’d intimately known the woman, and was more intrigued to learn about her life and work than I imagine any factual biography could have left me.

Oates is obviously a feminist writer, and she delved into scenes and aspects of Marilyn’s life that she clearly can’t have known: her first menstrual period, her various sexual encounters – desires, even – her dreams and nightmares about pregnancy, her fears and countless self-doubts. And yet are those accounts any less true as a result? Oates was clearly well-read on the known facts of Marilyn’s life story, which she pieced together without sacrificing the intimacies of her humanity – a humanity which author and subject and reader alike share and which makes this book all the truer, if strictly fictional.

While written in the third person, it feels almost as though Oates’ decision to do so was to suggest a confused, troubled Marilyn speaking of herself in that manner – perplexed by her constructed identity: Norma Jeane; Marilyn; She; Her. And then there’s the sections separating the book’s chapters: The Child; The Girl; The Woman; Marilyn; (and lastly, The Afterlife).

This book will leave you feeling not just like you know Marilyn, but that in many ways you are her. It also takes a clear side on the controversy of her death, and again, while Oates can’t have known whose (if any) hand really took Marilyn’s life, the truth of her demise and the reasons for it almost render that one detail inconsequential, at least in Oates’ expression of it. Read it, and see if you agree.