52 weeks – 10 February, 2013

Book

Hitch-22 coverHitch-22, by Christopher Hitchens. Oh, I do love Christopher Hitchens’ work and miss the thrill of seeing a new article by him. (He died in 2011.) In this memoir, you get a compelling, if incomplete, account of Hitchens’ life and views. It was published in 2010.

Hitch, love him or hate him, was a brilliant intellectual. He took thoughtful but passionate positions on many hot topics (he was an atheist, a Marxist who later came to hold some conservative beliefs, a naturalized American who supported his country’s interventionist foreign policies); he was a defiantly articulate man who appeared to revel in taking controversial stances — not that I think he did it for effect but he obviously enjoyed pitting wits against worthy opponents. In his ability to deflate pomposity and dissect muddled thinking, he reminds me of the child who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes.

A friend of Salman Rushdie, he stood by him during Rushdie’s years in hiding after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie for alleged blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses:

I sat with him through some of the other humiliations whereby he was offered a shameful deal by the British authorities and the religious bullies whom they (still) like to promote by recognizing them as “negotiators.” If Salman might perhaps undertake some sort of grovel, it was insinuated, if he might care to disown his own work and make a profession of faith, things might possibly arrange themselves, or be arranged. It was additionally put to him, by the pliant and sinuous men of Her Majesty’s Foreign Office, that if he declined this magnanimous offer he might be protracting the misery of the Western hostages who were then being held, by Iranian-paid kidnappers, in filthy secret dungeons in Lebanon. So that Salman, who had done nothing except read and write, was to be declared the hostage of the hostages. The life of the torturer and the blackmailer is always made that little bit easier—not to say more enjoyable—by the ability to offer his victim what looks like a “choice.”

In these times where politics, the abuse of power, and well-meaning liberalism often obscure common sense, we are much the poorer for losing Hitch’s fearless voice. I don’t think he was always right, but I admire his willingness to stand up and be counted.

TV SERIES

The Pillars of the EarthWatched the television series The Pillars of the Earth, based on a book by Ken Follett. Here is WIkipedia’s plot summary, giving the political background:

After the sinking of the White Ship [..] King Henry I of England is left without a clear heir, and The Anarchy begins upon his death. Two candidates (Henry’s nephew Stephen of Blois and Henry’s daughter Maud) present their claims, build their armies, and fight for the throne. Ambitious nobles and churchmen take sides, hoping to gain advantages.

The story is set largely in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge.Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) finds work there rebuilding a cathedral that has been destroyed by fire. Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen) obtains from the King the right to take stone from a nearby quarry for the cathedral.

There are some great characters. As Bishop Waleran Bigod, Ian McShane combines a veneer of holiness with ruthless ambition. Ellen (Natalia Wörner) is a wise woman who becomes Tom’s lover after his wife dies, though she is reputed to be a witch. Her son, Jack (Eddie Redmayne) has a talent for sculpting in stone and seems to have inherited some of his mother’s unexplained talents. Aliena (Hayley Atwell), daughter of the Earl of Shiring, is a strong woman who supports both herself and her brother by selling fleece after their father Earl Bartholomew (Donald Sutherland) is imprisoned. Lady Regan Hamleigh (Sarah Parish) is an evil schemer with no redeeming qualities at all and a most unhealthy relationship with her son William (Donald Oakes).

The series provides a certain amount of historical fact and period detail, which seems to be well done though the special effects rely rather heavily on spurting blood during the battle scenes and executions. But one of the most interesting things for me was the building of the cathedral — you get some lessons in medieval architecture.. There are a few false moves as Tom works out the structure but eventually he creates a building that will inspire piety in generations to come.

If you liked The Borgias, you will probably like The Pillars of the Earth.

Food

BreakfastBreakfast in the dining car on the Amtrak between Vancouver, BC, and Seattle, WA. This was Snoqualmie Falls Oatmeal. There is something very appealing about the novelty of perching at the counter with your coffee, your oatmeal and your newspaper, glancing up from time to time to see the changing views flashing by outside.

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