Monthly Archives: December 2011

Feeling obliged to Hitch a ride …

Tablet magazine has an interesting article on Christopher Hitchens this week.

What I know of Hitchens comes from his association with the late Edward Said, a Palestinian academic who taught at Columbia University and was largely responsible for the development of the theory of Orientalism and wave of support that rose for the Palestinian refugee movement on campuses across the US in the 1970s. Hitchens worked with Said on a book entitled: “Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question”. The title says it all.  In the past I guess I have always put Hitchens together with Chomsky, perhaps because they are both featured in this text or perhaps because their rhetoric seemed so aligned and highly critical of Israel on many fronts.

With Hitchens’ death I have suddenly developed an appetite for finding out more about his life. Irony. Despite the fact that I can no longer hitch a ride with Hitchens’ political philosophies, I am intrigued to read his autobiography – if only because I am quite taken by his Joyce in Bloom article as it appeared in Vanity Fair. Who knew that Hitchens was indeed a great writer?


Lily Renee, Escape Artist

I have often wondered how one teaches young children about the events surrounding the Holocaust. There is so much brutality (bestiality as Denis Avey described it) inherent in that era that it seems too enormous to simplify for young ears. Trina Robbins has attempted to do just that, record the story of Lily Renee, a young artist, who survived the war by making it onto a kindertransport. Renee’s story is fascinating and so clearly depicted. She survives the war in England, subjected to harsh conditions in the house of a penpal. Eventually she flees and becomes a nanny and nursemaid in her efforts to earn enough money to eat and live. For a long while she has no news of her parents (although the way the story is told she doesn’t dwell on the possibilities of their fate).

Renee is clearly a survivor, a tenacious  young woman who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself, to make something of herself and to create some light in the darkest of places. At times I thought that this book could have made more of this fact as it is such a valuable lesson for all people to learn.

Eventually, Renee hears that her parents have made it to America. They send for her and she joins them there and goes on to become an artist, successful in her own right.

The book glosses over the tragedies of concentration camps and the horrors of life for Jews in Europe at this time. It is written in comic-strip style, illustrated with minimal text and vivid colour. It is straight forward enough for younger readers to appreciate, yet depth is added by the glossary at the book’s rear which provides more of an insight into the events of the Holocaust. The book is also enhanced by real photographs collected from Renee’s past which bring to life her story.

Senorita RioThe one enormously appealing aspect of this book is that it focuses on women. It is a book written by a woman, about a woman and all the women in her life. Renee finds comfort in the arms of a woman on the kindertransport, she is at the mercy of her penpal’s mother who is cruel and abusive, she finds shelter with a female school teacher and then a female nurse. She then goes on to illustrate comics about heroines who fight evil. In this way, Robbins has done a marvellous job of bringing a female face to the war and the Holocaust.

By giving women a voice in this dark time she has managed to write a book that is distinctive and well worth reading.

Ape House, Sara Gruen

I picked up this book on a whim. I was looking for something easy with which to relax after my tumultuous ride with Denis Avey to Auschwitz and back (I am still reeling from that book!). Sara Gruen’s Ape House seemed like just the right sort of medicine.

I had read mixed reviews. Some thoroughly enjoyed this book, while others were dismayed at the wasted potential of the narrative and the triviality of the plot and characters. As a result, I had no expectations about this book and consequently I was quite surprised to find myself quite enjoying the quirky mix of heavy themes with seemingly frivolous action. In part, I agree with Ron Charles‘ criticism in The Washington Post: “Gruen investigated how apes learn human language and then inexplicably buried her discoveries under a silly thriller about a sad-sack journalist and a naive primate scientist.” However, I am more inclined to side with Jane Smiley who views this book in a gentler light: “Ape House is an ambitious novel in several ways, for which it is to be admired, and it is certainly an easy read, but because Gruen is not quite prepared for the philosophical implications of her subject, it is not as deeply involving emotionally or as interesting thematically as it could be.”

I really enjoyed the characters for all their flaws. I found tattooed Celia to be intriguing, I empathised with journalist John Thigpen and I loved the way that Gruen introduced a troop of prostitutes who become the key to catching the bad guys in this story.

I wouldn’t call this ground breaking fiction, but I certainly found it worth reading.