A Literary President

Obama and George W. Bush meet in Oval Office, White House photo by Eric Draper
Obama and George W. Bush meet in Oval Office, White House photo by Eric Draper

Last night Barack Obama gave his State of the Union (SOTU) speech to a packed house and a national TV audience. I did not watch much of it ( not much interest in watching a large crowd stand up every two minutes and applaud, then sit down), but I did happen to listen to the speech, while was working on my computer. The speech conveyed lots of important ideas and goals, plus it was delivered in fine style by a president with good oratory skills.

However, it is Barack Obamas prowess  as a man of words that I would like to focus upon. Though lots of presidents have been able to write well and find success as an author,  Obama stands out in the way by which his literary skills have been so instrumental as a springboard to his political career. In 1995 Barrack Obama released his memoir, entitled “Dreams From My Father” and then a year later he published, “Audacity of Hope”. Although not a professional writer by trade, Obama’s memoir was well received by the American public, even though he was an unknown at the time.

It is from this background that the president speaks, as he did last night. And as was obvious last night, when he does speak, he does so in a very articulate manner.

Remembering John Lennon

John Lennon rehearses Give Peace A Chance by Roy Kerwood, courtesy of Wikipedia
John Lennon rehearses Give Peace A Chance by Roy Kerwood, courtesy of Wikipedia

Yesterday marked the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death, or assassination, as some people like to call the tragic event. I missed the hour long CNN special that was broadcast over the weekend airwaves, but did get a chance to see Chris Mathews jump  into the subject with both feet on “Hardball”.

As usual Chris was his old, brassy self, as he put together a rousing tribute to the fascinating personality that has been sometimes called the true songwriting genius behind the Beatles. Leaving this little bit of controversy aside, Chris tackled full-heartedly the emergence of the Beatles at a time, when the country was mourning the death of JFK and in desperate need of an uplifting event. And according to Mr. Mathews that uplifting event came in the form of four mop-topped musicians from Liverpool, England.

The JFK event was an interesting analogy that definitely caught my ear and gave me something to think about, especially since I am old enough to remember both the JFK assassination and the release of the first pair of Beatle songs (She Loves You & I Wanna Hold Your Hand) in America just a few weeks later.  Whether the two events are related or not, I don’t know, but they are without a doubt important cultural happenings that occurred in close proximity.

The other interesting point that Chris brought up was the distinct, yet sometimes discrete, anarchistic and revolutionary tone of the Beatles, in general, and more specifically the funny and irreverent attitude of John Lennon.  All in all, Chris’s presentation was a fascinating read on a stormy time in history.

Moreover, through the backward gaze of time, the Beatles stand out not so much for their musical accomplishments (which were many), but for the fact that we got to see all four band members as distinct individuals. No major musical group since that point in time has ever the matched what the Beatles did in the mid-sixties. The Rolling Stones were overshadowed by Mick Jagger, the Police by a bass player named Sting, The Band, featured Robbie Robertson, and Diana Ross was the big name to survive the breakup of the Supremes, but the Beatles remained the “Fab Four”. John Lennon came closest to eclipsing the Beatles as a single performer, but he never really succeeded in that regard and it is quite possible that he was just being himself during the years after the Beatles broke up.

Montreal-Skyscape
View of Montreal, the city where John and Yoko Lennon recorded "Give Peace a Chance".

Two Brits Visit Toronto And Get In An Argument

Outdoor Advertising in Toronto
Outdoor Advertising in Toronto

This weekend was the last in a planned series of public discourse, called the Munk Debates. An initiative of the Aurea Foundation, the Munk Debates occur twice a year and are featured on CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting company. Having the past Prime Minister of Great Britain, participate in this event, probably heightened  exposure for the occasion. For as it turned out, the debate was widely covered by the press, both in the US and Great Britain. (I think live viewing was restricted to Canada)

According to a poll of attendees, Hitchens won the exchange with his premise that religion is a destructive force in the world. Tony Blair, who has converted to Catholicism since leaving public office, took an opposing view that religion can be a powerful force for good.

The public appearance of Hitchens was noteworthy as he is currently undergoing chemotherapy at present for cancer of the esophagus. Presently the noted man of letters has a bit of a ghostly appearance due to his frequent medical treatments. Reportedly, Mr. Hitchens had cut back on his chemo, so as to be mentally awake for the debate. My only wish, is that it’s a shame the two could have taken opposite sides on the most recent Iraq War that still lingers on, even to this day.

Toronto Skyline at Dusk
Toronto Skyline at Dusk
Downtown Toronto
Downtown Toronto

More On Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens in 2007
Christopher Hitchens in 2007

Recently, one of the more noteworthy of the planet’s writer-philosophers has been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and as of late the writer has been making the literary rounds discussing his condition – and of course philosophizing about the whole event and what it all means.  And this philosopher is none other than Christopher Hitchens, one of the most widely read authors of the English language.

Mr. Hitchens even caught my eye when he wrote about Stieg Larsson and the popular posthumous success that has surrounded the Swedish writer, since The Millenium trilogy was published. In fact, that one little post has drawn more attention than anything else that I have written, for Hitchens very much liked Larsson’s writing and was glad to the literary world know about it in an article that appeared a while back in Vanity Fair.

Now Christopher Hitchens is back in Vanity Fair, solemnly contemplating his own demise and his unshakably stating his conviction as an atheist. In his Atlantic Monthly interview, Hitchens takes the time to discuss all the letters that he has received since his public declaration on the spread of his cancer to the lymph nodes.

According to the British writer, responses to his condition can be roughly divided into three groups. Those that wish him the best, even though the odds are against a successful recovery, those that hope for a deathbed confession and conversion and finally those that hope that Hitchens go straight to hell. And the big issue here is not his unwaivering support of the American-lead Iraq War, but rather a little book that he wrote entitled, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

This book has been in the book stores for a few years now and whenever I see the catchy title I often pick the manuscript up, just to sample a paragraph or two. And from what I’ve read, it’s not hard to see how the non-fiction title became such a big seller. However, one just can’t help but wonder, if somehow his current situation is not in somehow pyschically related to his commercial success with the atheist title. Of course, Hitchens has categorically denied anything of such a nature and has even stated that if in the future, he ever comes out with a statement that is the least bit similar to a confession or conversion that it should be automatically rejected as a by product of the chemotherapy or pain-killing drugs.

Still I would like to join the first group of writers and hope for a recovery for the “Hitch” as he likes to be called. I am sure that the writer has plans for other literary efforts and I hope that they will be forthcoming in the near future.

God Is Great Debate in Alabama Christopher Hitchens and John Lennox
God Is Great Debate in Alabama Christopher Hitchens and John Lennox





Gonzo, the Movie

gonzo sundance
gonzo sundance

I guess I just can’t enough of Hunter Thompson. Since I just finished the book last week, I’ve gone out and rented the movie. If you like Hunter Thompson you’ll probably like the movie. Even if you are lukewarm or so-so about the the departed rascal, you still might enjoy the documentary. The film really is a good glimpse into the times that made Hunter famous.

Complete with interviews by George McGovern, Pat Buchanon, Jann Wenner, Jimmy Carter, Hunter’s two wives and of course Hunter himself, the two hour trip through nostalgia land is a fun ride that will come to its sad climax before you know it.

Accented by film clips of the Chicago Convention riots, Hell’s Angels, Hunter in Aspen and Las Vegas, Gonzo does an in-depth analysis of the man, who made fear and loathing, a pair of household words. Johnny Depp does the narration, but after a short time you kind of forget that Johnny is there, for the content is strong enough to stand on its own. There are even some clips of a pre-teen Gonzo and a fascinating appearance on the TV Game show, To Tell The Truth, where all four panelists guessed that he was the mad journalist who wrote the book, Hell’s Angels.

So if you haven’t got much to do on a weekday night give the two hour DVD disk a spin on your DVD player you’ll like it. Here’s another image of Hunter, taken by Al Satterwhite and used by Vanity Fair.

Hunter Thompson in Cozumel by Al Satterwhite
Hunter Thompson in Cozumel by Al Satterwhite

When Writers Write About Writing

When Writers Write About Writing
When Writers Write About Writing

OK, this post is about writing. More specifically it is about the books writers put out concerning the craft. It seems that sooner or later every writer puts out a little book about writing. This dates at least as far back as 1935 when the excellent writer, E.B. White teamed up with his old college English professor, William Strunk, to produce the elements of style. This book has become a standard on the mechanics on how to write. Every writer should have a copy to refer to from time to time and while your at it you might as well pick up a copy of the witty “Spunk and Bite”, a contemporary and irreverent offshoot written by the clever Arthur Plotnick.

Since The Elements of Style came out ( and probably before 1935 as well) writers have been putting out their own guides to creativity and writing skills. For some it seems like a mandatory mid-career move and some of the results have been quite enjoyable to read. I have very much enjoyed The Zen of Writing by Ray Bradbury, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. And don’t forget the very popular “Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Whoever thought that a book about punctuation would be so fun to read. (Fortunately, I have millions of people who bought the book to back me up on this claim)

Then there is the bizarre “On Writing” by Stephen King, who after creating over half his manuscript gets run over by a van, while walking near his summer home in western Maine. So, here we have a book about writing that takes a strange and gruesome twist during the creation process and all the unfortunate details of Mr. King’s near death experience become part of the literary endeavor. Maybe fact is stranger than fiction after all.

Cover for creative writing book
Cover for creative writing book

Recently, while strolling through Borders, I came across a book in the discount bin about “Inspired Creative Writing”, ( a cover shot is provided without permission, I hope the author doesn’t mind)by Alexander Gordon Smith, who is for me an unknown English writer. Nonetheless, he must be popular in the British Isles, for he has several novels and many short-stories to his credit. He is also the author of a first-rate book about writing. If you come across a copy, check it out, for it is very well organized and thought out. In this 230 page treatise about writing, Alexander covers the gamut from writing fiction to poetry and he even discusses screen writing, a serious endeavor that any writer with at least half a brain should avoid like the plague. All in all, it is my favorite writing book and you should check it out if you have a chance. It even has nifty little pictures at the beginning of each chapter to add insight and humor to the subject.

Rick Steves On Barrack Obama

Graffitti Near Christiana in Copenhagen, Denmark
Graffitti Near Christiana in Copenhagen, Denmark
A few days ago, Rick Steves the noted travel writer and PBS-TV commentator posted a rather long list of articles concerning Europe’s reaction to the new president-elect of the United States, Barrack Obama. If you are interested check out this page on the Rick Steves website. If you do not know who Rick Steves is, then you will have to tune him in on your local PBS station. Check your local listings for date and times.
This church is located in the middle of lake Bled in Slovenia
This church is located in the middle of lake Bled in Slovenia

Anyway Rick Steves has been putting out lots of interesting travel literature about the ins and outs of traveling in Europe for over twenty years. He has covered the Continent from before the fall of the Berlin Wall and has does an excellent job of providing great travel advice about the opening of Eastern Europe as a travel destination. He even gets himself invoved in political or what might be described as political-cultural commentary. Such was the case last Monday when he posted a list of newspapers that were delving into the recent election and how it was being perceived in European capitols. These articles make an excellent read and are worth checking out because the underscore how  the new president-elect is being received in Europe.