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Christopher Hitchens: Mortality
This happened on the same day that Hitchens was meant to embark on a tour through the US to promote his memoir, Hitch-22, which had just hit the best seller lists. In a twist of irony, the preface to his autobiography muses on his own demise after he is mistakenly declared dead in a friend’s liner notes for an upcoming exhibition. He wrote, “I personally want to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive, and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me.”
With this tragedy thrust upon him, as a writer, Hitchens decided to carry out what he had once claimed; to document his thoughts on his affliction and impending death. Written over eighteen months of what he himself calls 'living dyingly', Mortality is the journey of Hitchens trying to deal with his own death in a rational way, instead of an emotional one, while never letting go of his dignity.
Hitchens has no time for self-pity because, as he states, “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”
He refers to his disease as 'banal' and 'boring' and even seeks justification for it in his far from healthy lifestyle. He smoked and drank heavily for most of his life (and even continued to do so during treatment) and admits it didn't come as a surprise that he was diagnosed with this particular type of cancer. He admits that he had been “knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light.” Still, he carries some regret by saying, “I had real plans for my next decade and felt I'd worked hard enough to earn it.”
Hitchens was as fiercely loved as he was staunchly opposed. He had an opinion on virtually anything, and usually a pretty strong one. Best known for his aversion to religion, many wondered if he was going to give in to a deathbed conversion. He didn't, but on the final pages of Mortality he remarks that “If I [do] convert it's because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.”
For a book that’s subject is so inherently sad, you do find yourself laughing out loud an awful lot. His description of his “firm deportation […] from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of the malady” is remarkably objective and humorous.
Whether you agree with his opinions or not, Christopher Hitchens was undeniably a fantastic writer. Mortality serves as the ultimate testament to how much of a shame it is that we will never see his thoughts put to paper again.
There is nothing more exciting than getting out of your country and exploring other parts of the world. A hundred years ago, travelling was a luxury affair only affordable for the rich and famous. It wasn’t just about the destination, the journey to your destination was also considered to be an important part of the trip. Back in the day people would get aboard a luxurious steam vessel and dock in Alexandria from where you could go to Cairo, getting the chance to visit this great city.
Grand Hotels of Egypt is written by Andrew Humphreys, who has had a long time obsession with Egypt’s former grand hotels, and the design is done by Gadi Farfour. Together they are responsible for creating perhaps one of the most interesting books we have seen in a long time; with most of the information collected by reading old travel journals and interviewing people.
Egypt has always been a popular travel destination for tourists. Halfway into the nineteenth century it became even more popular because it served as a stop en route to India. The entire British high society came to holiday in Egypt first before heading off to India. Some of them however preferred to stay in Egypt and in order to cater to their high demands luxury hotels were erected all over Alexandria and Cairo.
The book takes you back in time to an Egypt we would hardly recognize. Humphreys’ book isn’t just a boring collection of former hotels, but it gives further insight of Egypt in those days. Apart from describing the hotels he also gives details about the clientele, the city culture and every once in a while offers some juicy gossip from back then. The book starts in Alexandria with hotels like the San Stefano and Hotel Cecil, and then moves onto Cairo. Of course all the famous Cairo hotels such as Shepheard’s, Mena House and Semiramis feature; there is also a chapter about the Continental-Savoy and about the still existing Windsor hotel. After that, the book goes to the Winter Palace in Luxor and the first Nile cruise; it completes this area with the Cataract Hotel in Aswan. Throughout the book, substantial attention is drawn to Port Said because it used to be such an affluent city. All the chapters are extremely entertaining and well written, accompanied by terrific pictures, original drawings and advertisements. This book is worth browsing through just for the aesthetic quality alone.
As well as the hotels, there is also a lot of information about the histories of the cities. Cairo for instance used to have a lake where one could go on a felucca ride. It was apparently also possible to have a picnic on top of Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria, and on top of the smaller step-pyramids in Giza. Aswan was considered the Côte d’Azur of Egypt because of its healthy climate that attracted many tourists in the winter for healing purposes.
Grand Hotels of Egypt is a remarkable and entertaining book but it’s a bulk of information so it might take some time before you are able to finish. The book costs 200LE and is available at all well-known bookshops.
Behind every successful man stands a great woman – or so the saying goes. Too bad we rarely get to see or hear anything about those women. Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club aims to change that by telling the story of the wives of active NASA between 1959 and 1972.
With all eyes on the man going into space, one can’t help but wonder what it must be like for his significant other waiting for his safe return home. “If not for the wives.” Koppel notes in the first chapter, “man might never have walked on the moon.”
While this statement is true, the writer still paints a pretty sad and one-dimensional portrait of the majority of these women. They come across as airheads; quibbling about smoking in cars, concerned with what colour lipstick to wear when photographed for the cover of Time magazine, and wondering whether or not they will get to meet Jacky Kennedy.
The emphasis is on them being good housewives; setting everything aside in honour of their husband’s career and working jobs to get him through university, whilst foregoing their own education. Whatever emotional insight one hopes to find in the lives of these women is limited to whatever they told the press at the time. Judging from the epilogue, Koppel interviewed many of them personally and must have accumulated a treasure trove of insightful quotes. Curiously, almost none of that material made it into the book.
Without taking a feminist stance, this book is nothing short of ridiculous. It is understood that this is how women were viewed in 50s and 60s America, but that is no reason to keep that stereotype intact fifty years later. If the goal of this book is to make readers feel sorry for these ‘astrowives’, then that mission has been accomplished with honours.
To be fair though, the astronauts themselves aren’t portrayed too favourably either; they are mostly characterised as reprehensible men that cheat on their wives and compete with each other in testosterone-filled petty contests.
Aside from the misogyny, the book has several other issues. Initially, there are seven astrowives, later followed by another nine, and then fourteen more, making it rather difficult to keep up with who is who.
On top of that, Koppel is curiously brief about the most important one of them all – Neil Armstrong – and completely ignores his significant other. The first man on the moon is barely mentioned and his wife is not even named, even though the Apollo 11 mission is discussed in the book. To make it all that much stranger, Janet Armstrong does pop up in a few shots in the picture section of the book.
There is a website to go with the book, www.astronautwivesclub.com, but unsurprisingly, it is also remarkably shallow, providing little-to-no extra information on either the book or its characters.