Kindle Surprise: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens

“Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out best.”

As anyone who knows me can attest, I am far from religious. The only times I have been in a church have been either for touristic reasons or some pre-scheduled event, such as a wedding (my own or someone else’s). I am no fan of religion, particularly the kind that causes its adherents to look down the noses at those of other beliefs or outside the faith, and especially when believers try to inflict their code on others. That said, I don’t have a particular problem with religion either. You want to believe in God (or god)? Go ahead. I’d rather judge people on actions, not ideas. If you do charitable works because the flying spaghetti monster told you, that’s certainly a lot better than not doing them at all. What you do counts. Why? Not so much.

And that’s where I part ways with devout atheist Hitchens, whose book here proves that smug superiority is, by no means, the exclusive realm of the devout. There were large chunks where the badgering and supercilious tone actually worked as a brilliant counter-point to his own argument. If this is what atheists are like, I found myself thinking, I sure as hell don’t want to be one. It’s a remarkably selective portrayal of “how religion poisons everything.” A better argument could be made that “humanity poisons everything,” since the 20th century, as religion’s importance has gradually been pushed back, has hardly resulting in a new golden era of peace and prosperity. If you look at the greatest villains in the past hundred years – Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot – they managed to wipe out millions apiece without the use of religion (whatever their personal beliefs may have been). Hitchens has to acknowledge this, and can only bleat about, for example, the Catholic church not being sufficiently opposed to Hitler.

Indeed, even when religion is invoked in conflicts, this is often more an excuse than a reason. The conflict in Northern Ireland, for example, while nominally between Protestants and Catholics, had very little to do with faith: it was more of a tribal conflict, with one group seeking to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the other wanting unity with the Irish Republic. And even that, when it wasn’t a turf war between opposing gangs of organized crime. Certainly, there are cases where religion has held back humanity’s progress, not least its steadfast reluctance to accept scientific advances, going back at least to Galileo. But blaming religion for “everything”, is like blaming baseball for all crimes carried out by someone wearing a cap. [Hitchens, I note, died of throat cancer likely caused by a lifetime smoking. God’s way, I suspect, of proving to him there are other poisons available beside faith]

Religion was – and, to some extent, still is – necessary, because of its provision of a moral glue, which helped hold society together. A belief in eternal damnation is a strong incentive that thou shalt not kill, which one tends to suspect is a good thing in general, regardless of the reason you may choose to lay off murder. Sometimes the laws supposedly laid down by the divine overlord are a product of the specific time and space in which they were created, and it’s certainly fair comment that religion’s inflexible nature causes problems. But its these religious laws which undeniably founded the basis of the modern judicial system, and again, the alternative of a world without this is not one in which Hitchens would want (or if my reaction is indicative, be allowed) to live

I’ve really got no idea to whom this book is aimed, because it’s not exactly an example of how to win friends and influence people. If you’re not already in Hitchens’ camp, you are a stupid poopy-head – I may be paraphrasing him somewhat. For anyone on the fence, as I am, the hectoring tone is incredibly off-putting, and when I had finished the book, I was left with a strong urge to seek out the nearest religious establishment and join up, just to piss the author off. That’s the result of self-congratulatory lines such as, “Perhaps you have read Anthony Powell’s tremendous twelve-volume novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time.” Of all the possible ways to incorporate a quote, could Hitchens possibly have chosen one more conceited than that?

That’s when he’s not flat-out making shit up, for example, claiming, “Nothing optional — from homosexuality to adultery — is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishment) have a repressed desire to participate.” Citation needed, as they say on Wikipedia. Or describing circumcision as the “mutilation of a powerless infant with the aim of ruining its future sex life”. I guess it’s not just the religious who are likely to engage in hysterical, fact-averse myth-making. For as someone circumcized [by thoroughly non-Jewish parents, entirely for health reasons], I can conclusively state my sex life was not, in any way, “ruined.”

The sad thing is, Hitchens does have some good points, particularly in regard to religion’s place in the modern world. I wouldn’t argue that it makes much less sense now, when we have, for example, a scientific explanation for thunder and lightning. As the quote below suggests, the book is on more solid and convincing ground here, than on tedious chapter after chapter of poring through old religious texts, looking for contradictions at which the author can yell “Ah-ha! Gotcha!” Such low hanging fruit seems particularly inappropriate for someone so outspokenly intellectual as to, perhaps, have read Anthony Powell’s tremendous twelve-volume novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s wholly unconvincing, and proves nothing more than that atheists can be every bit as annoyingly dogmatic as the preachers of established faiths.

“The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by easy electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development.”

Kindle Surprise: Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville

“I do not dream, der Grimnebulin. I am a calculating machine that has calculated how to think. I do not dream. I have no neuroses, no hidden depths. My consciousness is a growing function of my processing power, not the baroque thing that sprouts from your mind, with its hidden rooms in attics and cellars.”

Almost bailed on this one quite early. I had qualms going in based on my presearch – that’s research before reading. Basically, I had several books by the author, and wanted to find out which one was his first book, but also discovered the author stood for some fringe left-wing group in the 2001 General Election. Oh-oh: set “political soapbox threat level” to orange. Then, it opened with a prologue off densely obscure descriptive passages, followed by a first chapter that ends with a kinda graphic description of a sexual encounter between the hero and his insectoid lover. [Well, it’s perhaps not THAT graphic, but the concept is easily far enough out there, to be disturbing]. If I’d realized at the time that the book was 867 pages long, I might have skipped it too. Fortunately, the Kindle does not care for such things: all books look the same, regardless of their length.


I say, “fortunately,” since even though this took about six months to get through, read almost entirely on my 15-minute break at work, it’s a wonderfully inventive piece. Even my political fears were largely unfounded: while depicting what could be described as a police state, this is a minor aspect, and actually seems a fairly high-functioning regime. It’s set in the world of Bas-Rag, and in particular the city of New Crobuzon, where a multitude of races more or less co-exist. As well as the insectoid Khepri, you have the avian Garuda, the Cactacae (take a guess), the aquatic Vodyanoi, and so on. Science and magic are both in play, converging in a kind of occult steampunk known as “crisis energy”, which the hero Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin researches in his shared warehouse.

He is commissioned by a Garuda, Yagharek, who has lost his wings, and wants Isaac to provide an artificial alternative. Following a fairly complex set of incidents, doing so unleashes a plague on the city, in the form of a pack of slake moths – insects that suck the minds of their victims dry, leaving them drooling idiots, and which operate across multiple dimensions, making them almost impossible to kill. Oh, and if you look at them, you’re toast, as their wings form patterns that instantly hypnotize any viewer – no saving throw. Taking them down before they breed will require Isaac to form, and handle, a very shaky alliance between creatures, even more bizarre than those already described.

It becomes easy to understand why the author needs 867 pages for this. Part of it is his desire to construct a full world, so he includes a fair amount of stuff that’s not strictly necessary to the plot – politics, religions, etc. – which helps flesh out the bare bones. And you can multiply all those aspects by each of the species involved, with all the description that entails, although it never feels like pointless padding, Miéville doing a good job of mixing it well with sequences that move the plot forward. The results are positively cinematic, and I’d love to see this as a film, even if that would likely take a couple of hundred million to do it justice.

On the other hand, even beyond a massive budget, there are aspects here which would be very difficult to translate; yet removing them would undeniably weaken the effectiveness of the work as a whole. One character vanishes in the second-half, then returns, and it’s hardly a happy ending. And Miéville also pulls a switch very late on, with a reveal concerning the nature of another character – arguably, the most “heroic” in the entire book – that causes both us and the other participants to re-evaluate their entire relationship to that entity. If it works well on the printed page, the result would be almost impossible to pull off on the screen, since it’s so much of a deviation from cinematic structure.

I was somewhat annoyed by some of the pretentious little flourishes, such as persisting in spelling it “chymical”, and never using a two-syllable word when a five-syllable one can be located in his thesaurus. Miéville’s efforts to explain the “crisis engine,” a device which plays a key role in the plot, were also a dismal failure, descending into a mire of tedious pseudo-occult philosophigobbledygook that was completely unenlightening. However, you can’t expect a book of this mammoth size to exist without a few weak spots, and the positives, such as the battles against the slake moths, are page-turners of the highest order. If you’re looking for a richly-detailed work of imagination, with as much effort put into the setting as its plot and characters, this comes highly recommended.

“Old stories would tell how Weavers would kill each other over aesthetic disagreements, such as whether it was prettier to destroy an army of a thousand men or to leave it be, or whether a particular dandelion should or should not be plucked. For a Weaver, to think was to think aesthetically. To act–to Weave–was to bring about more pleasing patterns. They did not eat physical food: they seemed to subsist on the appreciation of beauty.”

Kindle Surprise: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

a.k.a. The Other Hand

“We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, ‘I survived’.”

Another book that falls into the category of “ones I’d never had read without this project,” it turns out to be a worthwhile endeavour. By coincidence, it’s a story told, like the last book I covered, Cold Mountain., in chapters that alternate between two very different viewpoints. That is really about the only similarity though: while Cold was very much a period piece, this is perhaps even more relevant now – the weekend of the Paris terrorist attacks – than it was when it came out in 2008. It tells the story of “Little Bee,” a Nigerian refugee, who flees a hellish civil conflict in her home land to England, and is then held in an immigration detention center for two years. When let out through a bureaucratic bungle, she makes her way to the home of the only people she knows, the O’Rourke’s, a couple she met on a Nigerian beach under disturbing (and initially vague) circumstances. The other half of the narrative is Sarah O’Rourke, a magazine editor, devoted mother and not-so-devoted wife, who is understandably surprised to see an escaped refugee show up on her suburban doorstep.

Cleave worked in one of the detention centers for a while, and wanted to write the book to humanize refugees, by picking out one of the myriad of stories present. On that basis, he succeeds, with Little Bee certainly a sympathetic character. She’s smart, despite her lack of education, teaching herself English during her incarceration, and independent, making her way from the center, through London, to the only address she knows. She even has a dry, self-effacing wit. It’s just like an illegal immigrant version of Finding Nemo! [Okay, that’s a stretch] Sarah is… considerably less so, coming over to a certain extent – particularly early – as the kind of whiny media luvvy deserving of mockery. That becomes muted later on, when the facts of her first encounter with Little Bee become apparent, and what that cost Sarah, both physically and personally – you can certainly argue that the price she paid, included her husband, is almost as much as that of Little Bee.

You do gain an insight into, and appreciation for, the plight of the “true” refugee, and the author is also to be commended for laying off any obvious political message. While it’s clear he’s saying we need to be more tolerant of, and treat better, those who come to our country seeking sanctuary, he avoid doing so through “soapbox writing,” and largely lets that come through the actions and thought of his two main characters. However, it all seemed more than a little contrived towards that end, in terms of both those he portrays, and the events that happen to them. I sincerely doubt Bee’s story is even slightly typical of most asylum-seekers, and that makes it relatively easy to dismiss as unrepresentative. As usual, the truth is not to be found at either extreme; neither Bee’s near-saintly acts, nor in the “benefit scrounging scum” beloved by certain tabloids. Though it would have been more of a challenge, and more impressive achievement if successful, to have taken one of the latter and turned them into a hero or heroine.

I’m not certain of the reason for the difference in title: in the US and Canada, it’s called Little Bee, while the original one was The Other Hand. While it was the former version I read, and so have used as the main title throughout this piece, I must say, the latter probably makes a good deal more sense, having a double meaning, one of whose aspects is reflected in elements of Sarah’s story. I can’t say it has necessarily changed my view on the thorny topics of immigration [it’s a nightmare trying to come up with any kind of regulatory system – something undeniably necessary – that can cope fairly and justly with the vastly differing circumstances thrown at it], but the book did still give me food for thought, without ramming its opinion down my throat.

“Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it.”

Kindle Surprise: Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier

“She fit her head under his chin, and he could feel her weight settle into him. He held her tight and words spilled out of him without prior composition. And this time he made no effort to clamp them off. He told her about the first time he had looked on the back of her neck as she sat in the church pew. Of the feeling that had never let go of him since. He talked to her of the great waste of years between then and now. A long time gone. And it was pointless, he said, to think how those years could have been put to better use, for he could hardly have put them to worse.”

This is the sort of find which makes the Kindle Surprise project worthwhile. Because it’s a very enjoyable book, that I would almost certainly never have read if it hadn’t been part of the package. The movie version, starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman (not to mention, Jax from Sons of Anarchy!) also managed to escape my eyeballs: I think my subconscious probably dismissed it, based on the title and Western location, as some kind of sequel to Brokeback Mountain. Or worse, The Asylum mockbuster version, likely starring Casper Van Dien. Either way: nein, danke.

Instead, it’s a Civil War story, set towards the end of that horrendous conflict. Inman, a soldier on the Confederate side, was wounded in battle, but realizes during his convalescence, that when he’s well, he’ll simply be shipped back into the conflict, and may not be as lucky next time. So he walks out of the hospital, and begins the 250-mile trek back to his home near the titular peak. The other half of the novel is about Ada, a young woman for whom Inman carries a largely undisclosed torch. She has been thrown on her own talents, after the sudden death of her preacher father, and finds her abilities short of what’s necessary.

The chapters alternate between the main protagonists: Inman, making his way across North Carolina and encountering both the good and bad of humanity, while Ada struggles with the problems of everyday lifer, helped by Ruby, a homeless woman to whom she gives shelter [In my imagination, Ruby was black; given she’s played in the movie by Renée Zellweger, I guess not…]. Of the two, I found Inman’s story more compelling, largely because there’s much more significant threat to him, with danger lurking around almost every turn, especially since he’s basically a deserter. Ada meanders round her farm with her sketch-pad, vaguely concerned about running out of food. It’s only after Ruby shows up – and, in particular, when her no-good father Stobrod arrives in tow – that any kind of urgency comes to play here.

By Ken Thomas ( (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ken Thomas ( (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But even when the pace is more languid than urgent, Frazier has a wonderfully descriptive tone, capable of capturing both the rural setting and its inhabitants perfectly. Nor does he soft-pedal the hell of war: some of the traumatic events described by Inman seem too horrific to be real, yet they appear based on real battles. For example, the Battle of the Crater saw Union forces dig a 500-ft long tunnel under enemy lines, pack it with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder, and blow it up; the resulting hollow can still be seen today. You can’t make that kind of shit up. The impending threat of violence looms large, and you just don’t know until the very last page whether the lovers get to live happily ever after, or are doomed to be just another casualty of war. I found myself caring about the outcome, in a way few novels manage; some works by Thomas Hardy, and I’m hard pressed to think of many others, since I ran weeping to my mother as a seven-year-old, after Boxer died in Animal Farm.

It is kinda odd to have a love story, where the two protagonists don’t share a scene, except in flashbacks, until the last ten percent of the novel. However, it doesn’t negatively impact the emotional content; indeed, it perhaps heightens the sense of relief felt by the reader, when they are finally together, albeit under some pretty harrowing circumstances. Yet, just when you think they’re safe, there’s one final peril to be faced. It did feel like a long read, and there were times when I seemed to be making no progress at all. Yet unlike some, it was never a chore, and I’m now certainly going to have to see the movie version, and find out how it compares to the source material.

“For you can grieve your heart out and in the end you are still where you were. All your grief hasn’t changed a thing. What you have lost will not be returned to you. It will always be lost. You’re only left with your scars to mark the void. All you can choose to do is go on or not.”

Kindle Surprise: Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, by Chelsea Handler

“It’s been my experience that people who make proclamations about themselves are usually the opposite of what they claim to be.”

I went into this with absolutely no knowledge of Ms. Handler. I had not watched any of her TV shows. I had not seen any of her stand-up. All I know about her, I learned from this book. And having read the first couple of chapters in her autobiography, I was able to come to a single rapid conclusion.

Chelsea Handler. What a cunt.

The first story she tells dates back to when she was nine, and fabricated an entire career to her school classmates that she was an acting prodigy, about to take on a role as Goldie Hawn’s daughter in a sequel to Private Benjamin. This wasn’t your typical childish lie either. No, this was a monstrous, extended deception, perpetuated over months, in an effort to be popular. It’s presented in such a way that I suspect this is intended to be adorable or something, but the result was actually to generate a kneejerk loathing for a spoiled and entitled little brat. When you open by revealing yourself to be a liar on a pathological scale, it doesn’t exactly encourage the reader to a) have much empathy for you, or b) believe anything you say in the rest of your book.


The self-portrayal didn’t improve in the next couple of chapters, which cover a babysitting incident in her teenage years, followed by her being arrested and spending a weekend in prison for drunk driving. Turns out, Handler is not just an egocentric bitch, she’s a borderline sociopath. And this is the kind of person who becomes “famous” in modern society? I was giving serious thought to dumping this entirely, and might well have, if not for the rules of thus challenge, dictating that I only get to quit if I can come up with 500 words on why the book was so bad. Repeating “Chelsea Handler. What a cunt” 100 times would too much like a cheap cop-out, unfortunately. So I persevered. And somewhere in the middle, I realized this was actually a masterful put-on.

Satire only makes sense if you know it’s satire. That has always been the case, going back to Jonathan Swift suggesting that babies make good eating. Take the suggestion seriously, and you’ve lost the argument before it begins. The same goes for more recent work too. Take Sacha Baron Cohen’s character, Borat. Operating in a vacuum, it’s a hellish, reprehensible creation, vilely intolerant and repellent. But if you’re in on the joke, it’s absolutely glorious. I’m thinking that is the problem with this book. Lacking any background to Handler, I have absolutely no context into which to place these anecdotes, and so am unaware that in this book, she is apparently playing a character who just happens to have the same name – in a way not dissimilar, say, to Stephen Colbert. The quote at the top of the piece is absolutely key, given the entire book is basically proclamations about Chelsea.

Not that even figuring this out makes it great literature. It’s mostly strikingly unfunny, with about the only memorable chapter describing her interaction with an alcoholic midget, brought over to be a guest on one of the shows on which Handler worked. It’s a glorious exercise in non-PC. Otherwise, this is more a slog than a pleasure, since the character here is spikily unlikeable, and doesn’t have much to say. There are only two kinds of people who should write memoirs: those who have had interesting lives, and those who have enough writing talent, that they can make the humdrum interesting. Based on what we see here, Handler (the writer) doesn’t fall into either category, perhaps because Handler (the character) is not as interesting as Handler (the writer) seems to think.

Still, I can’t help but begrudgingly admire what appears to be a sublime piece of trolling, and on that basis, need to amend my original conclusion regarding the author.

Chelsea Handler. What a smart cunt.

“A homeless man with a dog approached us and put his hand out. This happens to be something I have a real problem with: homeless people with pets who approach you for food. How can they have the nerve to beg for food when they have a perfectly delicious dog standing right there? I didn’t care if this guy understood English or not. Tell me when you’re out of dog, buddy. Then we can talk about splitting a falafel.”