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BOOK REVIEWS: "Hitch-22" and "Mortality" both by Christopher Hitchens

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"Mortality" by Christopher Hitchens
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-22: A Memoir

by Christopher Hitchens (12 Books) 2010

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (12 Books)

What a life!

That was just one of the reactions I had as I read
both of Christopher Hitchens’ books – his outstanding memoir Hitch-22 and his final book, about his
final days being ravaged by cancer and the treatments used to fight it – Mortality.

I have long been a fan of Hitchens’ writings,
primarily his columns in Vanity Fair
and books including No One Left to Lie To:
The Values of the Worst Family
(about Bill Clinton) and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons
(about you-know-who).

But with Hitchens’ illness (diagnosed in June 2010,
shortly after the release of Hitch-22),
and subsequent death from esophageal cancer in December 2011 – while Hitchens
was at the height of his popularity – my renewed interest in his work returned
with a vengeance. I couldn’t get enough of this brilliant writer, journalist
and polemicist.

And so I focus on two of his final works – the aforementioned
memoirs (read over the course of a week or so) and his book-length work
chronicling his gallant fight against a dreaded form of cancer (read on an
airplane journey between Asheville, N.C. and Oklahoma City).

With Hitch-22, readers get to really know this
colorful and deeply complex humanitarian. Utterly gifted in his use of the
English language, Hitchens – born in Portsmouth, England in 1949 – introduces us
to his mother Yvonne – a woman he loved and admired deeply - and his distant
father Eric Hitchens – “the Commander” – who sank a German warship during WWII,
something that makes the burgeoning lefty swell with pride. And while Yvonne is
a troubled woman (reminiscent of John Lennon’s mother Julia), he finds out long
after her 1973 suicide that she was Jewish, a characteristic Hitchens embraces
wholeheartedly, and, something about him, he writes, that seems to explain a lot about his
interests and personality, from international travel to left-wing politics.

And while we learn a lot about “Hitch” during his
schoolboy days (yes, those mid-20th century English boarding schools
were pretty rough) at the Leys School in Cambridge where he was not above a
homoerotic encounter or two.

And then the “Sixties” take hold. Hitchens really
dives in – particularly on the political side of things, and becomes an
International Socialist, something that seems oddly quaint by the early 2000’s
when he is a cheerleader for Bush’s Iraq War and a personal friend of neocons
like Paul Wolfowitz and Michael Chertoff. This, from a commited Trotskyite and leading
critic of the Vietnam War.

No one ever said Hitch was perfect. He was but a
man. A mortal. A guy who loved a cigarette and a glass of Scotch and a reason
to argue. Yes, he is the man who made friends in school by being rebellious and
not kneeling during the compulsory prayer time. And he would later be the man
who would join the ranks of the “New Atheists,” including Richard Dawkins, Sam
Harris and Daniel Dennett.

But Hitchens was more than an atheist, he was a
committed battler with totalitarian bullies, thugs and killers. There wasn’t a
hotspot he was afraid of visiting and writing about. There were no “sacred cows”
in Hitch’s world. From Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa to third-world
dictators, Hitch would confront (or attempt to confront) them all and share his
thoughts with the rest of us.

Hitch has more friends than you can count. Among them
are writers and philosophers. Some he singles out, like Salman Rushdie or James
Fenton or Martin Amis or Edward Said. Of course he loves to drink and to talk
and most importantly he loves to write. He writes all the time.

Hitch’s 1968 visit to Cuba was particularly eye
opening. Although a committed socialist and supporter of the Cuban Revolution,
when Hitchens demands to be able to hike around and explore and to see a small
hamlet where the “new socialist man” has “evolved,” his requests are denied.

He recalls sitting in the front row of a speech
given by a beard-stroking Fidel Castro. But the repetitious nature of the
speech bores Hitch to tears. “After the first couple of hours and the first few
standing ovations I felt that I had begun to grasp the main points,” Hitchens writes.
“And a couple of hours later I was about ready to go and look for a cold beer.”

Reading Hitch-22 is fascinating in that you see this
young man grow and mature and hone his skills of reasoning and rationality. He
is a man who strives to be as intellectually honest as possible, suffering the
slings and arrows of those who chafed at his 180-degree turn from
Nation-contributing pinko to Bush-friendly neocon, while becoming an American
citizen with a love of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. He is not
without his mysteries.

In a chapter on the Iraq War, he offers a postscript
where he introduces us to the late Lt. Michael Jennings Daily. Daily was a
young man influenced by Hitchens’ writings on the “moral case for war” against
Saddam’s regime. He would die from an IED blast and subsequently, Hitchens
would get to know Daily’s family. Hitchens warned readers, before sharing Daily’s
story, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now …”

Which is a good place to transition into Hitchens’
final book – Mortality. I can freely
admit that as I sat in my airplane seat, 35,000 feet above Arkansas , I shed a
tear or two as I concluded reading Mortality.

A short book, about 100 pages, of essay-like
writings of Hitchens’ experience dealing with the knockout blow that would be
the esophageal cancer that would take his life, Mortality is a very personal
book and not an easy one to read, particularly for fans of Hitch. And yes, I
was and remain a big fan, writing a letter to him regarding my thoughts on his
book God Is Not Great.

Just as he was beginning his American book tour for
, in June 2010, he fell ill and was diagnosed with this terrible
disease. And since his throat was affected, crazed religious types jumped for
joy at Hitchens’ diagnosis.

He shares the ramblings of one Christian “blogger”
who gleefully and hatefully writes: “Who else feels Christopher Hitchens
getting terminal throat cancer (sic) was God’s revenge for him using his voice
to blaspheme him? Atheists like to ignore FACTS.” Hitchens uses that as example
of the absurdity of the superstitious belief that a supreme being somewhere has
taken offense at his writings, etc. and has afflicted him with this
cancer.  Asks Hitchens: “Why not a
thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? The vengeful
deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer
that my age and former ‘lifestyle’ would suggest that I got.” Again, even as
the cancer ate away at his body, Hitchens talent for reason and rationality in
the face of death would remain with him until the very end.

Both Hitch-22
and Mortality showcase the thoughts
and writings of a great man who gave so much to those who happened upon his
prose. Christopher Hitchens is survived by his wife Carol Blue(who writes the touching afterword in Mortality) and his children. 

He is terribly missed.

2013 Red Dirt Report

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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