Tuesday, September 04, 2012

“Mortality” – Book Review



Death and Christopher Hitchens:  ah, at last, two of the topics I find most compelling contained in a single book!  When the author left us far too early at the end of 2011 after succumbing to esophageal cancer, the question begged to be asked next was whether or not we had seen the last of Hitchens’ writings compiled in book form?  As it turns out, “Mortality”, a collection of essays on his illness written for the magazine Vanity Fair, was recently published for eager fans hungry to scarf down whatever few crumbs might remain from the author’s extensive and impressive oeuvre.  

“Mortality” is a book of eight chapters, sandwiched in between a Foreword by Hitchens’ former Vanity Fair colleague, Graydon Carter, and an Afterword by Hitchens’ widow, Carol Blue.  Of the eight chapters, the first seven were written by Hitchens exclusively for Vanity Fair following his diagnosis of cancer; the last chapter is essentially a mélange of sundry jottings by the author, many of which were used as the seed of an idea for a subsequent article.  

In June of 2011, shortly after commencing a tour to promote his latest book, the autobiography “Hitch-22”, the author was struck with extreme chest pains upon rising one morning.  Not unreasonably assuming he was in the throes of a possibly fatal heart attack, he immediately called the hotel’s doctor and told him he was having an emergency; Hitchens wound up being taken to the hospital and upon further examination, a biopsy was scheduled on the suspicion of cancer.  Unfortunately, as we all now know, the suspicions were well-founded and Hitchens’ time on this planet would only wind up lasting another year and a half after the dreaded diagnosis. 

Despite his illness being exacerbated by seemingly endless rounds of debilitating chemotherapy treatments, Hitchens insisted on pressing on with his work not only by composing these essays for his magazine, but also by continuing with the promotional tour for “Hitch-22”, so as not to disappoint either his publisher or others depending on him.  Yet somehow, he also managed to squeeze out another book, “Arguably”, a massive collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. 

Spending over 18 months living in what the author frequently refers to in this book as “Tumortown”, Hitchens proves that he was as capable of dying just as gracefully as he lived.  The obvious question was whether he would recant his extensively-documented atheistic philosophy in the end as death drew ever nearer; he answered this question resoundingly in “Mortality”, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that a sudden turnabout would simply not be in the cards, unless the cancer had completely eaten away at his brain and bestowed upon him an extra-large dose of dementia in his end-stages. 

One criticism I have of the book – and believe me, it’s a slight one – is the inclusion of the eighth chapter; ultimately, we probably could’ve done without this because of its disjointed ramblings of a writer’s notes likely never intended by its author to see the light of day in that form.  Presumably, the publisher chose to include it in order to justify the $23 price of this hardcover because the book is already pretty short; at just over 100 pages, not including the Foreword, and set in large type, this is most certainly a quick read – in spite of being a slow reader, I was able to conquer this mini-tome within a single weekend. 

Not only was Hitchens scholarly and thorough in the research of his topics, he was also dedicated and often courageous, which doubtlessly added to the palpable authenticity of his writing.  Perhaps no better example of this was the personal peril he risked when investigating waterboarding used as a torture device by the American government at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.  Below is a video of his own experience being waterboarded by “experts” in the field. 



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