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Mortality Paperback – May 13, 2014
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover," illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Learn more
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On June 8, 2010, while on a book tour for his bestselling memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens was stricken in his New York hotel room with excruciating pain in his chest and thorax. As he would later write in the first of a series of award-winning columns for Vanity Fair, he suddenly found himself being deported "from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady." Over the next eighteen months, until his death in Houston on December 15, 2011, he wrote constantly and brilliantly on politics and culture, astonishing readers with his capacity for superior work even in extremis. Throughout the course of his ordeal battling esophageal cancer, Hitchens adamantly and bravely refused the solace of religion, preferring to confront death with both eyes open. In this riveting account of his affliction, Hitchens poignantly describes the torments of illness, discusses its taboos, and explores how disease transforms experience and changes our relationship to the world around us. By turns personal and philosophical, Hitchens embraces the full panoply of human emotions as cancer invades his body and compels him to grapple with the enigma of death. MORTALITY is the exemplary story of one man's refusal to cower in the face of the unknown, as well as a searching look at the human predicament. Crisp and vivid, veined throughout with penetrating intelligence, Hitchens's testament is a courageous and lucid work of literature, an affirmation of the dignity and worth of man.
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In them, while Hitchens remains politically sharp and critical of religion, there is also a deeper reflection that is not possible except when writing on the only subject that really matters: life itself. He describes what it was like being diagnosed with esophageal cancer (the same type that killed his father) that had metastasized before it was even discovered. Soon, he begins chemotherapy and in the process loses his hair, body mass, ability for physical intimacy, and strength. It is made most real in those moments he discusses losing even the ability to grow five o'clock shadow. The worst deprivation, however, is the intermittent loss of his voice. While he admits it is occasionally hard to think while a needle pumps strong poison into one's arm, he fortunately never lost his ability to write.
In total, there are seven previously published essays. Besides the first one announcing the cancer's early stages, the best essay in the collection is his one on Friedrich Nietzsche. It also happens to be the last one he published before he died. After that, the book includes some final, random jottings; little bits of fleece he shed here and there that were collected into a fine coat. The last writing in the book comes from Carol Blue, his wife of many years, and she reveals a side of him that many did not get to see.
I cannot say this is a book I enjoyed reading because it was born from the death of a very fine man. It is, however, the best tombstone a man of his talents could offer.
Books about dying are hardly upbeat, but Hitchens kept his humor throughout the ordeal and never lost his famous ability for clarity and engaging the reader. A good read on a hard subject.
If you're familiar with Hitchens' writings, you'll certainly recognize the trenchant approach here to becoming a resident of "tumortown." In this brief book, composed of essays he wrote for Vanity Fair, Hitchens explains what it feels like to be dying, yet doesn't feel sorry for himself or for his lifestyle that may have contributed to his cancer. (His father died of the same cancer as well, so part may be genetic.)
You'll read this book in an hour or two, but you'll also want to come back to it from time to time. While the chapters are composed - these are articles, not journal entries - there is a spontaneity throughout them, as his condition worsens, and as hope seems to recede.
Hitchens again shows with his words that cut like scalpels that he was one of the finest voices of his generation, and we're not likely to see another like him for a very long time.