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Review: ‘Mortality’ by Christopher Hitchens

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Updated: November 1, 2012 6:03AM

‘Mortality,” the final book by Christopher Hitchens, the Anglo-American essayist, reporter, devout atheist and all-around intellectual troublemaker, won’t be shelved in the travel section.

But in a sense that’s where it belongs, along with the best of the literary travel writers. Think George Orwell, one of Hitchens’ heroes.

In the last 18 months of his life, Hitchens reported with little sentimentality or self-pity from a place he called “Tumorville.” He was 62 when he died of esophageal cancer on Dec. 15, 2011.

“Mortality” (Twelve, $22.99) collects seven of the essays published in somewhat different form in Vanity Fair. It adds an eighth chapter, Hitchens’ fragmentary notes to himself, which offer glimpses into a remarkable mind at work.

Few writers wrote sharper sentences or treated words with more respect:

“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

“I’m not fighting or battling cancer — it’s fighting me.”

Hitchens, who wrote the 2007 best seller “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” alluded to comments on what he called “websites of the faithful,” celebrating his cancer as “God’s revenge.”

To which, he noted, “Those who say I am being punished are saying that god can’t think of anything more vengeful than cancer for a heavy smoker.”

As for the prayers of others, including theologians who loved the challenge of debating Hitchens, he wrote, “Please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.”

Ever the contrarian, Hitchens took a parting shot at “The Last Lecture,” the best-selling book and popular video of professor Randy Pausch’s upbeat farewell. (Pausch died of pancreatic cancer in 2008.) Hitchens warned that “The Last Lecture” “should bear its own health warning: so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it.”

For Hitchens’ fans, those who loved his ideas or merely his style, “Mortality” is a way of saying goodbye.

For those who know Hitchens only for his combative TV appearances — he was truly a public intellectual — “Mortality” is best deferred. Better to celebrate his life and work first by reading his 2011 collection of essays, “Arguably,” and his 2010 memoir, “Hitch-22.”

Gannett News Service

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