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Mortality, Herself When She’s Missing, Sweet Tooth, and Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

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 Mortality (Twelve—Hachette Book Group, $22.99) by Christopher Hitchens.
Christopher Hitchens, one of the great essayists of our time, did not go gentle into that good night; neither did he rage against the dying of the light. He died as he lived and this memoir of his final illness is unflinchingly honest and unsentimental. The British-American author and long-time contributor to The Atlantic and Vanity Fair died of esophageal cancer in 2011.
Mortality is a small book consisting of chapters which are, in fact, essays, which take us along on his journey through “tumor- land.” His death came sooner than he expected, and his last entries show a mind struggling to overcome the shutting down of the body.  There was no deathbed conversion for this freethinker, but he does speak warmly of how meaningful his friends and family are to him.
Christopher Hitchens was never one for euphemisms; pain is pain, not “discomfort.”   Like all his work, this powerful book is intelligent and uncompromisingly rational.
The reader shares the day-to-day battles of chemotherapy, loss of voice, weakness of body, and all the ravages of cancer with great grace and even humor. Hitchens never shows any fear of death and one never gets the feeling that he pities himself. Rather, he wants to share with us the experience of his “year of living dyingly,” which he did, optimistically, hope to survive. His wife contributes a thoughtful afterword.
His previous work was that of a provocateur, always controversial and tough-minded; he never backed off from a fight and, in fact,
relished a battle of ideas. Ironically, he was one of the last to rail against those who tried to restrict the right to smoke on grounds of personal liberty, and tobacco undoubtedly contributed to his early death.
This is a book to go back to and read one chapter at a time, hoping while reading it that one may be as courageous and true to one’s self as Christopher Hitchens was when facing the end of life.—Cynthia Taubert

Herself When She’s Missing (Soft Skull Press, $15.95) by Sarah Terez Rosenblum.

This is a clever novel of co-dependence and obsession that, of course, doesn’t end well. But how could it? Andrea fell for Jordan—an attractive woman who seemed to have everything—until Andrea discovers a trail of lies and larceny. This is a love-gone-wrong story with a woman Andrea terms, “Criminal Mastermind.” Andrea tells her tale using postmodern devices like notecards, emails and lists within the narrative; a story of a vulnerable young woman who desperately believes her obsession is the Real Thing. It’s not.—Jack Burns

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (Doubleday Nan A. Talese, $26.95).
In the final analysis, Sweet Tooth turns out to be a rather sweet book— a surprise, both within the context of the novel itself and the larger context of Ian McEwan’s whole oeuvre.
In the prototypical McEwan novel, the characters’ lives are thrown into turmoil by chance—being in the wrong place at the wrong time—and by sudden moral dilemmas that lead to disastrous choices. Amsterdam, Enduring Love, and Atonement all follow this pattern, and all three are absorbing, perceptive, and memorable novels.
Sweet Tooth, too, adheres to this framework, but at a more leisurely pace than the earlier novels, and with a finale that holds
out some hope for redemption. McEwan, now in his sixties, takes the bold step in this new novel of assuming the first-person voice of a very young woman just out of college. True, the action is set in the early 1970s, when McEwan himself had just completed university in Britain, but to shift gender as he does requires an assured writer, and McEwan manages it convincingly. His Serena Frome works for MI5 in London, and McEwan gets all the details, large and small, of her life in that time and place just right. He understands her naivete, her misplaced self-confidence, and the errors in judgment she makes as she navigates the world of spies and military intelligence.
The plot of the novel is clever, involving intrigue on a variety of levels. The language is the beautiful, nuanced writing that is a
McEwan hallmark. This is a narrative to read slowly, lingering over turns of phrase, images, mellifluous sentences, whole paragraphs.
McEwan’s Atonement is a masterpiece of English literature. Sweet Tooth does not attain that height, but it’s a lovely book. At one
point, the main characters allude to W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” and like the poem, the novel, “Beleaguered by the same. Negation and despair” is ultimately able to “show an affirming flame.”—Julie West Johnson

Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott. (Riverhead, $17.95).
Awesome little book—very funny and fun to read, reread, and bookmark favorite prayers and sayings. No matter your
religion or stage in life, there is something for everyone in this book primarily because of its simplicity. The author has an uncanny ability to relate to her reader as if she is having a conversation just with you about a problem you are currently facing. Her smart passages help us get through life—with a new outlook and zest to say “thanks” through-out the day. There are no promises here for fixing our problems or the problems of the world, but there is a promise that with these simple and essential prayers, we can bring about peace not only in our lives but also in the lives of those around us.—Kathleen Welton

Published: February 23, 2013
Issue: Winter 2013 Issue