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'Hitch-22' Catches Hitchens In A More Personal Light

As much as he'd probably like it, it would be an overstatement to call Christopher Hitchens the most hated political journalist in the world. It's not for lack of trying on his part. The most recent bestseller from the celebrated British-born essayist was called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and he famously criticized Mother Teresa in a scathing book called The Missionary Position (which followed up a television documentary he co-wrote about the nun called Hell's Angel).

Some liberals consider Hitchens a turncoat because of his support for the Iraq war; most conservatives who agree with his views on Iraq can't bring themselves to like a man who, for example, called Sarah Palin "a disgraceful opportunist and a real moral coward."

But for all his ideological enemies -- even the ones who couldn't suppress a smile when Hitchens was (voluntarily) waterboarded in 2008 -- it's hard to find many people who don't respect his talent. Whether you like him or not, he's probably the best political writer in the United Kingdom or the United States (he became an American citizen in 2007), and his new memoir, Hitch-22, is smart, funny and unexpectedly touching. It's the perfect place for the uninitiated to start.

Hitch-22 is almost three memoirs in one -- literary, political and personal -- but it's smooth, cohesive and relentlessly readable. Hitchens proves especially good at chronicling his education as a writer, as well as his friendships with fellow authors like James Fenton, Edward Said, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie (the last two of whom apparently share with Hitchens a deep affection for hilariously bawdy wordplay). Unsurprisingly, Hitchens is alarmingly well-read; you could form a pretty decent starter library with just the books he recommends through the course of the memoir (P.G. Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters, Kingsley Amis' underrated Girl, 20).

Hitchens is chiefly known for his usually controversial political writing, of course, and he doesn't disappoint here — he claims Bill Clinton (whom Hitchens hates) frequently ate marijuana-laced baked goods when they were both students at Oxford; refers to Alexander Haig as "being crazy for anything ... sadistic, and butch in a uniform"; and admits to feeling "no particular sense of loss" and "mild relief" at the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

More interesting, though, is his searching and intellectually honest account of his ideological evolution. The author has at times described himself as socialist, Marxist and Trotskyist; as he explains in the stirring final chapter of his book, he no longer considers himself any of these things. He is, more than anything, a conscientious anti-fascist, a radical without a party.

Hitchens' reflections on matters literary and political are witty, intelligent and absorbing, but it's really the chapters about his family and his childhood that make this such an accomplished memoir. He writes candidly about his relationships with his mother and father, and his years at a Cambridge boarding school. Hitchens' political writing radiates anger and toughness, but his stories of his loved ones are remarkably sensitive and emotionally real. Hitch-22 might not be enough to earn the hearts and minds of his detractors, but it should cement Hitchens' reputation as one of the best and most original writers of nonfiction around.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.