The author Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife is, as advertised, a neurosurgeon who suffered a rare and unexplained bacterial meningitis that plunged him into a coma from which he was lucky to emerge, unscathed, and conclude that his experiences during the coma were visits to heaven. It is surprising that a scientist would fall into the trap of assuming that his memories are necessarily “the truth”, especially as he freely admits that his behavior immediately post-coma was erratic, as is common and expected for someone recovering from such an ordeal. But somehow his recollections from the coma itself must be 100% accurate and true? Highly unlikely, I think.
The good news is that, whatever really happened during the coma, it was pleasant and comforting (or at least remembered as such). Something to think about for the families who have to watch a loved one suffer.
It stands to reason that reading the last book in a series without the prior context may cause the reader some awkward moments, so although I did not enjoy At Last thoroughly, it was good enough for me to decide to catch up on the other books and revisit this review. Stay tuned!
With that, this novel features a middle-aged man with problems, more of which (and, it seems, the root of which) emerge during the funeral of his mother, who if nothing else allowed his father to abuse him badly as a youngster — and whose death liberates him, finally. The story is cleverly written as a pretend but in fact supremely architected stream of consciousness and witty remarks abound. On the other hand, the life of the extremely rich does not interest me much, even if they daily concerns can be just as trying as ours.
As the unworthy reader who dared not to like The Last Lecture, I was hesitant to read The End of Your Life Book Club, which tells of the author’s mother’s death from cancer and the two-person book club they formed during that time, so as to thwart the possibility that I may speak ill of the dying again. But I enjoyed this book. First, although the author and his mother do read a lot, the memoir focuses on their relationship and on family history, in a delicate, loving, and often funny way. Also, his mother is a remarkable person, who to the very end raises funds for libraries in Afghanistan, feels guilty about turning down experimental treatment because it would be a service to future patients, but at the same time can be too much of a taskmaster, all of which is fodder for the story.
About the books: I was a little concerned that the memoir would be unreadable without an acquaintance with the many, many books they read. (The author works in the publishing industry and breezily mentions again and again that he has edited many of them!) While I found it very helpful to have read some of the books mentioned in the story, and while I felt a little left out when they discussed some I had not read, I think the memoir makes sense as a family story even if you are not a voracious reader.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry features, who else, Harold Fry, a sedentary, retired sales manager with the most boring life ever, who decides to walk the entire length of the British isle to see a dying friend, trusting a stranger’s opinion that this kind of pilgrimage will save her.
This could be a recipe for a sentimental disaster of a feel-good book, but apart from the ending, which was a little too perfect for cynical me, the story has enough blisters, crazed followers, unkind memories, and a cleverly twisted plot to overcome any amount of kind strangers and overly lucky coincidences (and even the ending, which has a good amount of sober sadness). You may want to pack a tissue or two.
The Chemistry of Tears is the cleverly constructed story of a bereaved museum restorer whose (married) lover has died and who finds comfort in restoring a complicated automaton — and skirting more than a few rules of her profession and workplace in the process. Her story is entwined with that of the automaton’s original owner, who underwent a tortuous trip to Germany to get the automaton constructed, and who kept a journal of the trip, rather miraculously designed to read as a novel. Too clever for me!The half of the novel that describes the quasi-widow’s travails seemed finely observed and believable; the other felt like a dreary book assigned for AP Literature, complete with foretelling and overwrought themes that must be analyzed, day after day.
I’m a fan of Joyce Carol Oates’s novels and I was somewhat disappointed in her memoir, A Widow’s Story, which recalls her first year of widowhood after her beloved husband died. The first third is brilliant and harsh, as she recalls the bizarre experience of bringing her husband to the hospital with what appears to be a simple, uncomplicated pneumonia and being told days later that he is dying, and of her living those first few days in a daze, apparently functioning well enough to accomplish daily tasks but never quite comprehending what just happened. She also has hilarious descriptions of the mountains of generous but misguided gifts that come her way, for which she cannot muster the energy to clear out, let alone write thank you notes. And near the end there are too-short glimpses of her life as a young married woman that are tender, funny, and left me wanting more.
But I could not find much to like in the midsection of the book, in which she laments the perhaps well-intentioned but inappropriate comments people make to her — and at the same time deplores that other people did not say anything. Perhaps they were all too self-conscious of the great difficulty of striking the right note, especially writing to a most accomplished writer? One who can write an entire memoir in which she refers to herself as “she” — and makes it work!
Nothing Was the Same is the memoir of a very happy marriage through the cancer diagnosis and, ultimately, death of the husband as told by his wife, who wrote an earlier and very interesting memoir of what it’s like to be bipolar (An Unquiet Mind, highly recommended!) Here she talks about her marriage, her wonderfully attentive husband and his practical sense even when facing death, and how grief is, in the end, an entirely sane reaction.
It could be a very sad book, and certainly there are sad parts to it, but it’s actually quite inspiring.
If you have ever felt that your grief did not quite follow what the books say you “should” feel after a loss, The Other Side of Sadness is for you. It seems that the standard denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance stages simply do not apply to a lot of otherwise completely normal and sensitive people, and that many people cope much better and faster with loss than the theories might suggest, perhaps because the theories are based on studying the minority of people who find it difficult and lengthy to recover. The same theories also tell us it’s helpful to talk somberly about our feelings of loss to get better but perhaps that’s exactly the opposite that’s needed, at least for many of us.
The author shows how different traditions handle death in ways that are not exactly familiar to us, including joking about the dead or continuing to dialog with them after their death — so clearly there’s a range of comforting behaviors that we should feel free to adopt if they can help. The book goes on some long personal tangents but overall I found it very interesting.
Swimming in a Sea of Death is the account of Susan Sontag’s final months from her diagnosis with leukemia, told from the point of view of his son. It starts with a clueless physician who delivers the diagnosis without, or so it seems, realizing that being told one has a fatal, incurable disease might be upsetting and require careful delivery. It then describes how Susan Sontag refused to accept her dire prognosis, choosing to fight with all the possible “cures” at her disposal, ultimately futily. It describes her son’s feelings of helplessness, all the more acute since his mother seemed to reject any mention of her death. And it ends with a much more empathetic doctor writing a condolence note that lays out his regret on not being able to cure his patient.
Unfortunately the book seems rather detached and I did not find myself drawn into it at all.
Home Safe is the story of a sixty-year old writer who loses her husband and her writing inspiration and focuses instead on making her daughter’s life miserable. She starts with innocuous annoyances, like buying her clothes she can’t wear, but graduates to prying into her boyfriends and her life, all under the cover of being a caring mom. She even gets her out of bed one night because, gasp, she went to bed still wearing her clothes (the daughter is a successful career woman, who, I’m sure, can decide wheat to wear to bed.)
There are many formulaic passages, starting with the opening when the budding writer starts her career at age nine (!) reflecting on her life at that age. There’s the description of the improbable house her husband built for her (thousands of miles away and without telling her) that reads like a bad real estate ad. There’s inane dialog with her long-suffering friends that include some gems as ” That house sounds literally incredible. I now it was important for you to go alone.” What friend would ever say that? There’s the inevitable tragic death in the Twin Towers on September 11th.
If all that doesn’t make you want to avoid the book, I’m not sure what will.