Elizabeth Vargas was a very anxious child, forced to move repeatedly because of her father’s military career, bullied at school, and unnaturally worried about her dad. Since panic attacks are not helpful to TV journalists, she started to self-medicate with alcohol, eventually becoming a full-blown alcoholic. In Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction she recounts her struggles and that of her husband, reminding us that high-functioning alcoholics can hide their problems for a very long time, and that treatment is long, expensive, and rarely successful the first time around.
The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains is a scholarly tome on how humanity has treated its dead, focusing mostly on England between the Middle Ages and the 20th century, although it also touches on France and the United States, and occasionally back to Roman antiquity. The author shows how burial customs changed over time and evolved from the churchyard to privately-run cemeteries, always providing abundant, and sometimes over-abundant examples from various archives. He delves into official funerals for important personalities, funeral monuments, the stealing of corpses for dissections, and how armies tried to identify and bury their dead. All that in only 600 pages…
The Mistletoe Murder is the title story of a set of short mystery stories, all featuring a murderer who gets away with a crime, at least for a while. The stories show an abundance of small details and end up with the apparently least likely actor as the culprit, as in Agatha Christie novels. After reading them, I started wondering if the short story could be the ideal medium for mysteries.
History of Wolves stars a wise-beyond her years teenager living with her ex-hippy parents and often parenting them rather than the other way around. When a new family moves in by the lake where she lives, she becomes their babysitter, and eventually the helpless witness to the death of their little boy. The story captures perfectly the cruel world of high schoolers who routinely reject whoever does not quite fit in, the claustrophobic lifestyle of the newcomers, and the lost word of her parents. It meanders a bit at times but the relationships between the little boy and the babysitter and between the babysitter and the mother illuminate it.
In Rise: How a House Built a Family, a thrice-divorced mother of four somehow conceives that building a house (herself, with the help of her two teenage children) is a realistic goal and a good way to escape both schizophrenic husband #2 and memories of abusive husband #3. What follows is the incredible story of how she did it, starting with convincing a bank to lend money to a DIYer with no experience and continuing through injuries bad enough to take her to the emergency room (and, ironically, summon a counselor to probe for partner abuse), a fainting spell after she applies floor polish without a respirator, and disputes with various subcontractors selected for their low rates rather than their competence. And yes, in the end the house is finished. The story is certainly gripping and you will likely find yourself for the builder — but I kept wondering about the wisdom of the whole enterprise.
Disaster Falls is the hauntingly-named part of a Utah river where the author’s son drowned during what was supposed to be a fun family rafting adventure. The book recounts the aftermath of the death on himself, his wife, and older son. It’s all very somber and anguished and very beautiful.
And very sad. And, as is often the case with memoirs, it feels quite indiscreet to read it.
Written by a physician, Drug Dealer, MD: How Doctors Were Duped, Patients Got Hooked, and Why It’s So Hard to Stop exposes how shoddy research, a laudable quest to treat pain better, and especially features of the health care system that encourage physicians to acquiesce to patients’ requests and above all get them out of the door combined to overprescribe opioids and create millions of addicts. It’s a sobering story. Besides better education for physicians, it seems that relatively simple measures such as a universal prescription registry (alas implemented state by state) would help, but only a minority of physicians bother to check it…