Tag Archives: death

** Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohles

The author of Once We Were Sisters is convinced that her sister’s husband murdered her. He most definitely beat her, repeatedly and savagely, but it seems that, had he wanted to kill her, he would have had access to other methods than driving their car into a tree, without having to himself suffer serious injuries. No matter, the story is about her relationship with her sister, forged against complicated parenting from their mother, a dreadful if indulgent education, and poor husband choices for both of them. It’s a wonderful portrait of sisterly love. Somehow it left me rather cold, including the awful abuse, perhaps because many of the bad decisions are based on hanging on to the very comfortable family wealth.

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Filed under True story

** The Word of the Dead by Thomas Laqueur

 

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…

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Filed under Non fiction

*** Disaster Falls by Stephane Gerson

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.

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Filed under True story

*** The Gloaming by Melanie Finn

The Gloaming brings together an unlikely set of three Westerners fleeing various dreadful events of their past into a small town in Tanzania. The story slowly unfolds the characters’ back stories, even as various actors of their pasts track them down. It’s all very dark and cleverly layered, and full of complicated people that are never 100% good or 100% evil. Haunting.

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Filed under New fiction

** When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I don’t have a good track record of enjoying books about imminent death and I did not swoon with this one either, When Air Becomes Breath, which is the artfully written memoir of a promising neurosurgeon who is told, at age 36, that he has advanced lung cancer and only a few years to live. The shocking diagnosis takes him to the other side of the physician-patient divide, a most uncomfortable place even though his oncologist, a woman, seems just about perfect. The story of the author’s life, from his childhood in rural Arizona to his studies, first in English (so that’s where the artfully written comes from) and then in medicine, and eventually to his wife’s an his difficult decision to have a child immediately post diagnosis, is very interesting, as are the many references to what happens back stage of the operating room. On the other hand, I was turned off by his repeated assertions that neurosurgeons are superior to other physicians (even as his father, brother, and wife are also physicians but not of the #1 kind).

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Filed under True story

* The Loved Ones by Mary-Beth Hughes


A young son dies and The Loved Ones remain bereft and a bit lost. In the case of the Devlins, the father is bizarrely sent over to London to head a cosmetic company, despite having no experience at all, which allows the reader to wallow in luxury hotels and chauffeur-driven limos, alone with a few last-minute plane trips. Meanwhile rapist boys hang around the daughter, protected by their mothers, suicides are attempted, and the worst is: we don’t care that much.

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Filed under New fiction

*** Being Mortal by Atul Gawande


Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End shares the personal and professional journey of the author, a surgeon, from the standard response of doing “everything” to fight disease to the newer approach of asking patients at the end of life what they want to achieve, and adapt the treatment accordingly. This applies obviously to older patients but also to younger, very ill patients.

The author is candid about his prior ignorance and avoidance of difficult conversations, which makes for a kind an gentle book that suggests and never hectors.

We can only hope that politically-charged conversations about death panels can be replaced by thoughtful, individualized discussions of patient goals with their doctors and families.

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Filed under Non fiction