A memoir by a young woman (and mother of two) who died of breast cancer may not be the most appealing book to add to your summer reading list — but The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying is so accomplished, so funny (really), and so grounded in reality that you really should read it. Prepare a tissue or ten — her mother is also herself dying, of cancer, during that time — but the general tone is not depressing. What I liked most about the book, aside from her son’s lovely comments and questions, is the way she describes the juxtaposition of the mundane and the profound, the dying and the living, the traumatic and the casual insults of everyday life. It’s a perfect example of the power of showing rather than telling.
Tag Archives: death
Although The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story starts with the moving story of the author’s death, it consists almost exclusively of analyzing other writers’ works about death, which makes the book feel like an exclusive, even exclusionary club if one has not read the texts — or if one cannot remember them (guilty as charged). I would like a little more emotion and a little less intellectualism.
I do remember the author’s excellent Claire of the Sea Light.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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).