Brisk, unsentimental, but kind advice about death and dying is what is dispensed in Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying. It is written by a plaintive care nurse who wastes no time informing her readership that dying at home may sound good, but may exhaust your family, that cremation is bad for the ozone layer, and that true compassion means not forcing our solution onto the sick and dying–from eating more lunch to submitting to a surgical procedure.
It was somewhat surprising to me that someone so obviously practical would write a book that can be discursive and also very personal. It’s certainly a book that held my attention.
The Rules of Inheritance recalls the author’s struggles after both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer and died when she was teenager to young adult. She drank too much, got into ill-advised relationships, and generally felt alone and orphaned. She seems to blame her problems squarely on her loss, which may be too easy of an assignment. The best part of the book for me was her recalling her parents and their relationship.
I loved Kang’s The Vegetarian, but The White Book , an elegiac, impressionistic fugue on the color white, inspired by the death of an older sister, was just not my thing.
The author of Joy Enough was unlucky enough to see her mother sicken and die and her husband walk out on her at the same time. Such bad luck! And there are a few heart-melting moments in the memoir, as when the members of her mother’s book club show up, spontaneously, to clean the house after her death. But the story, however tragic, seems rather ordinary otherwise.
In The Shades, a family loses a daughter to a car accident and each member moves in their own direction. The dad continues his life in London, and hopes, passively, that his wife will go back to their old life. The mom becomes obsessed by a mysterious young woman. The son decides to chuck it all and fight for ecological justice, having latched on to a charismatic teacher at the boarding school where he fled.
In truth, they seem to have been already broken before the death, and the family too. There are some excellent psychological observations, in particular of the son, but the story never quite came together for me.
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is a memoir in the form of, yes, 17 brushes with death! The stories alternate from recent to distant past, and as they unfold we discover more details about the author’s disastrous childhood encephalitis, her worldwide wanderings, and her daughter’s deathly allergies. So yes, you DO want to read about 17 brushes with death; don’t be squeamish.
The Friend is a clever novel within a novel that apparently focuses (very movingly) on loss, grief, and love between humans and dogs, but it’s also the story of a great friendship and a woman who might lose her mind to an obsession. Excellent!
Another book about death, so soon after My Father’s Wake? The Book of Resting Places: A Personal History of Where We Lay the Dead was also inspired by the death of the author’s father, but instead of campaigning for a different way of dying this author instead describes cryonics, an antique dealer with right-wing rants, the paintings of Canaletto, Catacomb-dwelling bacteria, and family history — in other words he travels widely and chaotically, always with a wonderful writing style but the result is quite chaotic, and lost my interest.
My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love, and Die is a meditation on how we die, fueled by how he was able to be with his father as he died, in his own house, surrounded by family members, neighbors, and friends who did not hesitate to talk about death. It’s beautifully written and engaging — and the author’s argument that death should be handled more openly and in the community is very appealing. It would be interesting to consider the societal cost of what he is recommending, however. His sister took care of his father for years while he was simply old, not yet sick and, at the very end of life, she, relatives, and neighbors all pitched in to help. It’s not entirely clear how far-flung families in which all adults work outside the home could make appropriate arrangements for his romantic notion to succeed entirely — but certainly hiding death from view is not a great system.
You may hesitate to pick up a book about end-of-life patients, but I hope you will read On Living, a beautiful and funny memoir by a hospice chaplain who sits with her charges and listens, offering acceptance and occasionally compassion (never pity!), encouraging them to speak to the members of their families about secrets they never divulged before, and admitting to us all that she sometimes composes grocery lists in her head instead of listening fully.
Egan says that her own brush with mental illness allows her to fully hear every patient’s story, however deluded. I think she’s just a very dedicated and skilled listener.