Tag Archives: assisted dying
And Finally by Henry Marsh & Sinkhole by Juliet Patterson
As I mentioned about my first batch of September releases, the nonfiction was on two broad themes: books about books (two still to come), and books about death (with What Remains? by Rupert Callender still to come). Here’s two from the latter camp.
And Finally: Matters of Life and Death by Henry Marsh
Marsh is a retired brain surgeon and the author of Do No Harm, one of the very best medical memoirs out there, as well as Admissions. As he was turning 70 a couple of years ago, two specific happenings prompted this third book. One: he volunteered for a brain scan as part of a medical study and, though he was part of a healthy cohort, was appalled at the degeneration his results showed. The other was that, after years of ignoring symptoms, he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer and a someday, far-off mortality started to seem a lot closer. The pandemic amplified his health worries and sense of isolation, so he threw himself into various domestic projects like clearing his loft, home renovations, and remodelling his daughter’s dollhouse to give to his beloved granddaughters.
As in Admissions, the book flits between topics: the hypoxia he experienced on a trip to Nepal, surgical mistakes made (he once operated on the wrong side of the neck), balcony gardens he created on his hospital’s neurosurgery wards, a potter friend who died of a brain tumour, and so on. Along with details of his cancer treatment, he discusses its typical course and waxes lyrical about the meaning of dreams, what we know about consciousness, and the fairy stories he made up to tell his granddaughters over Zoom during lockdown. He acknowledges his own limitations – he was conned not once but twice by cowboy builders, and declined to operate on a young Ukrainian doctor, leaving it to a colleague – and speaks out against technologies to extend the human lifespan and in favour of assisted dying.
In general, the book feels quite scattered and repetitious. However, I appreciated Marsh’s usual candour and could see how he would want to finish this quickly and get it out into the world, even if it would have benefited from further editing to make each chapter a more polished stand-alone essay. The good news is that his scan results were promising as of spring 2022 and I’ve seen on Twitter that he’s now in Ukraine with Rachel Clarke to speak at the Lviv BookForum. Is it selfish to hope we’ll get another book from him?
With thanks to Jonathan Cape for the free copy for review.
Sinkhole: A Legacy of Suicide by Juliet Patterson
In December 2008, poet Juliet Patterson’s father died by suicide, hanging himself from a bridge near his Minnesota home in the middle of the night. When the news came, Patterson was recovering from a car accident the week before and in the middle of debates with her partner Rachel about whether they would have a child. Her father had been in his late seventies, in fine health and with full mental capacity; he left his affairs ship-shape, and his suicide note was mostly practicalities about insurance, bank accounts and car ownership.
On the face of it, he wasn’t an obvious candidate, not someone you would worry about. Yet there was family history: both of Patterson’s parents lost their fathers to suicide. And there was a bizarre direct connection between their two Kansas-based families: her maternal grandmother’s best friend became her paternal grandfather’s secretary and mistress.
Patterson returns to Kansas on research trips to unearth her grandfathers’ lives: William a pottery manager who later struck it rich through Gulf Oil and Edward a New Deal Democratic congressman who lost his second bid for re-election. She pairs archival evidence – photographs and newspaper clippings – with skillfully imagined accounts of what each of her three ancestors did and felt on the day of his suicide. Her thinking is guided especially by the work of Edwin Shneidman, a psychologist who studied suicide notes.
Throughout, sinkholes, which are common in Kansas due to coal mining (one even opened up near her grandmother’s house), are both reality and metaphor for the chasm a suicide leaves. This gorgeously written family memoir approaches its difficult subject matter with brave tenderness and is one of my nonfiction favorites from the year so far.
Published by Milkweed Editions in the USA. With thanks to Nectar Literary for the advanced e-copy for review.
Review Catch-Up: The Swimmers, Black Butterflies, Bi, and On the Scent
I have a preposterous backlog of review copies to finish and write about (I’m going to go ahead and blame buying a house, moving and DIY for my lack of focus and diminished time, as I have done most of this year), but I’ve decided to get on top of it by pulling a quartet off of my set-aside shelf each week for short responses. I always like to feature a variety, so here I have two fiction and two nonfiction selections: novels about assisted dying and the Bosnian War that are a lot funnier and more life-affirming than you might expect, and books about bisexuality and the sense of smell – and the effect of its loss.
The Swimmers by Chloe Lane (2020; 2022)
Erin Moore has returned to her family’s rural home for Queen’s Birthday (now a dated reference, alas!), a long weekend in New Zealand’s winter. Not a time for carefree bank holiday feasting, this; Erin’s mother has advanced motor neurone disease and announces that she intends to die on Tuesday. Aunty Wynn has a plan for obtaining the necessary suicide drug; it’s up to Erin to choreograph the rest. “I was the designated party planner for this morbid final frolic, and the promise of new failures loomed. … The whole thing was looking more and more like the plot of a French farce, except it wasn’t funny.”
Lane renders a potentially maudlin situation merely bittersweet through black comedy. Erin isn’t the most endearing narrator because, Disaster Woman-like, she keeps undertaking weird acts of self-sabotage – at 26, she’s blown her first gallery curation opportunity by sleeping with her boss. Still, the picture of a different sort of dysfunctional family and the contrast between an illustrious past (Erin comes from a line of semi-pro swimmers: Aunty Wynn qualified to compete in the Commonwealth Games) and an iffy future make this fairly memorable, if not so much so as the other 2022 The Swimmers – Julie Otsuka’s.
Readalikes: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts, The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
With thanks to Gallic Books for the proof copy for review.
Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris (2022)
Drawing on her own family history, Morris has crafted an absorbing story set in Sarajevo in 1992, the first year of the Bosnian War. Zora, a middle-aged painter, has sent her husband, Franjo, and elderly mother off to England to stay with her daughter, Dubravka, confident that she’ll see out the fighting in the safety of their flat and welcome them home in no time. But things rapidly get much worse than she is prepared for. Phone lines are cut off, then the water, then the electricity. “We’re all refugees now, Zora writes to Franjo. We spend our days waiting for water, for bread, for humanitarian handouts: beggars in our own city.”
When even the haven of her studio is taken away from her, she’s reduced to the bare bones of existence, with just a few beloved neighbours to keep her spirits up. Her painting, more an obsession than a hobby, keeps her human as she awaits space on a Red Cross convoy. The title has heartrending significance: ‘black butterflies’ are fragments of paper carried on the breeze after the burning of the National Library of Sarajevo, 30 years ago last month. It was especially poignant to be reading this during the war in Ukraine and think about the sorts of daily dangers and deprivation that people face in conflict zones. The pages turned quickly and I was reminded of Girl at War, one of my absolute favourites, as well as The Pianist.
With thanks to Duckworth for the proof copy for review.
Bi: The hidden culture, history, and science of bisexuality by Julia Shaw (2022)
I’m tying this in with today’s celebration of Bi Visibility Day. Shaw is a criminal psychologist; her third book is a departure for her thematically, but means a lot to her personally. Bisexuality is the largest minority sexuality group, yet bisexuals are less likely to be out because of misconceptions and stereotypes – there are fewer outward signals and less group identification – which can sometimes result in poor mental health. Shaw realized how tricky bi identity was when a German TV show wanted to base a character on her but didn’t know how to make her sexuality obvious to viewers (lingering glances/flirtations involving both men and women? a backstory about a previous relationship with a woman?), and when trying to figure out what to wear to gay bars.
The book aims to situate bisexuality historically and scientifically. The term “bisexual” has been around since the 1890s, with the Kinsey Scale and the Klein Grid early attempts to add nuance to a binary view. Shaw delights in the fact that the mother of the Pride movement in the 1970s, Brenda Howard, was bisexual. She also learns that “being behaviourally bisexual is commonplace in the animal kingdom,” with many species engaging in “sociosexual” behaviour (i.e., for fun rather than out of reproductive instinct). It’s thought that 83% of bisexuals are closeted, mostly due to restrictive laws or norms in certain parts of the world – those seeking asylum may be forced to “prove” bisexuality, which, as we’ve already seen, is a tough ask. And bisexuals can face “double discrimination” from the queer community.
It felt odd to me that a final chapter on bisexual relationships ended up being mostly about threesomes, such that my main question (as she puts it: “what are the problems with the assumed link between bisexuality and non-monogamy?”) only merited four pages. A valuable book, certainly, but one to read for information rather than entertainment or thoughtful prose.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
On the Scent: Unlocking the mysteries of smell – and how its loss can change your world by Paola Totaro and Robert Wainwright (2022)
Totaro (co-author Wainwright is her husband) contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 and temporarily lost the ability to smell, prompting her to embark on this investigation into a less-understood sense. One in 10,000 people have congenital anosmia, but many more than that experience it at some point in life (e.g., due to head trauma, or as an early sign of Parkinson’s disease), and awareness has shot up since it’s been acknowledged as a symptom of Covid. For some, it’s parosmia instead – smell distortions – which can almost be worse, with people reporting a constant odour of smoke or garbage, or that some of their favourite aromas, like coffee, were now smelling like faeces instead. Such was the case for Totaro.
She visits fascinating places like the Smell and Taste clinic in Dresden and the University of Reading Flavour Centre. “Sniffin’ sticks” are used to put people’s sense of smell to the test, but it’s notoriously difficult, even for those who haven’t had their senses compromised by illness, to name a smell out of context; people generally don’t score over 50%. That’s one of the major questions the book asks: why it is quite so difficult to identify smells, or describe them in words. Totaro also considers perfume-making, the associations of particular smells (bleach, pine or lemon, depending on your country) with cleanliness, and the potential for multisensory experiences, such as releasing odours during film showings. Lots of interesting topics and stories here, but not as compelling on the whole as The Smell of Fresh Rain.
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.
Best of the 4: Black Butterflies
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
The Best Books from the First Half of 2022
Yes, it’s that time of year already! At first I thought I wouldn’t have enough 2022-released standouts to fill a post, but the more I looked through my list the more I realized that, actually, it has been a pretty good reading year. It remains to be seen, of course, how many of these will make it onto my overall best-of year list, but for now, these are my highlights. I made it up to an even 20 by including one that doesn’t release until July. Fiction is winning thus far! I give review excerpts below and link to the full text here or elsewhere.
Our Wives under the Sea by Julia Armfield: Miri is relieved to have her wife back when Leah returns from an extended deep-sea expedition. Something went wrong with the craft when it was too late to evacuate, though. Chapters alternate between Miri describing their new abnormal and Leah recalling the voyage. As Miri tries to tackle life admin for both of them, she feels increasingly alone. This is a sensitive study of love, grief and dependency. Armfield gives an increasingly eerie story line a solid emotional foundation.
These Days by Lucy Caldwell: A beautiful novel set in Belfast in April 1941. We see the Second World War mostly through the eyes of the Bell family – especially daughters Audrey, engaged to be married to a young doctor, and Emma, in love with a fellow female first aider. The evocation of a time of crisis is excellent. The lack of speech marks, fluid shifting between perspectives, and alternation between past and present tense keep the story from seeming too familiar or generic. All of the female characters have hidden depths.
Groundskeeping by Lee Cole: In Cole’s debut novel, two aspiring writers meet on a Kentucky college campus and form a romantic connection despite very different backgrounds. There are stereotypes to be overcome as Owen introduces Alma to Kentucky culture and slang. Trump’s election divides families and colleagues. The gentle satire on the pretensions of writing programs is another enjoyable element. Three-dimensional characters, vivid scenes ripe for the Netflix treatment, timely themes and touching relationships: alright!
Days of Sand by Aimée de Jongh: This Great Depression-era story was inspired by the work of photographers such as Dorothea Lange. John Clark is following in his father’s footsteps as a photographer, leaving NYC for the Oklahoma panhandle. Locals are suspicious of John as an outsider, especially when they learn he is working to a checklist. Whether a cityscape or the midst of a dust storm, de Jongh’s scenes are stark and evocative. It’s rare for me to find the story and images equally powerful in a graphic novel, but that’s definitely the case here.
Dance Move by Wendy Erskine: The 11 stories in Erskine’s second collection do just what short fiction needs to: dramatize an encounter, or a moment, that changes life forever. Her characters are ordinary, moving through the dead-end work and family friction that constitute daily existence, until something happens, or rises up in the memory, that disrupts the tedium. Erskine being from Belfast, evidence of the Troubles is never far away. Her writing is blunt and edgy, with no speech marks plus flat dialogue and slang.
Antipodes by Holly Goddard Jones: Riveting stories of contemporary life in the American South and Midwest. Some have pandemic settings; others are gently magical. All are true to the anxieties of modern careers, marriage and parenthood. Endings elicit a gasp, particularly the audacious inconclusiveness of “Exhaust,” a tense tale of a quarreling couple driving through a blizzard. Worry over environmental crises fuels “Ark,” about a pyramid scheme for doomsday preppers. Nickolas Butler and Lorrie Moore fans will find much to admire.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel: This dazzlingly intricate novel blends historical fiction, up-to-the-minute commentary and science-fiction predictions. In 2401, the Time Institute hires Gaspery-Jacques Roberts to investigate a recurring blip in time. Fans of The Glass Hotel will recognize some characters, and those familiar with Station Eleven will find similarities in a pandemic plot that resonates with the Covid-19 experience. How does Mandel do it? One compulsively readable hit after another.
Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso: The aphoristic style of some of Manguso’s previous books continues here as discrete paragraphs and brief vignettes build to a gloomy portrait of Ruthie’s archetypical affection-starved childhood in the fictional Massachusetts town of Waitsfield in the 1980s and 90s. The depiction of Ruthie’s narcissistic mother is especially acute. So much resonated with me. This is the stuff of girlhood – if not universally, then certainly for the (largely pre-tech) American 1990s as I experienced them.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu: Just the right blend of literary fiction and science fiction. Opening in 2031 and stretching another 70 years into the future, this linked short story collection imagines how a pandemic reshapes the world and how communication and connection might continue after death. All but one story are in the first person, so they feel like personal testimonies. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The focus on illness and bereavement, but also on the love that survives, made this a winner.
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka: Otsuka’s third novel of the Japanese American experience again employs the first-person plural, as well as the second person – rarer perspectives that provide stylistic novelty. The first two chapters are set at a pool that, for the title swimmers, serves as a locus of escape and safety. On the first page we’re introduced to Alice, whose struggle with dementia becomes central. I admired Otsuka’s techniques for moving readers through the minds of the characters, alternating range with profundity and irony with sadness.
French Braid by Anne Tyler: My 17th from Tyler, and easily her best new work in 18 years. It joins my other favourites such as Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant which reveal a dysfunctional family’s quirks through a close look, in turn, at the various members. Mercy is a painter and essentially moves into her studio, but without announcing it, and her husband Robin spends the next 25+ years pretending they still share a home. Other surprises from Tyler this time: a mild sex scene and a gay character. A return to form. Brava!
In Love by Amy Bloom: Bloom’s husband, Brian Ameche, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his mid-60s, having exhibited mild cognitive impairment for several years. Brian quickly resolved to make a dignified exit while he still, mostly, had his faculties. This achieves the perfect tone, mixing black humour with teeth-gritted practicality as Bloom chronicles their relationship, the final preparations, his assisted suicide at Dignitas in Switzerland, and the aftermath. An essential, compelling read.
Everything Is True by Roopa Farooki: Second-person, present-tense narration drops readers right into the life of a junior doctor. In February 2020, Farooki’s sister Kiron died of breast cancer. During the first 40 days of the initial UK lockdown, she continues to talk to Kiron. Grief opens the door for magic realism. There is also wry humour, wordplay, slang and cursing. A hybrid work that reads as fluidly as a novel while dramatizing real events, this is sure to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally pick up a bereavement or medical memoir.
Body Work by Melissa Febos: A boldly feminist essay collection that explores how autobiographical writing can help one face regrets and trauma and extract meaning from the “pliable material” of memory. “In Praise of Navel Gazing” affirms the importance of women airing their stories of abuse and thereby challenging the power structures that aim to keep victims silent. “A Big Shitty Party” warns of the dangers of writing about real people. “The Return” employs religious language for the transformation writing can achieve.
All Down Darkness Wide by Seán Hewitt: This poetic memoir about love and loss in the shadow of mental illness blends biography, queer history and raw personal experience. The book opens, unforgettably, in a Liverpool graveyard where Hewitt has assignations with anonymous men. His secret self, suppressed during teenage years in the closet, flies out to meet other ghosts: of his college boyfriend; of men lost to AIDS during his 1990s childhood; of English poet George Manley Hopkins; and of a former partner who was suicidal. (Coming out on July 12th from Penguin/Vintage (USA) and July 14th from Jonathan Cape (UK). My full review is forthcoming for Shelf Awareness.)
Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury: This tenth collection features abundant imagery of animals and the seasons. Alliteration is prominent, but there is also a handful of rhymes. Family history and the perhaps-idyllic rural underpin the verse set in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire as Brackenbury searches for ancestral graves and delivers elegies. I especially loved “Aunt Margaret’s Pudding,” a multipart poem about her grandmother’s life. There are also playful meetings between historical figures.
Some Integrity by Padraig Regan: The sensual poems in this debut collection are driven by curiosity, hunger and queer desire. Flora and foods are described as teasing mystery, with cheeky detail. An unusual devotion to ampersands; an erotic response to statuary; alternating between bold sexuality and masochism to the point of not even wanting to exist; a central essay on the Orlando nightclub shooting and videogames – the book kept surprising me. I loved the fertile imagery, and appreciated Regan’s exploration of a nonbinary identity.
Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl: Having read Ruhl’s memoir Smile, I recognized the contours of her life and the members of her family. Cooking and laundry recur: everyday duties mark time as she tries to write and supervises virtual learning for three children. “Let this all be poetry,” she incants. Part 2 contains poems written after George Floyd’s murder, the structure mimicking the abrupt change in focus for a nation. Part 3’s haiku and tanka culminate in a series on the seasons. A welcome addition to the body of Covid-19 literature.
Rise and Float by Brian Tierney: Although it tackles heavy subjects like grief and mental health, the collection’s candor and stunning images transform the melancholy into the sublime. Much of the verse is in the first person, building an intimate portrait of the poet and his relationships. A family history of mental illness and electroshock treatment occasions a visit to a derelict psychiatric hospital. Recurring metaphors of holes dramatize a struggle against the void. Tierney’s close attention lends beauty to bleak scenes.
Vinegar Hill by Colm Tóibín: I didn’t realize when I started that this was Tóibín’s debut collection; so confident is his verse, I assumed he’d been publishing poetry for decades. There’s a wide range of tone, structures and topics. Bereavements and chemotherapy are part of a relatable current events background. Irish-Catholic nostalgia animates a witty sequence from “The Nun” to “Vatican II.” Come along on armchair travels. Poems are based around anecdotes or painterly observations. The line breaks are unfailingly fascinating.
What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2022 releases do I need to catch up on right away?
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara (Doorstopper of the Quarter)
When I expressed interest in Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise on Twitter, having loved A Little Life and tepidly admired The People in the Trees, I didn’t expect to be chosen to receive one of my most anticipated releases of the year. A proof arrived while I was in the States for Christmas. As soon as I got back, I started it – with a vision of doing little else but reading it for a few days and reviewing it early in January. Instead, I read about 30 pages and set it aside, the 700-page heft mocking me from my coffee table stack for the better part of two months. Finally, I forced myself to set a daily reading goal: first 30 pages, then 40, then 60; and on Friday I read the last 100 pages over a couple sessions in the summerhouse. That regimented approach was what it took for me to get through my first doorstopper of the year.
The novel is in three parts – discrete enough to feel like separate books – set largely in 1893, 1993, and 2093. New York City’s Washington Square, even one particular house, recurs as a setting in all three, with some references to the American West and South and with flashbacks to time in Hawaii linking Books II and III.
The overarching theme is the American project: is freedom, both individual and collective, a worthy and attainable goal? Or are the country’s schisms too deep to be overcome? Class, race, sexuality, and physical and mental illness are some of the differences that Yanagihara explores. Even when equality of treatment has been won in one time and scenario – same-sex marriage is de rigueur in her alternative version of the 1890s, where the USA is divided into several nations – there is always the threat of a taken-for-granted right being retracted.
In Book I, David Bingham, who is to inherit his grandfather’s Washington Square property, considers a family-approved arranged marriage with an older man, Charles, versus eloping with a lower-class male teacher, Edward, with whom he has fallen in love. Edward wants them to light out for California, where new opportunities await but homosexuality is outlawed. Can they live in freedom if they’re repressing an essential part of their identity? The austere, elegant tone is a pitch-perfect pastiche of Henry James or Edith Wharton. Although this section took me the longest to read, it was the one I most appreciated for its flawless evocation of the time period and a rigid class structure. As in The Underground Railroad, though, the alt-history angle wasn’t really the most memorable aspect.
In Book II, David Bingham, also known as Kawika, is a paralegal having a secret affair with Charles, a partner in his law firm. Various friends and former lovers in their circle have AIDS, but Charles’s best friend Peter is dying of cancer. Before Peter flies to Switzerland for an assisted death, Charles throws him one last dinner party. Meanwhile, David receives a long letter from his ill father recounting their descent from Indigenous nobility and his failed attempt to set up a self-sufficient farm on their inherited land in Hawaii. This strand is closest to Yanagihara’s previous novels, the gay friendship circle reminiscent of A Little Life and the primitive back-to-the-land story recalling The People in the Trees. I also thought of Mrs Dalloway – David wanted to get the flowers for the party himself – and of Three Junes.
Book III is set in a dystopian future of extreme heat, rationing and near-constant pandemics. The totalitarian state institutes ever more draconian policies, with censorship, quarantine camps and public execution of insurgents. The narrator, intellectually disabled after a childhood illness, describes the restrictions with the flat affect of the title robot from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. When a stranger offers her the chance to escape, she is forced to weigh up freedom against safety. An alternating strand, based around letters sent by a Chinese Hawaiian character, traces how things got this bad, from the 2040s onwards.
While the closing speculative vision is all too plausible, two other literary/science fiction releases I’ve read this year, Sea of Tranquillity by Emily St. John Mandel and How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu, are more powerful and direct. Book III takes up half of the text and could stand alone, but the fact that it appears as a culmination of two other narratives creates false expectations that it can’t meet. The connections between the three are incidental – abandonment by a mother, a child raised by a grandparent, an arranged marriage, isolating illness – with recurring tactics like stories within stories and epistolary sections. The most overt cohesive strategy, the repeating of names across time periods, feels gimmicky and, again, sets readers up for a letdown by promising meaning that isn’t there.
Ultimately, the message seems to be: America’s problems are inherent, and so persist despite apparent progress. It takes a lot of words to build to that somewhat obvious point. I couldn’t suppress my disappointment that none of the storylines are resolved – this does, however, mean that one can choose to believe things will turn out happily for the characters. Their yearning for a more authentic life, even in a rotten state, makes it easy to empathize with their situations. I had high regard for the self-assured cross-genre prose (my interest waning only during the elder Kawika’s improbably long letter), but felt the ambition perhaps outshone the achievement.
As I learned when reviewing a recent book about American utopian projects, Heaven Is a Place on Earth, and interviewing its author, Adrian Shirk, an imagined utopia and a projected dystopia aren’t actually so different. Here was her response to one of my questions:
At one point you say, “utopia is never far from its opposite.” Dystopian novels are as popular as ever. To what extent do you think real-life utopias and fictional dystopias have the same aims?
I think real-life utopian experiments and fictional dystopias both offer warnings about the dangers of relying too much on ideology, and not enough on living, or choosing the person over the belief. So, in that way, real utopian experiments and fictional dystopian narratives are two sides of the same coin: a dystopia is a utopia that lost sight of—or never included—understanding itself as resistance to a violent empire, and thus starts to look like a violent empire itself.
Both start by diagnosing a societal sickness. The question is how we then get to paradise.
Page count: 701
My overall rating:
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
Six Degrees of Separation: What Are You Going Through to No Saints Around Here
I’ve become an occasional Six Degrees of Separation post-er, when the mood strikes me and/or I get a flash of inspiration. This month we began with What Are You Going Through, which I reviewed back in October 2020. (See Kate’s opening post.)
Between that, The Friend and A Feather on the Breath of God, Sigrid Nunez has quickly become one of my favourite contemporary authors. I have two more of her novels on the shelf to read soon, one from my birthday haul.
In What Are You Going Through, the narrator is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. However, I summed up the message as “Curiosity about other lives fuels empathy,” and noted “a sort of slapstick joy early in this morbid adventure.”
#1 One of the stand-out books from my 2021 reading so far has been The Inevitable, which is about assisted dying. The case studies are wrenching but compassionately told. Katie Engelhart explores the nuances of situations, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context.
#2 As the saying goes, if there’s one thing inevitable besides death, it’s taxes. And if you’re a U.S. citizen, you will remain accountable to the IRS until the day you die, no matter where you live. (Eritrea is the only other country that requires expatriates to fill in tax returns.) I’ve now gotten my U.S. tax forms down to a science, keeping a list of pointers and previous years’ forms as scanned files so that I just have to plug in the year’s numbers, put zeroes in all the important boxes (since I’ve already paid income tax in the UK), and send it off. A matter of an hour or two’s work, rewarded by a G&T.
But I distinctly remember the Junes when I would spend days muddling through byzantine IRS forms, so I am very grateful that an offer for this e-book arrived in my inbox via my blog contact form in 2017: U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans by Olivier Wagner. It goes through each form, often line by line. Three cheers for actually helpful self-help guides!
#3 Another expat tip that I found extremely useful, small as it might seem, is that “quite” means something different in American vs. British English. To an American it’s a synonym for “very”; to the guarded Brits, it’s more like “rather.” I have the Julian Barnes essay collection Letters from London to thank for this vital scrap of etymological knowledge.
#4 Unsurprisingly, I have built up a small library of books about understanding the English and their ways. In the How to Be a Brit omnibus, collecting three short volumes from the 1940s–70s, George Mikes (a Hungarian immigrant) makes humorous observations that have, in general, aged well. His mini-essays on tea, weather and queuing struck me as particularly apt. I would draw a straight line from this through Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island to the Very British Problems phenomenon.
#5 As I was preparing to fly to England for the first time for my study abroad year, one of the authors who most whetted my appetite for British travel was Susan Allen Toth, whose trilogy of UK-themed memoirs-with-recommendations began with My Love Affair with England – included in one of my Landmark Books in My Life posts. I’m rereading one of the other three now.
#6 Toth is a very underrated author, I feel. I’ve read most of her memoirs and have a short nonfiction work of hers on my pile for #NovNov. Her most recent book is No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days (2014), in which she chronicled the last 18 months of her husband James’s life, as she and an army of caregivers coped with his decline from Parkinson’s disease. Toth gets the tone just right: although she is honest, she is never melodramatic; although she often feels sorry for herself, she also recognizes how lucky she has been, not just to have done a good job of looking after James, but to have had him in her life at all.
I’ve gone full circle from one story of caregiving to another, via death, taxes and Englishness. The starting and ending books are reminders that you never fully know what another person is going through; all we can do is our best while cutting others some slack.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is our buddy read for week 4 of #NovNov, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
The Best Books from the First Half of 2021
Hard to believe we’ve already crossed the midpoint of the year. My top 20 releases of 2021 thus far, in alphabetical order within genre (fiction is dominating this year!), are below. I link to those I’ve already reviewed in full here or on Goodreads:
Under the Blue by Oana Aristide: Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry and sisters Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide. Their plan is to flee England for Uganda, out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues. A propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde.
The Push by Ashley Audrain: Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. How much of what happened was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed? The fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood. A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator.
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies: Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moment – crystallizes fatherhood, illuminating its daily heartaches and joys. The tone is just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to, starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. I loved the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life.
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Extinction, personal and global, is at the heart of this timely and enchanting story. It starts off as a family drama. Francie, the 86-year-old matriarch, is in a Tasmanian hospital after a brain bleed. Her three middle-aged children can’t bear to let her go. In an Australia blighted by bushfires, species loss mirrors Francie’s physical and mental crumbling. Smartphone addiction threatens meaningful connection. And then characters start to literally disappear, part by part…
Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined. The novel balances the cosmic and the personal through Wolf’s family story. Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read.
Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny: This tickled my funny bone. A cross between Kitchens of the Great Midwest and Olive Kitteridge, it’s built of five extended episodes, crossing nearly two decades in the lives of Jane and Duncan and lovingly portraying the hangers-on who compose their unusual family constellation in Boyne City, Michigan. All the characters are incorrigible but wonderful. Bad things happen, but there’s a core of love as Heiny explores marriage and parenting. A good-natured book that feels wise and bittersweet.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: This starts as a flippant skewering of modern life. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.” Midway through the book, she gets a wake-up call when her mother summons her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. It’s the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. Funny, but with an ache behind it.
In by Will McPhail: Alternately laugh-out-loud funny and gentle. This debut graphic novel is a spot-on picture of modern life in a generic city. Nick never knows the right thing to say. The bachelor artist’s well-intentioned thoughts remain unvoiced; all he can manage is small talk. That starts to change when he meets Wren, a Black doctor who sees past his pretence. If only he can find the magic words that elicit honesty, he might make real connections with other human beings. A good old-fashioned story, with a wide emotional range.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: A sparkling, sexy comedy with a tender heart beneath the zingers. Peters has set herself up as the Jane Austen of the trans community, tracing the ins and outs of relationships with verve and nuance. For me this was a valuable book simply for normalizing trans sexuality. The themes are universal, after all: figuring out who you are and what the shape of your life will be. I admire when authors don’t pander to readers by making things easy for those who are unfamiliar with a culture. Great lines abound.
Brood by Jackie Polzin: Polzin’s debut is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.
The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.
The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart: Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Each case is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile. The stories are wrenching, but compassionately told. The author explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. A voice of reason and empathy.
The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy.
Intensive Care by Gavin Francis: Francis, an Edinburgh physician, reflects on “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He journeys back through 2020, from the January day when he received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown. An absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis, it compassionately bridges the gap between experts and laymen. The best Covid chronicle so far.
A Still Life by Josie George: Over a year of lockdowns, many of us became accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (Reviewed for TLS.)
Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott: Lamott’s best new essays in nearly a decade. The central theme is how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst. One key thing that has changed for her is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. In thinking of marriage, she writes about friendship, constancy, and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time.
A Braided Heart by Brenda Miller: Miller, a professor of creative writing, delivers a master class on the composition and appreciation of autobiographical essays. In 18 concise pieces, she tracks her development as a writer and discusses the “lyric essay”—a form as old as Seneca that prioritizes imagery over narrative. These innovative and introspective essays, ideal for fans of Anne Fadiman, showcase the interplay of structure and content. (Coming out on July 13th from the University of Michigan Press. My first review for Shelf Awareness.)
Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black: A continuation of The Still Point of the Turning World, about the author’s son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease at age three. In the months surrounding his death, she split from her husband and raced into another relationship that led to her daughter, Charlie. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words she got branded with: “brave,” “resilient.” Sanctuary is full of allusions and flashbacks, threading life’s disparate parts into a chaotic tapestry. It’s measured and wrought, taming fire into light and warmth.
Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar: An Iranian American poet imparts the experience of being torn between cultures and languages, as well as between religion and doubt, in this gorgeous collection of confessional verse. Food, plants, animals, and the body supply the book’s imagery. Wordplay and startling juxtapositions lend lightness to a wistful, intimate collection that seeks belonging and belief. (Coming out on August 3rd from Graywolf Press. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)
Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick: In this audacious debut collection, the body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to the book, but it also has its lighter moments. Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry.
What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2021 releases do I need to catch up on right away?
The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die by Katie Engelhart
Why, she wanted to know, was I so interested in the subject?
“Why isn’t everyone?” I asked.
The fact that I read a lot more books about death than the average person is something I attribute not to some morbid curiosity, but to pragmatism. As the title of Canadian reporter and documentary filmmaker Katie Engelhart’s book makes clear, this is the one subject none of us can avoid indefinitely, so why not learn about and understand it as much as possible? The Inevitable focuses on the controversial matter of assisted dying, also known as assisted suicide, euthanasia, or physician-assisted death. It’s a topic that’s already come up in my reading a couple of times this year: in the Dutch context of That One Patient by Ellen de Visser, and as a key part of the narrative in Darke Matter by Rick Gekoski.
Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Ten states plus Washington, D.C. have assisted dying laws, sparked by Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act in 1994. In California, the author follows Dr. Lonny Shavelson for a month, observing all the meticulous regulations surrounded a physician-assisted death: patients with a terminal diagnosis and less than six months to live have to complete multiple forms, give many signatures, deliver oral testimony, and be able to drink the fatal concoction by themselves (whereas in other countries doctors can administer lethal injections). And if, when the time comes, a patient is too far gone to give spoken consent, the procedure is cancelled.
Other chapters consider specific cases that are not generally covered by current legislation but can drive people to seek assisted suicide: the ravages of old age, chronic degenerative illnesses, dementia, and severe mental illness. Each of these is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile.
- Meet Avril Henry, a former Exeter University professor in her eighties, now living alone with a failing body but no specific diagnosis that would qualify her for AD. Pain has long since outweighed pleasure in her life, so she illegally imports Nembutal from a veterinary supplier in Mexico and makes a careful plan for what will happen with her body, home, and possessions after she takes the drug in the bathtub.
- Meet Maia Calloway, a 39-year-old former filmmaker confined to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis. Her medicines cost $65,000 a year, not all covered by Medicare, and she can no longer rely on the patience of her boyfriend, who acts as her carer. She decides to raise the money to travel from Taos to a Swiss assisted dying clinic.
- Meet Debra, a 65-year-old widow so rapidly declining with dementia that she knows she has to make her arrangements at once. She contacts the Final Exit Network, which gives advice and equipment (e.g. a nitrogen tank) that can make a death look unexplained or like a standard suicide.
- Meet Adam, a 27-year-old in daily distress from OCD, anxiety, and depersonalization disorder. Though he’s lobbied for the inclusion of mental illness, he doesn’t qualify for AD under Canada’s laws. In 2017 he starts a Facebook livestream from a hotel room, intending to take poison off-screen. He loses his nerve this time, but is determined to try again.
These stories are so wrenching, but so compassionately told. Engelhart explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. Hers is a voice of reason and empathy. She mostly stays in the background, as befits a journalist, but occasionally emotional responses or skepticism come through – Exit International’s Philip Nitschke, vilified as a “Dr. Death” like Jack Kevorkian, is too much of a maverick for her.
And while her sympathy for the AD cause is evident, she also presents opposing arguments: from hospice doctors, from those afraid that the disabled will be pushed into assisted suicide to free up resources, from the family members of her subjects, and from those who have witnessed abuses of the system. There are those who frame this as a question of rights, and others who recognize a rare privilege; some who scorn the notion of escape, and others who speak of dignity and the kindness one would show a dying pet. The book is a vital contribution to an ongoing debate, with human stories at its heart.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review. The Inevitable was published in the UK on March 11th and is available from St. Martin’s Press in the USA.
Darke Matter by Rick Gekoski (Blog Tour Review)
Back in 2017, I enjoyed Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, Darke, in which curmudgeonly Dr. James Darke, a retired English teacher, literally seals himself off from the world after his wife Suzy’s death from cancer. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a sequel was released last year – how appropriate to revisit themes of grief and isolation in 2020! – and right away was reminded of the delights of his grumpy, pompous first-person narration. As the second book opens, Darke is preparing to host his daughter Lucy with her partner Sam and son Rudy for Christmas and is in a Scrooge-like mood: “In my own home, I am blessedly safe from the canvassers, beggars and importuners spreading bubonically from house to house at Yuletide.”
Soon two things happen to shatter his peace: one is an invitation to join a poetry reading club hosted by a literary associate of his late wife – but he soon realizes it’s more of a support group for bereaved spouses. The second and much more serious interruption is a knock on the door from the police, who require more information about Suzy’s death. You see, early on in this book, Darke tells us himself that he gave Suzy a “soothing drink to carry her away,” and even in the face of others’ horror he maintains two seemingly contradictory facts: that he did not want for her to die, but that he did give her a fatal concoction to ease her terrible pain.
By coincidence, I was reading a nonfiction study of assisted dying, The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart, at the same time, and I’d also read That One Patient, a collection of interviews with Dutch medical professionals, some of whom have helped terminally ill patients to commit suicide, earlier this year. It was amusing, but also touching, to see Darke becoming an unwitting spokesman for this movement. He writes a manifesto headed “Easeful Death – Do you love your dog more than your wife?” and gets help disseminating it from a journalist acquaintance. Media attention follows and a scandal erupts.
One of the joys of this pair of novels is Darke’s fondness for literary allusions. In the previous book, these were mostly to Dante and Dickens. Here, the greatest debt is to Jonathan Swift: Darke has been reading Gulliver’s Travels to his grandson at bedtime, and decides to write a pastiche sequel to entertain the boy. Gradually, this turns into a coded story by which he can explain to Rudy what might happen to his grandfather. Will Captain Gulliver be found guilty of heresy? Will he have to flee to avoid jail?
Because we only ever experience Darke’s point of view, he is something of an unreliable narrator, and because he delivers the novel’s finale via his italicized Swiftian narrative, there is some uncertainty about what actually happens to our antihero. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as the first book, but together they form a striking and witty character study. I especially appreciated how the sequel adds in a gentle note of controversy without allowing it to overtake the pleasures of the voice.
Darke Matter was first published in the UK by Constable in May 2020. The paperback edition came out on April 1st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
I was happy to take part in the blog tour for Darke Matter. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing.