Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life by Haider Warraich

This interdisciplinary study of death and how we can improve–not avoid–it is highly readable and timely.

modern-death

In Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life, Haider Warraich explores how human death has evolved over the course of history and offers recommendations for its future. A medical doctor, Warraich supplements his research with anecdotes from his personal experience, and draws on literature, theology, statistics and legal theory as well as the hard sciences. The resulting expert opinion is heartfelt, convincing and well informed.

Warraich begins with the mechanics of how cells die and the opportunities for analogy they offer: cells choose to die to promote the good of the organism; not dying on time is as bad as dying too soon. He recounts the medical advances that have increased human life spans astronomically in the last two centuries. Chiefly, people now die far less frequently from infection and simple injuries, instead living long enough to die of cancer and heart disease. Because of both medical and cultural shifts, more people die in hospitals or nursing homes than at home.

This is the story of how medicine learned to save and expand lives–especially through procedures like cardiopulmonary resuscitation–and then how medicine learned not to resuscitate. Warraich shows what modern death looks like, how it works, its achievements and shortcomings–and then investigates what a good death could look like, and how we can do better. Science has lengthened lives so successfully, delayed death so thoroughly, that our new problem often is not staying alive, but letting go.

In what comes to feel like the real heart of Modern Death, Warraich then studies the nuances of euthanasia, assisted suicides and the withdrawal of life support systems, and their legal histories in the United States and worldwide. He finds that these three categories of death are far less distinct than generally believed. Finally, he advocates strongly for patients’ control over their own ends of life and exhorts his readers–patients and physicians alike–to discuss death openly.

These conclusions form the book’s central purpose. Along the way, Warraich explores different cultures’ and religions’ approaches to death. He also discusses the philosophical and legal difficulties in defining death and life. Warraich’s chief goal is a better end-of-life experience for everyone.

If Modern Death occasionally uses a few more words than necessary, the inclusion of Warraich’s anecdotal experiences enliven what could have been a dry academic text. For readers interested in its thesis–that death is an important part of life, and medicine and society could do a better job of delivering this experience–it is a sincere and thorough examination of an often overlooked subject. Well served by Warraich’s professional expertise and earnest emphasis, this is an indispensable entry into the conversation about death.


This review originally ran in the January 6, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cells.

bonus cross-post: can you help? at definingplace.com

Friends, this week’s bonus post is just to send you over to another project I’ve been working on. My birth/place page is seeking contributors. Please take a look and see if you can help out. Thank you! And back to your Tuesday.

teaser when I feel like it: Eggshells by Caitriona Lally

I guess now that I’m on a Wednesday schedule, I’ll give up on my Tuesday teaser and book beginnings on Friday posts. I’ll post whatever teaser I want, whenever I want. How freeing.

I’m reading Eggshells for a Shelf review. It’s a charmingly odd thing so far. I picked out some lines I particularly appreciated to share with you today.
eggshells

He unscrews the cap from the [cola] bottle, pours some on the ground in a brown hissing puddle and balances the open bottle on a wall. Then he takes a brown paper bag containing a rectangular glass bottle from inside his jacket, pours the clear liquid from the glass bottle into the cola bottle, and puts it back inside his jacket. When he takes a sup from the cola bottle, he smiles like he has solved the whole world.

I like this observation because it seems to hint that our narrator does not necessarily understand the implications of what she’s seeing, although the reader does. (She has also just finished sending “a good pinch” of her great-aunt’s ashes to a number of the deceased’s unsuspecting acquaintances, which is a pretty weird thing to do.) I feel warmly towards this whimsy.

Stick around for a review to come.

new beginnings: graduate school (again)

I am checking in only briefly today from Buckhannon, West Virginia, where I am midway through my first residency in West Virginia Wesleyan College’s low-residency MFA program. It’s been almost, but not quite, overwhelming; and all in a good way. I had lengthy and complicated travel from New Braunfels through San Antonio, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Fairmont, WV. I saw snow! And I was greeted by the friends I made on last summer’s visit. Even though this was my first residency as an enrolled student, I felt like I was coming back home into a place & a community where I belonged.

I started writing a line several days ago that began “early highlights definitely include…” but the list kept growing until it included pretty much everything. I have enjoyed readings by both core & visiting faculty too many to name, and seminars on a variety of topics like authors in correspondence, writing about ecology, and braided structures. I’ve had several writing exercises or prompts go especially well (and they don’t necessarily go well for me usually) – in particular, I found Nickole Brown’s talk on imitation, and her writing exercise, kind of a breakthrough. My writing sample got workshopped early on, and that went well and was productive. I’ve done some revision that I’m feeling good about continuing with. I’ve met with my faculty advisor, Katie Fallon, and enjoyed many conversations with Doug Van Gundy, who I especially hit it off with last summer. My classmates are truly a family to one another and already to me. In other words, yes, I’m overjoyed with what I’m finding here. I’m inspired & looking forward to this semester & beyond.

On the other hand, the schedule is rigorous, there’s plenty of work to do in our scant time “off,” and I miss my husband and dogs. Chris and I have hardly spoken, although he’s such a dear and is being patient with me (I warned him).

Most of all, I’m so excited to be embarking on this new challenge: two years of becoming a better writer and producing work.

Thank you, reader friends, for supporting this change on the blog.

2016: A Year in Review

This is a traditional annual post; you can see my past few years in review here: 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011.


This is an interesting review, since things will be changing quite a bit in 2016. Actually, I can see them changing as I look back, too. Of the 121 books I read in 2016:

  • 54% were nonfiction (50% last year)
  • 54% were written by male authors (not the same 54%, though!); 40% were by women, with a handful being collections or by authors of unknown genders. (last year, 51% were by men)
  • of the 55 novels I read, 27% were historical fiction, 18% were contemporary, and 11% were thrillers. Other categories included short stories, noir, classics and mysteries. (Last year 24% were historical fiction, 19% were mysteries, and a whopping 40% I classified as “misc fiction.” This year I tried to do away with that nebulous “misc,” and you see contemporary fiction showing up as a big one.)
  • only 5 books out of 121 were audiobooks (about the same percentage from last year)
  • 80% of the books I read, I read for paid reviews. another 11% I owned, and just a handful were borrowed or gifted to me, or taken from the library. (Last year, 12% of the books I read came from the library, 9% I owned, and 79% were for assigned reviews. I borrowed one.)
  • I read 121 books this year, compared to 150 last year.

For the very *best* books I’ve read this year, see yesterday’s post, best of 2016.

So, what’s changed? I read fewer books this year by a noticeable margin. That’s a little misleading, though, since I also reviewed 8 lit journals (and read more that I didn’t bother to write up), as well as some miscellaneous essays, short stories and poems; and perhaps most significantly, I did more of my own writing, including taking two university courses in creative writing. My energies were a little divided. And gosh knows that’s the trend that we’ll see continue in 2017. My tastes in terms of fiction vs. nonfiction haven’t changed: I lean slightly towards nonfiction, as I should since that’s what I’m trying to write. The steady decline in audiobooks & books from the library reflects the shift I made two years ago toward more and more paid reviews.

I expect you’ll see me read even fewer books in 2017, but hopefully with greater focus. I’ll still be reviewing for the Shelf, but far less often. What else the future holds I can’t see from here; but I hope you’ll stick around with me so we can find out together.

I know we will all be glad to see the back side of 2016 tomorrow night. I wish you the happiest of new years.

best of 2016: year’s end

My year-in-review post will be up tomorrow. But first… I always like to list my favorite books I’ve read in the closing year. As in the past, these are not necessarily new publications, although several are. Without further ado:

I rated just one book with a 10, so the best book that I read in 2016 was

I gave several a rating of 9:

There were, happily, as ever, lots of 8’s. Special mentions go to:

I also voted this year for The National Book Critics Circle Awards. Five for fiction: Smoke, Lily and the Octopus, The Wangs vs. the World, A Robot in the Garden, and The Throwback Special; and five for nonfiction: Joe Gould’s Teeth, Bellevue, Detroit Hustle, Gods, Wasps & Stranglers… and, for that final slot, I struggled between four titles and settled on The Song Poet. (Runners up were The Girls in My Town, Every Last Tie, and The Narrow Door.) I skipped the categories for poetry, criticism, biography, and autobiography, where I didn’t feel I’d read much.

Finally, I wouldn’t want you to miss Shelf Awareness’s best of list. You’ll notice one nonfiction and four fiction titles that cross over from that list to this blog post (or vice versa).

It’s been another amazing year, and I can’t wait to see what 2017 holds. Thanks for coming around again, friends.

The Evening Road by Laird Hunt

Two women from different sides of the tracks explore rural Indiana on a single night that is both allegory and starkly real.
evening-road

The Evening Road by Laird Hunt (Neverhome) meanders the backcountry roads of rural Indiana on a hot and troubled night, exploring human ugliness and the lives of two remarkable women.

Ottie Lee Henshaw is a red-haired beauty, eternally exasperated with her ill-kempt husband, Dale, and pursued by her randy boss, Bud. She finds it easier to let Bud do “a fair amount of arm action and heavy breathing and pawing of my hair” than to fight him off. With a sharp tongue, a good appetite and a mind of her own, Ottie Lee does all right, even if she doesn’t look very respectable to the town gossips. On this summer afternoon in 1920, Bud comes in excited by the prospect of driving to the neighboring town of Marvel to attend the “show”: a promised lynching. Ottie Lee sets off with Bud, Dale and others; with a shifting cast of companions, she’ll spend the rest of a long, sweltering night trying to get to Marvel.

Ottie Lee’s adventures take up the first half of this novel before her counterpart, Calla Destry, appears. Calla is a light-skinned woman from the black side of town who faces her hard, violent world with stark defiance: she is inclined to head straight into Marvel to break the lynching’s intended victims out of jail, while her family and community runs the other way, lest they become victims themselves. It soon becomes clear that Calla’s real aim is to find the man who has promised her a new beginning. But her wanderings parallel Ottie Lee’s, and the two soon become more closely involved than either realizes.

The halves of this story are told in the first-person perspectives of these two women, and both are strong vernacular voices that bring flavor and color to their narratives. Hunt turns a phrase nimbly: a dirty parlor “looked like it had been soaked in water then spread in mayonnaise and left to turn,” and a courting man notes, “You think that’s the wind in the maples, but it’s not the wind. It’s the universe twitching.” This folksy layer of romance and redolence characterizes Ottie Lee and Calla as much as anything else does; their memorable voices and the close, heady setting of these backwoods make The Evening Road darkly compelling. A dreaminess comes and goes as Calla hallucinates in the heat and a friend of Ottie Lee’s talks to angels. The crime at the center of their story is a reality, of course, but remains a pivot point rather than the focus: the point is not the destination, but rather the winding roads that these women take to get there, their decisions and the secrets they keep along the way.

The Evening Road is a sad and raucous story, ugly and beautiful at once, evocatively starring two very different women.


This review originally ran in the December 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 jars.
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