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.

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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.

A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord

giacometti-portraitFor school, again: this book informs an upcoming seminar entitled “Process, Image, Form: What Writers Can Learn From Visual Artists,” taught by Richard Schmitt. A Giacometti Portrait is a record of the creation of a work of art. James Lord sits as a model for his friend Alberto Giacometti, a well-known and successful painter living in Paris. Lord flew over from New York to sit for an afternoon; he ends up sitting for 18 days, during which he takes notes and pictures to document the process. The portrait is not finished at the end of this time – it is central to Giacometti’s theory of life and art that such a thing could never be finished – but they agree to stop.

It is an odd but intriguing book. Giacometti is a real character, and the friends become very close while sitting and talking together through Giacometti’s dramatic crises of artistic frustration, and many other threads of life. While Giacometti’s passionate, pessimistic, but oddly magnetic personality is a feature, the portrait itself is at the center of this book, to the exclusion of characterization of Lord himself, outside events and characters, and all else. The book itself, of course, is also a portrait. The title acknowledges this with its syntactic ambiguity.

The material here for a discussion about art, different art forms, techniques and mutual reflections upon one another is obvious, especially as Giacometti writhes and moans, undoing and redoing his work, experiencing one revelation after another, and every one (to him at least) failing. I am most interested to see where our seminar takes us. It’s not a book I’m necessarily prepared to love on my own; it’s too thin, somehow, too occupied with the one thing. But I suspect there’s more here than meets my immediate eye, so I’m very glad to be studying this with help. An unusual, but strangely compelling portrait.


Rating: 7 hard-boiled eggs.

Teaser Tuesdays: Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Again for school, I am reading Katie Fallon’s first memoir (she has Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird forthcoming from University Press of New England in March 2017). I look forward to meeting her in just ten days or so! This is not an assigned book; I’m reading it by choice to get to know her a little better.

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Her opening lines read,

I stepped onto the tarmac in Bucaramanga, a city of more than five hundred thousand people in northeastern Colombia, and blinked in the fierce October sun. Black vultures lazily circled in the clear blue sky overhead, and swallows chittered to each other as they cut and dove above the Avianca jets idling on the runway.

I like that birds appear in the first two lines, since it is a bird that brings Fallon to these pages. The cerulean warbler does not appear so quickly; that’s a large part of the point of the book. I also enjoy the very full picture she paints in these few lines. Glad to be here with her.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, letters between Leslie Marmon Silko & James Wright, ed. by Anne Wright

the delicacy and strength of laceAs I wrote in my beginning, I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. I struggle with poetry, and the snippets included here out of context (it seemed to me) challenged me. I was not familiar with the protagonists. But quickly their voices and personalities revealed themselves; and the story of James Wright’s death, and the introduction to this book by his wife, add a poignancy. There’s something about knowing the sad ending to a story before you read it.

I found many lovely lines (naturally) and scraps of wisdom here. My instinct is to just begin sharing those with you.

I enjoyed Wright’s lines,

I hope you don’t mind post cards. They are a way of sharing something, some place or other delight, and they can also, when written and sent truly, offer small wavelets, so to speak, to the rhythm of a correspondence.

and perhaps even more, that he wrote so instructively, so consciously of this – that he felt the need, and the meta-quality of explaining one’s correspondence. They were still kind of new to each other, you see.

From Silko,

I always resented Shakespeare’s use of the delayed messenger in Romeo and Juliet, maybe because such things are so ordinary and so possible, and so much can be lost for two people that way.

which is both amusing, and profound, and a little confusing – why resent the use of something ordinary and enormous, and isn’t that what we do as writers? Hm.

And then,

I believe more than ever that it is in sharing the stories of our grief that we somehow can make sense out – no, not make sense out of these things… But through stories from each other we can feel that we are not alone, that we are not the first and the last to confront losses such as these.

and I think of the impulse we all seem to share to tell our stories in response to one another. This can be selfish. One person shares something personal and painful, and the response is “well I…” or “my…” as if to turn it back to the speaker every time. But Silko has a point, that there is a function to this return-to-me, and that in the right setting & relationship it’s how we perform empathy. I think about this in conversation sometimes, the effort to not always “me” everything. But it can be well done.

And very pertinently to nonfiction writers in particular, Silko again –

Memory is tricky – memory for certain facts or details is probably more imaginative than anything, but the important this is to keep the feeling the story has. I never forget that: the feeling one has of the story is what you must strive to bring forth faithfully.

This is the trick, or the puzzle, and the much-discussed central problem, with creative nonfiction or with memoir: the tension between strict “fact” (which is what, exactly?) and the richness of imaginative memory. See also Sejal H. Patel’s “Think Different” in issue 58 of Creative Nonfiction (I reviewed here), where she and other memoirists explore the use of technologies to aid memory.

Finally, and perhaps most centrally to the question of correspondence in general and especially between writers:

With you to write to, I go through the day with a certain attention I might not always have. I look for things you might want to see for yourself, but I can’t seem to get them into a letter.


I enjoyed reading this slim epistolary collection, and I think I got a lot out of it. But what was I supposed to get out of it? Despite a few classes taken early this year, I feel rusty at reading literature with a class in mind, and I am so curious about what the seminar that assigned this book will hold. Most of all, I’m excited. So thank you, school and world, for that.


Rating: 8 roosters.

book beginnings on Friday: A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

This is another I’m reading for school (see last week’s teaser), and deals with a work of visual art. The portrait of the title is both one being painted by the author’s friend of the author himself, and the book I hold in my hands: a portrait of the painter.

giacometti-portrait
James Lord is in conversation with the painter Alberto Giacometti as the former sits for his portrait.

“But is even a photograph really a reproduction of what one sees?” I asked.

“No. And if a photo isn’t, a painting is even less so. What’s best is simply to look at people.”

And I thought those lines began to capture part of what the book is about. Also, they spoke to me as a writer who tries to capture life. It makes it all a little futile, perhaps; or maybe it helps the artist to refocus. Plenty to think about.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees by Mike Shanahan

A joyful, celebratory world history of the fig tree and its ecological impact.

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Mike Shanahan’s Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees is a deceptively brief account of the Ficus genus of trees in history, emphasizing but not limited to their relationship with humans. Shanahan brings the expertise of decades of ecological fieldwork and a bubbling enthusiasm to a topic clearly close to his heart. He makes a strong argument that his readers should be attuned to and excited about fig trees, too.

The plant figures into the origin stories of cultures all over the world. Fig trees have provided food, shelter, medicine and materials to humans for as long as humans have existed: figs predate us by nearly 80 million years. Because of their contributions as keystone species in ecosystems around the world, figs offer distinctive services in reforestation efforts and the mitigation of climate change. They have contributed to the theory of evolution, the birth of agriculture and possibly humans’ development of opposable thumbs. The story of the fig is inseparable from that of fig wasps, numerous tiny insect species that have evolved to pair respectively in symbiosis with individual species of fig. Shanahan relates all this and more in a joyous voice with occasional lyricism, as when “the Buddhist monk’s robe sang out loud saffron over the rainforest’s muffled tones of brown and green and grey.”

Mythology, biology and hope for the future combine in this highly accessible story of the family of fig trees, with its profound ecological relevance.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the December 2, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 rhinoceros hornbills.

Creative Nonfiction, issue 58: Weather (winter 2016)

You can buy issue 58 here.

You can buy issue 58 here.

I always find something to appreciate from Creative Nonfiction. And in this issue, I confess, I had the added thrill of seeing several essays I got to read as submissions, that made it all the way to publication. Being a reader for CNF has been an incredible learning experience for me.

In this weather-themed issue, I really enjoyed Joe Fassler’s interview with Al Roker (Fassler wrote the essay “Wait Times” that I found so mesmerizing). Andrew Revkin’s essay about climate change, on the other hand, though much praised by editor Lee Gutkind, failed to grasp me: I found it overlong and less-than-gripping, and I guess also I found his opinions hard to access.

Interestingly, among the essays in the magazine’s main section, I was more excited about Ashley Hay’s “The Bus Stop” and Tim Bascom’s “My First Baptist Winter” than I was about the prize-winning “Recorded Lightning” by Amaris Ketcham: I enjoyed Ketcham’s writing very much, but the lightning-shaped text formatting which I think ‘made it’ for some readers only distracted me. Beatrice Lazarus’s “The Snow” was another interesting reading experience. I found the writing sometimes lovely and sometimes awkward, and the story’s steering between extreme weather and human violence took me a minute to grab onto. There is no question these are all impressive essays, but as usual, some worked better for me, personally, than did others.

Sejal H. Patel’s “Writers at Work” piece, called “Think Different,” lets Patel and five other memoirists discuss the impact of technologies on how we access and write about our memories. How does Google Earth, for example, help or confuse our recollections of the houses we grew up in? (Much more on this topic lies within The House That Made Me, which I recommend if this subject interests you.)

This issue of CNF is not the one I’ve enjoyed most, but there’s no shortage of thoughts provoked. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 7 tornadoes.
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