Tag Archives: life and death

The Art of Dying

The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke (Riverhead Trade, $16.00, 320 pages)

Someone once wrote: “We fear death the way children fear going into the dark.”   Meghan O’Rourke

There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading/ When things that seemed so very plain/ Became an awful pain/ Searching for the truth among the lying/ And answered when you’ve learned the art of dying…  But you’re still with me.   George Harrison (“The Art of Dying”)

Meghan O’Rourke has presented us with a serious, somber and thoughtful memoir about the grief she suffered when her mother died at the age of fifty-five.   Although her  mother’s age is noted, one has the impression that she would have felt the same burden if her mother had lived to be 100, as O’Rourke was simply unprepared to live in a world without its (to her) most important resident.   As she states so well, “One of the grubby truths about a loss is that you don’t just mourn the dead person, you mourn the person you used to be when the lost one was alive…  One night (my brother) Liam said to me, as we were driving home from my dad’s to Brooklyn, ‘I am not as sad as I was, but the thing is, it’s just less fun and good without her.'”

In order to deal with her pain, O’Rourke conducted a personal study of death, the standard fear of it, religious beliefs and the traditions surrounding it, and the vast amount of research that’s been done on the human grieving process.   She even addresses the matter of grief in animal colonies.   One discovery she made in the process is that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ work on the stages of grief has often been misunderstood.   These were intended to represent the stages that the chronically ill pass through, not the stages that mourners – those left alive – go through.

O’Rourke is at her best when she discusses her own fears with the reader.   She has been afraid since childhood of the notion of death and yet it remained an abstract – if still frightening – notion up until her mother’s passing.   Then her grief became all-consuming, and it became something that she could not put aside in order to live a “normal” life.   Grief, in a sense, made her crazy for a period of time but it also brought with it some very valuable lessons – the chief among them being that one has to focus on death in order to truly appreciate life.   As O’Rourke’s father told her several months after his wife’s death, he had always focused on what he didn’t have; now he had learned to appreciate what he did possess in the world and the universe.

After a loss you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead.   It doesn’t come naturally.

There’s a sense of accepting humbleness that permeates O’Rourke’s account.   Although she was raised as a Catholic, she refers numerous times to Buddhism.   If there’s a weakness in the telling, it’s a factor that naturally affects most memoirs, a tendency to make one’s own life sound more important than that of the others that share the planet with the writer.   And, like Julie Metz in Perfection, O’Rourke tends to tell her readers more than they would actually want to know about her social (meaning sexual) life.

At one point, O’Rourke comes off as strangely naive when it comes to social relationships.   At the time that her mother died (at Christmas), an old boyfriend – whom she once dropped without the benefit of an explanation – comes back into her life, and she wonders why, “…he always seemed to be holding back – why, I did not know.”   The reader wants to scream back at her, “Because you dumped him when you went away to college!”   (The ex was simply acting like a normal, scarred, self-protective human being.)

But these are minor points, because O’Rourke succeeds quite well in making us examine death as something both micro and macro;  internal and external.   It is something that must be fully understood before we can make realistic choices about what is key in our lives.   In her almost philosophical approach to examining death and dying, she has written not only a monumental love story for the person who went missing in her life, she has also placed death in its natural and proper context.

(I think I wanted to grow up to be my mother, and it was confusing to me that she already was her.)

This is, in the end, a work about acceptance – the good with the bad – life continuing on through death, the sudden eclipse of a life and eternal love.   O’Rourke masterfully teaches us about the art of dying, a matter for both hearts and heads (minds).

Very, very well done.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Long Goodbye: A Memoir was released as a trade paperback book on April 5, 2012.   “We feel our own grief, past and potential, as O’Rourke grapples with hers…  Now her book can provide similar comfort for others.”   The Washington Post

“And life flows on within you and without you…”   George Harrison (“Love You To”)

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Heaven

Proof of Heaven: A Novel by Mary Curran Hackett (William Morrow; $14.99; 336 pages)

Grief never ceases to transform.

proof-of-heaven

Mary Curran Hackett has drafted a stirring and remarkable, life-affirming novel.   This is the story of a very sick and courageous five-year-old boy, Colm, who suffers from a rare disease that will kill him within two years.   He knows this and wants simply to see the father he’s never known before he departs this earth.

Colm’s mother, Cathleen, is an intensely religious Irish-American Catholic woman who will do anything to extend her son’s life, although she knows that “if her son were a dog, they would have put him out of his misery already.”   This includes taking him on a pilgrimage to the Abbey of San Damiano in Italy in the hope that Colm will be cured by a miracle.

Colm was one of a kind.

Colm’s disease is idiopathic, meaning that its origins and treatments are unknown to the medical world.   Colm suffers strokes  which put him into a condition of appearing to be dead before he returns to consciousness.   Colm believes that he has literally died on at least one or two occasions, and comes to accept that there’s nothing waiting for him after his death.

Colm (pronounced “calm”) is quite reminiscent of the character Tim Farnsworth in the novel The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris.   Farnsworth comes to give up hoping that the medical profession will save him, and he remains – despite having a wife and family – ultimately alone in his struggle against a unique, crippling disease.   Colm also thinks of himself as being alone, despite the smothering efforts of Cathleen to protect him, until a potential savior – a physician – arrives on the scene.

Dr. Gaspar Basu is a man who lost a son at an early age in India, and comes to love Colm as a type of replacement for his late son Dhruv.   Dr. Basu also comes to fall in love with Cathleen.   And so, he installs a pacemaker in Colm’s chest – in the hope of preventing further near-death experiences for Colm and agrees to accompany Colm and Cathleen on their journey to Italy.   Dr. Basu also joins with Colm’s uncle in supporting Colm’s efforts to find his father who was last known to be living as a musician in Los Angeles.

…by Colm’s seventh birthday he hadn’t had any other near-death experiences after leaving Italy.   To Cathleen it was a sign that God was answering some of her prayers.   Colm may not have been physically healed, but at least he hadn’t died again.   Perhaps the worst was behind him.   Perhaps the miracle took…

proof-of-heaven-rear

The other details of the story should be left for the reader to discover.   Kudos to Hackett for presenting a real world, gritty, yet soaring tale in which humans must make their own choices between hope and hopelessness (in a spiritual sense).   And rest assured that  once you’ve finished reading Proof of Heaven you may well look at life and its inevitable conclusion in a new way.

He had loved her.   She had loved him.

It was enough.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. 

“…it was the tale of one boy’s search for heaven that brought me to tears.   I loved this book.”   Shelley Shepard Gray, author of Christmas in Sugarcreek

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Of Missing Persons

The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke (Riverhead Books; $25.95; 320 pages)

Someone once wrote: “We fear death the way children fear going into the dark.”   Meghan O’Rourke

There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading/ When things that seemed so very plain/ Became an awful pain/ Searching for the truth among the lying/ And answered when you’ve learned the art of dying…   But you’re still with me.   George Harrison (“The Art of Dying”)

Meghan O’Rourke has presented us with a serious, somber and thoughtful memoir about the grief she suffered when her mother died at the age of fifty-five.   Although her mother’s age is noted, one has the impression that she would have felt the same burden if her mother had lived to be 100, as O’Rourke was simply unprepared to live in a world without its (to her) most important resident.   As she states so well:  “One of the grubby truths about a loss is that you don’t just mourn the dead person, you mourn the person you got to be when the lost one was alive…  One night (my brother) Liam said to me, as we were driving home from my dad’s to Brooklyn, ‘I am not as sad as I was, but the thing is, it’s just less fun and good without her.'”

In order to deal with her pain, O’Rourke conducted a personal study of death, the standard fear of it, religious beliefs and traditions surrounding it, and the vast amount of research that has been done on the human grieving process.   She even touches upon grief in animal colonies.   One discovery she made in the process is that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ work on the stages of grief has been grossly misinterpreted.   These were not intended to be the stages that mourners – those left alive – go through; they were intended to represent the stages that the chronically ill pass through.

O’Rourke is at her best when she discusses her own fears with us.   She has been afraid, since childhood, of the notion of death but it remained an abstract, if frightening, notion up until her mom’s passing.   Then her grief became all-encompassing and something she could not put aside in order to lead a “normal” life.   Grief, in a sense, made her insane for a period of time but it also taught her some very valuable  lessons – the chief among them being that one has to focus on death in order to truly appreciate life.   As her father told her many months after his wife’s death, he had always focused on what he didn’t have; now he had learned to look at what he did have in the world and in the universe.

After a loss you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead.   It doesn’t come naturally.

There’s a sense of accepting humbleness that permeates O’Rourke’s account – although she was raised a Catholic, she refers numerous times to Buddhism.   If there’s a weakness in the telling, it’s a factor that naturally affects most memoirs, a tendency to make one’s own life sound more important than that of the others that share the planet with the writer.   And, like Julie Metz in Perfection, O’Rourke tends to tell us more than we actually want to know about her social (meaning sexual) life.

At one point, O’Rourke comes off as strangely naive in regard to social relationships.   At the time that her mother died (it’s Christmas), an old boyfriend – whom she once dropped without explanation – comes back into her life, and O’Rourke wonders why, “…he always seemed to be holding back – why, I did not know.”   The reader wants to scream back at her, “Because you dumped him when you went away to college!”   (The ex was simply acting like a normal, scarred, self-protective human being.)

But these are minor points, because O’Rourke succeeds quite well in making us examine death as something both macro and micro; as something that must be fully understood before we can make realistic choices about what is most important in our lives.   In her almost philosophical approach to examining death and dying, she has written not only a monumental love story for the person who has gone missing in her life, she has also placed death in its natural and proper context.

(I think I wanted to grow up to be my mother, and it was confusing to me that she already was her.)

This is, in the end, a work about acceptance – the good with the bad – survival with death, the sudden eclipse of a life and eternal love.   O’Rourke masterfully teaches us about the art of dying, a matter for both hearts and heads (minds).

Very, very well done.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “She is gone, and I will be, too, one day…  all the while my brain will be preoccupied by the question of death.   And that makes it hard, at times, to pay my bills…”


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The River

Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (Harlequin)

Review by Ilie Ruby, author of The Language of Trees: A Novel.

Few of us are well-versed in what it takes to save our own lives.   Carrie Host is.

Between Me and the River is a heartbreaking, glorious, and poetic rendering that spans several years of a young woman’s life during which her body is ravaged by a slow-growing but deadly form of cancer.   It is also the story of a woman saved by her inner resources, and the buoying love of her husband and three children.   In Between Me and the River, Host intimately describes her battles and triumphs in nail-biting detail.   While difficult to read at times, Host’s cut to the quick candor keeps the reader engaged as she takes us on a journey into the labyrinth of the medical system, as she rebuilds her body, brick by metaphorical brick, only to have it ravaged again.  

Her lyrical descriptions provide a reprieve from the harsh realities of a life forever on the “river” – a metaphor that she uses for her cancer.   At once poet and realist, Host’s struggle to make peace with her disease provides a compelling narrative that propels the reader to turn the book’s pages with care, hanging on to Host’s voice as though it’s a life raft through the unknown rapid waters she so bravely navigates, even when it appears she will drown.   Yet, through it all, one has the feeling she’s got her eyes set on the horizon, far enough in the distance to see herself across the river.

Sometimes the river is torrid.   Sometimes it stops moving completely.   Emboldened with a fighting spirit even as her 5’7′ body drops from a healthy 135 to a haunting 97 pounds, rendering her unable to hold her head up let alone hold a new baby, the future looks bleak.   But treatment after treatment, she fights and holds on, wrestling with her own spirituality and drawing epiphanies about herself and her relationships – the sort that come from the deepest depths of despair – that bless her with an uncommon peace that only those who have visited death’s door can intimately understand.

Host navigates the river as she enters into complicated dialogues with friends, her children, and her husband, all of whom, at times, she believes she may never see again.   She describes the desperation and frustration she feels when hiring someone to care for her children, to do the things she is supposed to be doing as she feels herself falling into a shadow of her former self when cancer seems to be winning.  

This is a story that shakes the reader to the core, one not for the faint of heart, but certainly a worthy one.   Host, caught in the middle of a glorious life, could have been any one of us…  yet, she is no longer like us.   She is different, as only a woman can be when she has touched death’s door and returned with as many scars as gifts.  

This book teaches us powerful lessons about love, letting go, and forgiveness, about the quest for health and the fight to survive, about savoring every small moment with the same enthusiasm and appreciation as all the grand moments put together.   In the end, it is Host’s determination and wisdom that bring her back fighting.   Hers is a voice not easily forgotten, one that makes a reader wish her many more healthy years, for surely she has many more gifts to share with us.

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Between Me and the River

Between Me and the River: Living Beyond Cancer by Carrie Host (Harlequin; $22.95; 304 pages)

Carrie Host’s book Between Me and the River is a moving memoir that chronicles her journey and struggles to survive an incurable form of cancer.   In the book, Carries shares all the pain, physical and emotional, she went through after her diagnosis.   She also relates the guilt she felt and anger at her new life.   But more than that, she provides a story of hope, love and self-awareness that many of us have never felt in our lives.

Host compares her trial in dealing with cancer to falling in a river.   Whether sinking into the deep water, rushing toward a waterfall, or resting in an eddy, it’s easy to identify with her as she explains where in the river she feels on any particular day.   It is heart wrenching to read of her account (being a mother of five) of how she delivered the news of her fate to her children, to follow along as she struggles to do the simplest tasks a mother must do, and to see her relationship with her husband flourish under the strain of what they have to deal with.

I applaud Carrie for having the courage to write so openly and honestly about her disease.   Reading this book has changed my life in a profound way.   It has made me more patient and loving with my children and more thankful of my husband.   While Host’s book at first is a heavy read, as you turn more pages you start to see the positive impact this devastation has on her family, her friends and her own consciousness.   Overall I found this book very easy to read, though I had to put it down at times to wipe the tears away.   I would definitely keep a tissue handy.

This review was written by Denna Gibbons and is used with her permission.   You can see more of her reviews at http://www.thebookwormblog.com/ .   Between Me and the River is also available in a low-cost Kindle Edition version and as an Unabridged Audio Edition.

 

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Hold the Line

On the Line: A Bill Smith/Lydia Chin Novel by S. J. Rozan (St. Martin’s Press; $24.99; 336 pages)

If reading a suspense thriller by David Baldacci is like driving in a new Porsche, reading a private investigator thriller by S. J. Rozan is like riding through the streets of New York City in a turbo-charged go-kart.   You never know what you’re going to bump into!

Rozan writes in a style that is part 1950s detective magazine, part retro (think of Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move), part Miami Vice/Hill Street Blues and more than a bit of Batman and Robin.   In order to follow her story you will need to suspend reality or believe in – as does the main character – miracles.

As the story opens our protagonist P.I. Bill Smith receives a mysterious message on his cell phone telling him that his partner and love interest Lydia Chin has been kidnapped.   Smith doesn’t know who’s behind this but correctly suspects that it’s someone he helped put in prison.   He’s soon provided with a “clue” that leads him to an abandoned building in Manhattan in which he finds a dead girl.   This, naturally, is a set-up.   The NYPD officers arrive just after Smith does and suspect him of murder.   Smith has to fight with and escape from the cops just as he’s about to begin his frantic search for Lydia.

The person who has kidnapped Lydia has set a clock on this “game” of cat and mouse, life and death.   Smith must find Lydia before time runs out, because her kidnapper has promised to kill her once the clock reaches double-zero.   Smith needs to figure out who exactly has taken Lydia, and where she’s been taken while he hides from the police and, oh yes, as new crimes take place and the police suspect him of being the perpetrator.   Smith would have little chance of dealing with all of this by himself, but two young assistants come to his rescue and he’s also got a friend inside the NYPD who performs a few of the miracles he needs.

Rozan’s writing style is rapid and breathless.   As the story begins, the reader will likely feel (as with Nobody Move) that too much is happening too fast.   But if you accept the fact that dramatic events are going to happen every few pages, the read becomes a highly entertaining – and exhilarating – one.   If you’re like this reader, you will begin On the Line wondering if you will be able to finish it.   On doing so, you will be calling a bookstore to order one of the nine previously released Bill Smith/Lydia Chinn novels.

Recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.   On the Line was released by St. Martin’s on September 28, 2010.

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Gaining Traction

When I first thought about writing book reviews (decades removed from writing music reviews at the college newspaper level), I thought it would be easy to get new releases from publishers.   I had no idea how difficult it would be.   I discovered that publishers – being reasonable business people – want samples of your work before entrusting you with their product.   It was then that I contacted a female book reviewer, a pioneer in the field, and asked her for advice.   Being wise she offered no A-B-C- guidebook steps, no formula to follow, although at that point I would have willingly purchased a Book Reviewing for Idiots book.   Instead, she told me something that was far more valuable:“When you start out, it will feel like you’re trying to climb a very steep and difficult mountain.   No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to find the path upward.   But then one day you will suddenly realize that you’re making progress – you’re gaining traction – and from then on every step becomes easier than the one that preceded it.”

She was right and you might think this article is about how to gain such traction.   No, because that’s something that every novice reviewer is going to have to learn on their own.   So I thought about using this space to answer a question that someone recently asked me, “How do you choose (or select) the books that you review?”   My answer was a simple and truthful one, I don’t choose (or select) the books, they choose me.   It’s true, as I almost never request a book on a blind basis.   I have generally read or heard something about the book prior to its release and I rely on my instincts to tell me that this is going to be either a most excellent or truly awful read.   As I’ve mentioned before, very good books and very bad books make for easily written reviews.   If nothing else, they tend to be interesting.   Interesting is not that difficult to write about.

I think some people would be surprised to learn that I decide to refrain from writing reviews on about every fifth or sixth book I read.   Why?   The logical answer would be that it’s because they’re average, but that’s not really the case.   Instead the answer is that with certain books I just cannot find “the hook” to make them sound interesting.   Recently, for example, I read a unique novel that was satisfying in every respect except that, two days after finishing it, I couldn’t think of how I would begin a write-up.

With some very good stories the only way you can begin to describe how good they are is to give away too much.   You know those movie previews where they show you the entire film – beginning, middle and ending – in two or three minutes?   Yeah, it’s like that.

And I won’t discuss the novels that are not bad; it’s just that there’s nothing special there.   Or they tend to be repeats of stories written by others.   Retreads…  Covers.   (Sometimes, and this seems to be happening more and more often, multiple novels are released that are built around near-identical plots.)

Let’s draw on a possible parallel to music reviews…  Writing about the latest concert performance by U2?   That would be easy.   Writing about the latest gig by a U2 cover band?   Not so easy.

So, to come full circle, there are books out there, generally fictional, that are fine and maybe even very good.   But if they’re derivative (the writing equivalent of clothing or musical knock-offs) it’s hard to locate the center that makes them worth writing about.   And the ones that are 100% original can be very hard to write about – sui generis (literally one-of-a-kind) works are difficult to compare to anything else.   Just think about trying to write about something that no one has experienced before – be it a book, film or record – and it may give you the beginnings of a headache.

Traction, such a tricky thing; it’s either there or it’s not.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Pictured:  K2 – Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts (Broadway Books, August 2010, $14.99; also available as a Kindle Edition download).

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