Category Archives: reading

The Monday Book: WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi

breathA surgeon used to the negotiation between buying people time and curing them suddenly finds himself in the same position. And sums up the advice he’s been giving, the thoughts he had on this moments, from both sides.

One of the central themes of the book is “when you know you’re going to die, what do you spend your last year or two doing?” In that framework, Kalanithi’s writing moves between poetic and lyrical, and surgically precise.

He struggles with returning to work, and someone says this to him:

“That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

That one’s lyrical. Then he and his wife (who were having marital problems coping with their dual schedules as medical residents, drifting apart in exhausted frustration) have this exchange, after they decide to go ahead with trying for a baby once they know he’s sick:

“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

Surgically precise.

The book was Kalanithi’s dying wish, and that is actually recorded in the book when his wife Lucy takes over, and recorded in the afterword as well. The afterword makes clear that, had there been more time, more editing might have occurred, and that the book as it reads is a singular walk less than a full narrative. Paul was concentrating on Paul, which makes sense.

Even then, there are several magic helpers in the book, although they appear but briefly. Most notable are Lucy and their oncologist (and the subtle between-the-lines understanding of what the couple are dealing with when colleague and friend becomes doctor).

Although this book is about dying, the “both sides of the desk” nature of it, reminiscent of Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, is a rare peep into a world none of us are too keen to explore: what happens when death happens to you? When you know the diagnosis but not the timeline, and when you have advised hundreds of people in the same position? What do words mean, actions mean, family mean, when you are the one making the singular journey?

Highly recommended.

4 Comments

Filed under book reviews, Life reflections, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book: THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS by Linda Grant

grant bookThis book was interesting to me less because of its characters than the conundrum it presented, a morality tale of “who’s the good guy and who do you as reader get to judge?”

Remember when Breaking Bad set everyone to talking about when people go bad versus when they’re just trying to survive? Grant’s novel supposes two brothers from Hungary, one who left before things got bad for Jewish people, one who got caught–in Hungary, and again in England. But caught for what – being Jewish, or being a criminal? It all starts going sideways once one asks that question. So Vivien (the daughter of the older brother) sets out to learn what secrets her parents have hidden under platitudes, and what truths her uncle has hidden under crimes.

Clothing becomes almost its own character in this story, as people struggle between what they were, what they are, and what they want to become, showing their riches and their hopes by what they wear. I’ve never seen such use of fabrics and design, even in some of the trendy movies lately. Fascinating.

And Grant has this interesting writing style – plodding along, telling the story, then flaming into poetry, and back to prosaic, practical writing. Here’s one example, when the uncle is in Harrod’s department store:

Sometimes he would spend a whole day just looking at all the beautiful things he had once owned before he went to prison, and had treated far too lightly, feeling that they were like water that fell through his fingers.

This is a slow, savoring read. Make yourself some tea and settle in.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under book reviews, Life reflections, out of things to read, reading, Uncategorized

The Monday Book: THE LEISURE SEEKER by Michael Zadoorian

leisureTwo senior citizens hit the road for a last hurrah. She has cancer. He has Alzheimer’s. They’ve been married almost sixty years. They’re sharing a Leisure Seeker Van, and a lot of memories.

She packed the slide carousels featuring their lives, and a gun. He didn’t pack enough clean underwear, because he doesn’t care about hygiene much anymore. In fact, he’s having a hard time remembering her name, although he always calls her the love of his life.

This book made me laugh and cry. There is little dignity in American aging, but then again, dignity is where you find it. Like when a flat tire strands our two seniors alongside a deserted road, and the two men who approach them with a tire iron aren’t there to help. That’s when Ella gets her purse out of the camper and her gun out of the purse, and threatens to blow the boys away if they don’t leave them alone.

That kind of dignity.

Also, there’s the dark humor that Ella can’t drive their 1978 camper, so her dementia-driven husband does. When she forgets to take the keys, he drives away.

Zadoorian writes snappy dialogue and sarcastic sentences with style. They’re short, they’re smart, they’re fun. Sometimes you go from sob to laugh halfway through one.

And there’s the lovely symbolism running through the book of Route 66 versus the highway, and how they choose convenience or high life, or adventure over convenience, as we have all been doing all of our lives.

The ending is inevitable. Trigger warnings may apply. If you live life on your terms, that includes how you decide to go out. Disneyland may be a good destination, but it’s not the final one.

Highly recommended – these characters aren’t just driving the plot; the plot is driving. I loved this book. (Do yourself a favor and DO NOT watch the film. Trust me on this.)

2 Comments

Filed under book reviews, humor, Life reflections, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table, writing

The Monday Book: The Story of the Tweed

Jack gets to do the book review this week –

The Story Of the Tweed by Herbert Maxwell

I’m not usually all that keen on travel books, but this one intrigued me as it’s about a part of Scotland with which I’m familiar. In fact I was there in June this year with my tour group, as I have been every other year for the last fourteen.

This is a facsimile reprint of a book first published in 1909, but it holds up well and could easily have been written more recently.

Maxwell traces the journey of the river Tweed from its source near Moffat to the North Sea at Berwick. But he takes a good few side turnings to explore the countryside, adjacent towns and other smaller rivers that feed into the Tweed.

river_tweed

The Tweed with the Eildon Hills in the background

Of course this is ‘ballad country’, and Maxwell was clearly well acquainted with many of them – many are quoted, including ‘The Dowie Dens o Yarrow’, ‘True Thomas’, ‘Johnnie Armstrong’ and more. Walter Scott’s famous ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ is the definitive collection and it would seem Maxwell had his own copy!

The writing is excellent, descriptive and humorous. Much of Scotland’s history was played out in this ‘debatable land’ covering the much disputed border with England. Again the author proves himself well up to the task of dissecting and explaining the history as he leads us along. Like most of my generation my schooling included very little Scottish history so it’s through books like this that I’ve had to re-educate myself.

Maxwell is clearly a big fan of Walter Scott, who lived the last part of his life in his mansion beside the Tweed. It’s clear also that he, like Scott was a big supporter of the union of Scotland and England. However I think the reason was more to do with the ending of cross border raids and the establishment of peace than for the economic reasons Scott espoused.

If you can find a copy then I highly recommend this to anyone with connections to the area or with an interest in Scottish history and balladry. Fans of Outlander will also recognize some familiar themes!

Leave a comment

Filed under between books, book reviews, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, out of things to read, reading, Scotland, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

Onward and Upward – – –

Jack gets there in time again –

maslow

I’ve seen a lot recently about encouraging young folk to go for trades rather than university and I absolutely approve of that. I had a fairly miserable time at High School and only really enjoyed French, Art and Woodwork. So I left school at age fifteen with no formal qualifications and entered my apprenticeship as a house-painter and sign writer.

But the messages I’ve seen all concentrate on the amount of money to be made from the likes of plumbing or electrical work and I’d like to suggest that there are other, sometimes surprising, positive outcomes from following the trade path.

As part of my training I attended the local college and discovered that I could go there in the evenings and get the academic qualifications I’d failed to garner at school – English and Math. So I wound up with them plus the highest trade diploma in my specialism. Some years later this proved to be required for me to become a lecturer in the construction department of that same college.

That’s when I really finally entered higher education. I attended Jordanhill teacher training college in Glasgow and studied educational psychology among many other things. That was when I first encountered Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It was a revelation to me and cropped up regularly during my career progression from lowly part-time lecturer in painting, full-time lecturer, senior lecturer, head of the construction department and finally senior manager. It was only five years before my retirement that I finally attended Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh to gain my MBA.

Through all this Dr Maslow kept cropping up and nudging me – from student motivation through to team dynamics and leadership styles and even marketing strategies!

But it’s not just dry academic stuff. I look around the world right now and I can see how lucky I’ve been. I mean that I’ve managed to hover around the top of the pyramid, while an awful lot of folk aren’t so lucky. So the hierarchy of need continues to haunt me.

And – yes – follow a trade by all means. You won’t necessarily make a fortune but you might be surprised where it takes you!

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under between books, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, Scotland, Uncategorized

The Monday Book: THEIR HOUSES by Meredith Sue Willis

their housesI got sent this book as I was leaving the Book Editor position for the Journal of Appalachian Studies. It was a wild ride (the book, although so was being editor).

Wells sets up a bizarre but plausible set of circumstances, and rides the wild waves from there: an old guy who struck it rich as a conspiracy theory revolutionary wants to reconnect to sisters he knew in childhood. All of them had weird childhoods, in the Jeanette Walls sense. The girls used to build little matchbox houses for their toys and called them “safe houses,” and kept them in a trunk–the same trunk where the younger sister hid drug money she stole from her older sister when she started running them….

That’s partly how the old rich guy got rich, and partly why he has a panic room. And partly why he loves the sisters, particularly the older one, so much. She turns in later years to religion and marries a preacher with a shady past that reaches into the present every now and again, with no complaints from him. (Every character in this novel is complicated, but not deep, is the best way to put it?)

Each chapter in the novel features one of the six main characters, and you will find this featured in the book group questions at its end: how do these different perspectives give the reader any sense of what’s going on inside all this chaos?

Good question. This book is chock full of things that don’t make sense, except, well, contextually they do. If you like Vonnegut, you’ll like Wells. Anything goes. Including the rather satisfying ending.

1 Comment

Filed under between books, book reviews, humor, Life reflections, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table, writing

The Monday Book: WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens

I’d heard good things about this book for some time, and looked forward to reading it.

The short version is, I love the way Owens writes, but didn’t much believe in this novel’scrawdads plot.

The book is about Kya, a girl who raises herself when her mother leaves an abusive husband and one by one the other kids head out from the swampland to make their own lives. Kya doesn’t starve and sorta makes peace with her dad, until he dies, by which time she can more or less cook and make a few dimes here and there with assorted activities.

The local boys know there’s a marsh girl so there’s a few hide and seek scenes, but the nicest and smartest of the boys befriends her, falls in love with her, teaches her to read, and then abandons her in college because he thinks she won’t fit in. But the star athlete at the high school decides to take her on, and she gets taken in.

Kya starts writing books and illustrating them, she gets a little respect, some money, fixes her house, etc. Star athlete winds up dead, Kya gets blamed, she finally gets found innocent. She marries the nice guy who realizes how much he’s misjudged her.

And then years later he learns the truth about whether or not she killed the usurious high school athlete. Not gonna spoil that for you.

The writing is beautiful. The plot is rather Hallmarkian? A 14-year-old boy teaches a wild child to read, and she becomes a published author who goes from selling shells to drawing them and the toast of the academic world of marshes. Okay. Feel-good plot, fine. But I like character-driven books and this one turns on types and tropes.

This book was made to be a movie, so just wait for it. It might even be better as a film, being a very cinematographic plot.

That said (“I didn’t much care for this book”) I will say I’m going to hunt down some of Owens’ other works. She writes so well, maybe some of the other plots are less hokey.

A mixed thumb up/thumb down, in essence, for this bestseller. Lots of people loved it, and it’s really just that I like books where character drives plot. This isn’t one.

1 Comment

Filed under book reviews, out of things to read, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized