Book Report: To read or not to read

lincoln and george

Acceding to all the buzz about this book, I put it on reserve at my local library. Twice. The first time I returned it without reading because I fell victim to a case of “Overdrive overload.” All the books I’d been waiting for showed up on my Kindle in the same week. Aack! The second time I settled in for a challenging, yet beautiful ride.

In 1862 Abraham Lincoln is not yet a beloved icon. The Civil War has just begun. Lincoln is widely believed to be inept and certain to be a one-term President. When his young son dies of typhoid, Mr. Lincoln recognizes the grief that other parents are suffering in the still young war—a war that would eventually claim more than 600,000.

“So we have the dilemma put to us, What to do, when his power must continue two years longer and when the existence of our country may be endangered before he can be replaced by a man of sense. How hard, in order to save the country, to sustain a man who is incompetent.

But those historic events only set the stage for George Saundersnovel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Yes, I had to google “bardo” and learned that it is “(in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.”

The entire novel takes place in a Georgetown Cemetery where young Willie Lincoln has been laid to rest in a borrowed crypt. That cemetery is also populated by numerous and diverse spirits who while quite chatty, aren’t exactly certain of their condition.

This novel is stylistically challenging. Each of the fictional and historic characters speaks or relates the speech of another without much connecting tissue. Their contributions may only be a word or a few lines long, like listening in on the conversation at a large cocktail party. Or perhaps it’s more like a pointillist painting or a patchwork quilt. You may need some distance to appreciate the big picture. That being said, you’ll either get on board with the way the story is told, or you’ll give up. Author Saunders says that’s fine.

Here are a few snippets of the text that give voice to the Lincolns’ grief at the loss of their boy.

“Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforce sadness-masks to hide any sing of their happiness, which—which went on.”

“He is either in joy or nothingness. (So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved hm so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the from of fussing and worry and doing, Only there is nothing left to do. Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad. Think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.”

“Mary Lincoln’s mental health had never been good, and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother…Some blows fall too heavy upon those too fragile.”

our town

51OONZKJIXL._SY346_

The whole “dead men talking” thing reminded me of the cemetery scenes in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, but with a much darker, deeper, more poetic edge. If it were a movie, I imagined Tim Burton might direct it because of his darkly comedic style. However Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally have secured the rights and no director has yet been named.

Vanity Fair Oscar Party, Los Angeles, USA - 26 Feb 2017
Offerman and Mullally

Draw your own conclusions about reading it. It’s certainly not for everyone. The audio-book was available at my library this week, so I’m having another go. Now that I know the story, I’m enjoying the vivid voice portrayals on my morning walks and appreciating it much more.

Book report: A kindness to those you leave behind

518O8BPzqEL._SY346_“A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.”

This is a dear little book that has been making the rounds among my friends and acquaintances of a certain vintage. Many of us have begun downsizing, distributing, and divesting. My husband and I did so when we moved to a smaller house three years ago. Margareta Magnusson gives gentle tips for making the process easier and more pleasant. Her reasons are simple.

“I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.”

“Do not ever imagine that anyone will wish—or be able—to schedule time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself. No matter how much they love you, don’t leave this burden to them.”

She recommends not starting with photographs or papers. Start with furniture and clothing. And invest in a shredder.

“In general, when death cleaning, size really matters. Start with large items in your home and finish with the small.”

“Now that I am the oldest person in my family, if I don’t know the names of the people in the photos, nobody else in the family is likely to. More work for the shredder.”

The best bit of advice is to ask yourself, “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this? If after a moment of reflection I can honestly answer no, then it goes into the hungry shredder, always waiting for paper to chew.”

This is not a sad book. Much of what Magnusson suggests reminds me of the common sense and generosity my family–including my half-Swedish mother–practiced. Share what you have with those who need it. Let your old things start new lives and form new memories with a new family.  It is a gentle, sometimes humorous reminder that someone will have to deal with all our stuff one day. If we love them, we should make it as easy as possible. Recommend.

 

Book report: If you love a curmudgeon, read this book

51dQBC7HcaL._SY346_A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman has been on my cyber nightstand for a long time. Then the Swedish movie popped up on Netflix. When I finished My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by the same author, it showed up as a recommended next read. Finally, the stars aligned and the Kindle version became available at Overdrive from my local library.

Ove (pronounced “Oova”) is a cranky old man, recently widowed and forced into retirement. Throughout the book we see the world through his eyes. Life is bleak and the changing world is filled with idiots. No one knows how to do anything anymore.

Here’s a sample of Ove’s worldview:

“Should one really have a driver’s license if one can’t drive a real car rather than some Japanese robot vehicle, he wonders. Ove doubts whether someone who can’t park a car properly should even be allowed to vote.”

“People didn’t know how to…brew some proper coffee. In the same way as nowadays nobody could write with a pen. Because now it was all computers and espresso machines. And where was the world going if people couldn’t even write or brew a pot of coffee?”

 “People said he was bitter. Maybe they were right. He’d never reflected much on it. People also called him antisocial. Ove assumed this meant he wasn’t overly keen on people. And in this instance he could totally agree with them. More often than not people were out of their minds.”

As the book progresses, we learn Ove’s story is one of sadness, almost from the beginning. Nevertheless, the book is far from depressing because we meet Ove’s neighbors and the Cat Annoyance and see them interact in human and quite humorous ways. We feel empathy for the old grump.

This is a charming book, with many laugh-out-loud moments. I highly recommend you read Ove’s story. Then watch the subtitled movie, perhaps with the curmudgeon you love.

Love is why I carry a hanky

My Irish grandmother always carried a hanky. She’d stuff it up her sleeve or down her decolletage, what she called her “bosoms.” I thought it was her hay-fever, but now I think I’ve discovered the real reason.

You see, I’ll turn sixty-seven this week, and while I am healthy, I am reminded daily that I am no longer young. Chores and walks take a bit longer. When I look down, it’s my mother’s hands I see. I relish the hour or so I spend stretched out on the couch each afternoon, not sleeping, but simply resting and reading.

Furthermore, I’ve had time to reflect on what this aging business means. You see, I plan to be a very old lady one day. My goal is still to live until my 100th birthday. However, I’m beginning to realize that many of my friends and loved ones won’t be there to celebrate with me. I must learn to balance the contentment I feel each morning with the sadness that yet another dear one has passed. It’s also why my mother advised me to keep making new friends, because the old ones will keep dying.

Last week was rough. Two long-time friends passed away. Two. Both big, strong, active guys–both close to my age–who were simply and quite suddenly gone. Upon hearing the news, I was incredulous, but tried to go about my usual routine. Yoga class. A walk in the neighborhood. I cried during both.

So that’s why my grandmother always carried a hanky!

Still, I know this isn’t about me. The wives and children these men left behind are devastated and heart-broken. They will face each day, diminished is some way, slightly less than they were before. I hope they also know the profoundly positive influences their men had on those lucky enough to call them husband, dad, grandpa, or friend. These were good guys who should have had many more years to go on being good guys. We who loved them are grateful for the gift.missing-you-honest-quotes-about-grief-winnie-the-pooh

Still, the tears come. I have to tell myself that this grief is the price we pay for living and loving each other. For being human.

Throughout my life, I’ve gone through cycles of birthday parties, bridal and baby showers. Now is the time for goodbyes.  Now, whenever I buy a sympathy card, I buy two. Just in case. And that’s why you see me standing at the Hallmark display, sniffing quietly and reaching for my hanky.

Book review: A matter of life and death

41dikbnsqsl-_sy346_

If you learned your life was nearly over, how would you choose to live?

Dr. Paul Kalanithi, the author of When Breath Becomes Air, is thirty-six and about to finish a decade of training as a neurosurgeon, when he receives a devastating diagnosis. Stage IV lung cancer. This beautifully written book describes Paul’s journey from doctor to patient as he sees his future shrink.

Kalanithi’s oncologist advises to him to find his values, but he finds them shifting as his illness progresses. He repeatedly asks himself, “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” Should he go back to work? Should he and his wife have a child?  Should he write a book? He works through these choices in a compelling and very human way.

Because his specialty is the brain, where identity resides, Kalanithi had helped patients and their families with some of these difficult decisions. Sometimes, “…the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living.”

“I had to help those families understand that the person they knew—the full, vital independent human—now lived only in the past and that I needed their input to understand what sort of future he or she would want: an easy death or to be strung between bags of fluids going in, others coming out, to persist despite begin unable to struggle.”

91pzw6gu1l-_ux250_
Dr. Paul Kalanithi

Some of you may not be up to reading this book. Its emotional journey may parallel one in your own experience too closely. Nonetheless, I believe we need to have some of these difficult conversations with our loved ones before they become necessary. It’s not only about how we want to die—with compassion and without pain—but how we want to live—with purpose and joy. Those making decisions on our behalf need to know our wishes and we need to know theirs.  I recommend this book as a way to start the conversation.