Monthly Archives: April 2015

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande


This book may be about mortality, but surprisingly it isn’t depressing at all (though it may trigger depressing thoughts in those with relatives in end-of-life care situations). My book club just finished discussing it Sunday, and since most of us have dealt with or are currently dealing with end-of-life care for our relatives, it sparked good discussion.

Gawande is a medical doctor. In this book, he shares the stories of patients with terminal illnesses and patients who are looking for options as they age and become unable to care for themselves independently. He tells of some approaches that have work for nursing homes, assisted living communities, and hospice. Most importantly, he discusses the elephant in the room: why are so many doctors focusing on treatment to prolong patients’ lives, and not on palliative care to make what time they have left more pleasant?

Basically, Gawande comes to the conclusion that doctors and nurses really need to be taught how to get patients to discuss their wishes and goals for long-term care, so that medical staff and the patient (and his or her family) can be more comfortable making the decisions that will make patients’ final days as good as they can be, while avoiding outcomes that the patient doesn’t want.

If you don’t have time to read the book, a list of the questions Gawande suggests that patitents be asked appears in this interview. I suggest that whether or not you choose to read this book, you should read the article and talk to your loved ones about it. Pleasant? Probably not, but useful? Definitely.


The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin


I didn’t expect to like this book, but so many people at work were reading it that when an audio copy turned up on the Bestseller shelf, I decided to give it a whirl. (I was between audiobooks, and growing a wee bit tired of the Stuff You Missed in History podcast. Which is excellent, usually, but one can only listen to so much history and I’ve been overindulging. But I digress. But wait, isn’t that what parentheses are FOR?)

I should have hated this book. It’s a mass of clichés – crotchety depressed widower hermit adopts an abandoned baby, meets a plucky younger woman and is forced to join the human race again, and in the process enlists and transforms his entire town (Silas Marner, anyone?) – but it’s still a good story, and the literary references (the main character is a bookstore owner and reading snob) make it worth reading. It’s like a love story for books, and an anthem for what librarians call “reader’s advisory” and booksellers call “hand selling”, which is essentially the art of matching up readers with books they will enjoy. As a person who really believes that there is a book for every reader and a reader for every book (well, except maybe Moby Dick or Ulysses, which no one should ever be forced to endure), I found it thoroughly charming. As a lover of most of the same books that A.J. loves, I was tickled every time he managed to talk his customers into reading something I myself might recommend to them (at one point he gets the police chief to read one of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, and the police chief LIKES IT).

Oh, and on the side you get some other subplots – A.J.’s rare copy of Tamerlane (which he was hoping to sell to finance his retirement) is stolen near the beginning of the story, and it takes until the end of the novel to figure out who took it. The parentage of A.J.’s adopted daughter Maya, abandoned in the bookstore by her suicidal mother, is likewise revealed along the way. Throughout the novel, A.J writes notes to his daughter (mostly book recommendations), which are especially heartbreaking when you find out why he’s been writing them to her.

The best part of this story is the community the author creates. After you are done reading it, you will miss the people you have met on Alice Island, and want to go and visit Island Books to see what’s new on the shelves.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: a Novel by Rachel Joyce


I just looked this book up in our library catalog to find a picture of the cover and saw that its genre link was “humorous stories”. I wonder if the cataloger read the same book I did? This book is many things – sweet, sad, nostalgic, heartbreaking are all words that instantly come to mind – but humorous is NOT a word that I’d throw in, no matter how long I thought of words to describe it. There is humor in there, certainly, but it’s the dry, understated stiff-upper-lipped British kind. Anyway. Harold is an old man with many regrets. He and his wife Maureen barely communicate at all, and he feels as if he cannot exist without annoying her. He receives a goodbye letter from Queenie, a woman he used to work with years ago who is dying in hospice. He decides to send her a letter back, but as he is walking to mail the letter, he decides on the spur of the moment that he needs to go to see her in person. On foot. So despite the fact that he’s wearing a light jacket and boat shoes, and that it’s 600 miles, he does.

As he walks, he thinks. And as he thinks, we learn how Harold got to this point in his life, and the events that shaped his marriage into the prison it has become. We learn who Queenie was and why she was important to Harold. We learn about Harold and Maureen’s son. And as he meets person after person outside of his normal circle, Harold learns more about himself and somehow manages to put his life into perspective. After a lifetime of keeping to himself, he learns to ask for help, and how to give it to others. And as she sits home alone, Maureen thinks and learns as well, developing a friendship with her widower neighbor and rediscovering an old hobby. And that’s the joy of this story, that this older couple with so many hurts saved up over the years can finally realize that all of the things they have been blaming one another for are either their own damn fault or nobody’s fault at all, and it makes no difference which.

I won’t spoil the reveals for you, but many of them triggered a few tears. But despite the fact that the book made me sad, I liked it anyway. It reminds me of Kaye Gibbons’ books (Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman) that way. A good hurt.

Now that I think about it, there are some humorous parts in the book, such as when Harold’s pilgrimage becomes “news” and he gains a following sort of like Forrest Gump does. So many people show up to walk with him that he dreams of sneaking away in the night, but how he does finally lose them is pretty funny, looking back at it.