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"If a book is worth reading at all, it is worth reading more than once. Suspense is the lowest of excitants, designed to take your breath away when the brain and heart crave to linger in nobler enjoyment. Suspense drags you on; appreciation causes you to linger."
— William Gerhardie
Thursday, January 22, 2015
Sustenance of the soul
Title: Being Mortal
By: Atul Gawande
"The problem with medicine and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all . . . Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul."
Atul Gawande’s description of how American society handles the last phases of life is informative and well-written, sensitive and compassionate. I feel it can start many dialogues, not least a national dialogue about how we experience end-of-life transitions in this country.
Gawande, a surgeon, draws on his professional and personal experiences to give us examples of the conversations we might have when it’s our turn to make choices. The topics that stood out for me were where to live as we need more assistance, and ways to discuss when to stop aggressive treatment and start palliative care. Anyone with a friend or family member facing such decisions may find this book helpful as a moral support and guide.
There is a very interesting chapter about the birth and (sadly) devolution of assisted living, and an amusing and hopeful chapter about bringing animals to live in nursing homes. A few dedicated people are making changes in how nursing homes and assisted living facilities are structured, to provide more flexibility and autonomy within the safety net.
"Bill Thomas wanted to remake the nursing home. Keren Wilson wanted to do away with it entirely and provide assisted living facilities instead. But they were both pursuing the same idea: to help people in a state of dependence sustain the value of existence. Thomas’s first step was to give people a living being to care for; Wilson’s was to give them a door they could lock and a kitchen of their own."
The elderly can continue to enjoy some independence and a meaningful life even in these settings. We also learn that hospice care can bring so much relief some people actually live longer than expected and with more enjoyment than they had while fighting their condition.
The author’s motivation is to help us have a better life, both during the declining years before death and in the last weeks. If his excellent book reaches a wide audience, I am certain his goal will be met.
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
Title: The world until yesterday: what can we learn from traditional societies?
By: Jared Diamond
A schoolboy crosses a street in front of a delivery van in Papua New Guinea and is run over. The driver is at risk of being lynched by bystanders, so he drives to a police station for his own safety. He ends up living with his tribe for several months while his employer negotiates a settlement with the tribe of the deceased. A ceremony is arranged in which the driver's company offers payment to the boy's family as a symbolic token of apology for what they understand to be an irreversible loss.
In The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies, Jared Diamond uses this story to analyze the differences between conflict resolution in traditional small-scale societies and modern nations with large populations. He notes that traditional conflict resolution is not so much concerned with who is at fault (i.e., it could be argued that the boy should not have run in front of a car), but with re-establishing the ability to coexist with neighbors (even if they're just strangers from a neighboring tribe). He also notes, with a little more trepidation, that traditional conflict resolution is always backed up by the implicit threat of personal or tribal violence rather than punishment by the state.
In Guns, Germs, And Steel, Diamond argued that geographic features such as the presence of local plant and animal species conducive to domestication allowed certain agricultural societies to expand their populations rapidly, and to gain military and technological advantage over neighboring societies. In this book, he reminds us that "despite these particular advantages, modern industrial societies didn't also develop superior approaches to raising children, treating the elderly, settling disputes, avoiding non-communicable diseases, and other societal problems. Thousands of traditional societies developed a wide array of different approaches to those problems."
As his subtitle promises, he suggests specific lessons modern readers can learn from traditional societies, even if they find the idea of returning to similar lifestyles either unfeasible or undesirable. "The societies to which most readers of this book belong represent a narrow slice of human cultural diversity," he writes. This book allows one to expand one's "narrow slice of cultural diversity" a little bit farther.
Saturday, January 3, 2015
"You should get it..."
Title: The Furies
By: Natalie Haynes
In this first novel, reminiscent of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, an inexperienced teacher named Alex moves to Edinburgh to teach drama therapy at a continuation school. One class of older teenagers demands to be taught real material; they're sick of being forced through session after session of "talking about feelings." Stung by their adolescent scorn, Alex introduces the five students to the tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus.
This is the first time these "problem kids" have been treated with respect for their ideas. And the ancient themes of inescapable fate, intergenerational strife, and the obligation of vengeance prove to have particularly strong resonance with the teens' troubled lives. It's a volatile confluence of factors, and life begins to imitate myth in dangerous ways.
"I'm not pleading guilty because I want to be punished, I'm pleading guilty because I have to be punished. It's in the play, Alex—if society doesn't punish its criminals, the gods do...I can't really explain it to my mum—she pretends she understands, but I know she just thinks I’m mental. She hasn't read all the plays that we have, Alex, so she doesn't get it. But you have, so you should understand."
Saturday, December 27, 2014
Was the sacrifice worthwhile?
Title: The Goddess of Small Victories
By: Yannick Grannec
If you are interested in 20th century intellectual history, math and science, the ideas circulating during the period between the two World Wars, and the roles played by women in that era, this may be the book for you. It’s also the book for you if you ever wondered what it might be like to be inside the mind of a genius, or to live with one. I suggest reading it when you can immerse yourself, to stay with the atmosphere and exposition of ideas.
Grannec has taken her love and respect for the great minds of the last century, in particular Gödel, Einstein, and their friends, and crafted a very interesting fiction. She introduces us to Gödel’s widow Adele, at the end of her life, in dialogue with a fictional young woman, Anna. The chapters alternate between Adele’s old age and her past life with Kurt Gödel. Grannec explores Gödel’s relationship with his wife, his developing mental illness, and his friendships, interspersed with glimpses of real events and discoveries. The footnotes are worth reading, too. The math and physics theorems are explained in a conceptual manner that makes them easy to grasp; what’s harder to grapple with is how Adele could manage to live with Gödel for so long without going mad herself.
"Adele had accepted her own mission: her God had created her to keep a certain genius from slipping away before his time. She had been compost for the sublime: the flesh, blood, hairs, and shit without which the mind cannot exist."
The lingering question: was her sacrifice worthwhile?
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Little sparrow, great joy
Title: Vanilla Ice Cream
By: Bob Graham
What a lovely book! Vanilla Ice Cream tells how one living being can make a difference in another being’s life. The hero of our story is a little sparrow in India who finds an open bag of rice on a truck and proceeds to hop inside. It is his nature to forage for food. The truck carrying the bags of rice is headed for the shipyard, where it is loaded into a container and heads out across the ocean toward an unknown destination. The sparrow calmly eats the rice and periodically hops out of the bag in search of water splashed into the container by the rough sea voyage. When the ship finishes its journey, the container is opened, and the sparrow flies out and over the city. He finds a lovely park with trees and meets a toddler named Edie sitting in her pram, and…a wonderful discovery takes place. The artwork (by the author) tells the story page by page, allowing you to experience what the sparrow sees in his unexpected travels.
Bob Graham tells lovely gentle stories of little happenings and miracles in the world in his other books, including The Silver Button and Oscar’s Half Birthday. Isn’t it nice to read a story where fantastic journeys of kindness can blossom into such lovely endings? A similar story to make you smile and feel good about the world is The Promise, by Nicola Davies.
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