6 Books on Dying in Modern Times

This is a topic that has been cropping up in my life in unexpected areas. Physician-assisted suicide has been recently legalized in Canada, I taught about assisted suicide when I completed my ESL practicum last fall, and now I’ve unintentionally read three books on aging and dying that complement each other. I also remember being fascinated by this article (‘Why Doctors Die Differently’; I think it’s behind a paywall now) when it first appeared in 2012. I think the concept of how we die, or how we should die, in today’s day and age, captivates me because it’s something that affects literally everyone. Everyone goes through this eventually. Here are my thoughts on three books I’ve read and recommend, and suggestions of three more books I haven’t read yet.

Note the similar cover designs of these six books…

3 Books I’ve Read

 Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Of the six books featured in this post, Doughty’s explores what happens at the very end of the road, after a person has died. She took on a job in a crematorium when she was 23 years old, motivated by a somewhat morbid interest in death. She describes her work and all it entails, including some gruesome details you might rather not know about. Doughty goes beyond just sharing her experiences at the crematorium, however. She explores how we have developed an unhealthy and even unnatural relationship with death. We try to avoid it. We don’t know how to behave around a body, we don’t know our options for what to do with the body, we don’t know how to accept mortality. You’ll definitely learn a thing or two from Doughty, and hopefully come away with an improved (read: more positive) opinion about death.

Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
 GoodReads | IndieBound | Chapters | Amazon

Working a step backward from Doughty, we have Gawande’s book about how we live out our final days as we age. Gawande’s work as a surgeon and relationship with his dying father qualify his writing on the topic. He highlights the problems with widely spread and accepted systems of health care (such as depressing nursing homes and futile medical procedures), and explores alternatives to these systems. A great read that had me thinking a lot about how I’ll treat my parents when they are elderly.

Good Medicine: The Art of Ethical Care in Canada by Philip Hébert
GoodReads | IndieBound | Chapters | Amazon

Good Medicine caught my eye because of the Canadian perspective. Similar to Gawande, Hebert makes his case through anecdotes about his own patients, commentary on publicly known cases, and his own experience with Parkinson’s. Hebert takes a more general approach than Gawande, focusing not only death in old age but general medical practices. (He writes about a different subject in each chapters – focuses include elderly care and physician-assisted suicide). Hébert emphasizes the importance and life-changing significance of doctors asking tough questions and of patients making their explicit wishes known before finding themselves in a tragic situation. This is a valuable book I hope more people read.

How much better it would be if we knew there were certain states in which each patient would not want to be kept alive, if hospitals asked patients, especially patients facing major surgery, clear and pointed questions in advance: If you were in a non-responsive or minimally responsive state, how would you want to be treated? If you also had only the remotest prospect of even partial recovery, would you wish to be kept going by expensive and prolonged measures? And what if, on account of that care, others were deprived of truly effective care? Would you still want to be kept alive? (107)

3 Books I Want to Read

 When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
GoodReads | IndieBound | Chapters | Amazon

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air […] chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality. What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Moments by Sandra Martin
GoodReads | Chapters | Amazon

We can’t avoid death, but the prospect is a lot less terrifying since the Supreme Court of Canada legalized physician-assisted death. Competent adults, suffering grievously from intolerable medical conditions, will have the right to ask for a doctor’s help in ending their lives. That much is clear. The challenge now is to pass legislation that reflects this landmark decision and develop regulations that reconcile the Charter rights of both doctors and patients. If we get the balance right between compassion for the suffering and protection of the vulnerable, between individual choice and social responsibility, we can set an example for the world. A Good Death is timely, engaging and inspiring. In taking on our ultimate human right, award-winning journalist Sandra Martin charts the history of the right to die movement here and abroad through the personal stories of brave campaigners like Sue Rodriguez, Brittany Maynard and Gloria Taylor. Martin weighs the evidence from permissive jurisdictions such as the Netherlands, Oregon, California, Switzerland and Quebec and portrays her own intellectual and emotional journey through the tangled legal, medical, religious and political documentation concerning terminal sedation, slippery slopes, and the sanctity of life.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death by Katy Butler
GoodReads | IndieBound | Chapters | Amazon

Katy Butler was living thousands of miles from her vigorous and self-reliant parents when the call came: a crippling stroke had left her proud seventy-nine-year-old father unable to fasten a belt or complete a sentence. Tragedy at first drew the family closer: her mother devoted herself to caregiving, and Butler joined the twenty-four million Americans helping shepherd parents through their final declines. Then doctors outfitted her father with a pacemaker, keeping his heart going but doing nothing to prevent his six-year slide into dementia, near-blindness, and misery. When he told his exhausted wife, “I’m living too long,” mother and daughter were forced to confront a series of wrenching moral questions. When does death stop being a curse and become a blessing? […] When doctors refused to disable the pacemaker, condemning her father to a prolonged and agonizing death, Butler set out to understand why. Her quest had barely begun when her mother took another path. Faced with her own grave illness, she rebelled against her doctors, refused open-heart surgery, and met death head-on. With a reporter’s skill and a daughter’s love, Butler explores what happens when our terror of death collides with the technological imperatives of medicine. Her provocative thesis is that modern medicine, in its pursuit of maximum longevity, often creates more suffering than it prevents.

Have you read any of these books? Is this a morbid topic or does it interest you?

2 Queer Reads from MG + YA

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl. George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be performing Charlotte’s Web George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part . . . because she’s a boy. With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

Juliet Milagros Palante is leaving the Bronx and headed to Portland, Oregon. She just came out to her family and isn’t sure if her mom will ever speak to her again. But Juliet has a plan, sort of, one that’s going to help her figure out this whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing. She’s interning with the author of her favorite book: Harlowe Brisbane, the ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding stuff. Will Juliet be able to figure out her life over the course of one magical summer? Is that even possible? Or is she running away from all the problems that seem too big to handle?

I started to write separate reviews of these books. Then I realized the key things I have to say about each are the same. George and Juliet Takes a Breath are great examples of queer fiction for young people, for the same three reasons.

  1.  Both books are written by authors who belong to the communities about which they write. (The authors’ respective Twitter bios identify themselves as ‘trans queer’ [Gino] and ‘queer latina’ [Rivera].)
  2. Both books can be enjoyed and appreciated by those who see themselves in the protagonists and those who don’t. One audience will value this story because they can say “Yes, that’s me, that’s my experience!” Another audience might learn a lot about experiences they will never have. For example – George could be a great read for middle graders coming to understand what it means to be trans. Juliet Takes a Breath doesn’t back down from tackling the problems in feminism that we’re starting to recognize today.
  3. Most importantly, both of the audiences mentioned above can enjoy these two books because they’re really good stories for anyone to enjoy, regardless of representation. George and Juliet Takes a Breath feature characters with clear voices and story-lines that will keep you hooked. The blurbs above are, for once, spot on in capturing the book’s contents. These stories speak truths about growing into your identity and being yourself. They could be stories about someone you know. They’re definitely stories about real people. This isn’t token diversity – this is good storytelling.

Here are I am writing about diversity again…Mostly because I’m still working on my own understanding of what ‘read diverse books’ means! I’m still a bit nervous to write anything for fear of getting it wrong 😛 I don’t really have anything to contribute to the read diverse books discussion, as plenty of people can say what needs to be said better than me. But, it’s just something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the summer, and typing it out here forces me to engage with these ideas. So here I go! Reasons 1 and 2 should not be the only reasons why we read diverse books, but especially as an aspiring librarian I want and need to be aware about stories that represents a variety of experiences (Laura @ Literacious blogged about this earlier today). For kids struggling to find themselves in stories, being able to hand them and say “This is a book about a queer Latina girl written by a queer Latina woman” could be immensely helpful. Looking back at my post about diversity, I recall this quote from Naz – “The goal should be to make “diversity” obsolete, at least in the publishing industry, and aim for all stories to be valid and valued, not because they’re “diverse” but because they reflect our world and explore universal truths.” That’s why these two books are great. At their cores, they are strong stories about being who you are and who you want to be. These kind of stories can be valued by anyone. One day, the fact that they feature a trans character or a Latina character will not be a ‘selling point’ but just one aspect of the story. One day, these stories won’t be considered ‘rarities’. But for now, because books are not as diverse as they could and should be, we need to make an effort to read and share diverse books.

One last note – As someone who doesn’t belong to the communities represented in these stories, I have a different take on these stories than a queer or POC reader. For another perspective on Juliet Takes a Breath, check out Naz @ Read Diverse Books’ ‘8 Reasons Why You Will Love JTaB‘. I am interested in reading a trans person’s perspective on George, but I haven’t yet been able to find one. Please link me up if you’ve read or written a review. Have you read either of these books? Can you recommend any other great MG/YA reads featuring queer protagonists?

Literary Pilgrimages: Visiting Middle-Earth (Part 1)

 Earlier this year, I spent three months travelling around New Zealand. My primary reason for doing so? Exploring locations starring as Middle-earth in Peter Jackson’s films, of course! Come along as I revisit what will likely remain my most extensive ‘literary’ pilgrimage’.

 Welcome to the first in a four post series about my Middle-Earth related expeditions around New Zealand. Although these locations all stem from the films, I consider this trip a literary pilgrimage because of how the filmmakers’ vision intersects with my love for the books. I saw the movies long before I read The Lord of the Rings. I cannot divorce the movie sets from the locations I imagine while reading – and I’m quite happy with that! I get just as much a thrill from visiting a location I know so well from the movies as I do from imagining that I really am walking in a place described in the books.

I could have spent a couple weeks running around the country to see all the Middle-earth sites I wished to see. I wanted to take the time to really enjoy what NZ has to offer, so I expanded the trip to three months and spent the majority of my time WWOOFing. *cue WWOOF spiel* WWOOF stands for ‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’. It’s an international home stay volunteer program, where volunteers work for 4-6 hours at organic farming (loosely defined). I first WWOOFed in 2013 for two months in Ireland. I highly recommend WWOOFing if you want to get to know a place and its people better than if you were just holidaying for a few weeks. It’s a great way to stretch your vacation time and budget, as a month WWOOFing costs virtually nothing. Plus, I enjoy learning about and contributing to sustainable lifestyle.*end WWOOF spiel*

My first post features Rohan. The two specific locations I visited are Edoras (Mt. Sunday, Mackenzie) and the lakeside village that orcs attack (near Alexandra, Central Otago).


Screenshot from The Two Towers (Edoras)
Screenshot from The Two Towers (Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn approach Edoras)

Edoras has long been my favourite set from the movies. Even though the crew had to remove the town site, I still felt it would be an impressive to visit. I was not disappointed. I highly recommend making the trip to Mt. Sunday, whether or not you are a fan. The isolated location has a very peaceful air about it, with stunning views and hikes to explore. I drove from Christchurch (~2.5hrs) and stayed over night for two days at Mt. Potts Lodge. I did a lovely hike from the lodge that gave me a great view of Mt. Sunday. Then I spent another day actually at Mt. Sunday, soaking up the location and views, taking photos, listening to the movie soundtrack, and reading The Two Towers.

The isolated Mt. Sunday a distinct look and is easily recognizable from the films even without the set (unlike some other locations!)
Approaching Mt. Sunday for the hike to the top. There is a path that heads to the left of the photo. You can hike up the ridge from the ‘left’ to ‘right’.


I had a surreal experience reading and photographing The Two Towers from the top of Edoras, in the exact location of Meduseld.
The top of Mt. Sunday is a great spot for panoramas.


Rohan plains village

I stayed on a lifestyle block near Alexandra for one month. I spent a lot of time enjoying the landscape. One specific filming location I visited is the lakeside village attacked by orcs in The Towers. My host drove me up one night at sunset. My only wish was that I wasn’t such an amateur photographer, so that I could capture the beautiful scene better! The lake is a reservoir popular for fishing. There was no one else around when we went. Another wonderful place, even without the feeling of having teleported to Rohan.

These pillars are all that remain from the ‘set’ – they burnt the hut that they built hear.
The shacks you can spot in this photo were dressed up for the movies.
Sunset blazing down beyond the ‘village’

I think that’s enough photos for one post! The next post will cover Pelennor Fields (home of the final great battle) and a variety of locations around Queenstown. Are there are any movie filming locations you’d love to visit?

Review: Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip

Author: Patricia A. McKillip
Title: Dreams of Distant Shores
Format/Source: Paperback/library 
Published: June 2016
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Length: 274 pages
Genre: Fantasy of all sorts
Why I Read: Author highly recommended; book spotted at library
Read If You’re: Looking for some fresh creativity grounded in traditional fantasy 
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Patricia A. McKillip has been on my radar since I read wonderful things about her work by Lianne. I added a couple of McKillip’s book to my TBR way back in 2014, thinking she’d be worth getting around to some day! I didn’t have plans to get to her in 2016. When I spotted this title while browsing the new and noted section at the library, the cover grabbed me and I couldn’t leave it on the shelf. I was in the mood for some new fantasy. This collection of short stories was just what I needed. Dreams of Distant Shores contains seven pieces of fiction (“Mer”, “Edith and Harry Go Motoring” and “Alien” being original to the collection) and a short essay (also original to the collection).

I enjoyed the variety of this collection. “Weird” is perfectly titled, an intriguing piece of weird fiction to open the collection. “Mer” is a fine story about a witch trapped as a goddess then as a mermaid statue in a seaside town, but not my favourite. I enjoyed “The Gorgon in the Cupboard”, a sweet tale about a painter and artists society in Victorian times – not a setting I usually encounter. “Edith and Harry Go Motoring” tells what happened one day when Edith, Harry and their driver cross over a bridge in the countryside and find a strange house. “Alien” may or may not feature aliens. (It’s not the type of story that may spring to mind when you hear that word.) “Which Witch” introduces us to a monster-battling punk rock band of witches (!!). “Something Rich and Strange” comprises the bulk of the collection – I’ll discuss it further below. Most of the stories have semi-open ended conclusions; you receive some closure but could also easily imagine more to the tale. Though I enjoyed some stories more than others, I found all of them to be creative answers to “What if X character did this?” or “What if X setting met Y characters?” I think it’s true that all stories can be formulated in terms of “What if?” but McKillip seems to have a gift for answering that question.
The centrepiece of Dreams of Distant Shores is the novella “Something Rich and Strange”. The final work in the collection, I didn’t realize it was a novella until I was 40 pages in and wondering when it as going to wrap up. Because I anticipated the story to be a third of its actual length, I felt it dragged on at times. Perhaps if I had a closer look at the table of contents I wouldn’t have felt that way! Overall, I loved the atmosphere of the tale – the ocean imagery, the seaside setting, the grey mood. I felt a similar stirring as I felt when reading The Ocean at the End of Lanemake of that what you will. I imagine “Something Rich and Strange” to be some sort of distant adult relative (the theme’s are different and there’s no touch of childhood in “Something Rich and Strange” but something draws the two to my mind). 

McKillip’s creativity also shines through her prose. Here is an author you might read for her style, even if her plots and characters seemed infinitely dull to you. Though their styles are distinct, Catherynne M. Valente and McKillip invoke the same sort of wonder and delight that I find in particular fantasy prose.

Jonah stood inside the mermaid’s song. It was wild and bitter and desolate, a song without words, of spindrift whipped from heaving water washed with colors not even Megan would use; of the cries of battered seals, wind-battered birds screaming over great schools of fish, blind and still, sliding like leaves across the surface of the storm; of the voices of whales and porpoises as they fled the relentless stalking shadows above them that tracked their every move. Brine lashed his eyes, his mouth; kelp torn from the sea bottom tangled around his hands; barnacles and starfish struck him, clung. An empty moon shell, tumbled through the water, caught painfuly over his ear; even I its pale, lovely hollows he heard the mermaid’s storm. (251)

Another aspect of McKillip’s writing that I really appreciated is her ability to make things that would look cool, also sound cool. To clarify – sometimes I read passages in a novel and think, “This sounds like stage directions” or “This sounds like someone just tried to describe the movie in their head.” It doesn’t always translate to the written word. But McKillips manages to write some great scenes, especially in “Which Witch”, that could easily have ‘looked cool’ but read dull.

“A note came out of Pyx that I’d never heard before. But I recognized its power and sod in one of the pins on her vest. The spiral of blackened silver and garnets started spinning, covering the open-mouthed crowd with gyrating red stars. Everybody applauded wildly. I felt the colourful force shoot past me and added something of my own: a shriek of bowed string and a word my mother taught me early on to yell in emergencies. Of course it was the Sprineel G string, and it promptly broke. Liesl added her version to mine, and Madrona walloped a cymbal so hard the reverberations scudded like fast flying golden ripples across the air at the incoming magic. Rune hit the lowest note on the bass while a deep demonic sound came out of his mouth, making the crowd go crazy again.” (110)

The last piece by McKillip in the collection is a short essay titled “Writing High Fantasy”.  I love McKillip’s attitude towards the fantasy genre! I think we will get on well. Here are two points she made that make me think that:

 “I wanted the reader to see the and Morogon lived in and how it shaped him before he left it and changed himself. So I let him talk about grain and bulls; beer and plowhorses, and his sister’s bare feet, before I let him say fairy-tale words like tower, wizard, harp and king, and state his own driving motivation: to answer the unanswered riddle.” (264)

“At its best, fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies within the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven’t heard the end of it yet.” (268)

The Bottom Line: Dreams of Distant Shores seems to be a solid introduction to McKillip’s work, if you are a first time reader like me. I enjoyed the stories and look forward to delving into her novels. I think I will enjoy those even more.

Further Reading: 

Top 10 Tuesday: Books I’d Purchase Now If I Had An Unlimited Giftcard

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

  Books I’d Buy Right This Second If Someone Handed Me a Fully Loaded Gift Card

I amended today’s topic because I thought it was wee bit long for a post title 😛 My list today focuses on books related to Tolkien and his works. I don’t usually purchase books without reading them first, which means this list would probably be full of books I’ve already read…that’s no fun! However, that rule doesn’t apply to books from my Tolkien shelf. I usually buy a book from that shelf when I run into some extra cash for books.

  1. A Secret Vice by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins –  Currently reading a copy borrowed from the library. A must have for my own library.
  2. The Hobbit First Edition Facsimile by J.R.R. Tolkien – Including just this one preorder. I only heard of it yesterday and I must have it for my little collection! I often wondered if this would ever be published. 
  3. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien – I think this is a staple for any Tolkien library…
  4. Aragorn: The Undervalued Hero by Angela P. Nichols – I’d like to read this book but it’s not in any of the libraries I have access to. I haven’t seen much commentary about it so I’m not sure how good it actually is. But, Aragorn is a fascinating character and I’d love to read an in-depth exploration of a Tolkien character.
  5. The Power of Tolkien’s Prose by Steven Walker – This one has been languishing on my wishlist for ages because it’s $120. I did a quick Google search to see if the price has gone down and I found the ebook for $25. Much better!
  6. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Chronicles IV: Cloaks and Daggers by Daniel Falconer – I have all the other Hobbit movie chronicles. Somehow I haven’t been able to get a hold of this one. Although there are things I dislike about the trilogy, I appreciate the creative work that went into everything. I love the seeing the designs develop and reading commentary from people who worked on the films. 
  7. The Keys of Middle-Earth: Discovering Medieval Literature Through the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien by Stuart Lee and Elizabeth Solopova – Something I’d like to do down the road is explore the medieval texts that influenced Tolkien. This book looks like a good start.
  8. Tolkien and the Study of His Sources edited by Jason Fisher – Similar to above.
  9. Tolkien: The Forest and the City edited by Helen Conrad-O’Brian and Gerard Hynes – This collection tackles a unique topic that I’m not quite sure how to summarize here. Here’s the description:
    • Despite the popular and scholarly association of J.R.R. Tolkien with the natural world and literary world-building, Middle-earth as a landscape and a built environment has been relatively neglected as the background, the foreground, and the actor in his texts. This study presents new work by some of the finest scholars in Tolkien studies, as well as research from a number of emerging scholars, addressing this lacuna. The permeable interface between nature and culture, creation and sub-creation, within Tolkien’s world is of absolute importance to our understanding of Tolkien’s larger point in writing. From deforestation to the shape of a window, from Sam’s cooking gear to the origins of the party tree, this book surveys a world written to distill and intensify the realities of our own.
  10. The First World War by John Keegan – Bonus book from my Tolkien-secondary shelf. These are books that aren’t directly connected to Tolkien, but may provide useful context for his writing. I’m interested in learning about WWI to better understand its affect on Tolkien and influence on his writing. 

 What books would you buy this instant if money wasn’t a question?