Morbid Curiosity

It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.  ~ Death (A Play) by Woody Allen

Most of us are fans of denial when it comes to thinking about shuffling off the mortal coil. The idea of dying is at best depressing and at worst terrifying so not thinking about it seems like the healthy thing to do. And yet, if you’re a mass of contradictions like me, you can’t help being morbidly curious about the people whose professions have them dealing with death all the time. Happily, well maybe not happily, there is a small subgenre of memoirs that are from coroners, undertakers, doctors and others that deal with ‘death issues’ on a daily basis. Here are three recent ones that I found particularly illuminating. Do be forewarned though, they contain realistic descriptions of procedures and situations that are not for the faint of heart.

Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell
workingstiffThis is the tale of Melinek’s rookie year as a New York City medical examiner. From suicides, accidents, murders and the much more common ‘natural causes’, the author lays out the particulars of how the bodies she performs autopsies on reveal the manner of death. Despite the gory details, this is not just a cold and calculating CSI type memoir though. She gives everyone involved, both the living and the dead, humane and complex portraits. As she describes her duties you really get a sense of what it must be like to work in a profession where you are confronted with mortality on a daily basis. Layered throughout the book is the classic attitude of realism, gallows humor and humanity that is required to survive in ‘the city’ and that comes in particularly handy in the medical examiner’s office.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
smokegetsinyoureyesWritten by a practicing mortician and host of a popular web series titled Ask a Mortician, this book is an entertaining memoir but also a serious and thought-provoking examination of how society tries to deal with death and the dead. The author recounts, in admittedly gruesome but humorous detail, her introduction to the ‘death industry’ working at Westwind Cremation and Burial in Oakland. As she encounters the methods and tools of the trade (cremation, embalming and the horrifying trocar to name a few) she uses the opportunity to examine the history and social context for each practice. Many interesting conclusions are reached, but a central one is the great lengths we go to as a society to separate ourselves, both physically and emotionally, from the dead and the damage this separation causes.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
beingmortalWhile this book is far less gruesome than the previous two, I found the ideas it presents the most disturbing. Gawande is a practicing surgeon but this is not a memoir about his profession. Instead it is an examination of the disconnect between the medical profession’s view of death as a failure and the inevitable fact that we all die. He cuts through professional jargon such as ‘end of life care’ and ‘assisted living’ by interviewing and telling the stories of those facing the indignities of aging and death and modern medicine’s response to the process. These stories include his father’s decline and they are touching, instructive, and difficult to deal with all at the same time. By confronting the experience head on, however, Gawande gains important insight into how the medical community, and all of us, can actually serve the needs of those facing their final chapter.

Well, after reading these books I guess there is no denying the fact that I’m going to die someday. Wait, I refuse to accept that. I’m sure we will all be fine.

One Last Thing Before I Go

Drew Silver, the protagonist of One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper, is a screw up. His ex-wife thinks so. His 18-year-old daughter thinks so. The other divorced men he’s friends with think so. I thought he was kind of a screw up, too. He’s an endearing screw-up, if that makes any sense.

Silver was in a rock band 15 years ago that produced a mega one hit wonder. Now he lives in The Versailles, a run down apartment building where divorced and depressed men go after leaving their families. He still plays the drums at weddings, bat mitzvahs, and sweet 16 birthday parties. Sometimes he’s recognized (Hey, you were in that band that had that song!) but he mostly lives a dull existence. Sometimes he goes home with one of the back-up singers in the wedding band. Most of the time he goes home alone.

He has no relationship with his daughter Casey, having kind of given up being a father after realizing he’s complete crap at it. He still loves his ex-wife Denise. She still hates him.

One day while hanging out by the pool at The Versailles, Silver’s daughter Casey drops a bomb on him: she’s pregnant. He doesn’t understand why she’s come to him when he’s been an absent father all her life. Maybe she’s giving him a chance to redeem himself. She’s about to head to college in the fall and Baby on Board is not what she had planned. She wants him to take her to get an abortion. Casey refuses to tell her mother mainly because Denise is getting remarried in a couple of weeks and is in full Bride Mode: she can’t see anything unless it’s about her wedding.

Silver and Casey are in the waiting room of the abortion clinic when Silver’s life really goes down the tubes. He blacks out. He thinks he’s died. He can hear his daughter’s voice shouting at him as he fades away. She hasn’t sounded that scared since she was a child. He wakes up in the hospital and is told that he has to have heart surgery to repair a defect or he will die. The doctor who wants to perform the surgery? His ex-wife’s fiancé. Awkward.

Silver decides against the surgery which almost made me stop reading until I understood why he decides against it. He thinks he’s a piece of…work, if you get my drift. He believes he’s no good to anyone and no one wants him around so death is a better option than hanging around The Versailles for the next 40 years where the college girls around the pool never age but the heartbroken men who live there do.

Silver doesn’t seem to understand a few things: his daughter wants him around. His parents want him around. Denise wants him around. Even her fiancé the surgeon wants him around (he’s one of those obnoxious people who sees the good in everyone). But Silver is adamant that he’d rather die.

But he seems to have forgotten how persuasive families can be. He gets in a fist fight with his brother because his brother wants him to have the surgery. His rabbi father goes Old Testament on him to try to change his mind. His mother pulls the ultimate Mom Card of “I’m very disappointed in you.”

And you know where this is going, right? I’m not ruining anything here. You kind of know he’s going to have the surgery. Although there were a few pages there I thought “This guy’s actually going to die on purpose”.  By the end of the book he finally sees the light (and no, it’s not the Other Side) and finds out what he has to live for.

If I took anything away from this book (besides laughing my head off because Jonathan Tropper is one funny dude) it’s the simple and sappy message of let people love you. That’s it. Those that care if you breathe or not are the most important ones and you have to let them care if you breathe or not. And let’s face it, when we feel at our most unlovable, that’s when people come swooping in with their wonderfully annoying unconditional love.


A Mixed Bag of Picture Books

With the bleak weather of January behind us, I thought I’d share some new books for children. The first two cover difficult and sensitive, but necessary, subjects especially for children.

The Scar is the story of a child waking up to the news that his mother has died. It wasn’t an unexpected death but nevertheless has a profound effect on the child who decides that the windows of the house must be kept closed in order to keep the mother’s essence within. The father, coping with his own grief, is not much help. When the child falls and scrapes his knee, he is sure he hears his mother’s voice. He tells himself that as long as he has the scab and can make it bleed, he’ll hear her voice and be a little less sad.

Fortunately, the maternal grandmother arrives on the scene and teaches the father some of the mother’s habits, such as how to drizzle honey on toast. When the grandmother complains about the heat in the house and starts to open the windows, the child explodes with alarm and confronts her. She explains that his mother isn’t in the surrounding air but in the child’s heart.

Dog Breath is a tribute to a deceased dog who just might have been the worst dog ever. He escaped whenever the door opened a crack and when he returned he would smell like rotten cheese and need a bath. He also stole food, once a whole turkey, as well as anything else that he could pull off the kitchen table. Yes, he was probably the worst dog in the universe, but he’ll be remembered with affection and love.

Scrawny Cat is the tale of a lost cat who knows his name is not “Get out of here” even though that’s what he hears most of the time. He finds refuge in a dinghy just as a storm rolls in. As he huddles under the dinghy seat the rope tying the dinghy to the dock snaps and the boat rolls away from shore. After the storm, the dinghy washes up on a sandy beach. A woman comes down to see what the storm has washed in. Will she also tell the scrawny cat to “Get out of here?”

In The Flyaway Blanket, Jake is helping his Momma hang up his special blanket on the laundry line. He doesn’t want to let go of his “extra soft from so much love” blanket, but his Momma tells him it will be dry in no time, so they sit and wait in the sun. But then a wind comes up and snatches Jake’s blanket which flies high into the sky. Will it ever return?

Dad gives Douglas a brand new woolly hat in Don’t Worry, Douglas! and tells him to take care of it. Douglas’s hat, however, gets caught in a branch and unravels. What is Douglas to do? Other animals try to help him but the best advice comes from Rabbit, who suggests Douglas tell his dad just what happened.

In Pirates & Princesses, Ivy and Fletch have been best friends since they were babies. They do everything together, but when they both start kindergarten things change. All the boys play together as pirates and all the girls play together as princesses, but these games aren’t as much fun without your best friend. How will Ivy and Fletch reclaim their friendship?

Solomon Crocodile does not play well with others. He is considered a pest by all the animals in the swamp. Will he ever find someone to play with?
Finally, two new concept books: Small Medium Large deals with the concept of size from itty-bitty to colossal, while Into the Outdoors covers the prepositional world as a happy family spends time in the great outdoors.

These are just a few of the hundreds of new titles to be found in our library’s collection. Contact your friendly and helpful Youth Services Librarian for more new titles.