Category Archives: Books on Death and Dying

The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe

The Violet HourTitle: The Violet Hour: Great Writes at the End
Author: Katie Roiphe
Publisher: The Dial Press
ISBN: 978-0385343596
Genre: Nonfiction, Death and Dying
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

There’s something about death, isn’t it? Something so fearful and yet sometimes enigmatic for some. Sometimes also makes you think about it all and then only leads to everything becoming nothing in an instant. One day it is all there and the other it isn’t.

Katie Roiphe takes this a step further in her book “The Violet Hour” and speaks of death in the context of great writers (who are but obviously dead) at the end of their lives. She just doesn’t write of death as the end, but the entire journey of dying, so to say. For instance, how Susan Sontag thought she could beat death at its own game and did several times, till she had to go. Or for that matter, Updike who after receiving the worst possible diagnosis wrote a poem at seventy-six. And then the excesses of Dylan Thomas and his suicide attempts that finally led to his death.

A good work of nonfiction, to my mind, is the one that doesn’t stray away from facts and more than anything else does not try to romanticize facts. Roiphe’s strength lies not only in these two facets of writing, but also the way she presents her extensive research, which involved family and friends of writers and what is already known to the general public. Roiphe doesn’t make the book sentimental, and yet it tugs at the heart because death is sadly a universal experience. We have all seen it up, close and personal and can relate if not even empathize with most part of the book or all of it, as it were in my case.

The book does not tell you how to grieve. What it does though is in a way deconstruct death through experiences of great writers and what it did to them and their family and friends. And in that process, we just get to know these writers better. Death, for Freud, was just a subject to be studied till he realized that he couldn’t observe his own death after all and never hestitated to smoke himself to death and refused to take pain killers.

At some point, as a reader one could feel guilty of prying into another’s death – the last days and yet there is something about the book that makes you want to know more about these six writers. Kudos to Katie for all the research and the way she articulates thoughts, emotions, what the writers did in the last days, what they chose to rather and above all what does death mean to each of them and perhaps even to yes on a universal level.

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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists Title: The Immortalists
Author: Chloe Benjamin
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0735213180
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

What would you do if you knew the day of your death? How would you live your life differently, or would you? What do you think it would be like for you? Also, what would it be if each of your siblings also knew the day of their death? Would your relationships be any different? How would life then play out? These questions and more haunted me as I was reading, “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin.

“The Immortalists” might seem like that one book which you read a while ago but it isn’t. There is so much and more to the book that you cannot compare it with anything you’ve read before, so I suggest you don’t even try and read it with an open-mind at the very best.

The story starts off in New York in 1969, when we meet the Gold children – Varya 13, Daniel 11, Klara 9 and Simon who is 7 years old. They belong to a religious Jewish family and are close to their parents. A psychic is heard of by one of the children – someone who has set camp nearby and four of them head out to meet her, who is known to predict the date of someone’s death. She individually tells them each the day they will die. This is where the story begins.

The novel is divided into four sections, each for one child, and we traverse through their lives, trying to understand what happens to each of them as they live and whether or not the prediction comes true.

I am not going to give away any spoilers here but all I can say is that this book has the power to leave you stunned and asking for more answers. Who was the psychic? What happens? What does not happen and why? All of this makes you turn the pages anyway but Benjamin’s writing does not seem new. She doesn’t write like a debut novelist. The craft is so precise – every scene comes alive; every emotion wrenches you and you can’t help but mull over it.

The dynamics of the siblings with each other and their mother is another thing that will make you relate to the book to a very large extent. Also, what they choose to share with each other and don’t forms such a major part of the book. What I also loved was the role time plays this book – with it hanging so severely on their heads and yet it is in a way so subtle – moving at its own pace and making the siblings realize the value or life or not.

“The Immortalists” is the kind of book which will have you thinking about life, more and everything in between. This book is hard to put down once you start it. Benjamin will literally make you cry (be prepared for it) and smile almost in the same page. It is a book which truly deserves all accolades and more this year. Read it. You will not be disappointed.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death: A Memoir by Maggie O’ Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am - Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O' Farrell Title: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death: A Memoir
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525520221
Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

The book is about the author’s seventeen near misses with death. I could say this and explain the book to you but that would not be fair to it. The book is a lot more than just this (though this is the core, mind you, as the title and sub-title will tell you). And yet what I take from it is the fragility of life, sometimes the joy in living and the fact that you still move on, despite the seventeen near misses with death. “I Am, I Am, I Am” is a testament really to living and living with life’s bittersweet moments.

There is no melodrama or sentimentality when it comes to this book. There is a lot of emotion though, but nowhere does it get emotional to the point that it tends to feel fake. O’Farrell’s writing is raw, straight from the core of the heart, to the point of it being exhausting at times (which I was prepared for given the nature of the book) and yet, the book lifts you from the ordinary in so many ways.

Death is something we do not speak of casually or even for that matter most seriously. It is something that we take for granted till perhaps you face it and if you have had close shaves with it seventeen times, then you know better than to think you are immortal or life is long and so on and so forth. “I Am, I Am, I Am” in that sense uproots your ideas of death and life, about how fragile we are and yet as humans we don’t admit it.

Maggie’s experiences could’ve been anyone’s really and even if they aren’t she makes them ours through the power of her writing. When she is on the verge of drowning, so are we. When she suffers, so do we. The book is divided by body parts that were involved in these brushes, sometimes even the entire body and then you see the magnanimity of situations she was in and as a result of that, you empathize no end.

The poetry of prose is also hard to bear, the events intense (some of them) and often drive you to tears. Compassion is strengthened and you bring yourself to find moments of happiness, hope and joy throughout. Maggie O’Farrell has put her heart out on paper and whether or not you have read her novels, you should read “I Am, I Am, I Am” for sure.