Category Archives: Five Star

‘Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End’ by Atul Gawande

The old saying goes that once you have faced death, you can truly live. Trite but true. Of course we spend much of our lives taking very good care to see that we remain as healthy as possible for as long as possible, but the reality is still that we are going to die.

Atul Gawande, a medical doctor himself,  wrestles profoundly but personally with the dilemma of submitting ourselves to medical systems and mindsets that have been geared to prolonging life at all costs (a great strategy that has us living longer than ever before) but also coming to grips with the fact that at some point the inventions and interventions will no longer work and may actually increase suffering. In this pivotal moment, the important thing to remember is that we are mortal and the choices we make at the end of life need to be more around the quality of life remaining, even if those choices shorten life and involve refusing treatments that are available. The goal should not be a good death, but a good life to the very end. And that will look very different in each unique person, family, and situation. Gawande doesn’t offer solutions, just discusses the issues in a very accessible format.

Gawande talks about nursing homes where the focus on safety can prevent a full and dignified assistance of individual needs. He points out the high value in hospice care as an alternative to further treatment, if that is available and appropriate. Unfortunately hospice is sometimes seen as a giving up or as a failure or weakness once everything else has been tried, rather than a positive alternative to being cared for in the final chapter that leads to fullness of life till the end. Useful and engaging, the stories he tells in the book give a dignified view of those who are in the process of giving up their independence to old age or illness. His models of care focus on living a meaningful life.

Through gently storytelling, the book is also very useful in walking the reader through difficult conversations, accepting hard truths, whether patient or carer.  The final chapter of our lives may have a fullness and a richness we could never have imagined, if the right choices are made. That chapter might include sharing memories, passing on wisdom and keepsakes, settling relationships, establishing legacies, making peace with God, and ensuring that those left behind will be ok. “As people become aware of the finitude of their life, they do not ask for much. They do not seek more riches. They do not seek more power. They ask only to be permitted, insofar as possible, to keep shaping the story of their life in the world–to make choices and sustain connection to others according to their own priorities.”

 

‘Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?: A Memoir’ by Roz Chast

Roz Chast squeezes more existential pain out of baffled people in cheap clothing sitting around on living-room sofas with antimacassar doilies in crummy apartments than Dostoevsky got out of all of Russia’s dark despair. This is a great book in the annals of human suffering, cleverly disguised as fun. Bruce McCall

Absolutely brilliant. Just loved this memoir by American cartoonist Roz Chast. It’s an honest heartfelt account of her parents’ final journey into old age, disability, and death. The slow decline of her meek father and overbearing mother is described in all of the detail that anyone dealing with elderly parents will be able to relate to–bedsores, assisted living, dementia, guilt, love, memories, worry, decisions, etc.–Chast holds nothing back. As she tells her story using cartoons and family photographs, Chaz strikes the right balance between humour and pathos. It would be so helpful to anyone going through the same experience.  If you’ve read this book, be sure to see the epilogue which appeared in The New Yorker in 2016.

Epilogue in The New Yorker

Note: According to the reviews I read, the graphics of this book are not well represented in the e-book format (Kindle). Hard cover is best. I borrowed a copy from the public library.

‘The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism’ by Naoki Higashida, K.A Yoshida, David Mitchell

When The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon was published, it was an immediate sensation because it gave such a sensitive inside look into the mind of a boy with autism. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer did the same. Both of these, though wonderful novels, are fiction. The Reason I Jump is written by a thirteen year old Japanese boy himself, using an alphabet grid. Painstakingly Naoki constructed words and sentences that resulted in a one-of-a-kind memoir, giving a rare view into how an autistic mind thinks, feels, perceives and responds.

David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, (whose Japanese wife did the translation) writes a foreword and a postscript to the book and since he is an accomplished author, probably assisted in putting it onto bestsellers lists. His commitment and passion for this topic are clearly evident and come from a heart that knows the struggle of communication. Mitchell himself suffers from the speech disorder of stammering and his son has autism.

One of the difficult things is that the actions and interactions of people with autism are so often misunderstood. And there is nothing more frustrating than being misunderstood. That is what makes this such an important and revolutionary book for anyone who wants to better understand the effort it takes for someone with autism to navigate the world.

It’s a short book, mostly in Q & A format, with questions like “Why do you line up your toy cars and blocks?” “Why do you memorize train timetables and calendars?”“Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?””Do you prefer to be alone?””Is it true that you hate being touched?””What’s the worst thing about having autism?” The book also contains some beautiful stories written by Naoki which reveal his acute intellect and imagination. Most notable is that Naoki loves nature and being outside in green just makes his heart sing. Like the friend who recommended this book to me mentioned, “Is that really so surprising? Isn’t that how God made us?”

‘Oh She Glows Every Day: Quick and Simple Satisfying Plant-based Recipes’ by Angela Liddon


When Oh She Glows came onto my kitchen table, I was thrilled to have a cookbook which I could feel confident using if I had vegan guests coming over, but I could also use these simple and wholesome recipes everyday, as is, or by adding a bit of meat, cheese, or milk. I loved this cookbook immediately and have gotten quite clever about locating things in my grocery store like almond flour and sorghum and nutritional yeast. Grocery stores have caught on and are making Bob’s Red Mill products widely available and offer handy ‘health food sections’ where the ingredients can be found. I didn’t know how much I would use this cookbook when I got it, but it has become my ‘go-to’ right alongside Looneyspoons!

I was excited to learn that Angela Liddon has another cookbook out with an ‘everyday’ focus, and thanks to my children and Mother’s Day, I have been able to start enjoying this book as well, though I find everyday things in both of these books. It’s just more of her recipes and there are some really good ones in it. Love the salads, the Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies recipe, interesting things for breakfast like Apple Pie Overnight Oats and a vast selection of smoothies. There is a large section featuring ‘Homemade Staples’ like 9-Spice Mix and Lemon Tahini Dressing that might be handy to keep on hand. Healthy eating couldn’t be easier!

If you are a fan of Angela Liddon you probably already subscribe to her blog, but did you know she has an iPad and iPhone app? Cook from Oh She Glows using your favourite device! Check your meal ideas on the train on the way home before you stop off at the store!!  Special search options and features of the app include the same elegant photography as in the books, listing capabilities, an anti-lock feature keeping your screen from going dark while cooking, and the ability to cross off ingredients from the list as you include them in the recipe!!

‘The Quality of Silence’ by Rosamund Lupton


Yasmin and her deaf daughter Ruby arrive in Alaska and are met at the airport by a policeman instead of her husband. The police are convinced that Matt has died in a tragic fire but Yasmin refuses to believe this. Within hours she and her young daughter are driving across the frozen wilderness where nothing grows, and tears can freeze in an instant. In round the clock dark they search for Ruby’s father and as they travel ever deeper over a silent land and into an approaching storm they become aware that they are being followed.

This stylish and unique literary thriller has it all: not only is it beautifully written and gives the reader a meaningful glimpse into what it is to be deaf, it has edge-of-your seat suspense, memorable characters, current and relevant issues, multiple twists in the plot, and some glorious and terrifying descriptions of the Arctic landscape in all its beauty and deadly darkness. It contains not only an exploration of an extraordinary Arctic land, but also the interior landscape of a profoundly deaf child.

The author makes you experience the biting cold, the sting of grief, the drive to survive, the weight of responsibility, the love of family, the mustering of courage, the agony of defeat, and the triumph of overcoming. Atmospheric and gripping, this is the kind of gem I look for where literary excellence and commercial readability meet.

‘The Aunts Come Marching’ by Bill Richardson and Cynthia Nugent


(Preschool – 3) Thanks to Jessica for putting me onto this fabulous musical counting book with a catchy marching tune. Road tested with our new grandchild, this slightly wacky but delightful book is already a favourite both with children and adults (always my benchmark with picture books)! The illustrations are such fun, the repetitions irresistible, and in case the tune  is unfamiliar, there is a helpful musical score included. What a great introduction to various instruments as well! The eccentric aunts (not ants) come marching one by one, two by two, etc., all playing loud instruments and bound on staying for awhile. Oh help!! Dad would like to be marching (or swinging) to a slightly less frenetic drumbeat…in his hammock!

‘The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit’ by Michael Finkel

If voluntary withdrawal from all human contact were an extreme sport, Christopher Knight could be the best in the world. On a whim he disappeared one day and lived alone in the woods in all seasons for 27 years. In all that time he interacted with another person only once–he said ‘Hi’ to someone on a trail. He never built a fire, not even in winter, for fear of being sighted, using a cookstove instead. Although he felt guilty about it, part of his ability to survive depended on breaking into nearby unoccupied camps and cabins to steal food, books, batteries, and other supplies. Because he never stole much of great value, the regular thefts were something that puzzled and terrorized the cottage dwellers and local law enforcement officers. His decades long sojourn came to an end when he was finally caught and charged for more than 1000 break-ins. When he was captured he was clean shaven and nicely dressed.

Michael Finkel, a journalist for the New York Times was the only personal Knight would tell his extraordinary story to and even that took some doing. His ability to get the details from Knight is as amazing as the account itself. It took Finkel three years of full time work to write these 191 pages. He was dedicated to getting it right and making it as accurate and compelling as possible.

I couldn’t put this remarkable book down and found it haunting and thought provoking. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone.