Category Archives: Non-Fiction

‘They Left Us EVERYTHING’, by Plum Johnson

“…thinking about all the things we’ve inherited, all the carefully saved fragments from another time…each generation preserving them in turn, wanting future generations to know of this long, braided chain of genes, habits, and attitudes that binds us together as a family: our history and stories.” 

This is a memoir about a woman who takes on the task of clearing out her parents’ house after they have passed on. When we die we don’t take anything with us, and everyone else gets to go through what we have left behind! Johnson grew up in this house in Oakville, Ontario, and as she handles objects from the past, she reflects on her life, her relationship with her parents and siblings, and the life her parents had before they moved into this house. She had a disciplined British father, an exuberant Southern mother, and four siblings, all living together in this 23-room house. Johnson has a warmly candid writing style that is at once funny and poignant, but also delves into serious issues of managing loss and grief.

What I didn’t notice about the title when I first came into contact with this book was that the word EVERYTHING in the title is capitalized. Yes, the house was FULL of STUFF and for anyone who has done it, removing it all and making decisions about what to throw and what to keep, is a colossal task that does take one on an emotional journey. I’m glad Johnson shares hers. She also raises some interesting questions about whether it’s better to clear out your own mess before you die, if possible, or if it’s somehow therapeutic for your children to do it. Despite the fact that it can be frustrating if story-less objects are left without the ability to ask questions about them, there is value in reliving the memories and there may even be some surprises!

‘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?”

‘Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat’ by Bee Wilson

“The food we cook is not only an assemblage of ingredients. It is the product of technologies, past and present.”

Food writer Bee Wilson does a really great job of looking at the history of how we cook and eat; it’s a look at kitchen utensils and cooking methods that we now take for granted. The modern kitchen and its contents evolved over time around the cooking practices of their day and were dependent on a number of factors that we are most likely unaware of. With artful sketches by Annabel Lee gracing each chapter, Wilson looks into things like pots and pans, knives, fire, measurement, refrigeration, and things as simple as the humble wooden spoon, the indispensable chopping knife, and the clever vegetable peeler. The history is fascinating and Wilson’s writing style is engaging. She has done her homework and relays the information in an entertaining manner.

This is a great book for anyone who enjoys cooking and is interested in how we as humans have evolved in our domesticity (also makes me think of Bill Bryson’s book At Home). Even though it contains not a single recipe, it does provide inspiration and a new respect for being in the kitchen and cooking even a simple meal.

‘Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life around the Table with Recipes’ by Shauna Niequist

“The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment.”

You don’t have to be a great cook of fancy food in order to have people over for a meal…trust me, I’ve been doing it for years! Even though I don’t love cooking like some people do, I have always been committed to the family dinner because it works like glue in our lives. There’s something about breaking bread and sipping wine and enjoying conversation with family, friends, or colleagues that is more than the sum total of its various parts. Whatever age your children are, whatever your home looks like, whatever you can or can’t cook (Uber eats?), being committed to at least one meal together everyday as a household and having guests often, will bring tremendous blessing to your life. Hospitality in my mind has always been about being welcoming and real and being ‘present over perfect’ which also happens to be the title of Niequist’s next book (Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living). I think I will read it but the title is almost enough already.

Shauna Niequist brings a down-to-earth perspective in her book Bread and Wine. She makes herself vulnerable with the funny and honest stories she tells about her own life with themes of hospitality, spirituality, community, food, friends, family, infertility, love, and shame, AND there is a recipe included at the end of every chapter! I loved this book and read it slowly, trying out her comforting and easy recipes along the way, many of which have already become favourites and are simple enough to memorize and/or tweak to your own tastes.

Pull up a chair, pour yourself a glass of wine, and enjoy the conversation at Niequist’s table!

‘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.