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Beyond Books: Memoirs That Reckon with Death [in The Booklist Reader]

Being part of the “sandwich generation” caught between aging parents and almost-adult children means that mortality begins to loom heavier as the years pass. Sharing the burden of tragedy with thoughtful, wise, and gentle others through books is certainly one of the most readily-available balms. For those moments you need a little guidance, here are ten titles about death that provide illuminating lessons on, well, life.


The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

Riggs died February 26, 2017. For a book about fatal diseases – Riggs was diagnosed at 37 with breast cancer, her mother with multiple myeloma from which she died just months before her daughter – The Bright Hour is exactly that, bright with joy, laughter, and enveloping love. Riggs never loses sight of what inspires her, nurtures her, even as her “days are filled with imagining how to wind things down.” Riggs finds calm in the writings of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson (a heavy legacy she occasionally eschewed), twinned with 16th-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s meditations. Her ruminations about her diagnosis, treatments, losses, are honest with pain and frustration, but grace and courage prevail.


Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor

“I am making dying bearable for myself,” Taylor reveals in her last book, originally published in her native Australia just months after she passed away from melanoma at 61. A euthanasia drug she bought online allowed Taylor some semblance of autonomy, “that [she] might yet be able to influence [her] fate.” With that sense of control intact, Taylor wrote with crisp, unadorned clarity, determined to tell her own story about the difficult family she was born into, and the nourishing haven she created with her husband and two sons. That beloved husband and their children’s faces became the “short answer to what [she’ll] miss most.” The long answer, “the world and everything in it.”


The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Schwalbe’s mother listened well to her high school headmistress who “always said, ‘Girls … you can do it all.”’ Mary Anne’s all included becoming Harvard’s director of admissions, the first woman president of the Harvard Faculty Club, and founding director of the Women’s Refugee Commission. Her final project was building a library in Afghanistan. Books, integral to her life, became a tool for facing death. She and Schwalbe started a mother-and-son book club during chemo treatments that sustains them in the time that’s left. Book Club proves to be open-hearted love letter from a child to his mother, a profound thank-you from an outstanding human being for a life well-lived, an erudite appreciation of literature, and a reminder to cherish and practice gratitude in our own daily lives.


Her: A Memoir by Christa Parravani

“I forgot who I was after my sister died.” At 28, Parravani’s twin sister Cara overdosed, unable to recover from a horrific rape. With Cara gone, Christa became a “breathing memorial for [Cara’s] lost self,” ignoring her own existence. With oneness suddenly thrust upon her, Christa flounders through self-abuse, meaningless relationships, and the lure of suicide. Hers is a race against statistics statistics: “50 percent of twins follow their identical twin into death within two years. Flip a coin.” Christa chooses life, augmented through her remarkable photographs of twins collected on her website.


The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, with Jeffrey Zaslow

Before he died of pancreatic cancer, Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch gave his delightful, heartbreaking Last Lecture on September 18, 2007. The book followed in April 2008, each chapter dictated via cellphone headset to the late Jeffrey Zaslow (a Wall Street Journal columnist who died tragically in 2012), as Pausch rode his bike. Pausch filled his too-short 47 years to the fullest – with joy, appreciation, and downright glee. He fervently chose to live – and die – a Tigger, never an Eeyore, a choice he reminds us we, too, can (still) make every day.


Once We Were Sisters: A Memoir by Sheila Kohler

At 37, Kohler’s 39-year-old sister Maxine was killed in a car driven by her husband, leaving behind six young children. Kohler identifies the moment as “the beginning of endless years of yearning and regret. It is also the beginning of my writing life.” More than a dozen titles and decades later, Kohler, now in her 70s, recounts what came before and what happened after, confronting how she might have saved Maxine, who, despite personal wealth, privilege, and mobility, stayed in a violent marriage to a philandering gay doctor. Unabashedly forthright, Kohler bears witness to a bond even death cannot sever.


On My Own by Diane Rehm

Beloved NPR host Diane Rehm’s latest memoir begins with her husband John’s end – depleted by Parkinson’s disease, unable to “stand walk, eat, bathe, or in any way care for himself on his own, he was now ready to die.” After 54 years of marriage – joyful, combative, celebratory – Rehm agonizes as he finally succumbs after refusing all water and nourishment for weeks and ponders her life ahead alone. Her experience as witness to death spurs her to fight for right-to-die legislation. Rehm shares her journey with the same intimacy that defined her popular show for decades.


Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

Deraniyagala is the only member of her family to survive the deadly December Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 that claimed over 230,000 lives, including those of her parents, husband, and two young sons. She wants nothing else but to join them. “I will kill myself soon,” she writes. Over the following eight years, Deraniyagala – an Oxbridge-trained economist – progresses from “stunned” shutdown, to admitting her loss, to opening her mind and heart to what her life might have become with her family intact. From obsessively bullying the Dutch renters of her Sri Lankan childhood home to sleeping four years later in the unchanged bed of her London house, Deraniyagala’s unflinching journey is simultaneously wrenching and remarkably hopeful.


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalananthi

In his sublime foreword, physician and bestselling author Abraham Verghese writes how he came to know Kalanithi “most intimately when he’d ceased to be.” Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon died from lung cancer at the age of 37 and was, by all accounts, an exceptional human being. This posthumous release – most simply put – is an exquisite treatise on living: “Be ready,” Verghese urges, to “see what it is to still live. Listen to Paul.”


You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris, translated by Sam Taylor

French journalist Antoine Leiris bears witness to the murder of his wife, Hélène Muyal-Leiris, a victim of the November 13, 2015, terrorist attack at Paris’s Bataclan Theatre. Three days later, Leiris wrote directly to her killers in a widely shared open letter on Facebook: “On Friday evening you stole the life of an exceptional person, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred.” His viral post became this memoir, made spare and exact by his journalist’s training. With hate too easy an option in this current climate of finger-pointing, Leiris’s honorable response to this horrific tragedy becomes a gift of inspiring humanity.

Published: “Beyond Books: Memoirs That Reckon with Death,” The Booklist Reader, August 15, 2017


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