Six More Powerful Books About Facing Mortality
The Life-and-Death Books I've Loved
Who's with me in having an obsession with reading about facing mortality? Does it stem from being in middle age? Is it because I have a cancer history? Is it simply morbid fascination?
It's the human condition that we're all headed in the same eventual direction, and I'm captivated by explorations of what make up a meaningful life (or death, or both) and by stories, true or fictionalized, about facing mortality.
If you're intrigued by facing the intertwined beauty and pain of our finite trips around the sun, you might also want to check out the memoirs I've loved on my first Greedy Reading List on the subject, Six Powerful Memoirs about Facing Mortality, which included the beautiful books The Unwinding of the Miracle; I Am, I Am, I Am; When Breath Becomes Air; Everything Happens for a Reason; The Bright Hour; and I've Seen the End of You.
Have you read books in this vein that you'd recommend? (Or do you stay far away from such topics?)
01 In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom
Amy Bloom writes with brutal honesty about her heartbreak and her determination to support her husband Brian Ameche's desire to end his life on his own terms.
In her memoir In Love, author Amy Bloom shares the story of an impossible situation: the pending loss of her husband Brian Ameche, first mentally and then physically, to Alzheimer's disease.
Ameche begins showing cognitive loss, and when a diagnosis is established of Alzheimer's disease, he considers the cases of those he has known who suffered for many years from the disease--and their caregivers alongside them. He becomes determined to participate in an assisted suicide program while he is still showing enough cognition to enter into the agreement.
In Love includes dark humor; some self-flagellation and brutal honesty about what Bloom perceives as her own instances of weakness and pettiness; intense kindness from others in desperately needed moments; and the dogged determination from various individuals to help Ameche's vision of taking control of circumstances surrounding the end of his life occur.
You can find my full review of In Love here.
02 No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler
Touching, honest, raw, funny, and full of gritty reflections about life and faith, this was a read that I absolutely adored and gave five Bossy stars.
Reading memoirs centered around cancer is not always a go for me, but this book was special. Divinity professor Kate Bowler offers meaningful insight, gritty truth-telling, and wry humor as she shares her experiences surrounding facing stage 4 colon cancer.
I finished No Cure for Being Human in one evening, tabbed many, many passages, immediately bought my own copy, re-tabbed everything, and would have been perfectly willing to read the book again in its entirety right away.
So many moments struck me, surprised me, or touched me as I read this lovely work, including Bowler's exploration of how our lives are largely shaped by choices out of our control and her reckoning with the way in which she considers her body after cancer treatment ("Who would fault a body that has survived so much and asked for so little?").
No Cure for Being Human is beautiful, funny, heartwarming, practical, and Kate Bowler is so wise and wonderful, I hugged this book to my chest when I finished reading it.
For my full review, check out No Cure for Being Human.
03 This Shining Life by Harriet Kline
Kline's poignant, lovely book explores a family's emotional missteps and enduring love after a painful loss, and their hard-fought resolutions and tentative steps forward.
Young Ollie finds people confusing. They don't always say what they mean, and lately they're often crying.
Harriet Kline's This Shining Life tracks Ollie's attempts to make sense of things after his father Rich's death from cancer; it follows his mother Ruth's adjustment to life without her free-spirited, joy-filled partner; and it tracks the grief and the resulting shifts within their close-knit extended family.
Rich left small gifts to his loved ones, and Ollie becomes convinced that if he searches hard enough for meaning in these items, he'll uncover essential clues about the meaning of life and be able to understand what happened to his father.
It's heartbreaking to witness various family members' attempts to do what they think is best for themselves and for others, often misreading what's needed or wanted. The examinations of mortality and of love and of living life fully are poignant and lovely, and the last ten percent of this book is so beautiful, it brought me to tears.
You can find my full review of This Shining Life here.
04 Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb
This is an irresistible tribute to Kalb's funny, opinionated, fiercely loving grandmother--a granddaughter's best friend and a wise and formidable character.
I listened to Bess Kalb's irresistible love letter to her late grandmother, Nobody Will Tell You This But Me. The audiobook was wonderful and read by Kalb.
The author saved every one of her grandmother's voicemails, and here she uses them--along with emails, letters, vividly recalled conversations, and her grandma Bobby's imagined thoughts from beyond the grave--to construct a picture of a formidable, tough-love, fiercely protective matriarch in Bobby Bell. of doubting his faith, God, his life’s work, and his vision of an afterlife.
This is a heartwarming, funny, poignant, sassy tribute to a life fully lived and to a determination love freely, deliberately, and unwaveringly. It made me laugh out loud and brought me to tears. I just adored this gem.
Click here for my full review of Nobody Will Tell You This But Me.
05 The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
Poet Elizabeth Alexander writes a gorgeous account of her love affair with her husband and the trauma of his sudden death in a heartbreaking, heartwarming account of moving through the darkness and holding tight to life's beauty and its pain.
“The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”
In The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander writes gorgeously about Ficre Ghebreyesus, the husband she lost suddenly; the elements that made him irreplaceable to her and to the world; and the impossibility and inevitability of adjusting to life without him.
Alexander shares the trauma surrounding this enormous loss--which occurred days after Ghebreyesus's fiftieth birthday surprise party--and her personal journey toward finding peace.
Much of the book explores the beauty of companionship, and with poetic gorgeousness Alexander lays out her unique love story.
You can find my full review of The Light of the World here.
06 The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin
Cronin's debut novel explores mortality, vulnerability, surprising moments of joy and reflection, an irresistible young protagonist, and a wonderful array of friends who are like family.
Lenni and Margot was one of my top twelve reads of the year the year I read it.
Seventeen-year-old Lenni Pettersson lives in the terminal ward at the Glasgow Princess Royal Hospital. Her life expectancy isn't long, but Lenni still has a lot she wants to do and be.
In the hospital's arts and crafts class, she meets 83-year-old Margot, a spirited, rebellious new friend. Collectively they've been around 100 years, but this just doesn't feel like enough, and they each want to leave their mark on the world.
With the help of Father Arthur, the hospital chaplain, and a kind palliative care nurse, the friends make a plan to create one hundred paintings, one to represent each of their years of life. This goal adds structure to the novel, but the story is far richer than the characters' mission to create art.
Another novel I loved that involves a precocious, wise, reflective, tough young protagonist is This Is All He Asks of You.
Click here for my full review of The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot.