REVIEW: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande [5/5]

“The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be.”

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Title: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Author: Atul Gawande

Genre: Nonfiction, Medicine

Rating: 5/5

Blurb:

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But in the inevitable condition of aging and death, the goals of medicine seem too frequently to run counter to the interest of the human spirit. Nursing homes, preoccupied with safety, pin patients into railed beds and wheelchairs. Hospitals isolate the dying, checking for vital signs long after the goals of cure have become moot. Doctors, committed to extending life, continue to carry out devastating procedures that in the end extend suffering.

Full of eye-opening research and riveting storytelling, Being Mortal asserts that medicine can comfort and enhance our experience even to the end, providing not only a good life but also a good end.

This is not a book I would have picked up on my own, and truth be told, the way in which I acquired this book is so strange that it seems almost like providence. I’m a shift supervisor at Starbucks, and about a month ago, a customer came through the drive-through and offered the barista this book. I don’t know what was said; once the person had driven away, the barista approached me and simply said she’d been given the book by the customer and had no idea what to do with it. A glance at the cover left me uneasy. It wouldn’t have been the first time a religious pamphlet had been handed to us. But after I looked at the subtitle and read the inside flap, I became intrigued. It seemed interesting enough, and as I’d been hoping to reignite my love of reading, I made it the next book on my to-read list.

Being Mortal may now be one of the most influential books on my life. I don’t need to fear just yet a death by old age, but of course we’re aware that it is possible to be taken before our time — a car crash, cancer, a chance slip and fall. Depression has made me think of death too often, but I never truly considered the act and process of dying except to reel from it in disgust. Being Mortal forced me to look at it.

Atul Gawande is a renowned and experienced surgeon, and he’s blatantly honest in this work. For the longest time, he had only one mindset: death is the enemy and must always be fought. However, he had rarely if ever given thought to the consequences this “save at all costs” mentality could bring. His experience with suffering patients and dying family forced him to reevaluate his mindset. He watched lives be saved, but at the cost of dignity and happiness. He saw people who were alive, but who were not living. And he saw the toll this took not only on the patients themselves, but on their families as well.

In this novel, he interweaves anecdotes and science in a way to cause envy in other authors. His prose is elegant and accessible. It does not talk down to you, not does it assume you to be an idiot. The flow is seamless, and the stories engaging. More importantly, this novel forces us all to consider that which we fear to consider: perhaps it is better to allow death to take its course than to force someone to live.

This book is a must-read for anyone, especially for those whose loved ones may soon be reaching the end of life. It teaches the importance of not saving life, but saving the act of living. Safety, Gawande finds, is not the key to happiness, but rather the ability to maintain agency of one’s self in whatever capacity one may have. Too often, we do not talk about death. We instead avoid it, shushing anyone who might try to start the conversation because we do not want to think about the inevitable. But these conversations are important, and they can set the tone for how we will end our lives. The only certainty in life is death, yet we rarely prepare for it.

Gawande’s book is, in a word, masterful. I am only twenty-three, nowhere near death (I hope), and yet I was enraptured and educated on an idea I may have otherwise never considered — until it was too late. Death is scary, but dying is scarier, and Gawande helps ease us into the conversation of how we need to think about it in order to have a truly fruitful end-of-life. This is not a book that must only be read by those close to death or whose loved ones are close to death. This is a book that must be read by everyone.

Review: Maus, Vol 1 [5/5]

mausTitle: Maus, Vol. 1: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History

Author: Art Spiegelman

Genre: Autobiography, Nonfiction

Rating: 5/5

Blurb:

A story of a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe and his son, a cartoonist who tries to come to terms with his father’s story and history itself.

Maus was the first graphic novel to win a Pullitzer Prize, and now that I’ve read it, I understand why. This novel is heart-wrenching and raw. Nothing is sugar-coated, and Spiegelman pulls none of his punches.

The use of animals in this novel often confuses readers about the biographical nature of it, but this comic is 100% true, detailing Spiegelman’s research and conversations with his father. By using animal figures rather than humans, Spiegelman makes this a more accessible to begin reading before he crushes you.

There is no artist who can render the horrors of the Holocaust through art, not on the level of what it was. But somehow the use of animals seems to get closer to that horror than any depiction of humans would have. The use of different animals for different people also helps convey to the reader how easy it was for the Jewish people to be singled out. It creates a visual divide between the Jewish, American, Polish, and German people that we would not have been able to get in a comic with realistic art.

I can’t say much about this comic. It speaks for itself. This is a comic that expresses the horrors of the Holocaust, the love of family, the frustration of family. It is all-encompassing.

Book Giveaway

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To celebrate 100 followers on my tumblr and this blog, I am having a BOOK GIVEAWAY. Thank you guys so much for everything. It means the world to have your support.

PRIZES

  • 1st Place: Your choice of four physical copies of the books above.
  • 2nd Place: Your choice of three physical copies of the remaining books.
  • 3rd Place: You will receive the two  physical copies remaining books.
  • All winners will also receive a free electronic copy of my short story, Spawn.

RULES

  • This is a giveaway for my followers, so you must be following this blog or my WordPress blog in order to enter. No giveaway blogs.
  • To enter, you must fill out this stuff here. It’s just for legal reasons. After that, you will see a list of all kinds of things you can  do to increase your chances of winning.
  • I will contact the winners by email, and they will have 24 hours to claim their books. If they don’t respond in this time frame, I’ll pick someone else.
  • You must be 18 years old or older.
  • I will ship internationally and pay for the costs. You must be willing to divulge an address to where I can send your books. You only need to give this if you win and I email you.
  • These books are used, but each one is good, readable condition.
  • The giveaway ends 12:00am on May 31st.

Tips on Being a Teenage Driver

Tip #109: Acquire your license.

When you’re sixteen and fresh out of driving school, you think you can do anything. You have ultimate freedom. Mom and Dad can’t weigh you down. You might even have your own car, and you can go anywhere in it. You could drive from Ohio to Wisconsin if you really wanted to, as long as your blubbering death trap kept itself together. It was self-discovery and freedom and fast food at any time of night.

I had had my license for two months, and driving was my jam. I blasted the crackling rock station from the speakers and was careful not to burn out the clutch as I pulled off of Columbia Parkway and onto Beechmont. I was on my way home, coming from who-knows-where. As I drove, I remembered a small road up ahead, a dirt path I’d always wondered about whenever my parents would drive by it. I used to watch for it from the backseat, trying to get a glimpse at where it might go. Who sees that kind of street off of a four-lane state route? It had to go somewhere cool.

 

Tip #25: Embrace your inner Magellan.

And I was the driver today, which meant I could go anywhere I liked. I pulled into the slow lane, heart-racing, waiting to see it. I knew it was before the bridge that crossed over the Little Miami River, so I slowed down as it came into sight, searching.

There it was: my wardrobe to Narnia, my Diagon Alley, my rabbit hole. A drum beat in my chest, and I couldn’t tell if it was my heart or the music.

Surely, I was about to embark on an exciting adventure, the kind written about in Young Adult novels where I’d stumble across something philosophical, meaningful, and it would change my life forever. I’d call my ex-girlfriend and we’d end up getting married, going abroad to find ourselves, and then coming back to have two point four children. I might even find inspiration for a novel down this road, leading me to get the Nobel Prize in literature.

 

Tip #3: Always remember to be safe.

I slowed down and turned onto the road. As I passed between the open metal gates, the tires crunched the dirt and gravel beneath them, and I was careful with the gearshift to make sure I didn’t stall. Suddenly, I was surrounded by woods. I idled down the road. The path was only large enough for one car, so I would need to find a safe place to turn around. To my left was the river. Remnants of old fishing gear and beer cans speckled the green earth. Coming up was a house, decrepit and spooky in a perfect way, ready to fall down at any moment. It made me shiver despite the hot, so I kept going. People must drive down here to go fish or camp, I thought, eyes searching for somewhere along the way to turn around. I saw a decent spot to the left where I might be able to turn around, but there was no guard rail to stop my tiny Saab from rolling down the hill and into the river. I figured I might as well keep going forward. Better to be safe than sorry.

 

Tip #37: Stay vigilant!

Less than a minute later, there was another metal gate and a patch of concrete leading up onto a road. It stretched before and to the right of me, no longer surrounded by trees, but by fresh turf. There were no signs or markings to tell me where to go. I had to decide my destiny.

I chose to go forward, because turning while going up a hill from a full stop meant I would definitely stall. My car heaved itself up onto the flat track and I continued onwards. In the distance, I saw something – someone. There were people, walking along the road. Hitchhikers? I wasn’t sure what area I was in or what kind of people lurked about, so I locked my door. Better to be safe than sorry.

I crawled forward, unsure of where to go and looking for any street sign that might orient me. Something else was coming up on the side of the road, something strange. Was… Was that…

A bench?

 

Tip #98: If you start to cry, be sure that you can still see before continuing driving.

Terror seized me. After several seconds of hesitation, I slammed on the brakes and stopped. Oh god. Oh god. This was a goddamn park.

The people who’d been walking alongside the road – no, it was not a road, it had never been a road – started to pass my car. They were an older couple, giving me strange looks as I reached over to roll down my window.

“Excuse me,” I said. My voice cracked and suddenly tears were blurring my vision. “I’m sorry. I made a – a wrong turn, and now I’m lost. How do I get out of here?”

The husband and wife looked at each other. I could feel them judging me, but I didn’t care. This was a portal to Hell, not Middle-Earth.

“If you just follow the path, it should take you right to the parking lot,” said the old man, pointing along the walking path I was following, which would soon curve ninety degrees to the north. I could see the parking lot in question.

“Thank you.”

 

Tip #109: Be prepared for disillusionment, but don’t take it too hard.

I rolled all my windows up, and then I blasted the air-conditioning and made sure the music was loud enough that I could barely hear my own choked sobs. Oh god. What if there were kids here? What if I ran into a kid? Why did I turn down a road that I knew nothing about? What if the cops showed up? What if I went to jail?

I was dead. I was going to die. My car was going to explode in the middle of Lunken Playfields and I’d be on the news and my mom would cry but she’d also be shaking her head because how did she raise a daughter who would drive her car through a park?

I didn’t go over five miles per hour the entire time, not until I got to the end of the path where, thankfully, there were no metal rods to stop cars from passing through. When my tires hit pavement – real pavement, road pavement – I sighed and slowly made my way down towards the road.

I wasn’t dead. I hadn’t found Narnia. I hadn’t found myself. I’m such a moron, I thought. But, hey, I guess I could say that at least I found adventure.

Review: Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life

rockTitle: Rock and Roll Will Save Your life

Author: Steve Almond

Genre: Creative Nonfiction

Rating: 8/10

Blurb:
Drooling fanatic, n. 1. One who drools in the presence of beloved rock stars. 2. Any of a genus of rock-and-roll wannabes/geeks who walk around with songs constantly ringing in their ears, own more than 3,000 albums, and fall in love with at least one record per week.

With a life that’s spanned the phonographic era and the digital age, Steve Almond lives to Rawk. Like you, he’s secretly longed to live the life of a rock star, complete with insane talent, famous friends, and hotel rooms to be trashed. Also like you, he’s content (sort of) to live the life of a rabid fan, one who has converted his unrequited desires into a (sort of) noble obsession.

Typically, I hate nonfiction. I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. Maybe it’s the lack of dragons; that could definitely be it. I needed to take another genre of creative writing for my minor, however, so  decided that creative nonfiction sounded much better than poetry, which led to me reading a short excerpt from this book, buying it, and devouring it in a week (which, for me, is pretty fast). Almond’s book is funny, enlightening, and surprisingly, occasionally moving.

In Rock, Almond delivers personal anecdotes in a memoir-like fashion, though he uses brash and crude language throughout; this, however, is definitely not a complaint, only a fact. Almond has led a life deeply involved with rock and rock culture, a Drooling Fanatic since birth. Many of his stories come from his time working as a music critic for his local newspaper, meaning he’s accumulated a lot of interesting, funny, and sad stories from both obscure bands and rock stars.

What drew me to Almond’s book was his ability to balance humor with moments of seriousness. One moment he’ll be giving a detailed exegesis on Toto’s “Rains Down In Africa,” the next he’ll spend talking about how Metallica saved his wife’s life. He’s unapologetically honest, though sometimes I find him a bit too crass. Otherwise, his writing flows well and is enjoyable to read. He has dozens of stories, and the balance of fun to serious is perfect.

The thing I appreciated the most, however, is that he makes it a point to say several times that there is no such thing as bad music. There may be music you don’t like, but you don’t have the right to tell anyone that their taste in music is bad. As someone who is a fan of a plethora of genres, it was nice to see the sentiment, especially from someone writing about a genre they love. It’s easy for writers to fall into a pit of “what I like is better than what you like,” but Almond avoids it wonderfully.

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is a fun, quick read. Even if you find yourself not knowing who Almond is talking about sometimes, the stories he tells are engaging and fun. While I’m not sure if I’m ready to tackle nonfiction again anytime soon, I know that if I do, I’ll probably be turning to another of Steve Almond’s books.

Creepy Steven

When I first met Steven, we talked about the different video games we played. I immediately became aware that he was a cookie-cutter nerd: huge glasses, bald and scrawny, twenty-two year old. He wore a lop-sided grin most of the time, and the pitch of his voice suggested he’d never hit puberty. My coworkers at the gas station slash ice cream parlor and I were united on this, as we also never saw the shadow of facial hair.

It was his first day at the store, so I was assigned to help him out a bit if he had any trouble. After a pleasant conversation about comic books, we were both sent to the cooler to stock drinks. It granted much more privacy than I was comfortable with. As I began filling the Pepsi section, he grabbed my attention with a wave of his hand. I pulled out my headphones and raised an eyebrow.

“What are friends with benefits?”

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