A relatable, tenderly observed account of the “sacred joy” of tending to the dying.

MEMORIES IN DRAGONFLIES

SIMPLE LESSONS FOR MINDFUL DYING

A portrait of the author’s late mother that focuses mainly on her decline in her final days.

Debut author Bloom’s mom suffered from a persistent cough, which was diagnosed as being caused by pulmonary fibrosis—a disorder in which the lungs fill with scar tissue. Four years later, at the age of 67, she was struggling with her memory and motor functions, so Bloom, a registered nurse, quit her job to be involved in her daily care. As her mother’s condition worsens, the narrative slows to address one month per chapter, then decelerates further, dividing months among several chapters. This structure gracefully mirrors how a waning life slows down, forcing one to focus on small details. Bloom notes how gifts, such as a pedicure or eyeglass frames that hid a cannula, meant a lot to her mother and how using a cherry-red wheelchair and decorating a den like a Native American sweat lodge softened the sadness of immobility. The book also elegantly explores the past, showing how one memory transports the author into a related, older one. For instance, when Bloom’s mother is confined to a hospital bed, it takes the author back to her own six weeks of bed rest during high school—which were only made tolerable by her mother’s love. Bloom recognizes that her mother always “tried to teach me to pause” by arranging a beach trip to see a grunion run, for example, or finding time for a cup of tea with friends. The book’s key message is that one should slow down and appreciate each remaining day. There’s an effective recurring metaphor of a bridge as a crossing into death, and she tells of using dragonflies as a reminder to let go of anger. It’s unfortunate, though, that there are so many clichés in such a short volume: “running on empty,” pots boiling over, “the elephant in the room,” and so on. That said, most chapters do offer pithy, useful pieces of advice.

A relatable, tenderly observed account of the “sacred joy” of tending to the dying.

Pub Date: Aug. 21, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63152-469-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: She Writes Press

Review Posted Online: June 6, 2018

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

THE ART OF SOLITUDE

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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A vivid sequel that strains credulity.

THE ESCAPE ARTIST

Fremont (After Long Silence, 1999) continues—and alters—her story of how memories of the Holocaust affected her family.

At the age of 44, the author learned that her father had disowned her, declaring her “predeceased”—or dead in his eyes—in his will. It was his final insult: Her parents had stopped speaking to her after she’d published After Long Silence, which exposed them as Jewish Holocaust survivors who had posed as Catholics in Europe and America in order to hide multilayered secrets. Here, Fremont delves further into her tortured family dynamics and shows how the rift developed. One thread centers on her life after her harrowing childhood: her education at Wellesley and Boston University, the loss of her virginity to a college boyfriend before accepting her lesbianism, her stint with the Peace Corps in Lesotho, and her decades of work as a lawyer in Boston. Another strand involves her fraught relationship with her sister, Lara, and how their difficulties relate to their father, a doctor embittered after years in the Siberian gulag; and their mother, deeply enmeshed with her own sister, Zosia, who had married an Italian count and stayed in Rome to raise a child. Fremont tells these stories with novelistic flair, ending with a surprising theory about why her parents hid their Judaism. Yet she often appears insensitive to the serious problems she says Lara once faced, including suicidal depression. “The whole point of suicide, I thought, was to succeed at it,” she writes. “My sister’s completion rate was pathetic.” Key facts also differ from those in her earlier work. After Long Silence says, for example, that the author grew up “in a small city in the Midwest” while she writes here that she grew up in “upstate New York,” changes Fremont says she made for “consistency” in the new book but that muddy its narrative waters. The discrepancies may not bother readers seeking psychological insights rather than factual accuracy, but others will wonder if this book should have been labeled a fictionalized autobiography rather than a memoir.

A vivid sequel that strains credulity.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982113-60-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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