I will give you five…
Five books that I enjoyed from 2017 (that were not fiction, that is. My fiction post is here.) Not all of these were published in 2017, I just read them then.
1. The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
This is the story of a man named Christopher Knight who decided to abandon society and live by himself in the woods in Maine. He pitched a tent close to a lake where many people had vacation homes and survived by stealing food, clothing, books and other necessities from their cabins without being caught for almost 30 years. Once caught, he was imprisoned for theft and the author of the book was able to interview him and the people from which he stole. Knight’s story is fascinating and heartbreaking. His attempt to live in solitude is only made possible by taking from other people, who are left feeling terrorized and vulnerable. Worth reading with a friend to discuss some of the larger issues raised.
2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Goodreads synopsis: “At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.”
Paul does such a good job of straightforwardly chronicling his life, pre- and post-diagnosis of his stage 4 lung cancer. I would think it would be immensely helpful to read if one is in the medical profession. His writing style is clear, sparse, succinct. He is not overly sentimental or morbid in contemplating his eminent death, but he also never lets the reader forget the enormity of his disease and the profound impact it has on everything moving forward. It was interesting also to read his wife’s epilogue and to get a glimpse of her thoughts during his diagnosis and decline. I’d recommend this book to anyone.
3. At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider
Goodreads synopsis: “In her late thirties and as a mom to three kids under age ten, Tsh Oxenreider and her husband decided to spend a rather ordinary nine months in an extraordinary way: traveling the corners of the earth to see, together, the places they’ve always wanted to explore. This book chronicles their global journey from China to Thailand to Australia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, France, Croatia, and beyond, as they fill their days with train schedules, world-schooling the kids, and working from anywhere. Told with wit and candor, Oxenreider invites us on a worldwide adventure without the cost of a ticket; to discover people, places, and stories worth knowing about; to find peace in the places we call home; and to learn that, as the Thai say, in the end, we are all ‘same same but different.’ “
The use of the word “reflections” in the subtitle of Tsh’s book is appropriate, because the content is truly a gathering of different thoughts as her family jumps from place to place. As such, the book can feel a bit disjointed, but the overall theme and content is charming enough to look past the constant jumping around. I mean, that is actually what they did, so we feel along with her family the persistent uprooting and then settling in to new surroundings. It was an enjoyable book, worth the read. I would love to figure out a way to take such a trip with my own family!
4. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
“In Being Mortal, bestselling author Atul Gawande tackles the hardest challenge of his profession: how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending.
Gawande, a practicing surgeon, addresses his profession’s ultimate limitation, arguing that quality of life is the desired goal for patients and families. Gawande offers examples of freer, more socially fulfilling models for assisting the infirm and dependent elderly, and he explores the varieties of hospice care to demonstrate that a person’s last weeks or months may be rich and dignified.
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.”
I’m not sure why I read multiple books about end of life situations around the same time in 2017 (there were others: The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Still Alice by Lisa Genova among them). I’ve noticed I tend to cluster-read on a certain topic which while admittedly opens oneself up to much redundancy, also allows for several vantage points along the same spectrum. I do not do it intentionally, yet it happens so often there must be some brain pull in the old noggin that I’ve yet to consciously recognize.
This book was a little more academic and not quite as deftly written as When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. But Being Mortal faces head on a topic that our society does its level best to avoid and does so with honesty and hope. It is a thoughtful, important book I would encourage everyone to read. A little hard because it reminded me of conversations with doctors and therapists when my dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Thankfully the medical professionals we dealt with addressed his disease largely according to his wishes and Dad was able to die at home, on his own terms (as much as one could say that about death).
As a culture, we generally do not value and respect elderly people, and we have institutionalized end of life treatment, often stripping senior citizens of their autonomy and providing little alternative to the path of providing aggressive medical treatment often to the detriment of the person’s mental well-being and quality of life. Dr. Gawande, through his own research, advocates a more holistic approach, with the medical professionals providing information and counseling to allow patients and their families to make the best decision about care and treatment possible. Death is hard, messy and discussion of it is avoided at all costs, even when that conversation can give everyone clarity and a game plan when important decisions have to be made quickly.
5. Grant by Ron Chernow
Most people know who Ulysses S. Grant (not his birth name, incidentally) was. This latest book by Ron Chernow gives a deeper look into his life and impact on our American history.
Frederick Douglass wrote of Ulysses S. Grant: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.” This book surely does much to advance his theory.
Chernow follows Grant from cradle to grave in his 900+ page biography. It’s a shame that the length will be an insurmountable obstacle for many, because it’s really a marvelous work. Chernow’s genius is in carefully curating so many of Grant’s contemporary’s accounts in quotes and stories that there is no need for Chernow as a historian to speculate or indulge in storytelling, an attribute appreciated in a time of often-sensationalized retellings of historic events. The acknowledgments at the end of the book bear witness to the length to which the author went to research his subject.
**I am officially on the Chernow fanwagon (it’s like a bandwagon, but quieter). If pressed, I’d say this was my favorite book of 2017.
Other worthwhile reads from my 2017 nonfiction intake: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, The Most They Ever Had by Rick Bragg, Where the Wind Leads by Vinh Chung, and Hamilton by Ron Chernow (my third attempt, finally made it to the finish line).
Next up: my Christian book standouts for 2017. Want to connect on goodreads? Find me here.