death

‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi #ThrowbackThursday #bookreview

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines.

breath

Waterstones Amazon.co.uk

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

I’ve read some of the other reviews of this book and really wonder if they read the same book as me. If you’re looking for a misery memoir, a warts and all revelation of how harrowing it is to go through cancer and all that entails, then this isn’t for you. Those books have their place – my mother died from cancer and it was helpful sometimes to read other people’s accounts and to know that they were feeling as I did. But I wish I’d had this book back then.

Because this is more than a memoir or an account of illness and death. The author doesn’t list in too great detail what happens to him because it’s not supposed to be about that (which is what I think a few of the other reviewers have missed). This is about a man who, before he knew he was ill, strove in his studies and in his work to get at the meaning of life, at what it means to be human, and what it means to die. And then, somewhat ironically, just at the brink of achieving one of his goals in life, he was diagnosed with lung cancer – cancer that killed him at the age of thirty-seven.

A brilliant, eloquent and sensitive man, Paul Kalanithi continued to strive throughout his illness, to find meaning in what life meant, what made it worthwhile, and to understand when it was enough, when it was time to stop. This is what he had always wanted to do for his patients and this was how he lived his last days.

A really unusual and beautiful book. I was sobbing at the end – and any book that can cause such a powerful reaction is something very special indeed.

5 stars

‘Stiff’ by Mary Roach #BookReview #ThrowbackThursday

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines.

stiff

Waterstones   Amazon.co.uk

What happens to your body after you have died? Fertilizer? Crash Test Dummy? Human Dumpling? Ballistics Practise?

Life after death is not as simple as it looks. Mary Roach’s Stiff lifts the lid off what happens to our bodies once we have died. Bold, original and with a delightful eye for detail, Roach tells us everything we wanted to know about this new frontier in medical science.

Interweaving present-day explorations with a history of past attempts to study what it means to be human Stiff is a deliciously dark investigations for readers of popular science as well as fans of the macabre

I have a bit of a fascination with death but I’m not a morbid person. I just feel that it’s a normal part of life (after all, it happens to everyone) that we tend to ignore, or hide away, or pretend doesn’t happen. We don’t want to know the details, the realities. And I think that this reluctance to recognise death and its processes, the rituals around it, have made us less connected to it, and, in turn, more fearful.  We’ve made death something secret, unknown. This book lifts the lid on death, detailing practically everything that could happen to you once you’re dead, including unusual after-life occupations such as being a crash test dummy, becoming part of an exhibition, helping surgeons learn their art, helping scientists understand decomposition or, if you go the more traditional route, what happens in a cremation or what happens once you’ve been buried.

It sounds morbid, but it isn’t. Roach’s writing is funny, respectful, warm and informative. I don’t believe in a god, or a heaven or an afterlife – I’m very happy with this one, thank you very much. There’s nothing once you’re gone and it seems a terrible shame to me that bodies that could do so much good and help so much are literally allowed to go to waste. I’ve always made my feelings known to my family – researchers can have as much of me as they want. I don’t want a funeral or a grave that my children feel indebted to visit when I’m not even there and all they’re doing is making a crematorium owner very rich. How much better will it be if my no longer needed remains help find a cure for a disease, or help investigators to improve safety in transport. And what’s left I’d be happy to have made into compost (you can have this done you know!). Roach’s book details all of these options and more, with warmth and honesty.

For a book about death, it was weirdly uplifting, and life-affirming. All we have is the here and now, and death is a part of life. We are so uniformed; we make death into something horrific and other. But as Roach so clearly and entertainingly shows, it’s part of being human and it’s something we should know more about.

4.5 out of 5

Mrs Blunden – a most unfortunate Basingstoke resident

basingstoke

Basingstoke. A town known for many things – its roundabouts, its housing estates, and, more recently, its not so contrite local MP, Maria Miller. These seem to be the things that spring to mind if you question those who don’t know the town. They don’t often mention the beautiful surrounding countryside, the historic old town or the subject of the town’s most horrible, yet most gripping tale, the unfortunate Mrs Blunden.

This poor lady lived in the town in the seventeenth century, the wife of a successful local malt merchant. During the hot summer of 1674, her husband was away on business in London. One evening Mrs Blunden, by all accounts a rather large lady, was feeling unwell.  For some reason, no-one seems to know exactly why, she drank a huge quantity of poppy water acquired from a local apothecary. One account blames her maid, who gave her the water accidently when she asked for wine; other reports suggest that Mrs Blunden took the water as a curative. Whatever the reason, having drunk the water, she apparently dropped dead.

Her body was laid out, and a messenger was sent to her husband. He requested that she not be buried until he had returned home. However, due to the size of the woman, and the heat, it was feared that she would soon begin to smell. She was, therefore, placed in a coffin that was nailed shut.  She was then buried at the Liten burial ground near to the Holy Ghost Chapel.

holy ghost - old

These burial grounds were used as a playground by boys attending the Queen’s school. Some of the boys thought they heard noises coming from the grave and went to tell the School Master. At first he didn’t believe them, but when other children also claimed to have heard noises, the grave was eventually opened. It was too late to do anything for the unfortunate woman. She had clearly been alive when she had been buried as her body was covered in self-inflicted wounds, caused by her struggles on regaining consciousness. This is terrible in itself, but the horror doesn’t stop there.

Mrs Blunden’s coffin was re-sealed and placed back in the grave to await the coroner who was due the following day. A guard was posted, but he must have been distracted, fallen asleep or left his post, for, when the grave was re-opened, poor Mrs Blunden was covered in fresh wounds. Her shroud was torn, her fingernails bloody and, some reports claim, her mouth bleeding, presumably from chewing at herself in her distress.

So the unlucky Mrs Blunden had the bad luck to be buried alive not once, but twice.

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The ruins of the Holy Ghost Chapel can still be visited today.