Category Archives: Massachusetts authors

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End by Atul Gawande

cover image of Being MortalBeing Mortal by Atul Gawande is a short book that everyone should read. The author writes not only with an expertise in medicine (surgery) — as a doctor who has talked with many patients over the years — but from personal experience with family and family friends.

The awful choices that people face when given a terminal diagnosis are much more tragic when the sick person is young. The author acknowledges this, but the main focus of the book is on people who, with advancing age, are faced with choices (both for themselves and for loved ones) between what all appear to be poor options (because returning to an earlier state of health and vigor — the only really good option — isn’t an option.) Dying is a sad time, even if the dying person is 100 years old, but medical professionals’ approaches to dying tend to be institutionalized or textbook (doctor/patient), rather than time-consumingly tailored to the needs and desires of an individual who is sick or whose body is wearing out.

An excerpt from the middle of Being Mortal:

“The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.

More often, these days, medicine seems to supply neither Custers nor Lees. We are increasingly the generals who march the soldiers onward, saying all the while, ‘You let me know when you want to stop.’ All-out treatment, we tell the incurably ill, is a train you can get off at any time — just say when. But for most patients and their families we are asking too much. They remain riven by doubt and fear and desperation; some are deluded by a fantasy of what medical science can achieve. Our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw on. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come — and escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.” — Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal is about

how to figure out what is most important to an individual at the end; how perspectives change and continue to change  as the end of life approaches;

how medical professionals can help patients make decisions when available treatments don’t exist yet, are risky, or have already failed;

how to talk with each other about what we value most;

and, most of all,  how to listen to what patients and loved ones are trying to tell us.

If you like authors like Oliver Sacks, Mary Roach, and Jane Gross, who combine science with memoir in their writing, or if you like heart-piercing memoirs like When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi or New Life, No Instructions by Gail Caldwell, then you will probably like Being Mortal, portions of which were previously published in The New Yorker.

Being Mortal
Gawande, Atul
Henry Holt, 2014
9780805095159
304pp.
$26.00

Disclosure: I borrowed this book through the public library. It had been read many times and was already water-damaged when I received it. (Honest!)

 

Dining Out in Rome with Author Roland Merullo #weekendcooking @BethFishReads

cover image

I wrote briefly about Taking the Kids to Italy by Roland Merullo in my list of memoirs about traveling with family members, but I didn’t mention the author’s love of Italian food. He spends most of this family trip (so problematic that it’s funny, at least in retrospect) hoping for either a memorable Italian meal or a decent golf course — or, preferably, both  — but mostly finds only bad luck and disaster.

You feel bad for the family while reading about this ill-fated escape from the New England winter of 2003, but the author assures readers at the start that this trip with his wife, two young daughters, and his (sainted) mother was followed by a later trip to Italy (when the girls were a little older) that turned out great.

They travel to various spots in Italy — all much colder than they expected them to be — but eventually drive into Rome, where they take their youngest daughter, who can’t keep any food down, to be seen by a pediatrician. After a long day at the hospital, they head to a restaurant the author and his wife remember fondly from an earlier trip.

“To comfort ourselves after what might be described as a moderately successful day, we decide we will have a meal in one of our favorite Roman restaurants, a place mentioned in passing here already a couple of times. This place (which no longer exists) is called Il Sardo al Angolo in Trastevere, and specializes in Sardinian food.”

When they get to the restaurant, the waiter recognizes them right away, although it’s been two years since their last visit.

“We step through the door and see Angelo, the diminutive, mustachioed, white-haired waiter at Il Sardo who recognizes us immediately though he’s no doubt served a thousand or ten thousand customers since the last time we saw him. Angelo stands close by the table and chats for a while, moustache drooping, eyes sparkling, short thick fingers gently pinching Alexandra’s cheeks and resting on Amanda’s shoulder. ‘The little one is feeling not so good,’ he says, touching the side of Juliana’s arm. ‘Not so very good.'”

As is his style, Angelo takes our order without writing anything down, then brings us the wonderful unleavened Sardinian bread and clean-tasting white wine we’d had here on more than one occasion during our Rome visit. In a few minutes my mother is served a lasagna she describes as, “soft as silk. Delicious. The best yet.” I have a succulent roast piglet and a salad. Amanda goes with the eggplant parmesan. Alexandra likes the pasta. For the girl who is feeling not so good, the kind people at Il Sardo cook up a dish of plain rice (senza niente ‘without nothing’ is the way you say it in Italian) but Juliana sits in a sorrowful curl in her mother’s lap, refusing all food and drink.”

“Food heals. Nowhere is that true more than in Italy. I keep hoping to see Juliana accept one spoonful of rice, but she is buried in her illness, walled off from us. Still, the meal makes us hopeful — she’s taking medicine now. It’s a stomach flu. Whoever heard of a stomach flu lasting longer than a few days?”

Daughter Juliana gets better, but the author catches the flu, and the trip goes on…


On our own trip to Rome in October, my husband and I had two of our most memorable meals at Sapori Sardi, a small restaurant near our hotel that specialized in Sardinian cuisine, and the bread they served to us was incredibly good. It’s flat, thin, crispy, and seasoned with rosemary and salt and drizzled with olive oil — the first time we had it, we broke off a piece to taste it and quickly devoured the whole basket while it was still hot, even though we had been told that Italians don’t eat bread that’s brought at the beginning of the meal until the end.

I can’t find a photo of the flatbread  — pane carasau or “sheet music bread” in Italian — at Sapori Sardi, but I found one on Trip Advisor here.

We returned to this neighborhood restaurant for our final meal in Italy after a long day of sightseeing. Here are some photos from Sarpori Sardi:

Me with my first course and that "Have you taken the picture yet?" look on my face.
Me with my first course and that “Have you taken the picture yet?” look on my face.

 

Second course -- "Secondi"
Second course — “Secondi”
Dessert! I think I ordered panna cotta.
Dessert! I think I ordered panna cotta.
Steve had the tiramisu.
Steve had the tiramisu.
Choose your own digestif...
Choose your own digestif…limoncello or amari.

I read Taking the Kids to Italy after we returned from our trip to Rome — which is probably a good thing — but I like to think now that our own friendly waiter at Sapori Sardi, just around the corner from the Hotel Veneto, could have been the Merullo family’s angelic Angelo, or a relative, at a new restaurant in a different Roman neighborhood.

Taking the Kids to Italy: A Memoir
Merullo, Roland
PFP Publishing, 2013
9780989237277
$13.83, US

Happy Weekend Cooking!

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Nonfiction To Win Over Book Club Readers @MassBook

Looking to add some nonfiction to your book club’s reading list? Try one of these Massachusetts Book Award honorees – narrative nonfiction titles selected for their literary quality and discussablity in libraries and book groups.

They’re all either written by Massachusetts authors and/or have a connection to Massachusetts, but take a look and you’ll see that the subjects of these books are wide-ranging and of broad interest. The first-place winner, The Sixth Extinction, also won the Pulitzer Prize.

In other words, you don’t have to be from the Bay State to enjoy reading these award-winning nonfiction titles with your book club!

Massachusetts Book Award 2015 Nonfiction
2015_winnerThe Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert  (Holt)cover image of The Sixth Extinction

Over the last half-billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before.  – from the publisher

The Court-Martial of Paul Revere by Michael M. Greenburg (ForeEdge)

cover imageThe single event defining [Paul] Revere to this day is his ride from Charlestown to Lexington on the night of April 18, 1775, made famous by Longfellow’s poem of 1860. Greenburg’s is the first book to give a full account of Revere’s conduct before, during, and after the disastrous Penobscot Expedition, and of his questionable reputation at the time, which only Longfellow’s poem eighty years later could rehabilitate. Thanks to extensive research and a riveting narrative that brings the battles and courtroom drama to life, The Court-Martial of Paul Revere strips away the myths that surround the Sons of Liberty and reveals the humanity beneath. – from the publisher

John Quincy Adams by Fred Kaplan (Harper)

cover imageIn this fresh and lively biography rich in literary analysis and new historical detail, Fred Kaplan brings into focus the dramatic life of John Quincy Adams — the little known and much misunderstood sixth president of the United States and the first son of John and Abigail Adams — and persuasively demonstrates how Adams’s inspiring, progressive vision guided his life and helped shape the course of America. – from the publisher

The Map Thief by Michael Blanding  (Gotham Books)

Once considered a respectable cover imageantiquarian map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley spent years doubling as a map thief — until he was finally arrested slipping maps out of books in the Yale University library. The Map Thief delves into the untold history of this fascinating high-stakes criminal and the inside story of the industry that consumed him. – from the publisher

Other People’s Houses by Jennifer Taub  (Yale)

cover image of Other Peoples HousesIn the wake of the financial meltdown in 2008, many claimed that it had been inevitable, that no one saw it coming, and that subprime borrowers were to blame. This accessible, thoroughly researched book is Jennifer Taub’s response to such unfounded claims…. Taub chronicles how government officials helped bankers inflate the toxic-mortgage-backed housing bubble, then after the bubble burst ignored the plight of millions of homeowners suddenly facing foreclosure. – from the publisher

The Race Underground by Doug Most (St Martin’s)

cover image of The Race UndergroundDoug Most chronicles the science of the subway, looks at the centuries of fears people overcame about traveling underground and tells a story as exciting as any ever ripped from the pages of U.S. history. The Race Underground is a great American saga of two rival American cities, their rich, powerful and sometimes corrupt interests, and an invention that changed the lives of millions. – from the publisher

Bringing writers and readers together in libraries for meaningful conversation about books that matter to our shared lives in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Massachusetts Center for the Book

Massachusetts Book Awards


The Massachusetts Book Awards is a program of Massachusetts Libraries administered by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. Find out more about your state’s Center for the Book here (USA).


Nonfiction Friday badge from doing dewey decimal dot comThis post is linked up to Doing Dewey’s Nonfiction Friday post. Check out other nonfiction-related content from Katie and other book bloggers there.