Category Archives: Books

Finale: The Books

It has been a good while since we talked about our book dilemma. The Wine and Cheese/Book Takeaway was a great success. Prior to this we had donated boxes/bags of books to the local library for its Friends sale. Still, we were left with the remains of a near lifetime of buying/reading/ absorbing/harboring  texts that have been important to us. Add to these volumes a good number of books that had been passed down from the previous generation.

As luck would have it (I can’t believe that I am using this phrase, but it’s true), our hairdresser Maureen, who has been with us for the long term, told me that she knew of a book dealer – a son-in-law of a client – who deals in books. After placing a call to said person, we were introduced to a most charming young man who has a passion for books in a way far greater than ours, I concede. Tom thoughtfully looked over the remaining books, gave us a quick take on the overall situation, and agreed to work through them.

Tom came by to report on his assessment this week. It turns out that we had a good number of books that were in limited supply on-line and some that were of particular interest. He is glad to take our entire collection, the least and the most of it, and make it part of his inventory. Based on this assessment, he gave us a check which we feel represents the potential value of the books, his risk for any that are not of real value, the cost of retaining them, and, most important, the value of his time and expertise.

It has been a long process of detachment and release, but we are experiencing a sense of relief and also satisfaction. The books have gone to people who will read them or pass them on to others who seek them. We realized some monetary gain, but that was not the point. After all, we left the “sale” to the end. No, it’s just knowing that we have completed this phase of our transition.

Friend Bonnie, who took some of our offerings for herself and her son, asked me recently what we kept. Looking over the shelves and reflecting on what we have boxed up, I find that we have saved many classics (Greek, Roman and others), my medieval history books and related novels, background books for Ray’s historical novel Benediction, and many children’s books that I can not relinquish because of their association with our daughters’ youth and my time volunteering at a local elementary school after retiring. Ray kept his collection of books on FDR and the North African campaign of 1942-1943, thinking he still might write something — possibly a novel — on that era. Add in a good number of favorite novels and writers, and that about sums it up.

Regarding children’s literature, I would say that there is a great deal of pleasure in it for adults, particularly if you can share the books with young ones – your own or others. As for all the Shakespeare that we let go, we concluded that we can easily get his works from the local library. Besides, so many of them were yellowing paperbacks.

That pretty much wraps it up for the books. Now we need only resist the compulsion to hold on to the next reads.


Margaret Drabble’s New Book on Aging and Death

Margaret Drabble, in The Dark Flood Rises, turns her discerning eye to old age and death. Death is the dark flood, which must one day too soon engulf those of us, like Drabble, now in our seventies, just as it ultimately engulfs us all.

Drabble’s new novel features a large cast of English seniors coping with old age and facing, or trying to deny, death. You could call this bunch over-educated and privileged, by and large, but they make good companions for confronting fate. Fran, the principal character, is still working — driving all over England to promote safe housing for the elderly on behalf her employer, a benevolent foundation. She loves staying in Premier Inns, a mid-range motel chain, watching the local news, and sipping a stiff whiskey before bed.

Claude, Fran’s ex-husband, is confined by illness to a comfortable flat in London, where he listens to Maria Callas recordings and is visited daily by Persephone, a gorgeous caregiver from Zimbabwe. A retired physician, Claude achieves transcendence each day with a self-prescribed psychedelic drug. Fran, for reasons even she doesn’t quite understand, has taken to delivering meals she prepares each week for Claude to keep in the freezer and reheat. I’d like the recipes for some of her dishes — chicken tarragon, potato-anchovy-egg bake, and kedgeree — a curried rice and fish casserole much favored at British brunches.

Down in the Canary Islands, Bennett, a retired historian, and Ivor, his younger companion of 50 years, have been leading a busy social life but are slowing down. Bennett has decided to write a brief history of the Canaries for tourists to buy. Ivor doubts it will sell, and financially dependent on Bennett, he is worried about how he will survive when the great man dies.

These are just three of the many tales Drabble tells of the life styles and coping mechanisms seniors choose. At times I wondered whether she was mocking the things we do to keep our minds engaged, such as writing blogs, and to give our lives meaning. Fran sometimes suggests that it’s all pointless. “Women live too long, Fran says, spearing a scampi tail and dabbing it into the tartare sauce. We need a plan to get rid of us. A magic lozenge.” Or, “Longevity has fucked up our pensions, our work-life balance, our health services, our housing, our happiness. It’s fucked up old age itself.”

But I think Drabble is celebrating the many and diverse courses seniors take. Certainly she celebrates her friend Josephine, who leads a seminar for seniors on poetry that deals with aging. Josephine researches obscure literary topics largely because she likes being in libraries. She imbibes an exotic cocktail every Thursday evening with Owen England, another retired academic, who is writing a monograph on clouds.

Drabble also celebrates connectedness. Her characters are all connected in some way, and though some are certainly selfish, they worry about one another and give help and comfort where they can. None can stave off the inevitable, however, and Drabble offers insights into the many ways of dying.

You’ll want to keep your laptop or IPad handy when reading this book, both to look up unusual words (“caducity”), and to familiarize yourself with the many artists and intellectuals from the first half of the twentieth century that Drabble’s characters summon up. Unamuno, Cesar Manrique, and de Chiroco have been off my radar, but it was fun to bone up on them.

The book is replete with penetrating phrases and quotations that inspire reflection.

Drabble gives us DEP (Descanse en Paz or Rest in Peace), to think about. It’s inscribed on the anonymous grave markers of African migrants who drowned trying to reach the Canaries.

Or this, from Macbeth, whose actions deprived him of a peaceful end,

And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have …

I don’t expect a great deal of obedience as my days draw to a close, but I would surely welcome honor, love, and troops of friends.




Book Giveaway with Libations

We held our Great Book Giveaway with Libations party over the weekend. Friends came and took away many bags of books. Mystery, history, music, travel — you name it — all went out the door.

We spent several days culling our collection before the big event. and we pulled a few old favorites back the night before. But we have no regrets. Books that served us well are now being read and enjoyed by others. Some of them will likely wind up at the Penn Yan Public Library annual book sale in a couple of months. That’s where the leftovers are going too. We’re packing them up tomorrow and storing them in the garage of a Friend of the Library.

We had a great time at the Giveaway and thank everyone who came.

And so, the downsizing continues. We’ve made a lot of progress, but the place doesn’t exactly echo yet.






















The Books – Getting There

img_2120It’s no secret that we are hoarders of books, as we have come clean about this in our posts over the last two years. It is also known that we are fast approaching countdown, the time when we have to decide what to let go of and what to take with us to the down-sized townhouse.  To this end, we have been going over the books cached away around the house: the study, the basement, the “bonus room,” even the piles on the bedside tables.

In recent weeks, we have taken books that were subjects of our church study group to the church library. Ray has found a home for history books at the local history center, and I have given a number of children’s books (along with art supplies) to the local ARC, which supports children and adults with developmental disabilities. These placements seem right.  But, what about the remainder?

We are in debt to wonderful friend Becky who years ago shared with us her approach to leaving a home.  Friends were invited to visit and take away an item. No bringing of hostess gifts; the requirement was that guests help with the process of saying good-bye.

Thanks to Becky’s sharing, we have invited friends for wine and cheese and a “books takeaway.”  Doing this will allow us to see many friends whom we have not had a chance to enjoy properly, what with our goings and returns these past many months. A second boon is the pleasure we will have in passing along books that we have treasured enough to carry them with us for many years. Knowing that they will go to good homes, I am inclined to take a more critical look at the books that I think I must keep and those that I can let go of, knowing that they may be chosen in the same way that I did originally.

Speaking with friend Libby today, we talked about passing along/divesting ourselves of the stuff of our lives. We touched on real linens and family silver, among other things. For the most part, the next generations do not want them. We agreed that the rummage sale was the place for them, especially as the proceeds would benefit a worthy cause. Still, I find that books are another matter.

Another friend, Jeanie, shared in an exchange which I cannot locate easily but the substance of which I can render. Speaking of books and letting go of them, she replied, “Some of my best friends are characters I have met in books.” That about sums it up. I guess I’ll keep the best friends.

We’ll let you know how we do with the “takeaway.”


Hitting the Books Again

We’re are back and getting to work. I last addressed our books In April, then took time out to get rid of old paperwork through the generous shredding day held by a local bank. Next it was a month away in Italy. But now, the local library book sale looms next week. Time for action.

We took up where we left off and dove into the basement to start on the boxes we brought with us eight years ago. Should be easy, right? If we haven’t needed them in eight years, we must not need them. We’ll see. So far I have managed to come up with five bags and two boxes of books. They were delivered to the library this morning.

IMG_1906Here’s our down payment on the pledge. Now it’s down into the depths of the cellar for the next round. We’ll keep you informed of the results. Oh, yes, and it’s time to schedule myself to help at the sorting and selling at the library next week. It’s the very least I can do for their taking this burden from us.


Noted Physician Predicts End of Cancer As Major Health Issue

DeathofCancerWe seniors all have our little ways of whistling past the graveyard. Some avoid making a will. Some avoid completing an advance directive. For years, I’ve avoided reading about cancer. This is not acceptable in a common-sense senior, so when I saw that Dr. Vincent DeVita’s book, The Death of Cancer, was getting good reviews, I decided to mend my ways.

Perhaps it’s just as well that I waited, since the book is an education in the tremendous progress that has been made against cancer over the past few decades — so much progress that DeVita predicts “the end of cancer as a major public health issue.” No one could be better qualified to make such a judgement. DeVita has been a clinician and cancer researcher since the 1960s, director of the National Cancer Institute, physician in chief at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, director of Yale University’s Cancer Center, and president of the American Cancer Society.

Thanks to advances in chemotherapy, the use of combined therapies, immunotherapy, and other progress, childhood leukemia, Hodgkins disease, and several other types of advanced lymphoma are now almost completely curable. Mortality from colon cancer and breast cancer has dropped sharply, and major advances have been made against ovarian cancer, advanced melanoma, prostate cancer, and even lung cancer.

Mary Lasker, presenting an award in 1957

Mary Lasker, presenting an award in 1957

This progress has been achieved largely through government programs and government spending — something those who want to slash the federal budget should think about. Government efforts got a big boost in 1971, when President Nixon, with bipartisan support in Congress, launched the War on Cancer. DeVita is fascinating on the role of Mary Lasker, philanthropist, socialite, and skillful manipulator of vain politicians, in making the War on Cancer possible through passage of the National Cancer Act.

Of course, the War on Cancer hasn’t been a happy story of a straight-line advance to victory. The original goal of conquering cancer by 1976, the bicentennial year, was adopted by Lasker as a lobbying tool, but was never realistic. That original goal has sparked numerous damaging stories over the years about the failure of the War on Cancer — a claim that DeVita is at pains to debunk.

His tale, however, is full of descriptions of epic clashes between institutions, departments within institutions, and famous physicians that make the reader grateful we’ve gotten as far as we have. Renowned cancer centers have resisted adopting new and better approaches or modified treatment protocols for unscientific reasons, rendering them ineffective. Surgeons have persisted in performing disfiguring radical mastectomies to treat breast cancer, despite evidence that lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy is more effective in preventing recurrence. DeVita even suggests that some physicians have continued using outdated treatments of various sorts, and denounced those advocating new approaches, simply because their incomes depended on it.  He is particularly biting in criticizing the Food and Drug Administration for delays in approving new drugs for use in cancer patients who have no other option than death.

The Death of Cancer is a gripping, highly informative book that is well worth reading. But what does it mean for a common-sense senior who faces a cancer diagnosis? Or who faces such a diagnosis in a loved one? Where do we turn? How do we find the best treatment? Common Sense for Seniors will look at these issues in an upcoming post.







Garden Cemeteries to Cremation: The Magic Is Still There

Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, NY

Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, NY. Wikimedia

Thomas Laqueur’s book, The Work of the Dead, has several chapters on the rise of the garden cemetery in the 19th century. This is the kind of cemetery most of us seniors are quite familiar with. Our parents or grandparents may well be in such a place — a beautiful place for the dead, with many of the comforts or home — privacy, peace and quiet, and a comfortable spot for resting.

At a garden cemetery, we can still purchase a private plot or a family plot, with no priest to determine whether we’re in or out. We can lie there forever, undisturbed — in theory at least. (Nothing is forever.) And we can have your own monument as a way of defeating what Samuel Beckett called the “poisonous ingenuity of time.” (We can never really succeed at this. See Thomas Hardy’s During Wind and Rain.)

Garden cemeteries have been tremendously popular in the United States, although I sense they are going out of fashion. My father’s family came here from the English Midlands as poor millworkers, but early on purchased a plot by a pond down a lane in a Massachusetts garden cemetery. We have our family name there, engraved on a granite stone bought by my grandmother. But my father’s remains, and my mother’s, lie in a columbarium in a church in Florida.

That brings us to the subject of Laqueur’s final chapters: cremation. The cremation movement arose in the 1870s. Making use of furnaces derived from the steel industry, cremation was seen by its advocates as modern, sanitary, and efficient — doing in minutes what the grave might take years to accomplish. They tried to take away the magic of the body, or disenchant it, as Laqueur would say, by treating it as a waste product.

In that, they failed. It seems like most of the folks I know are planning on cremation, but with plenty of enchantment. They may want their ashes distributed among their favorite places in the world — some in that park overlooking Florence, perhaps, some in their own flower garden, and some at their favorite lake or beach. No one I know is planning to have their ashes blasted into space, but it’s possible. In fact, portability has turned out be be one of the main attractions of cremation.

Others I know are leaning toward my parents’ choice — placement of their ashes in a columbarium, with their name inscribed on the door to their little niche. Many are thinking of a columbarium in a church, highlighting another attractive feature of cremation. It makes burial in a church, or often just outside a church, possible again. Sally, down in Florida, lies in a church garden near her husband. Both their names are inscribed on a plaque on the church wall. They found comfort in knowing their ashes would be there.

Despite Diogenes, disenchantment of the body has never caught on. Even when bodies disappear in a war, or because of a natural or man-made disaster, we remember their former owners by inscribing their names on a memorial. Visitors to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington often  leave messages, toys, or even cans of beer for the dead. The inscribed names have acquired the power of actual bodies to enchant.

I imagine that my remains will end up going with the general flow, probably cremated or placed in a green cemetery, rather than being left outside for the local crows and coyotes. Thanks to Thomas Laqueur for making me realize that on balance, it’s probably for the best.

Thoughts On An English Churchyard

John Constable, Scene in a Churchyard on a Hill (1833). British Museum

John Constable, Scene in a Churchyard on a Hill (1833). British Museum

Thomas Laqueur, in The Work of the Dead, devotes many pages to the English churchyard. For seven or eight hundred years, until well into the 19th century, the vast majority of English people expected to be buried in the yard of their local church. They regarded such a burial as a right, although local aristocrats and gentry expected something grander — to be buried inside the church itself. Still today, visitors can see the names of the privileged carved on the stones that cover their remains in church aisles, or even spots where they’e been slid into the walls.

English churches face east, toward Jerusalem, and the bodies in the churchyard are also directionally aligned — feet to the east, head to the west. This was the Christian community at rest, awaiting the resurrection, when all would rise to be judged by the savior. In the meantime, it was preferable to be buried on the warm and sunny south side of church, rather than the north. The latter part of the churchyard was reserved for suicides and other folks in ill repute for one reason or another.  A similar “necrogeography,” as Laqueur calls it, can be found in the oldest churchyards along the American east coast.

English churchyards are usually not very large, so it’s easy to wonder how, over hundreds of years, all the dead could have been fit in. The answer is, that as time went by, remains decayed and burial places were re-used. Sometimes, it was necessary to nudge someone aside to squeeze in a new body. This re-use and crowding explains why the ground in a churchyard is often elevated and kind of lumpy. Let’s face it — the churchyard bears a certain resemblance to a compost pile, and Laqueur records one parish priest who took home churchyard soil to fertilize a field.

This got me to thinking about Katrina Spade’s Urban Death Project. My English cousin, Clare Brookes, first called my attention to Katrina’s work. (Clare heads Volkswagen Funerals, an elegant and stylish way to go.)

Spade is concerned about the environmental costs of current funeral practices. Conventional burial consumes a shocking amount of tropical hardwoods, metal, and concrete, not to mention land. Embalming fluids have a number of deleterious environmental effects. A single cremation, according to Spade, adds 540 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Through the Urban Death Project, she is aiming at the construction of special facilities in which thirty or so bodies would be composted over the course of several weeks, decaying eventually into garden soil that might be given to relatives or used in parks.

When I first read about this, I was repelled — even though intellectually I accept Diogenes’ point that the body is unimportant. It can be devoured by wild beasts and its former inhabitant will know nothing of it. Anyway, Laqueur has made me realize that composting went on in English and other western churchyards for hundreds of years, even if it wasn’t called that. Why should I be repelled if it makes a comeback?

Spade doesn’t advocate casting bodies onto sawdust piles, as is done with farm animals, but rather observing respectful rites in dignified surroundings so that the living may be comforted. As Laqueur and others note, a death leaves a tear in the social fabric that must be healed.

Not so long ago, many were appalled by the emerging practice of cremation, conducted in industrial-style crematoria; but today cremation is widely accepted. Now it may be time to turn a new leaf with composting.

Limiting the Power of the Dead

Robert E. Lee Monument, Richmond, VA. Hal Jasperson.

Robert E. Lee Monument, Richmond, VA. Hal Jasperson.

A friend once told me that she could never vote for a Democrat because her mother would turn over in her grave. I thought of this friend while reading The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, by Thomas W. Laqueur.  We’ll be doing two or three posts related to this book, which is well worth reading — if you enjoy a long, scholarly work, with lots of classical and other historical references, that will call all sorts of things to mind.

Laqueur reminds us that the dead have power. He starts by discussing Diogenes (412-323 BC), who told his students that when he died, he wanted his body tossed over the city wall where it would be “devoured by beasts.” Since the body would be lifeless, Diogenes argued, it would feel nothing, so its fate did not matter. Objectively speaking, he was right, of course. Left alone, buried, or cremated, a body is soon turned into its constituent elements and disappears. It has no importance.

Yet something in human nature makes it impossible for most of us to behave as if this were true. We honor the dead, we conduct services for the dead and erect memorials to them, we remember the dead and pray for them — even though Martin Luther taught us centuries ago that this is a waste of time. We dream of the dead. Intellectually, we know they no longer exist, but we act as if they did.

This gives the dead power — that’s why my friend could could not vote for Barak Obama, even though she wanted him to be President. More broadly — much more broadly — Laqueur argues that “the dead make civilization on a grand and an intimate scale, everywhere and always: their historical, philosophical, and anthropological weight is enormous and almost without limit and compare.”

This must be true, and all well and good. I prefer living in civilization to living otherwise. But civilizations can go wrong, as happened in the American South, for example, before and long, long after the Civil War. The omnipresent Confederate monuments in that region are an oppressive force still today. That’s why it’s important to remember that the power of the dead is something in our minds, a form of enchantment, as Laqueur might say. There are times when we need to recognize that power for the cultural artifact it is, and ignore it.

Returning to the level of the individual, it may be that some of us, like my Republican friend, allow the dead too much power in our own lives. This is something common-sense seniors should avoid. Our late parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, exes, friends, and enemies truly are dead and gone. They have no objective power over us. It’s nice to remember the dead fondly if we can, but we can’t let them boss us around.