Book Review of GRATITUDE by Dr. Oliver Sacks


Reading  Dr. Sacks’ farewell book with its mournful black cover was like going through a typical day on the job as a hospice chaplain. Just like my patients, this famous author, well-known for his medical narratives such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales lists his regrets, his triumphs, his hopes, and his efforts to make sense of the life that he had led. In a word, this book is about how he dealt with his approaching end. Many of us can relate to his regrets, which included wasting time, being shy, and not traveling more. He also hoped to love and work as long as possible; again, much as the average person might yearn for in this circumstance. He also mentioned his regret at not having learned a second language.

Finding out what he had to say about his own medical narrative may interest those who almost never hear about or think about what it means to review one’s life as death nears, but for me I initially found that very predictable. Nevertheless, because he expresses it so eloquently,  even as a jaded clinician, I became more and more captivated by his life review. More than that, reading this little book became a ritual means for me to say goodbye to this spectacular and compassionate doctor. For example he explains, “[As I get older] I begin to feel not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective…One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts…One is more conscience of transience, and perhaps, of beauty….One can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.”

The book was engrossing in so many other respects as well. Like his other works, he offers a distinctive view that makes it a privilege to saunter among his words. Who else would link the number assigned to each element in the periodic table with one’s age? He opens his essay entitled “Gratitude” by saying, “Mercury is element number 80….on Tuesday I will be 80 myself.”  He goes on to say that  when he was eleven years old that instead of referring to his age, he explained, “I could say ‘I am sodium.’”  (Sodium is the eleventh element). Such an association alone should be enough to entice the scientifically minded and the intellectually curious to get this book.

It is poignant to read that his defense mechanism for dealing with loss was to “turn to the nonhuman.” It saddened me to learn that when he was sent away to a boarding school, “numbers became my friends.”And that “the elements and the periodic table became my companions.”

The last chapter is entitled “Sabbath.” Here he mentions his Orthodox upbringing, and his growing indifference to the practice of Judaism and finally his rupture with it when his mother utterly rejected him when she found out he was gay. Much later in life, he was introduced to positive experiences of the Sabbath and found he could enjoy its peace not only on the seventh day of each week, but on the “seventh” day of his life as well.
The act itself of perusing the book is a sort of Sabbath. It causes the reader to reflect, to pause, and to savor existence. “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

This article was first printed in pallimed.org on March 20, 2017 and is reprinted here with their kind permission. the link is:
http://www.pallimed.org/2017/03/book-review-gratitude-by-dr-oliver-sacks.html

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

Early on in this romantic time-travel novel, author Andrew Sean Greer (HarperCollins, 2012) clues me in that he is not going to follow some predictable formula. One of his characters is a gay man dying from AIDS who is both gentle and provocative. He says to a woman who had made a petty complaint  about his dog coming close to her flowers “When you were a little girl, madam…was this the woman you dreamed of becoming?”  I, and I suppose just about any of Greer’s readers, immediately pondered this question for myself. What are my own regrets and embarrassments, what my sources of pride and fulfillment?  If nothing else it is a fantastic comeback for any stranger who acts surly about a trifle and who is taking being alive for granted.

Another profound observation comes about for Greta, the main character,  (and for us) when she travels back to 1941. Then, unlike in 1985 when her twin brother, the gay man’s partner, had died of AIDS as well, he is alive. Greta thinks about some irritating behavior of this “restored” brother, and muses, “It was infuriating, and so like my brother, but not in any of the ways I had hoped….And yet of course when the dead come back to life they come back with all the things we didn’t miss.” (emphasis mine.) How astute of the author to refer to an earlier stage of grieving which typically does not include the negative memories that might occur in a later stage.

I am very glad that I read on. Greta gets more insights about love and loss, which we could always benefit from. But while the plot is intriguing on one level, it is confusing on another: Greta cycles between three times, 1918, 1941 and 1985, which is clear. The confusing part is that while she is in one time period, “another” Greta is getting things done and affecting other relationships in the other two periods while she is “away.” Moreover, the reaction of some of the other people in the older time periods to her revelation to them about her traveling to the other two is far-fetched, but the pleasure of the fantasy, the romance and the insights, are well worth the trips.

 

I borrowed this book from the local library. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”