Page-Turners: Summer Reading

Over at “The New Health Dialogue,” New America Foundation’s Joanne Kenen offers a reading list for health care aficionados. Let me be clear: she’s not talking about wonky books, but books you might read while “curled up in a giant swinging chair in the back yard.”

First, Melissa Fay Greene’s There is No Me without You. “It’s long,” Kenen writes, “about 450 pages — and worth every minute. (With limited time — I bought and read the print version when I could and listened to a library CD version in the car and the kitchen). It’s the story of one Ethiopian widow's attempt to save the AIDS orphans in her country. All of them. Moving and fascinating. Probably my favorite narrative nonfiction book since I read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.”

I would add that any book that might be compared to Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down should be on the must-read list of anyone who cares about superb writing and original narrative.  The Spirit Catches You is not a new book. It’s timeless. If you haven’t read it, put it first on your summer list.

Next on Kenen’s list, Making the Rounds with Oscar, by David Dosa, MD. “You may remember the New England Journal essay a year or two ago about the cat who knew when nursing home residents were near death,” Kenen writes.  “That cat is the Oscar of the title. “

Dosa, a geriatrician with a strong aversion to cats, tells the story of a normally aloof feline who seeks out the dying, often snuggling with the patient and family members until the patient passes. In other cases, he smells the patient's feet, sits outside a closed door until admitted, or refuses to leave a dying patient's bed. Eventually Dosa comes to realize, that Oscar also offers immense comfort to the families as well. And when there's no one to sit with the patient, Oscar maintains a solitary vigil.

“This book is really more about dementia and families — and science and scientists — than it is about cats,” Kenen confides. “I will probably write more about this.”

Her summer list ends with a book I am eager to read: Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, by Steve Luxenberg.

Here is a tantalizing summary from the book’s publisher: “Beth Luxenberg [the author’s mother], was an only child. Everyone knew it: Her grown children, her friends, even people she'd only just met. So when Steve Luxenberg's sister called him to ask, ‘Did you know Mom had a sister?’ he was bewildered.” A sister?

There was a clue: “When Beth was nearly 80 and in fragile health; while seeing a new social worker, she mentioned a disabled sister, sent away at age two.”  But why was the sister exiled?

“The questions were dizzying, but the answers out of reach: Beth had said she didn't know what had happened to her sister. Beth died in 1999, her secret intact. Six months later, [the story of the sister] surfaced once more, uninvited and unforeseen. This time, though, the secret had a name: ‘Annie.’”

Steve Luxenberg, a long-time Washington Post editor and investigative reporter, had been trained to unearth facts, and so he picked up the phone, and began calling strangers. He also began culling whatever paper records he could find.  “And as he dug, he uncovered more and more, both puzzling and shocking,” his publisher reveals.”His mother's name wasn't Beth, and his aunt hadn't been sent away when she was two. Annie was hospitalized when she was 21, and her older sister, 23. The sisters had grown up together. Annie spent the rest of her life in a mental institution, while Luxenberg's mother set out to erase her sister's existence. . .”

For Kenen’s complete list, click here.

2 thoughts on “Page-Turners: Summer Reading

  1. Maggie – is there a list of wonky summer books? I like learning about something new while at the beach.

  2. Hi–
    I’d recommend a new book on palliative care eited by Diane Meier, or Nortin Hadler’s “Worried Sick” or
    if you haven’t read it Atul Gawande’s “Complications” or a book by Carl Schneider called “Patient Autonomoy.”