Books 2014 #2
(In a world without rules, I’d name Erik Jensen’s brilliant debut Acute Misfortune as one of my books of the year. But with Erik the editor of The Saturday Paper…)
“Live long enough to be a nuisance to your kids.” That used to be the bumper-sticker wisdom on intergenerational revenge. Now it’s: “Be nice to your kids – they’re the ones who’ll choose your nursing home.”
Public health specialist and 2014 BBC Reith lecturer Atul Gawande nominates boredom, loneliness and helplessness as “the Three Plagues of nursing home existence”. In making decisions for their elderly parents, he says, adult children prioritise safety over independence, with the effect, too often, of prolonging life at the expense of a reason to live.
Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End considers our modern experience and expectations of mortality. How do we think about and prepare for the end of life, as individuals, as families, as a society? “You don’t ask, ‘What do you want when you are dying?’,” a palliative care nurse tells Gawande. “You ask, ‘If time becomes short, what is most important to you?’ ”
The people – not all of them elderly – whose terminal decline Gawande charts in his investigation of “what matters in the end” include his own father. In every case, the great struggle is against loss of independence. Gawande’s plain-speaking compassion and humility highlight the importance of those same qualities in caring for people as they approach the end of life.
The end of taste is as far as music journalist Carl Wilson ventures in Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. Since first appearing in 2007, as part of the “331/3” series (each title inspired by a music album), the book has gained a cult following. Wilson takes as his ostensible subject Céline Dion’s best-selling 1997 album, whose tracks include the Titanic hit, “My Heart Will Go On”. Not because he likes it; in fact, disliking it is the point. Let’s Talk About Love turns out to be a meditation on the vagaries of taste and the tyranny of cool.
This year it was reissued in a stand-alone edition, supplemented with a bunch of essays by writers, culture critics and players, including Nick Hornby and James Franco. (Franco contributed to the original book’s cult status by giving it a shoutout on the red carpet at the Oscars. How meta is that?)
“[T]he question is,” writes Wilson, “whether anyone’s tastes stand on solid ground, starting with mine.” He reflects on the kind of semiotic virtuosity applauded by cool audiences – “to quote Homer but in the voice of Homer Simpson”– and wonders whether the contempt mobilised in the name of discernment is inimical to a good public life. In the new edition, the essays and an afterword by the author make a conversation of it.
In any company, Helen Garner stands out as a writer of rare distinction. I’ve had doubts, in the past, on that score. What a surprise that This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial should be the book to dispel them.
Recounting the trial (and retrial) of Robert Farquharson, who drove his car into a dam and left his three sons to drown, it’s a book I didn’t want to read. Even now, it seems like a book that goes nowhere, that makes no headway. To her frustration and the reader’s, Farquharson eluded Garner. Even successive guilty verdicts feel inconclusive.
Did he do it? As Garner’s young protégé says, that’s “the least interesting question anyone could possibly ask”. It’s a callous remark, but true – and this book is proof of it.
For seven years, Garner followed the case. Surely, more than once, she must have thought of giving up. Halfway through the first trial, she writes: “There was no imaginable resolution … [T]he glaring fact presented itself: no one but Farquharson knew what had happened in the car that night, and, by now, perhaps not even he knew.”
In Garner’s telling, the unknowability – the stuck-ness of the narrative – becomes the story. Tender and electrifying, This House of Grief is Helen Garner’s masterpiece.
Best New Talent
Tess Lea, Darwin
Lea is a real find, her writing sprightly, elegant, pitch-perfect. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Maira Kalman, My Favorite Things
Deceptively simple paintings charged with ideas and affection in every stroke. Thoughtful respite for the word-bound.
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Isn’t every Man Booker winner by definition overrated? No book can live up to that (or any) prize’s supposed warrant of excellence.
Janette Turner Hospital, The Claimant
Like “Stone Soup” in reverse, Hospital’s novel reduces its inspiration – a lush, fabulous true story – to indigestible blandness.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 20, 2014 as "Books 2014 #2". Subscribe here.