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What We’re Reading: We Know How This Ends

2015 July 9
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What We're Reading



We Know How This Ends: Living While Dying by Bruce Kramer (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)

In 2010 Bruce Kramer was, as he describes it, “reborn in diagnosis.” He had been chalking up physical symptoms (a floppy foot, loss of coordination, fatigue, falls) to aging and a pinched nerve, but an appointment with a neurologist confirmed that it was much more serious: ALS. His book, We Know How This Ends: Living While Dying (co-authored with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer), is a thoughtful, contemplative memoir about relationships, time, happiness, and finding ways to be alive while racing towards death.

ALS is a fast moving, progressive disease for which there is no cure. Everything Kramer had taken for granted about his future goes into a tailspin the moment after a brusque doctor gives him his diagnosis.

In the car, wondering if I can drive. Winter is coming, the hoarfrost coats the few trees lining the parking lot, but the sun illuminates the next few minutes, the day yet to come, life as we know it melting in its weak light. Ev looks at me. She is crushed … And then she quietly says, “Couldn’t they have at least given us a goddamn pamphlet?”

Prior to his diagnosis, Kramer led a very active and full life, both personally and professionally: He took long bike rides with his wife, Ev; went on frequent overseas trips; and was the Dean of St. Thomas University. The nature of ALS would not allow him much time to wallow in despair about the monumental changes that were forthcoming; most sufferers pass away from complications three to five years after being diagnosed. Symptoms that were initially bothersome soon became major challenges.

It’s the unrelenting swiftness of ALS from which this book was born. Essentially, ALS puts the aging process into overdrive. As Kramer acknowledges, we all know that aging and death will come. Yet, most of us march into the future with only an abstract fear of death and, as Kramer puts it, “dis ease.” He uses the term dis ease to describe any difficult event that massively reshapes a person’s future:

Dis ease had always been with me, lying in depths of collective human need, illuminating life’s inevitable sharp edges, its dangerous borders, its precarious balance between good living and catastrophic existence. … Dis ease is true love, soaring in the stratosphere, yet plummeting to earth in betrayal unforeseen. Dis ease is the newborn child … vandalized by the reality of overwhelming disability. … There is not a person who does not know dis ease, boiling in the pit of their gut, on the tip of their tongue, in their muscle memory, in the discord between the life they know and the life they fear.

As Kramer sees it, dis ease need not be a physical ailment, per se, but a significant job loss, the death or illness of a loved one, or the end of an important relationship. His conceptualization of the phenomena that is dis ease is what drives the book — and what makes it much more than an autobiographical account of his experience with ALS. The book becomes, largely, a philosophical and thoughtful account of how Kramer was able to change his perception in an effort to find joy and meaning within the context of his new reality. It isn’t all joyfulness on his part, of course (“I’m no saint and I am pissed” he writes in a blog post); however, the book is laden with meaningful passages about his faith, his family, his friends, his physical experiences in a changing body (skydiving!), and most importantly, love.

 … I have sought to be engaged fully with life as I knew it. Now, it seems more important to engage with life as it is. I hope this means more time with loved ones, both friends and family; more evenings with Ev listening to the local classical station, drinking in each other’s presence and knowing full well it will never be enough; more yoga…more joyful loving visits with Hypatia and Athena, family meals … deep sleep at night … I hope this means more time to think, to listen, to perceive that in the silence is life and death and life again.

Kramer met MPR broadcast journalist Cathy Wurzer in 2008 for a radio piece on Kramer’s work with a local Indonesian gamelan group. They reconnected through mutual friends following his diagnosis, and MPR decided to do a recurring segment featuring Kramer and Wurzer discussing his life with ALS. The two developed a close friendship during the last several years of Kramer’s life. Wurzer prefaces each chapter with brief anecdotes or stories about the dis ease she was facing in her own life during the years she was interviewing Kramer (namely her father’s progressive dementia and eventual death from lymphoma). Her contributions run parallel to Kramer’s, and they provide a helpful framework for the rest of the book. She writes beautifully (“We know how this ends. It ends with sadness that is achingly beautiful and pure love for a life lived full and well.”), and the deep respect towards and connection she felt with Kramer is very apparent in her contributions.

We Know How This Ends is a beautiful book that is vastly more than a memoir about coping with disease. It’s a book about finding meaning and joy in life while being open to our dis ease, no matter the gravity of our external circumstances — because, as Kramer points out, our external circumstances will, at times, be grave. In the end, the lesson here is remarkably simple: we need to seek out ways to find love and peace, if not happiness, in our lives as they are — not as they “should be,” and certainly not as we assumed they would be — by being present, by being open, and by giving, accepting, and recognizing love.

Have you read a book lately that changed your perspective on how you live, or how you view your life? What was it about the book that you found so affecting?


*Cathy Wurzer and Bruce Kramer’s wife, Ev Emerson, will appear at the Har Mar Barnes & Noble on July 27 to discuss We Know How This Ends. Find event details here.


What We’re Reading: No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days

2014 October 9

What We're Reading

no saints around here coverNo Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days, by Susan Allen Toth (University Of Minnesota Press, April 2014)

Susan Allen Toth’s new book of essays, No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days, is a beautiful chronicle of the life of a primary caregiver. Toth’s beloved husband, James, had Parkinson’s disease. Although he was ill for over a decade, these essays were written in the last 18 months of James’s life. The stories she tells in this book are brutally honest, funny, and affecting, with the end result being a very worthwhile read about unconditional love, sacrifice, time, and loss.

Her readers get the sense that Toth left these essays very much in their original state, which, to her credit, was probably a difficult thing to do. The most surprising aspect of this book is how extremely candidly she writes. It likely would have been easy (and tempting) for an author of a book like this to go back and edit with the sentimental hand that is hindsight. Toth, on the other hand, left these essays as they were when she wrote them, in a gritty testimony to the grueling years she put in as a caregiver. The result is a book that holds nothing back. Watching a loved one slowly succumb to a disease like Parkinson’s is not an easy feat — but it’s even more difficult to be at ground zero, day in and day out, for years.

Because of her constant proximity to James and the work she put into his care, an overarching theme of the book is the dichotomy between the deep love Toth felt for her husband and the frustration she felt at being his primary caregiver. In many of the essays, she has written unabashedly about frustration, anger, guilt, and loneliness. James’s progressive disease made caring for him increasingly demanding. In the first essay of the book, she writes,

He is awake, and I have to get up. He needs attention, a move off the sofa, something to do. I heave a THERE-GOES-MY-NAP sigh. Oh, yes, James hears those sighs. Mostly they pass over him, like a short sharp breeze, and he does not seem to notice. Or he may look up, briefly puzzled, and look at me like he doesn’t understand why I’m sighing. And he probably doesn’t. But sometimes, when he sees my face, my eyes closing for a second (OH NO, HOW COULD THIS BE HAPPENING?) and my voice taking on that awful forbearing tone (CAN YOU SEE I’M GRITTING MY TEETH RIGHT NOW?), he’ll say, with a brief moment of recognition, “I’m sorry.” Then, of course, I feel terrible.

For anyone who hasn’t considered the amount of effort and energy it takes be a caregiver (like me), this book is an eye-opener. Toth spares no details as she writes about flossing James’s teeth (“He stands fairly still for this, but I have to dodge the flying specks. I’m not always fast enough”), becoming an expert on unmentionables like commodes and Gentleman’s Pads (“‘Extra-absorbent,’ ‘Maximum,’ ‘Superior Absorbency,’ ‘Overnight,’ ‘Super-plus.’ Nothing, it seemed, was merely ‘Standard’ or ‘Regular.’ All were superlative. I bought a variety for testing.”), the hours spent counting pills, cooking meals, feeding her husband, and caring for the household alone. Her days of caregiving were exhausting, often thankless, and seemingly unending.

The book certainly isn’t all dark. Many of Toth’s essays about the perfunctory and unsavory aspects of care giving are laced with humor. But her occasional humor is balanced with emotional and deeply affecting pieces about the toll this disease takes not only on the patient, but on their loved ones. Because while she was learning to outfit James in Gentleman’s Pads and having his prescription bottles knocked over by her cats, she was also acutely aware that her husband was dying. Take, for example, the essay “The Last Christmas,” where she writes about the realization that her husband was experiencing many things for the last time. The two of them shared a beloved cottage in northern Wisconsin, but as time goes on taking James there has become more difficult. One weekend she knew it was their last trip there as a couple. She writes,

As we walked carefully to the car after breakfast…James stopped. … He was pausing to look out once more at my rambling, messy, and extravagant garden and two striking, very small outbuildings, which were among his last architectural creations. …he said thoughtfully, “I like that roof peak. I think this summer I will take pictures of some details around here and make an album of them.” … I already knew James would never return to this place he loved so much. That beautiful spring morning we were standing only a few yards from a small half-covered deck…which James called the “Garden Overlook,” just big enough to hold two Adirondack chairs…I wanted very much to lead him gently through the narrow arch of the Overlook and lower him into one of the chairs. I could sit in the other. …One last time.

But I had been up all night. I was disintegrating. …So I helped James into the passenger seat…I steered almost blindly down our gravel drive. I thought if I looked back my heart would break.

Because Parkinson’s is a progressive and unpredictable disease, the theme of time and its passage is a focal point of the book. Toth never really knew just how much longer she had with her husband. Time, for a caregiver, takes on a “careful what you wish for” aspect. Of course, she wanted James alive for as long as possible, but on the other hand, as she grew more and weary of being a caregiver, the months or years she potentially had left would sometimes seem daunting. In the essay “Just a Minute,” about how often she feels that yells that phrase, she sums up her relationship with time when she writes,

I do hear myself. I’m talking about time. Time is such a shapeshifter for caregivers. On some days, I wonder, “Will this ever end?” On other days, especially those moments when I look at my much-loved husband, whose smile can still twist my heart, and notice how fragile he has become, I think of time differently. He is leaving me. We have so little time left together. Maybe only just a minute.

I have read some critiques of the book that argue that she was not as alone in her care giving as she implies. She and James did have, at least towards the end, nearly round-the-clock home health aides and occasional visiting family members to help with the care. Toth mentions several times that she is unendingly grateful for the help she was given. And in her defense, any critique of that nature ties into what I mentioned earlier about the essays seeming to have been largely unedited. Yes, she had help, but that it wasn’t enough to make her feel that the bulk of the burden was off of her shoulders. All of the help in the world couldn’t have changed the fact that she was watching her husband die, so it’s quite hard to fault her for feeling anything less than incredibly lonely and overwhelmed.

As James became more and more ill, she saw firsthand how close friends and even family seemed to visit less and less. She saw how it hurt her husband. She arranged lunches and visits with people who said they would come more often, but never did. Of course, it offended her and made her upset. In “Absent Friends,” she writes of an exchange with a formerly close friend who calls but never visits:

After his last phone inquiry, which I answered in a room where James couldn’t hear, I said, “Ray, if you ever want to have a real conversation with James in person, now is the time. Or it won’t happen. … I just want to say one other thing, Ray.” I heard my voice let fly. “If you don’t come to see James before he dies, don’t bother coming to the funeral. I’m not kidding. Just don’t bother.”

These are the scenes that she could have cut from the essays, but she opted to leave them in. The pain in this exchange is so real and palpable. Toth was trying desperately to keep her husband’s life as full and happy as possible, and as her reader, it becomes easy to imagine how she could have felt very much alone.

I came away from this book with a far greater understanding of what caregiving entails, but on a larger scale I also developed a greater respect for the bonds of unconditional love and the commitment that one makes to a spouse or partner. Caring for a person the way Toth cared for James is a monumental display of selflessness and love, and I hope that anyone who reads this book will feel grateful that she chose to not only write these difficult essays, but to share them.

Have you read any books or memoirs lately that you knew were deeply personal? Do you think you would be able to share a difficult time in your own life in such a public manner?


What We’re Reading: The Land of Dreams

2014 May 22
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What We're Readingthe land of dreamsThe Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl; translated by Tiina Nunnally (University of Minnesota Press, 2014)

Lance Hansen finds his quiet routine as a U.S. Forest Service officer harshly shaken when he discovers a brutal murder of a Norwegian man at Baraga’s Cross in Superior National Forest.

Hansen is an avid, quirky historian in his free time, so much of the story weaves back and forth in time, with a previous unsolved disappearance/possible murder from the early 1900s, to today’s murder. Everyone in town has a history, and Hansen knows it. Eirik Nyland, a Norwegian investigator, is sent to help the FBI sift through the murder, and to talk to the surviving Norwegian man, who was found naked and in shock, not far from the murder scene by Hansen. While the investigators circle around an Ojibwe man as the killer, Hansen starts to suspect someone else through his historically-tinged investigation of the previous murder.

The author, a Norwegian himself, spend a couple years living in northern Minnesota, so the landscape is familiar and accurate. He captures the daily life and idealistic pride of people of Duluth and Grand Marais’ heritage, while using common landmarks that anyone who has been to Duluth or Grand Marais would recognize. With this firm grounding within the setting and atmosphere, the story takes on a realistic edge.

Hansen is a brooding character, with much of his reflection happening with internal dialogue. Yet his external dialogue also captures much of him: straight, to the point, but often bringing in added context of history and facts, such as this conversation when he picks up Nyland from the airport:

“Do you often have weather like this?” [Nyland] asked.

“Fairly often,” replied Lance. “The whole region around the Great Lakes is like this. Sudden, violent storms. Luckily they usually don’t last long. It has to do with the topography. No mountain ranges to block the air masses, either to the north or the south. Just flat plains. Warm air from the Gulf of Mexico forces its way up here, and then meets cold air from the Canadian Arctic. And they slam together.”

“Like now?”

“This is just light entertainment.”

Nyland glanced at Lance Hansen, who was sitting there with his face practically touching the windshield while the wipers slapped frantically back and forth with little effect.

Sundstøl doesn’t stray too far into stereotypes; rather, he writes accurately about the people from which these stereotypes evolved, but with a realistic, multi-faceted perspective. Yes, there are Norwegian descendents who pride themselves on their heritage, despite not knowing much about it. Yet overlooked complexities and bouts of violence creep into what at first seems like a happy little town. Homophoba, tensions between Native Americans and Norwegians, and family lines being questioned all start to pick away at the edges of the idealistic image of a community to reveal the true underbelly of these stereotypes.

Sundstøl writes with direct dialogue, and moments of poetic observation of the world he’s created. Not one for flowery, overly descriptive language, he instead writes with accurate, but detailed sentences that capture the moment at hand, such as Hansen’s view of Lake Superior in this excerpt:

The moon was about a day short of being full. A gleaming streak of moonlight extended from the horizon almost all the way to the tip of his shoes. On land it was so wide that it splintered into thousands of tiny flashes glinting off the waves around him. On both sides of the moonlight, the water was a deep purple that was almost black. He stood there, looking out across the lake without really seeing it.

This is a long novel for a mystery, and is the first in a trilogy, but it kept my attention throughout, save for one lengthy section that reads like a history lesson. It’s a multi-page history of the fur trade in northern Minnesota, which, while interesting, doesn’t connect back to the characters or the story as much as it needs to. It ends up taking me out of the spell Sundstøl has cast with his characters. But soon enough, I’m back in the center of this mystery, lapping it up again.

The Land of Dreams won the Riverton Prize for best Norwegian crime novel, and is the first of Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy, which are all set in northern Minnesota. The ending here isn’t a cliffhanger; it’s more of a subtle itch that doesn’t go away after closing the book.

Are there other authors you know of who use history as the contextual backdrop for their novel? How does a multi-layered story affect the plot line?


What We’re Reading: Vacationland

2014 January 2
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What We're ReadingVacationlandVacationland by Sarah Stonich (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

Vacationland is a beautifully rendered portrait of main character Meg and her connection to Naledi Lodge, where she grew up. Her childhood was spent under the care of her gruff grandfather after losing her parents in a plane crash as a young child. Throughout this multi-faceted portrait, Naledi Lodge serves as the geographical touchstone of every story. We see Meg grow up at the northern Minnesotan resort, we experience her grief at losing her grandfather as a young adult, witness her divorce, and applaud her move back to the now-defunct resort, giving it a second life and purpose.

A painter whose main subject is water, Meg practices for an interview with a high school student who asks why she paints water almost exclusively, towards the end of the book:

“In my mind, I paint everything but the water. I report what is captured over the surface, reflected in its mirrors, sometimes still and sometimes fluid and unpredictable or warped, like life. The surface separates halves of above and beneath, the known and unknown.” Meg rereads and sighs. It sounds like art-speak and only approaches what she wants to articulate.

In this way, we encounter Meg. Through reflections, memories, and experiences of others linked to her story, we get a glimpse of what is beneath Meg’s quiet surface. It’s a story comprised of multiple linked stories told from the perspective of different characters: we hear from Meg herself, three now-elderly sisters who visited the resort years before with their husbands and many children, the resort’s caretakers, a quiet Ojibwe man who eventually helps Meg fix up the run-down resort when she moves back for good, her grandfather’s unknown lover, and many more. Meg’s own sections aren’t told in first person; rather it’s told in third-person narrative, holding us slightly at bay, forcing us to understand her through other means. These short sketches contribute to the overall portrait of Meg’s intensely human story with characters rich and fully realized in their own brief segments.

This is a book that reminds me why I love reading fiction so much. I personally enjoy layered stories, and Vacationland lavishes on the layers with heartbreaking realness and refreshingly good humor. Stonich captured me entirely with her winding narrative, circling closer and closer to Meg with each story. She doesn’t give it to us all at once; instead, we patiently wait for each story to reveal it’s connection to Meg and Naledi Lodge. The pacing is deliberate—Stonich starts off with Meg herself, and gets us invested in her character right away to then leave us hanging by the end of this first glimpse. Then, she switches gears entirely to Ed, retired advertising man who had a mid-life affair during a vacation at the resort with his family years prior. We catches snatches of Meg as a child here and there in his story, and become invested in Ed’s story, only to discover his underlying connection to Meg, circling us back to the main character. Then we’re off again, onto another character and their story that eventually reveals a connection to Meg or the lodge.

In an interview with The Next Big Thing (which can be found in text here on Stonich’s website), Stonich explained why she chose a resort as the focal point of this story:

“The idea of a resort from varying perspectives of visitors, proprietors, and locals seemed like a concept I felt worth weaving characters around. In Minnesota, a lot gets written about the wilderness experience, but less about resort life, and very little about the people and the communities that line the roads leading to such places—like the beer truck drivers and bait shop owners. I wanted to tell their stories. But I was also moved to challenge the tired Minnesota stereotype—not all the men in Vacationland are good looking and not all the children are above average—or white for that matter.”

Her characters are definitely not tired, nor stereotypical. Their realness reminded me of people I knew growing up in a small community myself. This isn’t a novel trying to wow us, or woo us. It’s a story that captures the human essence of a community, the gritty changes of passing time, and a main character who makes us work  to get to know her.

Stonich uses wit wisely to bring her characters to life. One of the funniest stories is told by the ancient yet fiery Ursa Olson, who, after finding out her daughter has secretly had plans drawn up to remodel Ursa’s house after she passes, strips her kitchen down to the studs in retaliation, even while recovering from a hip replacement:

It began early, when she was supposed to be in town for physical therapy. She wasn’t because Kip Karjala was supposed to drive her and called to say his car was making the same noise again. Ursa offered to limp the half-mile over to look under his hood, but Kip said, “Yeah, Ursa? That would kinda defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?”

No matter. She could drive herself, having finally found the car keys in the flour canister where Carina had hidden them. Clever on Carina’s part, Ursa had to admit, given the odds she would ever bake anything. Her daughter was not usually clever—in fact, Carina was quiet unformed in many ways despite her age, despite being a card-carrying member of the AARP.

Ursa settles behind the wheel. The Olds 88 is an automatic, her hip is nearly healed, and she rarely uses the brakes anyway.

Stonich’s wit surfaces naturally, and is unforced. This isn’t a comedic book, but it’s comedic moments add a lightness that fits well with the brevity of each individual’s story, rounding out each character in their own way.

For those wanting a neat, two-word description of the book, I’m sorry to disappoint—this is one that resists categorization. In the previously mentioned interview with The Next Big Thing, Stonich talks about the genre of this novel as a “novel-in-stories though I don’t like categorizing fiction in this way. Originally, the publisher printed ‘novel’ on the cover, but I wanted readers to decide for themselves what it was, so it says nothing.” I personally don’t care what the book is categorized as, as it doesn’t change the way I experienced it. So whether you prefer to think of it as a novel-in-stories, or maybe a portrait made up of brief sketches, bottom line is this: read it. It’ll capture you completely, as it did me.

What other books have you read that are pieced together by varying viewpoints and characters? Is there another author who uses a geographical focal point to tie together a collection of short stories?