Book Review: The Morville Hours

It is only within the last two weeks that my garden has sprung to life. With the bitter, and very long, winter that has just passed, evidence of spring in the garden was late arriving and, longing for fine weather, I found myself contemplating one of mt favourite garden books.

The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift was published in Great Britain in 2008 by Bloomsbury Press, which was the edition I read. According to the frontispiece, Swift was a rare-book librarian in Oxford and Dublin. In 1988, she became a gardener and writer full-time, with her articles on gardening receiving wide distribution in the gardening press.

At the time she changed careers, Ms. Swift moved to a new home, the Dower House at Morville, in Shropshire, England. The Morville Hours is an account of how Swift built a garden in her new home. As she tells her account, the text follows the meditative path of the Hours of the Divine Office. The Hours of the Divine Office is the set of prayers that mark the hours of the day. These are ancient Christian prayers, common to both the Eastern and Western rites. The book that contained the prayers was known as the Breviary and originated in medieval times. Swift calls it the “bestseller” if its day. (Page viii)

As the Breviary was meant to be used for meditation, Swift meditates upon her home, her garden and her life in this book that is at once peaceful, but also a provocative reminder of our need for rootedness. Here is what she says about her life at Morville:

“And gradually I began to see that in the Hours – with their joyful Te Deum and litanies of praise, their Office of the Dead and Penitential Psalms, their despairing De Profundis and final serene Nunc Diminitus – was reflected the arc not only of a single day or a single year, but of a whole lifetime, with its trajectory from darkness into light and from the light into the darkness once more.” (Page 11)

For those who never had a liberal arts education, this is a work of literature that will educate you about some of the more important aspects of that education. Illustrated with woodcuts, filled with poetical references and scenes from her own life, this book can be read again and again at many different levels.

I reread my copy in corners of my garden, imagining myself to be any one of the persons that Katherine Swift is: an accomplished gardener, a classical scholar, a skilled writer – or a woman who has examined the her own life with compassion and found her way home at last.

(Note: My copy of The Morville Hours Is the 2008 Bloomsbury edition.)

Book Review: The Weekend Effect

Ironically, I read the first two chapters of Katrina Onstad’s The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork over short periods crammed into an especially busy month. I read about the results of her research addressing the question “What is a weekend?” on weekends with limited personal time. Then I rushed through a chapter outlining both how workers have gained and more recently lost this leisure time on weekends during time I had borrowed from other tasks and commitments. I was, in effect, a real life example of the overcommitted professional whose weekends are often spent working that Onstad describes. I would not be the only person I know to see themselves in her descriptions. One of the main concerns Onstad raises is that many of us willingly give up our weekends to work.

I read the last few chapters in very different circumstances. Last week, I took five days to go on a writing retreat. Located in Northern Ontario, mostly out of cell phone range, and with limited internet, I was forced into a situation with only limited capacity to work online. With large blocks of time to read and write, Onstad’s message became clear. Our minds and bodies need time away from routine and from work. As both my mind and body slowed down, my concentration improved and this well-written, well-researched book became a road map for me to a different kind of weekend, a weekend filled with renewing relationships, enjoying nature and appreciating the beauty around me.

Onstad’s book contains that essential element of a good creative nonfiction book: exhaustive notes on the research she completed. These are detailed enough that the reader can find her sources and their own work. From all this detail, anyone can realize the dream of having resting, relaxing weekends – weekends free from work and other travails. I completed the book in a setting embedded in nature, on days devoted to art and I am now committed to making better use of my leisure time.

Remember this saying,” No one ever died wishing they’d worked more.” (Attributed to Senator Paul Tsongas.)

Have a good weekend!

(Note: I read the 2017 Harper Collins paperback version of The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork.)

Book Review: Hunger by Roxane Gay

I read Roxane Gay’s memoir about her life as a “morbidly obese” person in America in one day, tears streaming down my face on two airline flights and in 2 airport lounges. I could not have stopped reading. It was as if I believed that somehow, by reading her memoir, I might be able to somehow tell her, “You are worthy.” This book forces the reader to confront their own beliefs about body size and and their own prejudices.

As a doctor, I believed that I knew something about obesity, especially since I am overweight myself, but this book reminded me that I was wrong. At the outset, Gay tells the reader:

“People see bodies like mine and make their assumptions. They think they know the why of my body. They do not.” (page 5)

I learned from this book that not only do we misunderstand other’s bodies, but we may even misunderstand our own. Gay is brutal in her self-descriptions and the reader is caught in that brutality, pushed and dragged into the realization of the degree to which we misjudge obese people, skinny people, any people. The more we judge, Gay reminds us, the less accurate we are. In fact, we don’t judge – we misjudge. Can you truly get rid of your assumptions? Ever since I have read this book, I doubt that I can.

The other important link we learn about in Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is the link between sexual assault and obesity. This very good article from The Atlantic summarizes the research very understandably and is a good resource for anyone wanting to understand the research.

I admire Gay so much for being able to tell her story. I cannot imagine exposing my own pain to the world as she has done. I do not think I would ever have this much courage. This is, however, a very important book because, after reading it, only the most heartless would not be able to understand what obese people endure.

I do not think I could read this book twice. Even after looking through it to prepare this review, I am emotionally affected. I could not read this book again, but I am very glad I read it once.

(Note: I read the Harper Collins 2017 Hardcover edition of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.)

Book Review: How We Die

Dr. Sherwin Nuland, an American Surgeon who worked at Yale University, wrote one for the best books on death in our own era. How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter was published in 1993 and is Nuland’s Socratic consideration on a subject which we must all contemplate sooner or later.

Nuland considers this phase of life from the perspective of people dying from conditions as diverse as cancer and murder. What is most remarkable about this book on dying, as compared with many others, is that Nuland sought the advice of experts for each of the examples he uses in the book. This opens up the book as a resource to those of us in Canada contemplating what medical aid in dying will mean for us, first and foremost as persons who might use this resource, but also as health care providers. Health Care Providers have faced medical aid in dying with much trepidation since it goes many of our natural inclinations. As a member of the Canadian Council of Academies’ Expert Panel on Medical Aid in Dying, I have wanted to remind myself of the role and place of death in our lives and Nuland’s book has helped me to do this more than any other resource.

Of all the stories in this book, I was most moved by Nuland’s account of the death of his brother from cancer. My own sister is dying – I have been writing about this in my blog – and so I can truly relate to Nuland’s struggle. It is a lesson we must all remember, those of us who work in health care: “Where my own brother was concerned, I had forgotten, or at least forsaken, the lessons learned from decades of experience.” (Page 231) This is exactly the reason we should never try to care for a family member or a close friend.
Reading this book, with its extensive research and focus on what experts in various disciplines and patients have to say, is a reminder that Nuland is a life long learner. His inquiring mind and dedication to ongoing self-improvement is an example to all physicians that you can never know too much. This has been Nuland’s greatest lesson in all his work: always keep learning.

This was not Nuland’s own lesson. It is one of the original lessons of Maimonedes, and can be found in the physician/philosopher’s prayer:
“Let me be contented in everything except in the great science of my profession. Never allow the thought to arise in me that I have attained to sufficient knowledge, but vouchsafe to me the strength, the leisure and the ambition ever to extend my knowledge.”

(Note: References are from the 1995 Random House Vintage Book’s edition of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.)

Life and Death Reporting – A Book Review

André Picard has been reporting on health and healthcare for The Globe for over thirty years. His book Matters of Life and Death: Public Health Issues in Canada is a collection of oeuvre from that period, focusing on some of the most important heath issues of that period and for Canada today. Apart from being a practicing psychiatrist, I did work for a time in health policy for the Canadian Medical Association and I haven’t quite shaken the habit. Mr. Picard’s book has become a reference for me and I am referring to it time and again when discussing or considering healthcare.

The book is organized into fourteen sections on what are arguably the most important topics in Canadian Healthcare. Picard cites fourteen areas of healthcare that deserve immediate attention because of their impact on Canadians’ health and our health care system. These are Medicare, Mental Health, Drugs, War on Drugs, Aging, End of Life, Children, Reproductive/Women’s Health, Disability/Inclusion, Indigenous Health, Cancer, Infectious Disease, Lifestyles, Social Determinants. Each topic has its own chapter and the book is very readable and understandable even if reading about health and healthcare is not easy for the reader. As someone who promotes health literacy to the sixteen year old adolescents in my practice, this is important. The short articles in each chapter are interesting and well-written. Members of my team and I used Sip on this: Like all drugs, alcohol isn’t Consequence free for a group about alcohol use in teens.

As I said before, this book has become a reference for me on Canadian Healthcare. I like to have good health policy information, to have the correct statistics and an impression of how others might be considering a health policy topic. Matters of Life and Death was accurate from these perspectives in those areas of health care where I have very good knowledge, which was always reassuring. Also, even when I don’t agree with his opinion, I can always see Mr. Picard’s point of view. This is the essence of good science journalism to me: that it stimulates dialogue and further consideration.

I feel that Matters of Life and Death is a book that every Canadian who wants to understand the problems our healthcare system should read, but I also think they would enjoy it. I will also say that the most valuable information provided was found in the Introduction. Mr. Picard compiles a list of the shortcomings of health reporting. He cites a list developed by Gary Schwitzer, a well-known American health journalist, and then develops the list further. That list is a lens against which one can evaluate journalism on healthcare, a good tool to have when you’re trying to decide whether an article is worth consideration.

(Note: I read the 2017 Douglas & McIntyre paperback edition of Matters of Life and Death: Public Health Issues in Canada.)

(My own photo)

Two Books to Help You Contemplate Men’s Relationships

In the past month, I have read 2 books that I believe helped me to contemplate men’s struggles in relationships.

One of these books was a classic novel and the other was a nonfiction book on the impact books have had on an author’s life.

The novel Giovanni’s Room was written by the American author James Baldwin in 1956. It is set in Paris in the 1950’s and documents the story of a young American man’s homosexual relationship at a time when these relationships were still very much unacceptable in moral terms, even illegal in many countries. In France, however, the changes in law during the French Revolution essentially decriminalized homosexuality although there continued to be a moral prohibition until 1942.

David, the narrator in Giovanni’s Room, is torn between his love for a woman and a man. The account he gives of his internal emotional upheaval is a rare glimpse into the elements that confine men to the gender and social roles that are acceptable. That men can also be thus confined is something I have always accepted in principle, but Giovanni’s Room and David help me to understand how these limitations often keep men emotionally oppressed.

Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner was published in 2016 and documents how Orner’s reading has shaped his various relationships. Orner’s reading serves as a stimulus to his reflections on being a son, a partner and a father. The intimacy of a gifted reader is so evident in Orner’s writing and is, for me, one of the most important elements of this book.

Orner documents his experience of books as diverse as The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty and The Burning Plane, a book of short stories by the Mexican author Juan Rulfo. Rulfo wrote two books and Orner considers both books as he contemplates that many had waited eagerly for another book, but none was written. Rulfo’s writing was considered so important as to have attracted the attention of García Márquez and Susan Sontag (not to mention Orner himself). Susan Sontag wrote this about Rulfo’s low output:

“…the point of a writer’s life is to produce a great book – that is, a book that will last – and this is what Rulfo did.” (p. 80 in Am I Alone Here?)

As I said, I read both books within the same month, one after the other. They made me feel melancholy about the way in which men can be boxed in emotionally, in a way that I have never felt as a woman. I reflected how difficult it must have been for these authors to expose publicly these intimate internal struggles, each in his own way doing what he could to break apart the box. I felt as though my own thinking about the emotional life of men was much affected by these books, but my thinking made me no less melancholy. I regret these boundaries between our emotional lives.

(Note: I read the Vintage International Paperback Edition of Giovanni’s Room, published in 2013 and the 2016 edition of Orner’s Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living To Read and Reading To Live.)

(Image from Google)

Book Review: Summer and Vermont

One of the best parts of travelling is getting to know a new place. Yesterday was an especially cold day for April and I found myself longing for warmth and spring and vacations. I decided to write a review of books that I took on vacation to Vermont last year. So, if it’s still too cold where you are, you can read about June and Vermont, and think of summer.

In June, I travelled to Southern Vermont and, to prepare for the trip, I read two books. One was the story of someone’s journey and the other was the story about finding a place to stay.

The story of the journey was Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape: Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks. Published in 2005, McKibben walks west from his home near Middlebury, Vermont. Along the way, McKibben introduces the reader to the conservationists and farmers working to preserve the habitat and the way of life of these two disparate neighbouring regions. This journey was the opposite of my own, since I travelled through the Adirondacks to Vermont. Also, I drove, while McKibben walked through backcountry trails. Some of the trails he took were not even well-documented.
McKibben considers this landscape to be hopeful because there is so much wilderness. This journey is a reminder to the reader, who may presently be despairing about the prospects for the American wilderness, that there are not just people working to preserve it but, in fact, an organized network of people for whom this land and these places are a sacred trust. These lands around Lake Champlain, both in Vermont and New York, are enduring, with a way of life that represents the best of America and we are reminded that it will take many years, many eras, to change that. On the New York side, Adirondack Park, 6 million acres, is the largest publicly protected area on the North American continent. Like most Canadians, I am inclined to be smug about Canada’s conservation record but McKibben’s account and journey are a reminder that America still does everything bigger! (President Teddy Roosevelt set aside 194 million acres of Land for conservation. President Barack Obama protected 550 million acres. To compare, Canada has 33 million acres of land under protection.)

The book about finding a place was An Unlikely Vineyard: The Education of a Farmer and Her Quest for Terroir by Deirdre Heekin. This was written in 2014 and was named the Best Wine Book of 2014 by Eric Asimov in the New York Times. Heekin and her partner own a farm/vineyard in southern Vermont, a region that does not typically beckon prospective winemakers because of its harsh climate. Even though most people would acknowledge this, Heekin reminds the reader at the outset that grapes grow wild in Vermont. This is a touchstone for her along her journey.

Heekin’s book is part memoir, part manual, part history and is so well written that I actually completed it. It seemed like the best textbook on any subject I had ever read. It made me long to spend more time in Vermont getting to know more about the farmers trying to build a sustainable agriculture in this region. But then, this is a book about staying put and so, I returned home, thanks to Heekin, with a renewed interest in sustainable agriculture in my own part of the Ottawa Valley.

As I write about these books, I am reminded of another warmth – the warmth of the American people that I always meet in Vermont. They make me think I could live there. They make me realize that Canadians and Americans are not so different after all.

I was tired of the cold and I needed to think about summer, but in this winter when our leaders are contemplating a new trade deal, with rhetoric advocating protectionism, I want the warmth of our usual relationship with our American neighbours. That relationship has also proven to be sustainable, while “leaders” come and go.