Beginning the End-of-Life Discussion

CBR_Logo2Hope for a Cool Pillow
by Margaret Overton

Physician Margaret Overton experiences two sides of the same coin in Hope for a Cool Pillow, her new memoir, which tackles disparate views of healthcare.

HopeForACoolPillow_cover_paperbackOverton, a Chicagoan whose first memoir, Good in a Crisis, was one of Chicago Book Review’s Best Books of 2014, examines the deaths of her parents, which she experiences both as a daughter and as a physician, one eye on the experience as a loved one, one eye on the experience as a medical professional. This dual view is at the heart of Hope for a Cool Pillow, which looks at the emotional, medical, financial, physical, legal, and logistical aspects of the end-of-life journey.

The book opens with a reminiscence of Overton’s early healthcare career as she shares a story from her first clinical rotation during her third year of medical school. Working with a 102-year-old patient named Esther, Overton admires her “quiet aplomb” and approves of the do-not-resuscitate order that would keep doctors from undertaking any emergency rescue measures to keep her alive. This, Overton thinks, “is the way to go”—death without extraordinary intervention to extend someone’s life. “A quiet death without fuss or muss.”

It is through this lens that we follow Overton on her dual journey, one of a healthcare professional, one of a daughter watching her parents come to the end of their lives.

Her father was the first of her parents to go. An orderly man, Carl “had an obsessive interest in end-of-life planning.” Here was a man who, every day for forty-five years, “timed his four-and-a-half-mile drive to and from work.” In 1997, Carl’s health went into decline. Over the next several months, Carl would be in and out of the hospital for various check-ups, surgeries, treatments, and chemotherapy. By Autumn 1998, he had died.

Twelve years later, Overton’s mother passed away, also after a period of declining health. Dementia set in, and during her last year of life, she succumbed quickly, a difficult death wherein pain “just gripped her and then let her go.”

During the twelve years that intervened between the passing of her father and her mother, healthcare had evolved such that hospice had become big business. While her father lay dying, Overton’s family dealt with one hospice nurse who took care of Carl for nearly three weeks. For her mother, seven different nurses cared for her over the course of nearly a month. It was an unwelcome change in Overton’s eyes, a transformation to a less personal, more clinical process that extended life without necessarily making end of life any better or any easier.

Margaret Overton by John Reilly

Margaret Overton

While we watch Overton deal with the deaths of her parents, we also see her grow in her career as a physician. We see her treat various patients, some of whom make it, some of whom don’t. We see her attend a program called “Managing Healthcare Delivery” at Harvard University, a course in which she quickly loses interest as she ponders the gulf between healthcare providers and patients, between for-profit and not-for-profit care, between easing death and extending life.

There is much to ponder in these pages. End-of-life planning—how we want our wills and finances to be structured, how we want our lives to end, how much medical intervention we wish to endure—is a tricky, personal issue. It’s one most of us don’t want to think about, not for ourselves, not for our parents. And, yet, with the rising cost of healthcare and with the expansion of life-saving measures, it’s something we must think about.

Overton’s story is interesting, if not perhaps somewhat fragmented. Told in a non-linear fashion, Hope for a Cool Pillow jumps around from topic to topic. It’s a little messy and convoluted. It feels a little foggy, as though Overton was struggling to come to grips with the various issues that she confronted during the decade or so covered in the book.

That might be a turn-off for some readers, but it’s not necessarily a flaw. In fact, one could argue that the wandering, choppy approach is just about as real as real can be: It mimics life.

Few of us have the luxury of dealing with the death of a parent in a bubble or a vacuum. The rest of life doesn’t stop while a parent is struggling with cancer or Alzheimer’s or heart disease. The world doesn’t stop turning while we endure the hefty tolls exacted by the process of dying and the aftermath of death.

Death is, for most of us, an uncomfortable topic. In Hope for a Cool Pillow, Overton has shared an intimate insider’s view of different sides of the healthcare equation. As such, it is a thought-provoking read. Perhaps not a comfortable read, but one that provides an opportunity to think about the unthinkable, opening the door for those discussions we know we ought to be having with the people we love.

Three-Star Review

March 2016, Outpost 19
Memoir
$16, paperback, 181 pages
ISBN: 978-1-937402-90-7

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about the author and the book.

 

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5 Questions for … Ray E. Boomhower

CBR_Logo2Today at Chicago Book Review, we continue our “5 Questions for …” series with our echat with Ray Boomhower, whose work has included biographies of such figures as Gus Grissom, Ernie Pyle, Lew Wallace, Juliet Strauss, and May Wright Sewall. The Indiana historian recently accepted the top prize in the biography/memoir category from Society of Midland Authors for his book John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog. We asked Ray what he’s working on, what he’s been reading lately, and what might be next for him.

boomhowerCBR: What new writing projects are you working on right now?
REB:
I am currently deep into writing a book for Indiana University Press on the World War II writing of Robert L. Sherrod, a war correspondent for Time and Life magazine. What Ernie Pyle did for his reporting for the average GI during the war, Sherrod did for the those who served with the U.S. Marine Corps, who suffered and persevered in the horrific engagements at Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. In his writing, Sherrod strove not to present complete stories, leaving that task to historians, but to write what he saw, heard, and felt during a battle, thereby reflecting the “mood of the men in battle” and how they appeared, talked, and fought. Washington Post reporter Richard Harwood observed upon Sherrod’s death in 1994 that as a war correspondent the man from Georgia produced “some of the most vivid accounts of men at war ever produced by an American journalist.”

Sherrod also produced two classic books on his wartime experiences—Tarawa: The Story of a Battle (1944) and On to Westward: War in the Central Pacific (1945). As Sherrod, a former Washington, DC, correspondent for Time, noted, “I can think of nothing less interesting than sitting out the war in Washington. There is too much history being written where men are dying.”

CBR: Who are some of your favorite writers?
REB:
My taste in authors and genres has changed over the years. Like many ex-reporters, I grew up reading the stories and novels of Ernest Hemingway, admiring his spare prose. Because I now write mainly biography and nonfiction, my preferred writers are those who also work or have worked in narrative, including John McPhee, Robert Caro, Barbara Tuchman, and William Manchester.

CBR: What are you reading right now?
REB:
Immersed as I am with my Sherrod book, I have little time at the moment to read about anything but what might help with that project, including several books on the history of the war in the Pacific, especially Peter Schrijvers’s incredible The GI War against Japan: American Soldiers in Asia and the Pacific During World War II—a must for any historian of the war. For inspiration when I find myself lagging, I have turned recently to Scott Donaldson’s The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography, comforting myself that at least I don’t have to contend with the problems he encountered in writing a biography of John Cheever.

CBR: Which books are on your to-read list?
REB:
Books coming my way as part of my Sherrod research include James L. Baughman’s Henry Luce and the Rise of the American News Media and the autobiography of writer and Fortune magazine editor Eric Hodgins. I also look forward to reading Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader: A Life, especially his relationships as the editor of a host of famous authors.

CBR: If you could write one book about any topic—fiction or nonfiction—what would that book be?
REB:
I have taken to heart David McCullough’s tip that biographers should select as their subjects people they are going to enjoy spending time with, as these projects can sometimes take years, or even decades, to complete. With that advice in mind, I gravitate toward people I have a shared experience with, either through an interest I have on a particular subject (World War II, for example) or a profession we might share (journalism). I would love to have the time to do a biography of Richard Rovere, the American political journalist and the writer for so many years of the “Letter from Washington” column for The New Yorker.

underdog boomhowerRay E. Boomhower is senior editor of the Indiana Historical Society’s quarterly popular history magazine, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. Along with numerous articles for Traces, The Indiana Magazine of History, Outdoor Indiana, and other history periodicals, Boomhower is the author of several books, including John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog (Indiana University Press, 2015), Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary (Indiana University Press, 2008), and Fighting for Equality: A Life of May Wright Sewall (IHS Press, 2007. In 2010, he was named as the winner of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award in the regional category.

Learn more about author and historian Ray E. Boomhower at http://rayboomhower.blogspot.com/

—Kelli Christiansen

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5 Questions for … Twelve Winters Press

CBR_Logo2Here at Chicago Book Review, we’ve been picking the brains of local literati, asking authors, publishers, booksellers, and other literary types just a few questions about what they’re reading, writing, publishing, and selling. Just 5 quick questions. We launched this new feature with an echat with local fave, author Michele Weldon. Today we continue the series with our echat with Ted Morrissey, publisher at Twelve Winters Press. We asked Ted about Twelve Winters has published, is publishing, wants to publish … Read on!

5 Questions for … Twelve Winters Press

ted-blue-shirt-cropped-1

Twelve Winters Press Publisher Ted Morrissey

CBR: What new releases are you most excited about right now?
TWP:
Because of the uniqueness of the focus, and the talent of the poets, we’re especially excited about the forthcoming release of The Necessary Poetics of Atheism: Essays and Poems by Martín Espada, Lauren Schmidt and J. D. Schraffenberger. We’ll also be releasing two debut novels by award-winning authors who have published numerous short stories: Cheap Amusements, a literary detective novel by Grant Tracey; and Little Mocos, a novel in stories by John Paul Jaramillo. We’re also looking forward to publishing the inaugural winner of the Vachel Lindsay Poetry Prize, Shoreless by Enid Shomer.

CBR: What are some forthcoming titles you really want readers to know about?
TWP:
We’re working with translators Stephen Haven and Li Yongyi to bring out a dual language anthology of Chinese poets (currently untitled). We’re also pleased to bring out Dean Dean Dean Dean, a collection of flash fiction by Jim O’Loughlin. Our children’s imprint, Shining Hall, will be continuing the Einstein the Science Dog series, written by Melissa Morrissey and illustrated by (Chicago native) Miles Wisniewski; while our adult imprint, Maidenhead Hall, will be adding another installment of the Esmée Anderson Experiences, by E. S. Holland.

CBR: Which titles have been bestsellers for you?
TWP:
By far our best seller of 2015 was the novella Road Trip by Boston-based author Lynette D’Amico. Other titles that did very well in 2015 were The Endless Unbegun by Rachel Jamison Webster (who teaches at Northwestern University), The Waxen Poor by J. D. Schraffenberger (a CBR Best Book of 2015 selection), and I Am Barbarella by Beth Gilstrap. In children’s literature, Melissa Morrissey’s Shawna’s Sparkle (illustrated by Felicia Olin) had a strong debut; and our adult title City of Broad Shoulders by E. S. Holland has been doing well internationally, especially in Brazil. It ‘s worth noting that we discovered E. S. Holland thanks to networking at the Chicago Book Expo in 2014.

CBR: How do you select which titles to publish?
TWP:
Our selection approach is very eclectic. We look for well-written work, oftentimes that defies easy labeling. Sometimes we’ll hear via the literary grapevines of great manuscripts that have been having trouble finding a home (e.g., The Endless Unbegun); sometimes we’ll contact authors whose work was recognized via a contest but did not win publication (Road Trip); and sometimes we’ll solicit manuscripts from authors after reading their work in literary journals (Final Stanzas by Grant Tracey). We don’t generally accept unsolicited manuscripts, but we’re proud to say we’re already a press that authors want to publish with, so more and more we’re having authors contact us because they admire our growing list and have a manuscript that defies facile pigeonholing, which disqualifies it with a lot of publishers. Not us.

CBR: If you could publish one book by any author, what new title would you like to see from that writer?
TWP:
We know that Lynette D’Amico (author of Road Trip) has been toiling away on a full-length novel for some time. Her sense of structure is so imaginative and risk-taking, and her language play so fierce and fearless—to say we’re anxious to see that finished manuscript is an impressive understatement. So far Lynette has been keeping that book quite close to the vest.

 

twelve-winters-smallTwelve Winters Press is a literary press founded in 2012 in the tradition of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Charles Dickens. Twelve Winters Press’s offerings include [Ex]tinguished & [Ex]tinct:  An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist, edited by John McCarthy; The Waxen Poor, a collection of poems by J. D. Schraffenberger; The Endless Unbegun, a daring mélange of poetry and prose by Rachel Jamison Webster; I Am Barbarella, the debut story collection by Beth Gilstrap; Road Trip, an ambitious and off-beat novella by Lynette D’Amico, and Final Stanzas, a short story collection by Grant Tracey.

—Kelli Christiansen

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