Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Leo Tolstoy (1886)

Original Publication Date: 1886
Genre: Fiction, classic, nineteenth century, Russia
Topics: Dying, death, family, doctor, Russia, medicine, illness
Review by: Liz Inskip-Paulk (

I dug this title up as it was mentioned in my recent read of Atul Gawande’s On Mortality book, and I’m all about following down the rabbit holes of different books and topics sometimes. Although somewhat intimidated by Russian authors (although not sure why), I picked this up with trepidation and then relaxed. It was going to be a good read.
Gawande’s reference to this Tolstoy novella meant that I knew that the plot was about a man dying, but the actual details were vague for me (which I was happy about). I opened the book one morning and then finished it that evening and it was a great read. The plot itself is pretty simple: a man works hard in his career, get married with kids, falls off a ladder and gets slightly hurt, and then ends up dead. (And I’m not giving the game away here. This is what the story is famous for, after all.) However, it’s a lot more than that as Tolstoy (via his lead Ivan Ilyich Golovin) ruminates on the process of dying and how it may affect one’s thinking.
Ivan Ilyich feels that he has done all the “right” things in his life: he has worked hard on his career rising in the legal ranks of the municipal court, he has married well, and has a good family. So why is he so uncomfortable dying in this way? And that’s what most of this work is about – how the dying process evolves for both this particular participant and the family around him/her. It’s really quite fascinating especially after that recent read of Gawande’s book (which also focuses on death and dying). Sounds desperately morbid (doesn’t it?) but it’s not. This dying thing happens to everyone, and as with almost anything else, the more you know the better. (At least that is how I’m approaching things).
Using the POV of Ivan Ilyich himself, the story follows his thinking process as his life winds down. His pain in the side (originally triggered by an accidental fall at home) worsens, and as it progressively gets more and more painful, he visits a few doctors trying to get his diagnosis. However, the doctors are unable to agree and give him a final diagnosis (let alone a cure) and so Ivan struggles on, unable to talk about his concerns about dying with no one, not even the medical professionals let alone with his family.
And I find this to be so relevant with attitudes towards death today. In my experience, I've noticed that when one has a difficult illness, people usually don’t mind acknowledging it at first when everything is mostly normal, but as time progresses and one’s prognosis worsens, many people would prefer to talk around it than actually address it face on (a la elephant in the living room). This is how Ivan Ilyich’s family and friends handled the situation, and so the reader learns about the frustrations, struggles and the sheer loneliness of the person who’s doing the dying. I really don’t think that this is an untrue situation for a lot of people, but I wish it wasn’t that way.
Gawande mentioned that this novella was taught in med school in a class about death and dying, but I’m not sure how common that is across the nation. (Anyone know?) However, common or not, I think this is an excellent novella about a very common natural human process which is frequently denied or skirted around as people are uncomfortable with it (for whatever reason).
A provocative read about a pretty ordinary guy who is going through a totally natural process. Although the subject may be dark, this is extremely well written, not maudlin at all, and is a good demonstration of something that happens but most people would prefer not to talk about. It was an excellent read when paired with reading the Gawande book. Recommended.
Download The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy at Project Gutenberg Consortia Center|Librivox|

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review: THE BLACK MOTH by Georgette Heyer

book cover Original Publication Date: 1921

Genre: Historical, adventure

Topics: Love, honor, betrayal, #eighteenthcenturyaristocratproblems

Review by heidenkind:

Several years ago, Jack Carstares took the blame when his brother, Richard, cheated at cards. Now Richard manages the family estates and Jack, exiled in shame from society, roams the roads of England as the most bespoke and gentlemanly highwayman in the land. What earthly force could possibly make Jack leave behind his life of adventure, admit his brother was the actual cheater, and return to the fold? Love of course!

The Black Moth was Georgette Heyer's first novel, and is the only one of her books in the public domain. It's also the first Heyer novel I've managed to read (I tried one or two, but I have to admit my heart wasn't in it and I returned them to the library unfinished), and I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. I was expecting it to be a rather dull romance novel, but it's not—it's an adventure that is SUPER DRAMATIC.

Heyer wrote The Black Moth to entertain her brother during a long illness, and if his taste in books was anything like mine is, she definitely succeeded. The Black Moth has EVERYTHING: kidnapping, highwaymen, cheating, a villain you love to hate because he's the only character with a sense of humor, secret earls, a shrieking harpy of a wife, heiresses, star-crossed lovers, duels, sword fights, fashion, a put-upon manservant/sidekick, love affairs... I could go on. Is it crazy over-the-top? YES. Does it go too far at times? YES. Do I think it's Heyer's best work? I certainly hope not. BUT—did I enjoy the hell out of it? YUP.

My favorite character by far was Tracy Belmanoir, the eponymous "black moth" and brother-in-law to Richard Carstares. It was Tracy who discovered Richard cheating at cards, and he's been using that knowledge to coerce Richard into all sorts of things ever since. It's also Tracy who drives the action through much of the book. He's a boss! He gets all the best lines and mopey Richard hates him so much it's hard not to be fond of the guy.

The way women are presented in The Black Moth is also pretty refreshing. You've got Lavinia, Richard's wife, who's a nitwit and constantly talks in exclamation marks. It's! Very! Annoying! But you also have several women characters who are powerful and smart and get things done, like Lady O'Hara, who's very sexually aggressive and awesome. Diana Beauleigh is the damsel in distress, but she's also willing to press the issue of Jack's affections. Her aunt, Elizabeth, is a super-smart older lady who could give Miss Marple a run for her money.

Is The Black Moth a perfect book? Hells no. But if you can enjoy it for what it is—a fun, silly historical romp—you'll get a kick out of it.

Download The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|University of Pennsylvania Library