One title I intended to read in the hospital but did not get to was The Death of Ivan Ilyich, my second work by Tolstoy. It concerns the sudden decline of a self-satisfied and absorbed lawyer named Ivan Ilyich, who is happily engrossed in his life, if not necessarily happy or fulfilled. After a bad fall while hanging draperies, though, his health begins going down hill, and despite the best effects of physicians and quacks, he continues to sink. The best guess is a ‘floating kidney’, for which there was no remedy. Ivan’s only exit from the increasingly agonizing pain and suffering he’s enduring will be Death, but he resists it. Death is what happens to other people, after all, not us — not we, the subjects of our own stories. Ultimately, Ivan has to come to terms with his own mortality…as we do all. This was a short but captivating read, and one unexpectedly appropriate. (Reading about deadly kidney disease while on dialysis….that was an interesting morning!)
Speaking of death, I also read Erasing Death, a gift from a friend of mine who left town and put some of her books in my keeping. (Hi, Betsy!) This book shared with readers the emerging medical specialty of post-resucitative care; the author explains the specific process and breakdowns that happens when the body begins to die, and how some specific processes in some conditions can be slowed down, arrested, and reversed. Cooling the body of someone who has just died, for instance, can slow down cell degradation. In addition to this, the author also surveyed the surprisingly consistent accounts of near-death experiences, which have commonalities despite varying cultures.
Next up was a title from Mount Doom, called The American Way of Eating. This nonfiction book features an author exploring the American food system by working in fields along with migrants, transitioning to Walmart where a quarter of Americans now buy groceries, and finally working in an Applebees. Although this is an exceptionally promising approach, the author bails on the farm and Walmart early, giving the reader more information about her personal life than the industry. In addition to her direct experience on the ground, she also provides some history as context, particularly in the latter two chapters where she remarks on the rise of supermarkets and Applebees-style restaurants in the United States. As one might imagine, this is very much a message book, and the reader needn’t any imagination whatsoever to predict what McMillian has to say about migrant wages or Applesbees’ reliance on pre-prepared foods and microwaves. Aside from the interesting looks into Walmart and the restaurant industry’s internal operations, I was mostly in been-there-done-that territory, and this was made tedious by McMillians’ incredibly cringey race obsession and willful naiveté. She is apparently surprised that most working class people in Detroit are poor blacks and that making rent is difficult in New York City. I suppose she’d also be astonished to learn that San Francisco has a homeless problem? There were also some economic issues in here, from ignoring inflation when she was comparing migrant wages across the decades to asserting it was possible to buy a steak and vegetables dinner in the supermarket for $4. I’d like to see the supermarket selling $2 steak, please. Her solutions, of course, are all governmental and all federal. Consider me very much underwhelmed.
Lastly, a new title at the library is The Five Capitals of Alabama. In elementary school we learn that Alabama has had five capitals, but only two of them (Cahawba and Montgomery) are presumably ever remembered. Five Capitals is a gorgeous history of the history of Alabama’s government seats that incorporates full-page photographs of the sites, along with shots of artifacts and relevant documents, and the odd profile of key figures in Alabama history. The story begins in the settlement days, as Alabama was created from out of the too-wide and very wild Mississippi territory, at a Spanish fort turned American possession called St. Stephens. The fort/trading place became Alabama’s territorial government, until plague and the fact that the state was now being populated in areas well removed from the lower Gulf area, forced a change. Huntsville, far to the north, became the interim seat while Alabama’s state constitution was being hammered out, and once it was a proper state in 1819, the influence of a prominent Alabama river landowner saw a former Indian village named Cahawba appointed as the first permanent capital. Cahawba’s periodic issues with flooding and disease prompted the state to look afield yet again, first to nearby Tuscaloosa and later to Montgomery, where it remains. The book’s coverage of Montgomery’s role in Alabama history is especially detailed. If you’re at all interested in Alabama history, this is an extremely attractive book to have around.
As October finishes, I’m trying to make it through The War that Made the Roman Empire, which is perfectly readable but suffering from the disappearance of my interest level. I’m also poking at a few more books, including two with a German connection and two without, but right now nothing has me in its grips. After two weeks of daily immersive reading it’s almost jarring to not be able to be wholly absorbed.