Even being relatively healthy and still a tad under 70, I am beginning to get a bit grumpy about aging. No longer am I anxious to tell people how old I am, as their reaction is usually to give me a slim grimace of pity. So I have resorted to doing what I know how to–reading about aging, trying to keep moving and frequent bakeries less often, and keep laughing. The following books have helped me better understand my universal predicament and laugh about it more. All aspects are necessary, I am finding (except maybe the bakery ban).
The discovery of this lovely book was purely accidental: a woman writer came to the bookstore last month, and gave me a bookmark with her email on it. I was curious, because the topic was a memoir about caregiving of the author’s mother-in-law during her last years. I had spent years helping my own mother as she aged, so I could relate. So I ordered it because of the topic, my instant liking of the author, and the book’s beautiful cover. Harris’ writing has that rare quality of balance between the emotional and rational. She was given a tough challenge–Jeanne, her mother-in-law lived with them, had advanced lung disease because of a life spent smoking, and was by no means a sweet and compliant woman. Plus, Harris and her husband (who works full time) had four daughters at home to raise. I wish I had read it sooner, and anyone with the challenge of caregiving of an aging loved one will learn and feel support from reading this honest and beautiful story.
Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill
Our book group read this about a year ago, along with Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending–a great pairing, although most of us preferred this title. Athill, who at this writing is in her 90′s, writes unabashedly about the things one gives up as they age, and her feelings about those losses. Finally! A book about aging that tells me something beyond “keep exercising”. She tackles topics as diverse as sore feet and sex with a directness that is refreshing, and unusually reassuring at times. For instance, she reminds me that there are some perks to not living forever, such as not worrying about global warming, the military industrial complex, or the National Debt anymore. And I’m quite sure those dilemmas will be with us long after most of us are gone.
Not all books about aging are grim–Lodge is an under appreciated writer who always makes me laugh (and sometimes cry). As the title suggests, the central character is a somewhat grumpy, aging former professor of linguistics who is particularly stung to his hearing loss. His life is not what he had hoped for in retirement: an 89 year old father who is a constant source of worry and frustration, a wife who is getting younger with the help of cosmetic surgeries and a new career, and an emotionally erratic graduate student who badgers him about helping with her thesis on suicide! What more could saddle this poor man, you might say. But his challenges are more complex because he cannot hear well, which leads to even more complications. If you do not know Lodge’s witty and hilarious style now is the time–this is his 14th novel, and his writing is still just as strong, if a bit darker and more poignant.
Emily, Alone, by Stewart O’Nan
O’Nan is another of those writers, somewhat like Lodge, whose work is not as widely known as I wish it would be. His body of work is just as large, but he is American, and quite a bit younger than Lodge. All of the books I’ve read of O’Nan’s are very real and tender, what one might call quiet, with exquisite detail. I particularly liked Last Night at the Lobster, and this more recent title. How he created Emily, such a believable aging widow whose world has become smaller and less vibrant, shows off his immense talent as a writer. Emily’s worries are her children, who live away and visit infrequently, the changes in the Pittsburgh neighborhood where she has lived so long, and the failing health of her sister-in-law and only friend. Lovely, with a character who in the end musters spunky resolve not to end her life by simply fading away.
At Seventy, by May Sarton
Now here’s a writer whose books have been on my shelves and often reread for at least 30 years. Her years living alone have been chronicled in a number of her books, and her Journal of a Solitude, which I adored, is considered classic. Sarton’s take on aging was also classic: when asked what was good about getting old, she answered “Because I am more myself than I have ever been.” Her journals are so intimate, sharing not only on the small beauties of life–daffodils from her garden, for instance–but the struggles of being an artist, and balancing solitude with relationships that nurture her. Sarton died in 1995 at the age of 83, and lived alone in New England for much of her adult life. This particular journal reflects on a past relationships, her writing life, and the natural world. Her writing always transports me, makes me reflect and appreciate how vert rich my own life is.
Shouting Won’t Help, by Katherine Bouton
Anyone who has hearing loss, knows someone with hearing loss, or ever knew someone with hearing loss or deafness could benefit immensely from reading this book. I know you may think this the most bizarre recommendation ever, but I refer to this book all the time in conversations with others. Not only is Bouton a science editor for the New York Times, she has struggled to hear most of her adult life, and now has cochlear implants. She lost a job at one time because she was afraid to talk about her hearing loss, which may have spurred her on to become somewhat of an expert on the subject. The latest research and scientific discoveries about the deafness are interwoven with her own story. I found all of it fascinating, and what I wish is for all of you to have a copy of this book on your coffee tables! When you read it you will see why–and why I do not shout or raise my voice anymore if someone says “what?”. I look at them straight in the eye, enunciate clearly, and hope they will do the same when talking to me!