A very easy death (Une mort très douce) by Simone de Beauvoir

Before writing any review, I usually browse through Goodreads, just to see what others thought of this book. It struck me that many people were surprised by the title of this book: ‘A very easy death’. People wondered how this death, as described in the book, was easy. Personally, I then think you’ve missed the point completely. To me the title ‘A very easy death’, should be interpreted as a question, or even a cynical remark. Death, after all, is never easy.

First off, this is not a novel, nor a philosophical essay. In this book Simone de Beauvoir describes her mother’s illness: cancer. More precisely, she describes her mother’s last days and the process of dying. But the process of letting go of a loved one and of grieving is most acutely described, as De Beauvoir almost analytically recounts her own thoughts. This book is a 30-day account of a once strong mother, now falling apart under the pain and suffering. Her mother now even fears death, though never asking for a priest. And her daughter, Simone de Beauvoir, struggles with the ambivalent feelings towards her mother. When her mother actually dies, it’s a relief to all.

This book hit me on so many emotional levels. In other reviews I read that people thought this should be a compulsory read for anyone who’s ever lost a relative to cancer. I don’t think so: this book will hit you like a ton of bricks. I’ve had my share of loss and this was the first book that actually helped me. Yes, I cried and cried and cried. But I cried because this was so relatable. It was by far the most honest account of a deathbed I’ve ever read. It’s raw and painful and pure. Analytical even, but by no means cold. I wouldn’t say this should be compulsory, but this is a book that will make you feel like someone understands. There are no black or white issues here; just like death, everything is in the grey area.

Simone de Beauvoir doesn’t shy away from the hard questions. Is there a right way of dying, for example? Apparently there is, or so we think. Is there a right way of taking care of someone? She herself comes across as cold-hearted, but she isn’t. Everyone has their own way of grieving. I remember death brought a lot of stigma’s and taboos with it, about the way the family is supposed to behave. Simone de Beauvoir breaks through all of them. Everything you’ve been ashamed of thinking during the process, she states out loud. Shame is irrelevant when something like the death of a parent tears your world apart. Or so it should be…

Simone, as the author and a character in this book as well, really spoke to me. She is so very different from her sister, just in the way they deal with their mother’s illness. Apparently she and her mother have drifted apart a bit, but now that she is dying, she is forced to rethink her relationship with her mother. She has distanced herself from her highly religious mother, but she thought of her mother as superwoman in a way: strong, unbeatable. One part really stood out for me, where Simone describes her mother’s body: How she adored it as a child, how it became awkward for her to look at as an adolescent and how this body, now, in her illness, to her is both repulsive and holy. When a child sees a parent fall apart, they start doubting everything they are themselves. And what can you do about it? Let it happen. Let the feelings and thoughts, those you’ve stashed away for so long, just come.

Lastly, I can’t write a review without mentioning and praising Simone de Beauvoir’s style of writing. A bit complex: but I read this book in Dutch the first time, after that a few times in French, the original language, and now I’m writing this review in English. A lot gets lost in translation though. If you can, read it in French. De Beauvoir has a poetic way of writing about the most morbid of subjects. As I mentioned before, but I can’t stress this enough: she is honest, she is raw, she is analytical, but never unfeeling. It’s literally like looking inside her head. At times she approaches a situation in a philosophical manner. At other times she describes her emotions, her ambivalent feeling towards anything really and her illogical thoughts. Overall, everything was written beautifully and fluidly, like you are right there with her, sitting next to her mother’s bed at the hospital.

Why then the title: a very easy death? The woman dies in relative comfort. She was a lady of considerable means and people are taking care of her. Both her daughters fight throughout the book to keep her suffering to a minimum. So when she’s gone, the nurse calls it an easy death.
But here’s the thing: it wasn’t. Her mother is in almost constant excruciating pain and her daughters fight, but can’t do much about it. Neither can the doctors. Her mother was described as a strong woman, full of fight, but she can’t handle the pain and, most of all, the loss of dignity. A few things were very clear to me after finishing this book:
There is no such thing as a right way of taking care of someone who is dying.
There is no such thing as a right way of mourning.
There is no such thing as a right way of dying, even.
Death is never easy, death is always a shock, and death is never natural.

I don’t like quoting in reviews, but this probably sums the book up for me: The honesty, the beautiful French language and the painful accuracy.
‘Tous les hommes sont mortels: mais pour chaque homme sa mort est un accident et, même s’il la connaît et y consent, une violence indue’
(‘All people are mortal; but for everyone death is an accident and, even if one recognizes it and consents to it, an undue violence.’)

Lily award: for all those who’ve loved and lost

Simone de Beauvoir, une mort très douce (Paris, 1964)

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Thura Nightingale

Guards! Guards! (Discworld #8, Ankh-Morpork City Watch #1) by Terry Pratchett

I can recommend this book using only one word: DRAGONS!

Right, now that’s done I will get into the book. First I have to say that I am a huge fan of Discworld and everything Terry Pratchett. This means that this review will not only focus on ‘Guards! Guards!’, but I will also talk about the series in general.

Guards! Guards! is the eighth book in the Discworld series and the first in the city watch series. This sounds a bit confusing, but all the Discworld books, 40 in total, are set on a fantasy world, called the Discworld, which is carried by four elephants who stand on a turtle swimming through space. The books are divided in sub-series because there are recurring characters such as Death, the Witches and the city watch who are the main characters in this book.

This is the first book of the ‘Ankh-Morpork city watch series’ and at the beginning it shows them as a dysfunctional police corps with a drunk, Samuel Vimes, as its captain. There are two other police officers, named Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs, who are not much better. Very soon they are joined by Carrot, a human who thinks he is a dwarf because he is raised by them. Carrot has a very literal sense of justice in the way that he tends to follow the rule book by the letter. During this book through the presence of Carrot the watch slowly evolves into something resembling a functional police corps with as their first job: investigating the suspicious murders and to prevent the dragon from eating a virgin.

This does not sound as a terribly original plot for a fantasy novel, but that seemingly cliché setting is exactly what Pratchett uses to turn this novel into something incredibly funny and new. For example at the start of the story a murder finds place in an alley by very hot fire. The only proof that there was a murder is a scorched piece of wall. Captain Vimes beliefs it might have been a dragon, but nobody beliefs him because in this world dragons are silly and more likely to accidentally kill themselves, by exploding through disruptive bowel movements, than to kill anyone else. However, soon it turns out that the murderer was in fact a dragon, and to be exact a dragon of the more ‘mythical’ variant complete with a love for gold and burning things. The dragon is summoned by a secret organization in order to be ‘slayed’ by a hero of their choosing who consequently will become king according to an ancient prophecy.

This contrast between the silly dragons, which are a normal presence in the Discworld, and the ‘mythical’ regular dragon we know from traditional fantasy in which nobody initially believed in the book, is exemplary of Pratchett’s style and the way he uses well-known fantasy themes to create something fun again.

Another characteristic of his writing style is that Pratchett loves to take things from our world and adjusts it for the Discworld setting. For example Carrot uses a dwarfish battle cry when he charges towards the palace guards to arrest them which goes like: ‘deedahdeedahdeedah’.

Often you find in ‘funny’ books that the story is second-rate, because the author is too busy being funny, but that is not the case in this book. That is actually the thing that made me a fan of the author: beneath all the fun and silliness in his books, Pratchett also manages to tell a nice story about what it means to be a hero, are people capable of being decent and how to defeat a dragon residing in your city. And in the end I can safely admit that a truly unexpected hero will rise to save the day.

The one thing in this book that I did not like was the way he described Sybil. She is a big and sensible woman and her whole personality and humour surrounding her was based on the fact that she is a big and sensible woman. This was funny the first or second time he made that joke, but throughout the book that remained the only defining characteristic of Lady Sybil. To me this was a cheap for of humour and did not give Lady Sybil the depth of character she could have had, and also gains in the later books. The humour style of Pratchett is probably the main thing that divides the world between ‘those who love Terry Pratchett and those who do not’. It is very absurd and British in a way and depends a lot on wordplay, silly situations and breaking expectations. This is something you see a lot in the British sketch shows such as ‘a bit of Fry and Laurie’ and ‘Monthy Python’ and ‘Fawlty Towers’, so if you like those you are probably good with these books.

I am going to wrap up this review now, but first I want to leave a little note about Captain Vimes because I love him. He is the ultimate bad-boy crush of the whole series in my opinion. He is best described as the dark, cynical guy who is always grumpy, but with a heart somewhere hidden under his leathery face. He is a flawed character you can not help but love, who most of all has a deep distrust against himself not necessary shared by the rest of the world. If you cross him I doubt you can run fast enough and once he has decided something is not right, you can be sure he won’t stop fighting until things are put right.

Grumpy old bastard award for having a cynical protagonist who is eternally lovable

Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett (London 1990)

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Bella G. Bear

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

I enjoy a good crime or adventure novel as much as the next girl, but Brooklyn is something else completely and I loved it. A book to be engrossed in, it is not driven by events but rather by atmosphere. It tells the story of a young woman who grows to be her own person, in a narrative that must have repeated itself time and time again: an Irish girl emigrating to America.

In early 1950’s Enniscorthy, County Wexford (where author Colm Tóibín was born in 1955) jobs are hard to come by and girls from the poorer families have to rely on luck to make a good match, and marry into a better future. Eilis Lacey’s three brothers have already left their home town for jobs in England, after their father died, leaving their sisters to care for their mother. They live mostly on the salary of Eilis’ sister Rose, who is beautiful and sociable, thirty years old and unmarried. She has a job while Eilis doesn’t, and decides with their mother that out of the two of them, Eilis is going to be the one that escapes from the small Irish town.

A contact, job and lodgings are arranged in America. A third class ticket for the transatlantic liner is purchased. Goodbyes are said, without drama, and Eilis departs for a faraway continent full of indistinct promises. As you can imagine, seasickness hits hard and homesickness hits harder, but life gets better when Eilis starts an evening course in bookkeeping and meets a young Italian man at the parish dance (in that order). She builds a life for herself, makes New York almost her home, until bad news reaches her from Ireland and her new life is uprooted by her old one. It suffices to say that Eilis’ identity is bound to both Enniscorthy and Brooklyn and the ocean between the places must break some hearts, most notably her own.

The story, written in simple, descriptive prose, follows Eilis very closely. Places and especially people are seen through her eyes and judged according to her estimations. From the quiet dunes of Curracloe to the bustling beach of Coney Island, the young woman stays even-minded but keeps to herself, making dialogue in this book scarce. The story is told through Eilis’ actions and thoughts. Thus it surprised me that, near the conclusion, some distance was taken from the main character. We still read about what she does, but seem to be shut out of her mind, watching her instead from a few metres away. When she is forced to make a decision that, one way or another, will dramatically shape her life, I’d have liked to have better understanding of her feelings on the situation. After all, it is not surprising that she chooses the path she does, given her character that is so clearly established throughout the book. But maybe that’s the thing: emotions don’t have much to do with her decision at this point (though love does). No benevolent priest asks her what makes her happy, no self-sacrificing mother tells her to follow her heart.

One could easily come to the conclusion that Eilis is a passive character, waiting for others to make decisions for her. This thought crossed my mind several times and is perhaps partly true, but then of course I am a 21st century Dutchwoman and very used to making my own decisions. Eilis is bright, strong and open-minded and keeps herself remarkably upright in communities and a family with rigid expectations and tight connections. More than once she defies those expectations with stunning disregard for the consequences, like when she has her boyfriend in her room overnight (middle-aged landladies know everything, of course). When people around her deem her timid, she speaks her mind. When everybody is talking – like when the warehouse she works at starts selling dark brown stockings to cater to people of colour – she holds her tongue and does her job. Her sense of duty is not exactly a ‘modern’ virtue, but a powerful one nevertheless.

Ellis Island Award for homesick immigrants seeking a better life in the United States of America

Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn (New York 2009)

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Jo Robin

Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror (Tales of Terror #1) by Chris Priestley

When I was about seven years old, there was a show on TV that I absolutely loved. It was called ‘Grizzly tales for gruesome kids’ and I sat in fearful, quivering delight in front of the TV, watching the horrific tales of what happened to little kids who didn’t behave. The message to mischievous kids, like me, was clear: Behave! Or else… These tales were funny, as well as spine chilling, and I enjoyed every horror filled second of them. Especially the bad endings I enjoyed very much. I’ve always been a child who loved creepy stories and I actually quite liked being scared. This book took me right back to those wonderful evenings, filled with unnerving but delicious ghost stories.

Edgar is a little boy with apparently very little connection to other children. He spends his free time with his Uncle Montague; a curious old man, with a deep voice and ominous butler, who is never actually seen by Edgar. The boy visits his uncle at his drafty, dark house, lit by candles only and with ever-creaking doors and floorboards. All the elements for a creepy atmosphere are there. Uncle Montague never leaves the house, but over the years he has collected many curious knick-knacks. These items all have a story attached to them and Edgar spends time with his uncle, drinking tea and listening to these stories.
These are the tales of terror and the rest of the chapters are all stories, as told by Uncle Montague. All the stories are about little kids, who usually do something they’re not supposed to. There is one story about a tree, which leaves none alive who climbs it. There’s a tale about the ghost of a little girl and a haunted dollhouse. There’s one about an object, possessed by the devil. Another story is about a boy possessed, another about a terrifying blind old woman and even one about a ‘Jinn’, haunting a small village. And none of the children leave unscathed. But the most frightening tale of all might be the one about Uncle Montague himself…

I loved the feeling this book gave me. The different dark stories all build up the tension. The first few are not that scary. They’re just good fun and they do give you the creeps a little bit. But after a while you start to look up from your book, peer around the room and you become a bit paranoid. Am I being watched? It’s a sort of fear you have as a little child: you are scared, but you enjoy it anyways. My father had a dog when he was little and his dog strongly disliked taking a bath. All the same, whenever someone in the family filled up the bathtub, she came and looked at it, from a safe distance of course. My grandfather said that she did this for the same reason we watch horror films. It’s exactly that feeling you get when reading this book.

Chris Priestley has a wonderful style of writing: very accessible and disturbingly descriptive. Yes, this was written as a children’s book, but many young adults, parents and even grandparents would enjoy these macabre tales. It’s the stuff of nightmares to be sure and many would argue that these tales have endings far too disturbing for little kids. But I abhorred predictable stories as a child and I can’t have been the only one. So, probably the best thing is that the delicious fear, deep in your gut, keeps you up reading, on and on. Also, the fantastic illustrations, with thin long-limbed figures, by David Roberts do wonders for the Victorian eerie vibe of the stories.

Lastly, the story within a story narrative is very well executed. First off, you’re just reading these horror stories. But at the same time, you are sitting in the large black wingchair opposite Uncle Montague. The unclear things he sometimes mumbles, but never explains, slowly give you an uneasy feeling. The butler, is he really the only one who moves about in that house? And the noises; the wind outside the house, the people moving around upstairs, the creaking and croaking of every board…Chills! And maybe the most unnerving thing of all: Uncle Montague is absolutely convinced all these stories are true. You, as the reader, and Edgar are very sceptical at first of course, but as the tension builds, you are no longer that sure. A tiny knot of fear and doubt has settled in your stomach. And that, here speaks my seven year old me, is absolutely brilliant!

Pumpkin Award: this book contains the best tales to be read out loud, by candlelight, during Halloween

Chris Priestley, Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror (London 2008)

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Thura Nightingale