The Wilder Aisles 

Janice Wilder has been a legend of Sydney bookselling for over 40 years.

June 2019

 - Thursday, May 30, 2019

Much to my daughter’s dismay, I do enjoy a good medical story, book or TV. So this month three books about illness. I was drawn to When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi after reading the back cover. Kalnithi was in the last stage of training to be a neurosurgeon, when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Acknowledged by his peers as one of the youngest and brightest in his field, with a future bright with possibility, he and his wife Lucy planning a child, the news was devastating. The book follows his journey to the end. Of course this is a sad book, but as you travel with Paul, you find a man who, while facing the reality of his illness, decides to do all he can to live a meaningful life, and to use what ever resources he has to keep working, assisting fellow doctors and students, and providing care and compassion to his patients—a relationship he becomes intimately aware of when the tables turn and he becomes the patient. Paul’s other great love was English literature, with a masters completed at Stanford. Reading the book, you can see how much he loved words. He was widely read with a particular love for poetry. However, when he heard the call to medicine his career trajectory changed radically from the humanities to science. Kalanithi’s personality absolutely shines through this book—as a husband, son, doctor, friend and patient, he never gives up—and his love of life, his family, friends and colleagues doesn’t fail. I loved this book, the humanity that is displayed throughout Paul’s journey moved me—and I will read it again. As Ann Patchett says on the back cover: ‘this book is a universal donor—I would recommend this book to anyone, everyone.’

American neuroscientist, Lisa Genova is the author of Still Alice and a book I mentioned previously, Every Note Played—the story of a concert pianist struck down by ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Genova writes her books as fiction, but they are all based on real events that are thoroughly researched. Left Neglected was the last of her books I hadn’t read, and it doesn’t disappoint. When I first read the title I assumed it would be about someone abandoned to die a sad, lonely death. But no ... Sarah Nickerson, mother of three, married to Bob, is a high-flyer with a high-powered job, working sometimes eighty hours a week—always on call. Her husband Bob is not far behind. It’s a life they couldn’t maintain without Abby, their children’s nanny. Then one day Sarah, distracted by her mobile (drivers take note), crashes into a tree. She wakes in hospital to find staples holding her scalp together and the news that the right side of her brain has suffered a severe injury, and she has lost all feeling on the left side of her body. To Sarah, her left side no longer exists. Having lived most of her life on the run, she finds it difficult to accept her new circumstances—for example, being a can-do person, decides she can go to the bathroom without assistance, gets out of bed, and falls in a heap. Sarah’s journey to recover is long and hard—hospital, rehab and as she slowly starts to recover, with the help of family, even the mother she’d lost contact with. A new life gradually emerges for Sarah, Rob and her children. A great read.

Lastly, The Jones Family Food Roster by Alison Jones. Alison, married to Ian, mother of five children, is a happy, busy woman living in Melbourne, feeling fit and well. The family take the ferry to Tasmania for a holiday, involving  bush walking at Cradle Mountain. On a particularly difficult part of the track, Alison falls and hurts her arm, after making a sling with her son’s sweater, she gamely manages to make her way, with great difficulty to the end of the walk.When they are back at the lodge, Ian and Alison decide to go to hospital for an x-ray. The doctor in emergency is reluctant to do the x-ray, as it is after hours, and he thinks it is just sprained. However, Alison insists, and the following day the radiologist calls and tells her that there is something of concern on the x-ray, and suggests she see a Orthopaedic surgeon on her return to Melbourne. After tests and a biopsy, Alison is told that she has a rare and incurable cancer. Alison is of course shattered by the diagnosis, but is also immediately worried about her family. How will the kids & Ian manage when the intensive treatments that will involve periods in hospital take her away from them. What comes next is something quite wonderful. Alison has always been very active in her community and on hearing of her illness her friends all rally round and form a daily roster to make the evening meal for Alison and the family. Not only does this make sure Alison has the rest she needs, but it means the family comes together every day for dinner. Because of this upheaval in her life, Alison, who is Jewish but non-practicing, decides to become an observant Jew. Ian, who is a nominal Anglican decides to convert, and the celebration of Shabbat dinner on Fridays becomes another thing the family shares with friends. This is a lovely book full of hope and joy—and the addition of a couple of the recipes made with such love from traditional Jewish recipes, makes it even more appealing. The sale of this book supports cancer research at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.