Category Archives: Death and Dying

Book Review: THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK by Jonathan Santlofer

THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK

Jonathan Santlofer is a successful artist and novelist. I had the privilege of hearing him read recently as he shared the stage with two other distinguished writers, Neal Thompson and Wendy C. Ortiz, at a panel on memoir writing at Hugo House in Seattle. Later, in person, I asked Mr. Santlofer if he ever considered doing a graphic novel, given his facility with words and images, and he said he’d love to do it! He’s on my radar right now. His book, The Widower’s Notebook, is quite a page-turner. I went to the Tin Table for a late dinner and couldn’t put it down. The waitress even said I could stay as long as I wanted. After making some time for the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, I kept reading the next day and finished in another sitting. What I got from this book is a riveting narrative covering a heart-wrenching time in the author’s life.

Mr. Santlofer has an uncanny observational style: you believe you’re with him. His writing is vivid and carries you along even when he’s writing about not feeling up to doing anything at all. It’s the mark of not only a good writer but an excellent writer to allow you into a life without you being aware of any of the effort involved. This is a story of a most significant loss, the death of one’s life partner. Santlofer achieves a level of the sublime by simply being in the moment. He does with his writing what he does with his drawings: evoke a sense of the hyperreal. You are really there with the author as he finds his wife, Joy, dying before his eyes, the subsequent rush to the hospital, and the frenetic tripping through memories.

We follow along as Santlofer reflects upon a grand life beginning with a young bohemian couple, just married, in Brooklyn, circa 1967. We progress in a stream of consciousness fashion from the birth of Dorie, his beloved daughter, to the recent death of Joy to the building up of a new life. The act of drawing helps with the act of mourning–drawings work when words seem to fail or seem to be not enough. There’s a touch of magic to art-making and it seems most explicit when examining an intimate and intricately crafted drawing. The excerpt below speaks to this process:

“I am able to draw my wife because drawing is abstract, because you can’t really draw something until you stop identifying it. You can’t think: this is an eye, or a nose, or lips, or you will not be able to draw them; an eye, a nose, lips are all the same, simply marks on a page.

Drawing has made it possible for me to stay close to Joy when she in no longer here. It is a way to create a picture of her without feeling weird or maudlin. I am not sitting in a dark room crying over a photo of my dead wife; I am at my drawing table, working.

Grief is chaotic; art is order. Ironic, as most people think art is all about feeling and emotion, when in fact the artist needs to be ordered and conscious to create art that will, in turn, stir feelings and emotion in others.”

A drawing is a complicated thing.

Santlofer’s book is about dying and about living. It is as much about mourning as it is about relationships, family, and the creative process. Indeed, art can save your life and Santlofer’s book eloquently and passionately speaks to perseverance and purpose.

The Widower’s Notebook is a 272-page paperback with illustrations, published by Penguin Random House.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Death, Death and Dying, Hugo House, Jonathan Santlofer, Memoir, New York City, Penguin Random House, Seattle, writers, writing

Documentary Review: KEVORKIAN

Jack Kevorkian 2013 documentary

KEVORKIAN is an in-depth look at Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the infamous right-to-die advocate. Filmmaker Matthew Galkin explores the full man as he follows the doctor on his last quest, a 2008 run for a seat in Congress, and goes back over a life that will leave a lasting impression on generations to come. Dr. Kevorkian died in 2011, at the age of 83. This film will be available as a VOD starting on January 15, 2013.

The take away from this documentary is to know when you’ve won. Jack Kevorkian reached a point in his career where he could legally perform assisted suicides. He claimed to have helped end the suffering of upwards to 130 individuals. However, that was not good enough for Dr. Kevorkian. He wanted to officially settle the right-to-die issue once and for all by taking it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In his view, the only way to do that was to get himself convicted of murder.

We follow Jack Kevorkian on his road to self-destruction with his push to get convicted for murder. From 1990 through 1998, Kevorkian had achieved numerous acquittals thanks to his attorney, Geoffrey Fieger. But, for his trial in 1999, he abandoned his attorney when he needed him most in favor of defending himself. While a brilliant mind, Kevorkian was completely out of his league in a court room. He recited Thomas Jefferson and Cicero and made an eccentric and histrionic plea that earned him 9 years in prison. He was not let out on bail, as he had planned. His case was not heard before the Supreme Court, as he had planned. He went to prison, as he had not planned.

What we ultimately see in Jack Kevorkian is a man that, despite himself, had a worthy cause and was willing to sacrifice himself in the process of supporting his cause. As Jack Lessenberry, a journalist with the Detroit Metro News describes in the documentary, “To see Jack Kevorkian in action is to see an Old Testament prophet, very disagreeable, not someone you’d want over for dinner. But he was willing to discuss death, a subject that we, as a society, are in denial over.”

This documentary, and its subject, so inextricably linked with death, ironically provide some interesting life lessons. Of all the people who could have taken up the right-to-die issue, it had to be Jack Kevorkian, a most persistent but often disagreeable sort. But he was also a very sensitive and complicated man. We get to see how the theme of death haunted him and spurred him into action. He gained his nickname, “Dr Death,” long before he became involved with euthanasia. He was the one to discover how to best tell the time of death of a patient, which is crucial when harvesting organs for transplants. You simply need to examine the eyes. He was a lifelong celibate and, in his case, he cuts a rather lonely figure. What did he do for fun? Well, for one thing, he created paintings about death. Had a better adjusted person taken on the cause of the right to die would that person have made as big of an impact as Dr. Jack Kevorkian? Finally, with his death, his legacy has a chance to live on.

KEVORKIAN is released by Virgil Films.
Available on Digital Download starting January 15, 2013

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Filed under Constitutional Rights, Death and Dying, Documentaries, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Movie Reviews, Right To Die