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Both a memoir and an investigation, "Swimming in a Sea of Death" is David Rieff's loving tribute to his mother, the writer Susan Sontag, and her final battle with cancer. Rieff's brave, passionate, and unsparing witness of the last nine months of her life, from her initial diagnosis to her death, is both an intensely personal portrait of the relationship between a mother a Both a memoir and an investigation, "Swimming in a Sea of Death" is David Rieff's loving tribute to his mother, the writer Susan Sontag, and her final battle with cancer. Rieff's brave, passionate, and unsparing witness of the last nine months of her life, from her initial diagnosis to her death, is both an intensely personal portrait of the relationship between a mother and a son, and a reflection on what it is like to try to help someone gravely ill in her fight to go on living and, when the time comes, to die with dignity.Rieff offers no easy answers. Instead, his intensely personal book is a meditation on what it means to confront death in our culture. In his most profound work, this brilliant writer confronts the blunt feelings of the survivor -- the guilt, the self-questioning, the sense of not having done enough. And he tries to understand what it means to desire so desperately, as his mother did to the end of her life, to try almost anything in order to go on living. Drawing on his mother's heroic struggle, paying tribute to her doctors' ingenuity and faithfulness, and determined to tell what happened to them all, "Swimming in a Sea of Death" subtly draws wider lessons that will be of value to others when they find themselves in the same situation.


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Both a memoir and an investigation, "Swimming in a Sea of Death" is David Rieff's loving tribute to his mother, the writer Susan Sontag, and her final battle with cancer. Rieff's brave, passionate, and unsparing witness of the last nine months of her life, from her initial diagnosis to her death, is both an intensely personal portrait of the relationship between a mother a Both a memoir and an investigation, "Swimming in a Sea of Death" is David Rieff's loving tribute to his mother, the writer Susan Sontag, and her final battle with cancer. Rieff's brave, passionate, and unsparing witness of the last nine months of her life, from her initial diagnosis to her death, is both an intensely personal portrait of the relationship between a mother and a son, and a reflection on what it is like to try to help someone gravely ill in her fight to go on living and, when the time comes, to die with dignity.Rieff offers no easy answers. Instead, his intensely personal book is a meditation on what it means to confront death in our culture. In his most profound work, this brilliant writer confronts the blunt feelings of the survivor -- the guilt, the self-questioning, the sense of not having done enough. And he tries to understand what it means to desire so desperately, as his mother did to the end of her life, to try almost anything in order to go on living. Drawing on his mother's heroic struggle, paying tribute to her doctors' ingenuity and faithfulness, and determined to tell what happened to them all, "Swimming in a Sea of Death" subtly draws wider lessons that will be of value to others when they find themselves in the same situation.

30 review for Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir

  1. 5 out of 5

    Khush

    Not a very long but powerful book. What I liked about the book is that David never strays from the main focus of this book, namely, her mother's struggle with cancer. Even if the this book is not about Susan Sontag's death, it would still be a great read as it talks about death, dying, disease, friends, passion, life. As a reader, one does not Only think about what David and Sontag go through, but also how close anyone can be at any moment to that kind of experience. Also, reading about Sontag's Not a very long but powerful book. What I liked about the book is that David never strays from the main focus of this book, namely, her mother's struggle with cancer. Even if the this book is not about Susan Sontag's death, it would still be a great read as it talks about death, dying, disease, friends, passion, life. As a reader, one does not Only think about what David and Sontag go through, but also how close anyone can be at any moment to that kind of experience. Also, reading about Sontag's cancer, one is reminded of one's own immortality. One hostile reviewer on GR commented that the kind of money that was spent on Sontag's treatment could have been instead used to save thousands of babies in Africa. Clearly, this reviewer has least sympathy for African children, but palpable hatred for Sontag. Also, many found the book badly written, I didn't. It does what it is supposed to do. It matches the 'visuality' that Annie Leibovitz, the great photographer, captured through Sontag's 'last' pictures. In a way, such intense engagement with 'death' is a kind of education that makes us more realistic about both life and death. I admire Sontag's hunger for life. I wonder if her 'last days' and how she responded to cancer and its 'tough' treatment can be added to her 'CAMP' essay. It is so CAMP-LIKE in the most positive sense.

  2. 5 out of 5

    M. D. Hudson

    The book deals with the death of Rieff’s mother, intellectual celebrity Susan Sontag, and so I was expecting a harrowing experience, as serious as cancer as the expression goes. And it was. And I felt guilty even reading it in a gruesome death-porn way. But there is much to think about here, gruesome as it is. As a reader, you have to first get around the fact that the book is poorly written. Rieff is a professional writer/journalist, with seven books to his credit, but his prose was often appal The book deals with the death of Rieff’s mother, intellectual celebrity Susan Sontag, and so I was expecting a harrowing experience, as serious as cancer as the expression goes. And it was. And I felt guilty even reading it in a gruesome death-porn way. But there is much to think about here, gruesome as it is. As a reader, you have to first get around the fact that the book is poorly written. Rieff is a professional writer/journalist, with seven books to his credit, but his prose was often appalling. Clichés (we even get to go on an “emotional roller coaster” ride at one point) abound. In many cases, the cliches are acknowledged as being clichés, and then are self-consciously employed anyway which if anything makes them even worse. The brief quotes from Sontag’s journals demonstrate who the real writer in the family was. Also, the beginning of the tale is cluttered with starchy, unreasonable complaints about the medical establishment, shaggy dog stories and a certain lack of focus (despite the rather simple narration). As for the medical establishment shaggy dog story, a villain is introduced early on, one “Dr. A. - feeling as I do about him, I prefer not to name him.” This Dr. A is treated particularly harshly right at the start, but I kept waiting for the revelation to come that would justify Rieff’s emnity, the cruel or inept thing Dr. A did to add to Sontag’s misery or hasten her death. And yet nothing ever comes of it. All Dr. A did was tell Sontag that she was going to die and that there was no feasible treatment for her disease. Rieff complains that he was condescending, but perhaps Dr. A felt that speaking to Sontag as a willful child (rather than as a fellow rational giant brain) was the only way he could get through to her. Sontag was acting like a spoiled, willful child, so I can’t really fault Dr. A his approach. But of course someone like Susan Sontag does not have to put up with this, so she found, of course, other doctors willing to dice their diagnoses into hard-to-parse bits of fraudulent hope. I suppose seeing Sontag’s famous big beautiful piercing eyes across your desk, hanging on to every word you say, would be quite flattering to many in the upper ranks of New York-European medicine. “Well yes Ms. Songtag…call you Susan? Okay then. Yes Susan, there are some experimental treatments being developed in Paris we could try…” And this brings me to what is perhaps the real story here. If you have enough money, and in Sontag’s case, enough cultural clout, you can find medical treatment for anything, no matter how doomed you are. What makes hers a hard case is the fact that Sontag beat really bad breast cancer back in the ‘70s by undergoing radical, experimental treatment. It is hard to argue with that kind of success, and it was this astonishing recovery (I know – “remission”) that fuelled her frantic search for a cure for her leukemia some thirty years later. And of course doctors were found who were willing to go to any effort to keep her alive. And to tell her, kind of, what she wanted to hear. But with this later leukemia from which she later died, there came a point where she should have resigned herself to death; as Rieff reports, as a blistered skeleton a day or two before the end, Sontag was still making plans for when she gets out. There is courage and foolhardiness, hope and bullshitting yourself. Rieff, to his credit, addresses, if only fleetingly, this uncomfortable fact: just how much money did all this cost? And how much of a futile burden did this place on the health care system? Sontag was a complicated person, and I’m sure her opinions on just about anything can not be easily nutshelled, but would it be safe to assume that her political opinions on health care in the USA might not quite align with the fact that because of her financial and cultural clout she was able to get far, far better health care than some poor cancer-ruddled 71 year old woman over in the Bronx. And if Sontag did hold utopian healthcare ideals, the fact is if all the 70-something terminally ill patients on earth got the same treatment Sontag got, the whole world would go bankrupt in about a week. Sontag wanted to live at all costs, and she was able – and willing, apparently without ever questioning it – to spend a lot in an effort to do so. So isn’t there an ethical component to any of this? Er, what would Walter Benjamin do? Or Sontag’s pal E. M. Cioran? Another surprising revelation in this book was how susceptible Sontag came in her later years to intellectual flakiness of various sorts. It seems she had a lot of friends who were Buddhists of some American stripe or otherwise New Agey types. They gave her crystals! A Buddhist told her she was in some kind of “circle of protection!” This is Susan Sontag, the embodiment of the thinker as a product of the radical will (or whatever – I’ve never been smart enough to figure out any intellectual’s actual plan; this is my own lazy, stupid fault and I am not trying to make excuses for my lapse here). Not to trash Buddhists, but I have to go along with Reiff’s take on most of the American kinds: “Perhaps a good Buddhist can really take in the full reality of human unimportance and still remain compassionate, though if the American Buddhists I knew in my twenties are at all representative, the creed is more often a rationale for existential selfishness than self-abnegation in any real sense of the term.” (page 157 – but note in this quote the ending phrase “in any real sense of the term” – there is a lot of compositional filler like this throughout the book). Of course “existential selfishness” is an interesting phrase in relation to Sontag’s own frantic efforts to stay alive. Despite the infelicities and outright gob-stoppers of his prose, Reiff manages an astonishing degree of emotional tact and nuance. He manages to let us know that Susan Sontag was a top-shelf pain-in-the-ass and impending death made her no easier to get along with. He also lets us know he loved his mother, helplessly so (the way a son should). More importantly, he put across a fairly old-fashioned idea, if only by providing a poor example: the idea of a “good” death. Just what does that mean? I don’t know, but I suspect it has something to do with accepting the inevitable, making peace with your God (or with yourself if you have no God) and not clinging to the edge of the pot until the very last minute kicking and screaming. It is disappointing to see our cultural and artistic heroes go out with such a lack of grace – and I am an admirer of Susan Sontag’s (especially her essays – I liked The Volcano Lover, but it was more or less a bodice-ripper for the New Yorker reader), although the older I get, the more suspicious and weary I get about her “radical” poses. But a writer’s got to establish herself, I guess. But wasn’t her shtick to be the uncompromising radical, the fearless artistic gadabout who put on a play in besieged Sarajevo (a gesture that still baffles me although I respect the courage it took to pull it off)? So what happened? Again, is there is such a thing as a “good” death? Was it Samuel Beckett who refused painkillers when he was dying because he wanted to be alert right up to the very end? Not that people should be judged on how they die…or should they? Or should those who profess great moral courage or spirituality (and spiritual resignation) be expected to die courageously, or at least resignedly? While reading this book, I kept thinking of George Harrison, who spent his last months being jetted all over the world in search of a miracle cure for his terminal cancer…the guy who was always counseling “all things must pass” and the dangers of the material world. But then Harrison had more money than God. And he no doubt found doctors who were Beatles-besotted and would tell George anything he wanted to hear (“Please, just call me George, Doctor…”). Celebrity deaths are breathtakingly expensive: Harrison’s and Sontag’s last few months of medical treatment could’ve saved 10,000 babies in sub-Sahara Africa from dysentery. But then all of us westerners spend a lot to stave off the inevitable. With apologies to Dylan Thomas, raging against the dying of the light might not be the best way to go. But this being said, am I given the opportunity to contemplate my own lingering cancer or cancerlike death, I am pretty sure I will go down sniveling, shrieking, pleading and otherwise making an undignified spectacle of myself. And spend, spend, spend. Anything, Doc, do anything… My remarks here are in no way meant to imply that I am not a craven coward. I am.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    Difficult to decide number of stars on this one...a very personal book and one that is hard to rate, as a result; it feels as if I should not rate it at all. One feels it serves a purpose most of all for the author, Sontag's son, though of course the reader is served as well. I started this book when my Dad was in the last stages of his illness, and he died soon after I finished it...I can be relieved that he did not suffer the painful end that Sontag had, though there were some similarities: th Difficult to decide number of stars on this one...a very personal book and one that is hard to rate, as a result; it feels as if I should not rate it at all. One feels it serves a purpose most of all for the author, Sontag's son, though of course the reader is served as well. I started this book when my Dad was in the last stages of his illness, and he died soon after I finished it...I can be relieved that he did not suffer the painful end that Sontag had, though there were some similarities: the absolute will to live, the sheer love of life and existence. Rieff knew there was no cure to be found, no hope, but offered hope since that was what his mother wanted to hear. He struggles with the fact that he offered her this untruth at the end but makes peace ultimately with himself and her. He explores the guilt, the regret one feels with the death of a loved one and Sontag's death is more than once contrasted with Simone de Beauvoir's mother's, whom she wrote about (and I read as well, many years ago) in 'A Very Easy Death.' There is anger at the medical establishment as well. Much in this book is valuable to one who must cope, as I must, with the death of a loved one.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Alicia

    I will begin with these words .........I love Susan Sontag. So much... when one of my best pals was dying of AIDS ~ she came to the rescue of my heart. My heart .....of course still broke & it remains broken still .......but her words calmed me. They did not erase the pain & the sadness I still feel to this day but reading "AIDS and Its Metaphors" ... somehow prepared me. Though the death & loss is still haunting. But my goodness.....Susan Sontag........she was there. She understood. We knew her co I will begin with these words .........I love Susan Sontag. So much... when one of my best pals was dying of AIDS ~ she came to the rescue of my heart. My heart .....of course still broke & it remains broken still .......but her words calmed me. They did not erase the pain & the sadness I still feel to this day but reading "AIDS and Its Metaphors" ... somehow prepared me. Though the death & loss is still haunting. But my goodness.....Susan Sontag........she was there. She understood. We knew her comfort. And we miss our best friend. We hear his laugh. He lives so clearly in my photographs on my bookcase. And so ....... Once I knew that David Rieff would be editing her diaries ...of course I was all in. And this book...my gosh........it is a hard read. "The two great, besetting regrets of her life were not having accomplished more in previous years & not having known how to be happier in the present, where, by her own admission, her private life was a source of sorrow & frustration" Page 142 " She reveled in being; it was as straight forward as that. No one I have ever known loved life so unambivalently & I was almost certain that had she lived to a hundred, as in the last part of her life she so often said she hoped she would do, instead of seventy one, nothing except the LOSS of intellect would have made her any more reconciled to extinction." Page 143 We know Susan Sontag. We think that we know her. We know how she was DETERMINED to survive. To conquer. To live. And then we lost her. And all the while we knew..............she would discuss this last fight. She would ensure that somehow we were of course ALL IN....... one more time. I read this book this past week & I just felt so much sorrow. My lunch reads really should be lighter ~~ right? Oh Alicia...... Death is never easy. Yet Death is always there. Another memoir of loss. But I had to read it. Her son was so close to this & he shared what he felt. I know these moments. When my husband decided that he had to have a tracheotomy in order to survive, I knew in my soul ~ that I would lose him a lot sooner than I was ready to. And I would soon be alone. But he made his choice. And I could ONLY say " I understand" & be the voice to each MD & battle each nurse, to ensure he was comfortable. We do this. ......knowing we will soon lose everything that meant the world to us. We do this. And so David Rieff shares his emotions about this last illness. He knows that soon his mother would be gone. Susan is DETERMINED to best this disease. She is deep into what can keep her MDS at bay. She was ready to fight & she wanted to win. Her body was the battlefield. David is there. Watching........knowing that this is going to end. Knowing that he will lose his mother. Knowing that he is being supportive & optimistic for her. And feeling that guilt for the pretense. For the love. In his soul, he understands that everyone around the woman who created him, is clear that she will lose this battle. But they will tell her to keep fighting. They will share what they need to say to her to keep her near. Ignoring the ravages her body has endured. He is pained. He watches how her body is attacked. And then photographed. That made my heart just sink. He watches & he knows that he cannot make this easy for her. He cannot ease the discomfort ........the pain.........he has to be her son. The son who will love her. No matter what. The son who will watch her fight a battle he understands she will lose. Oh..........my gosh....... this book.........was a hard read. He shares so much. He knows that this iconic woman is going to fight. For what? Why? And he knows that she is really the mother, he has always known & he understands he will lose her. I completed the read yesterday whilst drinking my hot tea at lunch & of course.... I wept. Quiet weeping is the worst. I knew how hard this would be for him to live through. When we love someone who is ill & they are determined to FIGHT their illness, against ALL odds, & they feel they MUST. What can we do? He shares this so clearly in this memoir. I was just breathless & WOW. We have to bide our time & be there for them, knowing that soon we shall stand alone & we will be in pain and nothing can ease that pain. This book is simply a wonderful read. He was a goode son. He loved this woman, who meant so much to so many, but he understood, she was his mother. And he would lose her. She was his mother. Not the writer. The heroine for so many. She was his mother. And he shares her loss. A son who has lost his mother. Read this book. He is a goode son. Read this book. It will make your heart sad but it will bring you the insight that sometimes, those we love MUST fight death. We do NOT know why. And we know this fight will cause us the worst pain we could ever know & we must allow our soul, those painful moments of unselfishness. We give unselfish love. Later we will relive each moment & doubt what we did. But in that moment ......unselfish love is all we can give... for that is truest love. He writes on the last page of this book... the words he found in one of her diaries: " be cheerful be stoic be tranquil ~ In the Valley Of Sorrow ~ Spread Your Wings.."

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kristen

    There is nothing easy about reading Rieff’s agonizing account of his mother Susan Sontag's last nine months. "Swimming in a Sea of Death" seems to portray the dark side of "Illness as Metaphor." I agree with Sontag that, as a society, we need to be aware of the emotional and psychological consequences to individuals of using diseases as metaphors, but her contention that we must see a disease as just a disease, a failure of the body and nothing more, seems to deny some of the transformative pow There is nothing easy about reading Rieff’s agonizing account of his mother Susan Sontag's last nine months. "Swimming in a Sea of Death" seems to portray the dark side of "Illness as Metaphor." I agree with Sontag that, as a society, we need to be aware of the emotional and psychological consequences to individuals of using diseases as metaphors, but her contention that we must see a disease as just a disease, a failure of the body and nothing more, seems to deny some of the transformative power of individual narratives about disease and dying. Rieff repeatedly invokes Joan Didion’s line “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” in relation to his mother’s stubborn, even delusional, insistence—despite all evidence to the contrary—that medical science would save her life, and thus, he tells us, she finds the will to endure painful and ostensibly futile medical interventions in her struggle to stay alive. He seems to have taken Didion too literally. I don’t think we tell ourselves stories so that we can delude ourselves, turning away from reality; I think we tell ourselves stories so that we can embrace reality, finding ways to synthesize even the most seemingly meaningless events in our lives, even death, in meaningful ways. Ultimately, what makes Rieff’s memoir so disturbing is its portrayal of suffering devoid of any transformative value for Sontag, or for Rieff. As a reader, you end his book as you began it—struggling to stay afloat in his pain and wondering when or how he will strike for shore in search of a way to ground this account in a narrative that allows him to begin to heal.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Alicia

    I read this book a day after reading Sontag's "Illness as Metaphor," something I recommend doing if you have the time. (Illness as Metaphor is only about 90 pages). I found it somewhat sad that Sontag could never accept the idea of death, could never firmly believe that she too would die, just as all humans do. Yes, she had a love of life and intense fervor, but it was surprising that someone at her age (71) and who had experienced disease before, was never able to reconcile herself to the conce I read this book a day after reading Sontag's "Illness as Metaphor," something I recommend doing if you have the time. (Illness as Metaphor is only about 90 pages). I found it somewhat sad that Sontag could never accept the idea of death, could never firmly believe that she too would die, just as all humans do. Yes, she had a love of life and intense fervor, but it was surprising that someone at her age (71) and who had experienced disease before, was never able to reconcile herself to the concept of mortality. And yet, she was a true writer and artist, never accepting that her "work" was done, that she had no plans for the future.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Michael Gorodezky

    This book was indeed difficult to read, but for those of us who share the author's experience, it is a tremendously validating book. It is an important book for we who stayed behind with words unsaid. For me,reading many other reviews is much more disturbing than reading the book. I amazed how little many of the reviewers got from the book. I suppose people read such books for many reasons. For myself, I am grateful that David Rieff that the courage to write about his experience. I've often want This book was indeed difficult to read, but for those of us who share the author's experience, it is a tremendously validating book. It is an important book for we who stayed behind with words unsaid. For me,reading many other reviews is much more disturbing than reading the book. I amazed how little many of the reviewers got from the book. I suppose people read such books for many reasons. For myself, I am grateful that David Rieff that the courage to write about his experience. I've often wanted to write to him to thank him.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    I found this book fascinating in a number of ways and impossible and inappropriate to rate. I've read a number of memoirs about death by people who are dying, but fewer by their caregivers and survivors. The author confronts a number of questions and issues that may be even more difficult than impending death, which is at least known to everyone - what could he have done differently, and it would it have been better? These questions are posed thoughtfully and not melodramatically. Layering on to I found this book fascinating in a number of ways and impossible and inappropriate to rate. I've read a number of memoirs about death by people who are dying, but fewer by their caregivers and survivors. The author confronts a number of questions and issues that may be even more difficult than impending death, which is at least known to everyone - what could he have done differently, and it would it have been better? These questions are posed thoughtfully and not melodramatically. Layering on top of that the element of Sontag herself and her writings on illness, as well as all of the information specifically about MDS, I would recommend the book, although it will be a difficult read for a lot of reasons for many people. Scientifically, I find it fascinating to see how far a lot of cancer treatment has come - while the MDS prognosis is still bad, this 2008 book comments re: Sontag's first cancer: "and the immunological component is no longer as accepted as it would become in the years immediately after my mother received it - another magic bullet in the quest to cure cancer that did not live up to its early promise."

  9. 5 out of 5

    Reuben Woolley

    If I rate this 5 stars then do I get to never have to think about it again? I agree entirely with another review on here that says “it feels odd to give this book a rating — how am I meant to rate a man grieving his mother?” But it’s a book I’m glad I’ve read and I sincerely hope I never want to return to. Genuinely one of the most dejectedly, despairingly sad things I’ve ever read, at least in part because I love Sontag and her writing so much, and the entire thing is devoted to documenting what If I rate this 5 stars then do I get to never have to think about it again? I agree entirely with another review on here that says “it feels odd to give this book a rating — how am I meant to rate a man grieving his mother?” But it’s a book I’m glad I’ve read and I sincerely hope I never want to return to. Genuinely one of the most dejectedly, despairingly sad things I’ve ever read, at least in part because I love Sontag and her writing so much, and the entire thing is devoted to documenting what happens when a life-force like that realises that it is being brought to an unwilling end. I honestly can’t say that I recommend this book at all, but I can still see it as necessary to be written, and be glad I experienced it.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Shelley

    I liked this book because I appreciated the way the son was trying to process his mother's death and cope with his reactions to the whole time she was ill. His mother, Susan Sontag, was very opinionated and had a lot of willpower and was really in denial about the fact that she was going to die. She kept thinking that she would somehow find a cure and find a doctor who would keep her alive. I empathized with the son having a mother like that. I know it would have been a major struggle to be supp I liked this book because I appreciated the way the son was trying to process his mother's death and cope with his reactions to the whole time she was ill. His mother, Susan Sontag, was very opinionated and had a lot of willpower and was really in denial about the fact that she was going to die. She kept thinking that she would somehow find a cure and find a doctor who would keep her alive. I empathized with the son having a mother like that. I know it would have been a major struggle to be supportive in that situation. I understand that no one could help her confront the reality of the situation because she just refused to consider it. Death is always hard to face but it's even harder when you have the delusion that it's just not going to happen and you are somehow an exception to the rule that everyone dies.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Anne

    David Rieff, a non-fiction writer and policy analyst, is the only son of Susan Sontag. Swimming in a Sea of Death is Rieff's memoir about the last year of his mother's life and her 30+ year battle with cancer. Rieff's book, while divided into chapters, is more like a monologue of his various thoughts on life and death, and what it means to be a caretaker for the sick and ultimately, the one who is left behind. Desipte the fact that this book is quite short, I found it incredibly repetitive - lik David Rieff, a non-fiction writer and policy analyst, is the only son of Susan Sontag. Swimming in a Sea of Death is Rieff's memoir about the last year of his mother's life and her 30+ year battle with cancer. Rieff's book, while divided into chapters, is more like a monologue of his various thoughts on life and death, and what it means to be a caretaker for the sick and ultimately, the one who is left behind. Desipte the fact that this book is quite short, I found it incredibly repetitive - like a person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who feels compelled to repeat and relive certain feelings or events from the past. The subject matter and language reminded me of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Rieff quotes Didion on multiple occasions while strugging to put words to his emotions. Rieff focuses much of the book on his mother's attitude toward illness and death - her refusal to believe that she would one day die, and the miraculous recoveries she made from prior illnesses. This book is incredibly depressing, but it is a valuable viewpoint worth reading for anyone dealing with illness and lost.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    I wanted to like this book, or at least to appreciate it (Rieff is a smart writer with a hell of a subject), but I find it hastily written, inadequately edited, and marred by the author's bitterness. Losing a parent can be a shocking and terrible thing, and Rieff seems stuck in his hurt and anger, as well as limited by his intellectual approach. He seems to want to understand something inherently inacessible to the mind. There's a lot of meandering what-if?-ing but no real commitment to personal I wanted to like this book, or at least to appreciate it (Rieff is a smart writer with a hell of a subject), but I find it hastily written, inadequately edited, and marred by the author's bitterness. Losing a parent can be a shocking and terrible thing, and Rieff seems stuck in his hurt and anger, as well as limited by his intellectual approach. He seems to want to understand something inherently inacessible to the mind. There's a lot of meandering what-if?-ing but no real commitment to personal excavation. I would have liked to see him risk a wider range of emotion in his exploration, as well as perhaps a little poetry. Those things might have better fit the book's loose structure. I wonder how the author will feel about Swimming a few years from now. For my money, Joan Didion's Magical Thinking is far superior.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Zöe Yu

    I'm surprised this book got such a low rating. I personally love this book very much, I don't know maybe it is because I study Susan Sontag for a long time, and she will be my constant interest. Her son's memoir is valuable for his mother's studies for sure, and there are many helpful information. Kierkegaard, immortality, Sontag's avidity, and so on so forth. It shouldn't be rated as two or three stars when one only read her Illness as Metaphor or Against Interpretation. Her entire writing care I'm surprised this book got such a low rating. I personally love this book very much, I don't know maybe it is because I study Susan Sontag for a long time, and she will be my constant interest. Her son's memoir is valuable for his mother's studies for sure, and there are many helpful information. Kierkegaard, immortality, Sontag's avidity, and so on so forth. It shouldn't be rated as two or three stars when one only read her Illness as Metaphor or Against Interpretation. Her entire writing career and life is contained in David Rieff's slim memoir. He knows her, and understands her. Sontag is an icon for very intelligent people who didn't live very long, long enough as three centuries.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie ((Strazzybooks))

    This is another one of those super personal books where I don't feel right giving a rating. How am I to rate this man's experience of losing his mother? However, it is important to note that this is his personal experience and it was very specific to the author and his mother (late author Susan Sontag) - I was unable to relate as much as I was hoping to. This is another one of those super personal books where I don't feel right giving a rating. How am I to rate this man's experience of losing his mother? However, it is important to note that this is his personal experience and it was very specific to the author and his mother (late author Susan Sontag) - I was unable to relate as much as I was hoping to.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Suzanne

    So good--devastating, sad, smart--a meditation on a mother's death, informed by philosophy & literature. Hard to read and yet I couldn't stop. I am compelled to find David Rieff and hug him and thank him for writing this book. So good--devastating, sad, smart--a meditation on a mother's death, informed by philosophy & literature. Hard to read and yet I couldn't stop. I am compelled to find David Rieff and hug him and thank him for writing this book.

  16. 5 out of 5

    NosNos

    Touching memoir but hampered by Rieff's inconsistent prose (although I feel as if criticizing the prose of man in overwhelming grief is a sort of low-blow). I'm not sure. Still a good read. Touching memoir but hampered by Rieff's inconsistent prose (although I feel as if criticizing the prose of man in overwhelming grief is a sort of low-blow). I'm not sure. Still a good read.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Paul Pessolano

    This is a son's memoir of his mother's death. David Rieff is the son of Susan Sontag, a noted writer. Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was forty years old and was given two options by her doctors. She could have a radical mastectomy or a treatment that was more dependent on chemotherapy. Susan opted for the radical because she believed that this would give her a better chance at a longer life. She lived for another twenty years before cancer reappeared as uterine sarcoma. She foug This is a son's memoir of his mother's death. David Rieff is the son of Susan Sontag, a noted writer. Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was forty years old and was given two options by her doctors. She could have a radical mastectomy or a treatment that was more dependent on chemotherapy. Susan opted for the radical because she believed that this would give her a better chance at a longer life. She lived for another twenty years before cancer reappeared as uterine sarcoma. She fought this cancer for two years before being diagnosed with incurable MDs, which would turn into AML and end her life. It is important to understand that Susan was an atheist who had a deep desire to live. Even when things were looking bad and she felt terribly depressed her desire to live was foremost on her mind. Susan, in her seventies, did everything she could to ward off death, even submitting to a bone marrow transplant that had little chance of success. In telling her story, her son explores what family members, friends, and doctors must face when confronting a patient dying of cancer. Should you be honest with them and give them the facts? Should you give them false hope by telling them they are getting better? Or do you find some middle ground that both parties can accept. In telling his mother's story, the reader gets an exceptional look at death and how it affects all parties and, some of the difficult decisions that have to be made.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Sarah W

    Those looking for deeper insight into Sontag's life won't find it here. This book is mostly about Rieff trying to come to terms with his mother's death and his guilt over his inability to help her more in her last weeks and days. Rieff mostly fails to resolve these feelings of guilt, and thus the book meanders through Sontag's illness, from her diagnosis to her death, returning again and again to the same painful topics: Sontag's intense fear of death and Rieff's concern over telling her the tru Those looking for deeper insight into Sontag's life won't find it here. This book is mostly about Rieff trying to come to terms with his mother's death and his guilt over his inability to help her more in her last weeks and days. Rieff mostly fails to resolve these feelings of guilt, and thus the book meanders through Sontag's illness, from her diagnosis to her death, returning again and again to the same painful topics: Sontag's intense fear of death and Rieff's concern over telling her the truth about her illness. Rieff (taking his mother's stance on the issue) rejects the use of war as a metaphor in the discussion of disease while simultaneously painting a picture of his mother's illness with that inevitable terminology, frequently referring to the days following her death as "the aftermath" and to himself as a "survivor". Other contradictions and inconsistencies abound, but perhaps that is to be expected when writing about such sensitive material. At the end the only conclusion that one can reach is that there is no coming to terms with death, either for the dying or for those surrounding and supporting them.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Geeta

    It's hard for me to separate my response to this book from my response to my own mother's death and my attempts to understand it. I found Rieff's restraint a bit too tight at times, but I thought he raised compelling questions about the role he played in his mother's process and the role of the doctors. Why is it that doctors have no way to talk about death that goes beyond the metaphor of "defeat"? As a society, we have a hard time accepting our mortality, and Sontag's desperate fight to hold o It's hard for me to separate my response to this book from my response to my own mother's death and my attempts to understand it. I found Rieff's restraint a bit too tight at times, but I thought he raised compelling questions about the role he played in his mother's process and the role of the doctors. Why is it that doctors have no way to talk about death that goes beyond the metaphor of "defeat"? As a society, we have a hard time accepting our mortality, and Sontag's desperate fight to hold on to life illustrates the lengths people are willing to go to, with the support of their families and doctors. And yet, what choice did Rieff have but to support his mother's battle, as futile as it was? I thought the book was eloquent, provocative and very moving without being sentimental. The prose is even more spare than Didion's, and the book itself is more of an extended essay than a book length meditation on death. Unlike Didion's book, he does not focus on his grief as much as the process of his mother's death and his struggle to understand his role in it.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    I'm not a fan of his writing style. This memoir would have been better served as a long-form essay rather than in this book-format. Instead, you're subject to his roundabout meanderings and awkward sentence structures. I did find it interesting that he mentions Annie Liebowitz a total of 2 times and both VERY briefly (1 sentence each). The second time, he was quite candid with his distaste for Liebowitz - "She (Susan Sontag) would not have had the time to mourn herself and to become physically u I'm not a fan of his writing style. This memoir would have been better served as a long-form essay rather than in this book-format. Instead, you're subject to his roundabout meanderings and awkward sentence structures. I did find it interesting that he mentions Annie Liebowitz a total of 2 times and both VERY briefly (1 sentence each). The second time, he was quite candid with his distaste for Liebowitz - "She (Susan Sontag) would not have had the time to mourn herself and to become physically unrecognizable at the end even to herself, let alone humiliated posthumously by being 'memorialized' that way in thos carnival images of celebrity death taken by Annie Liebowitz." Ouch! Just borrow the book from someone or check it out at your local library.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mrs. Danvers

    This is so hard to read -- more than anything it is a memoir of guilt and anguish, and that it was published four years after Sontag's death makes it that much more sad for me. Time wasn't helping to smooth the sharp edges of Rieff's pain. I also feel so sad for Sontag, who was constitutionally incapable of accepting a terminal prognosis. Rieff wonders whether this is true for everyone; having attended a number of deaths I can say it is not. But Rieff's experience is one that needed to be told, This is so hard to read -- more than anything it is a memoir of guilt and anguish, and that it was published four years after Sontag's death makes it that much more sad for me. Time wasn't helping to smooth the sharp edges of Rieff's pain. I also feel so sad for Sontag, who was constitutionally incapable of accepting a terminal prognosis. Rieff wonders whether this is true for everyone; having attended a number of deaths I can say it is not. But Rieff's experience is one that needed to be told, because it's not the kind that is generally written about despite being as true as any other. I imagine that there are quite a few people who would take solace in this memoir, recognizing their own experience and feeling less alone.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Marilyn McEntyre

    For readers who have found Susan Sontag's writing invigorating, provocative, and challenging, as I have, her son's account of her last battle with cancer will be especially poignant. I don't think living with cancer is always a "battle," and I don't much like the metaphor, but for Sontag, it was. She wanted to go on living at virtually any cost. Reef's memoir explores his own troubled feelings about what it meant to try to support her in those efforts, encourage her as she lived with great pain, For readers who have found Susan Sontag's writing invigorating, provocative, and challenging, as I have, her son's account of her last battle with cancer will be especially poignant. I don't think living with cancer is always a "battle," and I don't much like the metaphor, but for Sontag, it was. She wanted to go on living at virtually any cost. Reef's memoir explores his own troubled feelings about what it meant to try to support her in those efforts, encourage her as she lived with great pain, and walk her toward the death she so struggled to avoid. A useful book for anyone called upon to witness the dying of someone whose way of dying may be quite different from how one imagines one's own.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    A short account by Susan Sontag's son, David Rieff, of his struggle with his mother's determination to fight a 'death sentence' as well as his own questioning of his role in that final year of her life. It seemed sad to me Sontag was never able to come to terms with her mortality, but that was her way of 'living' her life and death, and who am I to say she was wrong in how she did it. Rieff seems pretty honesty in his own questioning of his role; tho I felt he went on a bit long about it. It's a A short account by Susan Sontag's son, David Rieff, of his struggle with his mother's determination to fight a 'death sentence' as well as his own questioning of his role in that final year of her life. It seemed sad to me Sontag was never able to come to terms with her mortality, but that was her way of 'living' her life and death, and who am I to say she was wrong in how she did it. Rieff seems pretty honesty in his own questioning of his role; tho I felt he went on a bit long about it. It's a quick read, and for folks who are or have struggled with a parent's illness and death, it is worth the read.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Darleen

    My review of this book is harsh. It should never have been published as a book. At best, The New Yorker could have picked it up to do suitable homage to Sontag, but as a book, these pages were painful to read, not because of the subject of death, but because of the desperate need for editing. In a mere 179 pages, the author is redundant in his claims of Sontag's inability to reconcile herself to her own mortaility and his own unresolved guilt. In addition, there is a lack of serious reflection o My review of this book is harsh. It should never have been published as a book. At best, The New Yorker could have picked it up to do suitable homage to Sontag, but as a book, these pages were painful to read, not because of the subject of death, but because of the desperate need for editing. In a mere 179 pages, the author is redundant in his claims of Sontag's inability to reconcile herself to her own mortaility and his own unresolved guilt. In addition, there is a lack of serious reflection on the meaning of death and life. Shame on Terry Gross and NPR for promoting it so gushingly. The less said about this book, the better.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Deborah

    This is the author's story about his mother's (Susan Sontag, author) final battle with cancer, her fear of extinction and her love of life. Also, his feelings of helplessness and guilt as he tries to support her in her refusal to believe that she will die. This quote stood out for me, a mother whose adult daughter died 7 years ago: "Perhaps we become accustomed to our grief and, as it becomes increasingly familiar, increasingly part of the emotional landscape, it becomes a dullness. But there is This is the author's story about his mother's (Susan Sontag, author) final battle with cancer, her fear of extinction and her love of life. Also, his feelings of helplessness and guilt as he tries to support her in her refusal to believe that she will die. This quote stood out for me, a mother whose adult daughter died 7 years ago: "Perhaps we become accustomed to our grief and, as it becomes increasingly familiar, increasingly part of the emotional landscape, it becomes a dullness. But there is no closure, no forgetting. One mourns those one has loved who have died until one joins them. It happens soon enough." This is perhaps the best description of grief that I have yet read.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Doneen

    I thought this book would be interesting--a memoir of a son grieving his famous mother, author Susan Sontag, but it was the most impersonal account of a family member's death I've ever read. I came away thinking he'd written about someone he'd hardly even met, let alone loved and lived with. Very disappointing. I thought this book would be interesting--a memoir of a son grieving his famous mother, author Susan Sontag, but it was the most impersonal account of a family member's death I've ever read. I came away thinking he'd written about someone he'd hardly even met, let alone loved and lived with. Very disappointing.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    Rieff writes of his mother's death, author Susan Sontag. It was interesting but I wish it had been longer and told more about her life. Rieff writes of his mother's death, author Susan Sontag. It was interesting but I wish it had been longer and told more about her life.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Mary Karpel-Jergic

    This is a harrowing read which narrates the difficult feelings faced by David Reiff on the cancer and subsequent death of his mother Susan Sontag. His mother was the classic example of Dylan Thomas' poem: "Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light." And gentle it is not. In fact it all seems unnecessarily harsh for both Sontag herself who underwent tortuous treatments with only a slim hope of success, and her so This is a harrowing read which narrates the difficult feelings faced by David Reiff on the cancer and subsequent death of his mother Susan Sontag. His mother was the classic example of Dylan Thomas' poem: "Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light." And gentle it is not. In fact it all seems unnecessarily harsh for both Sontag herself who underwent tortuous treatments with only a slim hope of success, and her son who had to observe from the side-lines keeping his innermost thoughts to himself. There seems no relief that she was able to live to 71 after a breast cancer diagnosis in 1975 (she died in 2004), in fact it would appear that her choice to have radical surgery instead of chemotherapy created her sense of determination and belief in being cured of her later terminal cancer. It's as if her fear of dying eclipsed much of her joy in living. I think she may have been a difficult mother and more difficult for her son when in the throes of a crippling disease. Her deep rooted hope in a cure was relentless and prevented any meaningful conversation between them. "All we had in the end was feeling. And it was not enough." David Reiff is overwhelmed. "As she died, we swam alongside her, in the sea of death, watching her die. Then she did die. And speaking for myself, I find that I am still swimming I that sea."

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kallie

    This book is devastating and does Susan Sontag much honor. Rieff perhaps knew her better or at least as well as anyone, and shows such appreciation for his mother's (as he puts it) avidity for life, no matter how painful. In discussing her death, he touches on a process that affects us all. Anyone who has lost loved ones to disease can see some familiar coping mechanisms that one can't help but question: giving hope where there seems to be none (but how do we KNOW); guilt at not having done more This book is devastating and does Susan Sontag much honor. Rieff perhaps knew her better or at least as well as anyone, and shows such appreciation for his mother's (as he puts it) avidity for life, no matter how painful. In discussing her death, he touches on a process that affects us all. Anyone who has lost loved ones to disease can see some familiar coping mechanisms that one can't help but question: giving hope where there seems to be none (but how do we KNOW); guilt at not having done more, though as Rieff notes, even if we wanted to do so, we can't subsume our life into another person's and thus be perfectly with them, there for them, every step of the way. And Rieff narrates this process and his and his mother's reactions (or numbness) with a sincerity and skill and lack of sentimentality that evoke rather than force feeling. This is a book I intend to read again.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Christine Henneberg

    This book reads less like a memoir and more like an extended perseveration on Rieff's own guilt around his mother's death. He does not feel guilty that she died, but about the fact that he (and others) never admitted to her that he believed she was going to die (while she, in defiance of all the available information, seemed always to believe she would live). The prose is rambling and the sentences are long, complex and awkward, full of cliches and lacking in any detail that reveals to us his re This book reads less like a memoir and more like an extended perseveration on Rieff's own guilt around his mother's death. He does not feel guilty that she died, but about the fact that he (and others) never admitted to her that he believed she was going to die (while she, in defiance of all the available information, seemed always to believe she would live). The prose is rambling and the sentences are long, complex and awkward, full of cliches and lacking in any detail that reveals to us his relationship with his mother or even, really, the actual events in the months leading to her death. Instead he goes on at length about hope and who has (or doesn't have) the authority to offer it to cancer patients, and about his mother's "fear of extinction." It's a quick read, but had it been thicker I don't think I would have finished it.

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