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Swimming In A Sea Of Death


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About the Author

David Rieff is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of seven previous books, including the acclaimed At the Point of a Gun- Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention; A Bed for the Night- Humanitarianism in Crisis; and Slaughterhouse- Bosnia and the Failure of the West. He lives in New York City.


At age 70, Susan Sontag was diagnosed with a virulent form of blood cancer, her third bout with cancer over the course of 30 years and one she would not win. Her son, journalist Rieff (At the Point of a Gun), accompanied her through her final illness and death, and offers an extraordinarily open, moving account of the trial and journey. Sontag's "avidity" for life had prompted her to beat the advanced breast cancer that devastated her in 1975; she now resolved to fight the statistical odds of dying from myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), despite the pessimistic prognosis from doctors. Rieff, who admits he was not close to his mother over the preceding decade, is silenced by Sontag's refusal to reconcile herself to dying and unable to console her. Both mother and son are by turns angered by doctors' infantilizing treatment of terminally ill patients and by their squelching of hope. Anxious, chronically unhappy and obsessed with gathering information about her disease, Sontag was unable to be alone, and Rieff becomes one in a circle of devotees who rotate staying with her at her New York City apartment. A doctor is found who does not believe her case is hopeless, and in Seattle she undergoes a bone-marrow transplant. In this sea of death, Sontag took her son with her-conflicted, wracked, but wrenchingly candid, Rieff attempts to swim out. (Jan.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

The death of a parent is never easy, but when your mother is the well-known Susan Sontag, is a memoir even necessary? For Rieff (At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention), it serves as a clarification of his mother's beliefs, a critique of the medical community, and a brief rest from the survivor's guilt trip. As he says, "I still cannot believe there was nothing I could do to help." Sontag had already survived two bouts of cancer when she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (a form of leukemia) in 2004. The prognosis was not good, but Sontag continued to do whatever she had to do to eke out more time on this earth. It wasn't a matter of denial; it was finding hope in information (mostly via the Internet): "the more you knew, the better your chances of cheating death once more." Rieff has a lyrical way with the terminology of illness and death that makes it seem less frightening. He speaks directly to the reader, for surely we can commiserate. Ultimately, this book presents a son trying to understand his mother's life and death and needing validation that, in the end, he did the right thing. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Bette-Lee Fox, Library Journal Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

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