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Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoirby David Rieff
"Swimming in a Sea of Death, Rieff's memoir of the last, excruciatingly painful months of his mother's life, is as riveting as it is unremittingly harrowing. In those months, Sontag swung between despair and stubborn hope....The irony isn't lost on Rieff that his mother, a resolute atheist, had an almost religious belief in the always onward and upward progress of scientific research." Brigitte Frase, Star-Tribune (read the entire Star-Tribune review)
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The title of David Rieff's new book is grim but apt. Three years after his mother, Susan Sontag, died, Rieff remains deeply immersed in her last illness: its momentum, its personalities, even its language. In 2004, Sontag was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a deadly form of leukemia. She chose to fight the disease with radical treatment, having successfully battled earlier bouts of breast... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) cancer and uterine sarcoma. It became the task of her son and her friends, and to some degree of her doctors, to offer hope all along the way that there was a chance, however small, to bring the disease into remission. Rieff describes with piercing accuracy how loved ones of the terminally ill pick their way unsteadily between realistic prognosis and meaningful support, between truth and hope. To maintain one's emotional balance while a dying parent fights for her life is an excruciatingly painful and exhausting exercise. One has to accept the probability of death and the authenticity of the struggle for life — both at the same time. For a very small percentage of terminal cancer patients in even the worst cases, remission can occur. Somebody, after all, gets to be part of that lucky group. While his mother was sick, Rieff, a contributing writer for the New York Times and author of seven previous books, chose not to write about her illness, not even to take notes or write in a journal. To do so seemed to him both distancing and futile. 'What my mother and I shared were words,' he writes, 'and yet now they felt all but valueless — like Confederate dollars or Soviet roubles.' Instead, he became a companion, a confidant, an adviser and a research assistant. He helped his mother to investigate every aspect of the disease, to work with a series of doctors whose medical conclusions and interpersonal skills varied widely, and to explore any potentially helpful treatment, however minuscule its chance of effectiveness. He offered her the reassurance she desperately craved, telling her what she wanted to hear and what he did not believe: that against all the odds, she could survive. Rieff describes with admiration the ability of skillful physicians to convey the medical reality and give encouragement simultaneously. With the advantages of experience, objectivity and access to promising new treatments, they are able to envision not only the worst but also the best of possible outcomes, so that a Parisian oncologist could write honestly to Sontag after viewing her slides, 'I do not think your case is hopeless.' For Rieff, though, his mother's situation was catastrophic, and the choice 'boiled down to hope or truth.' By choosing to give her hope, he wonders now whether he 'might not have made things worse for her.' He raises an impossible question, one to which there can be no answer. A fast-moving cancer is a vortex of tremendous force, drawing everyone around the sick person into a dark spin of diagnostics, drugs, doctors, hospitals, 'procedures' and treatments, with little room left for emotional exploration. It is only after the inevitable death that the burden of feelings that survivors have carried can be examined. The most tenacious of these is often guilt, not so much the guilt of survivorship as the guilt of helplessness, the feeling that one should have done something more. Rieff's book is suffused, almost tainted, with self-questionings, but he writes so well that instead of muddying the narrative with these, he offers a clear and rare perspective on the dilemma of the loving witness — spouse, partner, sibling, child. On the one hand, he must absorb the full enormity of the disease in its every detail and implication. On the other, he must give his sick mother what she needs most, even if what she needs most is a lie that seems to contradict everything in her character, and in his. To be in such a position means being divided against oneself during one of the most intense events a life can hold. To describe this position so unflinchingly, and with such eloquence, means that David Rieff is his mother's son. Reeve Lindbergh has written a number of books for children and adults. Her next book, 'Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age and Other Unexpected Adventures,' will be published this spring." Reviewed by Reeve Lindbergh, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"What is shocking about the memoir is how ordinary Sontag seems....For a writer who voluntarily embarks on a memoir about his mother, Rieff is curiously silent on the subject of their relationship, but the contrast in styles speaks for itself." New York Times
"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." Library Journal
"A beautifully formed and philosophically probing memoir of an all-out fight for life and a sons love for his mother, and a deeply moving tribute to a world-altering writer." Booklist
"Susan Sontag was fiercely, exuberantly alive, and uncompromising in her life no less than her work. David Rieff's fine, tender, and unflinching portrait of her final illness brings home her absolute determination to survive to the last — to survive against the odds and live creatively despite a devastating disease and an unproven cancer treatment. At once a report from the frontlines of experimental oncology and a moving, absorbing personal account of his mother's last illness, Swimming in a Sea of Death is a courageous and darkly beautiful book." Oliver Sacks
"Rieff, who admits that he fears dying, writes thoughtfully about a child's duties in the time of dying. A useful handbook of a sort, as well as a concluding chapter to his mother's life." Kirkus Reviews
"Watching Sontag die from a distance here, seeing her strategize, strategize against the dying of the light, is to be reminded of what made her so impressive....Sontag's admirers will appreciate the son's many sharp insights into his mother." Philadelphia Inquirer
"[Rieff] brings a certain amount of literary confidence to the writing table....[An] intelligent, provocative memoir." Newsday
"Rieff's memoir of the last, excruciatingly painful months of his mother's life, is as riveting as it is unremittingly harrowing." Minneapolis Star Tribune
Both a memoir and an investigation, Rieff's tribute to his mother — writer Susan Sontag — explores her final battle with cancer and looks at the state of medical science and leading cancer physicians who combine treating patients with pursuing the cutting edge of research.
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.
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