Tag Archives: Steven Amsterdam

Paperbacks to Look Out for in July 2017

Cover imageWe’re deep into summer reading territory with the July publishing schedules, although I doubt that any of my paperback choices would be characterised as classic beach reads in publishers’ terms. Milena Busquet’s This Too Shall Pass is at least set near the sea. Blanca leaves Barcelona for the Spanish coastal town where her late mother had lived taking two ex-husbands, two sons and two best friends with her. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, she plans to meet her married lover. This novel of middle-aged angst was a huge bestseller in Spain, apparently.

Emma Chapman’s The Last Photograph also deals with bereavement. A man who photographed the Vietnam War returns to the country he last saw fifty years ago after he’s been widowed. His wife’s death has forced him to look at his past and the way in which he has been affected by it not least, presumably, because his first act on discovering her body is to position it, check the light then photograph it. This sounds such a striking start to a novel that I’m expecting great things.

Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out may not appeal to everyone although we should all read it. It’s about assisted suicide, one of the great moral dilemmas of the twenty-first century Cover imageWestern world when medicine has advanced in leaps and bounds but not the ethical framework for dealing with its unintended consequences. The novel explores this conundrum through Evan who is licensed to assist terminally ill patients’ suicides and whose mother has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Amsterdam examines the dilemmas that surround this vexed question with compassion and humanity, leavening it all with a darkly sardonic humour.

Inspired by his great-aunt, Brad Watson’s Miss Jane is the story of a woman born in rural Mississippi in 1915 with a birth defect, a genital malformation which closes the conventional path of marriage and children to her. Jane’s story is told with a quiet empathy: never sentimental, always compassionate. It’s a beautifully restrained novel, quietly laying out what it is to be different, to understand that what everyone else takes for granted you will not have, with the grace and dignity that Jane embodies. I had hoped this one might make an impression on the Baileys judges.

Cover imageMy last choice comes from Pushkin Press who publish often slightly quirky books including Butterflies in November, The Beautiful Bureaucrat and Mirror, Shoulder, Signal.  In Eric Beck Rubin’s School of Velocity a virtuoso pianist’s mind turns to his high school friendship as he tries to quiet the music in his head before a performance. Jan lost contact with Dirk but when they get back together, he begins to think he’s misunderstood Dirk’s character and the intimate bond they once shared. ‘In this powerful debut, Eric Beck Rubin conjures up a moving tale full of music and raw human emotion with a virtuoso touch’ says the publisher.

That’s it for July’s paperback selection. A click on a title will take you to my review for Miss Jane and The Easy Way Out, or to a fuller synopsis for the other three should you want to know more. If you’d like to catch up with the hardbacks here they are.

The Easy Way Out by Steven Amsterdam: There isn’t one

Cover imageThis novel is unlikely to appeal to everyone although we should all read it. It’s about assisted suicide, one of the great moral dilemmas of the twenty-first century Western world where medicine has advanced in leaps and bounds but not the ethical framework for dealing with its unintended consequences. Steven Amsterdam’s sharp, funny novel explores this conundrum through Evan, a nurse whose mother has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Evan is about to administer his first lethal dose to a builder riddled with cancer. Teddy’s family are with him: his wife not quite holding things together and his daughters not quite believing what’s about to happen. As a nurse on Mercy Hospital’s assisted suicide programme, a pilot project made possible by the enactment of a new law, Evan is closely monitored, part of a strict protocol carefully designed to protect all parties. His first assignment is a little bumpy but all is smoothed out in the debrief. After work, as he does every day, Evan visits Viv in the nursing home where a new treatment appears to have transformed her from the waspish, distant woman he knows and loves into the garishly made up, life and soul of the party. On one of Evan’s ‘assists’ he oversteps the mark, offering a little too much in the way of help, putting both himself and his boss in an untenable position. Soon he’s working off-grid, stepping over the line into unregulated territory, convinced that his vocation is to help those who want to be helped. Meanwhile, Viv moves out of her nursing facility, shrugging off his offers of help and urging him to find himself a life. Despite his relationship with Lon and Simon who have invited him into their lives and into their bed, the only support he’ll allow is from the roommate he met during Viv’s brief commune days. When Viv’s stabilisation dips into a disastrous decline, Evan is faced with a choice.

The Easy Way Out is an extraordinarily powerful novel, made all the more so by the knowledge of Amsterdam’s own work as a palliative care nurse. No axes are ground here: Amsterdam explores the dilemmas that surround this vexed question with compassion and humanity, leavening it all with a darkly sardonic humour – gallows if you like. Both Evan and Viv are sharply drawn. Evan’s lonely mission and its emotional fallout is painfully believable while Viv is wonderfully acerbic – Evan imagines her fury at being called ‘feisty’, that over-used cliché applied to women who speak up for themselves at a time when that’s something she can no longer do. It’s a smart, though-provoking novel that pulls no punches from its hard-hitting opening chapter to its surprising end. I was reminded of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal as I read it – we all need to have conversations about our old age and decline, stop ducking the issue and pretending it won’t happen to us. And if our country decides, as some already have, that we must find a safe and secure way to legitimise assisted suicide we need to think carefully about the burden we place on those charged to assist. This is a brave novel – wise, funny and gripping. We should do Amsterdam the courtesy of giving it careful consideration.

Books to Look Out for In November 2016

Swing TimeA new Zadie Smith novel is always the cause of a great deal of pre-publication anticipation. Twitter has been all agog for some time ensuring that Swing Time will turn up in quite a few Christmas stockings. Moving between Smith’s home territory of north-west London to West Africa and New York, it spans the years from the 1980s to the present following two childhood friends who meet at a ballet class. ‘Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them’ say the publishers which reminds me of Kim Echlin’s wonderful, Under the Invisible Life, a novel which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved.

The subject of Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out is something of an attention-grabber. It looks at assisted suicide through the experiences of Evan, a hospital nurse who helps people to die, something he keeps firmly under his hat from his friends. A tricky love life, his increasingly unwell mother and his supervisor’s concerns as he sails ever-closer to the wind in terms of morality and law add further spice in what the publishers describe as ‘a brilliantly funny and exquisitely sad novel that gets to the heart of one of the most difficult questions each of us may face: would you help someone die?’ ‘Brilliantly funny’ may be the best approach to engage readers with this dilemma with which many countries, including the UK, frequently wrestle but never manage to resolve.Cover image

Mette Jakobsen’s What the Light Hides explores suicide but in a rather different way. Vera and David live in the Blue Mountains, still passionately in love after twenty years of marriage. Jakobsen’s novel begins five months after their son apparently took his own life in Sydney where he was at university. Vera is coping but David cannot accept his son’s death, taking himself off to Sydney to try to make sense of things. ‘Mette Jakobsen’s gifts of delicate and empathetic observation are on display in this tender and moving novel’ say the publishers. I’ve read several excellent novels from the Australian Text Publishing and have high hopes for this one.

Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle sounds a world away from her last novel Upstairs at the Party which I loved. It’s set against the backdrop of a TB sanatorium in Kent at the beginning of the 1950s, where a teenage brother and sister ’living on the edge of the law… … discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched’ according to the publisher. I haven’t enjoyed all of Grant’s novels but this sounds well worth a try.

Sara Stridsberg’s The Gravity of Love is set in another kind of hospital, just outside Stockholm. Jimmie Darling’s daughter visits her father in the psychiatric institution where he is in the charge of Edvard Winterson, happy to take his patients for the odd night out. When her mother disappears on holiday, the hospital becomes Jackie’s world and she makes the acquaintance of what sounds like a vivid cast of characters. ‘In Sara Stridsberg’s breathtakingly beautiful novel, the psychiatric hospital, set in a lovely park close to a lake, takes on near-mythic dimensions, both as an avenging angel and as a redeemer of lost souls’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but it’s been much praised in Stridsberg’s native Sweden.

Gerard Reve’s The Evenings is set in one of my favourite European cities which is one of its draws for me. It’s the story of ten evenings in the life of Frits van Egters as he walks the streets of post-war Amsterdam. That may seem a tad dull but it’s been voted one of the greatest novels of all time by the highly literary Dutch. Described by the publishers as ‘edgy, mesmerising, darkly ironical’ it sounds quite intriguing.

Cover imageMy last choice for November is Brad Watson’s Miss Jane which was inspired by the true story of Watson’s great-aunt, Jane Chisolm, born in rural Mississippi in the early twentieth century with, as the publishers put it, a ‘genital birth defect that would stand in the way of the central “uses” for a woman in that time and place – namely, sex and marriage’. ‘From the country doctor who adopts Jane to the hard tactile labour of farm life from the sensual and erotic world of nature around her to the boy who loved but was forced to leave her, the world of Miss Jane Chisolm is anything but barren’ continues the blurb. It sounds like an uplifting read which after several of the novels listed above may come as something of a welcome change.

That’s it for November. As ever a click on the title will take you to a full synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks soon…