The Bookworm: Creepy murders and creeping mortality await

“Mr. Shivers”

by Robert Jackson Bennett

You swore you’d never do it. But you did. In your mind, there was a line you’d never cross. Something you wouldn’t or couldn’t do. An act. A purchase. A relationship, or something you couldn’t abide. It wasn’t for you and you weren’t doing it, so there. Then you did it, and you ended up eating those famous last words.

What does it take for a person to do something he never imagined himself doing? In the new book “Mr. Shivers,” by Robert Jackson Bennett, it took the loss of his child for Marcus Connelly to chase evil.

Word was that nobody was going west, yet jalopies headed that way all the time, filled with people in search of a job or a new start. Walking was slow, jumping a train was dangerous, but it was always possible to hitch a ride with a friendly stranger. It was the Great Depression, and it seemed like everybody was going somewhere. Marcus Connelly was going after the gray man.

Not long ago, Connelly was a husband, a father, and happy. Then the gray man killed his little girl, his Molly, and Connelly could hardly stand to live. He vowed that the gray man with the tattered coat and the stench, the one they called Shiver-Man, would pay.

But it wasn’t going to be easy. No matter where Connelly went, Mr. Shivers was two steps ahead. In hobo camps and Hoovervilles, people said they’d seen him, but he vanished like smoke. Even when Connelly hooked up with other men seeking the mysterious killer, the Shiver-Man was elusive.

But Mr. Shivers had friends, and some of them snatched Connelly and his comrades, imprisoned them and hurt them bad. Escaping from a horrifying jail, Connelly realized two things: Shiver-Man was afraid of Connelly and Mr. Shivers wasn’t going to go down without a fight. The hunter was suddenly the hunted.

As Connelly passed from Oklahoma to New Mexico (or was he in Colorado?) he knew that the Shiver-Man was watching, but there was no way Connelly stop his mission, because the question remained: can someone kill Death?

Set in the Dust Bowl years (yet slightly futuristic), “Mr. Shivers” lives up to its name – if, that is, you can keep your focus on the novel and ignore the near-Shakespearean prose that overpopulates its pages. Bennett makes readers of this thriller uneasy almost from the outset, so squirmy are the situations in which his characters must pass. I liked how Connelly, a decent man before his daughter’s death, becomes a monster, despite himself, and it’s hard waiting for the inevitable nastiness to happen to him.

But wait you must, as you slog through monologues that are in stout need of an axe. I truly enjoyed this story, but I could have withstood way less verbosity. Still, for a debut novel, “Mr. Shivers” ain’t bad. If you want to read an unsettling (albeit wordy) tale that will have you checking behind doors and avoiding dark rooms, do it with this one.

“Last Acts”

by David J. Casarett, M.D.

Your friend was really something. When he was young, he never met a challenge he didn’t like and though he grew up, he never outgrew his love of adventure. There was always a story on his lips, usually one that made you laugh. They said he was a favorite at the hospital, always joking. And now that he’s gone, his exuberance for his life makes you ponder your own. What would you do if you knew you were dying?

Throughout his career, David J. Casarett, M.D., has seen death, and what he thinks are interesting ways of dealing with it. In his new book, “Last Acts,” he writes about how the end of life can be rich with opportunity.

You can only imagine the feelings your friend had when his doctor gave him the bad news. Surely, he was scared, but was it with regret or resolve? Throughout years of working with patients at the end of their lives, Casarett has seen many reactions to imminent death, and he’s become curious about them. “…I find that my attention is caught and held simply by the efforts of those… who wanted to make something of the time that they have left,” he says.

There are, of course, as many varied and personal actions as there are patients. In this book, he tells the stories of dozens of people who chose to face their deaths in ways that Casarett is able to basically categorize.

Some, like Jacob, ask for every possible minute of breath, even if it means that those minutes will be spent isolated from family. Others, like Danny and a grandmother who went unnamed, pull their families tighter to them, hoping to leave happy memories for loved ones and wishing for the best reminisces.

There are those, like Tom, who don’t want to dwell upon death, choosing instead to distract themselves or to steadfastly hang on to their identities by continuing to work. Some, like Christine, wish to convey wisdom and peace. And – not surprisingly – there are people who rail against dying, bitter and unapologetic, hoping for revenge, angry and fearful with denial.

I had mixed feelings about “Last Acts.” Casarett’s book will surely resonate with everyone who’s old enough to have lost a loved one to a lingering illness. Without a doubt, the stories he presents are well-chosen; some are very beautiful and spirit-warming, while others make you sad for opportunities lost. No doubt, they’ll start conversations.

But in-between each story, Casarett teases out a “Why?” (Why did this patient do this, or that patient choose differently?), much of which I found confounding. “Why,” is largely conjecture here and the reasoning will never be learned, so I had a hard time appreciating hypotheses about decisions that may have been made just because.

I think this book will probably be best appreciated by medical professionals or clergymen and women, and possibly by the not-so-recently-bereaved. But for casually curious readers, “Last Acts” is one to pass on.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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