The Bookworm: Life (and death) lessons

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“Nine Years Under”

By Sheri Booker

c. 2013, Gotham Books

$26/$27.50 Canada

272 pages

Sitting around all summer would’ve been so wrong. And that’s why you found a job that year between classes. No more parental hand-outs, no more wearing clothes your mom bought you, no more borrowing the car. With your own job, you had your own money to buy your own things, maybe help out at home, or sock some away. Finding work, yep, was the right thing to do.

For then-15-year-old Sheri Booker, the savings from her very unique job went towards college. In her new memoir, “Nine Years Under,” she explains why it was a job she’d been dying to get.

Fifteen-year-old Sheri Booker felt “ignored by God.”

She didn’t realize that “hospice care was the beginning of the end,” so when her Great-Great-Aunt Mary died of cancer, Booker was surprised and lost. Growing up in Northeast Baltimore , she had few heroes. Aunt Mary was one of them, but Booker didn’t feel like she had “permission to mourn.”

She didn’t feel like going to church, either, but her parents insisted. It was there that Booker ran into one of the church’s deacons, Mr. Albert Wylie, who also owned one of Baltimore’s many African-American funeral homes.

He didn’t ask her how she was handling her loss. Instead, he offered her a job.

For four hours a night, a few nights a week, Booker answered the phones and the door at Albert P. Wylie Funeral Home. She thought it might be weird, but it wasn’t it was interesting, and she did her work well. Soon, she was assisting with viewings and she learned her first lesson: Never let clients see you cry.

But that was difficult. Witnessing the grief of families who lost someone elderly was hard enough. Wylie Funeral Home also did a brisk business with the city’s poor, the gang-bangers and drug addicts.

Still, it was a job Booker enjoyed and soon, she started doing errands for Mr. Wylie. Then she did paperwork, filing, and bookwork. Eventually, she dressed bodies and assisted as much as she legally could. She became an honorary member of the Wylie family for nine happy years, but in work as in life all good things must come to an end

Looking for something with a great plot? Something different, delightful, but a little dark? Then you need “Nine Years Under.”

With knowledge, a willingness to disclose, and a good amount of humor, author Sheri Booker not only shares the story of her tenure as a funeral home assistant and the duties she assumed, she also gives readers a sense of what goes on behind closed doors there. She weaves this information some of which is graphic in with observations on mourners, neighbors, and the industry as a whole. I loved that Booker finds a certain amount of comedy in death and preparing for its rituals, and her musings on funerals are priceless.

This is a wonderful, wonderful book that sounds squirmy, yet is anything but. So grab “Nine Years Under” because if you think you’ll like it, you’re dead right.

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“A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home”

By Sue Halpern

c. 2013, Riverhead Books

$26.95/$28.50 Canada

320 pages

They say it can’t be done. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, they say, but you’ve spent a good amount of time doing it successfully anyhow. Sit, stay, down, you’ve taught ‘em all. It just took patience and love.

And in the new book “A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home” by Sue Halpern, it takes patients and love and sometimes, the teaching role is reversed.

Sue Halpern had her work cut out for her.

When she decided to train her seven-year-old Labradoodle, Pransky, to be a therapy dog, Halpern knew it would be a challenge. For most of her life, Pransky was a country dog, unaccustomed to leash, used to wide-open romps in the Vermont woods. She understood all kinds of words (including every synonym for “walk”), but teaching her the tasks she needed to know to formally visit the local nursing home wouldn’t be easy.

The requirements were overwhelming, but Halpern “soldiered on.” Six weeks after they began, she called County Nursing and Rehabilitation Home. Not long afterward, she went through orientation, agreed to several stipulations and a criminal background check, and Pransky passed the Therapy Dog test.

It was official: the Halpern-and-Pransky team was approved to visit County’s dementia unit but Halpern felt uneasy. Nothing she’d ever done had prepared her for what they were about to do.

She needn’t have worried: her dog had it covered.

Theologians, Halpern says, recognize seven virtues: love, faith, hope, prudence, fortitude, justice, and restraint. Once Pransky started “working,” she taught Halpern to see those virtues in herself, staff, and the residents they visited.

There was faith for Clyde, a “big flirt” who told everyone that he was leaving County on the arm of a beautiful woman; love for Dottie and Iris, dear friends who couldn’t live without one another; restraint for Scotty, who’d been a teacher before dementia set in; prudence for Stella with a “beautiful singing voice;” and fortitude for Lizzie, suffering from a rare disease.

And through it all, “Hope was the thing with wispy, tan tail feathers, that was forty-three pounds, that came when called.”

Though Mom warned me not to, I have to admit that I judged this book by its cover. “A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home” looks, at first blush, like it might consist of humorous, rompish anecdotes of nursing home life.


While you will find a few unintentional nursing home chuckles here, author Sue Halpern spends most of her pages filling readers with goodness and stories of the near-miraculous relationship between pups and people. Hers is a quiet, Zen-like book packed with philosophy, theology, and a dog. It’s more reflective, more spiritual than other dog books, and it will make you look at your canine kids with a little more wonder.

Definitely, dog lovers and TDI teams will want to read this book, but I also think there’s plenty in here for Eldercare workers, too. If that’s you, then fetch this book because missing “A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home” just can’t be done.

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.

© 2013 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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