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How Shall I Tell the Dog?: And Other Final Musings Hardcover – June 16, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Written as a series of fictional letters to his agent and friend, Gill, proposing the book he has more or less written, late British humorist Kington (1941-2008) offers a witty, bittersweet slice of meta-nonfiction about his struggle with pancreatic cancer-or, more precisely, his struggle to write a book about it: "phrases like 'cashing in on cancer' give quite the wrong impression. What I mean is, 'making cancer work for its living.'" One letter is devoted to a list of cancer IFAQs, or Infrequently Asked Questions-what you wouldn't know to ask and wouldn't like the answers to besides-in which Kington gets wrapped up in ideas of denial (more like "cold-shouldering?") and astrology. Another responds to bestseller 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, which he calls "grimly prescient" and "nasty"; he proposes a more practical volume like A Hundred Things to Do Before You Die, with simpler goals like whistling loudly. And, inevitably, he considers the question of his healthy 10-year-old springer spaniel, who has at least five years on Kington. Throughout the goofy proceedings, Kington remains tuned to his condition but focuses on his relationships and life story, sparing much of the harsh physical reality; perhaps more stirring in omission, Kington writes around the pain to produce a touching, funny and life-affirming look at death.
"Laughter was [Kington's] lifeblood. With unflinching courage and undiminished inventiveness, this unique, quirky wordsmith coped with his dying in the only way he could, by escaping into his surreal imagination and taking a squint at death's funny side." -Daily Mail (London) --Daily Mail (London)
"If I were still editor of The Times of London, I'd probably skip going to the office every day because I'd no longer find, in those pre-digital days, the sizzingly funny folios of copy from Miles Kington. They cheered us up to no end. He's done it again with this original memoir. How could he, for heaven's sake, when he's writing about his cancer? Don't flinch. Read it. You owe it to yourself." --Harold Evans, author of They Made America and The American Century --Harold Evans, author of They Made America and The American Century
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But this is an important book; all of us will embark on that Final Journey someday, and most of us deal with that certainty -- the only absolute certainty -- by ignoring it. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt; it's our favorite defense mechanism. ("I know I have to die," Woody Allen wrote. "I just don't want to be there when it happens.") As Kington explains, this is not wise; most folks arrive at the end of their lives, having known since childhood that such a time would eventually come, completely unprepared. This makes little sense. It's scary, yes; anything unknown -- and unknowable -- is scary. But in the end, facing your fears trumps avoiding them every time, and this book will help you do that, gently and humorously. As one professional reviewer wrote, "Don't flinch, read it."
I wasn't crazy about the series-of-letters format, in which the book, in essence, documents its own creation -- hence one star subtracted. But Kington, writing with a very big boulder hanging over his head, may not have had sufficient time for revisions.
Few folks can accept their impending demise with serenity and grace; fewer still can articulate the process. We should all learn from Miles Kington's wonderful example.
This review is not about the book but about how one's life can flash before one's eyes through the knowledge that in 190 pages is a goodbye forever to someone that was so much a part of one's adult life. In coming to the halfway point in the book, I am once again reminded why he became a favourite in the first place. He is charmingly self deprecating, he makes me laugh - I laughed at the book ideas he had (one I would so have bought if he had written it) and for the first time, my heart ached for him, for the people he had to leave behind.
Maybe another time I will come back to this review and write it better. But for now, thank you Miles Kington for saying goodbye.
Miles, the writer, is always on the lookout for the next good idea for his new book. First, he gets the urge to write another book, then he comes up with the idea for the book itself. At the age of 66 he is given a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, a generally fatal cancer. He queries his oncologist, who thinks that writing a personal journal about living with cancer would be good therapy. Then he begins to brainstorm one final book, and all sorts of ideas --- interesting, useful and a few downright bizarre --- spill forth in many letters to his literary agent, Gill. The reader is left to assume what Gill's replies might be.
Miles decides that the book 1,000 PLACES TO SEE BEFORE YOU DIE by Patricia Schultz needs a rewrite by someone like him who knows he does not have time to see all those places. So why not come up with a much shorter and more realistic list? How about a book of what to do on the way, or once you get there? Surely just ticking off a list of exotic places seen is not what travel should be about.
Though his elderly father-in-law will go down in history as the man who did not assassinate Colonel Guaddafy, Miles believes that a patient who has a terminal disease might be just the one to rid the world of a truly evil person. What is there to lose? He doesn't ruminate upon this unusual thought too long before he is off on another tangent. What about a book about Niagara Falls written from the perspective of many people, some famous, some not? What about a book about all the infrequently asked questions about cancer? How interesting would that be? Surely not a bestseller. If he's going to cash in on this cancer thing, he has to come up with a better idea.
Miles muses about creating a television program, a documentary of sorts, about looking over and clearing out all the accumulated paper clutter (which he refers to as "the great mess") before one shuffles off this mortal coil. Perhaps a book that explains how to do all the things one wanted to learn to do but never did get around to, like yodeling or whistling with two fingers in one's mouth or executing a graceful cartwheel. Then there's always a child's book about cancer, a board game about death...the possibilities seem endless.
Miles worries that his beloved dog, Berry, who will now surely outlive his master, has absolutely no idea what is happening to him. How does one explain death to a dog? What if Berry insists on being taken for a walk at the very moment that Miles is drawing his last breath?
Readers of HOW SHALL I TELL THE DOG? will gain a true appreciation of the author's wit, courage and grace. Although living with cancer will never, ever be funny, Miles Kington has taught his audience that it is possible to enjoy some lighthearted moments along the way.
--- Reviewed by Carole Turner