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Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 8, 2008

3.3 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. (Jan.)
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"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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 180 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (January 8, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743299469
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743299466
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.8 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #886,390 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By R S Cobblestone VINE VOICE on January 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover
How does a son respond when told that his mother is dying? Is there a difference when this is not the first time? What does it mean to the soul when the cure itself kills?

American writer Susan Sontag died in 2004 of a form of cancer brought on by her earlier aggressive treatments for advanced breast cancer. She was told of her fatal condition as she was accompanied by her son, David Rieff. Nine months later she was dead.

Is there any difference between fighting for life and fighting against death? In Sontag's case, it seems that her goal was to survive and to live life to the fullest. She was a believer in a "take no prisoners" approach to her cancer treatments... a serious disease required an equally serious treatment, and a dedication to this treatment. For her, according to Rieff, death was not an option.

"But with the greatest respect [for her oncologists], the brute fact of mortality means that there are limits on how much better we can realistically expect to do" (p. 166).

This is a book of two viewpoints: what Rieff as a son saw of his mother and himself as the MDS progressed, and how Sontag approached life and death during this period.

Both were brave, and reflective.

"During the months I watched my mother die, I was increasingly at a loss as to how I could behave toward her in ways that actually would be helpful. Mostly, I felt at sea" (p. 103).

"She told me at one point that she was tormented by the amount of time she had wasted during her life on what she called her 'Girl Scout-ish' obsession with doing 'worthy' things" (p. 106).
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1 Comment 34 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Hardcover
The New York Times review of this book concluded that Susan Sontag's death was the kind of death most people would want to avoid--a hard death. Yes, but that aside, this book by her son offers readers little other than the chronicle of one unreflective perspective on a series of difficult events.

To begin, the book is poorly edited, which is a great shame. (One brief example: "Remembering how my mother had behaved during her previous cancers, her close friends also began to search online, and were soon e-mailing to Anne the most informative or promising materials or links that they had found online.")

Also, it is highly repetitive in content. One entire chapter is almost exclusively focused on maligning a brochure put out by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Rieff devotes page after page to berating it for essentially adopting his own attitude toward his mother during her illness: "a refusal to write as if bad news were bad news and despair were despair." Additionally, he revisits in almost every chapter the main theme of the book--that he does not know whether giving her the answers that he thought she wanted to hear (that is, lying to her about her chances for survival) was what he should have done. Once, or maybe twice, would have been poignant. But one can surmise that a briefer treatment would not have given this volume the length to justify publication.

In addition, the narrative portrays Rieff's experiences in detail but with little insight. He attempts to present his mother's thoughts about death, but since he did not know her well, he could only do this through a conjectured reading of her diaries.
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3 Comments 35 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Hardcover
Memoirs written after the death of a loved one can either be elegies radiant with poetic inspiration or they can be self-serving eulogies. David Rieff, a thoughtful and intelligent writer, happens to be the son of Susan Sontag, one of America's most brilliant authors and essayists, a woman of great courage with the gift of exploring concepts of our society that she found in need of our attention while at the same time a being novelist able to spin meaningful tales about the indomitable human spirit. SWIMMING IN A SEA OF DEATH: A SON'S MEMOIR is far more than a rehash of an artist's life and exit from life: this book is a work of sensitive evaluation of not only a great woman but also of the myriad aspects of our healthcare system, both good and bad, and the delicate yet coarsely bumpy path that begins with the diagnosis of a terminal disease and ends with the sigh that completes mortality. From this book we learn not only the trials of Susan Sontag's battle with three attacks of cancer (breast cancer in 1975 with radical surgery and chemotherapy, uterine sarcoma in 1998, and Myelodysplastic Syndrome in 2004), but we also learn about the relationship of a son and mother and the challenges to each in coping with threatening diseases and ultimately death.

What makes this 'memoir' so different is the frank honesty of the author David Rieff. He reflects on the avid love for living that ruled Sontag's life, her refusal to give in when she felt that fighting the odds was better than the alternative of doing nothing.
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