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From one of our most perceptive and provocative voices comes a deeply researched account of the last days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak—an arresting and wholly original meditation on mortality.   In The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe takes an unexpected and liberating approach to the most unavoidable of subjects. She investigates From one of our most perceptive and provocative voices comes a deeply researched account of the last days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak—an arresting and wholly original meditation on mortality.   In The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe takes an unexpected and liberating approach to the most unavoidable of subjects. She investigates the last days of five great thinkers, writers, and artists as they come to terms with the reality of approaching death, or what T. S. Eliot called “the evening hour that strives Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea.”   Roiphe draws on her own extraordinary research and access to the family, friends, and caretakers of her subjects. Here is Susan Sontag, the consummate public intellectual, who finds her commitment to rational thinking tested during her third bout with cancer. Roiphe takes us to the hospital room where, after receiving the worst possible diagnosis, seventy-six-year-old John Updike begins writing a poem. She vividly re-creates the fortnight of almost suicidal excess that culminated in Dylan Thomas’s fatal collapse on the floor of a Greenwich Village tavern. She gives us a bracing portrait of Sigmund Freud fleeing Nazi-occupied Vienna only to continue in his London exile the compulsive cigar smoking that he knows will hasten his decline. And she shows us how Maurice Sendak’s beloved books for children are infused with his lifelong obsession with death, if you know where to look.   The Violet Hour is a book filled with intimate and surprising revelations. In the final acts of each of these creative geniuses are examples of courage, passion, self-delusion, pointless suffering, and superb devotion. There are also moments of sublime insight and understanding where the mind creates its own comfort. As the author writes, “If it’s nearly impossible to capture the approach of death in words, who would have the most hope of doing it?” By bringing these great writers’ final days to urgent, unsentimental life, Katie Roiphe helps us to look boldly in the face of death and be less afraid.


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From one of our most perceptive and provocative voices comes a deeply researched account of the last days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak—an arresting and wholly original meditation on mortality.   In The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe takes an unexpected and liberating approach to the most unavoidable of subjects. She investigates From one of our most perceptive and provocative voices comes a deeply researched account of the last days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak—an arresting and wholly original meditation on mortality.   In The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe takes an unexpected and liberating approach to the most unavoidable of subjects. She investigates the last days of five great thinkers, writers, and artists as they come to terms with the reality of approaching death, or what T. S. Eliot called “the evening hour that strives Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea.”   Roiphe draws on her own extraordinary research and access to the family, friends, and caretakers of her subjects. Here is Susan Sontag, the consummate public intellectual, who finds her commitment to rational thinking tested during her third bout with cancer. Roiphe takes us to the hospital room where, after receiving the worst possible diagnosis, seventy-six-year-old John Updike begins writing a poem. She vividly re-creates the fortnight of almost suicidal excess that culminated in Dylan Thomas’s fatal collapse on the floor of a Greenwich Village tavern. She gives us a bracing portrait of Sigmund Freud fleeing Nazi-occupied Vienna only to continue in his London exile the compulsive cigar smoking that he knows will hasten his decline. And she shows us how Maurice Sendak’s beloved books for children are infused with his lifelong obsession with death, if you know where to look.   The Violet Hour is a book filled with intimate and surprising revelations. In the final acts of each of these creative geniuses are examples of courage, passion, self-delusion, pointless suffering, and superb devotion. There are also moments of sublime insight and understanding where the mind creates its own comfort. As the author writes, “If it’s nearly impossible to capture the approach of death in words, who would have the most hope of doing it?” By bringing these great writers’ final days to urgent, unsentimental life, Katie Roiphe helps us to look boldly in the face of death and be less afraid.

30 review for The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End

  1. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    3.5 When I was young, not that I think I am old now, I would pluck books off the shelves like candy. I had a few favorite authors but never really thought about their lives outside their words on the page. This book is about death, but it is also about their lives, their personalities, and all that went into how they approached the ends of their lives. I realized a while back how reading about an authors lives gives one a unique perspective on their writing. Like our children, their books are a 3.5 When I was young, not that I think I am old now, I would pluck books off the shelves like candy. I had a few favorite authors but never really thought about their lives outside their words on the page. This book is about death, but it is also about their lives, their personalities, and all that went into how they approached the ends of their lives. I realized a while back how reading about an authors lives gives one a unique perspective on their writing. Like our children, their books are a part of them. I particularly liked the sections on Susan Sontag, whose fiction or so it states,has many times focused on death. She was a fighter till the end. She is a author I have never read but will definitely do so now. Also loved the section on James Salter, again never read but do have a copy of Light Years which I have dug out. Not just their death but their lives, their quirks and they had many, Freud was a study in contradictions, are all thoroughly discussed in this book. Extremely readable, informative and gave me an appreciation of a few writers I now need to read. ARC from Netgalley.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lolly K Dandeneau

    I devoured this. I don't find it macabre to be interested in death, let's face it- it's coming for all of us. Here some accept it, fight it, fear it, embrace it, question it and create with it. What better way to face your fears than to use it as a creative outlet?The panic that Updike felt isn't really that shocking to me. I think more people, at some point in their lives, have struggled with the fact that 'one day I am going to die. Then what?' I have to admit I came away not thinking to highl I devoured this. I don't find it macabre to be interested in death, let's face it- it's coming for all of us. Here some accept it, fight it, fear it, embrace it, question it and create with it. What better way to face your fears than to use it as a creative outlet?The panic that Updike felt isn't really that shocking to me. I think more people, at some point in their lives, have struggled with the fact that 'one day I am going to die. Then what?' I have to admit I came away not thinking to highly of him though. More than any of the people in The Violet Hour, I fell in love with Maurice Sendak. What an interesting fellow and I never knew the hidden meanings behind his books. There really is something endearing about him, and such a sad childhood, no wonder he drew monsters, wild things. "Maurice was one of those confusing people who needed both unusual amounts of solitude and unusual amounts of attention." I can relate to that and his love of cakes. I know many find the subject of death dark, death is supposed to be a subtraction, a void, a disturbing untouched fact of life- but I didn't feel that way. I found beauty in their vulnerability. There are moments I was disgusted by selfishness and then had to say, well- these are real people and everyone is messy in their own way. There isn't a reader alive that can't relate to this book. I could go on talking about everyone and what they felt, but I don't want to take away from Roiphe's work. This was fantastic non-fiction. Something about it just touched me and kept me up reading all night. Books find you at the right time, I have been talking about the subject of death with my own son lately. He, at 19 is more fearful of what happens next and there has been much discussion. Books know where they are needed, one of the universe's strange mysteries readers ponder. How do books end up in our hands at the right time?

  3. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    The subtitle – “Great Writers at the End” – gives you a hint of what to expect from this erudite, elegiac work of literary biography. In a larger sense, it is about coming to terms with the fear of death, one of the last enduring Western phobias. Roiphe was a sickly, morbid child. After a serious, extended case of something like pneumonia, she had half a lung removed, and her chosen reading was books about Armenian genocide. Although she was convinced she was going to die at 12, it was only a bli The subtitle – “Great Writers at the End” – gives you a hint of what to expect from this erudite, elegiac work of literary biography. In a larger sense, it is about coming to terms with the fear of death, one of the last enduring Western phobias. Roiphe was a sickly, morbid child. After a serious, extended case of something like pneumonia, she had half a lung removed, and her chosen reading was books about Armenian genocide. Although she was convinced she was going to die at 12, it was only a blip; her next significant encounter with death was her father’s cardiac arrest at age 82. Once again, she was utterly unprepared. In investigating six great authors’ deaths, Roiphe is not so much looking for sage tour guides to the underworld as asking how one faces and narrates death. To start with I was skeptical about Roiphe’s set of chosen writers. Between Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter there’s no class or racial diversity, and the gender balance is poor. Yet as I read on I set these quibbles aside. There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands of subjects Roiphe could have chosen, so in a sense the particular authors discussed here are arbitrary. She’s eschewed more obvious candidates like Christopher Hitchens, probably because he wrote enough about his own impending mortality himself. The criteria were probably as plain as this: an author who meant something to Roiphe, left a lot of documentary evidence, preferably had some living descendants and colleagues to interview, and whose death was drawn out enough that s/he had time to wrestle with the thought of it in writing. Starting each chapter with the vigil at an author’s deathbed in a hospital room or at home, Roiphe skips back and forth in time to pinpoint where illness and death cropped up in that author’s life and work. For Susan Sontag, dying at New York’s Sloan Kettering in 2004, it was her third bout with cancer. A final extreme intervention, a bone marrow transplant at Seattle, had recently failed. Still Sontag shirked the notion of death, refusing even to talk about it. Work was how she had always transcended the specter of death – by writing books like Illness as Metaphor and inserting scenes of false death into her fiction – and now it was all that kept her going. Perhaps, Roiphe theorizes, there was a kind of solipsism at the heart of Sontag’s denial of death: she just could not believe that anything would continue existing without her. Well before her first experience of cancer in the 1970s, she wrote in a notebook: “Too abstract: death. Too concrete: me.” One might expect Freud to have been more disciplined about the business of dying, what with his theory of Thanatos (the death drive) and his frequently professed acceptance. However, as Roiphe emphasizes, it is one thing to say you accept death, and quite another thing to actually accept it. In Freud’s case, his refusal to give up cigars despite painful throat cancer and 33 oral surgeries flew in the face of his otherwise rational methods. Cigars were his only vice, he shrugged. Is a cigar just a cigar, or are there overt sexual connotations? For Updike, sex was like Freud’s cigars: sensual evidence that life goes on. Adultery, a frequent theme in his fiction, was perhaps an unconscious strategy for ‘cheating’ death. It was only after his diagnosis with lung cancer that death replaced sex as the central obsession of his work. His last book, like his first, would be poetry: Endpoint, one last valiant effort before death. I found the Updike chapter the most absorbing, even though I’ve never read any of his work. (Like Joyce Carol Oates, he was so darn prolific I have no idea where to start.) Prior familiarity with the author in question is neither here nor there, though: you learn everything you need to know from Roiphe’s biographical treatment, and thematic threads are strong enough to lead from one to another. Self-destructive behavior, compartmentalizing life, turning to work or sex to ward off depression, ignoring signs of mortality like serious illness and others’ deaths – we all employ hypocritical strategies, and these authors are no different. Even Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” resistant as it might sound, was actually delivered in a lulling tone of resignation when he read it aloud, Roiphe reveals. Each chapter is its own microcosm. The author herself only appears in the prologue and epilogue; in between, although she obviously interviewed survivors (and Salter, who died before he could read the finished book), she edits herself out so we can be right there with the subject. There’s no distance at all. That sense of intimacy is clearest in the chapter-heading photographs of the authors’ (posthumously?) empty studies. These are haunting images. Look at Sendak’s desk covered in paints and drawings, slippers carefully waiting underneath; a cardigan on the back of the chair – there’s such a sense of life. The life continues in the work. None of these authors got death perfectly right. Several of them fought it right to the end; several of them veered towards faith despite a lifelong antipathy to religion; several of them were ultimately taken aback by the simple realization that they, too, were mortal. Roiphe discovers no magic formula for how a writer should do death. Despite their contradictory approaches, though, all her subjects had the same destination: here’s what I learned from the deaths in this book: You work. You don’t work. You resist. You don’t resist. You exert the consummate control. You surrender. You deny. You accept. You pray. You don’t pray. You read. You work. You take as many painkillers as you can. You refuse painkillers. You rage against death. You run headlong toward it. In the end the deaths are the same. They all die. The world releases them. This would be an ideal book for fans of Olivia Laing (The Lonely City) or Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened of. What Roiphe observes of Sendak’s habit of drawing the dead and dying could equally be applied to The Violet Hour: it’s about seeing the beauty in what terrifies you. One of my top few nonfiction reads of 2016 so far. With thanks to Grace Vincent of Virago for sending a review copy. Originally published with images at my blog, Bookish Beck.

  4. 5 out of 5

    James Murphy

    The phrase is Eliot's, from The Waste Land, meaning the evening, end of day. The violet color evokes sadness and in the heavy atmosphere of The Waste Land suggests death. The 48-year old Roiphe has written a book about death and the relationships of 6 writers with it. It's also an impressive work of criticism. It stands to reason that her inquiry into these writers at the end of their lives would consider what their work revealed about their perceptions of death, particularly their own. The weak The phrase is Eliot's, from The Waste Land, meaning the evening, end of day. The violet color evokes sadness and in the heavy atmosphere of The Waste Land suggests death. The 48-year old Roiphe has written a book about death and the relationships of 6 writers with it. It's also an impressive work of criticism. It stands to reason that her inquiry into these writers at the end of their lives would consider what their work revealed about their perceptions of death, particularly their own. The weakest of the studies, I thought, was that on John Updike. He was, she implies, surprised by its quick, unseen approach through lung cancer. It seemed important to him to continue working, so that he turned out one final slim volume of poetry written in part as he succumbed to the disease, but I thought the chapter on him misfocused and that it propitiously, perhaps, spent too much time discussing the sexual attitudes conveyed by his fiction and by the author's life. The best critical analysis was that of Dylan Thomas's poetry and her nimble demonstration of how he expressed a wish for death in his writings and rushed hastily toward it in the life he lived. There's also Susan Sontag's abject fear of death and fierce denial when it was near. Sigmund Freud calmly studied death's arrival. He denied himself pain killers until the very end so he could be conscious of the fascinating transformation. Maurice Sendak thought of death as an adventure and revered it. Roiphe's writing about these people offers no real surprises. She writes factually, presenting only what's known about their deaths and their thoughts on the end of life. It's in her "Epilogue" that she begins to write conclusions about what she's learned from her research. In this final section she talks to James Salter. At the time he was still alive and 89-years old. He told Roiphe he didn't think about his own death. He'd seen some death--flying planes in the military, the accidental death of a daughter. Talking to Salter allowed Roiphe to more clearly process what she'd learned about these writers dying. He allowed her to see that maybe we don't need to think about it. "You take your knowledge and move on." Talking to Salter she realized you work while dying, or you don't, you struggle against it or you give in, you maintain control of your emotions or not, you deny its coming or you accept, you pray or not, you continue reading or you sit and reflect on meaning, you kill the pain or you don't. You run from it or you run willingly toward it. "In the end the deaths are the same." In the end they're released. "The struggle, once it's over, doesn't exist." I enjoyed this little book very much. To be honest, it's a little uneven. We know a lot about Updike's philosophical views on the nature of existence and the end of it, for instance, from such novels as Roger's Version and from another book on death, the philosophical work Why Does the World Exist? in which he plays a key part as the only writer who's interviewed on the subject. Yet Roiphe chose to keep her writing focused on the bedroom Updike we know best. I thought her chapter on Sendak uninspired. I was bored, at any rate. But others soared: Sontag's story was harrowing, Dylan Thomas's brought me new perceptions of his work I'd not been aware of. I enjoyed most her telling of the afternoon she spent with James Salter and the deep insights he led her to. "He writes more radiant sentences than any writer alive," she said of him. But he, too, who never thought about death, died, and before the book was published.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ginger Bensman

    I was drawn to Katie Roiphe’s book, The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, because I am fascinated by the lives of the writers whose experiences with death and dying she attempted to capture—Susan Sontag, John Updike, Sigmund Freud, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak. I was not disappointed. Roiphe amassed a narrative with facts and poignant personal details about each of her subjects that were, more often than not, riveting reading. Some spoke to me more than others. I was left especially hau I was drawn to Katie Roiphe’s book, The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, because I am fascinated by the lives of the writers whose experiences with death and dying she attempted to capture—Susan Sontag, John Updike, Sigmund Freud, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak. I was not disappointed. Roiphe amassed a narrative with facts and poignant personal details about each of her subjects that were, more often than not, riveting reading. Some spoke to me more than others. I was left especially haunted by the life and end-of-life experiences of Maurice Sendak, enough to go back to his children’s book, The Night Kitchen, to experience it once again, this time through the prism of his compulsions, sadness, and symbolism. Of course, every person’s experience of life and death is their own, and a writer/researcher like Roiphe can only collect data about her subject’s behaviors and intuit what must have been in these writers hearts and minds at the end of their lives, and I came away convinced that I had learned as much about Roiphe as I did about Freud, or Sontag or Dylan Thomas.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Carl Rollyson

    This book is about more than writers. It is about how we all deal with death. As Susan Sontag's biographer, I found the chapter on her moving and enlightening. Roiphe does not just recycle the work of others. She did her own research, and some of it I have used in my own updated and revised Sontag biography. Roiphe selects a wide range of writers. Updike could not be more different from Sontag, but Roiphe is superb on his final days. What an elegant and profound study. This book is about more than writers. It is about how we all deal with death. As Susan Sontag's biographer, I found the chapter on her moving and enlightening. Roiphe does not just recycle the work of others. She did her own research, and some of it I have used in my own updated and revised Sontag biography. Roiphe selects a wide range of writers. Updike could not be more different from Sontag, but Roiphe is superb on his final days. What an elegant and profound study.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jill

    Death is one of our culture’s last taboos. We just don’t talk about it if we don’t have to. Yet the way we approach our deaths says a lot about who we have been in our lives. In some cases, there is bravery and beauty; in others, cold stoicism; in still others, self-destruction and wantonness. Katie Roiphe chooses her subjects well to give a good cross-section of how some of our greatest creative minds approached their deaths. Susan Sontag, for example, is the poster child for another subject’s Death is one of our culture’s last taboos. We just don’t talk about it if we don’t have to. Yet the way we approach our deaths says a lot about who we have been in our lives. In some cases, there is bravery and beauty; in others, cold stoicism; in still others, self-destruction and wantonness. Katie Roiphe chooses her subjects well to give a good cross-section of how some of our greatest creative minds approached their deaths. Susan Sontag, for example, is the poster child for another subject’s (Dylan Thomas’) much-quoted poem: Do not go gentle into that good night; Rage, rage against the dying of the light. And rage she does. She is determined to be the one person who defeats death, undergoing arduous medical procedures including near-lethal experimental chemotherapy cocktails. Driven, in all likelihood, by her raging narcissism, she appears stunned that she will die like any other mere mortal. Sigmund Freud is the polar opposite. He is determined to project a cool, rational acceptance of the necrosis of the mouth that defigures and ultimately kills him. He refuses to part with the cigars and nicotine that almost certainly caused the cancer to begin with (Sontag also refused to give up her cigarettes) and another therapist would likely have a field day with analyzing what cigars really meant to him. He maintains control of his death to the end, when his hand-picked physician helps him in an assisted suicide. Dylan Thomas is, of course, a story of excess. Ms. Roiphen writes, “The true mystery of Thomas’ last days, however, is not the precise medical cause of his coma; it is how the unnatural fear and apprehension of death melts into a craving for it…It seems if you are afraid or preoccupied with something for long enough, you begin to develop a feeling toward it not dissimilar to love.” John Updike, the creator of the Rabbit series, attempts to turn “pain into honey” in his last days, with poems that carry the urgency of his early work, the sharpness and swiftness he was afraid he had lost. And Maurice Sendak, who kept Keats’ original death mask in one of his rooms, obsesses about death but lives a long life. The very end includes an interview that Ms. Roiphe conducts with James Salter, who is afraid not of death itself but the fear of death—the panic at its approach. Thoughtful and nuanced, the book has much to say about our acceptance of our own mortality.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    I was excited to read this book but it fell short for me. Subtitled "Great Writers at the End," it's an exploration of death via the examination of mortality in the life and works of famous figures including Susan Sontag, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, Sigmund Freud, and James Salter. Oddly, I felt at times Roiphe was disdainful toward her subjects. I was wishing someone who had more sympathy for them wrote this book. Yes, the subject is death but I was hoping for some intriguing ins I was excited to read this book but it fell short for me. Subtitled "Great Writers at the End," it's an exploration of death via the examination of mortality in the life and works of famous figures including Susan Sontag, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, Sigmund Freud, and James Salter. Oddly, I felt at times Roiphe was disdainful toward her subjects. I was wishing someone who had more sympathy for them wrote this book. Yes, the subject is death but I was hoping for some intriguing insights instead of a dull, sad, distant tone. This is why I was surprised when, at the end, she claims she found some "beauty in these deaths...the life rushing in, the vastness of the work..." I only caught glimpses of that in her portrayals, except with Salter (the only person she profiled who was still alive at the time). She says, "I don't want to be sentimental"--but to me, she went too far in the other direction. I craved more emotion and reflection. We get more toward the end, a little too late. In fact, I found her notes at the end more lively than the rest of the book. In these notes, she talks about how she studied each writer--and here the voice is more human and less staid than in most of the rest of the book. It's as though she relaxed in writing the errata. I was going to give this book two stars, but because of the ending and a few nuggets throughout--and because I especially liked learning about Maurice Sendak's life--I give it 2 1/2 (bumped up to 3 because of the Goodreads system). (I received a free copy of this book from Net Galley in exchange for this review.)

  9. 5 out of 5

    Alicia

    This book is such a tender read. Ms. Roiphe does not make any of these writer's death ~ a lyrical magical way to exit. She is honest & she documents the last weeks, months, days & hours. In the case of Dylan Thomas, we are left wondering, did he really mean it when he wrote " As I sail out to die..." did he mean to continue drinking into the dawn? Was staying home really simply nothingness & so he kept on & kept at it? All the women that he kept loving, were they unable to just say NO to him & s This book is such a tender read. Ms. Roiphe does not make any of these writer's death ~ a lyrical magical way to exit. She is honest & she documents the last weeks, months, days & hours. In the case of Dylan Thomas, we are left wondering, did he really mean it when he wrote " As I sail out to die..." did he mean to continue drinking into the dawn? Was staying home really simply nothingness & so he kept on & kept at it? All the women that he kept loving, were they unable to just say NO to him & somehow save him from himself? Could they not see that at 39 years of age ..perhaps..... whiskey number 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 perhaps 18 would be too much? Just a bit too much for one eve? Why could they not pull him back into bed & tell him to sleep, to rest, to wait for daybreak? She begs the questions, what would we have done? These writers seem to be a light that dazzles & at times even in their most weakest moments, the strength they exhibit in illness, causes those around them to stumble. "Where many~maybe most~ people look away, he wanted to render. He was very wrapped in the goodbye, the flight, the loss; it was almost Victorian, to be so deeply entranced with the moment of death, the instinct to preserve or document it. " Maurice Sendak & how he dealt with the many losses that happened along his path of life. He kept drawing. He could not stop. Reading the last chapter & her conversations with Peter Salter, frank discussions about death & how we accept it or we do not. Their conversation on all of this death is simply amazingly enlightening. He is quite calm & matter of fact about it all. And she is surprised. He quite in a matter of fact fashion expresses that yes, even in that quick moment of a faulty heart, one would feel pain~no matter how quick the heart attack & the surprise that Ms. Roiphe expresses honestly, when she realizes she never considered pain. When she is ready to share again with him, she learns he has also died. Her honesty about her feelings on all of this ~ makes this an excellent read. (Did I say that already? ) She mulls & shares her final thoughts on the writer's she has chosen to write about & she discusses that beauty she has found within them. In Life & In Death. "Part of the creative work these people did, their art, was their lives themselves....... The beauty is what ambushed me............" From Susan Sontag refusing death, Annie Leibovitz photographing that denial, to Maurice Sendak, this chapter made my heart weep, (oh just weep) continuing to create, even when he accepted what was to be, even as I always listen again & again to his interview with Terry Gross, which is mentioned within these pages ...... ( have a listen to it ........just listen to it ~ he is simply just so......... wonderful....). All of these writers & even though they have left, Ms. Roiphe makes them alive & has us reconsider everything about them. In life & in death. I simply loved this little book. I just loved it. So you should read it............

  10. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

    The book is about tracking writers in their final days. Interviewing those who survive the dead is a sensitive matter. One person Roiphe interviews asks, "I wonder what your motive for writing this is." It's a good question and it stunned Roiphe that someone would actually ask. At this point in her career we can divide Roiphe's books into those conformists she would rather have nothing to do with ("In Praise of Messy Lives" - women who live their lives through their children; feminized male auth The book is about tracking writers in their final days. Interviewing those who survive the dead is a sensitive matter. One person Roiphe interviews asks, "I wonder what your motive for writing this is." It's a good question and it stunned Roiphe that someone would actually ask. At this point in her career we can divide Roiphe's books into those conformists she would rather have nothing to do with ("In Praise of Messy Lives" - women who live their lives through their children; feminized male authors; social media users, etc.) and the greats she wishes to be associated with ("Uncommon Arrangements" - socially experimental early 20th century British writers). This hodgepodge of anecdotal journalism belongs to the second. There are the usual quirks of Roiphe's style: "In (Sontag's) notebooks you can see the work of self-mythologizing all along... shaping them into an idea of herself as exceptional. Everyone does this, of course, but Sontag does it with a million times more commitment, more intensity, and more success than other people." Roiphe hates it when the common herd charges her with snobbery, but the "of course" and "more success than other people" gives the game away, as does the girl fandom of Sontag doing it a "million" times better. For someone who insists we pay closer attention to language it's charming that the language of her teenage self continues to slip by the censor. Elsewhere I have no idea what to make of this metaphor: "David (Rieff - Sontag's son) is tall and elegant. He is handsome in the way of a Roman coin. He has the slight air of being crown prince to a country that has suddenly and inexplicably gone democratic." What's so inexplicable about people wishing for more freedom? Not to mention when has this ever happened "suddenly"? I think she means to praise Rieff, though comparing him to a Roman emperor amidst the mindless barbarians is a weird way to go about it in a democratic country. And don't expect Roiphe to weigh in on whether Annie Leibovitz was unethical in photographing Sontag in her cancer-stricken state without Sontag's permission. Roiphe will report that family and intimates hated it, but resists doing so herself, for fear, probably, of having something to say about the well-regarded she sees herself among.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance

    I don't worry about death. I don't think about death. I don't care about death. Nevertheless, this book is a brilliant book. Whether you care about death or not, whether you care about writers or not, this book will set your little mind a-spinning about life and, yes, death, and meaning and purpose, and love and hate, and all the important things. It's thoroughly researched, full of all the little details and stories that delight and reveal, and it's beautifully written, in solid little chunks, a I don't worry about death. I don't think about death. I don't care about death. Nevertheless, this book is a brilliant book. Whether you care about death or not, whether you care about writers or not, this book will set your little mind a-spinning about life and, yes, death, and meaning and purpose, and love and hate, and all the important things. It's thoroughly researched, full of all the little details and stories that delight and reveal, and it's beautifully written, in solid little chunks, almost like poems.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jacqueline Masumian

    Like many (or perhaps only some) people, I am fascinated by death. And I am a writer. So it was natural for me to be drawn to The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End. Author Katie Roiphe turns her considerable skills to the subject, while trying to work out what she herself believes about her own final hours. Employing painstaking research, Roiphe explores the approaches to death made by five brilliant people: John Updike, Sigmund Freud, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and Susan Sontag. Each fac Like many (or perhaps only some) people, I am fascinated by death. And I am a writer. So it was natural for me to be drawn to The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End. Author Katie Roiphe turns her considerable skills to the subject, while trying to work out what she herself believes about her own final hours. Employing painstaking research, Roiphe explores the approaches to death made by five brilliant people: John Updike, Sigmund Freud, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and Susan Sontag. Each faces their death in a unique way: Sontag with defiance, Freud with precise thinking and analysis, Thomas with alcohol and outrageous behavior, Sendak with acceptance of a certain beauty in death, and Updike with the writing of poems, nearly till the bitter end, hoping that words would generously lead the way. All had written extensively about illness and death in their lifetimes, but as their own ends approached, their thoughts took a new slant. How will we each move toward our final hours? This is the primary question posed in this book, using fiercely intelligent thinkers as examples. Roiphe writes in her prologue: "There are in these deaths glimpses of bravery, of beauty, of crushingly pointless suffering, of rampant self-destruction, of truly terrible behavior, of creative bursts, of superb devotion, of glitteringly accurate self-knowledge, and of magnificent delusion." What a privilege to glimpse the final days of these brilliant human beings. The Violet Hour not only offered me much food for thought; it also spurred me to want to read more of some of our most splendid writers.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    I was initially interested in this because I presumed it was writers doing what they do best - writing. Only this time, they were writing about their own unbeatable illnesses, or the spectre of death that follows us all around. What I actually read was a book about these great writers and the end of their days. Nothing inherently wrong with that...except that, often, I found the writing long and drawn out - far past the point of where anything needed to be. It felt almost as if, during the writi I was initially interested in this because I presumed it was writers doing what they do best - writing. Only this time, they were writing about their own unbeatable illnesses, or the spectre of death that follows us all around. What I actually read was a book about these great writers and the end of their days. Nothing inherently wrong with that...except that, often, I found the writing long and drawn out - far past the point of where anything needed to be. It felt almost as if, during the writing, the author was hoping that the longer she wrote, the more death itself would make sense. Unfortunately, death often *doesn't* make sense to those around us, other than being the end that everyone will greet - some sooner than others. Sadly, I was only able to get about halfway through before I simply could not read anymore. It's rare that I abandon a book (more from simple stubborn refusal), but - this one I did. I'm sure there will be some who might truly get something out of this, or value what they perceive as possible insights given - but as with beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. And these eyes simply could not continue the long slog.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Krista

    If it’s nearly impossible to capture the approach of death in words, who would have the most hope of doing it? This is the question that author Katie Roiphe examines in The Violet Hour, and after picking the “great writers” to whom she was drawn “by instinct”, Roiphe devotes a chapter to each of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak; sharing the stories of their final illnesses from eyewitness accounts, and where possible, including each author's final pe If it’s nearly impossible to capture the approach of death in words, who would have the most hope of doing it? This is the question that author Katie Roiphe examines in The Violet Hour, and after picking the “great writers” to whom she was drawn “by instinct”, Roiphe devotes a chapter to each of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak; sharing the stories of their final illnesses from eyewitness accounts, and where possible, including each author's final perspective. Each of these outsized personalities did have an interesting story surrounding their death (so I was never bored, exactly, by this book), but if the premise was to discover what a group of singularly articulate people put into words about their own impending ends, well, there was actually very little of that (so I felt a bit cheated by what I thought I was in for). The research that went into this book is impressive – evident from the frequent references to each author's many books, biographies about them, and the personal interviews that Roiphe was able to conduct with insiders – but while this information was of startling breadth, it was disappointingly shallow; there was a definite lack of humanity in these pages. Here's what I learned: after beating cancer twice through the decades already, Susan Sontag expected to beat it once again, insisting on harrowing experimental treatments that destroyed what small quality of life she might have expected at the end; Sigmund Freud refused to quit smoking even though he knew it was killing him, and even as his beloved dog shunned him (because of the necrotic smells from his rotting mouth), Freud insisted on meeting death with dignity, refusing anything more than aspirin for his pain; John Updike had always written about death (and often, about the idea that the stolen hours of a clandestine affair is like living a parallel life that can be considered an extending of the finite life given us), and when he was suddenly diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer, Updike attempted to capture the experience in a final book of poetry; Dylan Thomas had always been sickly, and as he had a premonition that his final speaking engagement in the US would be his last, he may have been overdrinking and otherwise hastening the death that he was anticipating; and Maurice Sendak, also a sickly child, had always been working through a fear of death and a yearning for maternal love in his children's books. As I said, the research in this book is admirable, but with a scattershot, time-skipping, flitting-from-the-works-to-the-eyewitnesses style that Roiphe employs, I didn't learn much more than this brief synopsis. The Violet Hour isn't about famous last words, but since Updike used the dwindling strength of his last months to compose poetry, he was able to leave us with this: Updike had written a peaceful death before he died. He wrote a peaceful death before he was dying, and he wrote it when he was dying: “To live is good / but not to live – to be pulled down / with scarce a ripping sound, / still flourishing, still / stretching towards the sun – / is good also.” And as Thomas' final illness involved a coma from which he never awakened, the premonition of his own death as confided in his correspondence is brilliantly captured here: Thomas wrote one of his very last letters, a sort of delirious fantasy about himself as Houdini at the bottom of the sea to Princess Caetani: “Oh, one time the last time will come and I'll never struggle, I'll stay down here forever handcuffed and blindfolded, sliding my windaround music, my sack trailed in the slime, withal the rest of the self-destroyed escapologists in their cages, drowned in the sorrows they drown and in my piercing own, alone and one with the coarse and cosy damned seahorsey dead, weeping my tons.” In a final bit of dramatic irony: after completing all the research and the writing that went into this book, Roiphe interviewed author James Salter (who was eighty-nine at the time), talking about these other writers in particular and mortality in general. When discussing Roiphe's own father's death from a sudden heart attack, Salter explained the extreme pain and panic that such a death would cause (something that Roiphe had never considered; she had always imagined it quick and peaceful), and months later, before she was even able to send him the copy of this book as promised, Salter himself dropped dead of a sudden heart attack. That would be so unbelievable if it were not true. So, in the end, The Violet Hour wasn't the book that I was expecting (which is entirely my own failing), but as a mostly superficial assemblage of facts, it was also not a book that I needed to read. I liked the Prologue (in which Roiphe explains her own childhood illness that led to her lifelong fascination with death) and Epilogue (the bits with Salter, and later, her experiences with all of the intimates she interviewed) the best, and I suppose that simply means that I would have preferred for Roiphe to have inserted herself more into the chapters about her chosen authors; to have filtered the facts through her own humanity; how could a book with so many intimately witnessed deaths have had zero emotional effect on me? There were certainly some interesting stories in here, and many references make me want to go back and read some of these authors (I've always meant to pick up Updike's Rabbit books), so this was certainly not a waste of time; again, just not what I would have expected from the book's jacket.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Cynthia Paschen

    Six writers at the end of their lives. My favorite section was about Maurice Sendak. (page 233) "Maurice said he dreamed up the idea of the wild things as an adult, at a shiva after someone had died, with his brother and sister. They were sitting around, laughing about their relatives from Europe. The relatives didn't speak English. Their teeth were yellow. They grabbed the children's cheeks. It was like they would gobble up Maurice and his siblings, along with everything else in the house. The w Six writers at the end of their lives. My favorite section was about Maurice Sendak. (page 233) "Maurice said he dreamed up the idea of the wild things as an adult, at a shiva after someone had died, with his brother and sister. They were sitting around, laughing about their relatives from Europe. The relatives didn't speak English. Their teeth were yellow. They grabbed the children's cheeks. It was like they would gobble up Maurice and his siblings, along with everything else in the house. The wild things were Jewish relatives."

  16. 5 out of 5

    Joel

    I wanted to read this because it covered Updike's death, but I found it to be fascinating in describing the deaths of several others, including Susan Sontag and Sigmund Freud. It is more about the final days leading up to death than the deaths themselves, or the moments of dying, if you like. I found the stories to be moving, the details entrancing. Seeing how someone ends his or her life tells you volumes about their character. The common thread in the deaths of this book is a devotion to work. I wanted to read this because it covered Updike's death, but I found it to be fascinating in describing the deaths of several others, including Susan Sontag and Sigmund Freud. It is more about the final days leading up to death than the deaths themselves, or the moments of dying, if you like. I found the stories to be moving, the details entrancing. Seeing how someone ends his or her life tells you volumes about their character. The common thread in the deaths of this book is a devotion to work. The writers want more time to work, or draw. They want to claw out as much time as they can before its over, because I suppose they think their work will outlive them and it is vitally important to get down on paper that latest insight. I wish there were more books like this.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Judith

    Turning 65 last year, I discovered I was old and to reinforce this notion, I lost several friends and colleagues unexpectedly. I have always been interested in good books on how people deal with the end so this title intrigued me. I read a previous book by this author that I enjoyed very much so I was pleased to read about this one. It's a collection of articles about how the following dealt with their respective end of days: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak Turning 65 last year, I discovered I was old and to reinforce this notion, I lost several friends and colleagues unexpectedly. I have always been interested in good books on how people deal with the end so this title intrigued me. I read a previous book by this author that I enjoyed very much so I was pleased to read about this one. It's a collection of articles about how the following dealt with their respective end of days: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and James Salter. Their stories were each individually interesting though I could see no particular parallels to be drawn by the group. I was surprised to learn that Maurice Sendak was gay but didn't come out of the closet till he was 80. Sigmund Freud would not give up smoking even though he had undergone horrible surgeries which left him with an artificial palate and a gaping hole in his cheek, but he died in his 80s despite the cancer and the smoking. John Updike's wife was so protective of his privacy that she wouldn't let his children from his first marriage visit their father except by strict appointment. Dylan Thomas was paid fortunes to tour America and give poetry readings but he died penniless and never sent any money home to take care of his kids. This book just reinforces what I already knew: I have to separate the art from the artist. It's okay to love one and despise the other. All in all, I enjoyed the book and was interested in the stories.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Chris Waterford

    A book about the last days/weeks of 6 famous writers. I have been drawn to memoirs about death but this book is much more clinical and professional with interviews with friends, relatives, nurses, and medical staff. It's a history of the treatments they tried, and whether they worked and how everyone reacted. It lacks heart and soul and I wasn't interested in the subjects she chose which would have made it more interesting. A book about the last days/weeks of 6 famous writers. I have been drawn to memoirs about death but this book is much more clinical and professional with interviews with friends, relatives, nurses, and medical staff. It's a history of the treatments they tried, and whether they worked and how everyone reacted. It lacks heart and soul and I wasn't interested in the subjects she chose which would have made it more interesting.

  19. 5 out of 5

    jrendocrine

    I quite liked this book about writers thinking about, then facing, death. Roiphe has picked accessible writers that most of us know well - Sontag, Freud, Dylan Thomas, Updike, Sendak - and then an epilogue interview with James Salter. Sontag is the first writer, and the least palatable - to me. She rages against death, she seems surprised, and petty and imperious. She is the only woman, so perhaps a mistake to leave it there. Will have to think about that. The Freud chapter was clinical, the Updi I quite liked this book about writers thinking about, then facing, death. Roiphe has picked accessible writers that most of us know well - Sontag, Freud, Dylan Thomas, Updike, Sendak - and then an epilogue interview with James Salter. Sontag is the first writer, and the least palatable - to me. She rages against death, she seems surprised, and petty and imperious. She is the only woman, so perhaps a mistake to leave it there. Will have to think about that. The Freud chapter was clinical, the Updike chapter moving, and Sendak - well, his last years of interviews seem to be common enough knowledge. The two standouts were Dylan Thomas and the Epilogue. Dylan Thomas just because his writing was so gorgeous, and his such a flamboyant strange "overwritten nature" - though placarded everywhere, the bit from his 35th Birthday poem is incredibly beautiful and wonderful to read the whole poem: That the closer I move To death, one man through his sundered hulks, The louder the sun blooms And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults; Finally the Epilogue. I've come late to Salter (thanks Book Club Ladies) , but Roiphe's spare observations, and on point comments about his writing ("generous and harsh") and Salter's spare comments - and his friendship with Peter Matthiessen - just slew me.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

    Katie Roiphe presents a well-researched book. She explores the last weeks and days of some famous writers - Maurice Sendak, Dylan Thomas, Susan Sonntag, and Sigmund Freud. She intersperses it with some facts from their life - mostly ones that relate to that particular person's thoughts and feelings on death. The book was a little too clinical for me to give it a higher review. I did learn a lot and found some of the information fascinating, but I was also able to drift off and start balancing the Katie Roiphe presents a well-researched book. She explores the last weeks and days of some famous writers - Maurice Sendak, Dylan Thomas, Susan Sonntag, and Sigmund Freud. She intersperses it with some facts from their life - mostly ones that relate to that particular person's thoughts and feelings on death. The book was a little too clinical for me to give it a higher review. I did learn a lot and found some of the information fascinating, but I was also able to drift off and start balancing the budget in my head while I was reading. It's such a small snippet of their lives. It was strange to read about the end of their lives without much of the beginning or middle. But it was interesting to have such an in-depth look at the final moments. So - a perfectly adequate book.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    For me, the Freud and Thomas chapters were low points of the book, but otherwise I found it pretty interesting. I read it more as a meditation on the universality of death, although the reflections on Updike's, Sontag's, and Sendak's work were singular. For me, the Freud and Thomas chapters were low points of the book, but otherwise I found it pretty interesting. I read it more as a meditation on the universality of death, although the reflections on Updike's, Sontag's, and Sendak's work were singular.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Gabi Coatsworth

    Not quite sure what I thought of this. I think I expected to have a sense of how people handle their death, but of course, there's no way to capture that, really. I don't think I actually liked or felt much sympathy for any of the writers under study, and I wondered if their self absorption was due to their innate character or the fact that they were dying. An interesting book, but not inspiring. Not quite sure what I thought of this. I think I expected to have a sense of how people handle their death, but of course, there's no way to capture that, really. I don't think I actually liked or felt much sympathy for any of the writers under study, and I wondered if their self absorption was due to their innate character or the fact that they were dying. An interesting book, but not inspiring.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ellen H

    Hmmm. Parts of it were gripping -- but I didn't like the choppiness and meandering style of the writing, and I'm not sure exactly what she was trying to say or do. Interesting, though. Hmmm. Parts of it were gripping -- but I didn't like the choppiness and meandering style of the writing, and I'm not sure exactly what she was trying to say or do. Interesting, though.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    So depressing. I loved it.

  25. 5 out of 5

    C

    Stunning, especially the first and last sections.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    Spoiler alert: They're all dead. I expected this book to be interesting, I didn't know it would also be quite as moving. Mr. Roiphe looks at the last days of Susan Sontag, Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak in individual essays, and adds an interview with James Salter toward the end of his days, though in good health at the time. The contemporary authors were the most illuminating and textured as she was able to contact friends and family members, as well as plumb works, letters, Spoiler alert: They're all dead. I expected this book to be interesting, I didn't know it would also be quite as moving. Mr. Roiphe looks at the last days of Susan Sontag, Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak in individual essays, and adds an interview with James Salter toward the end of his days, though in good health at the time. The contemporary authors were the most illuminating and textured as she was able to contact friends and family members, as well as plumb works, letters, and author interviews. I was particularly struck by Sontag's epic battle to defeat various cancers, and her tenacious clinging to life, and Sendak's life-long fascination with death, and its influence on his works. The Updike section was interesting in that I know little (next to nothing, really) about his life and work. The sections on Freud and Thomas felt a lot like padding. The book was moving in its final section, an interview with James Salter alternating with the author musing about and coming to terms with her mother's death. It's when the book transcended reportage, became memoir, and very human. Without that section the book would have been merely interesting, sometimes fascinating, but not touching. The end is never more than a heartbeat away, it's good to acquaint ourselves with it.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Audrey

    I'm not as unique as I thought I was. It turns out many writers think a lot about death, including the author, Katie Roiphe. Rather than burying her interest, she decided to dive deeply into the subject in this remarkable work. Part essay, part journalism, part personal journey, "The Violet Hour" looks at the final days of five great writers/thinkers: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak (and a discussion/epilogue with James Salter). Roiphe's exhaustive rese I'm not as unique as I thought I was. It turns out many writers think a lot about death, including the author, Katie Roiphe. Rather than burying her interest, she decided to dive deeply into the subject in this remarkable work. Part essay, part journalism, part personal journey, "The Violet Hour" looks at the final days of five great writers/thinkers: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak (and a discussion/epilogue with James Salter). Roiphe's exhaustive research brings the reader to their bedsides as they face death. Some embrace it, some hide from it, some joke about it. Roiphe is right there, sharing their experiences (gleaned from reading and interviews) and reflecting on their responses in spare and spare and lyrical pieces that also serve as mini biographies. Whether or not you consider yourself, as I do, death-obsessed, this book will bring you face to face with something none of us can avoid but most of us don't like contemplating.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Susan (aka Just My Op)

    I expected this book to be fascinating. I didn't expect to be bored. The author writes of the last days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and almost as an afterthought, James Salter. While I admired these people as artists, I don't especially like some of them as people. They are constantly self-absorbed, apparently, long before death came to call. I didn't learn any real insights to death, only the vagaries of these people. I absolutely hated that the author performed I expected this book to be fascinating. I didn't expect to be bored. The author writes of the last days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and almost as an afterthought, James Salter. While I admired these people as artists, I don't especially like some of them as people. They are constantly self-absorbed, apparently, long before death came to call. I didn't learn any real insights to death, only the vagaries of these people. I absolutely hated that the author performed an experiment subjecting goldfish to smoke. Guess what – it's not good for them. Big freaking surprise there. Why do some teachers teach cruelty? This writing may have been cathartic for the author, but for me, it was neither especially enlightening or entertaining. I borrowed this e-book from the local public library.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Mary Kenyon

    I was fascinated by the author's deep research, and how she delved deeply into the psyches of these six authors in regards to how they faced the concept of dying and their own death. That said, I would have chosen different writers to explore; C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, Henri Nouwen, Tolkien. The author's own lack of faith and spirituality seems to taint her choice of victims, er, I mean profiles. I can't help but think her childhood experience of coming so close to death has her scrambling I was fascinated by the author's deep research, and how she delved deeply into the psyches of these six authors in regards to how they faced the concept of dying and their own death. That said, I would have chosen different writers to explore; C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, Henri Nouwen, Tolkien. The author's own lack of faith and spirituality seems to taint her choice of victims, er, I mean profiles. I can't help but think her childhood experience of coming so close to death has her scrambling for some meaning in dying. But with these six writers, there is none to be found. What if she had chosen, instead, six spiritual leaders? Six Christian writers? Or even six well-known troubled writers like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath? Instead, there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind the writers she choose to portray. Still an interesting read.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Joanne Clarke Gunter

    Interesting book about the deaths of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak based on extensive research and interviews with the families, friends, and caretakers of these five writers, plus an epilogue interview with James Salter at age 89, about a year before he died in 2015. Some might think this book morbid because it is a detailed account of the last months/weeks/days before each writer's death and how they coped with aging, illness, and impending death, b Interesting book about the deaths of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak based on extensive research and interviews with the families, friends, and caretakers of these five writers, plus an epilogue interview with James Salter at age 89, about a year before he died in 2015. Some might think this book morbid because it is a detailed account of the last months/weeks/days before each writer's death and how they coped with aging, illness, and impending death, but I like knowing as much as possible about the lives of writers I have enjoyed reading and admire (although I am not much of an Updike fan). You might be surprised by how some of them coped with the end of life. Interesting read.

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