Erica Jong recommends 6 books that deal with death
The Body by Hanif Kureishi (Scribner, $12). This 2002 novel is a fantasy about an aging man getting a new body. While writing Fear of Dying, I toyed with a similar plot but wasn't happy with it. I realized that the most interesting thing about aging is the way our perception changes. There is wild humor in growing older — especially in a society that worships youth.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (Bantam, $7). My favorite short novel by Tolstoy certainly informed my writing about the heroine's dying parents in Fear of Dying. We fail to understand dying people, talk to them dumbly, and cannot help them die. When you read Tolstoy, you want to turn in your quill.
The Washer of the Dead by Venita Coelho (out of print). In Fear of Dying, the heroine's parents live to be very old — Vanessa's mother reaches 101 — so she is amazed to discover how difficult her parents' deaths are to cope with. The dead speak to the living in Venita Coelho's short stories, which seems right: Death does not get easier when people live a long time. You think they will go on forever.
Dear Life by Alice Munro (Vintage, $16). Munro's stories deal with mortality in a unique way and often have the weight and complexity of novels — amazing.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (Metropolitan, $26). In his long essay on the way we treat the dying in contemporary America, surgeon Atul Gawande contrasts the experience of today's patients with his grandfather's decline in India two generations ago. He evokes the needs of the aging and suggests how society can make the end of life easier.
The Essential Tagore by Rabindranath Tagore (Belknap, $41.50). I realized my novel had to end in India with Vanessa's acceptance of the death of her father. Tagore, a poet I loved in my 20s, helped me understand loss. I find something enormously comforting in the Hindu philosophy of life and death that Tagore expresses.