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Books in Brief: Marcel the Shell, Being Mortal

CHILDREN’s

Marcel the Shell: The Most Surprised I’ve Ever Been by Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate; Razorbill ($18.99).

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The charming 2010 short film “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” was a YouTube sensation and the 2011 picture book “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: Things About Me” was a New York Times bestseller.

Now this creative team (a writer-director-artist and a writer-comedian-”Saturday Night Live” alum) has created a marvelous new picture book adventure for Marcel, a tiny one-eyed mollusk with red shoes, who is walking on a blanket with his “dog” Alan (a piece of lint) one day when he is flung into the air, an experience that gives him an entirely new perspective of both the big picture (“I saw everything in its place all at once”) and the individual elements of the big picture – the rug and “its far-flung fringes,” the tennis sneaker, the baby (“He didn’t seem to be the beast that the local news warned us about”), his grandmother’s house (Nana Connie, who sleeps on an “old-fashioned French bread,” namely a croissant).

While the quavery, sweet voice of Marcel lends the animated films such charm, the picture book, with its funny and sweet observations about life from the perspective of tiny Marcel, and its gorgeous luminous illustrations of Marcel’s world, whether a beautiful three-tiered cake or a sunlit view from above of Marcel’s apartment make this a real treat for readers of any age.

– Jean Westmoore

NONFICTION

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande; Metropolitan, 283 pages ($26)

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For more than a decade, Atul Gawande has explored the fault lines of medicine, the instances when expectation grinds against the reality of practice.

Starting with his National Book Award-nominated “Complications,” Gawande has combined his years of experience as a surgeon with his gift for fluid, seemingly effortless storytelling to remind readers that despite stunning technical advances, doctors are human – and as fallible as any of us.

In “Being Mortal,” Gawande turns his attention to his most important subject yet: how our hypermedicalized culture is failing those who are at the ends of their lives, and their families.

Gawande invites readers to join him as he considers “the modern experience of mortality,” setting the stage with a brief explanation of aging and a quick history of how earlier generations died — usually abruptly and at home.

From there, he heads into nursing homes and explores the paradox of assisted living: How do you balance the often competing priorities of autonomy and safety for those who are too frail to live alone? Gawande offers portraits of families struggling with this question.

As medical advances have progressed, it is almost always possible to offer some form of treatment, Gawande writes, but the question that all too often is overlooked is whether treatment will lead to a better life. The quest to prolong our lives has distracted us from this fundamental point.

And as the health-care system has moved to a more consumer-driven model, the responsibility for decision-making has shifted to the patient – which in many cases is ideal, but not in circumstances as complex as end-of-life or cancer care.

“Being Mortal” is not an easy read. But it is essential.

“For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens,” Gawande writes. “And in stories, endings matter.”

– Jennifer Day, Chicago Tribune