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David and Ruth Rakoff: one disease, two very different books

Authors Ruth Rakoff and David Rakoff photographed in Toronto on Sept. 16, 2010.

Ryan Enn Hughes/The Globe and Mail

These should be auspicious days for the Rakoffs, with two of the three siblings in the well-known Toronto family bringing out books with a major publisher this season. Half Empty is a long-awaited book of essays by David Rakoff, the youngest at 45, long established as a leading belletrist in his adopted home town of New York. Joining him for the first time is older sister Ruth, whose memoir, When My World Was Very Small, is being launched by the same publisher at the same time.

But any celebrations will at best be bittersweet. Writing about her personal experience with breast cancer, Ruth visits dark places in her first book. David is undergoing chemotherapy for his own cancer while touring widely in support of his third book. Together, and not by choice, the two siblings have added a new twist to the inexhaustible literature on the most-feared disease.

Apart from that melancholy coincidence, however, few readers would recognize any kinship between the two books and the two very different spirits that composed them. David is intellectual and taciturn, mentioning his own sickness only in the very last of 10 personal essays collected in Half Empty. Ruth is emotional, withholding nothing. David is ironic and brittle. Ruth is tenderly sincere. David is a veteran who frankly admits he hates writing. Ruth is a novice who loves it.

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But nothing about the two siblings, they both agree, is more different than their approach to cancer.

David cultivates a neurotic persona, according to Ruth, but his approach to the disease - this is his second go-round, having suffered from Hodgkin's lymphoma in his 20s - is "to make duct-tape wallets for everyone under the sun and to bake cookies for all the nursing stations in the hospital."

Ruth is "a reasonably high-functioning person, not neurotic and not phobic," according to her own assessment. (The siblings' father, Vivian, is an esteemed Toronto psychiatrist.) "But when I was diagnosed, I became almost catatonic and ceased to function. Anxiety overwhelmed me. I could not eat I was so anxious. Add to that chemo and surgery, and I spent a year on the couch, completely non-functioning."

"I was not brave about having cancer," she adds. "I was not stoical, and he is stoical."

A formerly busy stay-at-home mother of three, Ruth began writing "partly because I was so embarrassed about being on the couch for so long," she says. "I never had any intention of showing it to anybody. It was purely therapeutic and about me."

There are no "words of wisdom" in When My Life Was Very Small, according to Ruth, now clear of cancer and healthy, beautifully dressed in a fantasia of exotic hues and two-toned Mary Janes. "I was grieving and I was using narrative as a way of working through my grief," she says. She hopes the result "is more than a jaunt through breast cancer," instead presenting her biography as a meditation on universal themes.

"We all know everybody's going to die," she says. "It's inevitable. And yet every time it happens somebody cries."

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By contrast, David, dressed in a velvet jacket and (temporarily) bearded, is almost flip about his own experience. "This is not my first time at the rodeo," he notes. "I'm a bit of an old hand." Besides, he adds, the less his readers know about his own life, the better.

"I keep on emphatically saying I'm not a memoirist. I don't write about my family, I don't write about love. I don't write about sex," he says. "I don't use my life as material. I'd rather be known for the way I write than the particulars of my biography."

Part journalism, part old-fashioned belles lettres, Half Empty ranges freely and wittily throughout contemporary life, meditating on the myth of bohemianism in one chapter, the felicities of Mormonism in another and the secrets of the porn industry in yet another. Taken together, David says, the essays are meant to form "something of a defence against negative emotion and pessimism and melancholy." They advocate "really looking life's reality squarely in the eye without that Pollyannish obfuscation."

Ruth enjoys writing so much she is working on a novel, "totally having fun with it." David, who made his name along with David Sedaris on the U.S. public radio show This American Life, remains leery of fiction.

"I'd love to try, but writing is so hard for me," he says. Failure doesn't hurt, he adds. "But I don't know if I have it in me. I don't know if I'd be any good."

He is confident and comfortable in his chosen form - "the familiar essay, one that begins in the personal and ends in the universal" - but never while making one of them. "It never stops being an audition," he says. "It just doesn't get any easier."

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"I can't believe he hates it," says Ruth, concerned about her brother's self-image. "But he says he hates it."

"My brother's writing is very cerebral, very neck up, and mine isn't," she adds. "Mine is 'How does it feel?'"

As it happens, David's sarcoma is located in his shoulder, and the question he addresses in the most familiar of his essays is whether or not he will keep his left arm. The question is still open.

"It's given me some perspective, I won't lie," he says. "I like to think I always had perspective, but lately it is just as nice or nicer to have a pain-free morning, which I haven't really had for about a third calendar year."

With luck, and Ruth's expert guidance, all that will soon be a distant memoir.

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