Nancy Mairs is well acquainted with suffering and the everyday presence of pain: it comes with having the degenerative disease of multiple sclerosis. She notes at the outset: "I have lived on intimate terms with the personal complexities that dying presents. In a very real sense, and entirely without design, death has become my life's work."

Mairs is an accomplished writer who never shies away from thorny issues. As a Catholic grounded in liberation theology, she has a keen love of justice and an abhorrence of the terrible things done in the pursuit of law and order.

At the end of the introductory chapter, the author states: "If you have any reason for reading my story (and obviously I hope you will find one), do so not for its originality but for the ways it resonates with your own. Because I have a certain facility with language, what I'm good for is putting our stories into words. It is my way of taking hands in the dark. Hold tight!"

Mairs begins this collection of essays on death with an account of her father's demise early in her life and how her family struggled to cope with this loss. She goes on to discuss her mother's graceful death, which her sister describes as "a final instruction in responding to all life's exigencies with dignity."

Although there is plenty of feeling in her accounts of her own suicide attempt, the death of her beloved dog, and the murder of her son, Mairs musters the most emotion in her response to the execution of a young man on death row who was her pen pal. We share her outrage at the barbarity of institutionalized violence and the taking of any life by the state.

Mairs notes that Catholics are still called upon to observe All Soul's Day on November 2 and to devote a whole month to reflections on mortality. A Troubled Guest: Life and Death Stories is just the right resource to use during this sober period.