Tag: bereavement memoirs

Some Accidental Thematic Overlaps in My Recent Reading

Five of the books I’ve read recently (most of them while traveling to and from the States) have shared an overarching theme of loss, with mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, and dogs as subsidiary topics running through two or more of them. I hadn’t deliberately chosen these books for their commonalities, so it was uncanny to see the same elements keep popping up. I wanted to come up with some kind of impressively complex Venn diagram to show off these unexpected connections but couldn’t quite manage it, so you’ll have to imagine it instead.


Mental Illness

 

The Archivist by Martha Cooley

Matthias Lane is the archivist of the Mason Room, a university collection of rare books and literary papers. One of its treasures is a set of letters that passed between T.S. Eliot and his friend Emily Hale (held at Princeton in real life). Matt is haunted by memories of his late wife, Judith, a poet incarcerated in a mental hospital for over five years. A reckoning comes for Matt when he’s approached by Roberta Spire, a graduate student determined to view the Eliot–Hale letters even though they’re legally sealed until 2020. The more time Matt spends with Roberta, the more similarities start to arise between her and Judith; and between his situation and Eliot’s when the latter also put his wife away in a mental hospital. The novel asks what we owe the dead: whether we conform to their wishes or make our own decisions. 

 

The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt

Thirty years on, poet Mia Fredricksen’s husband Boris asks her for a pause in their marriage so he can explore his feelings for his young French lab assistant. First things first: Mia goes crazy and ends up in a mental hospital for a short time. But then she sucks it up and goes back to her Minnesota hometown to teach poetry writing to teen girls for a summer, getting sucked into a bullying drama. This is a capable if not groundbreaking story of the shifts that occur in a long marriage and the strange things we all do as we face down the possibility of death. There are also wry comments about the unappreciated talents of the female artist. However, compared to the other two novels I’ve read from Hustvedt, this seemed feeble. Still, a quick and enjoyable enough read. 

 

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

A delicious debut novel intellectual enough to bypass labels like ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘mystery’. One thing that sets it apart is how successfully Parkhurst writes from the perspective of a male narrator, Paul Iverson, who’s been knocked for six by the sudden death of his wife Lexy, a mask designer. While he was at the university where he teaches linguistics, she climbed to the top of the apple tree in their backyard and – what? fell? or jumped? The only ‘witness’ was their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Lorelei; in his grief Paul uses his sabbatical to research efforts to teach dogs to communicate, hoping one day Lorelei might tell all. Woven through are scenes from Paul and Lexy’s courtship and marriage; though Lexy occasionally struggled with her mental health, their dialogue is fun and zippy, like you might hear on The Gilmore Girls.

 


Suicide

The Archivist by Martha Cooley & The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst


Alcoholism

 

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

A classic memoir that conjures up all the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of Africa on the cusp of a colonial to postcolonial transition. Fuller’s family were struggling tobacco and cattle farmers in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Malawi and Zambia. She had absorbed the notion that white people were there to benevolently shepherd the natives, but came to question it when she met Africans for herself. While giving a sense of the continent’s political shifts, she mostly focuses on her own family: the four-person circus that was Bobo (that’s her), Van (older sister Vanessa), Dad, and Mum (an occasionally hospitalized manic-depressive alcoholic who lost three children) – not to mention an ever-changing menagerie of horses, dogs and other pets. This really takes you away to another place and time, as the best memoirs do, and the plentiful black-and-white photos are a great addition. 

 

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell

If you loved Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, pick this up immediately. It’s a similar story of best friends: one who dies and one who survives. Caldwell’s best friend was Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story, among other nonfiction), whom she met via puppy ownership in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were both single and childless, full-time authors with a history of alcoholism. Besides long walks with their dogs, they loved swimming and rowing together. In 2002 Caroline was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, inoperable and already metastasized. Despite all their proactive optimism, she was dead a matter of weeks later. In this moving and accessible short memoir, Caldwell drifts through her past, their friendship, Caroline’s illness, and the years of grief that followed the loss of Caroline and then her beloved Samoyed, Clementine, sharing what she learned about bereavement. 

 


Dogs

The Dogs of Babel, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight & Let’s Take the Long Way Home

Do you ever find coincidental thematic connections in your reading?

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A Recommendation for August

Each month I aim to preview two to four books to be released in the next month that I have already read and can recommend. It’s looking thin on the ground for August because two of my most anticipated reads of the year were disappointments, and another August release I left unfinished; I give mini write-ups of these below. However, I’ve very much enjoyed What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, the debut story collection by Lesley Nneka Arimah, which came out in America in April but releases on the 24th over here; I’ll be reviewing it for Shiny New Books shortly. Also, I’m 20% into The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson (releases August 15th), a fascinating set of sometimes gory true crime case studies.

As for the one August book I’m currently able to wholeheartedly recommend, that is…

 

The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson

(Coming from Little, Brown and Company on the 22nd)

One for angsty, bookish types. In 2012 Anne Gisleson, a New Orleans-based creative writing teacher, her husband, sister and some friends formed an Existential Crisis Reading Group (which, for the record, I think would have been a better title). Each month they got together to discuss their lives and their set readings – both expected and off-beat selections, everything from Kafka and Tolstoy to Kingsley Amis and Clarice Lispector – over wine and snacks.

One of their texts, Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, proposed the helpful notion of the Trivial and Tragic Planes. The Trivial is where we live everyday; the Tragic is where we’re transported when something awful happens. Gisleson had plenty of experience with the latter: not just the suicides of her younger twin sisters, a year and a half apart, and her father’s death from leukemia, but also the collective loss of Hurricane Katrina. She returns again and again to these sources of grief in her monthly chapters structured around the book group meetings, elegantly interweaving family stories and literary criticism.

I found the long quotes from the readings a little much – you probably shouldn’t pick this up if you haven’t the least interest in philosophy and aren’t much troubled by life’s big questions – but in general this is a fascinating, personal look at what makes life worth living when it might be shattered any second. I particularly loved the chapter in which the book club members creatively re-enact the Stations of the Cross for Easter and the sections about her father’s pro bono work as an attorney for death row inmates at Angola prison. Sometimes it really is a matter of life and death.

Favorite passage:

“Generations of parents have put their children to bed in this house and even if I haven’t quite figured out the why and the how of living, others have found reasons to keep moving things forward. In quiet moments I can feel the collective push of these ghost-hands on my back, nudging me on.”

My rating:

 


And now for the ones I’m closer to lukewarm on…

(Reviews in the order in which I read the books.)

 

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

(Coming from Scribner on the 1st)

I enjoy Tom Perrotta’s novels: they’re funny, snappy, current and relatable; it’s no surprise they make great movies. I’ve somehow read seven of his nine books now, without even realizing it. Mrs. Fletcher is more of the same satire on suburban angst, but with an extra layer of raunchiness that struck me as unnecessary. It seemed something like a sexual box-ticking exercise. But for all the deliberately edgy content, this book isn’t really doing anything very groundbreaking; it’s the same old story of temptations and bad decisions, but with everything basically going back to a state of normality by the end. If you haven’t read any Perrotta before and are interested in giving his work a try, let me steer you towards Little Children instead. That’s his best book by far.

My rating:

 

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

(Coming from Lenny Books on the 1st [USA] and Bloomsbury Circus on the 10th [UK])

I read “We Love You Crispina” (13%), about the string of awful hovels a family of Chinese immigrants is forced to move between in early 1990s New York City. You’d think it would be unbearably sad reading about cockroaches and shared mattresses and her father’s mistress, but Zhang’s deadpan litanies are actually very funny: “After Woodside we moved to another floor, this time in my mom’s cousin’s friend’s sister’s apartment in Ocean Hill that would have been perfect except for the nights when rats ran over our faces while we were sleeping and even on the nights they didn’t, we were still being charged twice the cost of a shitty motel.” Perhaps I’m out of practice in reading short story collections, but after I finished this first story I felt absolutely no need to move on to the rest of the book.

My rating:

 

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

(Coming on the 24th from Harper [USA] and Bloomsbury [UK])

Impressive in scope and structure, but rather frustrating. If you’re hoping for another History of Love, you’re likely to come away disappointed: while that book touched the heart; this one is mostly cerebral. Metafiction, the Kabbalah, and some alternative history featuring Kafka are a few of the major elements, so think about whether those topics attract or repel you. Looking a bit deeper, this is a book about Jewish self-invention and reinvention. Now, when I read a novel with a dual narrative, especially when the two strands share a partial setting – here, the Tel Aviv Hilton – I fully expect them to meet up at some point. In Forest Dark that never happens. At least, I don’t think so.* I sometimes found “Nicole” (the author character) insufferably clever and inward-gazing. All told, there’s a lot to think about here: more questions than answers, really. Interesting, for sure, but not the return to form I’d hoped for.

*Hop over to my Goodreads review to read the marked spoilers and chip in with comments!

My rating:

 


What August books do you have on the docket?

Have you already read any that you can recommend?

Blog Tour: My Mourning Year by Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall

Andrew G. Marshall is the author of 18 self-help books about relationships. He has written for newspapers, appeared on television and radio programs, and worked as a marriage therapist. However, he has shared little about his own experience of relationships until now. Twenty years have passed since the death of his long-term partner, Thomas Hartwig. Sharing this diary of Thom’s death with several friends and family members who’d suffered recent bereavements seemed to help, so he’s hoping that in book form it can be of wider benefit to those who are in the midst of grief.

Marshall met Thom, then the headmaster of a German language school, on a holiday to Spain in September 1989. They alternated between Germany and England every other weekend for years, and in 1995 Thom finally relocated to join Marshall near Brighton. Thom had plans to start an interior design business, but fell ill just six months later. By early 1997, he had a diagnosis of liver failure and was given weeks to live. They traveled to Germany to get Thom a second opinion and, despite his resolution to die back in England, he breathed his last at the German hospital on March 9th, aged 43.


The above constitutes a brief Part One, while the rest of the book recounts the first full year after Thom’s death. Marshall tracks the changes in several areas of his life:

 

Family Life: “People become counselors to make sense of their difficult families, and of course I am no exception,” Marshall notes. He grew up in a conservative middle-class family in Bedford and didn’t come out until he was nearly 30. Hugely disappointed that his parents and sister didn’t make it to Thom’s memorial service, Marshall moves from not talking to his family at all to making tentative overtures of reconciliation. There’s a particularly touching scene where he confronts his parents about the way they repressed emotion while he was growing up and hears the words “I love you” from his father for the first time.

 

Career: For part of his mourning year, Marshall worked on the Agony television program as an “agony uncle.” He took a break from Relate counseling, but continued to write freelance articles, many of them touching on illness and death, and contributed a “Revelations” celebrity profile column to the Independent, in which he interviewed authors and pop stars about life’s turning points. Two of my favorite moments in the book arise from this: Jim Crace (promoting Quarantine) tells how he realized the emptiness of atheism when burying his father; and Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party provides Marshall’s gateway into literary fiction, which he’d never attempted before.

 

Home Life: “There is something terribly sad about the clutter we accumulate,” Marshall sighs. “I was loved and I did love, but now all I had was this debris.” Thom moved to England with 87 packing cases; even at the hospital in Germany there were two bags of stuff to look through. Back in England, though Marshall tries to navigate around “Thom-shaped holes” in his life, especially near holidays, he realizes this relationship hasn’t ended: he kisses his lover’s ashes goodnight, and heeds Thom’s late advice to replace the vacuum cleaner. Meanwhile he goes on short vacations, sees friends, dogsits, and even tries counseling – but finds it’s “like watching a conjurer saw a lady in half, but knowing how he does it.”

 

Spirituality: Marshall has several experiences he has trouble explaining. For instance, at certain points he smells vanilla all around him and chooses to take it as a sign of Thom’s enduring presence – a trace of the vanilla candle that burned beside his deathbed. He also has some psychic messages conveyed, by both friends and strangers, and attends a spiritualist service. But it is an interview with forensics expert Kathy Reichs that helps him to once and for all detach the idea of Thom’s dead body from that of his spirit.

 

Self-Expression: Writing the “Revelations” column and this diary proved better therapy for Marshall than traditional counseling sessions. Towards the end of this book he also takes an introduction to playwriting course, and in the intervening years several of the plays he has written have been performed around the UK.

 

Love: After Thom’s death, Marshall was desperate for physical comfort, and temporarily found it with Peter, whom he met at a gay sauna. I admired Marshall’s honesty about this fling; it must have been tempting to excise it from the record to make himself look better. But their relationship never went beyond a few dates. This sad story has a happy coda, though: In 2001 Marshall met Ignacio, who became his civil partner in 2008 and his husband in 2015.


I’ve read many bereavement memoirs, but the diary format makes this one a unique blend of momentous occasions – Princess Diana’s funeral and the preparations for a catered dinner party on the anniversary of Thom’s death – and the challenges of everyday life. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who has experienced or is currently enduring bereavement; it will be reassuring to read about the flux in Marshall’s emotions and see an example of how to rebuild after loss.

Perhaps this is the reality of mourning: you never get over the loss but reassemble the daily minutiae into a new life. At the beginning it feels like a box of flat-pack furniture with the instructions in Swedish, but finally you discover that tab A can slide into slot B. Eventually you own something quite functional – even though there are always a few screws left over and it never looks as good as it does in the catalogue.

Whether the clairvoyants are correct and Thom has become my guardian spirit is not important[;] he is always with me. I have integrated his personality into mine and in that way he lives on through me.


(For more on the author, and Thom, see the book’s website.)

My Mourning Year will be released by RedDoor Publishing on Thursday, April 20th. Thanks to Anna Burtt for the review copy.

My rating:


I was pleased to participate in the blog tour for My Mourning Year. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.

Medical Mysteries: Joselin Linder’s The Family Gene

Yes, another memoir on a medical theme! I really do read a lot of them. My eye was drawn to The Family Gene: A Mission to Turn My Deadly Inheritance into a Hopeful Future by Joselin Linder because of the medical mystery aspect: 14 members of Linder’s Ashkenazi Jewish family are the only known exemplars of their particular genetic disease, so rare it doesn’t have a name or surefire treatment protocol, but now at least has a location on a chromosome.

Linder’s awareness of her family’s peculiar medical problems began when her father, William, himself a doctor near their home in Columbus, Ohio, started having a persistent build-up of lymph (also known as chyle) in his abdomen – usually a sign of heart or liver failure. At one point doctors tapped four liters of the stuff from his lungs. Her father’s illness threw Linder, then a junior in college, for a loop; drugs and music started to replace academics. After he died, aged 49, in September 1996, she became a nomad, moving from Prague to San Francisco to Brooklyn and dabbling in different careers.

Only gradually did they all realize that the same thing had happened to William’s uncle, Nathan, in the 1960s and his grandmother, Mae, before that. While Mae lived to age 54, Nathan died at 34, even after treatment at NIH. Along with the lymphedema, a heart murmur was a common factor. William’s brother, Norman; Linder and her older sister, Hilary; and various cousins of their generation were diagnosed in this way. The author’s own symptoms were initially easily to ignore – swollen ankles and a low platelet count – but escalated in her thirties: a blocked vein in her liver meant she was in danger of bleeding out if she vomited.

It’s rare to be able to trace a genetic disease from its founder through to the present. In Linder’s case, her great-great-grandmother, Ester Bloom, is the first known sufferer. Researchers eventually isolated their family’s gene on the X chromosome, near the location for asthma. This explained why, historically, female family members had a better prognosis than males – they have one normal X chromosome and one diseased one; men only get the defective X chromosome – and why asthma medication helped to an extent.

There are a couple of chapters here on the basics of genetics that felt a little condescending to me; for anyone with a high school or A level biology qualification, the simplistic metaphors explaining the workings of DNA may seem superfluous. I also had trouble relating to Linder’s immediate reaction to her father’s death. Although he’d been severely ill for years by then, her attitude still seems a little heartless. Of the decision to take him off dialysis, she writes, “I was on board. It was time to call it a day.” When the family went around expressing opinions, she said, “I think it’s time, Dad. You’ve been through so much,” to which he replied “F— you”! An ex-boyfriend’s suicide a couple years later affected her much more than her own father’s death. Grief affects people in strange and unpredictable ways, I guess.

What I most appreciated was how the book sensitively reveals the ways a genetic condition complicates life, especially in America: Linder had to do without health insurance for 10 years, having been denied it in Ohio on the grounds of a pre-existing condition. In addition, she and her sister faced a quandary common to those who carry genetic diseases: should they have children? While Hilary underwent pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, a form of IVF, to bear healthy twins, Linder ultimately decided against having children.

I enjoyed the earlier part of this genetic quest narrative a bit more than the later material about Linder’s symptoms. Still, I can recommend this to viewers of House and readers of Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire and the like.


The Family Gene is released by Ecco today. With thanks to Beth Parker and James Faccinto for the electronic review copy via Edelweiss.

My rating:

Grief in Literature: Michel Faber and Cathy Rentzenbrink

On Tuesday night I had the chance to see Michel Faber in conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink at Foyles bookstore in London. The topic was grief in literature, and specifically Faber’s book of poems in honor of his late wife, Undying: A Love Story (which I reviewed here in July). Faber had always written occasional poems, he said, “sort of kind of clever” stuff that he would have taken little note of if he encountered it from another author; the only really good ones, he thought, were about illness, based on his time as a nurse. So when there came this huge uprising of poems about Eva’s last illness, he felt they were a more appropriate way of commemorating her life than a novelistic narrative.

img_0505
A six-floor bookshop: heaven for book lovers.

Rentzenbrink mentioned two things that particularly struck her: how Eva emerges in the fullness of her personality in the course of these poems, and the fact that the book is not angry. Faber explained that Eva herself was not angry. She did not think of multiple myeloma as her enemy and had no illusions about ‘beating’ cancer; instead, she just tried to achieve the best quality of life and the longest lifespan possible. In fact, she found cancer interesting, Faber recalled: she researched it as much as she could and followed its course with a certain curiosity. He contrasted her experience with that of an acquaintance in the Scottish Highlands who had the same disease and wanted to know nothing about it, leaving it all in the hands of her doctors. Faber believes this ignorance shortened their friend’s life unnecessarily.

Making sure that Eva came through as a real person in the poems was a struggle, Faber confessed. To start with his editors at Canongate, many of whom knew Eva, were frustrated that Undying was mercilessly medical, describing the process and aftermath of cancer treatment. A few poems, then, he wrote as a direct response to that criticism, almost as if ‘on commission’, he said, to infuse the book with more of Eva’s personality.

Only two of the poems were written while Eva was still alive, Faber noted. One was “Nipples,” written at her bedside just 10 days before her death. Eva had dealt with the pain and indignity of her illness admirably, but plasmacytomas – big purple welts all over her skin – truly broke her spirit, he revealed. His poem is a strangely erotic take on these blemishes: “Excited peaks of plasma. … Your flesh is riotous with the pleasure / of predatory cells.”

Cathy Rentzenbrink and Michel Faber
Cathy Rentzenbrink and Michel Faber

There’s irony there, and a certain dark humor in many of the rest. “There are so many absurdities when a body is breaking down spectacularly,” Faber said. And yet the last two years of Eva’s life were “incredibly intimate and tender,” as a fiercely independent woman ended up very frail and completely dependent on him as her carer. Likewise, Faber had to shift from creativity to practicality to cope with household tasks plus caregiving.

Cathy Rentzenbrink was the perfect person to interview Faber. She is the author of a bereavement memoir, The Last Act of Love, about her brother’s death after eight years in a vegetative state. Moreover, her mother survived a bout with cancer at the same age as Eva; she was heavily involved with that process through accompanying her to chemotherapy appointments. I was a bit disappointed that Rentzenbrink didn’t get to speak more about her own grief and the experience of crafting a narrative out of it. Faber said he too had envisioned more of a dialogue, but that Rentzenbrink thought it would be inappropriate for her to talk about herself and generously kept the focus on his work instead.

I also would have appreciated more context about grief literature in general, and poetry in particular. Faber did mention that there are many kinds of grief poetry. For instance, Thomas Hardy was still writing poems about his first wife decades after her death. Faber consciously avoided writing elegant, well-formed poetry like some that he’s read; instead he wanted his poems to be raw, direct, even shocking. Contrast that with the rainbows and heavenly visions of much of what’s out there. This came home to me a few weeks ago at my husband’s uncle’s funeral. Three poems were recited in the course of the ceremony, all of them heavily clichéd and unfailingly rhymed. This meant that the speakers ended up using singsong voices. In Faber’s poems, though, end rhymes are rare. I noticed them more, along with the sibilance and internal rhymes, through the emphasis he lent when reading aloud.

img_0503Rentzenbrink insisted there is still life to be lived for the grieving. As if to reinforce her point, Faber openly admitted to his relationship with a fellow writer who also lost a longtime partner, Louisa Young, whom he met the year after Eva’s death. He’s aware that this poses a marketing problem: he’s no longer the disconsolate soul in rumpled clothing, barely surviving without his spouse. (Indeed, he looked well put together and hip in his blue leather jacket and bright orange shoes, and his blond mop makes him appear much younger than he is.) Thinking also of a widower friend, Rentzenbrink said that her feeling was “he looked after her for so many years; he can have a little fun now!”

As to Faber’s professional future, he reiterated that he does not plan to write any more novels for adults. All of his fiction is about characters desperate to transcend, he said, and now it’s time for him to do that in his own life. He’s pondered a couple of nonfiction projects about aesthetics and music, but for now his next goal is a YA adventure novel. Whenever plaintive readers beg him for future novels, he cheekily asks whether they’ve read his whole back catalogue – including two collections of short stories, always a hard sell for novel readers. I have six more of Faber’s books to get to myself, so that’s plenty to fuel me in the years ahead. I came away from this event with a greater appreciation for the poems in Undying and a deep respect for a man aware of the seasons of his life, writing and caregiving among them.