Category Archives: Non-fiction

Grief Works: Why Thinking About Death Beats Cat Videos

I can’t remember the last time I read book length non-fiction. I’m going to guess at least a year. Maybe two, if you don’t count books for work. Which is to say it has to be a compelling proposition for me to entertain non-fiction (like I considered reading Fire and Fury but then thought – who cares, there are podcasts). But when I heard that the author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Survival, Julia Samuel, was coming to my city, I looked into the book. And that was enough for me to pick it up.

The gist: Samuel is a grief counselor and the book presents 15 case studies from her years of practice as a way of inviting the reader to consider how folks experience grief and keep living after significant loss. The book is broken into sections (death of a sibling, death of a partner, death of a parent, death of a child, facing your own death) and each section has three case studies and then some reflections on the chapter. The book concludes with some general notes about death and dying in Canada (presumably only for the Canadian edition), supporting others in grief, supporting yourself in grief.

I haven’t experienced grief up close. Yet. Samuels is great, however, at reminding the reader that it is only a matter of time – and chance – before we encounter death and grief, and that hiding from this certainty does nothing to protect us from the inevitability (sort of like my relationship with global warming, actually). And she reminds the reader without being scary or macabre.

In fact, I’d say the overarching mood of the book is ‘gentle.’ Readers are allowed space to digest as each case study is relatively short, and within them are moments of levity and reflection. (One complaint I have is that Samuels dwells a bit too much for my taste on her therapeutic process (i.e. how she needs to go slow in asking some questions because trust needs to be established first), but then I wasn’t reading it with interest in how grief counselling works, but I can see how other readers might have this interest).

I was talking to my dear friend S. about the book (as well as my mum and my Auntie P.) and sharing with them that what I found most valuable about the book (at this moment in my life anyway) was in supporting others in their experience with grief. But it was also a key read for me at the moment because I am – inexplicably? – preoccupied with knowing that those I love will die. And dwelling in this morbidity has been scary and disquieting and all the other feelings you’d expect to have. And while fiction does it’s best to help me prepare for death (there are no shortage of novels exploring all the many different ways death finds us), I suppose I wanted something practical. And this is a desire Grief Works frustrates. Samuels acknowledges the desire for a practical guide, and notes that these kinds of books do exist, but she resists giving a check-list because of her emphasis on how individualized and contextual grief is experienced. Sure she offers a few ‘pillars’ (meditation, running and visualizations seem to be her fan favourites), but these are couched in the insistence that each individual will have to find their own path.

So maybe what I’m most appreciative of is the way the book has opened conversations for me. I can say I’m reading, or just read this book, and it made me think about these things. Instead of being like “I’m thinking a lot about death these days,” which is odd because it is sunny, and springtime, and there are baby cats (aka: kittens) all over Facebook, I can use the book to begin conversations that let me know that other people are thinking about death, too. (And yes, I know I should check out a death cafe).

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Filed under Fiction, Non-fiction, Prize Winner

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions‎: On Raising a Feminist

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I had a conversation with my brother a few months ago about raising kids. We talked about the challenge of instilling sensible (re: feminist) politics and circled around how that might be done. I’ll be sending him Adichie’s tiny book Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions because in it, Adichie takes this exact question – how to raise a feminist – and poses fifteen possibilities. Granted they are suggestions aimed at a woman-identified character/speaker about raising a lady-identified child, but the suggestions, edicts,  prompts nevertheless read as widely applicable. (This apparent universality is – perhaps – a point for further questioning and consideration). Continue reading

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Between the World and Me: Read it.

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I first heard about Ta-Nehisi Coates on an episode of This American Life. The story was about what happens when your friend makes it big and you… don’t. [Relevant episode for you to listen to as you’ll all have to deal with this question when I make it big…hahaha] I asked for his book Between the World and Me for Christmas not with any real enthusiasm for the book (after all, it’s non-fiction) but with curiosity about what kind of book could propel an author and his work to such consistent and widespread consideration, conversation and celebration. Heralded as the voice of black America, bazillions of reviews called it the book everyone should read – especially white liberal America: here, here and here. Another bazillion of reviewers are disappointed: here  and here that it doesn’t go far enough, or isn’t hopeful enough, or speaks to the right people or the wrong people.

I know enough to know I don’t know enough to comment on the content of the book with any nuance or authority. I can only comment on the experience of reading it and that was the entire time felt like I was reading something urgent. Not written for me (the book is addressed to his son -though the people-who-think-they-are-white, liberal audience is called forward throughout) the book does the work of educating on systemic racism and the material effects on black bodies. It also straddles a frustrated pessimism and a call to action: articulating the intractability and pervasiveness of structural racism and nevertheless urging his son/the readers to struggle. While the explicit call to action isn’t included (nor does it need to be), the reflection it demands and the likelihood you will both tell someone else to read it and talk to them about it is it’s own kind of clarion call.

 

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H is for Hawk: In which I read non-fiction and nothing explodes

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H is for Hawk is non-fiction. It’s not the book’s fault. It’s the story of a real woman (author Helen MacDonald) and her real hawk (Mable). And it has gorgeous writing. Really beautiful stuff. The kind that makes you stop and read it out loud to whoever is in the room with you (which, thankfully, was only S. and not my fellow bus passengers – though I bet they’d have appreciated the beauty, too).

It’s also kind of slow. Helen’s father dies. She gets a baby hawk. She teaches the hawk to hunt. She experiences depression. She mourns. It’s not the plot of a novel; it’s the plot of someone’s life, Helen’s life. Well, it would be except that the book also includes a sort of mini-biography within the memoir of falconer and author T H White. The bits about White were… distracting and dull. I suspect they were meant to illuminate ideas about Helen’s life and her work towards healing. Suffice it to say I found the parts about Helen and Mabel more engaging and enriching. I found it hard to make the leap between White and Helen, as if the relationship between the two was meaningful for Helen, but not sufficiently argued for me to see the connection.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not all about engagement and excitement. I appreciated that much of this book was thematically and structurally about patience. Waiting for the hawk, waiting for grief, waiting for plot. It’s also about time. And about how our sense of our self shifts in place, time and relationship. And space – the contours and power of a specific location. I appreciated the gentle and the meditative. I really did.

And there’s no but. Just the caution that you might expect long – and elegant and surprising and sharp – explorations of landscape and a bird’s movement through it. Plus some brambles.

Read it for the beautiful writing. And let me know what you think.

 

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Filed under Non-fiction, Prize Winner