Tag Archives: grief

What We Lose: The Unhappy Holidays, or; How Grief Ruins Christmas

While paying for some Christmas ornaments, I asked the cashier if she was ready for the holidays. No, she told me, she was having a hard time this year because her dad died in the summer and she couldn’t bring herself to get excited or plan a big meal or take part in the usual family traditions. That’s shit, I replied, total shit. As if I know anything about real grief. She teared up. Yes, she said, it is shit. Thanks for saying that. I paid and left.

Most of what I know about grief I know from reading. And Zinzi Clemmon’s What We Lose is a tremendous education in the banality and exceptionality of loss – the way grief persists and permeats and shows up in unexpected places and in excrutiating ways. The novel achieves this by shadowing the story with the death of our protagonist’s mother. The death is at once the absolute focal point of the story, and the unseen stagehand. While there are sections that pull apart the precise experience of grief, the bulk of the text is working through other moments: a pregnancy, a romance, a friendship. But each of these other moments are coloured with grief, usually unnamed and unclaimed, but nevertheless powerfully present.

It is also a story about loneliness and home. It is written with precise language that is beautiful in its simplicity and specificity.

It is a book that made me remember to call my parents and ask how they’re doing because it reminded me they won’t always be alive, and neither will I, and that glimpsing that gaping sadness through fiction is as close to fully feeling as I want to get – ever – though I know of inevitability and loss and how naive I am to think I can put this feeling away as easily as closing a book. (And made even more poignant and heart-pulling to know that it was my mum who suggested I read it. Because what will I do when she can’t recommend books to me anymore. And so I stop thinking about that and call her to find out what she’s reading).

So, no, it’s not a cheerful holiday read. But perhaps a necessary one for inviting appreciation of those we have and had. And not in a saccharin, forget-their-faults kind of way, but in an acknowledgement of finitude and a welcoming of melancholy.

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Grief is the Thing With Feathers: Spend two hours with poetry (or watch House of Cards)

We read Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing With Feathers for book club. Yet another reminder of why book club is great (if the bowls of candy & chocolate weren’t sufficiently compelling) is the invitation to read things I would never otherwise read. Even things I don’t like. Maybe especially things I don’t like?  Continue reading

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February: Tiny Catastrophes (and a plug for Eden Mills Writers Festival)

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“Is this what a life is? Someone, in the middle of cleaning the bathroom, remembers you tasting the ocean on your fingers long after you’re gone. Someone draws that out of the fog, draws out that memory, detached from circumstance, not locatable on a timeline” (115-116).

I can’t remember who told me this, but someone told me once that their hope when they die is not that their friends and family will remember them on birthdays or holidays, but that those they love might pick ‘ordinary’ days each year to remember and celebrate the dead. This idea resonated with me – with my own fears about creating meaning and being remembered. You might be able to tell that I’m in the position of not yet experiencing the death of someone so close to me (though loss is another matter – let’s come back to that). And then I read Lisa Moore’s incredible February. The book showed me that grief and memory doesn’t need to be requested or planned. No date scheduled. Moore’s book takes readers inside a grief that is perpetual, with shape and contour and bite.  It follows Helen and her family in the years before, during and after the Newfoundland Ocean Ranger oil rig disaster, during which Helen’s husband, Cal, dies.

At first I found the novel slow. I kept waiting for big chunky plot elements. Not realizing that in the incremental layering of small family moments that Moore was working literary magic: heaping these tiny details of family life and love to the point that this reader ached with the catastrophe of the loss. It wasn’t until three quarters in when I realized the sub-plot of John was just that –  a sub-plot – that I recognized the point of the book. I guess that’s my failing as a reader, or my suggestion to you that if you start out and find yourself wondering ‘what’s this all about’ that you keep reading. You keep reading to discover that it’s all about how the small is the epic.

Aside: It’s a little over a week until the Eden Mills Writers Festival.  If you live in the Greater Toronto Area you might consider visiting. Many of my favourite authors will be there reading (think Lawrence Hill, Sean Michaels, Camilla Gibb, Anne Marie MacDonald, John Valliant, Elizabeth Hay). And the ever fabulous Guelph Poetry Slam Team will be there performing. Better still: *I’ll* be there. And if you want to meetup, you should let me know: literaryvice@gmail.com

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A Man Called Ove: How to tell if the book you’re reading is sentimental crap. Or if you are cruel and unfeeling.

old man

I’m a graduate of a PhD program in English and Cultural Studies. My training was all about – well, most of the time – explaining why something was bad. Oversimplified! (see? I’m good at explaining why I’m bad, too). What it was about was cultivating my critical faculties. My ability to take something apart and show all the ways it was ‘problematic’. There’s a whole set of verbs you can use: problematize, trouble, unpack… all in an effort to have us reconsider the taken-for-granted and the assumed. Sometimes I worried – like L. – that I was being trapped in a culture of criticism that not only meant I had a harder time building or believing in something (that is, being earnest or sincere), but that I was only ever to think about the books I was reading in terms of ‘good’ books (those that were self-aware enough to know they were problematic) and those ‘bad’ books.

So I’m tempted to say that Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove is problematic, but I’m not going to (even though I just did, see?). Instead I’ll say that it’s at once wonderfully enjoyable and a lesson in the conventions of best-selling novels: a story of a man who tries to kill himself because he’s grieving the death of his wife, but can’t kill himself because he finds purpose in building community (how’s that for the elevator pitch?).

The chapters read as headlines (“A Man Called Ove Finds a Screwdriver” “A Man Called Ove Buys Bread”) (which I recently learned is a pretty common strategy in writing a novel, to sketch out your chapters as newspaper headlines) and the narrative – in translation, no less – is funny, warm, cozy and safe. You’re meant to see Ove as his neighbours do, a crotchety old man who is actually the funny, warm, cozy and safe man that parallels his narrative.

It’s a book I’d suggest if you were worried that living in your townhouse in the suburbs was making you less community-focused. Or if you thought that maybe you couldn’t have intergenerational friendships. Or if you were concerned that you were xenophobic or homophobic (or that maybe your granddad was). It’s a book that takes any worry you might have about your existence – or modern life – and banishes it away with the calmest, safest, warmest, funniest, hug-of-sentimentality.

It’s a book you’ll read and you’ll cry in your oatmeal. You’ll be glad you read it for the warmth it gave you all day. You’ll read it knowing there are problems with the narrative construction, with the character, with the politics of the text, but you won’t mind because it makes you feel so good. And whether that makes the book itself good or bad, I’m not one to say. I think there are some occasions (certainly not all, let’s not get carried away), when it’s okay to enjoy a book because it’s enjoyable. And this one really is.

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