Tag 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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Between the World and Me: Read it.


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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Cottage Reads 2015


I’m of the privileged few able to take a week holiday in the Muskokas each summer. This holiday is shared with my family (though my partner has fewer weeks of vacation and was working) and so involves a combination of swimming, hearts tournaments, making ‘suggestions’ about how to eat/sleep/parent/live and reading-in-proximity. It was newly wonderful this year as my nephews are old enough now to turn the pages of their board books, and to make gleeful noises at the appropriate places in The Paperbag Princess. In my family, reading is both a solitary activity and a shared practice. Count me privileged in two ways then: spoiled in the ways of cottage; spoiled in the ways of books.

I probably read more than the rest of my family this past week because I’m a grumpy introvert and I insist both on shared reading time and hours (and hours) of time alone on the dock with a book. But even with this additional solo-time, I read less this year than in the past. I attribute this ‘lost’ time to the bountiful addition of time shared with E. and M. as we screamed up and down hallways, paddled in the shallows and practiced over and over and over saying “Auntie E” (it didn’t work).

So what did I read? And what would I recommend taking on your own cottage vacation (should you be lucky enough to get one)?

The Pope and Mussolini – David Kertzer

My mum has been going on about how good this book is for ages. It’s the non-fiction account of the rise of fascism in Italy and the relationship between the Pope and Mussolini that made this rise possible. I don’t read much non-fiction (as you know) and would never have picked this one up without mum’s insistence. And I didn’t finish it because a) I didn’t care about the story b) that’s the only reason. There were certainly narrative elements that helped this reluctant non-fiction reader to stay interested – neat character descriptions and conflict – but on the whole I just… didn’t care.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis

Despite being more short story collection than novel, I really enjoyed this one. Each chapter follows a different child of Hattie, with Hattie making her own appearances at different points. The first chapter that narrates Hattie’s experience parenting two sick twins is incredibly moving. And sets the stage for a series of provocative, emotional and taught explorations of growing up, class, race, sexuality… it’s got a lot going on. And where you might expect this range of thematic interest to lead to less depth, it doesn’t (I talked about the same with The Bone Clocks – this book isn’t nearly as good at That Great Book, but it is good).

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

This one reminded me a lot (a lot) of A Man Called Ove. The same sort of whimsical tone, the same exploration of what makes meaning in life, the same absurdist plot premise (in this case our protagonist is walking the length of England to ‘save’ his once friend from cancer), the same easy enjoyment and sense of contentment on conclusion. It’s a book that wants you to feel good about yourself, about life, about connections to others, about the possibility for late-life change, for reconciliation. It’s a feel gooder if I’ve ever read one.

The True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

I think I remember this being one of M.’s favourite books and I always meant to read it for that reason. Why did I wait so long? What a delight. A romp through history. The historical fiction ‘true history’ of Ned Kelly presented as autobiography (so cue my favourite things: historical fiction & metafiction). It’s an at time playful, at times painful look at the relationship between state and criminal and our efforts to memorialize ourselves (and to make our lives meaningful). Gosh, and the writing is so good.

That’s it for my summer reads. I’m now gearing up for fall teaching and book clubs. If you have more recommendations or requests, you’d best get them in soon. Oh. That’s not true. I’m waiting for my advanced review copy of the new Jonathan Franzen to arrive. (I can’t wait) (even though I’m waiting). (I’m so excited) (even though I’m usually a Franzen complainer). (end post). (now).

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The Empathy Exams: On reading (essays)


My bff S. and I have a long standing joke that we have an “ET” connection. Having never seen the movie (I know, I know) I’m not entirely sure what the alien does to form the connection, but the way we understand it there are moments that we just ‘get’ one another, or ‘get’ what the other is going through.

The idea that we can ‘get’ one another, or the idea that there are – and should be – limits to what we imagine we can ‘get’ about one another, or the idea that we can only ever reach towards this kind of understanding, are ideas explored in Leslie Jamison’s excellent collection of essays, The Empathy Exams. [I admit I don’t read many essay collections – though with M.’s prodding and with this experience I suspect I’ll seek out more – and so my commentary will be a welcome counterpoint to the last post on historical fiction.]

One of the threads running through the collection is that of the writer-as-observor or witness, and the parallel role we all take in our connections and interactions with one another. That much as we might like to imagine that we can ‘get’ the other and those we love, we are – in the end – witnesses to and for one another. That we could be witness for one another is one of the ideas I found most engaging in the text. Until reading I had sort of thought of empathy as somehow selfish: let me share my pain or joy with you – selfish for both giver and receiver. But what the opening essay opens up is the notion that in asking questions, in witnessing and listening, we can reveal parts or feelings of the other to herself that she didn’t know she had or felt. The collection weaves this idea – and many others on the theme – through a range of places and people in ways that brought fresh perspective and nuance. Each felt focused on a particular story, but threaded to the wider theme and question. With the exception of the last essay, which I found a bit wearing, each gave, shared, asked and offered.

If my idea of reading has been this sort of sharing of experience, broadening of perspective, temporary adoption of identity and history that changes and shapes the reader, what Jamison’s collection did for me was to nuance my idea that reading is just about expanding and deepening my capacity for care and might equally be a call for conversation – with the author and others – about what and how the reading (re: the experience, the sharing) has changed or is changing.

There’s good evidence – if we believe Science – that reading literary fiction strengthens the readers ability to empathize. Even more so than popular fiction or non-fiction. And so while I might want to take this evidence as vindication of my reading habits, I do think reading this essay collection has affirmed that I need to read more non-fiction for the lens it brings and the questions it explicitly asks.

And so S., I’ve sent you a copy of The Empathy Exams as your late Christmas present. And as a tether across the world to know just how close we are.

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