Books I read this week: December week 4

Here’s what I read over the last week or so of the year.

Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist was a bit of a hard book to get my head around to begin with. It’s a series of vignettes about different points in the lives of a married couple when they have had to deal with death. What threw me was that some of the vignettes concern experiences that only the wife had (when she was a child, before she even knew the husband) yet all of them are written in the voice of the husband. I thought that was a strange choice for a woman writer- in effect taking the woman character’s voice from her- but there did turn out to be a reason for it. I get it, and I don’t know of a different way it could have been done, but I’m still not sure I love it.

But anyway, the story itself is lovely and sad, as this couple find themselves dealing with the task of “cleaning up” after deaths of family members- selling homes, cleaning out belongings, finalizing finances. And through it all, they love each other and live their lives, and are strengthened by their experiences.

And even through every offering you make, we both know the baby himself is not really an idol. He’s just an altar- a place to lay sacrifices. The sacrifice you make here is so profound I’ve never dared to mention my own- real but lost and invisible in the face of the cataclysm of your new motherhood. But the look of sameness in the routine of my life is not real. I have laid something precious on the altar of the baby too. My own sacrifice– it was you.

After Birth by Elisa Albert was on a ton of best of 2015 lists, and for good reason. It’s a raw, honest, powerful book. It’s the story of a newish mother (her baby is a year old) who is struggling with post partum depression in addition to the general upheaval of her life that came with a new baby. She befriends another new mom (of a newborn) who is also struggling, and the two of them create a support system for each other. The whole book is in a stream of consciousness form, and every emotion connected with motherhood is present here. Reviews that I read found the main character abrasive and some of her views offensive (she is stringently pro-breast feeding and thinks formula is horrible), but I found her honest and real (and I totally used formula). Some characters in fiction have different opinions than we as readers have. It happens. The experiences that these characters have are not everyone’s experiences. But I found myself more aware of those with new babies around me after reading this, checking in, making sure that they’re ok.

Another day gone, okay, and I get it, I got it: I’m over. I no longer exist. This is why there’s all that talk about kids having as express train to enlightenment. You can meditate, you can medicate, you can take peyote in the desert at sunrise, you can self-immolate, or you can have a baby, and disappear.

Who can say I’m not a good mother? Who can say I don’t read the subject headings in the books? The How to Care for Your Child if there is Absolutely No One with Any Primal Knowledge Around to Guide You guides. What to Expect When There Is No Received Wisdom Whatsover.

On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them by Melissa Dalton-Bradford is such a lovely book. Bradford’s oldest son died in a water accident just as he was starting college- he died saving a friend from drowning in a canal. Bradford wrote about that loss in her previous book, but this book is the result of her search for peace after his death. She read every book she could get her hands on about death and people’s experiences continuing on after their loved ones died, and she collected the passages that rang true to her. She put them in order of experience- the day they died, the next morning, at the funeral, a month later, a year later when people don’t talk about them every day anymore- and then added her own essays about her experience. The result is a compendium of shared experience that could bring comfort to the grieving and understanding to those who love them. I really highly recommend this one.

Remember: grief always outlasts conventional comfort.

The child was a gift. The grief does not smother the gratitude. And death is not the end. We grieve, but not as those who have no hope. Yet none says that since death is not the end, we should not grieve. Though grief does not smother hope, neither does hope smother grief.

Hands Free Life: Nine Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better, and Loving More by Rachel Macy Stafford is a follow up to her book, Hands Free Mama. It’s a good look at ways to have less distraction and more connection in your day. It’s an easy read with some good ideas.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity to connect to what really matters lies in the silent spaces of our day. When we resist the urge to fill every minute with noise, excess, and activity, we open the doors of our heart, mind, and soul to let the joy come in.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg is a really solid read with a lot of good information. He breaks down how habits work, in practice and neurologically. When that foundation is laid, he goes into how to change habits. There are lots of good real life examples. We’ve already used the ideas to help a nail biter in our home.

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is a really powerful book. It’s a collection of poems about being black in America, and it hurt my heart and made me angry and want to change the world. Many of the things that Rankine writes about are small moments of large import- when her friend (her educated friend) tells her that she didn’t know black women could get cancer, when a white woman chooses to stand rather than sit next to a black man on the train. All those little moments build on top of each other until they feel crushing. And then there are the larger moments, the moments that crush all by themselves, when men are pulled over and arrested because they fit a profile, when they are killed for daring to ask why. This is the kind of book (like After Birth) that probably makes some readers defensive, because this isn’t their experience, because they feel accused, complicit, because they don’t want to know. But sometimes reading is about reflecting your own experience, and sometimes it’s about listening to someone else’s.

As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing: it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira is a sweet, sad, story. Laurel has just started as a freshman at a new high school, and is given the assignment to write a letter to a dead person. So she chooses Kurt Cobain because he was her sister May’s favorite before she died. Laurel continues to write letters to dead people (Amelia Earhart, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, River Phoenix) as she tries to sort through her grief, the break up of her family, her new friends, and her part in her sister’s death. Dellaira does a great job of capturing the feeling of being a young teen who knows too much and who feels responsible for everyone else’s happiness- both in the characters of Laurel and May. As they keep secrets from everyone else and believe that their view of what is happening is correct, they’re crushing their own souls. The characters are nicely developed and complex, and while some of the events are predictable in a YA novel sort of way, that’s not a bad thing.

River, you were a star so bright, One that people made wishes on. Until you took so many drugs that you took your life. Do you think that everyone gets to be a star like that? Do you think that everyone gets to be seen? Gets to be loved? Gets to glow? They don’t. They don’t get to do it like you did. They don’t get to be as beautiful as you were. And you just wanted to burn up.

There was something between me and the world right then, I saw it like a big sheet of glass, too thick to break through, I could make new friends, but they could never know me, not really, because they could never know my sister, the person I loved most in the world.


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