Friday, January 11, 2013

Books Like Whoa: 3 Memoirs on Grief and Reading

Last year (I love saying that about books I read 2 months ago), I happened to read three books that fall into a very niche sub-genre: memoirs about the author dealing with grief and loss through reading and writing. I wasn't aware that this was a thing, but there you go. I had a variety of responses to them, so I thought it would be worthwhile to do a direct comparison between them.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair
by Nina Sankovitch

This was the first of the reading memoirs I read in 2012 and it was definitely my least favorite. The incident of grief that incites the author's year of reading a book every day is certainly tragic - the author loses her beloved sister to cancer at an early age. However, it was in this book that I began to see both the key strength and key weakness of this genre. The strength is that grief creates both a mood of introspection and a desire to escape for the mourner, which are two conditions that are ideally suited to the act of reading. The weakness is that the type of person who is most likely to take on this kind of reading or writing project is conspicuously wealthy and oblivious to that fact. Sankovitch's reflections too often seem to verge into whining about "rich people problems" and renders her genuine mourning for her sister as less moving. Her grief is lost in a sea of beach houses and play dates, and she fails to paint a clear enough portrait of the object of her mourning for the reader to connect to her grief. This probably wouldn't put off every reader, but it was ultimately too much for me to get over.

Rating: 3 - Not my cup of tea, but I get why people dig it

The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion

This was my first experience with that juggernaut of essay writing, Joan Didion. In terms of her reputation, The Year of Magical Thinking absolutely delivered in terms of her exquisite prose and I was able to see her hallmarks as a stylist. The year of her life that she is documented is likewise staggering - her husband of nearly 40 years dies of a heart attack before her eyes while her daughter lies in ICU from a terrible sickness (that eventually did kill her, after the book was published). The book documents the foggy year that follows as Didion attempts to make sense of how and why her husband died, all while trying to care for her daughter, whose health improves and crashes at regular intervals. Again, this book displays a certain tone deafness to the incredible "1%" lifestyle that Didion so casually inhabits. However, because of Didion's own skill and the sheer freakishness of her loss, this book avoids verging into the realm of whining or snobbery. In fact, by the end, I walked away thinking that perhaps her inclusion of those details of wealth were a strategy to say, "I have all this money and all these influential friends, but I still can do nothing to bring back my husband or heal my daughter."
Rating: 4 - I enjoyed it... a solid offering

The End of Your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe

Schwalbe's book was, for me, the most successful of these three memoirs. I think this is in large part because the one being mourned, his dying mother, has such a strong voice throughout the narrative to drive the dialogue on what it is to grieve and what it is to die. Schwalbe documents the informal book club that he and his mother create as he takes her to her chemo appointments during the last two years of her life. Though, again, this book is written by a family living a rather charmed life of privilege, Schwalbe handles this reality in an appropriately self-aware but unapologetic fashion that was satisfying for me. This is also tempered by the fact that his mother was such an incredible philanthropist, activist, and volunteer. This woman used her influence to advocate for the poorest of the poor, abused women, and voiceless refugees, spending a huge amount of time abroad serving those people. She also possesses a beautiful spirit of kindness and acceptance for every person that she encounters. I hope I am able to face death with a fraction as much grace and humility as this woman does. I found Schwalbe's memoir the most moving of the three, as well as the most deft at incorporating the reading element into his process of grief.
Rating: 5 - It's really good: well written and pleasurable

Ultimately, I think the reason some of these books rubbed me a little bit wrong was that I don't want to think that the only people who can benefit from reading at times of loss are rich people. Surely books are not only for the elite? The magic of books is that they reach across time, politics, and money to touch the lives of so many different readers. I want a book that documents the impact of reading on a regular joe. 

What is the place of reading in our lives at times of grief or distress?

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