Archive for the ‘grief’ Tag

Grief Among the Living   Leave a comment

When five-year-old Clara Bynum drowns in the Potomac River, the impact of her death weighs heavily on her parents, her older sister Johnnie Rae and the Black community in Georgetown where they live.

Although Breena Clarke’s novel, River, Cross My Heart could more easily be titled River, Break My Heart, how pre-teen Johnnie Rae processes her sister’s accident is the most interesting aspect. The narrative unfolds in a series of vignettes describing the residents, many who moved to this Washington, D.C., neighborhood from the south seeking a better life. By all accounts, their situations were greatly improved: jobs for the adults and schools for the children.

Johnnie Rae was tasked with caring for Clara, something she both resented and took seriously. She had only taken her eyes off the younger girl for a few minutes, and despite multiple efforts to save Clara from in the fast moving water, Johnnie Rae has no clear memory of what happened. Later, she is certain the new girl in school is Clara incarnate.

Unsurprisingly, though they were better off, the jobs were menial and opportunities were both limited and unequal. The latter is something Johnnie Rae finds especially irksome in the form of a nearby whites-only swimming pool. The Potomac is the only place she and her friends can swim and play in the water. Johnnie Rae is a natural born swimmer; something she does with ease and grace. It’s never clear how she came to be so adept. Nonetheless, being in the water is where she feels she is most herself. Eventually, a new pool opens for Blacks where she joins the swim team.

Clarke’s descriptions of the circa 1925 neighborhood, its residents and the Bynum family’s loss are vivid. However, framing this as a series of short stories rather than a novel would be more effective; there are too many detours to form a clear plot.

River, Cross My Heart

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Little, Brown and Co., 1999

245 pages

A Celebration and Lament   Leave a comment

Punctuation in Elizabeth’s Strout’s new novel, Oh William!, is important to note. There’s no comma after Oh and the exclamation mark is, indeed, a point of emphasis. Those who’ve read Strout’s previous works will be familiar with William’s ex-wife, Lucy Barton. If introduced here to Lucy for the first time, there’s enough about her past and how it factors into her relationship with William.

To say they’re cordial to one another is an understatement; though long divorced, they are friends, even confidantes, but certainly not lovers. They have two grown daughters, share holidays and are, simply, part of each other’s lives.

Each remarried years ago, although Lucy’s second husband is deceased and William’s third wife has recently left him.

Strout’s writing is terse, efficient and occasionally melancholy. Told from Lucy’s perspective, the narrative focuses on William and, significantly, his late mother. When William discovers a family secret he’s compelled to learn more. A road trip ensues and he asks Lucy to join him. She agrees.

Lucy notes early in the novel that William has always exuded confidence something that manifested itself in his position as a scientist and NYU professor. As a writer, Lucy is observant, attune to those around her.  Through her eyes, the reader witnesses William’s certainty begin to diminish, while her own grows stronger.

The title can be read as both a lament (even sans comma) and celebration; both are fitting. Oh William! is a testament to the power of friendship, especially as one ages. Hurray Lucy!

Oh William!

Four Bookmarks

Random House, 2021

241 pages

Life’s Mysteries   Leave a comment

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Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, a coming-of-age story, center, around three mysterious deaths.

Forty years after the fact, Frank Drum recounts the summer he was 13. His musically-gifted older sister is getting ready for Julliard. His kid brother, more often than not, is Frank’s shadow. His father is a minister and his mother resents not having the life she imagined.

It’s early 1960s, school’s out and attending services where his father preaches on Sundays is the only real routine Frank has. Otherwise, it’s a halcyon, small town existence. That is until a young boy is found dead on railroad tracks; Frank discovers a vagrant’s body near the river and another death strikes closer to home.

The author blends vivid imagery of summer’s joys with a family’s grief. Frank is no-nonsense kid who’s sometimes insightful and at other times naïve. He’s protective of his brother whose shyness stems from his self-conscious stuttering. Such characterization is one of the novel’s strengths. Besides the close relationship with his dad, Frank bonds with Gus, who served in the war with his dad. When Frank isn’t sure about sharing concerns with his dad, he turns to Gus.

It’s unusual for a novel to feature not just one but two positive male role models; although at times, Gus’s behavior does raise eyebrows. The females are secondary characters even though their talents and interests are well-defined, they’re peripheral in Frank’s world.

The  take-away, though, is the power of forgiveness and acceptance in the face of sorrow.

Ordinary Grace

Four Bookmarks

Atria Books 2013

307 pages

Not a Book Review   2 comments

 

Aiden

What happens when a close-knit neighborhood loses a cherished resident – especially when it’s a five-year-old child killed in an accident?

What happens now without Aiden? Of course, we carry on; certainly we offer support to his parents – and each other. But my hope is we’ll also share memories with one another and continue to appreciate where we live – and why.

Our community is more than spectacular views, shared streets and intermittent contact. The few we don’t know by name, we recognize and acknowledge with a wave or smile. We know at least a little about one another, often through conversations in the street. Since the first week of June, however, those talks have focused on our grief.

Aiden was a child many of us have known since his birth. Yet, our feelings were more than the collective enjoyment of watching him grow. We embraced his curiosity, smile, friendliness and general joie de vivre. Aiden arrived in yards and driveways ready to engage. Sometimes it was a simple inquiry as to what we were doing; other times he told about recent adventures or to show a newly-unearthed treasure. Topics were never in short supply. He made everyone feel special, instead of the other way around.

His funeral was attended by many from far beyond the boundaries of our ‘hood. Most impressive was the number from down our street and around the corners who gathered to mourn the loss of what might have been, while relishing what he brought to our lives.

Posted June 14, 2021 by bluepagespecial in Uncategorized

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Traveling Through Grief   Leave a comment

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward made me cry – multiple times with sad and happy tears, and (spoiler alert) not only at the end. Ann Napolitano has crafted a moving novel about loss, survival and choices.

Eddie Adler is 12 years old when he boards a Los Angeles-bound flight from New Jersey with his older brother Jordan and their parents. He’s the only survivor when the plane crashes; thereafter he’s known as Edward.

Alternating between Edward’s recovery over the span of three years, are chapters chronicling the flight ranging from the mundane (seating arrangements and in-flight meals) to the captivating (vivid descriptions of some passengers and conversations).

Although he survived, Edward is emotionally broken. He was close to his parents and Jordan, only three years older. He moves in with his maternal aunt and uncle. All grieve their losses.

The personalities of a few passengers are richly portrayed. The more the author invests in their development, the harder it is to accept knowing they die in the crash.

Edward develops a connection with Shay, the no-nonsense girl next door. She has a history of being on the fringe with her peers, which is where Edward finds himself; as a survivor he’s an oddity. Their friendship is a thing of beauty. Many challenge Edward’s reluctance to move forward, but Shay is the most consistent.

His discovery of a cache of letters written after the accident provides glimpses of his fellow passengers, the good and bad of human nature, and reasons to look ahead.

Dear Edward
Five Bookmarks
The Dial Press, 2020
340 pages

Best of Friends   Leave a comment

The Friend

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez comes across as a letter to an intimate, erudite companion and also a series of journal entries about grief. Yet, it’s a story, in fact a novel, a work of fiction.

The nameless female narrator mourns the death of a dear friend, a relatively successful (male) writer, who has committed suicide. He, too, is unnamed, as are many of the characters, who are mostly peripheral, such as Wife One, Wife Three and Grumpy Vet. Some of the narrator’s graduate students are identified as someone “I’ll call …,” but only the super of her New York City apartment and a Great Dane are ascribed monikers.

Reluctantly, she takes the deceased man’s dog, Apollo, since no one else wants him; he’s old and massive. Like her, the dog also grieves. Apollo’s presence brings changes and not just to her lifestyle — despite her small apartment in a building that doesn’t allow pets. Previously, she’d only had cats. This is no immediate transformation. She recognizes he is a tie to her friend and she is not alone in her sorrow.

Nunez’s novel is also about writing. The narrator is a college English teacher. She cites writer after writer on death, grief, dogs, teaching, love and writing. Just as the woman recounts her memories of her close bond with the writer, her connection with Apollo transforms. She no longer sees him as a burden, so the question remains who is the friend: the dead writer, the narrator or the dog?

The Friend
Almost four bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
212 pages

Get Lost   Leave a comment

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Watch Me Disappear is disappointing. Sorry. There’s no hemming and hawing on this one. Yet, I read all 300-plus pages waiting for some redeeming elements. Some surfaced only to quickly fade. It wasn’t exactly a slog, but it was far from a nice walk in the woods.

There is a hike, though; at least references to one, which is part of the story.

Jonathan and Billie Flanagan, with Olive their 16-year-old daughter, live in Berkeley. By all appearances they’re a happy family. He’s a workaholic for a hi-tech publication, Billie is an out-doorsy bon vivant, stay-at-home mom occasional graphic designer with a past, of course. Olive is a bright introvert at a private school.

The narrative follows the grief-stricken father and daughter dealing with the presumed-dead Billie who, nearly a year earlier, goes missing while on a solo backpacking trek on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Jonathan quits his job to write a memoir about Billie, the love of his life. Interspersed among the chapters are pages Jonathan has written. They reveal as much about him as about Billie. Meanwhile, Olive begins having visions of her mother offering hints as to her possible whereabouts. Thus, the two begin separate searches to find the missing woman.

Part of the problem with Janelle Brown’s novel is that it’s predictable; the few surprises are just that, too few. It doesn’t help that Olive is the only appealing character or that the ending – and this reveals nothing – is very tidy.

Watch Me Disappear
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Spiegel & Grau, 2017
358 pages

Shall We Gather at the Cemetery   Leave a comment

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Lincoln in the Bardo is a mash-up. It’s part Greek tragedy, part play, part poem and completely imaginative. George Saunders has crafted a novel that can best be described as unusual, and that’s meant as a compliment.

Amid a graveyard setting, following the death of Willie Lincoln, the 11-year-old son of the U.S. president, Saunders’ tale is about grief, the afterlife and the disenfranchised. It includes a lot of humor.

Bardo comes from the Buddhist thought regarding a state between life and death; a purgatory of sorts. The characters are largely those trapped in this transitional stage. Although they are definitely dead, Saunders brings them to life through references to their foibles when they were alive as well as through their attitudes and deeds among the nonliving. They aren’t zombies, but they are supernatural.

There is no dialogue. Instead, observations on the action are shared through statements from the characters or from accounts in books, newspapers, conversations and other sources. It’s a blend of having each statement presented as lines in a play with footnotes. For example, this about Abraham Lincolns’ grief:

“It was only just at bedtime, when the boy would normally present
himself for some talk or roughhousing that Mr. Lincoln seemed truly
mindful of the irreversibility of the loss.”
In “Selected Memories from a Life of Service,”
By Stanley Hohner

Initially, it was a bit difficult to embrace the format and the narrative. However, it becomes evident that Saunders is creative and appreciates a good laugh.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Four Bookmarks
Random House, 2017
343 pages

Family Ties   Leave a comment

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Grief, atonement and tradition are all bound together in LaRose by Louise Erdrich. The title refers not only to the young boy shuttled back and forth between two families, but also previous ancestors, all women, with the same name.

LaRose’s father accidently shoots his young son’s best friend, the child of neighbors. As part of Ojibwe custom of retribution, La Rose’s parents give him to the grieving parents. Interspersed with the adjustments this entails are stories of the original LaRose, a strong, intelligent woman able to see more than others with knowledge others don’t possess. Her traits, that include tribal medicine and a keen awareness of others, are passed down through four generations. Even the youngest of the namesakes has special, insightful characteristics.

This is more than an account about two families who lose a son. Although, the descriptions of the two sets of parents and siblings are full of depth and richness. It is also a narrative that examines the personal histories of many of the reservation’s residents, including the parish priest and a ne’er-do-well.

Erdrich blends the traditional Indian ways with modern life; the novel begins in 1999. Humor, rich descriptions of the landscape and dynamic characters make this an engaging work. It is sad, even heartbreakingly so; yet there are also moments of joy and revelation of life’s beauty.

Ultimately, this is a love story – in fact, many love stories: parental love and sacrifice; husband and wife love (and sacrifice); the relationships among siblings; and new relationships.

La Rose
Four Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2016
373 pages

A Tale of Two Sisters   Leave a comment

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The heroics/horrors of war, tests of familial love and loyalty to one’s country merge in Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.

In Oregon 1995 an unnamed elderly woman prepares to move from her home at the insistence of her adult son. This sets in motion her recollection of life in France during World War II. At its heart, the novel is about the relationship between sisters Vianne and Isabelle, ten years her junior. Following the death of their mother, their father leaves them with a stranger. Despite their shared grief and sense of abandonment, the two have nothing else in common.

The war years show how, as adults, the sisters remain at odds. Vianne struggles to keep her daughter safe and maintain the family home after her husband goes to fight. Meanwhile, Isabelle wants a role in her helping her country overcome German authority.

The sisters’ personality differences are repeatedly described, yet the strained relationship doesn’t always ring true. Vianne acknowledges that she failed in her responsibility as the older sibling to help Isabelle; she attributes this failure to dealing with her own sorrow at the time. Isabelle has an air of entitlement – at least when it comes to emotions; this sense of privilege doesn’t follow her as she works with the French Resistance.

The novel progresses with the war; occasional interruptions remind the reader of the elderly woman. This becomes a guess-who exercise: who is it and how did she end up in Oregon. Only one of the questions is answered.

The Nightingale
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
St. Martin’s Press, 2015
438 pages