About derekemerson

Derek Emerson is a father of four, husband of one, and someone who likes to write. I have a blog I update weekly on grief (afteroliver.home.blog) and another blog of book reviews (derekemerson.wordpress.com)

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl

It is a gift when a writer brings a new perspective to a challenge we have faced since the dawn of human life — the challenge of loss in the face of love and the grief that follows. Margaret Renkl offers us a new perspective in “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” a collection of short essays and nearly poetic writing that move around the issue looking for a new way in.

Renkl explores both the world outside her home, filled with rat snakes, bees, and her beloved birds, and ties it into the loss of her own parents. She ties all this together, stating the obvious in new ways that connect life and death in a natural context, but not diminishing the impact. “The shadow side of love is always loss, and grief is love’s own twin” (7). 

Her description of the natural world is centered around her own backyard in Tennessee, something that most of us can relate to easier than the wilderness explorer. In the chapter, “Late Migration,”  Renkl tells us about her desire to attract monarch butterflies. She notes there were once over a billion monarch butterflies in North America, and now there are less than 100 million. “Once upon a time, even a loss of that magnitude might have caused me only a flicker of concern, the kind of thing I trusted scientists to straighten out. But I am old enough now to have buried many of my loved ones, and loss is too often something I can do nothing about.”

Since she can do something about this problem, she plants a garden to attract monarch butterflies. Although they do not come at first, a later migrating group comes at the end of summer. She notes that monarchs migrate like birds, but it takes four to five generations of butterflies to make it. No single butterfly makes the entire migration. The natural world follows its own path.


Her love of the natural world around her reminds her of the fragility of life and cruelty of the world. But knowing that death is part of a natural cycle does not make it easier to address. In “After the Fall,” a single powerful page addressing grief and offering hope, Renkl writes about grief:

“This talk of making peace with it. Of feeling it and then finding a way through. Of closure. It’s all nonsense.

Here is what no one told me about grief: you inhabit it like a skin. Everywhere you go, you wear grief under your clothes. Everything you see, you see through it, like a film.”

Grief changes people. But change is not always bad and with time those changes create a different person who can still live.

“What I mean is, time offers your old self a new shape. What I mean is, you are the old, ungrieving you, and you are also the new ruined you.You are both, and you will always be both. There is nothing to fear. There is nothing at all to fear. Walk out into the springtime, and look: the birds welcome you with a chorus. The flowers turn their faces to your face. The last of last year’s leaves, still damp in the shadows, smell ripe and faintly of fall” (281).

Part of that new person is the memories that we carry with us. Memories become unreliable for accuracy as we move on. “All these images are absolutely clear, but I know better than to trust them. I have turned them over so often the edges have become soft and worn, their contours wholly unreliable” (98). While our memories do change, I only see them as becoming unreliable in their factual accuracy. We begin to alter those memories so they become true to our experiences more than the facts. Truth is not always found in the facts.

Renkl’s short essays reflect a range of writing styles. From natural descriptions to what can best be described as prose poetry (e.g. “Redbird, Sundown), making this a fascinating read.  She even includes an essay called “The Imperfect-Family Beatitudes” that offers a humorous look at families and ends with an exhortation to tell your children you love them every time you leave them.

Renkl is an outstanding writer who has published in a number of publications, especially the New York Times, but this is her first book. After the success of this book, we can hope to see more come from her. It is a rare voice that can address grief and yet offer hope.

“Human beings are creatures made for joy. Against all evidence, we tell ourselves that grief and loneliness and despair are tragedies, unwelcome variations from the pleasure and calm and safety that in the right way of the world would form the firm ground of our being. In the fairy tale we tell ourselves, darkness holds nothing resembling a gift.

What we feel always contains its own truth, but it is not the only truth, and darkness almost always harbors some bit of goodness tucked out of sight, waiting for an unexpected light to shine, to reveal it in its deepest hiding place” (186).

Renkl excels at finding that unexpected light in the darkness. As a result, she has added an indispensable volume to the library of grief, loss, and love.

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Wow. That was my response by about 30 pages into this book and then all the way through the end. Wow. Leave it to a poet to find a unique way to explore death, grief, and life after losing one that you love.

In The Light of the World, Alexander deals with the sudden loss of her husband at the age of 50. She loses the man she loves and not only needs to help her two teenage boys through this process, but has to find her own way in the world. The book addresses some of the things all people with grief deal with — going back to work, cleaning out the belongings of the one who died, learning to do things the other person did for us. But Alexander does this with a different voice than most, tying in recipes (her husband was a chef and artist and they express their love through food), poems from other poets, and even her own first attempt at a poem after her husband dies.

Alexander and her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus

Why do we write about death and grief? As someone who writes a blog on grief, and was recently accused of “not giving it some rest,” what is this need to explore all this through writing? For some of us, it is because writing is how we think and even how we feel. As Alexander explains: “I write to fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget”(147). What a wonderful phrase, “to pass time in his company,” because that is one of the things Alexander achieves in this book. We come to know and love her husband as we watch her spend time with him in her writing. From this we can focus on our own journeys of grief. It seems paradoxical that in writing about a particular person that Alexander can reach so many of us, but she succeeds. “I wanted those particulars to radiate outward and be meaningful in ever-widening circles. For loss is our common denominator” (206).

Because of the death of my youngest son at the age of six, I read a lot of books about death and grief. As a Christian, I wonder why the atheists write some of the best books on grief (see my review of Julian BarnesLevels of Life). Alexander may not define herself as an atheist as she clearly has a spiritual bent, but there is no belief in an afterlife. Perhaps since they don’t have any hope of an eternal reunion, the atheists or agnostics do a better job of focusing on their current situation. Plus, they don’t have to wrestle with how a loving God allows us to suffer (since there is not a good answer to that).

Alexander’s exploration of grief is one of the best I’ve read and I recommend it without hesitation. And not just for those grieving, but anyone who values excellent writing on topics of depth. As a poet, Alexander says she thinks in short segments so most of the chapters are quite short and her mix of writing (recipes, poems, prose) make this a unique reading experience.

If Alexander is a new name for you, then you are in for a treat. She is an excellent poet and her 2006 work, American Sublime, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, as was The Light of the World. You can visit her site to learn more about her.

Heart In A Jar by Kathleen McGookey

415JSKnCH9L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It is a world in which Death is part of the equation, children disappear or appear in unique ways, and animals move into doll houses. In Kathleen McGookey’s “Heart In A Jar,” her latest collection of prose poems, it is not a fantasy world, but a way of looking at our own experience in new ways. McGookey excels, both in her earlier work and this outstanding new collection, at peeling back the surface layer of existence and giving us a glimpse of what lies behind it. Although it is not often pretty, she proceeds without fear.

“Dear Death” is the opening letter (or poem) where she asks Death to “pretend you forget all about us.” She is out riding bikes with children, visiting the first graders with “gap-toothed smiles,” and learning about penguins. It is the essence of innocence with Death standing right in the moment. McGookey is not a pessimist, but a realist who understands how fragile life is. Death is not a scary presence in her poetry unless you find the mere concept of Death scary. McGookey’s Death drives to a school Valentine party in his red pick up. “…you’re welcome to braid a friendship bracelet and balance an Oreo on your forehead. Cupcakes go next to the juice boxes.” And she reassures Death, who may feel uncomfortable in the midst of such life. “It’s ok if you don’t exactly fit in. No one wants to believe you are here.”

But Death is here and McGookey explores the impact as she writes about grief. In “The Grief Jacket Project” we find a committee combining different materials to create “a wearable jacket that physically protects and comforts mourners” — sea turtle eggs, small river rocks. In the end, barn swallows provide inspiration and they create a jacket that volunteers would like to pass on to their loved ones. The issue not addressed is why they would need not need such a jacket themselves? In another poem (“At the John Ball Zoo”) she wonders when she’ll be done with grief. And, then, “When will I say, Grief, do you miss me, too?” Like Death, Grief is a presence.

McGookey has explored these ideas before, very clearly in Stay, but she avoids repetition. They are concepts ripe and deep that she may delve into for a long time. In Stay, much of her thinking revolved around her parents, but here Death and childhood are intertwined. Childhood is a magical place of everyday joys and distant fears, where children grow in the flower bed, and where a son escapes the day in a bird suit. And she ends the collection with a “P.S. Death” where her daughter hands her a crumpled page from her first-grade unit on space, not knowing that the elderly neighbor who watched her swim, died that day. She knows her daughter would engage death, but she wants to protect her. Her final line to Death says “I don’t want you to feel at home here.”

If you have not entered McGookey’s world, you are missing a place both familiar and strange. It is a world where we can wander through the possible, the unsaid, and the unacknowledged, and emerge back into our lives with a new perspective.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

behold the dreamersJende Jonga is a dreamer. He has dreams for his own life, but more importantly, that of his family. And in Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, he gets a glimpse of where dreams can lead you and realizes that perhaps reality is better.

Jende is from Cameroon (Limbe) and he arrives in New York City to make his way in the land of dreamers. After working hard for two years, his wife, Neni, and son, Liomi, join him. When the book opens they are all in the city and Jende is interviewing to work as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive, Clark Edwards. He gets the job and is exposed to a different world as he drives members of the family around the city. Clark’s wife, Cindy, emerges as a complex and tragic character. Having been raised by a single mom in a dirt-poor household, she knows what she has and she wants to keep it. One son, in college, is almost stereotypic in his rejection of his father’s lifestyle, which, of course, supports him as he rejects it.

 Working for the family, Jende sees the “one percent” in action. While they live the lavish lifestyle, their personal lives are falling apart. Clark is struggling to act professionally honest in the midst of the financial crisis meltdown of 2008 (and his company goes bankrupt), but at the same time, his personal dishonesty creates more of a barrier between him and his wife and sons. Although Mbue presents Jende as a confidant of Clark, he is really no more than a foil for Clark’s musings. Mbue attempts to create a stronger bond between the two, but it is primarily a utilitarian relationship for both of them.

Mirroring this is Neni and Cindy’s relationship, and they connect in their roles as mothers. But in a climactic scene between the two, Neni acts completely out of character. Mbue may want to show us the desperate act of a mother, but she instead shows the willingness of Neni to allow another person to be destroyed in order to advance her and her family’s dreams. Although she talks about the family, it is clear that Neni wants to stay in the U.S. for her own desires even more than that of her family. In many ways, she resembles the Clark family in how she uses other people to meet her personal goals. I don’t think Mbue was aiming for this, but it seems to be a logical connection.

The struggle of being able to stay in the U.S. is an undercurrent in the entire novel. Jende continues to work for and is always worried about citizenship, and reaches a point where he realizes all his work may fall short. While Jende starts to actively think that returning to Cameroon will be better for his family, Neni is using every method at her disposal to keep the family in New York. Jende has seen what the dream fulfilled looks like and realizes that dreams and reality are different. He is not a fatalist, but a realist who sees that his dreams of success may not lie in the direction he was heading. It is the age-old story that material success does not equate with happiness, and Jende’s dream is for happiness.

 

Mbue+author+photo+(c)+Kiriko+Sano

Imbolo Mbue

Mbue succeeds in showing the challenging life of the immigrant without losing hope. But she misses the opportunity to take us more into that existence as most of the action takes place in areas of wealth. We get glimpses of the Jonga’s family life outside of the Clark world, but not enough to get a fuller picture of their day to day struggles. Mbue can capture the reader as her writing style is inviting and the narrative flows. She draws us in and she just needs to focus on where she is taking us. In the end, this is a book worth reading and a writer worth watching. It is not a perfect novel, but it does give a glimpse into an existence most of us do not know.

Imbolo Mbue’s Website

Benjamin Weatherby’s Practical Bestiary by Josh Bishop

bw-book-coverSheep stolen in the night, people disappearing, rumors of beasts and one boy determined to find out what is going on. This is the underlying plot beneath Josh Bishop’s delightful first novel, Benjamin Weatherby’s Practical Bestiary. Although aimed at a young-adult readership, the book will delight old-adult readers as well.

 
Pilcrow is an adventurous teenager at a time when villagers get to town in a horse-drawn cart. But it is a society edging into modernity and Pilcrow, like the rest of the villagers, is unknowingly on the cusp of change. Pilcrow, and other children can still wander the fields without fear, yet something lurks in the shadows that introduces fear into the world. And, as it turns out, it is a fear the modern world wants to forget at the expense of living. In addition to the unnamed fear, a stranger arrives in town. Actually, he is called the Stranger for most of the book. Put together, we have the creation of life’s greatest fear — fear of the unknown.

Instead of hiding from this fear, Pilcrow seeks to understand the unknown. Some of the knowledge comes in an unusual book, the “Benjamin Weatherby’s Practical Bestiary” of the novel’s title. However, Pilcrow also learns from others, including his elders. His relationship with his parents, especially his father, is strong and although he pushes the boundaries (he is a teenager!) he clearly respects their input. He is also surrounded by other adults from whom he learns to live, more by their example than by lectures. The Shepard lives a simple life by choice, Father Chestnut is a priest of wisdom, wit, and width (sorry, couldn’t resist), and Grantham Ken, father of his friend, Alinea, is patient and encouraging.

These relationships are essential as Pilcrow finds out that people will lie and put others at risk just for money and acceptance. While he learns this when visiting the university in a neighboring town, there is also a person, Tayben Rod, like this in the midst of their own village. While he is the wealthiest man in town, he is more accommodated than liked. And in him, Pilcrow learns how not to live.

As Pilcrow goes into the midst of the fear, quite literally when he enters The Bloodwood, he finds that Alinea has preceded him. In other words, we do not need to enter the unknown alone. The tender relationship between this boy and girl is one of trust in the midst of chaos or distrust. Bishop treats their relationship with a respect too few people give to young love and it is a wonderful sub-plot in the novel.

The main plot centers around the fear which is encompassed in one character (I don’t want to give too much away!) who brings death and destruction. Yes, it is a young-adult novel which is willing to show you the cost of ignorance in somewhat graphic scenes. And Pilcrow, with the help of Alinea and others, faces this fear in a climatic finish. They succeed because they trust one another, learn from the past, and seek the wisdom of others.

Bishop has written the classic “page-turner” novel. It was a one day read for me as I kept wanting to see what is next. A sign of a good novel is the reluctance to set it aside. Benjamin Weatherby’s Practical Bestiary will stay in your hands right to the end.

You cannot find this on Amazon or your local bookstore, yet, so visit the website and order a copy today! You even get to create your own illustrations and can submit them to the website for everyone to see.

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

lark-and-termiteOur connections with others are sometimes obvious, but often we are influenced by people we are not aware of or with whom we see little connection. It is as if absence can be a stronger connector than presence, and in the hands of Jayne Anne Phillips, we find those connectors, not just in people but events.

“Lark and Termite” follows two storylines that connect in ways the participants will never see. The story takes place in the 1950s and focuses on Lark, a young woman on the verge of adulthood, and her younger stepbrother, Termite, who is unable to speak or walk. Their mother is the absent Lola, but they are raised by a loving aunt, Nonie, who works at a “greasy spoon” owned by the man she loves but will not commit to. The other story is of Termite’s father, Corporal Robert Leavitt, a soldier in Korea who does not live to see the birth of his child.

The absence of these parents is as palatable as the presence of those who love and support Lark and Termite. Lark’s birth father is unknown to her and we are not sure what Termite understands. Phillips tells the story through the voices of the different characters, and through Termite, we see a world of wonder and joy. However, his voice is the weakest in the novel not because of the character, but because Phillips lets his voice slip out of character too often. But that is a rare slip in this otherwise strong novel. In fact, Phillips excels in giving an authentic voice to these West Virginian people struggling to make it day to day. They are poor, but they do not focus on their poverty as much as each other. Nonie takes these children in with no complaint and Lark takes care of Termite since he is more comfortable with her than at school. The neighbors are a father and sons abandoned by their wife and mother; they are a hardscrabble lot but they make sure that Lark, Termite, and Nonie are also taken care of. There are no saintly figures in this novel, but there are real people who make mistakes, care for others, and focus on the next day. For Lark and Termite, the community is very present and generally supportive.

But that does not mean Lark never wonders about her absent mother and her unknown father. And for the scenes in Korea, as Leavitt fights for his life, it is with the absence of his wife and the presence of a young girl trying to care for him. We are changed by those with us as well as those far away. Phillips bounces between Leavitt’s story in Korea and Lark’s in West Virginia, and neither one knows the impact they have had on each other even though they never met. Their connection is Lola, and she is absent from both of them at crucial times.

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Jayne Anne Phillips

While Phillips spends a long time (a bit too much) setting up the climax, events at the end unreel at a dizzying pace and in unexpected ways. This is not simply a “slice of life” look at these different people, but a story that is driven to a point where the people must decide their future. Those decisions became both easier and harder because they become more informed of what has been missing. Awareness of an absence becomes a powerful presence.

“Levels of Life” by Julian Barnes

levels-of-lifeHaving lost my 6-year-old son to cancer, I’ve read plenty about grief. And, as a Christian, I’ve read plenty about faith and grief. Leave it to an atheist to write the best book I’ve read yet. Julian Barnes is a highly respected novelist and essayist who wrote “Levels of Life” after his wife, Pat Kavanagh, died after nearly 30 years of marriage.

This is not a typical book about grief. In fact, much of it does not look like it deals with grief at all, which is where the genius comes in. Barnes splits his short book into three sections. The first section, “The Sin of Height,” is about early adventurous folks and their foray into ballooning. “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” Such is the world of people and balloons, or photography and balloons, or two people together.  So, what is the sin of height? Is it our desire and willingness to rise about ourselves? What else is love other than the rising above yourself by being with another. “Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves.” Put together two things and you have something new and, in love, better than what you had before. So what is the sin? The desire to be more than we are?

We come down to “On the Level,” the second section of the book. Back on the ground, we deal with life as we find it. We can fly above the world, but we most come down. “But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings.” So, why when we are on the ground do we constantly aspire to more? Because love is where truth and magic meet.  It may be photography (truth) and ballooning (magic), but it may also be two people. And even though we are aware of the dangers of combining truth and magic, or rising in a basket below gas and hot air, we seek to rise above ourselves. But that goal to rise above our ground level leads us to a new level, “The Loss of Depth.”

In this final section, Barnes finally directly addresses the loss of his wife and the resulting

barnes-and-kavanagh

Julian Barnes and Pat Kavanagh

grief. The first two sections lay the groundwork to help people understand better the loss of depth or the depth of grief. Some of the writing in this section could not be more accurate to the experience of grief. He opens. “You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash?…Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.”

These stunning last two lines are written by Barnes in relation to his wife, but they apply to any relationship. My son has been taken away from me and my wife, but what is taken away is greater than what we had. Our relationship is greater for the loss, a mathematical impossibility. But love is not confined to our mathematical structures. Later he returns to this apparently illogical formula. “Grief is the negative image of love; and if there can be accumulation of love over the years, then why not of grief?” Everyone expects loss to diminish over the years, but can it not increase? Note that he does not say grief is the opposite of love. It is the “negative,” like a negative of a photo. It is the other aspect we do not see except in special circumstances.

“This is what those who haven’t crossed the tropic of grief often fail to understand: the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn’t mean they do not exist.” Barnes tells about friends who refuse to talk about his wife, even when he repeatedly raises her name. Others encourage him to move on, but he has no interest in moving on from the memory of his wife. He keeps her alive by remembering her. Why would he stop? However, Barnes does not offer space for people to hide in their grief. “There are many traps and dangers in grief, and time does not diminish them. Self-pity, isolationism, world-scorn, an egotistical exceptionalism: all aspects of vanity.Look how much I suffer, how much others fail to understand: does this not prove how much I loved? Maybe, maybe not….The griefstruck demand sympathy, yet, irked by any challenge to their primacy, underestimate the pain others are suffering over the same loss.” Or, perhaps, any loss.

So, what does Barnes offer to overcome all of this? Nothing. Instead, it is a call to understand those in the midst of grief. A challenge for people to look at death, which we avoid, and the loss others can have for people. His only nod to Christianity is a sharp jab at a Christian who notes that Christ also suffered. He responds, is that all your God has to offer? But here Barnes slips because he assumes that Christianity offers an answer to suffering. Instead, it offers a model. And, it respects the grief we experience, just as Barnes is seeking from others. Perhaps he has considered this since the book — he is more recently called agnostic.