Above: My view of the bedroom as I sit in bed and look towards the closet. Page spread from my 7.5 inch square Nideggen journal, cropped on the right for privacy. Faber-Castell Pitt Calligraphy Pen. (I started with a Staedtler Pigment Liner but it was drying out and no fun, so I grabbed the other pen. Artwork around the room, left—Two Betsy Bowen bird prints; a fantastical bird sculpture by a local artist whose name I never wrote down and have never seen again, sitting on a small green chair (!); he's sitting next to my toiletry bag that I got out for some reason and didn't put away—I didn't go on a trip recently, and he is surrounded by all the "science" of bread baking books I've been reading; a Betsy Bowen Tree print (straight ahead); below that a portrait of a Chihuahua I painted that is covered with glassine, that paper hanging down, that I was supposed to frame in December; a cut paper portrait I made of Emma; lower, and obscured by extra pillows I need to compress into one of those storage bags because they have just been washed, is art I did the day Emma died; a charcoal sketch of Dottie; below Dottie, an enamel painting by Gregory Graham. There is art the other way around too. I like to be surrounded by images.
I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and its impact on my reading schedule lately.
I lost several friends and relatives this past year. I am watching the diminution of my in-laws' faculties. There are times I need to have something really riveting to read to take my mind off of all of this.
I remember that when Dottie was dying in 2003 from liver cancer the ONLY books I could read were Michael Connelly mysteries. I needed the cold metallic precision of his prose to keep my mind focused on plot, character, and simply lines of type. When I set the books down I found it difficult to not think about what was happening to Dottie. Gradually of course I focused on the present moment and in some ways I was able to enjoy her last days, but late at night, when she was pacing and ready to go out for long sub-zero walks (I’m sure that took her mind off of any pain she felt, though she never whined or cringed in pain), I would take her out and be unable to sleep when we returned. I’d reach for a Michael Connelly. He wasn't going to keep me up. I was already up. But he focused my mind.
Twelve years seems a long time to have your reading schedule disrupted. It hasn’t been so continuously, but I definitely seem to be my father’s daughter when it comes to desired reading material. He’s always reading mysteries too.
Since Dot’s death, text has had to be very interesting indeed to hold my interest. Mysteries became my standard as well. (Though I have enjoyed them throughout my life.)
Happily there are a lot of mystery writers I enjoy. Here's a list of writers I can read when grief is present. (And one author I cannot read no matter what the inducement.)
William Kent Kruger, a Minnesota author who writes about a former sheriff living in Northern Minnesota. I feel I've met his characters. They might be just around the corner.
Louise Penny, whose prose I always have a difficult time getting used to when I open a new book, has nevertheless created a main character I adore: Inspector Gamache. When I read the books I have the actor Michael Lonsdale in mind. (He played a police inspector in the 1973 Day of the Jackal.) I always am bereft when I put one of those books down. I know it will be awhile before I get to spend more time with Gamache.
I’m the farthest thing from religious in any modern understanding of the word, and indeed my mother likes to point out that “You are not spiritual.” Despite that I enjoy Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson books.
Fergusson is an episcopal priest who solves mysteries and has a difficult path to love. The writing is tight and quick paced, but she will ponder things as well. I think other progressive heathens will not have any problems with the “religious” aspects. I consider her books comfort food perhaps because of my years in Australia surrounded by Anglican clergy.
Perhaps the best books for me in times of stress are Bill Bryson’s.
Anything by him. I am re-reading The Lost Continent again. It is a fabulous revelation, followed by humorous insight, backed up by detailed observation.
Tim Cahill provides much the same “balm” as Bryson, though it’s not because he’s as humorous—many of his pieces and his entire book on John Wayne Gacy are very dark indeed. There is however a crisp clarity in his writing that sucks you right in and puts you on the road with him, regardless of his or your circumstances. (He does have his hilarious moments too.)
Erik Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City,” also draws the reader in with clean, clear prose. He animates history by imparting an immediacy through his writing. This is difficult to do and I hope he is much studied.
Not everyone can do this—which brings me to the point of today’s post—The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. I cannot recommend it.
Brown’s writing is clunky. He writes about some of the most interesting people I’ve ever tried to meet in a history book—the 9 Americans who won the OIympic gold medal in 1936 Berlin for rowing. His pacing is off. He builds up a head of steam only to let it evaporate. He cuts here and there and seems to be confused by the great plenty that he has available to serve up.
I had to stop reading this book half way through. (No spoiler alerts needed we know they win.)
And it put me off history and non-fiction. For the moment. (I have David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers” sitting on the desk by the bed and am hopeful.)
Since I didn’t want to read mysteries right now I turned to fiction. I picked up Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
Her writing is amazing. It’s full of energy, detail, nuance, humor (often wry), and such a clear understanding of her character’s mind and voice that as an author she disappears. It’s simply Ruby, the main character who tells the story. It’s a brilliant book. It will hold your attention. If you have not read one of her books yet you should read this book.
As a side note—in a “footnote” (sections which deal with aspects of the characters’ lives before Ruby’s birth) this book contains one of the most moving depictions of WWI trench warfare I have ever read.
The back cover blurb compared Atkinson to Dickens. I hate comparisons like that because I have always loved Dickens, and while I’ve not been able to reread him since Dottie died, I have spent all my life from childhood until Dot's death re-reading him.
Comparisons like that leave me grumpy.
But the grumpiness lifted as soon as I started reading. Behind the Scenes at the Museum is beyond fun to read. I found myself reading it out loud because she strings words together with true craftsmanship in ribbons of thought that deserve to be savored and heard.
I’m grateful for Atkinson in the morning before my indoor cycling, and Bryson in the evening before I try to sleep.