Grief and Reading

January 15, 2016

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.

    • Eleanor Segal
    • January 15, 2016

    Roz, I loved Devil in the white City! I love your blog! I have been going through some challenging health issues for going on three years. I can get wacked around Scan time. My latest uplift is “Hamilton” Lin Emanual Miranda’s play. It is brilliant, it is an original, amazing staff, it makes me want to tell everyone. When I am not listening, th songs are playing in my head and in my spirit. Check it out. Also Currie High school in Chicago does an awesome version of “Wait”. I discovered all this when I did a TV sketch of Miranda during PBS NewsHour. Have not been the same since! Let me know hat you think!

    • Carol
    • January 15, 2016

    This is a great post – I’ve been looking for books (and struggling to find them), precisely for the reasons you mention. I love Dickens, too, so I’ll give these a chance. (I’ve heard the Wright brothers book is great …)

  1. Reply

    Eleanor, thanks for the recommendations. I’m not sure about “Hamilton,” I read a New Yorker piece on it and it’s not quite in sync with some things I researched on Hamilton (as he is one of my top 3 founding fathers), so I’ve stayed away. I wish I could go to Chicago but that’s not in the future but I’ll look into the play. Thanks again. And good luck with your health issues! I hope you can get through them soon.

  2. Reply

    Yeah, Penny is an odd one on my list because I really did wail when reading the first one. And I complained and complained. Then finished it while I had a head cold and that worked. Now I don’t need to be ill to read her, but there are times when I have to reread a paragraph over and over because it’s not clear what she’s focusing on. But I love her main character. Go figure. I’ll add the names you mention to my list. Friends rave about French but I had a similar issue with her when I first tried her a while back. I’ll give it another go.

    No, I wasn’t reading in bed because I was sick. I was able to read in bed because Dick was sick and sleeping upstairs in what was a bedroom but is now a storage room for the folk’s papers and such—I really didn’t want him up there when he was sick (because it’s so stacked and jammed full that I can’t dust in there) but we can not afford for both of us to get sick as at least one of us has to be on all the time for the folks.

    It worked, I kept my distance and he got better and I didn’t get sick and was able to do the folk’s stuff.

    But now I can’t read in bed any more because he goes to bed before I do and that would be RUDE. At least I think so. He says he doesn’t care, but…

  3. Reply

    If you love DIckens I think you will enjoy that Kate Atkinson. I’ve ordered some others and don’t know if I’ll like them yet or not, but the one I mentioned is really grand. (I’ve read her mysteries and like those, I should say.)

    I’m looking forward to M’s Wright Brothers book. But it better be good because Wilbur and Orville are GODS in this household for BOTH me and Dick. Amazing and incredible individuals.

    • SusanLily
    • January 15, 2016

    Roz, I’ve been going through a season of life marked by periods of heightened anxiety and some grief. During these times, I can’t watch the news and I can’t watch TV or film or read books with graphic violence or unrelenting suspense. I love to read though, especially mysteries, so I fall back on what I believe are called “cozy” mysteries that have a lighter touch. I enjoy Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series and Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries. I’ve read, I think, three Louise Penny’s book and like Inspector Gamache too. Can’t remember why I stopped reading her. I’m going to look into the other authors you’ve mentioned. I love to discover new-to-me writers, especially those who create wonderful characters. Thanks for sharing your recommendations.

    • PeggySu
    • January 15, 2016

    Thank you for this lovely post for many reasons. i’m another who’s not a Louise Penny fan. I even tried a second one when I learned how popular she is.

    I love Atkinson’s books with Jackson somebody as the detective character.

    Have you read any of Donna Leon? I think you’d enjoy Commissario Brunetti and the other regular characters. Some of the mysteries are better than others though. They are all set in Venice where the American-born author has lived for many years.

    • Jen
    • January 16, 2016

    May I recommend The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley? You would love Flavia de Luce, the young detective and amateur chemist, who gets around her English town on her beloved bicycle.

  4. Reply

    I’m so glad you mentioned this. I loved it. A friend gave it to me several years ago because she said I reminded her of Flavia. Then things happened and I didn’t follow up to see if there were more books…I’ll have to check that out. Thanks for reminding me!

  5. Reply

    PeggySu, I started reading the first Donna Leon and kept getting interrupted. A friend recommended it for the main character too. I always intended to go back but haven’t had a chance.

  6. Reply

    SusanLily, yep, that’s what they are called “cozies” (pl.) I used to be a huge fan of them and read though series of woman making quilts and running bakeries and such. Great fun. Then I read one with dogs and there was a TOTALLY wrong incident with the dog tracking. So I was off that series, and then I read one about bookbinding (ditto) and the art forgery world.

    I got so angry at the inaccuracies about subjects I was so aware of that I stopped reading them all together. I may cycle back when I don’t need the hard-edged nature of the series I read to snap me to attention. But for now I’m left wishing there was more diligence put into researching the topics so many of the cozy writers base their sleuths on.

    You might have stopped reading Penny because round about after the 3rd there is some real shoot-em up and other types of violence and testing of relationships. Or her odd lapses in language coherence might have just frustrated you too much.

    I’ve seen the Cadfael series with Derek Jacobi (I love his work in just about everything!) But in general I tend to stay away from historical mysteries because I know too much about certain periods of history and again, the glaring inaccuracies or nuances that don’t Jive with what I know about the “mimicked” author, the time period, language etc. put me off. I particularly stay away from anything in the 19th century for those reasons. I wouldn’t change one moment or day of my education, but sometimes it makes the suspension of disbelief darn near impossible.

    My habit of not watching the news these past few weeks has really got the best of me. I didn’t know Korea had exploded a hydrogen bomb until I saw Anita Kunz’s powerful and beautiful New Yorker Cover.

    I’ve got to get back out more! The animals at the zoo just don’t care about all this stuff.

    • Julana Schutt
    • January 16, 2016

    Thank you for the list, Roz. I also have problems with violence, but love a good mystery. I read some of Connelly’s, good plots but too hard-boiled.
    I find so many American cozies poorly plotted and written. The British do them best. Caroline Graham?
    I also really enjoyed the Cadfael books, and read a number of Pargeter’s other books–about Welsh history and WWI. I found her a great writer.
    If I remember right, Margaret Yorke was pretty good.
    I also read half a dozen of Kreuger’s, until I couldn’t take the violence. Like his characters, plots, and setting. Same for Elizabeth George. Couldn’t get into Penny. Ruth Rendell is so dark. I do like P.D. James, generally. Sarah Caudwell wrote some good ones, if I remember right.
    I finally got through Bleak House a few years ago. It was a struggle!

    Our beagle has gone on without us. It’s been a hard week. I’ll never say, “It was only a dog,” again. We had her over 14 years. She was the best dog ever. I understand your writing about your dogs a little better. She has left a space in our house.

    • SusanLily
    • January 17, 2016

    Yes! I know exactly what you mean about the need for more diligence in researching the cozies. My husband and I have spent quite a bit of time in the South Carolina Low Country, and I went through a period of reading a lot of Southern authors. I quit reading one after her main character hosted a tea party on the “beach” at the Battery in Charleston and then enjoyed the views of the Ashley River while driving along 61 out by the plantations. One look at a map would have told the author neither were possible, but she claimed to have done all her research on-site. Her books were filled with glaring inaccuracies about a city that has a very distinct geography and culture, and I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief any longer.

    One cozy series I did love, though, was the Thoroughly Southern Mysteries by Patricia Sprinkle. They are set in Georgia and are about a sixty-something female judge who can’t keep herself from sleuthing. I wasn’t especially knowledgeable about any of the places or subjects the author wrote about, so I didn’t experience the frustration brought on by too much artistic license. I just enjoyed the fun!

  7. Reply

    Julana, I’m so very sorry for your loss. I’m glad you had 14 years with your beagle, to enjoy her spirit in your life. While their deaths do leave a space in our homes and our hearts, I have found that the space is full of love, and over time that will be the defining emotion you experience.

    Find some good animal energy today, by visiting a friend with animals perhaps.

    On a humorous note—I’m sorry you had trouble with Bleak House. I think it is probably my favorite Dickens book and on my best books of my life.

    There are many reasons for this but perhaps the fact that he deals “seriously” with SHC (Spontaneous Human Combustion) is one of them. When I first read the book as a 10 year old I embarked upon a journey of research into SHC that perfectly matched my temperament and rewarded my creativity in more ways than I can express in a short note. As an adult, decades later (after reading it many times in the interim) I even made a T-shirt on the theme as an end-of-year client thank you gift. If I had not read that book, so many things, and so many friendships would not have happened.

    Favorite books have a way of changing so much more than the time we spend reading.

    I hope you have time today to read a book that speaks to you in a special way. Thanks for reading and writing in. Take care.

  8. Reply

    Thanks Susan, I understand your frustration. I’ve added the Sprinkle mysteries to my list for when I want a cozy! I also know knowing about Georgia, and perhaps they will work for me too.

    • Carol
    • January 18, 2016

    I love that Dickens was fascinated by spontaneous human combustion and used it in several books!!

    • Julana Schutt
    • January 18, 2016

    Thank you–I remember that combustion. :-). I read a lot of Dickens in high school, long ago, in a “reading for pleasure” class, but have forgotten it. I had a much longer attention span then. My parents limited tv, and the school and local libraries were small.

    We are housebound much of the time because of health issues, which is why we were so close to Rosey. It’s hard to get out to other animals, or even many places. I am not generally an animal person, and didn’t expect the loss to be so hard. She was very personable and interactive. I’m sure you are right; with time it will become easier. I have found gratitude is one way to get through things.

  9. Reply

    He wasn’t the greatest novelist of his age for random reasons!

  10. Reply

    What a great post and comments.
    Yes I like Louise Penny and reading books like these makes me want to travel as well.
    So a couple of suggestions: the Anne Cleeve books, a series set In Shetland and the Vera series, set in Yorkshire both of which have been made into TV shows but the books are better.
    Currently I am reading Susan Hill, The Serailler series.
    We have the best library service here. I can go on line, search all these suggested authors and if they stock them I can order them and they text me when they are there.
    One more thing. I can also get a lot of them as audiobooks on my phone. I listen to them in the car and on long plane flights or sleepless nights.

  11. Reply

    Maria, I saw Vera on TV some years ago when they first started doing them and then I binge read all of Anne Cleeves that was available and followed up (I think I’m current). I like both series of books, and TV series though they truncate things in the TV series.

    I don’t know Susan Hill. I’ll have to give them a look.

    I can’t do audio books. I don’t like words and noise in the studio when I work, which means I could only listen in the car and years ago, probably about 1990 I was on the interstate in Wisconsin and a famous dog author was reading his story on MPR and I was fine for about 20 minutes and then I had to pull over and stop because I was sobbing. It’s just not safe driving for me!!!!

    And I’m not going to give up my sketching time on sleepless nights!

  12. Reply

    Maria, I just looked up Susan Hill and I HAVE read several of those books. the blurbs made me remember, but I didn’t know there were so many so I have a bunch more I can read now.


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