Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The year 2009 was a difficult one for me, marked by losses that were numerous and frequent. I was blindsided by the profound emptiness and heartache that came from these sudden voids in my life. It felt as though life had pulled the rug from under my feet. I wasn't coping well and I suppose I was looking for better ways to deal with things in 2010 when I picked up Joan Didion's book The Year Of Magical Thinking.

On Christmas Day of 2003, the only child of writers John and Joan Dunne (who writes under her maiden name Joan Didion), Quintana, was admitted to Beth Israel hospital in New York with pneumonia. By day's end, she was in ICU in septic shock. Five days later, having returned home from a visit to the hospital, John and Joan sat down to dinner. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, Didion's beloved husband of nearly forty years slumped over and died of a massive heart attack.

A few days later, Didion made this note on her computer.

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.”

Life as she had known it had ended. These sudden changes and losses marked the beginning of what she describes as her year of magical thinking, a year in which she struggled with the conviction that she could have and should have done something to prevent John's death, a year in which grief came ... “in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life." It was also a year in which Quintana's recovery became increasingly uncertain.

Didion describes it best herself. "On most surface levels I seemed rational..." "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. . . . Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself." She relates that she had been trained since her childhood to look for answers in literature, "But I hadn't read anything that captured what I was going through, the immediacy and rawness of it." "I knew I wasn't thinking rationally. I was thinking as children do when they think they can change something that's already happened." Of this book, she writes "This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself."

I'm not sure what I expected when I picked The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Did I think I would find the meaning in my losses? Perhaps I was looking for Grief For Dummies, an explanation of how to properly deal with the feelings, how to wrap them into a tidy little package like Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief, to make of them a simple task to be completed. What I found was an amazing portrait of the losses and grief of another person, painted with unusual honesty and intimacy, her story of her journey into that “place none of us know until we reach it.” In the similarities of our stories, I found a measure of solace. In the differences, I recognized that we each deal with grief in our own ways and that it isn't over until it's over, if in fact grief ever completely ends. Whatever the case, it cannot be hurried or denied. We embrace the memories of what we had once known and use them to appreciate more deeply what is yet to come. We look for and eventually find our own meaning as we re-examine that which we accept through faith.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

People Of The Book by Geraldine Brooks

In People Of The Book, author Geraldine Brooks has created an amazing piece of historical fiction, woven around and inspired by the true story of a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. In the story, Australian Hanna Heath is called upon to restore the Haggadah, which has been rescued from destruction during the Bosnian war. A brilliant and passionate expert in her field, Heath discovers a number of things within the book – a fragment of an insect's wing, wine stains, an inscription in the margins of a page, a small bit of salt, and a single white hair. These become clues which she pursues to try to learn the answers to the riddle of how this beautiful manuscript found it's way from fifteenth-century Spain to Sarajevo. Heath's conjectures about the Haggadah are sometimes close to the truth, truths which are illustrated through Brook's skillful storytelling as the book goes back and forth between Heath's narration and the different periods of history.

I was especially impressed with the vast amount of research (in numerous disciplines) that Brooks must have done to ensure historical fidelity. The characters she creates in both Hanna's story and the historical vignettes are people with strengths and weaknesses within whom I could find parts of myself. They possess the ability to encourage and exhort, as well as prick the conscience. The stories have as their common theme the Haggadah, of course, but just as strong is another theme suggested by a second meaning of the book's title. Muslims believe that God had revealed Himself to the prophets of Judaism and Christianity. While Islam also believes that Jews and Christians have strayed from the true faith, they are still called People Of The Book. This thread is best summarized by a quote from the book. “... the Haggadah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us - to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us - that to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.” This, I believe, was the real story that Brooks was telling here.

I had never heard of Geraldine Brooks or the Sarajevo Haggadah before I found this book on the shelves of our used bookstore, but I have to say that People Of The Book was one of the best I have read in some time. I was sorry to turn the last page, but am looking forward to finding other things she has written.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The first chapter begins with these words "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." So it continues. It is the story (fiction) of Susie Salmon, her family, friends, and other sundry characters, including that of her murderer, as seen through her eyes from her place in the beyond. She watches as her family deteriorates under the stress while the murderer goes uncaught, as those she had known react in different ways to her gruesome death. Beyond this I will say no more. I have already been told by one of the readers that this book is on their list too and I will not spoil it for them.

I found the book interesting for its insights into the grief process as it happened in the family, but generally I found the book disturbing on several different levels. It seemed obvious that the author had unresolved issues of some kind and that this story was her attempt at catharsis. After reading the book, in an attempt to understand better where she could be coming from, I read her story, and the source of the demons that haunt the book seemed to become quite clear. I am not, in any way, trying to minimize or trivialize the author's pain. What happened to her was outrageous and I pray that she will one day find peace.

All things considered, I wish I hadn't read this book. Once images are in one's mind, they cannot be removed and my overall feeling when finished was deep sadness. I was surprised to learn that this was considered a book for young adults. Beyond the suggestion that young people can get into trouble by their lack of worldly experience, I felt the book was inappropriate in the way it handled other moral issues.