Reviewing other people’s grief

Alone in my sublet apartment, no library books whatsoever and no library cards also, and my sublessor having very few books unrelated to law and class anxieties, I picked up Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and read it.  It’s a very unfortunate book!  When Joan Didion’s only daughter Quintana was in the hospital with a serious brain problem, she and her husband went home for dinner, and her husband died.  Being a writer, she wrote about it.  Attempting to research death, she finds herself without a road map for grieving.  She finds herself subconsciously taking measures to bring back John or deny the reality of his death: hence, the year of magical thinking.

I am not wild about Joan Didion’s style of writing, I have to say.  She keeps circling back around to the same references, the same snippets of quotation, which I can’t say I uniformly hate as a device, but I do not like it here.  I didn’t dislike the book – quite the contrary! – but the reason I liked it was Didion’s honesty about the experience of grieving her husband.  I liked that she didn’t gloss over difficulties she had had in her marriage.  But I might not read the other four Didion books my sublessor owns.  In fact I will definitely not.

Thereafter, I thought it would be interesting to read the classic thing, C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a copy of which my lovely sister gave me upon my arrival in this Impressive Academic Town.  Along with a Josephine Tey mystery, some Life cereal, and The King Must Die.  That’s how lovely she is.  Oh, and some water when I was all shaky and dehydrated from drinking four cups of coffee on the plane and no water and then there were no food vendors or even vending machines between the plane and the train so I had no water for ten hours.  And also chicken with lemon sauce and goat cheese that she made herself, and, on a different day, sushi from a sushi place.

I know that I am supposed to be reading all of CS Lewis’s books in order so as to follow the progression of his thought.  However, I thought it would be interesting to read A Grief Observed right after The Year of Magical Thinking, and anyway, I have already read a bunch of his books like the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy, so if reading a book out of order spoils the project, then the project has been spoiled since I was three years old.

A Grief Observed is exactly everything I love best about C.S. Lewis: the fluidity of expression, the nice clear prose, and the sincerity of emotion.  He pays attention to what he is thinking, and how his grief takes many different forms, and every now and then there is a truly wrenching cri de coeur.  I was particularly interested in Lewis’s fears that his imperfect, self-oriented memory of his wife would replace, eventually, the complex, contradictory, fundamentally other reality of her.  Although he says little about her (he castigates himself for writing so much about himself when he should be writing only of her), the little he says speaks volumes about her ability to not put up with his shit:

What was [Joy] not to me?  She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow soldier.  My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me.  Perhaps more.  If we had never fallen in love we should have none the less been always together, and created a scandal.  That’s what I meant when I once praised her for her “masculine virtues”.  But she soon put a stop to that by asking how I’d like to be praised for my feminine ones.

Good for her.

24 thoughts on “Reviewing other people’s grief

  1. How dismal to be in a place with no library card! (every time I move I manage to get a library card before I even have my new driver’s registration). But it sounds like you found some interesting reading. I have never read these two books but think I would vastly prefer the Lewis.

    • I caaaaaan’t get one! I’m subletting an apartment, and my sublessor is handling utilities, so I haven’t got any bills addressed to me at my address here. But my sister is lending me hers. But the public library is rubbish. It’s quite a quandary.

      The Lewis is better, but then I nearly always think Lewis is better than nearly anyone (except when he’s being sexist), so you can’t go by me.

  2. “If we had never fallen in love we should have none the less been always together” — how beautiful. That’s how I feel about my husband, we were best friends first.

    One summer I lived in a house by myself that had university students during the year, who left some of their books behind, so I was reduced to reading Ella Enchanted and whatever romance novels I could find! It was strange (and deeply lonely) but kind of fun to read something different. I hope you are ok. 🙂

    • Hahaha, I am okay! Well, more or less okay. There’s something very strange about having such a limited ability to decide what specific books I want – I am appreciating the library back home so much right now! But this situation may force me to read some classics I’ve been putting off for years, and that would be a good thing, right?

  3. “She keeps circling back around to the same references, the same snippets of quotation…” Sounds like the structure of a million sermons.

    So, you are sitting in a strange new apartment full of someone else’s books in a strange new town reading about death and grief with nothing home-cooked to eat but what your sister brings you?

    I got depressed just reading about the Didion book.

    Mmm. Maybe start the Renault? Not about death so much, despite the title. The earthquake scene will be a good antidote. Or Josephine Tey, though I don’t know who she is.

    • I am sitting in a strange new apartment full of someone else’s books, yes. In a strange new town that I have been shown around a little bit so I know where the bookstores are. Reading about death and grief but I am not grieving for anything so now’s the best time to do it. With nothing home-cooked to eat, yes, but on the other hand I never cook so this is nothing new.

      …Just my attempt to separate the legitimate self-pity from the less-legitimate. :p

      Yes, the Renault would be good, but I seem to be craving YA and kids’ books – exactly what I thought I would not be craving when packing for this trip, unfortunately.

  4. Get thee to a library.

    Pretty soon you’ll be reviewing the Shreddies box. Unless you aren’t in Canada, I don’t think y’all have Shreddies down there. Pity.

    • I have got me to a library. Books are all around me! But I feel like I checked out all the good books in the whole library on the first trip and now have nothing left to check out.

      We don’t have Shreddies. But if we did I wouldn’t know about it. I have been faithful to Life Cereal since I was six years old, and I do not see any indication that that is going to change any time soon. :p

  5. Oooooor: steal books from your sister who does not have quite as diverse a library as you, but still has many books you like and told you to just go ahead and take them. Or, steal your sister’s library card: I grant, the library is disappointing, but it’s not terrible.

    • It was disappointing. But I think I will fare better once the internship starts, and I have things to do with my day other than lie around my apartment zipping through all my books at once. Plus I am still hopeful that the internship people will let me check out books from the university library. I would go mad with joy if that were to happen.

  6. A friend gave me a copy of Didion’s book after my mom passed away four years ago. I tried reading it the same year but I couldn’t. It was only after about a year or two of my mom’s passing that I managed to finish the book and found myself sadder still. Reading other people’s grief while grieving over someone isn’t a good thing, but I do thank her for her honesty and I certainly could relate to those feelings of denial.

    • Oh, wow, I don’t know that I’d have been able to read it right after suffering a loss. It was hard enough to read as it was (the Lewis too), but I think it would have been unbearable if I were grieving myself.

  7. I think it’s probably better to read a book about grief before you’re immersed in grief. That way you can read the map of grief objectively, giving you familiar landmarks when you are actually on the road yourself. Even if I am traveling through a wasteland, I feel a little better when I spot a landmark.

    I liked both books, but actually found Didion’s the less draining read. She was dealing with two crises, and life just had to go on for her. Lewis’s world seemed utterly shrouded in darkness – it reminded me of the Auden poem, “Stop all the clocks…”

    “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.” I love that line.

    • Really? Didion’s the less draining one? I did not find that. I was far more exhausted reading Didion’s book, especially after I learned from the internets that her daughter died too. If nothing else it was longer. But besides that I kept imagining how terrible it would be to be grieving one loss while contemplating the possibility of another. While hanging out at the hospital all the time. Awful, awful, awful.

  8. When Joan Didion’s only daughter Quintana was in the hospital with a serious brain problem, she and her husband went home for dinner, and her husband died.

    Wait, WHAT?

    I feel that as a culture, we are massively under-prepared for grief and loss–and ours is not a kind one to those who are in mourning. I probably couldn’t have read either of these books too soon after my mother’s death, but now, coming on five years, it might be time to look at someone else’s map for loss. (The lack of preparation means that some of us end up completely lost in that unfortunate territory, with no idea how to make their way out.)

    • Oh, I agree with you, absolutely. I think it would be a good mental exercise (for me, anyway) to imagine handling loss. I do better with things when I have imagined them a lot of times beforehand, even if my imagination got a lot of things wrong. But whenever I try that as an exercise, I start crying AND I feel like I’m jinxing whichever of my family members I’m imagining losing. So…unsuccessful so far.

  9. I had the same kind of tepid response to Didion’s book. I felt like I just could not meet it halfway, somehow, that I just could not look grief in the face, even of another person. I think we do avoid thinking about it, which makes our own grieving all the more difficult when we have to face it.

    • Yep, it’s true. In my case, I tend to think about the moment of impact and how I should react in that moment, and I don’t think at all about the long-term day-to-day facts of grieving.

  10. Sorry to hear about your dearth of books right now!! The Didion book sounds seriously depressing, and not like something I would like to read. I also am reading a C.S. Lewis book right now. It is The Screwtape Letters and I am involved in a class which is reading the book and discussing it in sections. He is a fabulous author, and I am loving the book. Also, it sounds like you have a really great sister! I hope that you find more to read in the coming week and that your reading time is bliss!

    • Thank you! And yes, I do have a really great sister! Actually three. 🙂

      Is the class on C.S. Lewis particularly? I’d love to do a class on CS Lewis, I just love his writing to pieces. I was always sad that I didn’t have a chance to read and discuss any of CS Lewis’s books when I was in college.

      • I will allow you to envy me, in that I got to write a paper on Lewis’ Four Loves in the Iliad.

  11. I am interested in the Didion simply because I really enjoyed the Lewis one. But it sounds like A GRIEF OBSERVED is simply the best, so maybe I’ll just go reread that one. My husband and I read it together when we were still mostly newlyweds. I was bawling the entire time.

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