Books of death: new in bookstores


When Julian Barnes writes about losing his wife to a brain tumor, he writes instead about the adventures of 18th and 19th century balloonists. It makes for the most unusual kind of memoir — and it highlights how truly difficult it is to express what we’re feeling when one of our loved ones dies.

The loss goes deeper than any words can reach, and that may be why Barnes turns to the early history of ballooning in his forthcoming book “Levels of Life” (Alfred A. Knopf). He’s able to speak of the harrowing experience of losing his wife, Pat Kavanagh, only in terms of something else.

Joyce Carol Oates recently weighed in on the U.K. edition of the book in the TLS. She called its approach and perspective “unorthodox” — but she means it as a compliment. I can’t help but agree. Most memoirs of death and dying sound the same. I think we’ve all lost loved ones, right? If it’s a loss from illness, there’s an existential formula you just can’t escape: symptoms, diagnosis, terror and treatment, slight improvement and hope, sudden decline, death. Grief. Every book about such a loss can’t help but sound the same. The Illness Industry is mercilessly efficient.

I think that’s why Barnes has recorded his own sorrow in such an “unorthodox” vehicle. He avoids the formula. His love for his wife, and the meaning of her loss, deserve more than the typical formula. His pain is still there, between the lines, hovering at the margins. He doesn’t directly confront it for many pages. Still, as we read about the excitement and perils of hot-air ballooning in the pages that precede, we can feel his grief indirectly in passages like this one:

In August 1786 — ballooning’s infancy — a young man dropped to his death in Newcastle from a height of several hundred feet. He was one of those who held the balloon’s restraining ropes; when a gust of wind suddenly shifted the airbag, his companions let go, while he held on and was borne upwards. Then he fell back to earth. As one modern historian puts it: ‘The impact drove his legs into a flower bed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out on to the ground.’

I’ll risk saying it — isn’t that how you feel when someone you love dies? Like you’ve been ripped off your feet and driven into the ground? If it were just a book about ballooning’s history, I’d call this a colorful anecdote. In a book about losing his wife, it means so much more. This is also Barnes at his best. Something to pre-order at your neighborhood bookstore for your fall reading.

Also this season…

endings happierYou can tell from the title that Erica Brown’s “Happier Endings: Overcoming the Fear of Death” (Simon and Schuster) isn’t coming from the same personal sense of loss as Barnes’ book. Instead, what Brown gives us is an excellent overview, a little in the Mary Roach vein, of death and dying in the contemporary world. Bucket lists, ethical wills, cremation or kafn, last words, final forgiveness, suicide and survivors — it’s all here. A scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Brown capably navigates a myriad number of topics and issues connected with the Great Beyond. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Brown marshals a compelling amount of information to illuminate an often gloomy subject. Hence her book’s title. The fact is, she reports, “the grim reaper is not always grim.”

bright abyss coverChristian Wiman’sMy Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is about what Wiman, a published poet, thought about after being diagnosed with cancer. His book assembles several essay meditations, full of poetic allusions and excerpts from world literature, on his struggle to understand his faith in the face of his mortality. What he realizes is that faith, true religious faith, is something different from what’s taught in church on Sundays. It’s “tenuous, precarious,” he says. “The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.”

30 thoughts on “Books of death: new in bookstores

  1. Oh, these are tantalizing. I’m thinking I’ll spring for Happier Endings first—seriously.

    I think Didion’s latest books about the deaths of her husband and daughter were well done and not formulaic. Don’t you?

  2. I think you’re right, Jil, both books are like Barnes’. I didn’t get very far in reading Magical Thinking, tho, because it pubbed right after we lost a family member. I was too raw to want to listen to what she had to say

  3. I think I might check out the Barnes book – loved Sense of an Ending. What I love about his writing is how he gives the illusion of emotional detachment, one which falls apart instantly as you look closer.

  4. I agree with you, though in the case of this book, the loss hits much closer to home. It’s there; he just hides it between the lines and it peeks out from time to time. The book comes out state-side in another month; I was looking at an advance UK version. I’ll be curious to know what you think when you have a chance to read it. Cheers!

  5. I agree — it really feels like vintage Barnes, doesn’t it? I can’t imagine him approaching any topic in a conventional way even though there’s the temptation to say “look what this painful loss has done to me.” I really admire not only his technique, but also this ability to restrain his own emotions. Thank you for sharing your excellent review of the book, which provides a far deeper treatment than mine does!

  6. I’m sorry! I hope it doesn’t gouge your wallet too deeply! I still receive a fair amount of advance copies from publishers because of my past newspaper career, and I can’t help myself. There are so many intriguing titles out there that I just want to share. thanks for the comment

  7. Having lost my father to a brain tumor a few years ago, this post really touched on something I’ve felt for a long while. Once the years go by after losing a loved one, you find that you sort of lose the language to access that grief in a way that is understandable to others. Thank you for bringing the Barnes book to my attention. I have read Didion’s Magical Thinking but could not bear the thought of reading Blue Nights because she had already suffered so. I’m curious as to how the Barnes book sums up his experience in a book completely about something else. I may pre-order it at the bookstore next time I’m there.

  8. Thank you. I’m honored, and touched by your reaching out to comment on this topic. Your comment that “you sort of lose the language to access that grief in a way that is understandable to others” is so right. Maybe that’s why Barnes chose the structure that he did. He does get to his own loss, actually, of his wife Pat in the book’s third section, but it’s those two previous sections on ballooning that really open up the experience. I’ve read quite a few memoirs of loss — maybe you have too — and I feel, even though I respect what they’ve gone through, like the approach is always the same. Barnes avoids that — he gets you thinking about something else before really addressing the brutal loss of his wife. I say brutal because they had only a little more than a month from her diagnosis to death. His attitude to people after she’s gone is scorching — everyone wants to tiptoe around the loss and it only angers him. It makes him feel like they don’t want to acknowledge that she ever existed.

  9. I am looking forward to reading this awesome book! Did you know that in 2003 Christian Wiman’s became editor of the oldest American magazine of verse, Poetry?

  10. Thank you kindly, Anne, it’s a pleasure to meet you and an honor to be included in this category. I’m one of your new followers. My family was in Scotland not long ago visiting friends … a beautiful country and great people!

  11. I’ve read Poetry before, but I never connected his name with it … how ridiculous is that? I only learned about Wiman’s editorship when I started reading his book. If you’re already a fan of his (it sounds like you are), I heartily recommend this one. Love the title of your blog.

  12. My pleasure: it really is an amazing, unusual book in the way that it’s structured. I should’ve mentioned in the post that I think the book would be of interest not just to Barnes fans or people who read memoirs of lost loved ones: there are some lessons here for writers to consider. If I were writing a book about a topic that was probably familiar to many people (like losing someone, falling in love, you know), I might think about telling the story the way Barnes does. Write about a seemingly unrelated topic first: then introduce my story and show how they’re interrelated. It would probably be a harder sell to a publisher, but it’s a really interesting, inventive way of covering familiar territory in an unexpected way.

  13. I’m now following you – and thanks for the heads-up re Scotland. Terrible weather though – that’s what has bred the indestructible sense of humour here in the wet West!

  14. I followed Ann Whitaker’s suggestion to come here, and am glad I did. You’ve reminded me of a hypothesis I’ve been developing since my own mother’s death just two years ago. It’s barely formed, but basically is this: an insistence on compartmentalizing life and relegating experiences like loss and grief to the realm of the “mental” doesn’t serve us well.

    We also are physical beings and live in a quite physical world which affects us more than we perhaps realize. After my mother’s death, she was cremated. For six months she lived in my bedroom, amongst her African violets. When it came time to take her to Iowa for burial, her friends at the knitting group had knitted a bag for the box containing her ashes. Each woman placed a hand-written message inside, and I needlepointed a monogramed brooch that went on the bag. When we got to the cemetery, I held the box myself, and placed it myself in the ground. It was sorrowful, yes – but intimate and kind, as well.

    Today, I remember my mother, I wish her back now and then to share this experience or that, but I experience little grief. I can’t help but wonder if that “hands-on” approach to her death – quite old-fashioned, really – wasn’t a great part of the healing.

  15. It’s a real pleasure to have a comment like yours on my blog, especially a comment of this caliber and level of insight. I think you’re right about how your beautiful, loving, personal approach to your mother’s death provided a sense of completion that I think many people, unfortunately, miss when they say goodbye to someone they love. I had my own personal ways of being with my father when he was dying, and after his death, and I think it did make it a little easier to accept.

    Have you ever thought of developing your comment into an essay? I’ve seen quite a few anthologies, during my time at the newspaper, that collect stories of grief and grieving. I’m not sure what editors are working on what now, but if you made your thoughts more public, you might happen on an editor who’s interested. Just a thought. Keep it in mind.

    And thanks again!

  16. Insightful writing by Julian Barnes. It’s true, our experience always twists our writing this way and that. And it’s even more complex than that….

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