Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Three New Memoirs, Three Branches on the Tree of Grief

donald hall Our Critics Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Three New Memoirs, Three Branches on the Tree of GriefAll good memoirs involve suffering—how could it be otherwise? Only trauma junkies want to be steeped to their weeping eyes in misery, and yet if there’s no pain at all, just rosy recollection, the phony factor kicks in and you begin to suspect that someone’s fudging it. Three new memoirs, all of them potentially morose to the max, are ranked below from mildly grim to majorly woeful. The trick is to find the right dose: How many grains of hope to balance out a load of grief?

Donald Hall has already tested the limits of memoir despair with The Best Day the Worst Day (2005), an account of the illness and death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. Her death (he quotes Dylan Thomas, “After the first death there is no other”) also haunts his new memoir, Unpacking the Boxes (Houghton Mifflin, $24), in which he retraces his “life in poetry.” The highlight is the chapter on the two years he spent as a fellow of Christ Church College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize, launched his career and generally dazzled the Brits with his poetic chutzpah. The low point is his circumnavigation of “Antiquity’s Planet”: “Imminence of death does not wholly absorb me,” he writes of his old age, but ill health nags at him, and the cheery moments are rare. One of them came two years ago, when he was appointed Poet Laureate.

He deserved it—if only for a lighthearted couplet, “What the Toast Said,” which he wrote decades ago for his 4-year-old son:

It feels so good to be
Extremely buttery.

 

ELIZABETH MCCRACKEN’S AN EXACT REPLICA of a Figment of My Imagination (Little, Brown, $19.99) is about a precise and personal grief—a stillborn baby—about which she writes in a precise and personal voice. There’s room here for acres of maudlin sorrow, but Ms. McCracken (author of The Giant’s House and Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry) gave birth to a healthy second baby a year after the death of the first—“a biological fact lying across my lap at this very moment as I type one-handed.” The happy ending cuts across the sadness and gives us the essential taste of life: bittersweet.

But before that, she became aware of “a sort of kinship … a family tree of grief”:

“On this branch the lost children, on this the suicided parents, here the beloved mentally ill siblings. When something terrible happens, you discover all of a sudden that you have a new set of relatives, people with whom you can speak in the shorthand of cousins.”

 

A CHOKING SENSE OF doom closing in makes the rare joyful episode in Christopher Lukas’ Blue Genes (Doubleday, $24.95) seem all the more poignant. Mr. Lukas is the brother of J. Anthony Lukas, the great journalist, author of Common Ground, who hanged himself in 1997; their mother slashed her wrists and throat in 1941; their father lapsed into alcoholism. (There was an uncle who committed suicide, too, and a grandmother.) Though understandably concerned that he’ll be the next to go, bullied into self-slaughter by his genetic makeup, Mr. Lukas calls himself a “perennial survivor.” Weirdly, he attributes his escape from the “legacy of suicide” to “connectivity and family and psychotherapy.” Family?

My impression is that he’s the beneficiary of a vigorous egoism. It’s pure expression is the simple, defiant statement with which he concludes: “I am alive.”