Books for Those Grieving and Processing Mortality in 2021

The last two years have been a wild, sorrowful ride for us all. Whether you are in full denial or deep in process, these books can help.

Autumn arrived abruptly this year. On the heels of a summer promised as a new beginning—vaccinated and reunited with loved ones and beloved rituals, finally free from a sequestered winter—things pivoted. Suddenly, I found myself buying more masks, second guessing the concert tickets purchased months in advance, and feeling anxious about sending my kids back to school. After a childhood friend died unexpectedly in August, it felt like someone punched the wind out of my chest. All that momentum halted. 

Whether or not you lost someone you loved, everyone lost something. For such a long stretch, we deferred memorial services and funerals. Grief itself was postponed. Such efforts only last so long before grief surfaces. We braced ourselves and operated out of survival mode for over a year with only the most fleeting release. It was inevitable that we couldn’t return to constant vigilance so easily. Whiplash warps this autumn season. 

Now that we’re here, what do we do? Grief demands observation. It’s not easy. Repairing a psyche scarred by disbelief requires an acknowledgment of complete confusion, staring down an inability to accept otherwise impossible facts. Everyone says it takes time. How that manifests itself isn’t through the time of clichéd platitudes, but by devoting time to individual actions, people and things. Sometimes it needs to be forced by rote. One time tested method stands out: reading. 

You may say that you don’t have it in you, but hear me out. Losing yourself in a thick novel might not be within your reach right now. Just because you heard that others spent the pandemic reading War and Peace doesn’t mean it’s required reading. From my end, this summer, I found myself gravitating toward books that I could finish in a sitting. Don’t let anyone tell you that shorter books are not serious. Concentrated, action and motivation distilled into fewer pages, slim books fix you in place. You forget how you “can’t pick up a book” because you’ve lost track of time. You finish gasping for just a bit more. 

This fall, we are well over a year and a half into a pandemic. Publishers have crowded the market with a strong list this season. You have your pick of searing nonfiction, family sagas, innovative historical fiction, and dystopian tales, but in this assessment of fall books, I concentrated on those which shared a sense of loss and grief—as well as some element of resilience—that helped me find more secure footing. 

‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown Little, Brown and Company

An astonishing debut novel, Assembly (Little Brown, September 14) by Natasha Brown launches the reader immediately into the life of a young Black banker in London. Her soul-crushing finance job is fraught with overt sexual harassment and racism, and her personal life is marked the incessant micro-aggressions of her privileged and progressive white boyfriend whose myopia are sadly not surprising. This unnamed narrator is the dream that her immigrant parents have wished for. She’s both independent and successful, but at what cost? When confronted with a cancer diagnosis that requires immediate and aggressive treatment, she opts to let the disease take its course with no intervention. Is the ultimate act of defiance the choice to stop fighting? Considering the challenges that she’s faced up to this point, the narrator posits, “The answer: assimilation… Dissolve yourself into the melting pot. And then flow out, pour into the mould. Bend your bones until they splinter and crack and you fit. Force yourself into their form… And always there, quiet, beneath the urging language of tolerance and cohesion—disappear!” In this case, her body will simply let nature take its course with no more attempts to conform to a parasitic and intolerant society. She later reflects, “Surviving makes me a participant in their narrative.” Beginning with a cool, direct voice, Brown’s narrative builds, granting her narrator the grief and anger she so rightly deserves. This taunt, powerful book measures mortality against the small deaths some endure on a daily basis. 

‘No. 91/92’ by Lauren Elkin semiotext(e)

Inspired by Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, writer Lauren Elkin stopped scrolling social media during her daily commute and began to pay greater attention to the world outside her Parisian bus window. In her nonfiction book No. 91/92 (Semiotext(e), September 14), which is named after her bus lines, Elkin writes, “The way [Perec] sees the world, his awareness of how difficult it is to really ‘see’ it, what does it mean to ‘see’ it, when we can only see bits and pieces of it. When we go to new cities we climb up to high places to try to see it all at once, to take it all in as a whole; Perec goes to his café and writes the city piece by piece.” Despite being a longtime resident of Paris, Elkin is also an American and is in many ways an outsider. Through dated episodic entries, the book captures the quotidian experience of commuting and the rush of urban life. Overtime, the passages develop a meditative rhythm through the practice of observation. During the year that Elkin restricted her commuter phone use to merely note taking, she experienced the collective horror of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and experienced a miscarriage. Grief became a familiar part of her days. She observes, “We can’t get over what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, who we’ve lost, and we don’t really want to. But we’ll eventually get used to the fact that it happened. It will become part of our daily lives.” Though these reflections are nearly six years old, they ring as true today as ever. 

‘Empty Wardrobes’ by Maria Judite de Carvalho Center for the Art of Translation

Originally published in Portugal in 1966, Empty Wardrobes (Two Lines Press, October 12): Maria Judite de Carvalho enjoys its first English translation this fall with a tremendous introduction by Kate Zambreno (To Write as if Already Dead, Drifts, Heroines). This novel examines the lives of several generations of women, bound together by marriage, blood, and secrets. Since her husband’s untimely death ten years earlier, Dora has mourned. She adopted a somber dress and quiet life with her daughter as her only reason for living. Deeply beloved by his family, Dora’s husband was an unambitious man, disgusted with the trappings of what he saw as a corrupt society. He left his wife and child with nothing. With no career to fall back upon, through the grace of others, she found herself installed as an antiques shopkeeper for “the Museum,” rightly named by her daughter Lisa as “it really was more museum than shop, since it had more visitors than buyers.” 

Trapped in amber, Dora’s days are no different from one another, a haze of grief and stasis. One fateful night, Dora’s mother-in-law Ana shares a shocking revelation; Dora’s late husband died before he could leave her for another woman. Dora must now repair what’s left of her life. “I don’t know here I am or who I am. I must be crumbling into pieces, there must be bits of me all over the place,” says Dora. Ana responds to her shattered daughter-in-law, saying, “Sweep them up when you’re feeling well enough and put them together again.” Realizing that her life was entirely fiction, Dora “didn’t blame anyone else for her misfortune. Only herself. She loathed herself but not enough to seek relief in death.” It was with “discreet rage” that she felt inside herself that she met another man who would upend her life in twisted and unexpected ways. The specter of the patriarchy looms over this mid-20th century tale like depression itself. With the astringent wit of Natalia Ginzburg, Empty Wardrobes is a spellbinding book of domestic disorder that sparks with bitterness and humor. 

‘Dear Memory’ by Victoria Chang Milkweed Editions

I would argue that Victoria Chang’s poetry collection Obit is one of 2020’s best books. Its prescient subject matter resonated even more true during a year ringing with loss. Drawing from the formality of obituaries, she constructs a memorial through poems for her late mother and her ailing father, stripped of his memory by illness. It’s a staggering collection. Because grief contorts everything it touches, you can never fully contain or grasp it. As impossible as it might be, Victoria Chang is committed to the project of making substance out of this elusive state. Dear Memory (Milkweed, October 12) uses collage and artwork as well as the structure of letters (to her family, to teachers, friends and others) to give shape to loss and histories that would otherwise disappear. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Chang mourns the family members she never knew. She tries here to capture their stories through fragments—found documents and photographs as well as snatches of conversation with her parents. This is a deeply textural work. While there is always an element of the story that’s out of reach, that’s indicative of memory itself. Chang latches onto what the Columbia University professor Marianne Hirsch calls postmemory which she defines as “the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can neither be fully understood nor recreated.” Ever inventive, ever searching, Chang bends genres to approach an unmanageable emotion.

‘Borealis’ by Aisha Sabatini Sloan Coffee House Press

The first in a commissioned series of short books (the Spatial Series) which “investigates the ways we activate space through language,” Borealis (Coffee House Press, November 2) by Aisha Sabatini Sloan is a book about sitting with loneliness and isolation (involuntarily so or by choice or somewhere in between). It’s also about visibility (“In the mirror of the Land’s End bathroom, I am delighted by my own reflection. I have to be my own friend here.”) in a foreign and often barren landscape, about how we create space for ourselves literally through geography (“I think my kind of pastoral must include gossip.”) but also through a confluence of art—music, visual media, words, movement. Sloan’s a queer Black woman building a life through the arts with considerable vulnerability and strength during stretches of time living in Homer, Alaska—a place of stark, extreme beauty and natural wonder. She writes, “My own experience here is one of long shards of time. Because I cannot kill it, I traverse my boredom. The road keeps extending. I park the car and walk for miles. I begin to think of boredom as a glacier, a cactus flower that blossoms from your mind, inside of which you can look at the world, a lighthouse, a vantage point, a zone of safety.” There’s a push and pull to the movement of her ideas that engaged me completely. Structurally, this beautifully fragmented essay creates space for the reader to sit with the thoughts and images which engage Sloan. 

Even if we can’t travel, there’s no excuse for casting your gaze solely inward. Rigorous essays shake up memory, history, and what we consider the knowledge we possess. As there will always be a gap in our experiences, we must remain alert to proverbial bridges when they present themselves. Speaking of one such moment, Sloan writes, “The White cashier who rang me up told me story after story about her life with her eyes. She gulped down the possibility told by my outsiderness like someone trapped. I drove in the direction of the Seneca Nation.” Yes, much of this connection happens in transit, but it cannot be a passive enterprise. It’s what you bring to the world around you that matters most—not stamps in a passport. 

‘Generations: A Memoir’ by Lucille Clifton New York Review of Books

Known for her remarkable poetry, the late Lucille Clifton published Generations (New York Review of Books, November 9), a prose memoir, in 1976. It is now reissued this fall with a beautiful introduction by the former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. The memoir is framed by Clifton’s father’s funeral which serves as the catalyst to survey her family history, largely passed down to her through her late father who “had been a great storyteller. His life had been full of days and his days had been full of life.”

Regarding her great-grandmother Lucy, the first Black woman to be hanged in Virginia, Clifton remarked, “Later I would ask my father for proof. Where are the records, Daddy? I would ask. The time may not be right and it may be just a family legend or something. Somebody somewhere knows, he would say. And I would be dissatisfied and fuss with Fred [Clifton’s husband] about fact and proof and history until he told me one day not to worry, that even the lies are true. In history, even the lies are true.” 

Truth, lies, fabrication, pride, survival: these are the makings of history. How we remember and carry this burden marks us for better or worse. Although we are all many generations removed from the active Atlantic slave trade, we all of us remain enmeshed in that horrible state sanctioned terrorism. Stories explain the legacy we carry. In order to truly be free, we need to look back and hold onto the past in order to recognize and repair the violence and injustice that ripples onward even today. This is a potent memoir steeped in remembrance and grief, but with an eye for survival. Read Generations as well as Clifton’s tremendous poetry and look forward to her forthcoming biography which will be written by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers.  

‘These Precious Days’ by Ann Patchett Harper Collins

Writer and bookseller Ann Patchett needs no introduction. Her work on the page and on behalf of the publishing industry is dependable and steady. She is a comforting and familiar presence. That said, never take her for granted! There’s a reason she’s at the top of her game. While perhaps best known for her novels, Patchett is also known for her memoir Truth and Beauty which chronicles her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy. Friendship and chosen family are themes that surface in all of her work. In this bleakest January 2021, her Harper’s magazine essay “These Precious Days” circulated feverishly. It was a lengthy and candid personal essay about an unexpected friendship forged by the pandemic. These Precious Days (Harper, November 21) collects that essay along with several more (published and unpublished). Much like her 2013 essay collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, These Precious Days leads with an idyllic title that in time reveals bittersweet, complicated, and ultimately redemptive layers to relationships that come and go over time. Patchett creates connective tissue for readers as she writes about her two stepfathers and her biological father, her choice to not become a mother, helping a friend divest their father’s possessions and how that forced her to cull the contents of her own home, considering the true worth of her MFA, discovering the exquisite world of children’s book author Kate DiCamillo, her debt to the Peanuts character Snoopy, how knitting saved her life, her husband’s insatiable yen for flight, and more. 

Patchett is someone who both craves solitude and the company of others. Hers is a life of chance encounters and odd reunions like the poems and an award that came back to her when someone found an old nightstand that once belonged to her. Patchett recalls these instances with intimate, vivid detail, but as her stories spin further and further, they take on the fabric of a parable. “People are not comprised entirely of their facts, after all.” Patchett writes about her friend Sooki Raphael who came to Nashville for a brief stay with Patchett and her husband during cancer treatment and ultimately stayed for months during lockdown. This title essay about their friendship hit home for many who were separated from friends and family during the pandemic. The essay itself read like a novella, some 20,541 words long. But it addressed the ache we all feel for one another and the time we’ve lost thanks to carelessness and a void of compassion. “We all know what the end will be now, we’ve known it for a while. If an ending could be changed through strategic planning or a force of will or the sheer love of life, things would go differently, but this cannot be changed.” Patchett writes about her friend’s last days, but this grief is a universal experience. Throughout this moving collection, Patchett extolls us to concentrate on what we have before us. The stuff that clutters our lives, the fancy events and meals may stop short, but what endures are the conversations and connections we make on any given day. 

Books for Those Grieving and Processing Mortality in 2021