Monday, March 25, 2019

The Baltimore Book of the Dead by Marion Winik

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Baltimore Book of the Dead is a compassionate, funny tribute to dead friends, acquaintances and people the author would have enjoyed knowing. I couldn't put it down even though one needs to take a breath after each two-page vignette to savor the beautiful writing, the pinpoint characterization. An unexpected treasure which I started again as soon as I'd finished.

This is from her foreward:
"As far as death at the dinner table goes, some respectful space must be made for grief. Grief is socially awkward, if not all-out anti-social, difficult to accommodate even in one-on-one conversations. Even now, when I mention that I widowed in my first marriage, or that my first baby was stillborn, I see people's faces fall, and I rush to explain that it was a long, long time ago and it was very sad but I am fine now. I really am. But I am also trying to spare them the awkwardness of having to come up with some appropriate or more likely inappropriate response, perhaps making some well-intentioned but doomed attempt to help me get over it, possibly by implying that it was God's will.
Which brings me back to the time when I was not fine, after those deaths and others, as well, and there I find part of my motivation for writing these books, for dwelling so long in the graveyard for finding a way to talk about it. Ultimately, instead of attempting to flee from the pain of loss, I decided to spend time with it, to linger, to let these thoughts and feelings bloom inside me into something else.
Why do we build memorials, decorate grave sites, set up shrines, stitch an AIDS quilt, paint three murals for Freddie Gray; what are these ghostly white bicycles woven with flowers on Charles and Roland avenues?"

Monday, March 4, 2019

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey

Those Who KnewThose Who Knew by Idra Novey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Those Who Knew held my attention from the beginning with its first sentence: "Precisely a week after the death of Maria P. was declared an accident, a woman reached into her tote bag and found a [worn] sweater inside that didn't belong to her." She tries unsuccessfully to return it to the clerk in the store. How did it get in her bag? Who was Maria P. and what did her death have to do with the woman with the bag? There are lingerie mysteries, disappearing stains and ghosts. In short, pithy chapters, the author introduces a small cast of characters living in an unnamed island nation assumed to be in Latin America with its corrupt politics, disparate economy and striking students and its strong connection to the "northerners" assumed to be North Americans. A surrealist script for a play or two, and a journal feed the reader's sense of confusion and questioning. Lena is a key character and her friend and activist, Olga who runs a bookstore called Seek the Sublime or Die, provides a perspective to Lena's resentment of the abusive Senator who kissed her after she made her first Molotov cocktail. His viciousness and suspicious abuse of others threatens his office, although it's a stinky pig farm which topples him. One of my favorite lines: Olga to Lena "I think you're reading too much Saramago." Some rich food descriptions liven Oscar, the baker from the north. And this depiction of a failing marriage: "all that had been solid between them begin to liquefy, the edges of their marriage melting as if it had consisted of no more than a block of ice....[he] felt the drip, drip between them quickening." The book had some editing flaws which irritated me but the writing and pacing made for satisfying reading even with abrupt ending.

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