Literary Chicago


Archive for the ‘Grief and Loss’

A Guide for the Grieving

June 28, 2011 By: Lauryn Allison Lewis Category: Book Reviews, Grief and Loss

a review of Ben Tanzer’s novella, My Father’s House

When a loved one dies unexpectedly, their sins are suddenly pardoned, lifelong points of contention are forever set aside, and those left behind to mourn huddle together, able to recount nothing but good times, the joyful highlights of the deceased person’s life. It is a common phenomenon.

But what happens when a person’s death is foretold in low blood platelet counts, a mysterious seizure, a trip to the hospital that ends in a diagnosis of cancer? What happens when a family is denied the grace of losing a loved one quickly, and instead must find a path toward making amends, finding closure, and saying goodbye, all while their father and spouse is suspended in the disquieting limbo between life and death?

Ben Tanzer’s latest novella, My Father’s House, soon to be released by Main Street Rag Publishing Company, examines this conflict and several others others often found in Tanzer’s fiction.

For instance, the narrator of My Father’s House is a social worker by profession:

“I am at work. I work at a drop-in center for the homeless. When people first walk in, there is a ping pong table to their right and a bunch of couches to the left crowded around a television. After that there is a desk where we greet people and I am sitting at that desk, trying to greet people as they come in for lunch and trying my best to answer their questions.”

An oxymoron of marital terms (deeply loving but not strictly monogamous):

“I’m in pain. I’ve got a dying father and this girl has something to offer, something almost medicinal, and it’s okay then, okay, okay, okay, something I keep telling myself as we have sex in the backseat of her car, legs everywhere, and then I walk back to my father’s house, stopping long enough to shower once there before climbing into bed with Kerri and drifting off to sleep, drunk and restless.”

A son driven to make his parents proud, but self-aware enough to admit that at times there were detrimental oversights in their parenting:

“I remember that he and my mom asked me to sit down in the kitchen so we could talk…they sat me down and told me how my father was moving out for a little while, but that things would be the same, and that I’s still see him as much as I ever did. I remember sitting there trying to look nonchalant and unbothered by the news, staring straight ahead the whole time, no emotions, no nothing. They asked if I had any questions but I didn’t say a word, choosing instead to casually shake my head no, focused on getting out and moving on before the tears came.”

Much of this is explored during the narrator’s therapy sessions, amid parallel, nearly-obsessive inner monologues concerning the therapist’s tiny hands. “I’m at the therapist’s. She is looking at me with that curly hair. And those hands, those tiny little hands that I want to suck on.”

Tanzer’s latest work will immediately strike a familiar chord in those who have had the great pleasure of reading his previous novels and collections. Still, My Father’s House is in many ways a stunning departure from the writer’s thematic repertoire. The writing here is incredibly direct, emotional, tender and honest. And again, Tanzer weaves in musical inspiration throughout the novella via Bruce Springsteen, but does not hide behind these references or use them as a catch-all to articulate what his characters are feeling.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, I beg you not to be deterred by Tanzer’s exploration of one family’s medical crisis. Heavy though the subject may be, this writer is one of very few who possess the ability to balance sadness with humor; dry and self-deprecating, and understated so as not to seem incongruent, his humor is thoroughly appreciated and at times much needed.

My Father’s House is a novella brave enough to strip itself bare and stand before its audience, vulnerable but unashamed. It is one you’ll hold to your heart after reading; a literary light capable of illuminating a story familiar to so many with nothing but utmost respect, love, and understanding.

The Beauty of Losing Someone

June 05, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Grief and Loss

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina

Something similar to déjà vu occurs when I return to the Loop Room at University Center for a second panel discussion during this Saturday’s Printers Row Lit Fest. It’s not just that the room is the same or that both of its discussions are conducted by women –  four in the first, three in the second. It’s that all of these women are talking about loss. In “Missing in Action,” moderator Mairead Case talks with Hannah Pittard, Anna North, and Lesley Kagen – novelists whose books each revolve around the disappearance of someone important, someone close. In “My Family, My Memoir,” moderator Kathleen Rooney talks with Zoe Fitzgerald Carter and Cornelia Maude Spelman – memoir writers whose books center on the unusual deaths of their mothers. The two discussions could have been called “Loss, Part 1: Fiction” and “Loss, Part 2: Nonfiction.” One might imagine that with so much talk of loss, the air would be heavy with grief and sadness. It’s not.

Certainly, there is a great deal of gravity in the room when Cornelia Maude Spelman begins “My Family, My Memoir” by holding up a copy of her book, entitled Missing, and declaring, “This is my mother at the age of sixteen, and this [on the cover] is her diary writing. She was not missing, but she did die when I was 28 years old. Witnessing her decline was like watching her lower herself into boiling oil.” Like her mother, Spelman herself is a diary writer, as well as a meticulous archivist, and she quickly reveals to us how research and writing for this book helped her to investigate the mystery of her mother’s death. Her voice is somewhat clinical, perhaps reflective of her background as a therapist, as she describes her first forays into the hospital records that describe her mother’s mental illness: “The prognosis is extremely grave. No potential for rehabilitation.” But the tough exterior cracks a bit as Spelman considers the possibility that her mother may have been right and not “delusional” in believing that Frank, her brother and her mother’s son, was intent on killing her. Later, in answer to an audience member’s question about research, the author says, “In every family, there are those untold stories, or hints of stories, and those are often the most interesting . . . You can go on a marvelous treasure hunt.” Although hers was a search that may have been too painful to describe as a “marvelous treasure hunt,” one does get the sense that it yielded a great wealth of insight and resolution.

“Even in the midst of difficult situations there are often moments of beauty,” says Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, by way of introduction to the passage she reads from her book, Imperfect Endings. It is about how her mother, after having struggled with Parkinson’s for 20 years, decides to end her own life and have her daughters at her side when she goes. Few situations could be more difficult. As anyone who’s experienced the passing of a loved one knows, reality itself can appear to take on different shapes and colors in the moments before, during, and after death. But Carter’s work suggests that these shapes and colors needn’t all be sharp angles and icy grays. She doesn’t read to us about needles and bedpans and hospital gowns, though these things may indeed be mentioned in her book; she reads to us instead about the memory of a stormy Fourth of July. Her mother lay in bed, and she and her children wait for the rains to pass so that they could light fireworks. When the noise of the storm convinces one of her kids that their house is falling down, she says, “That’s what thunder sounds like, like something breaking. But it’s really just two clouds crashing into each other.” Carter tries to get her mom to corroborate, but she’s begun to doze off. Finally, the storm passes and she’s lighting fireworks, “each an ephemeral umbrella of light.”  In a line reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ “rage against the dying of the light,” she says, “I’m so intent on keeping the sky alive with light and color and glory.”

Despite her strength and success as a memoir writer, Carter herself doesn’t enjoy reading memoirs much. “I like novels better. I don’t really understand the importance of it being truthful. There can be just as much truth in a novel, only it can be more free-wheeling.” She may have appreciated the “Missing in Action” panel discussion, then, because the more “free-wheeling” approach of the novel is exactly what its authors have each taken with regards to the subject of loss.

As a matter of fact, “free-wheeling” may be a good word to describe Hannah Pittard’s approach to life, and not just literature. She explains during the discussion that she has a habit of rewriting history, telling her own life’s stories to herself and to others for maximum effect rather than accuracy. Her revisions are often so vivid that she herself sometimes has trouble remembering whether or not they are true. A case in point: in her book, The Fates Will Find Their Way, she writes a scene in which boys get in trouble for masturbating in their school auditorium. She hesitated to include this scene, not because of its obscenity, but rather, because she believed it to be based on a true story from her childhood. When she shared her work with former fellow classmates, however, none of them recognized the scene, and it wasn’t until a former teacher came forward to substantiate it that she stopped questioning her own memory. The Fates will Find Their Way is actually about the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl from an unnamed mid-Atlantic town and, more specifically, the effect that her disappearance has on her family and friends – those who never completely let her go, even after graduating, getting married, and having children. It is written in the very unusual first-person plural point of view (“we believe”), which may lend it a sense of otherworldliness.

Anna North’s book, America Pacifica, goes to far greater lengths in establishing otherworldliness. It takes place after a second ice age, on the title island, which is one of the last places on Earth to be habitable. Loss here is epic. The lines that stand out in North’s reading include “I’m sorry that it’s come to this but we’re going to have to eat the children” and “Wait, Daddy, don’t eat us. I have an idea . . . ” Despite the extreme, fantastic, and far-removed setting of this book, however (maybe not that far-removed, given global warming), she explores issues of an ordinary and universal theme: coming of age. “I was interested in this process of making a new self, an adult self.”

Lesley Kagen shares this interest, although her characters are set in 1950s America. “It was beautiful and not in the way that many people think it was. There was a stillness . . . a tactileness and a sensuality.” Perhaps it is Kagen’s attention to the five senses that allows her to imagine worlds so precisely that she develops actual affection for her characters and is sad to stop “seeing” them once she’s finished writing her novels. Jokingly, she says, “People ask me, ‘So what happens after the book ends?’ And I go, ‘Really? It’s pretend.” But she’s moved to tears when she recounts the time during a reading in “Podunk, Wisconsin” that she spotted a woman in the audience crying and holding up a tape recorder. This woman told her that she and a friend both loved her work because it was set in the 1950s, when they grew up, and that she was recording the event because her friend was dying. The two of them would lay next to each other on a hospital bed the next day, listening together. Kagen’s tears are the only ones that surface during the two events about loss. Maybe that’s partly because in this memory she is able to see that, as Carter puts it, “even in the midst of difficult situations there are often moments of beauty.”

From Left to Right: Mairead Case, Hannah Pittard, Anna North, and Lesley Kagen.

Mairead Case is a member of the Dil Pickle Club, nonfiction editor at Another Chicago Magazine, and volunteer coordinator for the Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival.

Hannah Pittard is the author of The Fates Will Find Their Way and the recipient of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award. She teaches fiction at DePaul University.

Anna North is the author of America Pacifica and a staff writer for Jezebel. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, where it was nominated for a National Magazine Award.

Lesley Kagen is an actress, restauranteur, and the author of Whistling in the Dark and two other novels.

From Left to Right: Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, Kathleen Rooney, and Cornelia Maude Spelman

Zoe Fitzgerald Carter is the author of the memoir Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Loss, and Letting Go. She has written for numerous publications including the New York Times, Salon, and Vogue.

Kathleen Rooney is the founding editor of Rose Metal Press. Her most recent books include the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs and the poetry chapbook After Robinson Has Gone.

Cornelia Maude Spelman is a writer, an artist, and a former social worker. She is the author of the memoir Missing, as well as picture books for children.