Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers

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4.0 Stars

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is a strange little collection on loss that will leave you with a few tears by the end. 

The narrative is dissected into fragments based on perspective. The dad, the boys and the crow all have a viewpoint to share. The story starts after the death of a wife and a mother. Her husband and two young boys are left to grieve. Helping them grieve is Crow. Crow is all parts protector, comforter, and trickster. He watches over the family and offers his incites and anecdotes to help them cope. 

I greatly enjoyed this book. Edmund Burke describes grief as a pain we cling to and make the focus of our lives. Porter expresses this through the father when he is told he should move on: “Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us lets no man slow or speed or fix.”

A particularly heartbreaking part of the narrative was how the boys talked about being deliberately mean to their dad so that they wouldn’t feel bad if they forgot their mom. One of my favorite lines in the novel comes from the boys’ perspective: 

“We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test. 

We used to think we would both die at the same age she had. 

We used to think she could see us through mirrors.”

The vivid expression of grief is intermingled with the absurd, yet for anyone who has experienced grief, you know this is how it is. Grief will stalk you throughout your day, and just when you think you can keep it together; you break down. A memory or a thought will suddenly connect and there is no subduing your reaction to it. Perhaps, the single greatest line to sum up all that grief encompasses is from the dad as he remembers all the memories he shared with his wife:

“Again. I beg everything again.”

Feelings of sadness are always best soothed with a glass of dry, red wine. I recommend Domaine Paul Autard Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Rhone, France. The 2012 vintage was given a 91 rating by Wine Spectator. This red blend consists of 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 15% Counoise. It has a full mouth feel and deep flavor. At $39 for a 350ml bottle, it’s on the expensive side, but totally worth it.

Format: Paperback.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s Fates Worse Than Death

20160831_1908183.5 Stars

The picture quality is terrible for this review, but fitting for the way I read the book.  Most of the book was consumed in a poorly lit bar.  I read until words became blurry, consuming most of the novel in that sitting.  Fates Worse Than Death is the third in a series of what Vonnegut called autobiographical collages, a collection of writings that were a blend of essays and personal anecdotes all done in that undeniable Vonnegut voice.

For me I’ll always prefer Vonnegut novels although there is something to be said about his short stories as well. With that said, this collection was highly enjoyable and quite thought-provoking. Vonnegut covers such a wide range of topics but the collection spends a lot of time around the topic of death.  The suicides of various family members and friends come across time and again, as does his own attempt.  His time in WWII, especially behind a prisoner at Dresden during the unfortunate bombing is another reoccurring throughout.  Although anyone familiar with Vonnegut shouldn’t be surprised about that.

It’s tough to summarize Kurt Vonnegut, the man had a mind and a voice that was familiar while at the same time like no one else you’ve ever read. That comes through loudly in Fates Worse Than Death as it does in all his works. A lot of what is contained in the book had been published elsewhere as he uses lengthy bits of pieces he’s had published in various papers and magazines along with speeches he’s given to address his points. At times, the essays run on too long because of it and honestly, in the middle, they blur together.  I think that unless you are looking to be a Vonnegut completest this is one that can be skipped. I gave it 3.5 stars but truthfully it gained a star because of how much I love Vonnegut and possibly because of the setting where I started the book as well.

I’m pairing this with Hop God from Nebraska Brewing Company and it pairs pretty perfectly with this Vonnegut collection since it is a collage of styles with a unique flavor.  Hop God is a Belgian IPA that was aged in a Chardonnay barrel.  A Belgian IPA in itself is an interesting look at the traditional IPA but factor in the aging process in the Chardonnay barrel and it is something completely different just like Vonnegut.  Even the bottle, a 22-ounce beer bottle is a blend of a beer and wine bottle.  On a slightly morbid note that I think Kurt Vonnegut would appreciate, he has one other big thing in common with the beer, both are discontinued.  

Favorite Quotes:

“It is tough to make unhappy people happier unless they need something easily prescribed, such as food or shelter.”

“You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”

“Liberty is only now being born in the United States.  It wasn’t born in 1776.  Slavery was legal.  Even white women were powerless, essentially the property of their father or husband or closest male relative, or maybe a judge or lawyer.”

“Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now?  Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians.”

“We probably could have saved ourselves, but were too damned lazy to try very hard”

Format: Trade Paperback.

Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air

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5.0 Stars

When Breath Becomes Air is heartbreakingly beautiful. A young neurosurgeon with a love for literature is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and in his attempt to understand morality and death, he teaches us how to live.

Kalanithi’s identity in this book is as both doctor and patient or as he puts it, as subject and then direct object. He gives readers an insight into his experiences and opinions as a doctor. Then, once diagnosed, he struggles with the idea of how to live. He says, “The future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.” Always eloquent, Kalanithi recounts his struggles and his decisions. A great example, and one that I believe bears witness to the depth of his character and his capacity to live, is when he and his wife discuss if they should have a child:

” ‘Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ She asked. ‘Don’t you think that goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?’

‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

The hard choices that he had to face and the love and grief that are intermingled will bring you to tears many times throughout his book, but still, read on. Philosophical, raw, eloquent and powerful, this book’s premise is about facing death and about leaving something behind; yet what we really learn is how to live: ceaselessly striving.

Favorite quotes:

“When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.”

“I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life – and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another soul – was obvious in its sacredness.”

“I searched for a question to bring understanding. None was forthcoming. I could only imagine the overwhelming guilt, like a tidal wave, but had lifted him up and off that building.” – describing how he felt when he found out a friend and colleague had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the hospital.

“The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

“What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy. I expected to feel only empty and heartbroken after Paul died. It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I could continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that in times I shiver and moan under the weight of it.” – Lucy, Paul’s wife

I’m pairing this book with Boulevard Brewing‘s Tell-Tale Tart, a slightly sour ale. I chose this brew because even though not everyone enjoys a sour ale, the tartness seemed to fit this sorrowful yet powerfully inspirational book. Add that the name of the brew is a play on words regarding literature, Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, and it seemed like the perfect pairing for Kalanithi since he was a lover of literature. He majored in English literature before turning to neurosurgery and always struggled with what to do first – medicine or writing. It’s clear that he was accomplished at both. As we see from this book, he was a brave and brilliant man. It was only time that was against him.

Format: Hardcover.