Kelly Blewett

As a mother of three, I can attest that parenting often feels like it comes at you fast: the meals and snacks, bedtimes and books, laundry and more laundry; the hat-straightening, screen time-monitoring, play date-booking and chore-reminding whirlwind of it all. That’s why it’s fantastic when someone thoughtful manages to hit pause on the relentless motion and reflect on what it all means. In Raising Raffi: The First Five Years, Keith Gessen does just that.

Covering everything from the surprises of a home birth to the days of desperately reading parenting manuals through a sleep-deprived haze, Gessen’s essays are at once intensely specific (he lives in New York, is the son of Russian immigrants and works as a literary writer and editor) and deeply relatable (even to me, a woman who lives in a suburb in the Midwest). For instance, he writes that fatherhood opened up heretofore unexamined aspects of his personality. Why, he wondered, did he want to speak to Raffi in Russian, even though all of their relatives are able to speak English? It is a mystery, more of a gut instinct than a bilingual regimen, that prompts his wife (the novelist Emily Gould) to nickname him “Bear Dad.” Throughout Raising Raffi, Gessen’s profound ambivalence over his Russian heritage feels pressing, heartfelt, sad and real. He also writes about the COVID-19 pandemic with a clarity that parents who have been raising young children during the last few years will appreciate and remember.

Gessen’s book raises the big questions: Who am I as a parent? What exactly am I passing down to my kids? And can I even really control what I pass down to them? Gessen’s essay about sports, for example, gently probes the pros and cons of getting Raffi to play hockey, eventually folding back and looking at itself as Gessen realizes that his own attachment to hockey wasn’t the best thing for him. Other essays, like his one on picture books, demonstrate the deep, abiding connection one can feel with a child through repeatedly reading poetry and stories.

This book is thoughtful, companionable, funny and memorable. Readers will return to it again and again—and will hope, like I do, that Gessen publishes a follow-up about Raffi’s next five years.

In his companionable, funny, memorable memoir, Keith Gessen hits pause on the relentless motion of parenthood and reflects on what it all means.

The losses continue to mount as we enter year three of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this grief is still new, weathering sorrow is as old as humanity. Four authors offer hidden paths toward healing.

Bittersweet

Like Quiet, Susan Cain’s bestselling book on introversion, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole eschews American cultural norms like mandatory happiness and productivity in favor of other more fertile traditions, such as Aristotle’s concept of melancholia. Cain asks provocative questions like, “What’s the use of sadness?” and seeks answers through academic studies, insightful interviews and vulnerable self-reflection. A standout example is her interaction with Dacher Keltner, a psychologist who helped Pixar understand the crucial role of sadness in Inside Out. Sadness, he says, is what brings people together and adds depth to joy.

Bittersweetness is both a feeling and a disposition. (The book includes a quiz for readers to determine if they are bittersweet by nature.) Experiencing bittersweetness heightens life’s poignancy, opens the door to transcendence and helps people acknowledge the impermanence of existence. It is reasonable to be sad, Cain explains, when one is deeply aware that life can change in an instant. Grief and trauma may even be inherited. But when we explore these bittersweet feelings, we begin to see ourselves and our world a bit differently, with more depth, and can finally find new paths forward. As one of Cain’s sources Rene Denfeld put it, “We have to hold our losses close, and carry them like beloved children. Only when we accept these terrible pains do we realize that the path across is the one that takes us through.”

Grief Is Love

Marisa Renee Lee focuses on how grief is actually a painful expression of love in Grief Is Love: Living With Loss. When Lee was 25, her mother died of cancer in her arms. Afterward she held a beautiful memorial and started a nonprofit in her mother’s honor, yet she found herself unable to deal with the gnawing grief that clouded her inner life. Every big moment reminded her of her mother’s absence, especially her wedding and her miscarriage. Healing came, but all too slowly.

Grief Is Love is organized around 10 lessons related to grief, touching on topics such as safety, grace and intimacy. Lee carefully considers the impact of identity (gender, race, sexuality, class and so on) on mourning, noting at several points how society’s expectations of Black women—that they’ll be strong and keep their pain to themselves—slowed her own grieving process. Readers of this memoir will get a clear sense of how Lee’s grief rocked her world at 25 and continued to reverberate well into her 30s, but they’ll also appreciate the ways of coping she’s found since then—ones she wouldn’t have allowed or even recognized during those early days. Lee describes the long haul of loss and speaks directly and compassionately to those who are experiencing it. She also takes comfort in her faith and even imagines her mother and unborn child meeting in heaven.

The Other Side of Yet

Media executive and former television producer Michelle D. Hord explores the twin griefs for her mother and her child in The Other Side of Yet: Finding Light in the Midst of Darkness. Hord pulls the word yet from the book of Job, which was a lifeline following her daughter’s horrific murder by Hord’s estranged husband, the child’s father. The Bible describes how Job lost everything and yet still believed. This describes Hord, too, who treasures her “defiant faith.”

In The Other Side of Yet, Hord offers readers a framework for facing life after a traumatic event using the acronym SPIRIT (survive, praise, impact, reflect, imagine, testify). Though Hord’s book is not organized around these directives, her own story does follow this path. To read Hord’s memoir is to witness a mother who lost everything and yet stood to tell the tale and dared to remain vulnerable.

Take What You Need

Jen Crow’s life also fell apart, but not because she lost someone beloved. Instead, the sudden tragedy of a house fire provided the impetus for Take What You Need: Life Lessons After Losing Everything. Crow, a Unitarian minister, may seem an unlikely candidate for a spiritual guide: She loves tattoos and the open road and spent years defying anyone who got in her way as she ran from her difficult childhood. After settling down and finally feeling safe, a literal bolt of lightning changed her life in an instant.

Almost immediately after the fire, Crow realized that the way she and her wife talked about the tragedy would impact their children. “I wanted them to hear our gratitude, not our fear,” she writes. So they took special care in framing the story they told about the fire, never describing it as a form of punishment or “proof that hardship never ends.” As Crow searched for a better way to interpret their situation, she found herself learning from her children, who comforted each other instinctively, crawling into bed together and crying. Observing them, Crow considered that grieving might be as natural to people as any other process in life, and that they might already possess what they need to persevere.

Across these books about suffering and healing, there is a practical and poetic need to surrender to what is overwhelming. Each book points to the power of faith and spiritual traditions to guide people outside of their own perspectives, where they can finally see themselves with lovingkindness, accept their losses and keep going.

Four nonfiction titles offer comfort, empathy and wisdom to those who are reeling from loss.

Julissa Arce, who charted an unlikely course from banker to writer, doesn’t want to be seen as a model immigrant. Sure, now she has los papeles and owns a home, but she can’t help asking, “What is the real cost of success?” For her, it was not being able to visit her dying father in Mexico because her immigration proceedings were not yet complete. It’s reading textbooks that omit any mention of the roles Latinx people have played in American history. It’s boxes on the U.S. census that erase entire ethnicities and prompt many Latinx people to choose “White” as their race. In You Sound Like a White Girl, Arce argues that now is the moment for Latinx people to reject assimilation and its attendant misconceptions.

These misconceptions, what Arce calls “the lies we’re told,” concern whiteness, English and success, which are all presented as essential to American identity. In the face of this fallacy, Arce wants to recenter Latinx history, identity, culture and language within America. She has thought carefully about not only how assimilation has impacted her—prompting her to modify her name so that her white teachers could pronounce it more easily—but also how such erasures function on a larger scale, causing Latinx folks to miss out on histories that could empower and embolden them. For example, as a girl, Arce wanted to be a cheerleader in Texas. At the time, she was totally unaware of the history of Chicana cheerleaders in Texas or of student protests in 1968, during which students held up signs that read “Brown legs are beautiful.” Without these stories to ground her, she felt isolated among her white teammates. When she went back to her middle school to speak after the publication of her first book, My (Underground) American Dream, she told this story, hoping to speak many such histories back into existence for the next generation.

Ultimately, through these acts of reclamation—of history, language, identity and culture—Arce argues that the very definition of what it means to be an American can shift. On a Christmas trip to Mexico, Arce recalls asking her nephews what they pictured when she said “un americano.” They imagined “a tall white person with blond hair and green or blue eyes.” She replied, “What about me? I am a U.S. citizen. Am I American?” This question, intended to make her nephews think a bit more deeply about their assumptions, is a relevant one for anyone seeking to shed narrow notions of American identity in favor of something truer and more just.

By centering Latinx history and culture, memoirist and cultural critic Julissa Arce boldly challenges narrow notions of American identity.

Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimate relationships in her fiction (White Houses, Lucky Us), yet never has she gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her marriage. In Love begins, as Blooms puts it, with a “not quite normal” trip to Zurich. She traveled there with her husband, Brian, in January 2020, but the plan was for her to return without him. This is because her husband was pursuing a medically assisted suicide following his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

In the compressed, gripping pages that follow, scenes alternate between the couple’s grim journey and the strenuous months that led up to it. “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” Brian commented within days of his diagnosis. Because he was already experiencing mild dementia, it fell to Bloom, who had always been strong and resourceful, to figure out the logistics of what came next. The window of opportunity was small: A key criterion of an accompanied suicide is that the patient should be capable of making an independent and firm decision. With pressure mounting, Bloom explored options on the dark web, wept with friends and therapists, and received deep, unshakable support from the people she loves, including her sister, who gave her $30,000 to cover the next few months’ costs. (Medically assisted suicide is not inexpensive.)

Bloom, in turn, was steadfastly present to Brian, though the couple’s emotional connection, she makes clear, flickered unevenly. The mundane was still inescapable. Words spoken hastily were regretted for months afterward. Suffering simply hurts, but Bloom shares the details without flinching. “Please write about this,” Brian exhorted her.

Just as Bloom found comfort in watching videos made by families navigating this impossible situation, In Love now offers comfort to those who follow in her footsteps. People who are disturbed by the way death in the United States seems increasingly impersonal, or passionate about giving the people they love agency to do what they want to do, will strongly connect to this book—but so will anyone interested in deep stories of human connection.

Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimacy in her fiction, but she has never gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her marriage.

Episodic, quirky, absurd: These are a few of the words that describe Emmy Award-winning comedy writer Georgia Pritchett’s memoir, My Mess Is a Bit of a Life: Adventures in Anxiety. Pritchett, best known for her work on “Succession” and “Veep,” writes in short bursts that pull the reader in with a manic sort of energy—but just as quickly push the reader away. This writing style echoes Pritchett's anxiety, which is central to how she experiences the world.

Everyone in My Mess Is a Bit of a Life has a nickname. Pritchett’s mother is not her mother but The Witch. (She had a penchant for black hats.) Her father is The Patriarchy. Initially it’s hard to feel a close connection to the narrator because the vignettes fly by so quickly, even though they are zany and tilt-a-whirl fun. The memoir gains traction, though, as Pritchett transitions to her tentative forays into comedy writing. She describes climbing her way up and stepping around Oxford-educated men in a series of fascinating stories about the (somewhat familiar) experience of being the only female writer in the room. Pritchett’s natural reserve and distance served her well in those rooms; public criticism only made her more determined. With time, her steel began to shine through, though it was always tempered by sensitivity, kindness and a kind of off-center oddness that she treasured, protected and shared in her work.

Where I personally became fully immersed in the memoir was after Pritchett had her son, who has autism. She was told he wouldn’t speak. When she sent him to school, she sensed she was “putting him in a cupboard,” so she took him out of school and worked out a Plan B. Her poignant honesty in describing what she and her sons have experienced together, coupled with her fierceness and creativity, made me a true fan of the book, which is one that readers will not soon forget.

“Succession” writer Georgia Pritchett’s memoir is an episodic, quirky ride that readers will not soon forget.

Ann Patchett’s new essay collection, These Precious Days, reinforces what many longtime fans like best about her writing: its levelheaded appraisal of what is good in the world. In one essay, she describes a photo of herself as “joyful.” She had given this photo to the Academy of Arts and Letters when she was inducted, and it brightly contrasted with the somber photographs of her colleagues. The photo was appropriate, however, since reading Patchett’s work does inspire a kind of joy—tempered by an awareness of what can be lost. When Patchett does convey fear or regret, it’s because she knows that life can change in an instant and that precious things need to be guarded. For instance, after Patchett became unexpectedly ill after a bad experience with psychedelic mushrooms, she apologized to her husband “for being careless with our lives.”

She writes in the introduction that what interests her at this stage in life is exploring the things that matter most. For Patchett, that means essays about friends and family (“Three Fathers” and “These Precious Days” are especially wonderful) and about reading (specifically, the works of Eudora Welty and Kate DiCamillo). She also pulls back the curtain on the writing life, letting readers see her daily habits (early-morning walks with the dog, restorative dinners, occasionally demanding travel), her work with publishers and her intense privacy while composing. She could write a novel, she says, without showing anyone a single page.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic threw everything into upheaval, Patchett found the work of a novel too overwhelming. Essays, though, were approachable, and she found herself returning to the form again and again. Though readers will cheer when her next novel emerges, this collection is a balm for the moment, a candle that sheds warmth and light during a dark season.

Ann Patchett's tender essay collection is a balm for the moment, a candle that sheds warmth and light during a dark season.

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