Books for Those Grieving and Processing Mortality in 2021

Books for Those Grieving and Processing Mortality in 2021

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 improvement, and feeling eager 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 sets 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 unavoidable that we couldn’t return to continued 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 by 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 average 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, inventive historical fiction, and dystopian tales, but in this assessment of fall books, I concentrated on those which shared a sense of loss and grief—in addition as some component of resilience—that helped me find more obtain footing. 

‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown Little, Brown and Company

An astonishing debut novel, Assembly (Little Brown, September 14) by Natasha Brown launches the reader closest 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 character 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 persevere 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 Click: See details

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