Obit by Victoria Chang

“The obituary writer said that the obituary is the moment when a someone becomes history.”

5/5 stars.
ebook, 115 pages.
Read from September 10, 2020 to Sept 14, 2020 and from November 19, 2020 to November 27, 2020

The beautiful thing about reading is that it plays many roles and serves a multitude of purposes. Reading allows everything from escapism to learning, opening up your mind to a new world view or a way to open up your heart to feelings you’ve compartmentalised. Especially good poetry, that seems to be its specialty.

“The way grief is really about future absences.”

p. 18, Obit

I can’t remember how I found this book. It feels like it found me. The first time I read it was nearing the one year anniversary of a death that I had still hadn’t come to terms with. I read the book, noted its form, and enjoyed its content. I even related to it but it wasn’t enough to pull me out of the protective grief-shell of denial I had surrounded myself in. The second time I decided to read this book, the anniversary was fresh but had passed but something had changed in that time. It’s like I was finally able to process some of my grief because just enough time had passed making the pain less sharp. I was able to drop my shell, just a little bit.

When I revisited this book for the second time it was with unclouded eyes and a heart that was little bit more open to the pain and beauty it would bring.

The way our sadness is plural, but grief singular.

p. 32, Obit

Obit is written in the style of a newspaper obituary with each section detailing the death of the author’s mother, the grief and pain of her father’s dementia, as well as parts of herself as it too died. Written in the freshness of the loss of her mother, Victoria Chang spent the next two week putting her grief and all of her losses into words in the form of obituaries. Having now lost both of her parents, her father first, her words carry the weight of the author’s loss. She discusses the shared familiarity of sadness yet the loneliness of grief. The otherness she shares with her family and her friends as well as the discussions she has with her children take shape within the poems. She also discusses the loss of different parts of her father literally as well as through carefully thought out metaphors as she slowly loses the man she knew to dementia.

It’s true, the grieving speak a different language. I am separated from my friends by gauze. I will drive myself to my own house for the party. I will make small talk with myself, spill a drink on myself. When it’s all over, I will drive myself back to my own home.

p. 23, Obit

Maybe that’s what happens when language fails, a last breath inward but no breath outward. A state of holding one’s breath forever but not dying.

p. 20, Obit

This small book of poetry sums up grief in a concise way that really only those who know loss will understand. It’s healing and refreshing to know that though our grief is unique and can’t be shared at least there are some relatable features in its loneliness.

The men had dug up the dirt stood with their shovels and waited. I looked at their eyes for and sign of drowning. Then I noticed that one man’s body didn’t have a shadow. And when he walked away, the grass didn’t flatten. His shovel was clean. I suddenly recognised this man as love.

p.22, Obit

The format that Chang has chosen takes on a numb familiarity which not unlike the numbness that comes with the immediacy of fresh grief. The writing feels formal like an obituary but is the opposite of many obituaries in its honest emotion.

Like grief, the way it dangles from everything like earrings. The way grief needs oxygen. The way every once in a while, it catches the light and starts smoking. The way my grief will die with me. The way it will cleave and grow like antlers.”

p. 50, Obit

Chang acknowledges how grief changes a person, how there is no going back from this loss that feels so earth-shattering and how grief becomes this ever changing omnipresent entity in your life that you have so little control over.

To acknowledge death is to acknowledge that we must take another shape.

p. 28, Obit

I don’t remember the last time a book of poetry so aptly captured such raw feelings, especially my own. Chang writes in such a concise and visceral manner that makes her approach to grief accessible for even those who are stone-resolved in denying it. Chang’s work is a stunning tribute to grief. It’s personal and intimate yet highly relatable. I would recommend this book to anyone going through the grieving process, no matter where you’re sitting with it.

As You Were by David Tromblay

Tromblay takes a no-holds-barred, full-frontal approach to his writing that is immersive and, at times, shocking.

4/5 stars.
ARC ebook, 251 pages.
Read from October 14, 2020 to October 19, 2020.

A big thank you to Dzanc Books who offered me an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

When the author learns that his father is dying he decides to write a memoir of sorts, a testament to the brutality that was inflicted on him as a child and as a young man. Tromblay is part Native American, on his father’s side, and after being abandoned by his mother, his grandmother raises him the only way she knew how. Tromblay’s grandmother lived through the reservation boarding schools that Native Americans were forced into, meaning that anything she knew about punishment came in the form of fear and physical abuse. To make matters worse, Tromblay’s father lived with them as well and not only is he an alcoholic but he suffers brain damage from a previous car accident making him extremely volatile and aggressive. Tromblay’s father always said to him, that the day that he could “take him” was the day he had no place under his roof. Tromblay eventually escapes his tormenters and finds himself in the Armed Forces as a young man. While his capacities for violence were put to good use, his experiences inevitably led to further trauma. 

Tromblay takes a no-holds-barred, full-frontal approach to his writing that is immersive and, at times, shocking. The book moves back and forth in time to parts of Tromblay’s childhood to pieces of his adult life and his time in the Armed Forces, often half a world away. Tromblay’s story is a unique coming of age story that discloses so much pain and humiliation and yet it is still an engaging read as the book’s tone is not one of pity. You get the idea that the author has accepted that this is just the way things are, just like a straight-faced soldier who has compartmentalizes his pain.  The story is written in the second person, as the author addresses himself giving the story a poetic and poignant feel, despite its raw content. As a reader you’re drawn to Tromblay’s torment through its honest and direct structure as well as the poetic style that comforts you, as you somehow already surmise the strength behind the author’s words, anticipating a positive outcome. 

“He does die, but it takes you another half-dozen drafts to say what you need to say. With his last breath, the last bit of angst drips out of your pen.”

p.250

Tromblay’s story is less about pain and more about overcoming it by confronting it head-on. It’s about a grieving process unique to those who have experienced traumas by people who were supposed to care for them as well as those affected by war and death. While there are many graphic details in the story that some might find triggering or disturbing, it was all part of a necessary process for Tromblay. His father’s death is an opportunity to release, maybe not forgive, but to let go and move on. 

With his father’s death, Tromblay finds some healing from his past and a future in writing to look forward to. After a decade in the Army, Tromblay went on to pursue his MA in Creative Writing having since published two books, of which this is his second. This book covers so many dynamic themes that it is an approachable story for those that are willing to follow in the author’s disturbing past and hopeful future. I would highly recommend it.

This novel is expected to be available for purchase in February 2021. 

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

“He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 216 pages.
Read from September 2, 2020 to September 7, 2020.

1992; I was six years old when Christopher Johnson McCandless set out on his grand adventure to embody his own philosophical belief in the existence of man. 

McCandless, who dubbed himself as Alexander Supertramp gave away everything and partook on an ‘adventure’ all over the country that eventually led him to Alaska, of which he deemed to be the ultimate frontier, challenge, and goal to live in and conquer. With next to no provisions, his wit, and determination, McCandless was a man who wanted to live by his own rules and ideals, even if that meant abandoning his family and friends. Little did McCandless know, that the spot he settled on in Alaska wasn’t all that far into the wild but that it would also become his resting place.  This is an immensely shallow summary for what is undoubtedly an intricate a read on a man with many intrigues and intelligence. 

This isn’t my first book by Krakauer. I read Into Thin Air and was immediately captivated with his detail, frank, and highly engaging non-fiction writing style. I actually wish Krakauer was a runner as I think he could write some amazing running related books. For example, Born to Run , written by journalist Christopher McDougall, while I really enjoyed the book it had structural and format issues and as well as a very  matter-of-fact and journalistic-writing approach. Both men are journalists but I feel like Krakauer really knows and understands how to deliver a good story. 

Krakauer’s take on McCandless, as well as his own exploits are what made this book for me. Krakauer’s personal intrigue and connection to McCandless, it’s what gave this book that special edge as he too felt some of the same urges, determination, and arguably recklessness as the young man. I imagine if Krakauer and McCandless had been given a chance to talk that they would have gotten on well and McCandless would have felt a little less alone in his ideas.  Krakauer’s in-depth retelling and interpretation of McCandless is what I really felt more connected with in this book rather than McCandless himself. That isn’t to say I didn’t appreciate aspects of McCandless, I mean the guy had some very valid points about modern society but in the same breath, took his views so seriously that he became selfish and dangerously fanatical at times. Krakauer did such a good job in giving a balanced perspective on McCandless that you feel like you’ve been given a good grasp of the whole situation as well as the fallout following McCandless’ death.

This book might not be everyone’s cup of tea however, you need to have some interested in adventure exploits and risk-taking or the choices that McCandless, and even Krakauer, make won’t resonate with you making which might make it it easier to brush these men off as ‘crazy’. However, even with a mild interest, the writing  of the book itself should be able to engage most readers on some level. This book was definitely a good read and I’m glad I finally got to it.