Life Advice for Book Lovers: On Dealing with Loss and Finding Community
Book Recommendations to Help the Troubled Soul
Welcome to Life Advice for Book Lovers, Lit Hub’s advice column. You tell me what’s eating you in an email to email@example.com, and I’ll tell you what you should read next.
My close friend and former partner passed away a few months ago. There’s many stages of grief (or so I hear), and I’ve been bopping around between them. Right now, I feel a huge sense of loss for his presence in the world. He was a performance artist, activist, always Doing something—BLM protests back in 2014, storming university board meetings, making a documentary on healthcare in Cuba, organizing conferences for displaced internal refugees in Kenya. He was Kenyan, and loved the beaches of Mombasa. He loved life and cats and had a huge laugh. I want to feel better. But I also want to feel like there are still people out in the world caring and doing good. People with big bold personalities, who will keep pushing at injustice, even if it doesn’t go exactly as planned.
I like historical fiction, speculative fiction, literary fiction… Many things. Currently I’m reading Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri and Motherhood by Sheila Heti, if that helps.
Loss of a Friend
I’m so sorry for your loss. I wish I could give you a hug or take you out for coffee (something warm). This person sounds like a light of lights. How wonderful to have had him in your life. (And vice versa; even from your letter, I can tell that you are attentive, compassionate, and hopeful—all things the world needs right now.)
For navigating this loss, I’d recommend Dorothy Gallagher’s Stories I Forgot to Tell You. It’s a poignant and meandering reflection on the loss of her husband. She’s an excellent guide through grief. More than it being about capital B Bereavement, it’s a touching tribute to the little things in life (typewriters and tomato plants, humorous things the pets did today) and the people we wish we could share them with. His presence is palpable in these pages; in a lot of ways, this book is a reminder of the love that endures. People who make such an impact on us—well, we’re always in conversation with them, aren’t we? And those pangs of loss are also a reminder that we have connected so fully with another person, which is a wonderful thing.
(Sorry to quote a Marvel show, but I think WandaVision really got it right when they asked: “But what is grief if not love persevering?”)
For optimism, there’s Celeste Ng’s recently-published Our Missing Hearts. It’s about a 12-year-old boy who lives with his librarian/linguist father in a dystopian world just slightly off-kilter from our own, in which the government has cracked down on assimilation and a dedication to “American culture.” His mother, a famous Chinese American poet, has left the family, but one day, he receives a mysterious letter that sends him looking for her and asking dangerous questions about the way the world works. At its core, it’s a story about the power of art and protest, the ways we honor those we’ve lost, and the brave few who find a way to keep fighting. It so beautifully captures the ripple effect we have on one another. Your friend’s legacy lives on in you.
For various reasons—mostly family obligations and a lack of funds—I’m stuck in the same place for the foreseeable future, but I’m bored and could use a change of scenery. What are some good books to immerse myself in another place? (I’m on the East Coast of the United States, for reference, but more than reading about somewhere super far away, I just want a good story about a community that’s not my own.) What do you think?
Dear Grimly Grounded,
Your note really struck a chord with me today. It’s startling to wake up one morning and find yourself in a rut you fell into by mistake. (Or by forces way beyond your control; hello, global pandemic!) I loved your clarification that what you’re looking for isn’t a road trip so much as another community to find sanctuary with.
The book that immediately sprung to my mind was Mina Seçkin’s The Four Humors, which tells the story of 20-year-old Sibel, off to Istanbul for the summer. Day after day, she puts off grieving the death of her father and studying for the MCAT, choosing instead to dig into ancient theories of medicine and to give into the seductive siren call of soap operas with her elderly grandmother. In reading this book, you’ll be transported to the streets of Turkey and embraced by this community—so flawed but tender in their attempts to heal one another. I think the care they pour into one another and the ways they surprise themselves within that will speak to you.
There’s also something so refreshing about reading a book that promises starting over. For that, I’d recommend Lydia Millet’s brand-new novel, Dinosaurs, which follows a man who walks (yes, walks!) from New York to Arizona to start his life again. He falls in with a nuclear family living in a glass house (!) across the way. It is, like The Four Humors, a book that manages to distill worldly concerns to a fine point; it wields a local community as a microcosm, but the community itself feels so lived-in and full of life in a way that’s transportive. The book also quietly begs the questions: What do we owe to one another, and to ourselves? What do we want in this one wild and precious life, and how can we pave the way with care?
Happy armchair travel,