Booknotes

The Grief of Others
By Leah Hager Cohen
Riverhead Books

Novelist Leah Hager Cohen, the W.H. Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters and visiting professor, has been described as one of the foremost writers of American life. Her fourth novel, The Grief of Others (Riverhead Books, 2011) begins with a tragedy, the death of a newborn. The rest of the story follows the mourning family’s four members as they struggle with each other, themselves and the secrets they keep. Ultimately, a stranger in their midst adds the spark of a new dynamic, helping build bridges over their torrents of grief. HCM spoke with Cohen about her latest work, which was recently named one of Kirkus Reviews’ top 25 fiction books of 2011.

Q   You are lauded for your finely detailed, fully formed characters. How do you begin the process of creating these people?
A  I begin to imagine fictional characters in slices—that is, not with a general sense of their outlines, which I then fill in, but rather with a vivid impression of some minute aspect of their personality, their way of speaking, perhaps, or the way they might respond to a particular event. Sometimes I have a kind of sharp, bright snapshot of the character in a specific place, a specific moment in time, and I work from there, slowly, to understand who this person might fully be.

Q  Are you comfortable sharing how much of this book is borrowed from your own real-life experiences with grief and forgiveness?
A  Very little is borrowed directly from my own experience with grief and forgiveness. I have, of course, had ample experience with both—who reaches midlife without knowing grief, without knowing forgiveness? But the circumstances in the book differ greatly from my own. I did once have a miscarriage, and that experience informed my imagining what it might be like to have an infant die shortly after birth. Like the characters in this book, I have lied and felt ashamed; I have tried to speak truth and felt silenced. I think we all have done these things, and that common stream of human behavior—which always, in all of us, ranges from the beautiful to the monstrous—is what interests me most.

Q  New York Times book reviewer Susann Cokal wrote, “For all its deep-seated sorrows, this is a hopeful book.” Do you agree?
A  Yes! We live with sorrows every day. We live with loss every day. Folded into the very fact of our being alive is the fact of our mortality, the truth that we will die. I don’t find acknowledging these things depressing. On the contrary, there is so much joy—just impossibly much joy—in being here, alive to all experience. That joy comes not despite loss; loss is part of its very essence.

Q  How have you found teaching here at Holy Cross? Has it influenced the way you approach your own writing in any way?
A  I love teaching here more than I even anticipated. I didn’t grow up in any religious tradition; I’m a secular Jew, or as my daughter likes to say, I’m Jew-ish.
I wasn’t sure how it would feel to teach in an environment with a strong religious identity and culture. But the older I get, the more I notice that much of what moves me to write seems like a close cousin to what my friend Tina, an Episcopal priest, might simply call love of God.
I find that within the environment of Holy Cross, it feels easy and natural to speak with students about this thing we do—writing narrative, making stories—in a context that’s ever mindful of larger, ongoing, eternal questions: Why are we here? How can we grow? How can we help? How shall we live? This feels right and satisfying, and like the only way, really, to approach learning.

Q  In a recent installment of NPR’s
“You Must Read This,” you recommended Brian Hall’s 1997 novel The Saskiad.
If we could peek at your nightstand right now, what books would we find?
A  I just finished The Call, a short novel by Yannick Murphy that’s written entirely in the form of a veterinarian’s call log. Somehow, this stylistic choice doesn’t feel like a device or constraint; it becomes a platform for a beautiful, moving, surprising story about a family, and about the strangeness, the fragility and, also, the sparkling, cyclical hardiness of life.

Q  Can you give our readers any early insight into your next project?
A  It’s a novel about a sister and brother who grew up on the grounds of a former experimental school run by their father. He raised his own children according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings, believing it best to leave them unfettered, free to spend much of their childhood roaming the woods behind their house.
The brother may well be autistic, but in accordance with his parents’ beliefs, was never evaluated. When the book begins, the children are grown, and the brother is being held in an upstate New York jail, charged with abduction and negligent homicide. The sister sets off in an effort to learn what happened and to find a way to convince others that her brother is no monster.

 

OTHER BOOKS AUTHORED BY MEMBERS OF THE HOLY CROSS FAMILY

 

In the Meadow
By Isaac W. Andres ’00
Illustrations by Jason Gage
Little Balloon Press
In his second children’s book, Isaac Andres ’00 tells the story of a meadow tree and flower whose developing friendship is tested by the changing seasons, providing insight into the nature of friendship, loss and the importance of faith.

The Best Homes from This Old House
By Kevin D. O’Connor ’90
Photography by Michael Casey ’90
Stewart, Tabori  & Chang
The host of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series “This Old House” worked with his Holy Cross classmate to chronicle 10 of the finest home transformations of the past decade. The volume features more than 200 photos and insights from O’Connor and crew about every step of the process.

A Peaceful, Easy Feeling
By Philip R. Sullivan, M.D., ’53 Foremost Press
In his latest novel, Philip Sullivan tells the tale of a man enjoying life close to nature in rural Maine, until he becomes embroiled in a local labor battle. Turning to the characters in his own life—including Fr. Tim, an elderly mystic—he tries to conquer his fears and his enemies.

Holy Cross Class of ’72 Ex-Man
By Gordon T. Davis ’73
CreateSpace
An account of Gordon Davis’ experiences at Holy Cross from 1968 to 1973, this book chronicles the Philly native’s passion for activism, Civil Rights and social change, as well as his transformation from devout Catholic to Marxist-Leninst atheist.

PAP
By Darrin R. Berard ’97
CreateSpace
In his first novel, Darrin Berard ’97 follows the original storyline of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to present new insights into the book’s characters, particularly Huck Finn’s father, Pap. The book may be read on its own or, preferably, along with Twain’s novel.

Simply Fred
By Jack Shea ’56 with Jerry Sigler, John Page and Larry Madden
LuLu
Simply Fred tells the story of Monsignor Frederick R. McManus ’44, Hon. ’89 and his crucial role in shaping liturgical reforms after Vatican II. It contains a brief biography, personal accounts from his colleagues and a glimpse at his enduring legacy.

Changed Heart, Changed World
By Rev. William A. Barry, S.J., ’52
Loyola Press
In his latest book on spirituality, Fr. Barry explores how developing a friendship with God can lead the individual to transform the world by embracing compassion and forgiveness as a way of life. He provides many examples of ways to integrate one’s inner and outer life.

The Holy Theopany
By Rev. Robert F. Slesinski ’72
Eastern Christian Publications
In his most recent book, The Holy Theophany, Fr. Slesinski offers a catechesis on the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity, focusing on the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Lord’s Baptism. The final chapter considers “The Twilight of Manifestation: Back to the Hidden Life.”