Book grief, pandemic reading

Book grief is my term for a read that gripped me and won’t let go. Once finished, its rich characters linger in my mind. Think Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Dorie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, I. B. Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story. 

Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain gave me book grief. It’s the story of Shuggie, 16 and orphaned when we meet him. How did he end up alone, at that age, in Glasgow? This book is that story. It’s not a memoir but Stuart has said it hews to his life.

Agnes Campbell Bain is the boy’s mother. Agnes, a beauty, is an unforgettable character: elegant, witty, fun loving, fierce. Also a danger to herself and others. She drinks herself to death, driving away Shuggie’s father, sister, brother, suitors. We stick with her because Shuggie does. He guards his mother from suicide, drinking buddies, AA friends, “uncles”. His devotion is understandable, especially after Agnes noisily “frees” him from his father’s home. 

Two of my friends put down Shuggie Bain down after a few chapters. I get it — it’s a sad story. I’m glad I reached its end, and saw Shuggie blossom into his own person. 


Another hard read I savored is The Undying, by Anne Boyer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, in 2020. My son the bookseller pressed it on me. Thank you, Evan.

Boyer is a poet and essayist. Her subject is cancer, death, the literature of illness, treatment, the for-profit U.S. healthcare system. Her suffering made me outraged on her behalf.

The Undying is unlike any book I’ve read. The poet knows this: “After cancer, my writing felt given its full permission.” 


After that, I needed the nuttiness of a Carl Hiassen tale. Like his others, Squeeze Me is set in Florida. Angie Armstrong, a wildlife wrangler, is called to a private club in Palm Beach to remove a giant python. Inside the python is the socialite and Trump supporter Kiki Pew, whose disappearance causes a chain reaction that wrongly imprisons an immigrant — catnip for Trump and his supporters. A delicious side story is Melania’s affair with a secret service agent…

Hiassen never disappoints. A diverting read, when I needed it most. 


Another Trump book? Dark Towers, by David Enrich, is the story of Deutsche Bank’s spectacular fall from respectability. Trump is a minor player in this engrossing tale. When no other bank will loan to Trump (because he defaults), he borrows money from Deutsche Bank, and when he can’t repay it, he persuades them to loan him more money to repay the original loan. I know. My head is spinning, too. There’s much more to this “bank gone bad” story, and Enrich tells it like a thriller.


I liked Elena Ferrnate’s “Neapolitan Quartet,” so I looked forward to her latest, The Lying Life of Adults. Ferrante’s characters are so rich, so flawed, so educated, so passionate. (As my friend Deb says, with her hands, “They’re sooooo Italian.”) This novel is told by the teenage Giovanna, who lives a comfortable life in Naples. A cruel comment by her father puts Giovanna on a path to find an estranged aunt. Why are the siblings so different intellectually? Why is her aunt so poor? What drove them apart? That’s one thread of the story. Another is her parents’ divorce and recoupling with others. Also, Giovanna’s inappropriate longing for a young man betrothed to another. Like the “Neapolitan Quartet,” Ferrante takes us into the emotionally-charged life of a girl. Richly told.


After listening to it on audio, my friend Jen recommend Just Like You, by Nick Hornby. (Thanks, Jen.) I’ve liked his books, on and off, since High Fidelity. They’re smart, funny, of-the-moment reads. 

Just Like You is a delight. It’s set in London as the people of England decide to stay in or leave the European Union. Lucy, who wants England to stay, is the newly single mother of two video-gaming, potty mouthed — but very sweet — young boys. (Lucy’s ex is an alcoholic who has broken their hearts.) Lucy hires Joseph, a 22 year old black man, to babysit while Lucy tries, and fails, at dating. (Very funny.)

Joseph and the boys bond. Joseph and Lucy fall in love.

And yet… Joseph can’t possibly bring Lucy to a dance club. Joseph can’t possibly introduce her to his family. Joseph can’t possibly stay faithful. Until he can, and does. 

I loved this read. Race, inequity, unlikely families, Brexit, Trump figure in the story. Its ending is perfect. 

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