My Book Notes

Compiled by Bruce Rickard

The author, Thomas Newkirk, writes about ‘owning the passages that speak to us.’ He says,

“We can learn to pay attention, concentrate, devote ourselves to authors. We can slow down so we can hear the voice of texts, feel the movement of sentences, experience the pleasure of words…and own passages that speak to us.”

Thomas Newkirk ‘The Art of Slow Reading’

My Book Notes are just that, ‘owning the passages that speak to me.’ By recording the words and sentences that capture my attention I am ensuring that they are not lost to me and will continue to challenge and inspire.

My Book Notes are not a summary of the text. I am not attempting to condense what the writer is wanting to communicate, nor am I providing an outline.

My Book Notes are not a review of the text. I am not analysing what has been written, nor am I making comment.

I’m pleased to share with you My Book Notes and hope you might be motivated to consider reading the books for yourself. All the books listed have contributed to my thinking and enjoyment so come with my tick of approval.

Notes On Grief

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

ISBN: 0593320808

Category: Biography and Memoir

Themes: Loss, Grief, Parenting, Love, Survival, Memory, Connection, Hope

Date Read: December 2021

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

My Book Notes:

My four-year-old daughter says I scared her. She gets down on her knees to demonstrate, her small, clenched fist rising and falling, and her mimicry makes me see myself as I was: utterly unravelling, screaming, and pounding the floor. The news is like a vicious uprooting. I am yanked away from the world I have known since childhood. And I am resistant: my father read the newspaper that afternoon, he joked with Okey about shaving before his appointment with the kidney specialist in Onitsha the next day, he discussed his hospital test results on the phone with my sister ljeoma, who is a doctor – and so how can this be?

*******

But there he is. Okey is holding a phone over my father’s face, and my father looks asleep, his face relaxed, beautiful in repose. Our Zoom call is beyond surreal, all of us weeping and weeping and weeping, in different parts of the world, looking in disbelief at the father we adore now Iying still on a hospital bed.

*******

My breathing is difficult. Is this what shock means, that the air turns to glue?

*******

My sister Uche says she has just told a family friend by text, and I almost scream, ‘No! Don’t tell anyone, because if we tell people, then it becomes true.’

*******

My husband is saying, ‘Breathe slowly, drink some of this water:’ My housecoat, my lockdown staple, is lying crumpled on the floor. Later my brother Kene will jokingly say, “You better not get any shocking news in public, since you react to shock by tearing off your clothes.

*******

Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger. You learn how glib condolences can feel. You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language.

*******

Why are my sides so sore and achy? It’s from crying, I’m told. I did not know that we cry with our muscles. The pain is not surprising, but its physicality is: my tongue unbearably bitter, as though I ate a loathed meal and forgot to clean my teeth; on my chest, a heavy, awful weight; and inside my body, a sensation of eternal dissolving. My heart – my actual physical heart, nothing figurative here – is running away from me, has become its own separate thing, beating too fast, its rhythms at odds with mine. This is an affliction not merely of the spirit but of the body, of aches and lagging strength. Flesh, muscles, organs are all compromised. No physical position is comfortable. For weeks, my stomach is in turmoil, tense and tight with foreboding, the ever-present certainty that somebody else will die, that more will be lost.

*******

Another revelation: how much laughter is a part of grief. Laughter is tightly braided into our family argot, and now we laugh remembering my father (his expression one minute utterly deadpan and, the next, wide open with delighted laughter), but somewhere in the background there is a haze of disbelief. The laughter trails of. The laughter becomes tears and becomes sadness and becomes rage. I am unprepared for my wretched, roaring rage. In the face of this inferno that is sorrow, I am callow and unformed. But how can it be that in the morning he is joking and talking, and at night he is gone forever? It was so fast, too fast. It was not supposed to happen like this, not like a malicious surprise, not during a pandemic that has shut down the world.

*******

Messages pour in and I look at them as through a mist. Who is this message for? ‘On the loss of your father,’ one says. Whose father? My sister forwards a message from her friend that says my father was humble despite his accomplishments. My fingers start to tremble, and I push my phone away. He was not; he is. There is a video of people trooping into our house for mgbalu, to give condolences, and I want to reach in and wrench them away from our living room, where already my mother is settled on the sofa in placid widow pose. A table is in front of her like a barrier, to maintain social distance. Already friends and relatives are saying this must be done and that must be done. A condolence register must be placed by the front door, so my sister goes off to buy a bolt of white lace to cover the table and my brother buys a hardcover notebook and soon people are bending to write in the book. I think, Go home! Why are you coming to our house to write in that alien notebook? How dare you make this thing true? Somehow, these well-wishers have become complicit.

*******

I feel myself breathing air that is bitter-sweet with my own conspiracies. Needle-pricks of resentment flood through me at the thought of people who are more than eighty-eight years old, older than my father and alive and well. My anger scares me, my fear scares me, and somewhere in there is shame, too – why am I so enraged and so scared? I am afraid of going to bed and of waking up; afraid of tomorrow and of all the tomorrows after. I am filled with disbelieving astonishment that the mailman comes as usual, and that people are inviting me to speak somewhere and that regular news alerts appear on my phone screen. How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?

*******

Grief is forcing new skins on me, scraping scales from my eyes. I regret my past certainties: Surely you should mourn, talk through it, face it, go through it. The smug certainties of a person yet unacquainted with grief. I have mourned in the past, but only now have I touched grief’s core. Only now do I learn, while feeling for its porous edges, that there is no way through. I am in the centre of this churning, and I have become a maker of boxes, and inside their unbending walls I cage my thoughts. I torque my mind firmly to its shallow surface alone. I cannot think too much, I dare not think too deeply, or else I will be defeated, not merely by pain but by a drowning nihilism, a cycle of thinking there’s no point, what’s the point, there’s no point to anything. I want there to be a point, even if I do not know, for now, what that point is. There is a grace in denial, Chuks says, words that I repeat to myself. A refuge, this denial, this refusal to look. Of course, the effort is its own grieving, and so I am un-looking in the oblique shadow of looking, but imagine the catastrophe of a direct, unswerving stare. Often, too, there is the urge to run and run, to hide. But I cannot always run, and each time I am forced to squarely confront my grief – when I read the death certificate, when I draft a death announcement – I feel a shimmering panic. In such moments, I notice a curious physical reaction: my body begins to shake, fingers tap uncontrollably, one leg bobbing. I am unable to quiet myself until I look away. How do people walk around functioning in the world after losing a beloved father? For the first time in my life, I am enamoured of sleeping pills, and, in the middle of a shower or a meal, I burst into tears.

*******

I wish I had not missed those few days of calling them, because I would have seen that he wasn’t just mildly unwell – or I would have sensed it if it wasn’t obvious – and I would have insisted on hospital much sooner. I wish, I wish. The guilt gnaws at my soul. I think of all the things that could have happened and all the ways the world could be reshaped, to prevent what happened on 10 June, to make it un-happen.

*******

Because I loved my father so much, so fiercely, so tenderly, I always, at the back of my mind, feared this day. But, lulled by his relatively good health, I thought we had time. I thought it was not yet time. I was so sure Daddy was nineties material,’ my brother Kene says. We all were. Perhaps we also unreasonably thought that his goodness, his being so decent, would keep him with us into his nineties. But did I sense a truth that I also fully denied? Did my spirit know – the way anxiety sat sharp like claws in my stomach once I heard he was unwell; my sleeplessness for two days; and the hovering darkening pall I could neither name nor shake off?

*******

So, I knew. I was so close to my father that I knew, without wanting to know, without fully knowing that I knew. A thing like this, dreaded for so long, finally arrives and among the avalanche of emotions there is a bitter and unbearable relief. It comes as a form of aggression, this relief, bringing with it strangely pugnacious thoughts. Enemies beware: the worst has happened. My father is gone. My madness will now bare itself.

*******

How quickly my life has become another life, how pitiless this becoming is, and yet how slow I am to adapt. Okey sends me a video of an elderly woman who walks through our front door, crying, and I think, I have to ask Daddy who she is. In that small moment, what has been true for the forty-two years of my life is still true – that my father is tangible, inhaling, exhaling; reachable to talk to and to watch the twinkle of his eyes behind his glasses. Then, with a horrible lurch, I remember again. That brief forgetting feels like both a betrayal and a blessing.

*******

I back away from condolences. People are kind, people mean well, but knowing this does not make their words rankle less.

‘Demise.’ A favourite of Nigerians, it conjures for me dark distortions. ‘On the demise of your father:’ I detest ‘demise’.

‘He is resting’ brings not comfort but a scoff that trails its way to pain. He could very well be resting in his room in our house in Abba, fan whirring warm air, his bed strewn with folded newspapers, a sudoku book, an old brochure from a funeral, a Knights of St Mulumba calendar, a bag filled with his bottles of medicine, and his notebooks with the carefully lined pages on which he recorded every single thing he ate, a diabetic’s account-taking.

‘He is in a better place’ is startling in its presumptuousness and has a taint of the inapt. How would you know – and shouldn’t I, the bereaved, be privy to this information first? Should I really be learning this from you?

‘He was eighty-eight’ so deeply riles because age is irrelevant in grief; at issue is not how old he was but how loved. Yes, he was eighty-eight, but a cataclysmic hole now suddenly gapes open in your life, a part of you snatched away forever.

ʻIt has happened, so just celebrate his life,’ an old friend wrote, and it incensed me. How facile to preach about the permanence of death, when it is, in fact, the very permanence of death that is the source of anguish. I wince now at the words I said in the past to grieving friends. ‘Find peace in your memories’, I used to say. To have love snatched from you, especially unexpectedly, and then to be told to turn to memories. Rather than succour, my memories bring eloquent stabs of pain that say, “This is what you will never again have.” Sometimes they bring laughter, but laughter like glowing coals that soon burst aflame in pain. I hope that it is a question of time – that it is just too soon, too terribly soon, to expect memories to serve only as salve.

*******

What does not feel like the deliberate prodding of wounds is a simple ‘I’m sorry’, because in its banality it presumes nothing. Ndo, in Igbo, comforts more, a word that is ‘sorry’ with a metaphysical heft, a word with borders wider than mere ´sorry’. Concrete and sincere memories from those who knew him comfort the most, and it warms me that the same words recur: ‘honest’, ‘calm’, ‘kind’, ‘strong’, ‘quiet’, ‘simple’, ‘peaceful’, integrity’.

*******

Grief is not gauzy; it is substantial, oppressive, a thing opaque. The weight is heaviest in the mornings, post-sleep: a leaden heart, a stubborn reality that refuses to budge. I will never see my father again. Never again. It feels as if I wake up only to sink and sink. In those moments, I am sure that I do not ever want to face the world again.

*******

Years ago, somebody died and a relative said with certainty, ‘The wife can’t be alone,’ and I thought, But what if she wants to be? There is value in that Igbo way, that African way, of grappling with grief: the performative, expressive outward mourning, where you take every call and you tell and retell the story of what happened.

*******

But I am not ready. I talk only to my closest family. It is instinctive, my recoiling. I imagine the confusion of some relatives, their disapproval even, when faced with my withdrawal, the calls I leave unanswered, the messages unread. They might think it a mystifying self-indulgence or an affectation of fame, or both. In truth, at first it is a protective stance, a shrinking from further pain, because I am drained limp from crying, and speak about it would be to cry again. But later it is because I want to sit alone with my grief. I want to protect – hide? hide from? – these foreign sensations, this bewildering series of hills and valleys. There is a desperation to shrug off this burden, and then a competing longing to cosset it, to hold it close. Is it possible to be possessive of one’s pain? I want to become known to it, I want it known to me. So precious was my bond with my father that I cannot lay open my suffering until I have discerned its contours.

*******

One day I am in the bathroom, completely alone, and I call my father by my fond nickname for him – ‘the original dada’ – and a brief blanket of peace enfolds me. Too brief. I am a person wary of the maudlin, but I am certain of this moment filled with my father. If it is a hallucination, then I want more of it, but it hasn’t happened again.

*******

I reread Biography of Nigeria’s Foremost Professor of Statistics, Prof. James Nwoye Adichie by Emeritus Professor Alex Animalu, Professor Peter I. Uche and Jeff Unaegbu, published in 2013, three years before my father was made professor emeritus of the University of Nigeria… I feel a euphoric rush of gratitude to the authors. Why does this line – the children and I adore him’ – from my mother’s tribute in the book soothe me so? Why does it feel pacifying and prophetic? It pleases me that it exists, forever declared in print.

*******

Okey tells me he slipped Daddy’s watch into his pocket that night and he sends me a photo, the blue-faced silver watch that Kene bought him a few years ago… I keep looking at the photo of the watch, day after day, as if in pilgrimage. I remember it resting on my father’s wrist, and my father often looking at it. This is an archetypal image of my father, his face bent to his watch, checking the time, a hyper-punctual man; for him, being on time was almost a moral imperative.

*******

In my later teenage years, I began to see him, to see how alike we were in our curiosity and our homebody-ness, and to talk to him, and to adore him. How exquisitely he paid attention, how present he was, how well he listened. If you told him something, he remembered. His humour, already dry, crisped deliciously as he aged.

*******

My best friend, Uju, tells me how my father turned to her at the end of my Harvard Class Day speech, in2018, and, in a voice more powerful for being muted, said, ‘Look, they are all standing for her.’ I weep at this. Part of grief’s tyranny is that it robs you of remembering the things that matter. His pride in me mattered, more than anyone else’s. He read everything I wrote, and his comments ranged from ‘this isn’t coherent at all’ to ‘you have outdone yourself’. Each time I travelled for speaking events, I would send him my itinerary and he would send texts to follow my progress. ‘You must be about to go onstage,’ he would write. ‘Go and shine.’

*******

One of my favourite things in the world was just to hang out with my father. To sit with him and talk about the past was like reclaiming gorgeous treasure that was always mine anyway. He gave me my ancestry in finely sketched stories. I not only adored him in that classic manner of a daddy’s girl, but I also liked him so much. I like him. His grace and his wisdom and his simplicity, and how utterly unimpressionable he was. I liked his luminous, moderate faith, strong but worn lightly. If you expected my father to stay a weekend anywhere you had to find the nearest Roman Catholic church.

*******

‘You have a particular laugh when you’re with Daddy,’ my husband tells me, ‘even when what he says isn’t funny.’ I recognize the high-pitched cackle he mimics, and I know it is not so much about what my father says as it is about being with him. A laugh that I will never laugh again. ‘Never’ has come to stay. ‘Never’ feels so unfairly punitive.

*******

‘Mama is sad because Grandpa died,’ my four-year-old daughter says to her cousin. ‘Died.’ She knows the word ‘died’. She pulls tissues out of a box and hands them to me. Her emotional alertness moves, surprises, impresses me. A few days later she asks, ‘When will Grandpa wake up again?’

I weep and weep and wish that her understanding of the world were real. That grief was not about the utter impossibility of return.

One morning I am watching a video of my father on my phone, and my daughter glances at my screen and then swiftly places her hand over my eyes. ‘I don’t want you to watch the video of Grandpa, because I don’t want you to cry’ she says. She is hawk-eyed in her vigilance of my tears.

You’ll always remember what Grandpa called you? I ask her.

‘Yes, Mama. Ezigbo nwa’, she says. Good child, a translation made more inadequate for being literal.

*******

On the Zoom calls, we are flailing, unprepared, uninformed on practical things. It is also an emotional floundering. We have been so fortunate, to be happy, to be enclosed in a safe, intact family unit, and so we do not know what to do with this rupture. Until now, grief belonged to other people. Does love bring, even if unconsciously, the delusional arrogance of expecting never to be touched by grief? We stumble; we veer from an extreme forced cheer to passive aggressiveness, to arguing about where guests are be served. Happiness becomes a weakness because it leaves you defenceless in the face of grief.

*******

The waiting, the not knowing. All over south-eastern Nigeria, mortuaries are full because the coronavirus has delayed funerals.

*******

One night, in a vivid dream, my father comes back. He is sitting on his usual sofa in the living room in Abba, and then at some point it becomes the living room in Nsukka. The hospital made a mistake. What about my brother Okey’s visits to the mortuary? Also, a case of mistaken identity. I am ecstatic, but worried it might be a dream, and so, in the dream, I slap my arm to make sure it is not a dream, and still my father is sitting there talking quietly. I wake up with a pain so confounding that it fills up my lungs. How can your unconscious turn on you with such cruelty?

*******

On 28 March, my favourite aunt, my mother’s younger sister Caroline, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, in a British hospital that was already locked down because of the coronavirus. A joyous woman. We were stunned by sadness. The virus brought close the possibility of dying, the commonness of dying, but there was still a semblance of control, if you stayed home, if you washed your hands. With her death, the idea of control was gone. Death could just come hurtling at you on any day and at any time, as it had with her. She was perfectly fine one moment, the next she had a very bad headache and the next she was gone. A dark time inexorably darkened.

*******

I look back now at my father saying her death was ´shocking’, in a voice strained by that shock, and I imagine the universe further plotting sinisterly. In June, he would go, and a month later, on 11 July, his only sister, my Aunt Rebecca, heartbroken about the brother she had spoken to every day, would go too, in the same hospital as my father. An erosion, a vile rushing of floods, leaving our family forever misshapen. The layers of loss make life feel papery thin.

*******

Why does the image of two red butterflies on a T-shirt make me cry? We don’t know how we will grieve until we grieve. I don’t particularly like T-shirts, but I spend hours on a customization website, designing T-shirts to memorialize my father, trying out fonts and colours and images. On some, I put his initials, JNA’, and, on others, the Igbo words ‘omekannia’ and ‘oyilinnia’ – which are similar in meaning, both a version of ´her father’s daughter’, but more exultant, more pride-struck.

*******

He would approve of some of these T-shirts, I think. It is design as therapy, filling the silences I choose, because I must spare my loved ones my endless roiling thoughts. I must conceal just how hard grief’s iron clamp is. I finally understand why people get tattoos of those they have lost. The need to proclaim not merely the loss but the love, the continuity. I am my father’s daughter. It is an act of resistance and refusal: grief telling you it is over and your heart saying it is not; grief trying to shrink your love to the past and your heart saying it is present.

*******

It does not matter whether I want to be changed, because I am changed. A new voice is pushing itself out of my writing, full of the closeness I feel to death, the awareness of my mortality, so finely threaded, so acute. A new urgency. An impermanence in the air. I must write everything now, because who knows how long I have?  

*******

Grief has, as one of its many egregious components, the onset of doubt. No, I am not Imagining it. Yes, my father truly was lovely.

*******

I am writing about my father in the past tense, and I cannot believe I am writing about my father in the past tense.

*******

To view the following book notes, click on the book title.

Biographies/True Stories:

No Friend But the Mountains – Behrouz Boochani

A Very Easy Death – Simone De Beauvoir

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

A Bookshop in Berlin – Francoise Frenkel

Business Management:

Deep Work – Cal Newport

Fiction & Literature:

Prodigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

The Book of Longings – Sue Monk Kidd

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted – Robert Hillman

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyAnnie Burrows and Mary Ann Shaffer

The River – Peter Heller

The Shepherd’s Hut – Tim Winton

Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

Fiction & Literature: Classics

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

Fiction & Literature: Historical

The Tattooist of Auschwitz – Heather Morris

When Elephants Fight – Majok Tulba

Book of Colours – Robyn Cadwallader

The Good People – Hannah Kent

General: History, Drama, Culture

The Library Book – Susan Orlean

The Last Lighthouse Keeper – John Cook with Jon Bauer

Health & Wellbeing:

Almost Everything – Anne Lamott

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart – Gordon Livingston M.D.

Notes On A Nervous Planet – Matt Haig

Reasons To Stay Alive – Matt Haig

The Comfort Book – Matt Haig

The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life – Edith Eger

Memoir:

Educated – Tara Westover

Men We Reaped – Jesmyn Ward

The Choice – Edith Eger

Memoir: Travel

Wild: A Journey From Lost To Found – Cheryl Strayed

Tracks – Robyn Davidson

Nonfiction: Essays

Everything In Its Place – Oliver Sacks

Gratitude – Oliver Sacks

Nonfiction: Philosophy

A Philosophy of Walking – Frederic Gros

Faith: Embracing Life In All Its Uncertainty – Tim Costello

Nonfiction: Psychology

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat – Oliver Sacks

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor E. Frankl

Writing:

First You Write a Sentence – Joe Moran

Negotiating With The Dead – Margaret Atwood

Why We Write About Ourselves – Meredith Maran (Ed)

Bird By Bird – Anne Lamott

Oliver Sacks