The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Oh, this is the most beautiful memoir; a love story, a love letter, by a woman about a man she loved for 16 years. I devoured this book, awed by the joyous love that Elizabeth Alexander held for her husband who dropped dead unexpectedly of a heart attack. While reading it, I wondered at her skill of writing about deeply personal grief in such an accessible, tender manner, and the honesty with which she portrayed the difficulties of trying to find meaning in her new world without him. It was also heart-warming to read a book about a real love, in a time when the world is full of divorce and bitterness.

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Elizabeth Alexander is an award-winning poet (probably best known for writing and reading the poem, Praise Song for the Day, at Obama’s inauguration), who presently is a professor of poetry at Yale University. She had never written a book of prose before this one and certainly never planned to write a memoir – ‘my own sense of privacy was too powerful’ –  but when she sat down and started to write, she found she couldn’t stop.

Alexander tells the story of her and her husband’s 16-year relationship from beginning to end, jumping backwards and forwards, uncovering the layers of affection from its rapturous beginning to its tragic end. She met Ficre Ghebreyesus  (FEE-kray Geb-reh-YESS-oos) in New Haven in 1996 – ‘Our love began in an instant and progressed inevitably’ – and soon they married and had two sons.

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Ficre Ghebreyesus

Ficre was born in East Africa in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, in the middle of the 30-year-long war with Ethiopia for independence. His parents had to face down soldiers who barged into their house, threatening them with death. Ficre’s eldest brother died while fighting as a ‘freedom fighter’, but when Ficre enlisted, his mother went to retrieve him from the front line, and arranged for him leave the country as a refugee. At 16, he left home and went Sudan, then Italy, then Germany and finally made America his home. Ficre was an artist and a chef and, as well as working on his art, he opened a well-known Eritrean restaurant in New Haven. His paintings are bright and colourful, deeply influenced by the Eritrean culture, and born out of the psychological trauma he experienced there (the book’s cover portrays one of his artworks).

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One of Ficre’s paintings

Alexander describes Ficre with such loving description throughout the book; for example:

His voice lilted across a pentatonic scale. “How are you?” D-sharp, C, G-sharp. There was chocolate in his voice, a depth, a bottom…In this still life I have forgotten to say, he was beautiful, and utterly without vanity.

And:

He shaved his head on account of his receding hairline, but surely no one ever looked more beautiful bald – brown like a chestnut, clear brown, like topaz or buckwheat honey.

In her writing, he comes across as a joyful, funny, kind man, with family all around America and back in Eritrea, into whose clan Alexander was gladly received. She embraced his Eritrean traditions and cooking with fervour, and much of the book covers the merging of their cultures, an experiment that happily worked. The glimpse into the Eritrean life, with its Italian and Ethiopian influences, gave another level of interest to the book.

Ficre died aged 50 while running on the treadmill in the basement of their house, soon after Alexander had come home from a reading. She tried CPR on him, but he died before getting to the hospital. She said:

“Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there.”

The memoir covers the depth of her grief at her sudden loss, her disbelief that Ficre could no longer be in her life. After his death, she dreamed of him constantly and often felt his presence; she and the children talked about him constantly, remembering small details. The first poem she wrote many months after his death is titled Family in 3/4 Time, which starts like this:

We are now a three-legged table/a family of three, once a family of four./We bring ourselves into new balance./The table wobbles, but does not fall.

The Light of the World is a memoir that portrays the depth of Alexander’s loss and grieving, and the ways in which she had to learn to be in the world without her husband, but most of all it is a beautiful tribute to a man deeply loved by those who knew him.

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Elizabeth, Ficre and their sons

http://www.ficre-ghebreyesus.com/about/

 

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Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

I first came across Christopher Hitchens’ writing in the columns and articles he wrote for Vanity Fair magazine. This had two effects – one, it made me realise that Vanity Fair was much more than just a fashion magazine, and two, it made me a fan of Hitchen’s writing.

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Hitchens was a talented journalist, initially in Britain and then America. He was a prolific writer, not only of columns, but also of numerous biographies (ranging from Mother Teresa to the Clintons) and a controversial bestseller, god is not Great (I’ve not read it  yet but will soon), in which he tackles the sensitive subject of religion. His memoir, Hitch-22, was also a bestseller.

Hitchens died in 2011 of oesophageal cancer and Mortality is the short book that he wrote as he was dying. It is a reflection of his thoughts about cancer and death, yet it is never morbid, never self-pitying. There is an underlying chronological order to the text, however this is not account of what-his-cancer-did-next. He writes about religion, about pain, the side-effects of chemo, the knowledge that he might lose his voice – and he was such a vocal man, both literally and through his writings – and many other issues he encountered along the way.

He refers to cancer as being another land, where the cancer patient has leave his old domicile and move to a new country:

The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. 

He refers to the image that is so often brought up with cancer – people don’t have cancer, they battle cancer – ‘you can beat this‘. He tells, however, that while sitting having chemo dripping into his arm, he felt merely ‘swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water‘.

He manages to look at his life with such objectivity that I found the book a joy to read. For example, he says:

The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a good deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism…while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival.

I felt sad reading the book, knowing that he was doing to die, but I never felt pity for him. The last chapter is made up of fragmentary jottings that were left unfinished at the time of his death and these, for me, are the most poignant, as they are private insights into a dying man’s thoughts.

Both the foreword and the afterword paint a picture of a man greatly liked and highly respected as an intellect.

In the foreword, Graydon Carter (present editor of Vanity Fair) says Hitchens was, “a wit, a charmer, a trouble-maker, and a dear and devoted friend. He was a man of insatiable appetites – for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing and, above all, for conversation.”

Carter tells of Hitchen’s enthusiasm when writing for Vanity Fair – how Carter persuaded him to go on a course of self-improvement, which included dental treatment and a ‘sack, back and crack’. Apparently he paled when Carter explained what that was, yet agreed, saying “In for a penny…” (in case you don’t know, it is a wax to remove hair from the back and the other nether regions).

The afterword is written by his wife, Carol Blue, and she write about his larger than life personality, even when he had cancer – amongst others, how he organised a huge family gathering in Toronto for Thanksgiving even when he was sick from the effects of chemo. She tells us that his charisma never left him, his ‘artful conversation’ never ceased. She also writes, however, with the wistful tone of being the one who got left behind.

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Christopher Hitchens

I miss his perfect voice…I miss the first happy trills when he woke; the low octaves of ‘his morning voice’…his last soothing, pianissimo chatterings on retiring late at night. 

I miss the unpublished Hitch: the countless notes he left for me in the entryway, on my pillow, the emails he would send when we sat in different rooms…and when he was on the road.

Mortality was a quick read but I found it to be an intensely personal book at the end of which I felt I privileged to have read it.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

I’m not sure how to categorise this debut novel. It’s a coming-of-age novel, yet it’s also a love story, a family tragedy, and one about friendship. It’s a wonderful book, very poignant, sad, heart-warming, although I didn’t ‘sob uncontrollably’ as one critic did.

ImageJune is 14 years old and is in love with her uncle Finn, a renowned artist. Desperately in love – she makes up any excuse to see him and believes that no one else understands her like he does. June doesn’t fit in at school, she’s a weird child who’s obsessed with medieval times and dresses funnily, and Finn provides her with a special friendship. Yet Finn is dying of AIDS and his last big project is to paint June and her sister, Greta. 

The book is set in the ’80s, when AIDS was still a taboo subject, and June’s parents are virulently against Finn’s partner, Toby, believing that he was the cause of Finn’s death by AIDS. When Finn dies, June is devastated and confused. She’s ashamed she loved her uncle in such a deep way and she hates the idea of him having a partner who she didn’t know about. 

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The author

But when a present arrives in the post from Toby for her, she reaches out to him and a fragile friendship develops between these two lonely people who both loved Finn. As she gets to know Toby, June’s eyes are opened to the fact that she was not the only one who loved Finn and misses him terribly. She slowly learns to trust Toby and to enjoy the friendship he offers her when she most needs it.

June’s relationship with her sister, Greta, worsens as Greta suspects that June has someone in her life that she doesn’t know about. June and Greta used to be very close and in the book, Greta is awful to her, mean and spiteful. Towards the end of the book, their relationship improves and we learn of Greta’s jealousy of June and Finn’s friendship. 

There is so much to this book that I can’t sum it up here in a short review. One of the side stories that I so enjoyed was to do with the painting of the two sisters that Finn finished before he died  (called Tell the Wolves I’m Home) – it is put in a safe box in the bank for the girls to go and look at when they want to. They each separately go and add little details to it – it’s secretive, poignant, and at the same time dreadful in that you know they are defacing a valuable painting. To them, though, it is a part of their uncle Finn and that’s all that matters. 

Brunt stays clear of sentimentality in the book, an admirable feat in that it is a sad story that she tells here, and she depicts June’s adolescent emotions with clarity and accuracy. Some reviewers haven’t liked how Brunt characterised June’s sister, Greta, yet I feel she created a true reflection of a sibling relationship where both children feel isolated in their own self-focused lives.

I loved this book – perhaps if I were a crier, I would have cried. It is tender and beautifully written, it’s not highly intellectual or particularly challenging, but I think it is well worth reading.