Marine biologist and writer, Shannon Leone Fowler, expresses her passage of mourning in her memoir “Traveling with Ghosts” with such maturity, wisdom, and grace that it is incredibly moving. It is quite a touching journey. Although this book is about loss, it is an uplifting and heartening story. Then only twenty-eight years old while backpacking in Thailand, her fiancé, Sean – love of her life and her partner in adventure – was stung by a box jellyfish and died immediately on the beach after a late afternoon swim in paradise.
The picture painted of the romance of the free-spirited couple almost makes you dismiss the seriousness of the relationship at first glance. Upon Sean’s death, however, she details the stages of her grief with such humility and candor that the reader recognizes the depth of their love.
After Sean’s death, already in a dark and vulnerable place, Shannon travels alone to places she planned to visit with Sean to remote and not-so-pleasant places in the world. It was as if she could not be more distraught, but she wanted to feel the agony more deeply in her solitary travel. She didn’t want to further torture herself; it was if she needed to experience the places and travel through the pain. She goes to Poland, Bosnia, Romania, and more. She visits Auschwitz on a cold and rainy day. Her vivid description of the Holocaust memorial with the personal items shown and stories told is so vivid. Given the wide-open place from which she expresses herself, her account of Auschwitz is one of the most moving I have read. It is almost as if it deserves only to be described by someone at the depths of their own despair to truly feel it.
She also tells the story of the two young Israeli women who witness her with Sean’s body right after his death. Shannon is helpless; the two women stay with her for days until she is able to get through all of the paperwork for the body to be released. Shannon realizes much later that these two women, who become dear friends, were following their Shiva rules on how to handle death. She describes, “The girls had let me initiate the conversations, or they’d let me choose to be quiet. They made sure to talk about Sean, to use his name and to say it often…they’d brought me food, and encouraged me to keep eating and drinking. And they’d done their best to avoid leaving me alone…they had even changed their flights to stay on the island until I was allowed to leave with Sean’s body. They changed their plans rather than leave me behind.” She found these rituals of death so meaningful and beautiful. She would have been lost without them. Her gratitude was immeasurable.
As she travels, she rebuilds; although, she still had a long way to go. She gradually gets herself back into her work and research, but even more slowly, she overcame her fear of getting back into the ocean. But she does heal, and her story is inspirational, remarkable, and incredibly brave. It was even encouraging because her passage teaches us that loved ones lost can be recognized in everyday experiences, near and far.
Ariel Levy has written an unflinchingly honest memoir about her life choices and their heartbreaking consequences.
Written in fast-paced, staccato form, the reader is thrown into Ariel’s world – a successful writing career with the New Yorker, a marriage, an affair and a pregnancy. The dire consequences of Ariel’s choices and her unforgiving accountability for them, give the memoir its gritty realism.
Ariel does not bend to societal norms (“rules”) that dictate how she should behave. But her high risk taking behavior, which she does not recognize as such, suggests that the flip side of such freedom is not so pretty. She marries a woman who she loves deeply, craving a stable, domestic life - but then chafes under the constraints and has an affair which unsettles her wife to the point of madness. When the relationship recovers, Ariel and her wife decide to have a child (via in vitro with a friend as the sperm donor). Happily pregnant, Ariel, still fiercely ambitious, flies to Mongolia to conduct research for an article she is writing. The resulting crisis is the crucial turning point of the book.
Is Ariel the hero in her own story? She allows herself no redemption, no glory in the path she has walked. But, for the reader, her accountability for her actions and her resilience in the face of crisis, may suggest otherwise.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius- Yes, Really
Let’s pretend for a second that the world ends in either fire or ice- did Robert Frost predict the upcoming 2016 presidential election? - and only one book can be salvaged. This book, taken to the moon where a few select humans will rebuild society, is the only record of the past thousands of years of literary achievement.
Dave Egger’s “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”- that’s the book I’d want on the moon.
You don’t have to agree with me. I mean, look, I love Diary of A Wimpy Kid just as much as the next guy; that stuff was arguably the best stuff ever written. But at least hear me out.
A customer once brought “A Heartbreaking Work” up to the register, intending to buy it, and I threw my arms towards the sky and shouted, “I am so excited for you! Congratulations!” Like it was her wedding day or something. I said, “You are going to be a better person after reading this,” which I now realize may have come off as an insult.
So Dear Valued Customer,
I apologize, as my goal was not to hurt your feelings by insinuating that you need Eggers’ memoir to make you a valuable homo sapien. I bet you’re a really awesome person who buys shelter dogs on National Adoption Day and only drinks out of reusable water bottles.
The Psycho You Encountered at the Register That Day
My point being: “A Heartbreaking Work” changed my life. I can only say that of novels far and few between, the ones that really make you question why you wake up every morning- cough cough Junie B. Jones and the Big Smelly Bus cough- and this memoir, this story of an everyday underdog learning to map the world around him, wormed into my head a year ago and still won’t let up.
For weeks upon first reading it, I carved my favorite sentence from the book into my arm with a ballpoint pen and went over the letters every morning with fresh ink so they wouldn’t fade.
“We lose weeks like buttons, like pencils.”
This was the most beautiful sentence I had ever encountered, for some reason.
So here’s the deal. After Eggers’ parents died, he became the caretaker of his younger brother Toph at a time when he was still in the midst of a coming-of-age saga of his own. The dichotomy of being in his 20’s and having to provide for a dependent prove an introspective battleground for Eggers’ discussion of what it means to live for yourself and someone else simultaneously.
I read this book under my desk during chemistry class. I had to tell my teacher I was crying because organic molecules are just so beautiful, like I can’t even process how something so pure can exist in a world that created Cheez Whiz.
I guess that’s how I feel about Eggers too. I’m astounded by- I hate to make this pun, believe me- his staggering genius. There’s an honesty in his prose that’s unmatched by his contemporaries, drawing upon the morbid humour of David Foster Wallace and the Bandaid-ripping, curtain-opening revelations of Kafka. Eggers is all 90’s grunge feelings and post World War Two manic insecurity, wrapped up in a nice warm burrito shell of musings on final testaments and adolescent libido.
This book makes me feel less alone. I hope it can provide you some semblance of the same comfort. Maybe a laugh or three.
The title alone, bleeding a sarcastic self-assurance that you’ll discover upon opening the pages is a mask for some raw insights on the nature of all of us, is worth the buy.
“I like the dark part of the night, after midnight and before four-thirty, when it's hollow, when ceilings are harder and farther away. Then I can breathe, and can think while others are sleeping, in a way can stop time, can have it so – this has always been my dream – so that while everyone else is frozen, I can work busily about them, doing whatever it is that needs to be done, like the elves who make the shoes while children sleep.”
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop