Elegies for the Departed

Book review: The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, by Marion Winik

After a creative writing assignment led her to thinking about dead people she’d known, poet and author Marion Winik explains that it was “as if tickets to a show had just gone on sale and all my ghosts were screeching up at the box office.”

This never seemed morbid or depressing to me. I have lost too many people, I think, to make talking and thinking about them an unpleasant thing to do. My life has been shaped as much by people who are no longer living as by people who are, and perhaps this has been particularly true since I moved, in middle age, to Glen Rock, a quiet place. Writing this book has been a chance to hang out with my friends.

These are very brief (sometimes a few paragraphs, never more than a few pages) portraits of people who’ve passed, structured around what Winik knows and remembers of their lives as they intersected with hers. They’re often a recollection of a specific, memorable scene in the person’s life, and no names are used, only a descriptive designation like “The Queen of New Jersey” or “The Realtor”. Written in often poetic, lyrical language, the vignettes end up being surprisingly touching tributes to the (surprisingly many) dead people she’s known.

Some of her subjects weren’t deeply personal, rather she knew them only fleetingly or through some connection – a friend of her son’s, for example, but others were intimate – her ex-husband, her father and other relatives.

Lest these little sketches seem just artsy obituaries, they’re creatively detailed to be more like outlines capturing personalities and the impacts of lives. The effect is that you’re left with a lot to ruminate over – those kind of big life questions that are sometimes tough to consider but easier somehow through the lens of strangers’ lives and relationships.

If you live long enough, life sends you plenty of indignities to rise above. Hangovers, cheap workmanship, the faithlessness of men, the death of loved ones, the signs of aging, the vicious pettiness of people when it comes to real estate. You must focus instead on the joy.

Winik says it didn’t feel morbid to write and likewise it doesn’t feel morbid to read because of that last line – focusing on the joy. And there’s a sweetness in memory and recollection even when someone is departed, and even when death was tragic or premature (some covered here committed suicide or suffered from addictions and HIV, among other factors contributing to sadly early exits). Winik handles these widely varying circumstances sensitively, pulling something extraordinary out of each little portrait. And she does this in such brief, succinct format. The portraits, and the moments or scenes she emphasizes, are incredibly vivid considering how short they actually are.

But there’s still a certain sadness that permeates these, even with her ability to find some light within stories of death, or as is more often the case, in the lives that preceded them. It’s clear the effort should be on celebrating the remembering, and that’s what she wants to do – likening it to the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. But there’s no escaping some melancholy, particularly should any of the sketches strike a personal chord.

Some favorite lines:

On her father: We used to say, Remember what an asshole he could be, but now we can’t remember that anymore. What’s left is the assholes we are.

 

He might’ve liked to be worse than he was, but you can’t fight your own native goodness.

 

Aren’t elementary school teachers eternal and ageless – like Santa Claus – holding open the heavy steel doors to the future as the babbling river of children runs through and through?

Some overly-poetic moments, that kind of melodrama only poetic language is capable of, made me lose patience with it at times. A few drug experience recollections straying into memoir didn’t appeal either (these all just read the same to.) And maybe because every story does have the same ending, they ran together in my mind a bit (this may also be on me because I read it all at once.)

I read this months ago but I’m starting the upcoming sequel, The Baltimore Book of the Dead, and curious how they’ll compare. Glen Rock was only written in 2008, how many more dead people could she have known in a decade? I kid, she developed and handled the concept broadly and interestingly enough to sustain a second part, I think.

Thoughtful, creative, conceptual sketches with the bonus of beautiful design (a little vintage illustration playing on each person’s nickname) paying poetic homage to memories of moments and personalities, and lives known, loved and lost. 3.5/5

The Glen Rock Book of the Dead
by Marion Winik
published November 1, 2008 by Counterpoint

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4 thoughts on “Elegies for the Departed

  1. Recently, I feel like I’ve picked up on a lot of titles that are about death in some way but which are skewed in favour of a more uplifting and hopeful outlook (Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am springs to mind but I’m sure there have been others…). I find them weirdly appealing – perhaps because it’s nice to approach something frightening from an undiscovered direction. This sounds really interesting – thanks so much for the great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I get it, and I think you’re right – there’s something they help in terms of taking some scariness out of it and painting it in a different light. I wondered if this would be too difficult to read, and it’s tough in some of the topic that it inevitably makes you consider, but she memorializes these people so beautifully that it ends up feeling hopeful. I think the sadder thing is allowing someone to be forgotten because remembering is too painful.

      I haven’t read I Am, I Am, I Am yet but I’ve heard only good things about it! It seems like it has a really interesting angle.

      Like

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