Book review: The Baltimore Book of the Dead, by Marion Winik
People do not pass away. / They die / and then they stay.
Poet and author Marion Winik opens this second volume of creative short elegies to departed people she’s known, tinged with personal memoir, with those lines from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Voices in the Air”. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting epigraph for the concept she’s developed in this book and its predecessor, Glen Rock Book of the Dead (my review here).
Winik’s introduction to Baltimore is an eloquent defense of why she writes so much about dead people and by extension, death itself. She describes giving an early reading from Glen Rock after a dinner in Jamaica, where a horrified woman said, “Please, I’m on vacation. I don’t want to hear this depressing stuff,” before running from the room. (I have to admit that that woman was me at certain points reading this, minus being on vacation. As admirable as her effort of memorializing and changing how we think about departed loved ones is, for sensitive types it may impact heavily sometimes.)
Winik suggested, in the discussion amongst the dinner party guests that followed, that “our lives are so full of dead people that any sane way of living involves constant remembrance. My days and my thoughts are shaped almost as much by people who are no longer here as those who are.” I don’t know about constant remembrance, but I see her point, and it encapsulates why there’s much to be gained from reading these most creative of obituaries.
As in its predecessor, Baltimore is less about the city it takes its name from, instead merely written from Winik’s point in life while living there. But like rural, personable Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, Baltimore also features heavily in these stories, in the greatest way. Winik lived there during Baltimore’s ugly moment in the spotlight in 2014, at the time of Freddie Gray’s death and the sparked wave of protest against police brutality. One of the more tragic and affecting stories told here stems from a brand of violence Baltimore is unfortunately well known for, the kind that claims the lives of black youth.
She opens with “The Alpha”, a weighty but loving piece for her mother, who passed away shortly after Glen Rock was completed. It’s a heartfelt tribute, but it’s also an example of the powerful effect this book can have on you if one of these life stories strikes a nerve:
My mother…rose daily from her bed to quaff her Tropicana orange juice and to slay the New York Times crossword puzzle. She survived a difficult childhood, my father’s high jinks, two heart attacks, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, surgery for diverticulosis, and the many poor decisions and inappropriate outfits of her daughters. She certainly did not believe a clot in her lung could bring her down, that smoking for sixty-five years would actually cause lung cancer, or that lung cancer was definitely fatal.
Changing a few minuscule details in that passage, it could be about my grandmother. So when you stumble on something like this among these pieces, it’s exquisitely wonderful to have certain feelings or depictions put into words, but likewise exquisitely painful to then feel the feelings that accompany it. Remembering can be joyful, absolutely, and Winik makes sure that it is, but loss, regret and melancholy echo throughout these tales as well. Just like life.
I liked it more than Glen Rock but at the same time, it was harder to read. These stories affected me more, they dug deeper somehow. The kindnesses, the quiet dignity, the overarching sense of what’s lost – thoughts lingered, and I had to consciously seek out things that made me happy to avoid dwelling on the feelings that inevitably accompany this one.
But I guess that’s the power of strong writing, that it can make you feel something so deeply like this. And that reaction may be entirely on me – like any literature, what you get out of it is affected by what you bring to it. And it shouldn’t be a deterrent at all: this is at heart a moving and deeply thoughtful book. But the moments of tragedy hit with considerable force, I think that’s a fair warning to give.
The other drawback is that the premise, quite unique at its beginning, started to feel thin at times, with one story being about a person probably not dead but “dead to me”. I didn’t particularly like the odes to various celebrities, which seem curiously intense and difficult to connect with (but one about Prince is a lovely tribute). And as in its predecessor, I lost interest at mentions of her past drug use and “wild” youth, topics which can feel tired after reading similar stories without anything new to say.
Winik’s poetic and lyrical eye for a turn of phrase means there are lines throughout you’ll want to keep. Some favorites:
I haven’t set eyes on that place in ten years, and when they say everything is different, I believe them.
Writing about “The Big Man”, a Baltimore rapper, one example of her tendency to incorporate some levity and quirky charm in memorializing a life:
He had a broken biological clock that ran on breakfast sandwiches from the gas station.
From a diary her aunt kept throughout her uncle’s battle with Alzheimer’s:
Our life together has had its share of pain, she wrote on the last page of her book, but its share of joy as well. Perhaps the greatest reward in this kind of situation is the knowledge that you have not failed the person you love.
She demonstrates that any of us could write a book like this, of what we loved and the moments or stories we want to remember about the people we’ve lost – with enough time passed, at least. It’s a reckoning with loss and an exercise in transforming pain into something still sensitive but healing, even celebratory in the act of remembering, with all the quiet comfort and happiness that can bring.
The Baltimore Book of the Dead
by Marion Winik
published October 9, 2018 by Counterpoint
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
This sounds really powerful and that cover…wow!
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Isn’t that cover stunning? I’m often disappointed in nonfiction covers but this one is brilliant.
This sounds lovely while also being something I would have to save for just the right time. I haven’t heard of this author – thank you for the introduction and wonderful review!
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It’s absolutely one where your personal timing needs considered. I self-medicated with a lot of Kimmy Schmidt to cheer myself up afterwards, I can put it that way! But I really don’t mean it as a deterrent, it just digs deep in a subtle way, each little essay seems so short and sweet until something hits you, and if you see anything from your life reflected in it, or are a sensitive type/having a sensitive moment it’s going to have a strong effect. I’m so glad you enjoyed the review and hope you read the book when the time is right!
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