July wrapped up as a slower month for reading for me, just seven books read, and honestly, other than An American Marriage, this wasn’t my favorite month of books.  The last book of July, Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, and the first book of August, The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, ended up being an interesting pair (both about grieving, but written in such different styles) — and here’s hoping that finishing my first August book on 8/2 will send me into a better reading month for August (both in getting them read, and in getting more out of reading them).

I almost gave up on Call Me Zebra — I started it three times before I really got past the first couple of pages. While reading it, I felt like, this is the kind of book that you either absolutely love, or absolutely hate, there’s not going to be a lot of middle ground. Similar to The Idiot, this novel is told by a very bright young woman in a very dense style with MANY literary references. Dense is really not even a strong enough way to describe the book. At less than 300 pages, it somehow still felt interminable.

Zebra (a chosen name) is a young woman who fled from Iran as a child refugee with her parents. Her mother died during their escape from Iran, and her father raised her as the last in a line of a family of Anarchists, Atheists, and Autodidacts with more than a love of literature: a sense that literature is the only thing that matters, the only way to make sense of the world (“Love nothing except literature”). The book briefly covers their flight from Iran, but mainly gets going as Zebra’s father is dying in America. What made me keep giving this book a chance is that, as dense as it was, as annoying as I found Zebra, this is really a book about how she deals with the death of her only family member and the year after his death as she grieves and figures out how to live — all on top of her existing grief of having fled her country and home, and lost her mother, as a child. You will feel for Zebra, even if you don’t like her:

Easy to be calm about life, I thought, but not so easy to shuffle between life and death, between the persistence of memory and oblivion, like a lost pilgrim, an exile, neither here nor there. At least the pilgrim [from Dante] was midway through the journey of our life when he found himself banished into the dark forests of exile far from everyone. I was not even halfway through mine when its infrastructure, meager to begin with, was extinguished in a two-pronged blow. I felt the toxic fumes of my parents’ deaths rise through the void.

I just couldn’t really relate to Zebra’s method of dealing with her grief — she decided to retrace her steps and go on a Grand Tour of Exile (so most of the book is set in Spain where she and her father lived before coming to America), she writes a manifesto in her notebook: A Philosophy of Totality: The Matrix of Literature, honestly I thought off and on that Zebra was really suffering from some mental illness beyond depression (which she is very clearly suffering from, barely eating, often sleeping for days, and attempting to kill herself). Although I’ve since seen this article (Orca Mother Carries Calf on Tragic Tour of Grief), so maybe Zebra’s Grand Tour is less weird than I thought.

There are some ideas in this book I really liked, Zebra’s father tells her, “The whole world is a mind. [Zebra’s mother’s] mind has been absorbed back into the mind of the universe.” Zebra, takes this a bit further however, by deciding that she has intercepted her father’s mind before it could be reabsorbed into the universe and she is sort of taking direction from him inside her head. I definitely understand wanting to get guidance from your loved ones who have died, but Zebra takes this (and everything else) farther than I would and have.  Zebra is often sort right, but still, her train of thought is often hard to follow.

The end of the book really redeemed things for me, although I’m not  sure Zebra becomes that much less crazy, but she does become slightly more optimistic:

The greatest revenge, I saw, lay in the simplest revenge of all: to love against all odds, to prevail, to persist in a world that fought tooth and nail to eliminate me. That’s all there was. That’s all there every had been. … My father had vanished from my void. So had my mother. They had joined the residue of the world. They were everywhere. They were in the very air I breathed. They existed in my inky veins as knowledge. What did it matter what streets I walked on? What did it matter where I sank my anchor when the whole world was a single surface, and infinitely unreeling roll of paper?

The Friend was a nice change for me, it’s written in a much more spare style, the narrator is a little crazy, but she hasn’t jumped the shark in her grief. I guess for me, grief isn’t verbose. Grief is spare. The world recedes. The nameless narrator of The Friend is a writer and professor who loses a dear friend to suicide and the book is about how she begins to heal from that loss, and how as part of that she takes care of his dog, Apollo (a Great Dane). The book is mostly written directly to the dead friend (although the friend in the title I think refers more to Apollo). That’s really all that happens in the book, so it’s not exactly a page turner, but I enjoyed spending time with this narrator.

Like Call Me Zebra, The Friend is full of literary references — quotes from authors, comparisons of different thoughts of authors, discussion of what reading and writing are all about, but it doesn’t feel quite so overwhelming. It is also full of facts about dogs and musings about dog/human relationships.  It is, of course, also full thoughts about suicide and its rightness or wrongness, how you might forgive someone for taking their own life and how you might not blame them at all. I enjoyed all the discussion of and facts about dogs. I think I actually appear in this book, the narrator, walking Apollo meets a woman who tells her about the horrors of pure bred dogs and tells her:

I shudder to think what it’ll be like in fifty or a hundred years from now, says the woman, looking very dark indeed. But by then, she adds, the whole earth will have been destroyed. And, perhaps consoled by this thought, she takes her mutts and moves on.

The Friend’s narrator goes on no Grand Tour of Exile or Grief, she doesn’t act crazy in the same way Zebra does, I found her discussion much more relatable:

Since I first heard about your death, haven’t I often felt like someone living with one foot in madness. Early on, there were times when I would find myself somewhere without remembering how I got there, when I’d leave home on some errand only to forget what it was.

This is certainly the story of my grief. For months after my mother’s death, my mind just didn’t work right. I made cookies, but left the sugar out. I knew something was wrong, but well, everything was wrong, so who could pinpoint what exactly was wrong.  The narrator of this book seems to have a much firmer grasp on her grief, she doesn’t really engage in the same fantastical thinking Zebra does, she seems to have a better sense of what is wrong — Zebra invests quests and tilts at windmills, but The Friend’s narrator knows:

It’s not that I can’t say how I feel. It’s very simple. I miss you. I miss you every day. I miss you very much.

I’ve spent a lot of time now telling you that I liked The Friend better than Call Me Zebra, but this book is also sort of rebuke to this blog as a whole — as a writer and writing professor, the narrator and others bemoan their students inability to discuss anything other than whether or not they like a book. As I former English major I certainly know, I could never submit one of these rambling posts as literary criticism. But, I don’t think there’s no value in telling you what I liked and why if we’re both clear that’s what I’m doing — maybe you’ll pick up The Friend and you’ll like it too and then we can talk. Or maybe you’ll pick up Call Me Zebra to spite me, and to prove to me how I’ve missed something. Let me know.

Currently reading: Why Time Flies and …Hope Never Dies (the Obama/Biden mystery), very excited! Finally a page turner 🙂