The Lost Ones (Part 3)

This is the final post on The Lost Ones: Writers we lost in 2016. After all, we are about half-way through 2017.

I had not heard of Helen Bailey before, but if you live in the UK you may have. She was a YA writer (the Electra Brown series), but wrote one book for adults: When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis.

badthingsgoodbikinis

In 2011, she and her husband went on vacation to Barbados, where her husband drowned while swimming in the ocean. She witnessed his death. “A wife at breakfast, a widow before lunch.”

Trying to deal with the loss of her husband, she started up a blog, Planet Grief, in which she reached out to other people who had lost loved ones. The book When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis is a memoir of her journey through the process of grief, based on that blog. She tells about life without her husband, of the simple things that would make her break down in tears, and of her dog, Boris, her loyal companion.

Her stories are filled with raw emotion—especially in the first half of the book—her writing poignant, and sometimes funny. Reading about her experience of loss, of which she writes in a very honest and open way, is heart wrenching.

Her tone gradually changes in the second half of the book. Maybe, there is a way through the hurt, a way toward accepting. Eventually, she meets another man with whom she starts a new relationship.

The book probably had a different effect on me than on people who have experienced a similar loss. For me, it was humbling. The devastation of the loss of a partner, her grief and pain, are almost palpable. She talks about friends being there for her, friends not being there for her, and people being awkward, or even inappropriate. In our society, I feel as if we often try to ignore death. Like many, I have been afraid to say the wrong thing to people who have gone through loss, or I just don’t know what to say or how to be there for them. This book may not have solved that, but at least it has given me plenty to think about.

In her last entry, she has sold her old house and bought a new one with her new partner. She closes the book with “It will all be OK in the end. We promise you.” She, and many of the widows and widowers she had been in touch with, had found new purpose, new joy in life, and some, new love.

We all like happy endings. But for Helen things turned out differently. She disappeared in April 2016. Three months later, her body, and that of her dog Boris, were found hidden in her house. She was 51. In February 2017, her partner was convicted of her murder.

Reading the book made me sad, but reading the book knowing how it all ended for her made it infinitely sadder. Her voice was so personal, almost like you are getting to know her while reading.

One story in the book especially stuck with me. Helen’s best friend gave Helen and her husband a bottle of champagne, which Helen wanted to save for a special occasion. All of a sudden, the best friend dies. The champagne is now symbolic, and no occasion is ever special enough. But then Helen’s husband drowns, and the opportunity for sharing the champagne was gone forever. She writes:

Why couldn’t I have seen that just being alive and with [my husband] was the only reason I ever needed to open it? I had been waiting for some big flashy occasion to come along, when in fact life with him was the big occasion.”

Finally, Helen takes the champagne to a party. But, as irony has it, when they open the bottle, the champagne has gone bad.

There are many things I will take away from the book, but most of all it will be that. Cherish the times you have with your loved-ones. Make every moment special. And when life offers you champagne, drink it.

The Lost Ones (Part 2)

This is the second part of Writers we lost in 2016, in which I highlight a book written by a writer who passed away last year, but was unknown to me.

This time I read a book from Cory Taylor, an Australian writer, who initially started out writing children’s books. I read her first novel, Me and Mr. Booker, written in 2011, which received the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Pacific Region.

me-and-mr-bookerThis was an interesting read. The person telling the story is Martha, a 16-year old girl, living in a sleepy, small town in Australia.

I thought Martha’s voice was authentic and well captured: A mixture of boredom, immaturity, and self-absorption, just “waiting for something to happen.” But, Martha is also witty, quite astute in her observations of the people around her, and of course, a teenager caught in her teenage years. Therefore, I couldn’t find myself disliking her, even more so since the adults in her life are—well—sad, filled with self-loathing and disappointment.

Martha describes her father as a bully as well as a loser, and faults her mother for having a hard time banning him from her life, even though they’ve split up. When Martha meets the Bookers, who just arrived in town from England, they are a welcome diversion, and—as the title suggests— she gets involved with Mr. Booker, who is twice her age. For me, there was nothing likable about Mr. Booker. It was very difficult and uncomfortable to read through the parts of their sexual affair, since their age difference made it such an obviously unequal relationship.

Most of the adults in the book appear to live a life of pretense and just going through the motions, while drinking too much. Yet, their disillusion with life is heart-breaking, because they all seem so trapped, without seeing, or perhaps, wanting a way out.

I read it in one afternoon. Truthfully, I am still not sure I enjoyed it; I like books that make me feel better, and this book does not provide many “feel-good moments,” as the people in it come across as mostly unhappy. Nevertheless, it was very well written, and the voices in the book felt real, resulting in a captivating story. More importantly, it kept lingering in my mind afterwards. The book made me feel conflicted; on the one hand I caught myself being judgmental about the characters while reading it, but then also feeling for them for being incapable of finding a way out. In the end, I was desperately rooting for Martha to escape this life and find something better.

Cory Taylor was diagnosed with melanoma in 2005. After Me and Mr. Booker, she wrote My Beautiful Enemy in 2013. Her last book, Dying, a memoir, was published just before her death. She was 61 years old.

The Lost Ones

As 2016 has passed, and we are starting 2017, I can’t help but think of the writers we lost last year. A few of them made the “celebrity death list,” and they and their books are well known. Think of Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, Umberto Eco from The Name of the Rose, or Elie Wiesel, the Nobel-Peace-Prize winner who wrote Night, and just recently, Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down. Their books had much publicity, and some were translated to the movie screen, ensuring that they and their work will not be easily forgotten.

Wikipedia has a 2016 death list of famous people as well, which includes more writers, known and lesser known, from all over the world. The list itself is pretty extensive and primarily comprised of international athletes, politicians, actors and singers, but also more obscure professions like wine-producers and serial killers. I am not sure who decides on the “notability factor” —I also spotted a polar bear, a cockatoo, a penguin, as well as a horse and a cat.

Most writers on this list appeared to have made it to a very respectable age. If this means writing induces longevity, this is encouraging. But maybe it just means one usually has to spend a long life writing to become notable. I suspect this might be the case.

A few writers mentioned stood out, primarily because it seemed to me they left us too early, with plenty of writing still ahead of them. I am an avid reader, but had never heard of them prior, or read their books. Despite that, they are not unknown writers, often with fame in their own country. Somehow their stories struck me. So I decided to find their books and read one from each of them. To celebrate their work, since their words will remain, even after they themselves have long gone.

The first writer I wanted to highlight is Roger Hobbs. I read his debut novel, Ghostman, which is a crime novel. He wrote it during his last year in college and it was published in 2013, made the NYT bestseller list and won several awards. Warner Bros. bought the movie rights.

ghostman

I will say up front, books like these are not my usual read. Nevertheless, I cruised through it as I found it to be slightly addictive. The pace is high and the plot well thought out. It is violent at times, but then it revolves around a heist and quite a few merciless criminals, so that wasn’t completely unexpected. It’s well written and very descriptive (sometimes a bit too much… perhaps) which usually read well and made it easy to imagine what was happening.

I found the lead character not unsympathetic, but he has a personality that is very hard to pin down. Despite this, his character was surprisingly well-developed. He comes across a bit cold, and his life seems devoid of real relationships; as a reader it made it harder for me to bond with him, but for the story, it works! He is a ghostman, after all.

For a debut novel, and for a writer as young as he was, it was quite impressive. Roger Hobbs wrote a second novel, Vanishing Games, which I haven’t read yet, but look forward to doing so. He never finished his third. He died last November from a drug overdose at the age of 28. I can only imagine that with his talent, he would have written many more.

RIP Roger Hobbs.