Tag Archives: Elizabeth Alexander

Is my favorite debut really a debut?

As I read the “Best of” book lists, and reflect back on my year of reading, I concur with Michelle Obama that the best book I read, and reviewed, this year was Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. Her poetic use of language, emotional openness and roving intellect made this memoir stay with me weeks and months after I put it down. And as I wrote in my review, my husband got so engrossed with the story that he actually missed his subway stop on his commute home, ending up in a completely different part of Brooklyn than he was headed, when he finally looked up from this book.

She tells the story of the untimely death of her husband at age 50, then goes back in time to share their love story and moves forward to explore her, and her children’s, grief. The book is a wonderful meditation on love and on loss. But although this book is her first memoir, Alexander is such an accomplished poet and academic, with eleven books of poetry and four books of essays published, that I wonder if she counts in the debut category? Since it was her first memoir, I took liberties to include her on my “debut” reading list, and after I loved the book so much, I wanted to share that with all of you.

As for the more traditional debuts, meaning an author without much of a publishing record when their debut novel came out, of the novels I read and wrote about this year, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and is being picked up on best book lists, including the Times 100. And while I enjoyed this book and admired its ambition, the three books that stayed with me the most are:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper, for its magical tale and quirky story.

The Unfortunates, by Sophie McManus, for its breathtakingly precise and beautiful language that made me feel like I was reading a book written 100 years ago.

And Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon, for her ability to capture the teenage years of a unique girl growing up in Philadelphia.

Although The Unfortunates was written up quite widely when it came out and was nominated for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, all of these books deserve more attention than they got. And the authors all capture unique female stories which deepen our collective understanding of the world.

How about you? What debuts did you read this year that you really loved?

In the new year, I will write about books that I didn’t get to yet in 2015, including The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.

Happy holidays, dear readers….to a festive end of the year. Until 2016!

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The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander

Light

The Light of the World

By Elizabeth Alexander

Grand Central Press, 2015

209 pages

The Light of the World tells the story of Alexander’s husband’s death, at the age of fifty, and how she and her sons coped with the loss. Alexander’s use of language is singular, and her narrative style is unique. Her poetry background shines through as she narrates the circumstance of her husband’s death, how they fell in love, how they created a home for their sons together and then how she and her teenaged sons made a life for themselves on their own. I devoured this book in a few sittings.

Ficre Ghebreyesus was a worldly and passionate man who cooked, loved music and literature, and created beautiful paintings. He was from Eritrea and was working as a restaurant owner and painter in New Haven when they met. Their love was instant. Alexander has a deep appreciation for the small ways that people connect and love – watching her husband smoke, cooking together – and the big things that happen over the course of fifteen years together: two kids, two successful careers, multiple homes. She also weaves in culture references from literature, music, and African culture making her story both personal and universal.

This book is a page-turner; or at least it was for my husband and me. My husband, who reads mainly historical non-fiction, recommended the book to me after he got so engrossed in the story that he missed a subway stop on the way home from work and ended up in the wrong part of Brooklyn—many stops from our home. And as I wrote last week, this book made me cry. The story is so moving.

Alexander is a poet, playwright and professor at Yale. She wrote and delivered a poem at Obama’s 2008 inauguration and was the third black woman to get tenure at Yale University.

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Books that Made Me Cry

I’ll never forget the experience of reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. The book made me cry while flying on a transatlantic flight from New York to London. I’m not someone who cries easily in public, it probably helped that most of the people around me were asleep and could not see the tears quietly streaming down my face, but this book is such a powerful story of love, loss and grief that I cried through most of it.

When I finished The Year of Magical Thinking, and for many years after, I never thought I would read another book that addressed the same topics with such grace, but I have now read two other memoirs about love and loss that rival Didion’s classic. And they are both debuts.

Last year, I read and wrote about Elizabeth Scarboro’s My Foreign Cities. Some of you might remember this review. The book tells the story of her love for a man who had cystic fibrosis. Liz met Stephen in high school, where the book begins, but they do not commit to each other until after college when she moves to San Francisco to be with him.

So in her early 20s, Scarboro chooses to love, and live with, a man who will likely not live past 35. That set up is enough make my heart flutter for her bravery. But add to it that Scarboro’s writing is so open, and honest, by the end of the book I felt like I was her friend, as if she was telling the story just to me. I cried when Stephen went to the hospital and I cried when she knew she was going to lose him. But through the tears, I felt hope. Scarboro told a tragic story that was also a testament human resilience, to our ability to keep going when times are tough and to do everything we can to keep those we love alive.

And now there is Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, a memoir about the loss of her husband. I will provide a full review next week, but if you have not heard of this book yet, it is another beautiful portrait of love and loss. Alexander explores what happens when we deeply connect with someone and what happens when that person dies, suddenly, at the age of 50.

Love and loss are tearjerkers, but each of these authors has an openness to write about their emotions that I find inspiring. I aspire to have as much courage as they do to put their experiences out in the world so openly and vividly. How about you? What books have made you cry?

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