The best books about grief: literary companions after loss

Nicholas Montemarano Author Of If There Are Any Heavens: A Memoir
By Nicholas Montemarano

Who am I?

My most recent book, If There Are Any Heavens, tells the story of my mother’s death from COVID-19 at the peak of the pandemic in America. As I wrote this book, I returned to some of the most powerful books I had read about grief. Because my book is a memoir in verse, I found myself reading mostly memoirs and poetry. My previous books are all fiction—three novels and a short story collection. No matter the book or genre, I’m attuned to the sonic qualities of the writing. My favorite writing, the kind I aspire to, strives for the emotional immediacy of music.

I wrote...

If There Are Any Heavens: A Memoir

By Nicholas Montemarano,

Book cover of If There Are Any Heavens: A Memoir

What is my book about?

On January 6, 2021, at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the U.S. Capitol is under attack, Nicholas Montemarano drives 600 miles to see his mother, who is hospitalized with COVID pneumonia and in a critical state. For 10 days he lives in a hotel minutes from the hospital, alternating between hope and helplessness. This is the story of those ten days.

Written with visceral urgency in the earliest days of grief, If There Are Any Heavens resists categorization: it is a memoir, a poem, a mournful but loving song. It is an almost real-time account of the uncertainty and sorrow brought on by this pandemic. It is also, finally, a devastating homage to a family’s love in a time of great loss.

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The books I picked & why


By Sonali Deraniyagala,

Book cover of Wave

Why did I love this book?

Wave is an extraordinary and brutally honest memoir about the 2004 tsunami that claimed the lives of an estimated 230,000 people, including the author’s parents, husband, and two sons. All of this happens in the book’s first devastating chapter. Deraniyagala uses the rest of the memoir to move back and forward in time. In the aftermath of the tsunami, she doesn’t want to live, but through remembering the past—the happy life she lived with her family—she is able to face a grief almost beyond words. No matter the loss—in my case, my mother to COVID in 2021—Wave reminds us that we all suffer and that we are capable of great resilience.

By Sonali Deraniyagala,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Wave as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the PEN/Ackerley Prize 2014

The book opens and we are inside the wave: thirty feet high, moving at twenty-five mph, racing two miles inland. And from there into the depths of the author's despair: how to live now that her life has been undone?

Sonali Deraniyagala tells her story - the loss of her two boys, her husband, and her parents - without artifice or sentimentality. In the stark language of unfathomable sorrow, anger, and guilt: she struggles through the first months following the tragedy -- someone always at her side to prevent her from harming herself, her…

Book cover of The Reenactments: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

I met the poet Nick Flynn over twenty years ago, not long before the publication of his most famous book, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, a memoir about his father’s homelessness. Since then, he has become one of my favorite writers. The Reenactments—for my money, his best book—takes us through the surreal experience of Another Bullshit Night being turned into a film. Robert De Niro plays his father and Julianne Moore plays his mother. De Niro meets Flynn’s father, studying him for character traits. In the most heartbreaking sections, Flynn relives his mother’s suicide as it’s filmed. As Flynn writes: “How often are you offered the chance for a complete reenactment of the day of the disaster?”

By Nick Flynn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Reenactments as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For Nick Flynn, that game we all play-the who-would-play-you-in-the-movie-of-your-life game-has been resolved. The Reenactments chronicles the surreal experience of being on set during the making of the film Being Flynn, from his best-selling memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and watching the central events of his life reenacted: his father's long run of homelessness and his mother's suicide. Flynn tells the story of Robert De Niro's first meeting with his real father in Boston and of watching Julianne Moore attempt to throw herself into the sea. The result is a mesmerizingly sharp-edged and kaleidoscopic literary tour de force as…

Ordinary People

By Judith Guest,

Book cover of Ordinary People

Why did I love this book?

Most people know the 1980 film, directed by Robert Redford, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but trust me, the 1976 novel by Judith Guest is every bit as powerful. I own four editions of it, including a first-edition hardcover—that’s how much I love this book. The novel focuses on seventeen-year-old Conrad Jarrett, just home after a suicide attempt and eight months in a psychiatric hospital. His father is worrisome and doting, his mother is cold. Conrad turns to a psychiatrist—theirs is one of the great relationships I’ve read in fiction—to help him deal with the loss of his older brother and the sober realization that sometimes, no matter what you do, you can’t save someone.

By Judith Guest,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Ordinary People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the great bestseller of our time: the novel that inspired Robert Redford's Oscar-winning film starring Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore

In Ordinary People, Judith Guest's remarkable first novel, the Jarrets are a typical American family. Calvin is a determined, successful provider and Beth an organized, efficient wife. They had two sons, Conrad and Buck, but now they have one. In this memorable, moving novel, Judith Guest takes the reader into their lives to share their misunderstandings, pain, and ultimate healing. Ordinary People is an extraordinary novel about an "ordinary" family divided by pain, yet bound by their…

Book cover of A Death in the Family

Why did I love this book?

James Agee might be one of the most underappreciated American writers of the 20th century and one of its great stylists. I splurged for a first-edition hardcover of this novel: its pages smell like 1957, the year it was published, two years after Agee died suddenly at 45. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Its famous prologue, “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” is a masterpiece. This autobiographical novel, largely based on the death of Agee’s father in 1915, tells the story of a boy’s father killed in a car accident. It is an alternately quiet and lyrical work that is as much about love as loss.

By James Agee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Death in the Family as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The classic American novel, re-published for the 100th anniversary of James Agee's birth

Published in 1957, two years after its author's death at the age of forty-five, A Death in the Family remains a near-perfect work of art, an autobiographical novel that contains one of the most evocative depictions of loss and grief ever written. As Jay Follet hurries back to his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, he is killed in a car accident-a tragedy that destroys not only a life, but also the domestic happiness and contentment of a young family. A novel of great courage, lyric force, and powerful…

Book cover of What the Living Do: Poems

Why did I love this book?

I’ve probably read this amazing book more than any other book of poems. It is Howe’s elegy to her brother John, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989. I love how the book reads almost like a novel in verse, returning to her brother time and again. Howe’s poems bring together the physical and spiritual in transcendent ways. It was one the of first books I reread after I lost my mother during the pandemic—a companion during my grief. The famous title poem explores the everydayness of life even after loss—clogged kitchen sinks, groceries, parking the car, all that her brother “finally gave up.” The final line of the poem captures the book perfectly: “I am living, I remember you.”

By Marie Howe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What the Living Do as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Informed by the death of a beloved brother, here are the stories of childhood, its thicket of sex and sorrow and joy, boys and girls growing into men and women, stories of a brother who in his dying could teach how to be most alive. What the Living Do reflects "a new form of confessional poetry, one shared to some degree by other women poets such as Sharon Olds and Jane Kenyon. Unlike the earlier confessional poetry of Plath, Lowell, Sexton et al., Howe's writing is not so much a moan or a shriek as a song. It is a…

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