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THE RED RIBBON

A MEMOIR OF LIGHTNING AND REBUILDING AFTER LOSS

A debut memoir that recounts a woman’s tragic loss and hard-won survival.

On July, 23, 1994, lightning struck Bills’ husband and their son—pseudonymously called “Geoff” and “Teddy” here, respectively—as they were kayaking off the coast of Maine. The strike took Geoff’s life and nearly did the same to Teddy. The author and several members of her family, including Teddy’s older brother, “Simon,” and his wife, rushed to the hospital in the nearby town of York, Maine. It was initially touch and go for Teddy, but he came through. Then, as Teddy recuperated physically, he and the author faced psychological and spiritual recuperation—which sometimes seemed to be a matter of taking one step forward and two steps back. After this tragedy, death seemed to shadow the author for the next few years; her aged parents back in Montana passed away, as did her uncle and Geoff’s sister, who was such a rock for her after the lightning strike. These losses engender a booklong meditation on mortality. However, Bills does survive the ordeal, and an afterword lets readers know that today, she, Teddy, and Simon are all doing OK. Memoirs of loss and survival are rather common, but what sets this one apart is Bills’ extraordinary perceptiveness and writing talent, as when she notes that “I’m a woman with an emotional thermometer always in her mouth.” Bills also raises intriguing questions, such as whether the obituary cliché “he died peacefully” is really ever true. Essentially the book is a collection of essays, but she uses fictional techniques when appropriate, and some chapters are given over to very impressive poetry. She poignantly evokes a happier past in her chapters about Geoff (they were separated at the time of his death) and their young family. And a chapter titled “The Myth,” in which she asks Geoff questions directly, is exceptionally and deeply moving. There are even moments of goofiness in a chapter on a graveside service (“Planting Iris”), which may take some readers aback, although it’s clear that the author understood the need for occasional levity.

A keeper of a book by a talented author.

Pub Date: May 28, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63152-573-5

Page Count: 216

Publisher: She Writes Press

Review Posted Online: March 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019

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A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor...

INTO THE WILD

The excruciating story of a young man on a quest for knowledge and experience, a search that eventually cooked his goose, told with the flair of a seasoned investigative reporter by Outside magazine contributing editor Krakauer (Eiger Dreams, 1990). 

Chris McCandless loved the road, the unadorned life, the Tolstoyan call to asceticism. After graduating college, he took off on another of his long destinationless journeys, this time cutting all contact with his family and changing his name to Alex Supertramp. He was a gent of strong opinions, and he shared them with those he met: "You must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life''; "be nomadic.'' Ultimately, in 1992, his terms got him into mortal trouble when he ran up against something—the Alaskan wild—that didn't give a hoot about Supertramp's worldview; his decomposed corpse was found 16 weeks after he entered the bush. Many people felt McCandless was just a hubris-laden jerk with a death wish (he had discarded his map before going into the wild and brought no food but a bag of rice). Krakauer thought not. Admitting an interest that bordered on obsession, he dug deep into McCandless's life. He found a willful, reckless, moody boyhood; an ugly little secret that sundered the relationship between father and son; a moral absolutism that agitated the young man's soul and drove him to extremes; but he was no more a nutcase than other pilgrims. Writing in supple, electric prose, Krakauer tries to make sense of McCandless (while scrupulously avoiding off-the-rack psychoanalysis): his risky behavior and the rites associated with it, his asceticism, his love of wide open spaces, the flights of his soul.

A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor will it to readers of Krakauer's narrative. (4 maps) (First printing of 35,000; author tour)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-42850-X

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Villard

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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A potent depiction of grief, but also a book lacking the originality and acerbic prose that distinguished Didion’s earlier...

  • National Book Award Winner

  • National Book Critics Circle Finalist

  • Pulitzer Prize Finalist

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING

A moving record of Didion’s effort to survive the death of her husband and the near-fatal illness of her only daughter.

In late December 2003, Didion (Where I Was From, 2003, etc.) saw her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, hospitalized with a severe case of pneumonia, the lingering effects of which would threaten the young woman’s life for several months to come. As her daughter struggled in a New York ICU, Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a massive heart attack and died on the night of December 30, 2003. For 40 years, Didion and Dunne shared their lives and work in a marriage of remarkable intimacy and endurance. In the wake of Dunne’s death, Didion found herself unable to accept her loss. By “magical thinking,” Didion refers to the ruses of self-deception through which the bereaved seek to shield themselves from grief—being unwilling, for example, to donate a dead husband’s clothes because of the tacit awareness that it would mean acknowledging his final departure. As a poignant and ultimately doomed effort to deny reality through fiction, that magical thinking has much in common with the delusions Didion has chronicled in her several previous collections of essays. But perhaps because it is a work of such intense personal emotion, this memoir lacks the mordant bite of her earlier work. In the classics Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), Didion linked her personal anxieties to her withering dissection of a misguided culture prey to its own self-gratifying fantasies. This latest work concentrates almost entirely on the author’s personal suffering and confusion—even her husband and daughter make but fleeting appearances—without connecting them to the larger public delusions that have been her special terrain.

A potent depiction of grief, but also a book lacking the originality and acerbic prose that distinguished Didion’s earlier writing.

Pub Date: Oct. 19, 2005

ISBN: 1-4000-4314-X

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2005

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