Rebecca's Reviews > The Light of the World

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
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it was amazing
bookshelves: memoirs, read-via-netgalley, best-of-2015, absolute-favorites, bereavement-memoirs

My nonfiction book of the year. I read a lot of memoirs about illness and death, perhaps because I feel they get me closer to the heart of what matters in life. Especially after my sister lost her husband earlier this year, I have been returning to bereavement memoirs as I think about books that might be therapeutic for her. If you enjoyed Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, this is a great follow-up. It joins Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty, The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, and To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush on my short list of favorite reflections on the loss of a partner.

You might remember Alexander from the 2009 Obama inauguration, for which she wrote and recited the poem “Praise Song for the Day.” I hadn’t heard of her, but the subject matter of this memoir appealed to me. Why read about the sudden death of her husband Ficre in a cardiac event at age 50? There’s a simple reason: this is a gorgeous book, written with incredible warmth and candor; it is full of both remembering and imagining.

Alexander met her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, an Eritrean chef and painter, in New York City. They had a whirlwind courtship and were expecting their first son when they married. Life took them to Connecticut, where Alexander still teaches at Yale. Ficre referred to himself as a “conscious synchretizer” of different identities and cultures: African, but with European influences – he spoke Italian and had family there; African-American, but with wry detachment from his wife’s “Negro” roots. The astonishing fact was that English was his fourth language, but the one in which he conducted daily life.

They had lived in their cozy New Haven home, where Ficre cooked Italian-inspired feasts and had his morning cigarette and coffee out in the backyard he lovingly tended, for two years when he died of a massive heart attack. It was just a matter of days after his fiftieth birthday; he had been running on the treadmill in the basement. Their younger son found him, and in the time between Alexander calling an ambulance and paramedics arriving she saw Ficre’s soul leaving. Never mind that doctors said he was dead before he ever hit the ground.

This book is the most wonderful love letter you could imagine, and no less beautiful for its bittersweet nature. Through Alexander’s language I felt I knew Ficre and I, too, mourned his loss.

“He who believed in the lottery...He who never met a child he didn’t enchant. He who loved to wear the color pink”

“he himself was a profoundly peaceful and peace-loving person, forged in the crucible of war”

“He understood that ars longa, vita brevis, no matter when you die.”

There is Ficre, but there is also Lizzie, the grieving widow. The book is to celebrate the one who is gone, but also to chronicle how the one who remains goes on.

“I write to fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget.”

“I look across at his side of the bed as I wake with my mind racing with quandaries and I think, I miss my friend, plain and simple.”

“What a profound mystery it is to me, the vibrancy of presence, the realness of it, and then, gone. Ficre not at the kitchen table seems impossible.”

In short vignettes, beginning afresh with every chapter, Alexander conjures up the life she lived with and after Ficre. She circles back to his last days again and again, looking for the signs that would have told her what was coming. In tears and in dreams, she still feels her husband’s presence, yet “what is left of Ficre has a different form now. It is less sharp, more permeating, more essence, more distilled. It is less his body here, his body there, and more, he is the ground beneath us and the air we breathe.”

If you were wondering what the title means, it’s not Jesus who is the light of the world here; it’s beauty, as in the Derek Walcott line used as an epigraph. Although they married in a Greek Orthodox church, the closest thing they could find to Ficre’s Coptic tradition, Alexander is only a nominal Christian. You might say that beauty was their true religion; words, food and art formed their shared rituals. There are even recipes here: for Ficre’s famous shrimp barka and spicy red lentils; for a friend’s comforting spaghetti with onions.

This is my favorite nonfiction of the year so far. Whether you’ve suffered the recent death of a loved one or not, there is a memento mori message here for everyone. As Alexander quotes from the Bill T. Jones dance Last Night on Earth, “Are you doing what you want to do right? Have you located your passion as if this was your last night on earth?”
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Reading Progress

November 19, 2014 – Shelved
November 19, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
February 13, 2015 – Started Reading
February 14, 2015 – Shelved as: memoirs
February 14, 2015 – Shelved as: read-via-netgalley
February 20, 2015 – Finished Reading
February 25, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015
July 12, 2015 – Shelved as: absolute-favorites
April 12, 2016 – Shelved as: bereavement-memoirs

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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elizabeth What a wonderful review! This is on my ever growing to read list.

message 2: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Wow. Well, as soon as my internet connection returns (we're in the midst of a freak storm), I'll enter the giveaway for this (saw it last night, but don't think I entered -- wasn't 100% convinced it was something I might respond to, but you changed my mind).

message 3: by Carol (new)

Carol I like this kind of book also, much for the same reasons you mention. That they lived in New Haven brings it closer to home.

I am almost finished Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Readingby Nina Sankovitch, the author's year of reading and reviewing in an effort to comfort her grief at the loss of her sister. Will write about this one soon.

Rebecca Hope you'll enjoy, Carol. I liked the Sankovitch and had forgotten it also had a grief memoir aspect to it.

message 5: by Dorcas (new)

Dorcas So sorry about your sister's loss, Rebecca... I hope she's managing to cope, it must be very hard. (Revelation 21:3,4)

Rebecca Thanks, Dorcas. We're coming up to one year that he's been gone. Still hard for her as a single mom, of course, but it was a long battle with cancer and in the end it was a blessing for him to go.

message 7: by Dorcas (new)

Dorcas mixed feelings, I totally understand. Glad the pain is ended for him but for those left behind it lingers on. I'm sure they really appreciate your understanding and support. My thoughts are with you all.

Ivy Bookqueen Great review bec

message 9: by Margaret (new) - added it

Margaret Thanks for this gorgeous review. This book is in the stack on my desk, along with her collection of poetry, Crave Radiance. I put them both in my watercolor, which I made in response to the challenge to create a still-life of objects that matter to me. (I hid a copy in my photos on Goodreads.)

I see you have Deraniyagala's Wave on your "To Read" list. It too is a stunner of a memoir of loss. Deraniyalgala lost her husband, two sons, and parents in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka.

Rebecca Your watercolor is beautiful! More people need to see that ;)

I'd be keen to read some more of Alexander's poetry, besides what appears in the memoir.

Yes, in fact, I have Wave on my bedside table and have been meaning to read it for years. The copy I now have is borrowed from a friend, so that's an impetus to read it sooner rather than later. I have a perhaps strange affection for grief memoirs, but to me they feel like books that are born out of honesty and deep emotion, and often that's reflected in the prose.

message 11: by Margaret (new) - added it

Margaret Thanks for appreciating my painting. I had to choose books as the "stuff" of the world that matters most to me, but then I realized I had to make a series of rectangular prisms visually interesting.

As for Wave . . . just thinking about it now is sending me to my bookshelves. So compelling, so powerful, so beautifully written.

Elyse Walters Melting!!!!! Thank you! I can't stop thinking about this wonderful book. LOVELY review

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