Staff Picks of 2018

As 2018 comes to a close, the staff at The Grief Diaries reflects on the books, films, music, and television that impacted us the most this year.

Heavy: An American Memoir, Kiese Laymon

I first heard Kiese Laymon discuss Heavy, his provocative and devastating memoir which confronts family, youth, deception, love, and abuse while growing up in southern Black America at the Tin House Summer Workshop in 2016. I knew from that moment that I wanted to read it because I could tell it would be a necessary book. But what I didn’t expect was how much of my own past would come flooding back to me and profoundly connect with the experience of a Black southern boy from Mississippi. But, beyond all the particular ways I had to navigate trauma by and from those who loved me and who I loved and how seen I felt by witnessing Laymon’s very different experience of trauma and love and family and the south, I found Heavy to be necessary reading in 2018 primarily for what it reveals about the American Black experience that I couldn’t possibly know, just what it means to survive and live and thrive as a Black son and mother and grandmother and daughter in yesterday and today’s America. If I were to recommend you read only one book this year, Heavy is the book. 

 -Addie Tsai, Nonfiction Editor

Kidding

In Showtime’s powerful, darkly funny new series, Kidding, Jim Carrey stars as Jeff Pickles, the host of a children’s show almost too reminiscent of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, whose 13-year-old son died in a car accident just one year ago. In Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time, Pickles and his team of puppets, Uke-Larry, Secret Chef, Ennui Le Triste, The Oops, and Sy the Wide Eyed Fly, invite children to join them in Pickle Barrel Falls, a fairytale world of bright colors and cheerful songs about love and kindness. Still reeling from the loss of his son, Pickles wants to shoot a live episode to teach his young viewers about the one topic no one else wants him to address: death. “What does it mean to lose a thing you really want to stay?” sings Pickles in a song for the episode. “What if they send your favorite socks a million blocks away?” Having seen Won’t You Be My Neighbor in theaters earlier this year, Mr. Rogers was certainly in the back of my mind throughout this series, and I felt deeply connected to Jeff, the regular, flawed, and angry father behind the Mr. Pickles façade of sweater vests and puppet voices. Both the Mr. Rogers documentary and this heartbreaking, charming series force us to confront the masks we wear to hide our own grief.

-Kristi DiLallo, Editor-in-Chief

The Powerbook, Jeanette Winterson

The a-linear plot line of this book continues to draw the English Major in me back in time and time again. However,  the driving force of the story, that makes this book recommendable for all, is the common human experience of love. The essence of this story is that the character Ali/Alix (the main characters shift and meander around the prescribed gender binaries, and at times human boundaries) is a storyteller that allows you “freedom just for one night” by writing you into one of their stories in exchange for a non-monetary trade. The stories they conjure up transport the reader to medieval times, contemporary Europe, and beyond to transcend setting and time to only find love. This is a great book for those who make gagging noises when someone brings up The Notebook, or any Disney fairy tale that has stripped all characters, and ultimately love, of dimensionality (aka every fairy tale every—thanks Grimm Brothers/Disney).  

-Angie DeDona, Editorial Intern

A Million Little Things

Typically, I am somewhat skeptical of tearjerker shows—even though I eventually hopped on the This Is Us train, I often question moves in television shows that seem explicitly designed to make the viewer weep as a kind of manipulation to keep the viewer coming back week after week (my partner calls this pathos porn, even when he cries much more regularly to This Is Us than I do). Often, the dialogue is too perfect, the song too planned, the arc of the moment too manipulative for my comfort. Not to mention, I am typically the last person to feel moved to tears, given that most of the scenes that provoke a general American viewer to ugly cry don’t often apply to my experience as a queer & non-binary woman, a mirror twin, and a child of a single Asian father and an abandoning white mother. However, this is not the case where A Million Little Things is concerned, a show that is, at its core, about how a group of friends and a wife copes with a man’s recent suicide. Don’t get me wrong. This is not the perfect show. But, each week I’ve been impressed by the complexity with which it confronts loss: loss of a parent/husband/friend via suicide; loss of a spouse via divorce and infidelity; loss of a new romance/potential future via the choices one makes or doesn’t make when faced with a terminal illness; and loss of a partner/life one recognizes as their own through the reality of mental illness. The internal and external destabilizing that various forms of loss can create are, for the most part, profoundly expressed in this network ensemble drama, and reveals new meanings to me of my own past and present losses. 

-Addie Tsai, Nonfiction Editor

There Will Be No Miracles Here, Casey Gerald

Casey's story begins in Dallas, New Year's Eve 1999 when he gathers with the congregation of his grandfather's black evangelical church to witness the end of the world. He follows in the footsteps of his father and is recruited to play football at Yale, eventually getting his MBA at Harvard and entering the world of Wall Street. But as Casey rises, he sees that the American Dream, supposedly demonstrated in his personal success story, is rigged to keep the elite at the top and only a few the ability to ascend. This memoir completely surprised me: Casey braids the personal, the political, the societal commentary and the intense memories of his tangled childhood but also unbraids them all. Not only does he try to make sense of his trauma but he questions its very existence. Casey's story is wholly original, this is true, but to have witnessed what he has witnessed and be able to write about it with such humor, such darkness, such openness; that is the actual miracle here. We need more writers like Casey Gerald to share their stories with us and shape them into art.

-Mina Hamedi, Managing Editor

Maggot, Dazey and the Scouts

I have a confession: I have a small, angsty, middle schooler wearing a My Chemical Romance tee living in my ears. So when I listen to this pop-punk EP with punching and moaning female vocals, that zitty 13 year-old hanging on my earlobe is lovingly serenaded. On Maggot expect melancholy chords, a smashing beat, with raunchy yet touching lyrics that will make you both laugh and cry. The lead vocalist expertly plays with screams, small talking sections, beautiful howls, and impressive high notes heard only in the bedroom. Two songs in particular that always leave me screaming for more are the second and fourth tracks of the EP: “Wet” and “Sad Boys.” A fair warning, on my first listen whilst applying my makeup I had quickly reverted to my raccoon eyeliner habits of early high school; but I gotta say—I kind of liked it.

-Angie DeDona, Editorial Intern

Sweetener, Ariana Grande

This album was released during the final stretch of the six day road trip my partner and I took from Florida to California in August. We listened to it for the first time driving through bright red mountains near Flagstaff, AZ, after stopping to visit my mom, who is incarcerated in New Mexico, and I found myself unable to hold back tears during most of the tracks, no matter how lighthearted and fun they sounded. Having lived with PTSD for over a decade now, I recognized myself and my own experiences in many of the songs that touch on Grande’s experiences with physical and emotional stress following the terror attack that killed 22 fans at her 2017 concert in Manchester, UK. In “Get Well Soon,” the final track on the album, Grande sings, “My life is so controlled by the what if’s / is there anybody else whose mind does this?” The song is a 5 minute, 22 second long meditation on the importance of self care, with a subtle tribute to May 22, 2017, the date of the attack. In an interview on the Zach Sang Show, when Grande was asked who she wrote the song for, she responded that she wrote it to herself and to any fans who can relate to her experiences, particularly anxiety and panic attacks. She also told fans on Twitter that it was about coping with her anxiety when it got to the point of feeling like she was “outside of [her] body.” While most of Sweetener is bright and dreamy, themes of finding the light and coping with the dark are present throughout, and it continues to teach me how to transform profound grief into a thing of beauty.

-Kristi DiLallo, Editor-in-Chief

Bad Witch, Nine Inch Nails + Cold and Black and Infinite Tour

I've always loved Nine Inch Nails but their latest album coupled with their current tour left me stunned. I went with my sister to see them at Radio City Music Hall in October. We were on the mezzanine, in complete darkness, dancing and screaming at the top of our lungs. A silence fell over the enormous crowd and a single spotlight shone on Trent Reznor as he began to sing "Hurt." Tears streamed down my face while my sister and I held hands and sang in unison. The energy had completely shifted and it was perfectly still. People swayed, and held each other. A moment shared. Reznor is a powerful force onstage and whether you're standing with hundreds of people watching him live, sitting on your bed, or walking down the street, Nine Inch Nails always offers that deep catharsis that only comes from letting yourself surrender to whatever you are feeling--when you listen to their heavy bass lines and raw lyrics--and then letting it all go. I left that concert feeling lighter. From Bad Witch I recommend God Break Down the Door and I'm Not From This World but generally: The Fragile, In This Twilight, All The Love in The World, and Right Where It Belongs

-Mina Hamedi, Managing Editor