Well, we’ve gotten a bit carried away…again. Our intention was to provide you with a list of 64 memoirs or novels about death and grief; you know, so you could add a little light reading to your summer book list. I quickly realized that 64 books (with links and descriptions) might be a bit much, so instead we’re going to start with 32 books about grief and death and save the other half of the list for another day. These are all either books we’ve read and loved or books we have on our own reading lists.
1. Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes
“The day after his mother’s death in October 1977, Roland Barthes began a diary of mourning. For nearly two years, the legendary French theorist wrote about a solitude new to him; about the ebb and flow of sadness; about the slow pace of mourning, and life reclaimed through writing.”
2. A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates
“”A Widow’s Story” is the universally acclaimed author’s poignant, intimate memoir about the unexpected death of Raymond Smith, her husband of forty six years, and its wrenching, surprising aftermath.”
3. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
“In 2004, at a beach resort on the coast of Sri Lanka, Sonali Deraniyagala and her family – parents, husband, sons – were swept away by a tsunami. Only Sonali survived to tell their tale. This is her account of the nearly incomprehensible event and its aftermath.”
4. Her: A Memoir by Christa Parravani
“Christa Parravani and her identical twin, Cara, were linked by a bond that went beyond sibling hood, beyond sisterhood, beyond friendship…But, haunted by childhood experiences with father figures and further damaged by being raped as a young adult, Cara veered off the path to robust work and life and in to depression, drugs and a shocking early death. Beautifully written, mesmerizingly rich and true Christa Parravani’s account of being left, one half of a whole, and of her desperate, ultimately triumphant struggle for survival is informative, heart-wrenching and unforgettably beautiful.”
5. Say Her Name: A Novel by Francisco Goldman
“In 2005, celebrated novelist Francisco Goldman married a beautiful young writer names Aura Estrada in a romantic Mexican hacienda. The month before their second anniversary, during a long-awaited holiday, Aura broke her neck while body surfing. Francisco, blamed for Aura’s death by her family and blaming himself, wanted to die, too. Instead, he wrote “Say her Name”, a novel chronicling his grief love and unspeakable loss, tracking the stages of grief when pure love gives way to bottomless pain.”
6. Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield
“In 2007 Rolling Stone’s writer Rob Sheffield wrote his memoir, “Love is a Mixtape: Life and Loss One Song at A Time”. The concept was simple, 22 chapters written around 22 mix tapes. The content was not: grief, love, and a relationship that ended far too soon when his wife, Renee, unexpectedly died of a pulmonary embolism.” [Read our thoughts here]
7. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
“At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.”
8. Death Be Not Proud (P.S.) by John J Gunther
“Johnny Gunther was only seventeen years old when he died of a brain tumor. During the months of his illness, everyone near him was unforgettably impressed by his level-headed courage, his wit and quiet friendliness, and, above all, his unfaltering patience through times of despair. This deeply moving book is a father’s memoir of a brave, intelligent, and spirited boy.”
9. Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom
“[Mitch Albom] rediscovered Morrie [a college professor from twenty years prior] in the last months of the older mans life. Knowing he was dying, Morrie visited with Mitch in his study every Tuesday, just as they used to back in college. Their rekindled relationship turned into one final “class”: lessons in how to live.”
10. Poems of Mourning (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets) by Peter Washington
“Saluting, lamenting and honoring the dead are the poet’s primal tasts in all ages. Whether it be Ben Jonson pining for his son, Keats and Rilke envisaging their own demise, Wilfred Owen commemorating comrades in war, or Homer’s Odysseus grieving over his dog—all give expression to the universal need for mourning. But mourning has many forms and moods, and this collection explores them all, from Tennyson’s black grief to Whitman’s radiant melancholy, from Hardy’s despair to Rochester’s humor, from Sassoon’s anger to Christina Rossetti’s tender resignation.”
11. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
“The moving memoir of a college senior who, in the space of five weeks, loses both of his parents to cancer and inherits his eight-year-old brother. Here is an exhilarating debut that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and wildly inventive as well as a deeply heartfelt story of the love that holds a family together.”
12. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Revised Edition) by Jesse Andrews
“It is a universally acknowledged truth that high school sucks. But on the first day of his senior year, Greg Gaines thinks he’s figured it out. The answer to the basic existential question: How is it possible to exist in a place that sucks so bad? His strategy: remain at the periphery at all times. Keep an insanely low profile. Make mediocre films with the one person who is even sort of his friend, Earl. This plan works for exactly eight hours. Then Greg’s mom forces him to become friends with a girl who has cancer. This brings about the destruction of Greg’s entire life.” [For young adult literature lovers]
13. Ordinary People by Judith Guest
“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.”
14. The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke
“What is it like to mourn today, in a culture that has largely set aside rituals that acknowledge grief? After her mother died of cancer at the age of fifty-five, Meghan O’Rourke found that nothing had prepared her for the intensity of her sorrow. She began to create a record of her interior life as a mourner, trying to capture the paradox of grief—its monumental agony and microscopic intimacies—an endeavor that ultimately bloomed into a profound look at how caring for her mother during her illness changed and strengthened their bond. With lyricism and unswerving candor, The Long Goodbye captures the fleeting moments of joy that make up a life and the way memory can lead us out of the jagged darkness of loss. Effortlessly blending research and reflection, the personal and the universal, it is a love letter from a daughter to a mother that will touch any reader who has felt the powerful ties of familial love.” [Read our thoughts on the book here]
15. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
If you like Shakespeare, Hamlet is your man.
16. Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir by David Rieff
“David Rieff’s loving tribute to his mother, the writer Susan Sontag, and her final battle with cancer. Rieff’s brave, passionate, and unsparing witness of the last nine months of her life, from her initial diagnosis to her death, is both an intensely personal portrait of the relationship between a mother and a son, and a reflection on what it is like to try to help someone gravely ill in her fight to go on living and, when the time comes, to die with dignity.”
17. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
“Nine-year-old Oskar Schell has embarked on an urgent, secret mission that will take him through the five boroughs of New York. His goal is to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. This seemingly impossible task will bring Oskar into contact with survivors of all sorts on an exhilarating, affecting, often hilarious, and ultimately healing journey.”
18. Bough Down by Karen Green
“In this profoundly beautiful and intensely moving lament, artist and writer Karen Green conjures the inscrutable space of love and loss, clarity and contradiction, sense and madness. She summons memory and the machination of the interior mind with the emotional acuity of music as she charts her passage through the devastation of her husband’s suicide. In crystalline fragments of text, Green’s voice is paradoxically confessional and non-confessional: moments in her journey are devastating but also luminous, exacting in sensation but also ambiguous and layered in meaning.”
19. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
“From one of America’s iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Joan Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage–and a life, in good times and bad–that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.”
20. Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love by Anna Whiston-Donaldson
“On an ordinary September day, twelve-year-old Jack is swept away in a freak neighborhood flood. His parents and younger sister are left to wrestle with the awful questions: How could God let this happen? And, Can we ever be happy again? They each fall into the abyss of grief in different ways. And in the days and months to come, they each find their faltering way toward peace.”
21. Giving Up the Ghost : A Memoir by Hilary Mantel
“In postwar rural England, Hilary Mantel grew up convinced that the most improbable of accomplishments, including “chivalry, horsemanship, and swordplay,” were within her grasp. Once married, however, she acquired a persistent pain that led to destructive drugs and patronizing psychiatry, ending in an ineffective but irrevocable surgery. There would be no children; in herself she found instead one novel, and then another.”
22. Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman
“Building on interviews with hundreds of mother- loss survivors, this life-affirming book is now newly expanded to reflect the author’s personal experience with the continued legacy of mother loss; now married and a mother of young children herself, Edelman better understands how the effects of mother loss change over time and in light of new relationships.”
23. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
“When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of “The Once and Future King” author T.H. White’s chronicle “The Goshawk” to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.”
24. The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp
“What does it mean to be a success? To be a good parent? To live a meaningful life? Emily Rapp thought she knew the answers when she was pregnant with her first child. But everything changed when nine-month-old Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a rare and always-fatal degenerative disorder. He was not expected to live beyond the age of three. Rapp and her husband were forced to re-evaluate everything they thought they knew about parenting and to learn to parent without a future.”
25. The Beginner’s Goodbye: A Novel by Anne Tyler
“Crippled in his right arm and leg, Aaron grew up fending off a sister who constantly wanted to manage him. So when he meets Dorothy, an outspoken, independent young woman, she’s like a breath of fresh air. He marries her without hesitation, and they have a relatively happy, unremarkable marriage. Aaron works at his family’s vanity-publishing business, turning out titles that presume to guide beginners through the trials of life. But when a tree crashes into their house and Dorothy is killed, Aaron feels as though he has been erased forever. Only Dorothy’s unexpected appearances from the dead—in their house, on the roadway, in the market—help him to live in the moment and to find some peace. Gradually, Aaron discovers that maybe for this beginner there is indeed a way to say goodbye.”
26. A Monster Calls: Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd by Patrick Ness
“At seven minutes past midnight, thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting– he’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments. The monster in his backyard is different. It’s ancient. And wild. And it wants something from Conor. Something terrible and dangerous. It wants the truth. From the final idea of award-winning author Siobhan Dowd– whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself– Patrick Ness has spun a haunting and darkly funny novel of mischief, loss, and monsters both real and imagined.” [For young adult literature lovers]
27. A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
“Written after his wife’s tragic death as a way of surviving the “mad midnight moment,” A Grief Observed is C.S. Lewis’s honest reflection on the fundamental issues of life, death, and faith in the midst of loss. This work contains his concise, genuine reflections on that period: “Nothing will shake a man — or at any rate a man like me — out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.” This is a beautiful and unflinchingly honest record of how even a stalwart believer can lose all sense of meaning in the universe, and how he can gradually regain his bearings.”
28. Sweet Hereafter: A Novel by Russell Banks
“Russell Banks tells a story that begins with a school bus accident. Using four different narrators, Banks creates a small-town morality play that addresses one of life’s most agonizing questions: when the worst thing happens, who do you blame?”
29. The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon by Donald Hall
“In an intimate record of his twenty-three-year marriage to poet Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall recounts the rich pleasures and the unforeseen trials of their shared life. The couple made a home at their New England farmhouse, where they rejoiced in rituals of writing, gardening, caring for pets, and connecting with their rural community through friends and church. “The Best Day the Worst Day” presents a portrait of the inner moods of “the best marriage I know about,” as Hall has written, against the stark medical emergency of Jane’s leukemia, which ended her life in fifteen months. Between recollections of better times, Hall shares with readers the daily ordeal of Jane’s dying through heartbreaking but ultimately inspiring storytelling.”
30. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
“During her treatment for cancer, Mary Anne Schwalbe and her son Will spent many hours sitting in waiting rooms together. To pass the time, they would talk about the books they were reading. Once, by chance, they read the same book at the same time—and an informal book club of two was born. Through their wide-ranging reading, Will and Mary Anne—and we, their fellow readers—are reminded how books can be comforting, astonishing, and illuminating, changing the way that we feel about and interact with the world around us.”
31. Wit: A Play by Margaret Edson
“Margaret Edson’s powerfully imagined Pulitzer Prize-winning play examines what makes life worth living through her exploration of one of existence’s unifying experiences–mortality–while she also probes the vital importance of human relationships. What we as her audience take away from this remarkable drama is a keener sense that, while death is real and unavoidable, our lives are ours to cherish or throw away–a lesson that can be both uplifting and redemptive.”
32. Half a Life: A Memoir by Darin Strauss
“In this powerful, unforgettable memoir, acclaimed novelist Darin Strauss examines the far-reaching consequences of the tragic moment that has shadowed his whole life. In his last month of high school, he was behind the wheel of his dad’s Oldsmobile, driving with friends, heading off to play mini-golf. Then: a classmate swerved in front of his car. The collision resulted in her death. With piercing insight and stark prose, Darin Strauss leads us on a deeply personal, immediate, and emotional journey—graduating high school, going away to college, starting his writing career, falling in love with his future wife, becoming a father. Along the way, he takes a hard look at loss and guilt, maturity and accountability, hope and, at last, acceptance. The result is a staggering, uplifting tour de force.”
What grief books would you recommend? Let us know in the comments below.
We’ll share Part II of our book list in the next few weeks, so don’t forget to subscribe to receive our posts straight to your email inbox.
Coming up with a killer book title is hard. There’s a lot at stake in a title: It’s your readers’ first impression of your work, and it’s got to be evocative, unique, and precise. The pressure can be overwhelming!
But we at Writer’s Relief have got some great tips to help you come up with the perfect title for your novel or your nonfiction book. And you can apply these concepts to your short stories and poetry as well. With a little preparation and brainstorming, you’ll land on the perfect title for your book!
Elements Of Great Book Titles
Poetic language. Some of the best titles—the ones we remember—use evocative language to make a statement. Sometimes, the language verges on poetic. Consider elusive and somewhat vague titles like: Gone with the Wind; Of Mice and Men; Grapes of Wrath; Snow Falling On Cedars; The Fault in Our Stars.
Action words. Titles that showcase strong verbs leap off the shelves. Things Fall Apart is clear and haunting. Gone Girl is energetic and in-your-face. A Game Of Thrones sets a precedent for tension.
Inherent mystery/conflict. Great titles hint at the story to come. They point to the main conflict: What’s at stake? When a title can concisely encapsulate action, you’ve got a great shot at getting a reader’s attention in just a few words.
Consider Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: It’s a long title, but it’s so good. It suggests an epic battle between powerful archetypes, but it also offers the quiet, quaintly creepy image of a garden at night. The Light in Ruins does something similar.
Character’s names. Often (but not always) titles that make use of character names have an element of mystery attached to them as well. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Harry Potter And The [Fill In The Blank Here]. Books with character names can also be whimsical, such as: Where’d You Go, Bernadette?; Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day; Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Place names. If your book has a great setting (a setting that has strong branding), you might want to use that to your advantage. The Last Time I Saw Paris showcases the City of Lights with a touch of nostalgia (it also hints at conflict, at something lost and longed-for). Death Comes To Pemberley makes great use of the estate that’s familiar to all readers of Pride and Prejudice, but adds a modern layer of mystery and drama.
Quirky titles. Some titles embody contrasts that make readers say, huh? And, of course, that leads them to read the back cover to find out what’s going on: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; One of our Thursdays is Missing; Pineapple Grenade; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The one-word title. These titles tend to work best with really strong cover art. Here are a few one-word titles: Slammed; Affliction; Stranded, etc.
Titles And Book Genre
If you’re writing in a commercial book genre, be sure you have a good understanding of how titles within that particular genre work. And we wouldn’t recommend straying too far away from the conventions of genre book titles; fans of specific genres use titles as a kind of shorthand when they’re deciding what to buy and whether a book will live up to their expectations.
For example: Your thriller might be called Death At First Light. Your romance might be To Kiss A Lady. But you wouldn’t want to switch those titles around.
Just for fun: Check out this book title generator. And here are Goodreads users’ favorite book titles.
Title And Copyright Law
As of this writing, authors can’t copyright their titles in America (which is why if you plug certain titles into Amazon, you’ll come up not only with multiple movies but also multiple books of the same title).
That said, we don’t recommend using the same title that someone else has previously used. It makes it more difficult for your book to stand out.
When In Doubt, Get Help
If you’re coming up with a title, ask friends and family for help. Host a brainstorming session. Sometimes, a new perspective is the best way to hit on just the right title for your book.
But remember: If you’re hoping to publish with a traditional publisher, there’s some possibility that you might not be able to keep your title anyway. Publishers tend to change them (and, don’t worry, your publisher will fret about the perfect title right along with you).
Photo by Trevor Coultart.
QUESTION: What’s one of your favorite titles?
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