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Comfort and Joy in the Writings of Ann Hood

book-that-mattersI wish I had thought to spend my 60th birthday having as much fun as author Ann Hood has. By the time she turns 60 this December 9, she will have celebrated with 60 cupcakes with 60 different book groups.

Right after it was published, I discovered Ann Hood’s non-fiction memoir Comfort (2008). I read the advance review with interest. Having lost a child myself, I was related to her raw expressions of grief after losing her five-year old daughter in 2002. It was an absolutely hell-ridden journey of only 36 hours, when Grace died of an unthinkably virulent and destructive strep infection. It was a horror that some parents have to endure – the unimaginable sojourn of a losing a child.

Ann Hood and her husband returned from the hospital to tell their living older son, Grace’s older brother Sam, that his sister had died. So unexpectedly and so quickly.

Ann Hood’s raw grief was that which only a parent can feel. The mind-fog. The confusion. The nightmarish realization that life has sped up but left you behind with a child’s clothing left on a hook, her toys left on a shelf, desolate comforters and pillows left on a bed.

Ann Hood and other parents never really recover from the gut-wrenching grief of losing a child. But, they do learn to live again. Deeply, richly, and happily. Comfort speaks to the journey back to life that Ann Hood lived.

Besides reading a few non-fiction essays in books that were edited by Ann Hood, or those that she was included in, I had little experience with her writing before or after 2008. A few years ago, however, my husband gave me Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting in 2013, a compilation of essay written by women who knit (and who happen to write, too.) When her book, Knitting Pearls: Writers Writing about Knitting (2016) hit the library shelf earlier this year, I was one of the first to grab it.

After Grace died in 2002, Ann Hood could not write for several years. Consumed with grief, she sought solace in the comfort of knitting. Two years later, however, The Knitting Circle was published with a familiar theme: a woman who has lost her only child suddenly. In the book, mother Mary Baxter not only learns knitting technique, but that a caring and loving camaraderie can be found in a group of knitters.

Ann Hood did not begin to write about grief only after her daughter Grace died, however. One of her earlier novels, (Ruby, 1998) is the story of a woman who is widowed early in her marriage. Yet, it is not until her own father’s struggles with cancer in the late 1990s does Ann face death head on in her non-fiction memoir, Do Not Go Gentle.

And what does this have to do with 60th birthday parties, cupcakes, and celebration?

Ann’s latest novel, The Book That Matters Most, was published in past August. Her publisher challenged her to visit 60 book groups before her 60th birthday which is coming up on December 9. On her Facebook page, Ann invited herself to any book group – whether it be on Skype or in person. Because Ann lives in Providence, Rhode Island, the staff book group at our library was the perfect venue. I invited Ann and the only stipulation for her visit was that we all read her most recent book and sing happy birthday with a candle and cupcake.

On Friday, September 30, nearly 20 of our staff wished Ann a happy 60th birthday after she shared her stories of writing with us. While she began with questions about The Book That Matters Most, she quickly answered questions about her writing history, writing style, and writing techniques. We learned that Ann has written a young adult novel, biographies for children, and that she teaches writing in an online course through the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. In addition, she has taught in writing programs in New York and Vermont.

Ann began her published writing history when she finished her first novel (Off the Coast of Maine, 1983). She was a flight attendant at the time, attending graduate school, and spending her furloughs feverishly writing the book that would begin her career as a published writer. At the time, she was overcoming the loss of her older brother, Skip, who had died unexpectedly in an accident. When the book was finally published in 1987, Ann had already learned that her person experience in three short stories, was really meant to be a novel.

Shortly after Ann’s career as a flight attendant ended with layoffs due to a TWA strikes, she began writing full time and in earnest. Her second book was followed by a third and within a decade, she had published at least seven novels.

Ann’s recent novels (The Red Thread, 2010; The Obituary Writer, 2013; and The Italian Wife, 2014) join the personal essays she has contributed to compilations. These appear in Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women; Sorrow’s Company: Writers on Loss & Grief; Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up; Every Father’s Daughters: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers; Cook and Stealing; and Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond.

In the essay “Little Audrey” (in Cooking and Stealing, 2004), Ann writes of her personal pilgrimages of helping heal her father of cancer. In “Not the Daughter She Had in Mind” (in Because I Love Her, 2009), Ann looks back on the relationship she had with her mother. “How I Lost Her” (in Dumped, 2015), Ann shares her sadness of a friendship ended with one of her oldest and dearest friends.

I find Ann’s essays particularly poignant and relevant to my own life. She has found both comfort and joy in life lost and in life found.

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the October 13, 2016 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Sam Simas

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