“Notes on” Books

In recent months, I’ve read three books whose titles begin with the words “Notes on.” Coincidence? Undoubtedly. But because I thought they were all powerful reads, it seems a coincidence worthy of a blogpost. Two of these books are novels and one of memoir, and all three will stay with me for a long time.

Notes on your Sudden Disappearance by Alison Espach

Sally and Kathy have a classic sister relationship. They can talk for hours at night, often about Kathy’s crush, Billy, who eventually becomes her boyfriend. Sally admires Kathy in the way only a big sister can be admired and Kathy (generally) loves her back. So when Kathy is killed in a car accident (with Billy driving and Sally in the backseat), Sally is devastated, as are (of course) her mother and father.

Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance is a book about moving forward when the most horrible thing you can imagine happening happens. Written with a “direct address” point of view from Sally to dead Kathy, it’s an unusual structure but one that (at least for me) functioned in a powerful way. Sally is trying to understand what is happening around her, and the reader finds that she has an open and quirky – often bitingly funny – way of seeing the world. Life without Kathy is hard – on Sally, on her parents, and on Billy (who remains a central part of the story). But they all find their way through.

I thought this book was quite astounding, to be honest. It is supremely original both in form and substance and I couldn’t put it down. I know some readers have gone into it expecting something different (suspense or mystery) given the title and cover, and were put off by finding themselves reading kind-of-weird literary fiction instead. But it really worked for me in the way it spoke tellingly about the sister relationship and how we all cope very differently with the powerful losses in our lives.

Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka

Notes on an Execution opens with the central character of the story, Ansel Packer (prisoner #999631), having 12 hours remaining in his life. He is a serial killer on death row and his execution is imminent. As a reader, you think you might be embarking on a classic story of true crime, or at least the story of a serial killer we have come to understand from podcasts, television procedurals, and sensationalized novels.

But no, this book is not those things. Instead, in Notes on an Execution, Danya Kukafka uses an alternating chapter structure to take us through Ansel’s final 12 hours and to help us understand how he got to that ending of his life through the points of view of three women: his mother (who escaped the horrible abuse of her husband leaving Ansel and his brother to be raised in the foster system), a girl who lived with Ansel in that system (undergoing emotional trauma through that contact) and then was later in a position to investigate his crimes, and the twin sister of Ansel’s final victim, his wife. From these perspectives, Kukafka weaves a story that both subverts and confirms what we know about criminals and their victims and highlights how the enduring effects of trauma ripple through both time and social systems.

I have strong feelings about the death penalty. I protested against it when I lived in Texas. And I also had the opportunity to interview the death row chaplain at the prison where this novel is set when I was doing research on compassionate careers. That interview brought home, for me, the wrenching emotional cost for those involved in all aspects of the criminal justice system, and this book reflected all of those complexities in prose that was powerful and compelling.

Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford

Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford was published several years ago, but I think about it often. How could I not, when the news is always replete with stories of women being told to be quiet? Being told that their versions of events can’t be right or don’t matter?

This memoir is a gut-wrenching recounting of Lacy’s experience of sexual assault when she was a student in the early 1990s at a New England prep school. But, even more, it is about how forces of power and patriarchy wreaked havoc on her life for many years after. As she says in one of the closing chapters, “First they refused to believe me. Then she shamed me. Then they silenced me.”

In this book, she reclaims her voice, and what a voice it is. The writing is lyrical and compelling, and the twists in her experience read almost like a thriller. Each turn of the story was both shocking and utterly unsurprising. It brought to mind Chanel Miller’s “Say My Name,” and the utter bravery of Christine Blasey Ford describing what she went through during the Bret Kavanaugh hearings. This book is a painful read and content warnings abound, but it is an extremely powerful account. I’m so glad Lacy Crawford is silenced no more.

Taking notes seems, in some senses, to be a minor thing. Something you do it during a lecture to be sure you can prepare for an upcoming test. A bit of marginalia jotted to remind you that something caught your eye. Yet in these volumes, the idea of “notes” take on power. Note these things, the books say. Note how great loss can be processed. Note the complexity of serial killers and the death penalties to which they are sentenced. Note the way systems favor some voices over others, with devastating effect. These books made me take note of these things in beautifully rendered prose, and I am grateful for it.

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