Saturday Night Widows by Becky Aikman

★★★★★ (5/5)

Grief is a process of finding comfort. It doesn’t have to be painful all the time.

An incredibly poignant and resilient book, Becky Aikman’s “Saturday Night Widows” is saturday-night-widows-by-becky-aikmanelegiac, gallant and affecting, reverberating with anyone in grief. Unlike Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”, this book celebrates camaraderie between six strangers, all widows, who in a matter of twelve solid meetings spanning an entire year form a support system which not only heals them of their grievances but also addresses their individual concerns, assisting them in getting past the pain and moving on with their lives.

There were plenty of complications to go around. All of us—Denise, Dawn, Marcia, Lesley, Tara, me—had set out on a path to reinvent our lives with no idea of the scope and variety of the complications that awaited us

The alliances formed with this odd gathering of six women does not conform to the typical support group systems found in the US. Becky Aikman lost her husband Bernie to cancer after which she resolved to join a support group for widows. She was kicked out for her ‘normalcy’ when compared to other widows in the group. This is when Becky proposes to draw up her own support group but with differing principles. She welcomes five other women, who all seem sceptical at first, but gradually warm towards the companionship. These six women plan to meet once every month on Saturdays for a year, indulging not in mourning what they lost (husbands, families, trust in relationships) but immersing in experiences which would revitalize them and bring about closure.

My life was so stripped of interest and significance that I hungered for the ideal rather than the real, the abstract rather then the actual, when I wanted to see the world filtered through someone else’s interpretation, trusting it more than my own

They quickly build a rapport with one another, discussing elements of widowhood which have alienated them from society, the checklists to which they must adhere to, collective insecurities which plagues them every day – from losing a loved one to mistrusting themselves with another partner, from taboo subjects like sex to entire lifetimes dedicated to lamenting the dead. They unite in their woes only to emerge on the other side as happy and successful women who have bright futures ahead of them.

Any grief is layered with regrets, remorse, and contradictions

There are stark realizations associated with death of a loved one which are brilliantly portrayed in this book. Firstly, the guilt of not having done enough to save a life despite the matter of death being far beyond one’s control. For women whose spouses died of protracted illnesses, this was a common sentiment voiced.

Everyone at the table stiffened. Recognition. And triggers, those simple, familiar sights and sounds and tastes and smells that spark feelings sharper than any in the sensory world. For Marcia, they included an Italian restaurant that she passed almost every day. For me, there was the briny tang of freshly shucked oysters.

Secondly, regret of not feeling guilty enough haunts widows and widowers so much so that their actions become too internalised to make them fully-functional members of society. Eventually they lose their sense of responsibility and reality which can lead to devastating consequences for family members. This is epitomised through hesitancy of becoming involved in another relationship – a reluctance which is rooted in societal expectations as well as sentiments of ‘letting go’ of previous partner. After all, no period of time is lengthy enough after which one can readily accept another human being’s affections.

Never again, I vowed, would I view attachment as essential to my well-being. It became vitally important to subscribe to a definition of happiness rooted in remaining alone

Determined to insulate myself from pain, I vowed never again to become close enough to anyone to risk the anguish if that person were lost. Anything—loneliness, lack of popularity, solitary confinement—would be preferable to going through that again

Thirdly, remorse over having lost not just a human but a person with which one shared the longest, most immaculate of memories with. Age is an obvious concern here, with all the women above forty, set in their ways and lifestyles – yet not too young to radically alter their lives, nor too old to completely submit to fate. This insight brings about profound changes in their lives, especially in their love lives. Remarriage, romantic involvement or simply allowing men to re-enter their lives speaks volumes of how drastically positive group dynamics enforces readjustment of these strangers in their society.

Anyone who has ever been married knows that among the many perks—companionship, affection, reliable dinner conversation—one of the least appreciated is a well-curated stock of memories, the ability to turn to a longtime partner and say, “Remember the time …”

Unlike Didion’s book which mourned loss of her husband through an intensely personal lens, Becky Aikman goes to lengths to highlight the importance of companionship during periods of intense misery. In this book, closure is granted not due to tacky discussions of remembering the painful moments of life but the realisation of recalling happy times and cherishing them for a lifetime. All six women can relate to each other’s individual experiences through collective familiarity and provide one another with an understanding which has roots in pure kindness and not sympathy for its sake. This sort of acceptance brings about new levels of finality to the process of sorrow, each allowing new and unfamiliar experiences to refurbish their lives from scratch.

Here in this place out of space and time, I realized that it was possible to love two men at once, one who was present and one who lived only in memory

They share their Saturdays by touring museums, going lingerie shopping, joining a cooking class, going away for a weekend at a spa resort, relaxing on a beach or taking a ten-day vacation to Morocco. The women start to break their shells eventually, allowing space for prospective new partners, redesigning houses or relocating, welcoming career changes and accepting new professional positions. Introspection coupled with advice, guidance and exemplary lifestyles of each other provides each women with mettle to take a stand in a world where societal norms coerce widows to conform to archetypical roles of mourning, clad in black from head to toe. This mere audacity is inspiring as they draw from one another the strength to live and love again.

The desert is the perfect place to disconnect from the past and be in the present.

By the end, each of the six women have found wholesome lives once again to embrace. They rejoice in each other’s companionship and emanate life-affirming values. The reader is encouraged to not let solitariness following intense grief overpower them, and that sharing has incredible restorative powers.

Whether I had the bee dream because I was beginning to remember this already or whether I could remember this because I had the dream—who could say? But it all started to come back to me—my bedrock of optimism, my dormant ambition, the incurable curiosity

The narrative style of Aikman is tender and full of beauty, inviting the reader into personal lives of these six women without compromising any detail too personal which might unnerve the reader as it might border on intrusion. Her narration is controlled and graceful, handling delicate subjects like that of sex with poise and reflection. From heartrending admissions of denial and personal confessions to describing boisterous days out, Becky Aikman never outpaces the reader. Whilst reading this book, I felt a ghostly inclusion in their group activities as if the six women invited me to witness their marvellous process of healing from the inside and out.

Breathless, we perched at the lip of the towering wave, clasping each other for balance, although if we had tumbled no harm would come to us as we sank into the most forgiving of landings.

Overall, out of all books I’ve read on the process of bereavement, Becky Aikman’s “Saturday Night Widows” seems most confident in getting its message across – that life must be lived forward, that time aids in healing all woes, and it wouldn’t hurt to share a social life even if one is violently bereft of it on purpose.


No, it was all the rest of it that I needed to tackle now. The part about what to do next. The part about who to become next.

I was failing the stages of grief. I didn’t even understand them. I was a misfit widow.

We were cramming our personalities into the boxes on Jonathan’s checklists. Anger, check. Depression, check.

The defeatist vibe at that widows’ support group, perhaps a low point in the annals of social services for the bereaved

My long-married friends were thrilled, frothing for details. I would be their entertainment, relief from marital monotony


For our generation, in our culture, in our lives, death was the one unmentionable.

Death has become unmentionable, and therefore unimaginable, and if unimaginable, therefore unmanageable. It should be impossible to recover from, we think, a mortal psychic blow.


It was surreal to contemplate that my entire future happiness might rest on the contours of my behind.

Humor, Bonanno said, is one of the strongest predictors of an eventual return to emotional equilibrium.

When I had visited George Bonanno’s emotions lab, the researchers analyzed my expressions, looking for what is called a Duchenne smile, named after a French anatomist who discovered that true, happy smiles always involve contracting the muscles around the eyes. It’s an involuntary crinkling absent from polite, deliberate smiles


Denise radiated thoughtful stillness. Whereas I radiated a sort of toxic anxiety

Nothing about Dawn indicated that anything was amiss in her life. If this was a mask, she wore it with flair.

She laughed, a big, frothy laugh, as free as spun sugar.

I often wondered about the definition of home. Is it the place where you live, or is it the place where the people you love reside?

I took off after those fish, tapping some lunatic strength to churn across the surface of the sea, punching into the choppy waves

I heard them before I saw them. And that’s saying something, since the ladies clustered around a crater-shaped fire pit out by the lake, faces like carnival masks lit by leaping flames.

You know how you can tell when a couple is clicking—you see that they admire, not so much the beauty or the intelligence or the wit of each other, but the everyday quirks that make someone real and distinct, that might even annoy someone not in love

The camels, tethered end to end, swayed silently beneath us into the dunes, and we patted them with unexpected affection. They were male, but their demeanor had a subversive feminine side, thanks to tender lips, big dreamy eyes, and long lashes, not to mention soft camel toes padding gently forward


What’s Expected of Us by Ted Chiang

★★★★☆ (4/5)

 The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button

Ah Ted! The essence of your stories, your natural brevity of style just brings about the densest of subject matters within comprehension. In “What’s Expected of Us”, Ted Chiang once again toys with the idea of free-will and determinism. It is a circular argument with many who’d concur with the symbiotic relationship of choice and fate, and still many who’d disagree with their compatibility in a rationale world, using force of philosophy, logic and maybe maths too.

The immediate problem is that Predictors demonstrate that there’s no such thing as free will

This is a concise read which goes into depth of this dilemma through an invention called a “Predictor” where a small hand held device flashes light mere moments before one presses the button. The central argument is this: if one resorted to not pressing the button at all, the light wouldn’t flash to begin with. But when light flashes, it compels the person to press the button. In crude terms, the light knows if a human will press the button or not. The scientific element is added through the rationale that the Predictor sends a signal which navigates through time in the past, thereby determining if one would push the button or not.

The heart of each Predictor is a circuit with a negative time delay — it sends a signal back in time

This becomes problematic for those who lose faith in self-determination completely. Since fate is already at work, having set their entire lives and minute actions into motion, these people reject to make choices which affect their everyday living. This spells doom for humanity as reliance on fatalism overpowers notions of freedom and liberty, which in turn marks the possible demise of human intellect, knowledge and progress.

Some people, realizing that their choices don’t matter, refuse to make any choices at all

People used to speculate about a thought that destroys the thinker, some unspeakable lovecraftian horror, or a Gödel sentence that crashes the human logical system. It turns out that the disabling thought is one that we’ve all encountered: the idea that free will doesn’t exist

The ending to this story is worded with brilliant and incisive commentary on human condition, tying the plot together. It becomes apparent that this is a warning from future when technology has allowed the Predictor to relay messages further back into time rather than just mere seconds. Humanity is forewarned to keep up with the illusion of free-will despite it having no measure of power in human life. This acknowledgement itself can weigh the future of humanity, tipping it either way.

My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don’t. The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has

Some of you will succumb and some of you won’t, and my sending this warning won’t alter those proportions. So why did I do it? Because I had no choice.

Hell is the Absence of God by Ted Chiang

★★★★☆ (4/5)

This is the story of a man named Neil Fisk, and how he came to love God. The pivotal event in Neil’s life was an occurrence both terrible and ordinary: the death of his wife Sarah

In another masterpiece, Ted Chiang wonderfully balances religion and science, their amalgamation leading to questions that enshrine everyone’s curiosity. In the universe of “Hell is the Absence of God”, religious elements manifest physically in the world. Heaven’s light, Angel sightings, visions of Hell and Heaven (when Hell manifested itself…these happened on a regular basis; the ground seemed to become transparent, and you could see Hell as if you were looking through a hole in the floor), ascension of dying souls into either realms, are witnessed by people, either moving them profoundly towards a devout life or removing them from concept of faith all together. To some, religious manifestations bless them with miracle cures of cancer, blindness or other physical handicap. To others, these same events wreak havoc on their lives by killing a loved one or leaving them physically crippled.

Scores of people became devout worshipers in the wake of the visitation, either out of gratitude or terror

In the midst of such a universe where religious components are physically tangible for a few moments upon adherents and disbelievers alike, the rigor of notion of religion itself seems shaky. Despite having witnessed an Angel descending from the skies, many steadfastly hold onto their faithlessness, decrying God as an unmerciful being who merely bestows torture upon human beings for his recreation. Others view such Holy proceedings as a reminder of the Eternal Creator, salvaging them from ills of becoming too engrossed in a material world.

Another man was caught in a shaft of Heaven’s light when the angel departed, erasing his eyes but ensuring his devotion

Not only were his eyes and sockets missing, his skull lacked even the space for such features, the cheekbones now abutting the forehead

Here we are introduced to three characters who have been affected by these manifestations, leaving them either angry, grateful or curious. Neil Fisk, a man far removed from religion, loses his righteous wife Sarah during a visitation from an Angel. Her soul is elevated to the Heavens. Neil plans to rejoin his wife in Paradise but to do so would require him loving a God who took her from him in the first place. His anguish (He’d curl up into a ball, his body racked by hiccuping sobs, tears and mucus streaming down his face, the anguish coming in ever-increasing waves until it was more than he could bear, more intense than he’d have believed possible) is mixed with bewilderment and curiosity as to how to make himself become a godly person to please the Creator and earn His favour. By joining different support groups, Neil aimed to bring closure to a personal dilemma which haunts him for a long time.

As a child Neil had occasionally wondered if he was being punished by God, but most of the time he blamed his classmates in school for his unhappiness

All of these strategies have proven successful for different individuals; any one of them, once internalized, can bring a person to devotion. But these are not always easy to adopt, and Neil was one who found them impossible

Throughout Neil’s life, people had attributed moral significance to his leg even though God wasn’t responsible for it. Now that he’d suffered a misfortune for which God was unambiguously responsible, it was inevitable that someone would assume he deserved it

Our second character is Janice who was born without legs after an accident occurred during her mother’s pregnancy. Her parents had associated this physical handicap with punishment for a sin they might have had committed until they were visited upon by souls of devout relatives who had long passed away. From here on, Janice is raised in a fecund environment where her handicap is looked upon as a blessing rather than a curse. From a very early age Janice accepts her role as a healer and preacher, assisting others who were physically disadvantaged. She gathers a spiritual following, pens self-help books and delivers sermons to abet others in understanding their situation in a positive light. Another angelic manifestation restores Janice’s legs leaving her curious about her rapidly changed circumstance and why she was chosen in particular. Unable to react to bitter questions regarding her now altered, fully-functional state, she seeks an answer and rational reasoning to her predicament. In one such sermon, Neil Fisk as an audience member, delivers rancorous remarks upon her much improved and blessed condition and berates her for being ungrateful.

Clearly God had made her task more difficult than it was before; perhaps the restoration of her legs was an obstacle for her to overcome, just as their earlier removal had been

Ethan, our third character, was raised in a middle-class family for whom “their love for God was based in their satisfaction with the status quo”. Ethan however strongly felt that God had ascertained an important role for him to play in this world. He did not actively pursue the challenge of this role, rather left it on time when God would deem it fair to bless him with awareness of the reason for his existence. Having never witnessed a visitation all his life, he looked for signs when he merely missed one from a few yards. He became unsure of the message he was intended to receive but this did not deter Ethan from seeking out those who had been profoundly affected by this manifestation, which in turn introduced him to Janice.

Thus the three characters’ lives are entwined, leading them to a solitary but unified path of spiritual rediscovery and atonement. The thematic concerns of mercy, forgiveness, meaning of faith interspersed with personal tragedies are all abound in this brilliantly written short story. Without giving away much of the ending, the consequences of an inquisitive mind upon all three characters is a wonderful mix of poignancy and humor.

Perhaps, he thought, it’d be better to live in a story where the righteous were rewarded and the sinners were punished, even if the criteria for righteousness and sinfulness eluded him, than to live in a reality where there was no justice at all

The meaning of religion as a tremendous force of order in an otherwise chaotic worldly life is apparent in this story. This might not be a takeaway for every reader, but my inference is based on the unpredictability of life in general. How humans equate goodness and piety with ultimate reprieve in eyes of God is a subjective matter (The difficulty of any trial was subjective, and there was no way to compare two individuals’ experiences), but which nonetheless exposes inherent arrogance of humanity. The system of reward and punishment we take for granted has been so infused in our daily routine that we oft forget a love for God for His Sake, for Himself but for some paltry remuneration.

Every phenomenon in the universe was nothing less than an explicit reason to love Him.

To conclude, Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God” poses hefty questions upon the readers with a weighty religious tone. Where other stories used religion as more or less an elusive concept, only to provide scientific bearings, this story makes use of fundamentals of religion in an unencumbered fashion. Ted unabashedly uses religion without the tone of mocking which is apparent in many other science-fiction books where writers such as Sagan, Asimov and Krauss have resorted to vilifying believers bitterly, thereby wilfully abandoning half of their readership. Ted Chiang earns my grandest admiration in this respect. He narrates fictional worlds where religion and science are both on an equal footing, contributing to advancements in the world whether for better or for worse. His reliance on religion as a symbolic source goes to show that his stories are not mired with ignorance of one of the most ancient tenets of human society.

The light unmade his eyes, turning him into not a formerly sighted being, but a being never intended to possess vision

To say it was unconditional was inadequate, because even the word “unconditional” required the concept of a condition and such an idea was no longer comprehensible to him

Seventy-Two Letters by Ted Chiang

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” from his short story collection “Stories of Your Life and Others” represents the steampunk genre in which nineteenth century capitalism is exploited under the light of science fiction. This requires amendments in inherent rules of history which has already played out in reality. Much like in “Tower of Babylon”, this story resides in a universe with new set of rules, using a Victorian background to embolden technology which dictates societal change from the fringes. In this fictional Victorian world, magical theories which might be attributed to being unscientific or simply supernatural are fully functional.

Robert Stratton is a Victorian-era scientist working on the science of robotics and nomenclatures. The concept of “names” works akin to a magic spell, rendering an inanimate work of ceramics or clay (golems) with an essence or soul, so to speak. As a researcher, Robert has discovered such spells to give robotic hands an almost human-like dexterity. He aims to create automatons that can assist the poor with their labour, but this idea is met with resistance. Later he is acquainted with Lord Fieldhurst, an influential nobleman, who recruits Robert on a clandestine project he has been working on which aims to, essentially, create animated human beings just by using the spell. Having forecasted earlier the limit of generations human beings can survive to, new ways of procuring “names” are to be employed if human survival is to be ensured. From thereon, the direction in which human evolution proceeds can be dictated by those who hold the power to these “names.”

The reasons for employing the concept of nomenclatures in this narrative is two-fold. Firstly, it gives rise to the interminable debate of mass-production versus unemployment and labour rights. Secondly, it solicits consideration for the line between Creator and Creation which may be blurred due to rapid technological advancements. Stratton infers that human beings would lose their ability to procreate naturally about the same time machinery would gain capabilities for self-induced reproduction. The primal threat of this science is humanity losing its essence to automatons.

Once again, Ted Chiang synthesis hard science with narrative skill to play on human anxieties which have remained more or less similar in all of history. Since this was my first brush with the steampunk genre, dense usage of some concepts left me in the dark for which I had to do ample research (but not extensive enough to warrant me credible in a discussion). However, the string of debate pitting science in light of religion and vice versa is stimulating. Without delving deeper into religious examples, Ted Chiang sets religion as a back-story upon which fundamentals of science are questioned. Many would disagree with this assessment but the continuous strain of religion in his stories so far show the author’s inclinations towards accepting it as a truth rather than formally negating it all together. Religion and science coalesce to give human form their essence of intrigue and curiosity, and discrediting either leads to nothing but manifestation of ignorance.

  • Your desire for reform does you credit. Let me suggest, however, that there are simpler cures for the social ills you cite: a reduction in working hours, or the improvement of conditions. You do not need to disrupt our entire system of manufacturing.
  • The human species has the potential to exist for only a fixed number of generations, and we are within five generations of the final one
  • Cataclysms are not responsible for mass extinctions, but rather generate new species in their wake
  • The lexical order of an amulet reinforces the order a body already possesses, thus providing protection against damage
  • The hand’s dexterity is the physical manifestation of the mind’s ingenuity
  • What kind of victory would we achieve if the continuation of life meant ignoring this opportunity
  • If the name were to become available to such women, they might establish a commune of some sort that reproduced via parthenogenesis. Would such a society flourish by magnifying the finer sensibilities of the gentle sex, or would it collapse under the unrestrained pathology of its membership? It was impossible to guess
  • You ‘nomenclators’ steal techniques meant to honor God and use them to aggrandize yourselves. Your entire industry prostitutes the techniques of yezirah. You are in no position to speak of fairness

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky

★★★★☆ (4/5)

“The Red Car” is an incredibly composed novel by Marcy Dermansky which reads like a 28789723lengthy interior monologue. It narrates the story of Leah, a writer in her thirties, who has recently lost an old friend and boss Judy. During the course of novel, we follow Leah’s odd journey from New York to San Francisco to attend Judy’s funeral. Her unplanned trip results in getting reacquainted with a life she had long left behind. People and places from her past sprout up, making Leah question all the decisions she has made to end up in a loveless, abusive marriage, stuck with a deadbeat career.

Judy also happened to leave Leah her red car, which the latter always despised, along with some money and a painting. Acquirement of these material possessions might not be Leah’s priority in any regard, but the trip undertaken and its eventual repercussions make the gist of this novel. The story is mounted with themes of self-actualization, alienation and womanhood.

Leah in no way conforms to the archetypal protagonist, her actions and submissiveness can be quite frustrating at times. But the author’s intention in portrayal of Leah was not meant to be viewed in either a positive or negative light. Leah just is. Human, period. Her insecurities, fears and indecisiveness often leave her in shambles. From a crumbling marriage to overthinking lost opportunities, from settling for mediocrity to looking for signs to pursue change or success, Leah epitomises the commonplace woman. In reading Leah, a part of reader is lodged in printed words and it seems like one is reading about oneself in Leah.

The narrative style is terse and compact, so much so that the entire novel can be read in one sitting. We follow Leah in and out of situations that she is put in, mostly coerced on her by others. Her acquiescent nature justifies many of the events which may seem coincidental at first, but are warranted given the circumstances. There is an element of surrealism in Judy’s bizarre voice from the beyond, guiding Leah through emotional tribulations and encounters.

Interspersed with sardonic humour and solipsism “The Red Car” proves to be an inviting and strange read. Suspension of disbelief to some degree brings about excitement and insight. Marcy Dermansky’s minimalist narrative makes this a remarkable book.

  • My eyes glazed over when I tried
  • Kant, Nietzsche. I couldn’t read any of it. The texts were abstract and filled me with dread
  • I had moved cross-country on a whim, far from friends and family, and often I felt unsure of myself, the space I occupied in the world
  • That was how I felt about pretty much everybody in my office. That they were all resigned to mediocrity. And who was I, after all, to want so much more?
  • That was something I had discovered once I married Hans. Every night, he wanted to eat dinner. He wanted to know what I wanted for dinner. He wanted to know who was going to shop for dinner. He wanted to know what we wanted to watch when eating dinner.
  • Lately, I felt like I couldn’t do anything, even though Hans constantly told me otherwise
  • I was not one to see ghosts and I did not think Judy was the type to be a ghost
  • It occurred to me again that I had so little experience with death. Thinking that was a horrible thought, a little bit like Jinx, because now that I had thought it, perhaps I had willed someone I knew to die
  • I was not sure, actually, that I wanted to read these pages. I wrote journal pages just to write them, never to revisit
  • He was amused by me, he always had been
  • Was I still angry with him? That seemed silly. It was so long ago. He did not exist for me. He was not even a part of my thoughts.
  • I could not remember how Hans and I decided to get married. There wasn’t a moment. There was a realization
  • It made sense, that success would make you arrogant. I would like that for myself, a degree of arrogance
  • It was clear to me, right away, that the waiter was in love with her. It made sense. I was a little bit in love with her. Three
  • There were seventeen emails in my inbox from Hans. Seventeen was an ugly number. A prime number. It made me uncomfortable. It felt unlucky. I did not read them. I did not delete them either
  • Even if he was heartbroken until the end of time, he wouldn’t have called her that. He would have treasured the idea of Yumiko.