You and your books have been a real downer lately. It’s not me, it’s you.

Anne Frank Pictures

This was not in the stack. If it had been, I would have known that sadness awaited.

True, I stacked them there. But “disturbing and yet deeply moving” on the back cover did not prepare me for what was to come.

“Blood and brain tissue were splattered as far as the large elm trees standing more than twenty-five feet away, but his dark blue suit with matching light-blue shirt, silk vest, and tie remained undisturbed and immaculate. He was forty-seven years old.”

This was from the third book in a row which pulled me into dark territory

It wasn’t clear in the beginning, because the first instance of it was a children’s book, an ostensibly light-hearted story.

But, yes, the story opened in 1914. Fair warning, you say, and I agree: that’s on me. And, so, two sons go off to war. The first a stalwart and determined young man, who enlists straight-away. The second a gentle soul who writes poetry, who enlists only after a great deal of soul-searching.

And I believed that I was prepared. This classic tale was published almost a hundred years ago, and it’s well known that its author was devastated by The Great War; I knew it would not be easy reading. But I believed that I remembered the outcome; I thought the eager-to-enlist son died, but it was the poet.

It would have been sad either way, of course. Families and sweethearts left behind and, oh, this tugged at me something fierce: a dog who will not leave the train station, because his beloved companion has left on a train and has not, yet, returned. He cries and cries and then, one night, he howls. Still, he will not leave.

And, this? This was my lighter read.

The other in my stack was a contemporary novel which has lingered on my shelves for ages, by an author whose works I admire tremendously. I heard her read from it more than a decade ago, at the Eden Mills Festival, and I remember sitting on the hillside, laughing out loud at some of the bitterly funny parts, in this story about a mother whose son is on trial for murdering an elderly couple, while the mother is coping with a recent diagnosis of breast cancer.

You might think that I was warned here, too, despite those sharply funny bits. But besides the fact that the writing is top-notch, you would think that, if this is where the story begins (did I mention that her husband left her recently, for another woman?), it has to get better.

Scaredy Squirrel Night

A stack of books like my recent reading could turn any reader into a Scaredy Squirrel.

And, yet, sometimes, in life it does not get better.

And in this novel, it gets worse.

It gets as bad as it can get.

The body count rises and for the last twenty pages I was past sobbing, turning the pages like an automaton.

When I set the book aside, I realized you might be up to something, beside-stack-of-books.

I started eyeing you from a different perspective. It was too hot to read anyway, one of those nights when you wish your body would not touch the mattress because it’s just so hot, hot, hot. Everywhere, hot. Inescapable.

I saw the short story collection there too, the one with ‘happiness’ in the title, but the only story remaining to reread in it was the least-funny story in it. Lots of people die in it too. And before they die? They are very UNhappy.

And there was another reread there, too, about a nineteenth-century woman convicted of murdering her employer and a housekeeper.

I knew not to pick up either of those.

The most recent arrival was a slim Canadian classic, which had been nominated for Canada Reads several years back, a work in translation with a reputation for being difficult reading.

And even though I am spoiler-phobic normally, I was anxious about this volume, so I started with the afterword. That’s where the blood and brain tissue came in, a description of the author’s suicide scene.

“Now I’m suddenly afraid that I’ll never get out, that all the doors are closed forever. My own future is a throbbing pain. I’m haunted not be passive melancholy but by rage, a rage that is mad, absolute, sudden, almost without an object!”

Dear Bedside Table — I know what you’re up to.