Reading Death Wins a Goldfish
As the country opens up and we leave our Covid-induced cocoons, we are slowly getting our bearings. I recently attended a small outdoor spring wedding, and every one of us was so happy to be doing something we used to take for granted. As Katherine Anne Porter writes in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, set amid an earlier pandemic, “Now there would be time for everything.”
We have time. What is our everything? Friends, we have a tutor: Death, from Brian Rea’s Death Wins a Goldfish. The subtitle explains the premise: “Reflections from a Grim Reaper’s Yearlong Sabbatical.”
Fundamentally, it’s a book about life.
I picked it up after interviewing Houston Hughes for Children’s Book Club’s Hello Numbers!, which was illustrated by Brian Rea, who authored and illustrated this book. It came into my library during a personal sabbatical — a month, rather than a year. A month wasn’t hard to fill with my own wishes and dreams, but a whole year? What would I do with an entire year off?
Death makes a list. It’s arranged like a mind map and includes everything from “Work on a nickname” to “Win a prize.” And win a prize Death does — a goldfish, obtained at a carnival (which was also on the list). The goldfish bowl then accompanies Death on its adventures: hoverboarding, grocery shopping, lazing about in July. When the sabbatical ends, the goldfish moves into Death’s cubicle, along with a new collection of snow globes.
My copy of this book is labeled YA, but that label doesn’t really fit, unless we count a couple of Death’s ill-advised experiments with fellow college students. But to call it an adult book sounds too stuffy. Its categorization approaches the label proposed for a picture book in the movie Elf — “existential, yet accessible.” It’s also very funny. Sometimes the joke is in the illustrations, like when Death orders coffee and the barista writes “Beth” on the cup.
I liked that Death doesn’t have a giant revelation, just a sense of difference after the year ends. The benefit of the sabbatical come in the quiet moments — walking along a snowy ridge, standing inside a redwood tree, lying under May trees: “It’s the wind that makes the trees talk. You just have to be listening.” I also found my best moments of the pandemic were spent outside. During my month off I’ve been watching the pink roses come out and the cherry tomatoes turn red.
Recently poet and author Kwame Alexander wrote a poem compiled from NPR audience responses to an invitation to write a poem about life during and after the pandemic using Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise. Alexander’s poem is titled I Wake With Wonder, and it sounds like something Death might have journaled, post-goldfish.
Birds tweeting, wind blowing, leaves rustling. I notice it all now.
I like this new world.
The pandemic has lasted long enough for us to make changes to our routines, then grow bored with them, then embrace them anew. Even without actual time off from our human resources departments, we can still be generous toward ourselves as we emerge from isolation. Maybe we need to check grand things off a bucket list, like travel to Paris. Or maybe we can get a lot out of accomplishing smaller goals: “Buy new towels.”
P.S. I did that one. They bring me great joy.
Middle Grade and YA
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Join us for a high school-themed Children’s Book Club next Friday, June 11!)
The King of Attolia (book 3), by Megan Whalen Turner
A Conspiracy of Kings (book 4), by Megan Whalen Turner
Thick as Thieves (book 5), by Megan Whalen Turner
Hiding in Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson, by Julia Sweig
Return of the Thief (book 6), by Megan Whalen Turner
1. What is a book that surprised you, as this one did me?
2. What is something on your post-pandemic list?
3. Share your May pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game.
Photo by Mike Finn, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Megan Willome.
Browse more Reading Generously
I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro