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Grief memoirs work best when they’re less about emotions than failed attempts to contain them. Critic and poet Meghan O’Rourke lost her mother to colorectal cancer in 2008, and in The Long Goodbye, she describes how her mourning process became a despairing effort to throw her energies elsewhere: work, books, sex, travel. None of her excursions go particularly well. “You are thinking in some chamber inside your heart: Fuck, fuck, fuck. How dare you turn pain to reason?” she writes. By acknowledging how maddening and slippery it is to name her grief without cheapening it, O’Rourke steers well away from clichéd gestures. That approach initially makes her book seem clinical and restrained—she’s forever pulling out rhetorical calipers, measuring every observation for meaning. Yet her memories collectively evoke her shattered state, and when she does make some familiar gestures of transcendence in the closing pages, it feels wholly earned.

O’Rourke speaks at 7 p.m. at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free.