Grief and healing in “H Is for Hawk”

I love it when a book makes me interested in something I never thought I’d care about.

For example, The Orchid Thief’s brilliant exposition on the history of both orchids and the state of Florida coupled with a real-life hunt for the elusive ghost orchid kept me enthralled page after page. A Deadly Wandering used a texting-and-driving accident as a narrative thread for looking at how the law adapts to new technology and how our brain tries (and often fails) to the do the same. And in Factory Man, I became acquainted with the American furniture industry and the fiery figure who fought the way foreign competition was affecting his industry.

Another book I’ll add to this list of favorites is Helen Macdonald’s powerful, poignant H Is for Hawk. If you were to ask me if I’d like to read a book that’s partly about the history of falconry, focused especially on the temperamental goshawk, partly about the life of author T.H. White of The Sword and the Stone fame, and partly a grief memoir following Macdonald’s father’s sudden death, I’m not sure I’d sign right up.

And yet, I find myself years after having finished the book still thinking about it, from time to time. I also find myself still looking with a new respect at the red-tailed hawks circling and soaring over my backyard — one, last week, with a scrambling squirrel held tightly in its talons.

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Macdonald’s ability to create a story that moves through these various topics astounds. At times, I simply found myself marveling at how she did it, but mostly I wanted to learn more and more about hawks and about her and about her father and about the reclusive T.H. White.

Macdonald’s father helped foster an interest in the outdoors and in falconry in her from a young age. We learn of his unexpected death early in the book and join her as she journeys through grief and despair and anger and disillusionment.

She writes, “Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.”

If you’ve been through an unexpected death, and particularly the sudden death of a parent, you will relate to this and to so much that follows. While it’s true that death and grief are specific to each individual, and sharing it perfectly isn’t ever attainable, there are some broad similarities. Macdonald deals with her grief by adopting and training a goshawk, finding release in the bird’s wildness and in her ability, and struggle, to contain that.

H Is For Hawk reminded me of two other books about grief, and healing it, in part, through the natural world: The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen, and Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. If you enjoyed either of those, I bet you’d find solace in Macdonald’s book, and vice versa. All three touch on something similar — the need to get out into nature in order to embrace the unimaginable.

“Impermanence mocks us.”

A little something in honor of (sort of), the Day of the Dead.

“Impermanence mocks us. Our efforts — to learn, to acquire, to hold on to what we have — all eventually fail us and come to naught. This is the final and controlling paradox: Only by embracing our mortality can we be happy in the time we have. The intensity of our connections to those we love is a function of our own knowledge that everyone is evanescent. Our ability to experience any pleasure requires either a healthy denial or courageous acceptance of the weight of time and the prospect of ultimate defeat.” — Gordon Livingston, M.D.

Seeing yourself in “Outline”

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Just finished reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline. What a beautiful, quiet, spare book. It reminded me, in ways, of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. They share a gift for highlighting truths about the human condition that sort of sneak up on you as you’re reading. They both, too, shun traditional plot development in favor of pulling stories out of carefully drawn characters.

In Outline, our narrator is a writing instructor who has traveled from England to Greece to teach a writing course over the summer. The book’s constructed as a series of conversations and experiences she has, with most of the information about her coming out in bits and pieces as these conversations are recounted. We meet an aging Greek man who has been married and divorced multiple times, who has been rich and then poor. We meet her writing students, people of all ages with an itch to express themselves. We meet a newly famous author, basking in the literary limelight but with lingering reservations about her place in the world. We meet people struggling to connect with their kids, their spouses, the purpose they’d originally set for themselves in life. In other words, we meet ourselves, one way or another.

The focus seems to be on the other people in the book, but what’s so brilliant here is the way she, the narrator, is reflected back to herself through her interactions with others. And the way they reflect off of her and off each other, too.

Aren’t we all in this same position? Who are we outside of our relationships? How are we shaped by the people we know or meet along the way? Casual encounters, lifelong friendships, marriages, parents, kids — we are shaped, formed, propped up by all of these things, setting up our identities in opposition to the people around us. Who are we, really, outside of this?

And how do we edit our own stories when we’re sharing them with people? What do we leave out? What do we emphasize? What outlines do we create from our own lives, our own experiences, that we hope make us matter, make us real? How does it shift over time? How does it change depending on who you’re talking to?

Rachel Cusk will make you consider these questions, as you also get swept away reading about summer in Greece, with its blinding heat, its white beaches and blue water, the boats and the cafes, the Greek food and wine. You feel as though you’re there, listening to a friend tell you about her summer and the people she met. You feel yourself, even, being reflected back as you read, feel yourself identifying with certain characters, suddenly sure you’re not so alone after all.

 

“Did You Ever Have a Family” Explores Forgiveness, Love, and Grief

Literary agent and author Bill Clegg is no stranger to the best-seller list, whether from the agent’s side or the writer’s. His own success as an author came several years ago with the publication of his two memoirs, which dealt with addiction and his subsequent recovery. Now, he’s returned with his outstanding fiction debut, the beautiful and poignant Did You Ever Have a Family.

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Long-listed for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, Clegg’s novel explores what we mean when we use the word “family” and how we come to understand and love and forgive one another even during times of unspeakable tragedy. The book opens with just such an event, a devastating house fire that kills four people, and the rest of it unspools around the resulting grief and mystery.

The story’s told through several different characters and their points of view, with each chapter in the book reflecting one character’s outlook. The overall picture builds slowly, the details fleshed out little by little. The effect keeps you hanging on, trying to piece together exactly what happened the night of the fire and who was responsible.

Central to the book is June Reid, who lost her daughter and her future son-in-law, as well as her ex-husband and her boyfriend, in the fire at her home the night before her daughter’s wedding was to take place. In her pain and her desire to get out of the small Connecticut town where this awful event happened, June drives west towards the Washington coast. She’s understandably numb and in shock, reliving her life in daydreams, questioning decisions made long ago, trying to understand the path that led to where she currently is, all alone in the world. We can feel her regret and her broken heart.

In addition to June, we also meet other characters trying to process the tragedy and trying to explain the inexplicable. June’s boyfriend’s mother figures prominently here, as do two innkeepers in coastal Washington state, in the tiny town where June eventually ends up. There’s Dale, the father of June’s would-be son-in-law, and Silas, a teenager who’d been working for June’s boyfriend. The dead, in a sense, come back to the life here, their lives and stories told by those who love and miss them, the empty spots they left made whole through memories. The characters’ crisscrossing backstories are captivating, underscoring how connected we all really are.

This book’s bittersweet, filled with such emotion and such life, in the face of tremendous pain. It will stick with you long after you’re finished.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/11/bookbiz-a-breathtaking-debut-novel-that-doesnt-disappoint/)

Transcending a Difficult Childhood in Lucy Grealy’s “Autobiography of a Face”

Lucy Grealy’s remarkable memoir, Autobiography of a Face, was published over twenty years ago. Discovering it now leaves me wondering how I missed it all this time, but grateful that I finally read it.

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Grealy was diagnosed at age nine with Ewing’s sarcoma, an extremely rare form of bone cancer that most often affects children and adolescents. For Grealy, the cancer developed in her jawbone, and the surgery to remove it resulted in the loss of a third of her jaw. Following the surgery, she spent two and a half years undergoing radiation and chemotherapy five days a week. She and her mother made the trek from New Jersey into New York City and back (one hour each way) for that entire time period.

Grealy describes these experiences with precision, putting us into the mindset of a child going through tremendous suffering. She writes about how, at first, she welcomed all the attention, and the break from school and her somewhat volatile home life it provided her. But no one ever actually bothered to explain to her the seriousness of her condition or the extent of the surgery, so she was left, repeatedly, to piece these things together on her own. In fact, it took years before she even realized that Ewing’s sarcoma is a form of cancer.

The surgery left her disfigured, and when she returned to school, she faced the awful cruelty that kids can display, enduring their teasing and taunts. She wanted desperately to fit in, but never felt at ease.

She had to have repeated surgeries on her jaw, as the doctors tried to use various measures to rebuild it and give her a more “normal” appearance. But time after time, these did not go as planned, leaving Grealy feeling even more isolated at school. She, like anyone else, craved acceptance and love, and she came to believe she’d never find either.

It’s in her evocative writing about feeling alone and wanting more than anything to feel connected to her peers that Grealy’s book becomes more than just a specific story about an illness and its aftermath. It becomes something universal, something that I’d guess just about any reader who has been a pre-teen or teenager can relate to. While her situation was undoubtedly extreme, and she faced abuse from her classmates that will break your heart, Grealy captures here what it’s like to be a kid looking for your place in the world.

When she went off to a small liberal arts college, she at last did feel the warmth of acceptance and lack of judgment from her fellow students. Differences were celebrated. It was here she began writing, an outcome we are the richer for.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2016/03/book-biz-an-arresting-memoir-about-childhood-illness-and-loneliness/)

“In Paradise” Presents Hard Questions About Humanity & the Holocaust

Writer and conservationist Peter Matthiessen’s last book, In Paradise, was published just a few days after his death in April 2014. He was known for writing both fiction and nonfiction, and for being the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both. However, Matthiessen himself believed that he was primarily a fiction writer at heart, so it’s fitting that his final work was a novel.

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And what a novel it is. Many of his earlier books explored themes around the environment and how human civilization has changed it throughout time. He also traveled extensively and his books served to highlight different cultures and ecosystems across the globe.

Here, however, he brings his pointed gaze squarely onto us, asking hard questions about the nature of good and evil and about the human condition. He does this in In Paradise by writing about the Holocaust.

Matthiessen was a Zen Buddhist, and starting in 1996, he attended three meditation retreats at the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. This experience would undoubtedly go on to inspire the fictional account of a similar retreat in In Paradise.

The main character here is the “Polish-born American poet and scholar,” Dr. Clements Olin. He is at the retreat, he tells the others, not to participate formally in the silent meditations, but instead, for research purposes. This is the first time Olin has ever visited the country of his birth. As the book unfolds, so does Olin’s personal history, which is more tightly bound to the Holocaust than he initially lets on.

Alongside him on the retreat is a diverse group of about 140 people, including Catholic nuns and a priest, a few young Germans, some elderly survivors of the Holocaust, Jewish rabbis, and several spiritual seekers. They are thrust together in meditation while sitting on, for example, the train platform where SS doctors sorted prisoners into those who would be put to work and those who would be put to death immediately. They sleep in the barracks that the Nazi officers used and eat in their cafeteria.

Emotions run high. Even in this most solemn of places, in the cold dark dampness of December, flashes of human frailty pop up, as the retreat members find themselves arguing and attacking one another personally, with some doubting others’ motivations for coming. They debate, too, about whether another Holocaust could happen, whether we have learned anything at all.

In Paradise asks some difficult questions about the limits of empathy and compassion, and the nature of evil and humanity. It’s a thought-provoking, intensely worthwhile book.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/09/book-biz-hard-questions-about-humanity-set-against-the-holocaust/)

Discovering the Mississippi Delta in “Dispatches From Pluto”

It sounds like the start of a classic fish-out-of-water tale: take one man from England who’s been living in New York City, plop him down in a tiny town in the Mississippi Delta, and hilarity ensues. It’s a true story, though, and Richard Grant writes about his adventures in the entertaining and enlightening Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta.

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After befriending Delta native and cookbook author Martha Foose, Grant visits her home stomping grounds and finds himself entranced by the land, the people, and the beauty of it all. The Delta’s languid pace appealed to him, as well, especially coming from NYC’s frenetic, stressful quality of life. Grant persuaded his Arizona-born girlfriend, Mariah, who’d also been living in Manhattan, to move south with him. (She didn’t take much persuading, as they were both burned out on big-city living.) Before you know it, they’re the proud owners of a circa-1910 4-bedroom farmhouse in Pluto, Mississippi.

Right away, they tried to orient themselves in their new Holmes County surroundings, learning the ways of their fellow Delta residents as if undertaking an anthropological study. The neighbors welcomed them with the hospitality you’d expect, filling their calendar with social engagements from elaborate dove hunts to dinners with eccentric characters galore.

Grant and his girlfriend learned how to shoot guns and hunt, how to deal with more mosquitos than they’d ever seen in their lives, how to identify cottonmouths, how to effectively clear weeds for a garden, and how to make home repairs on a hundred-year-old house. They learned new words (like “brake” and “slough”) and explored many of the small towns in the Delta that have seen more prosperous days. Grant toured Parchman, made a friend in Morgan Freeman, visited with bluesman T-Model Ford, and covered Bill Luckett’s campaign for mayor of Clarksdale.

Through it all, Grant writes with an admiration and tenderness for his new home and neighbors. The book’s often riotously funny, particularly when describing real-life crime stories in Greenwood and elsewhere. But Grant’s also thoughtful and earnest in trying to understand race relations in modern-day Mississippi. In one chapter he tackles, for instance, the current abysmal state of affairs of the public schools in the Delta. And he writes movingly about the grinding poverty he sees there.

Grant’s insights as an outsider trying to decipher a new world make this book compelling and also challenging. He’s confronting tough truths and asking hard questions, but from a place of genuine respect and love.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/12/book-biz-an-englishman-adjusts-to-his-new-mississippi-delta-home/)

“Coming of Age in Mississippi” Still Inspires and Humbles

Reading Anne Moody’s searing autobiography of her time growing up in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, I was struck again and again by her bravery. I’d read Coming of Age in Mississippi before, years ago, but felt drawn to it again recently, and found it just as powerful now as ever.

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Born in poverty and raised by a mother who worked multiple jobs to put food on the family table, Moody shares, in detail, just exactly what it was like growing up poor and black in rural Mississippi in the 1940s and 50s. She worked from an early age to help her siblings and mother, doing housework, yard work, babysitting, and odd jobs for the white families in their community. She explains vividly how, as a child, she grew to recognize but not fully understand the differences between her family and those she worked for. She captures this perplexity and this heartache perfectly.

Just as Moody was entering ninth grade in 1955, Emmett Till was murdered. He was 14 at the time, and so was she. At this point, everything changes. She remains a hard worker and a precocious student, but she’s now committed to fighting for justice and fairness. She finds she can’t be complacent, can’t just accept “things as they are.” It puts her at odds with her mother and many in her family, who fear for her life and theirs, too – a fear that is completely justified.

Moody would eventually attend Tougaloo College, where she was active in the civil rights movement. She participated in the famous Woolworth’s sit-in in downtown Jackson in 1963, where she and two other activists sat calmly for three hours at the lunch counter while an angry mob hit them, yelled at them, and poured ketchup, mustard, and sugar on them. She was resolute.

She saw and experienced more violence, from attacks on peaceful protests she participated in to threats while she was working to encourage black Mississippians to register to vote. Still, she didn’t cave. She didn’t run. She persevered. She recounts, in her book, the horror of hearing about both the murder of Medgar Evers in June 1963 and the Birmingham church bombing in September 1963. The latter happened on her 23rd birthday.

Reading this book places you right in the heart of the civil rights movement, with a remarkably strong woman as your guide. She was bold and outspoken and unafraid.

Moody died in February 2015 at age 74. Thankfully, though, her words, her courageous spirit, and her important legacy live on to inspire future generations.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/08/book-biz-revisiting-the-life-story-of-a-civil-rights-pioneer/)