Category Archives: fiction

A Bird in the Hand

helen-macdonald

I first heard about H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald when I learned it was a number one bestseller in the United Kingdom. Not knowing much about falconry, I thought I would order the book and take a look. I was not prepared to be utterly stunned by Macdonald’s deft craftsmanship. Her powers of description kept stopping me in my tracks. I would read a page or two and then pause; it was as if I needed time to digest the imagery.

H is for Hawk

It is after the terrible and sudden loss of her father that Macdonald decides to tackle the enormous challenge of adopting and training the fierce and unruly goshawk. The bird of prey she names Mabel isn’t having any part of it at first. What drew me into the story was the battle between a wild creature’s desire to be free, and a woman hurting and alone who accepts the challenge unflinchingly. Turning to the writing of T.H.White’s who in The Goshawk, describes his own triumphs and defeats, we learn about the level of patience the practice of falconry demands. Macdonald’s father taught her to be patient, and in accepting the challenge of taming Mabel, it is as if she has something to prove. It is her desire to show her father that she had not forgotten either his lessons, or the man himself, that drives her and compels her to persevere in the face of many cuts, bruises, frights and frustration. I imagine anyone in the throws of grief attempts to describe the experience, but I am at a loss to recall anyone as capable of getting to all the nuances better than Helen Macdonald.

“And it wasn’t until we were standing on Queenstown Road Station, on an unfamiliar platform under a white wooden canopy, wasn’t until we were walking towards the exit, that I realized, for the first time, that I would never see my father again.
Ever. I stopped dead. And I shouted. I called out loud for him. Dad. And then the word No came out in one long, collapsing howl. My brother and my mother put their arms around me, and I them. Brute fact. I would never speak to him again. I would never see him again. We clung to each other crying for Dad, the man we loved, the quiet man in a suit with a camera on his shoulder, who had set out each day in search of things that were new, who had captured the courses of the stars and storms and streets and politicians, who had stopped time by making pictures of the movings of the world. My father, who had gone out to photograph storm-damaged buildings in Battersea, on that night when the world had visited him with damage and his heart had given way.” Page 106

There are aspects of Mabel’s moods that mirror the wild panic grief can impose.

On the back jacket sleeve of H is for Hawk I read that Helen Macdonald is “a writer, poet, illustrator, historian, naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the department of history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge.

Macdonald uses her poet’s skill, combined with her naturalist’s eye to craft passages of the most beautiful description I have read in years.

“It’s turned cold: cold so that saucers of ice lie in the mud, blank and crazed as antique porcelain. Cold so the hedges are alive with Baltic blackbirds; so cold that each breath hangs like parceled sea fog in the air. The blue sky rings with it, and the bell on Mabel’s tail is dimmed with condensation. Cold, cold, cold. My feet crack the ice in the mud as I trudge uphill. And because the squeaks and grinding harmonics of fracturing ice sound to Mabel like a wounded animal, every step I take is met with a convulsive clench of her toes. Where the world isn’t white with frost, it’s stripped green and brown in strong sunlight, so the land is particoloured and snapping backward to dawn and forwards to dusk. The days now are a bare six hours long.” Pge 242
Our house on Lake Coeur d’ Alene is a lofty perch from which we view an endless array of hawks, ravens, eagles and osprey. They are mesmerizing. A visiting friend whose conversation had drifted off as he watched a circling hawk asked me this question: “How do you get anything done?”
“I don’t,” I answered.

This week the whole world has been sickened by the death of a favored lion named Cecil. More ghastly pictures come across our screen. The President of the United States has stated that something must be done about climate change. We can no longer do nothing while the delicate balance of our beautiful world is disrupted. The west is burning up. The Cape Horn Fire in Bayview, Idaho, a place I revere, ravaged swaths of a mountain forest. The scarred woods are eerily quiet. Even the yellow jackets have moved on. We are not aware of the gentle cacophony of life until we stand in the wasteland. We need our poets more now than ever. We need naturalists and writer’s who can give voice to our plight. H is for Hawk is much more than a pleasant summer interlude; it is a screech in a particular moment in time.

Shadow of the Shore

 

 Edith Wharton at her desk.
On a recent trip to Memphis, Tennessee, my husband took me to a used book store called Burke’s Books. We have done this on many trips, and it is one of our traditions for which I am most grateful. We spend a good amount of time in these establishments; he never rushes me or questions my purchasing habits, another one of his many strong suits. While in the stacks, I browse and sit in waiting chairs, picking up and putting down many books. Mostly, I wait for a certain feeling to come over me, a tingling, or an inkling that will lead me in a direction I need to go. It was in a used book shop in Coeur d’ Alene that I found a sentence in a history book that led to me spending a decade creating My American Eden. My husband found two of the most significant details of the story in second-hand shops- one in our town and another in Westchester County, Pennsylvania. When we left the shop in Memphis, he joked that he had in his hand a book that may well be the key. I laughed because I often have the same feeling. On the plane home, I cracked open my treasure: Edith Wharton’s Summer.
The book jacket revealed that this work was considered by many to be her finest. The trip home flew by in a jiffy as I devoured Wharton’s beautiful work.
From Summer:
“The lake at last- a sheet of shining metal brooded over by drooping trees. Charity and Harney had secured a boat and, getting away from the wharves and the refreshment-booths, they drifted idly along, hugging the shadow of the shore. Where the sun struck the water its shafts flamed back blindingly at the heat-veiled sky; and the least shade was black by contrast. The Lake was so smooth that the reflection of the trees on its edge seemed enamelled on a solid surface; but gradually, as the sun declined, the water grew transparent and Charity, leaning over, plunged her fascinated gaze into the depths so clear that she saw the inverted tree-tops interwoven with green growths on the bottom.
They rounded a point at the farther end of the Lake, and entering an inlet pushed their bow against a protruding tree-trunk. A green veil of willows overhung them. Beyond the trees, wheat-fields sparkled in the sun; and all along the horizon the clear hills throbbed with light. Charity leaned back in the stern, and Harney unshipped the oars and lay in the bottom of the boat without speaking.”
Page 95
The Mount
When asked which books made her the most proud, Edith Wharton named Summer as one of them. In reading more about her life, I happened to learn about her home, a beautiful estate in the Berkshires, known as The Mount. As she penned a book about houses and gardens, she was able to oversee every detail of this exquisite treasure. Born of wealth and privilege into an old moneyed family, instead of whiling away her life in gorgeous drawing rooms and delicate gardens, she picked up a pen and gave us a body of work, worth picking up time and time again. Now I am obsessed with going to see her lovely home and have added one more adventure to my wish list. Her library is depicted below.

If you are the proprietor of a second-hand book shop, thank you. If you can spend an afternoon in a dusty shop, consider yourself lucky. You never know when you might find the key. It may lead to a decade of further study.

Provocative Silence

 

 J.D. Salinger

 Born: January 1, 1919, New York, N.Y.

 Died: January 27, 2010, Cornish, New Hampshire

Ron Rosenbaum, of Esquire magazine when describing the solitary nature of J.D. Salinger wrote:

“It is not a passive silence, it is a palpable, provocative silence.”

My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff spoke to a great fantasy of mine. While I do not read romances with shirtless men on the cover, I am not without special nooks and crannies in my imagination where the topic thrills me, and sends me off into delicious flights of fancy. What do I lust after in my heart, to quote President Carter? I want to gobble up all I can about the New York literary scene.

Joanna Rakoff, at the age of twenty-three, spent a year working at an esteemed literary agency in the heart of the best of all literary worlds. What drew me to the story right from the beginning was my abiding desire to step inside one of these establishments. My filing cabinets have folders holding rejection letters, letters expressing interest, letters asking for the full manuscript, and why I keep them all is a mystery to me. Writer’s conferences invite agents who are looking for new talent. Since they are the gate-keepers to the publishing contracts, it behooves any writer to learn something about the people who hold the keys to our kingdom. Over the years, I have learned a few things about these agencies. For one, they seem to stay in business. Two, they maintain the same address, and three, they grow in the numbers of employees. Four, they have graduate students and new-hires reading our query letters. Books on how to approach literary agents and how to seek representation are plentiful. Yet, as a voyeuristic and curious reader, I want to be right inside and sitting at the desk. Joanna Rakoff did an excellent job of putting me there. She writes about her year as an assistant, in the nineties, at the old and venerable establishment working for a woman holding the coveted post of agent for J.D. Salinger.

The period of time in my life where I gobbled every word written by Salinger, is still fresh in my mind. Rakoff, well into her time in at the agency, still had yet to pick up Catcher in the Rye. We know that Salinger is reclusive and must be protected at all costs. His agent must shield him from those who would make a pilgrimage to his front door. Rakoff has the job of answering fan letters. It has always been an accepted arrangement where a reader can write to a publisher if they want to contact the author directly. The publisher would be duty-bound to see that the mail reaches its intended recipient. Rakoff, given the standard form letter, began to veer from that, and answer letters addressed to Salinger personally. Intrigued by the emotional impact his writing has on the public, she finally reads Salinger’s work and like so many others, becomes a devoted fan.

There is such clarity to Salinger’s work that it seems he can write without effort. Of course, that is not the case. His desire to keep distractions at bay has always been admirable to me. Understandably, there are those who would disagree. It is my contention that he deserved to be able to do what he did best. Never, not for one day, did I imagine that he was not continuing to write out there in Cornish, New Hampshire.

Perhaps the last sentence from Catcher in the Rye says it all:

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”