Happy Spring! Duck Eggs Daily

duck eggs daily

“As the sun peeks up over the tops of the trees, I finish the last of my coffee and get dressed in my ‘barn attire.’ My schedule (and the ducks’) isn’t dictated by the time on the clock on the kitchen wall, but entirely on the sun. They want to be let out at sunup, whether that comes at 5:30 a.m. or 8:00 a.m….It’s cold outside, so I’ve heated up some water in the teakettle and have a special treat for the ducks to go with their breakfast. They’re getting a pan of oats, cracked corn, dried cranberries and mealworms, moistened with warm water.”  Duck Eggs Daily by Lisa Steele

I know it’s spring when, every April, a pair of wood ducks appear in our backyard. They like to swim in our two small ponds and they nest somewhere in the miniature forest of beech, maple, and hemlock behind our house that gets a bit swampy in the spring.

Our ducks haven’t shown up yet, but I’m expecting them any day now.

A pair of ducksWe never see any ducklings, though, and we worry because this is also the territory of a neighborhood fox, as well as hawks and owls. By midsummer our visiting ducks have disappeared – maybe they’re busy tending their nest – and I always miss them once they’ve gone.

So I was delighted when my favorite gardening and sustainable living publisher, St. Lynn’s Press, sent me a review copy of Duck Eggs Daily: Raising Happy, Healthy Ducks…Naturally by Lisa Steele. (Lisa is also the author of Fresh Eggs Daily.)

My husband and I have been learning (very) small-scale vegetable gardening, and I’ve been thinking about branching out into eggs. I’d read in one of my gardening books that ducks are great for pest control and fertilizer, and they’re easier to raise than chickens.

DucksIn Duck Eggs Daily, Maine hobby farmer Lisa Steele proves this is so, and I found her enthusiasm and love for ducks (and flocks of all kinds) to be contagious and inspiring.

An expert in small-flock poultry keeping, Lisa has been a long-time owner of chickens, too. She says that ducks are more cold hardy, heat tolerant, and disease resistant than chickens – so I’m thinking ducks might be the way for a beginner like me to get started. They have a longer and more productive laying life too, and duck eggs are especially rich in protein.

Duck Eggs Daily is a beautifully designed little how-to reference book that also reads like a daybook or nature journal, particularly the day-in-a-life-with-ducks chapter.  Lisa’s eleven ducks clearly bring her a great deal of joy, and these duck tending activities are lovingly rendered:

  • hatching ducklings in an incubator
  • collecting eggs at sunrise
  • making ducks happy with special treats (such as watermelon, dandelion greens, fresh peas, leftover squash and pumpkins from the garden, and delicious mealworms)
  • giving ducks swim time in the kiddie pool
  • watching typical duck antics like walking in a row, mud dabbling, tail wagging, and happy quacks.

Each duck topic covered is packed with useful details:

  • the characteristics and advantages of various duck breeds
  • hatching, brooding and raising ducks
  • one complete day in a life with ducks, from sunrise to sunset
  • duck behavior and duck treats
  • duck houses and duck pools
  • duck health
  • cooking with duck eggs, with tempting recipes like crème brûlée, lemony egg rice soup, herbed deviled eggs, and homemade pasta.

Ducks 2Lisa says that now is the perfect time to invest in a pair or trio of ducks, because many ducks adopted as pets are abandoned after Easter. She encourages interested readers to adopt two or three from one of the duck rescue organizations listed in the book’s appendix.

After reading Duck Eggs Daily, I concluded that currently we don’t have a lifestyle conducive to raising ducks and doing it well. However, we’re looking forward to ducks in our future when the time is right. It’s a daily commitment, and we’d need to find someone to take over when we travel. I have a hard time picturing myself filling water tubs twice a day, especially during freezing, snowy western New York winters. And, in theory, I like the romance of getting up with the sun to let the ducks out and give them breakfast, but rising early isn’t my favorite thing to do. I’d have to make a commitment to make that happen on cold, dark winter mornings. Still, I like the discipline this entails. I think it would be a great way to start to my day and get me at my writing desk earlier.

But those ducks, they sure are cute, so maybe it will happen sooner rather than later. I’ve never tasted a duck egg, and wouldn’t it be fun to make homemade mint chip ice cream with fresh duck eggs?

My St. Lynn’s Press Library

I’ve had a small herb garden as long as I can remember, and I’ve always loved flowers, having grown up in a floral shop. Over the past year or two, since we began our vegetable garden and I discovered St. Lynn’s Press, I’ve assembled a great little library that’s still growing.

Herb Lovers Spa BookSlow Flowers, by Debra Prinzing

The 50 Mile Bouquet, by Debra Prinzing

Windowsill Art, by Nancy Ross Hugo

The Herb Lover’s Spa Book, by Sue Goetz

The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion, by Jenny Peterson

Yards, by Billy Goodnick

 

Ducks 1

Why We Write About Ourselves (Excavating a Life)

Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature

Why We Write About Ourselves book coverA few days after I wrote my blog post Why I Write Memoir (one of my most shared and commented on posts ever – many thanks to those of you who did so), I was intrigued to see at our local Barnes & Noble Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran, who is herself a memoirist.

Just published this year, I hadn’t known this was coming. Here’s Meredith’s dedication: “For those who read memoirs and those who write memoirs, and for those who wish we wouldn’t. We’re all just looking for the truth, aren’t we.”

Meredith writes that emotions ran high when she asked the authors, some of our finest memoirists, to share honestly what it was like for them to see a memoir through to publication.

Each memoirist gets his/her own chapter that concludes with a short “Wisdom for Memoir Writers” section.

You’ll find, of course, these writers have strong opinions and distinctive voices, with widely varying opinions about self-exposure, writing about others, truth and accuracy, and other memoir writing land mines.

As I try my hand at memoir writing, I appreciated the moral support, guidance, and encouragement I found here. If you’re writing one I think you will, too. Whatever challenges and blocks you’ve encountered, you can be sure these writers have faced down the same thing.

And if you love to read memoirs, you’ll likely find a few titles and authors you’ll want to check out. No doubt, you’ll be more aware of the behind-the-scenes decisions the memoirist had to make about how to tell her story, which will make your reading experience richer.

Here are some of my favorite memoirist comments:

The Great Santini book coverPat Conroy (The Great Santini): “Some of us are the designated rememberers. That’s why memoir interests us–because we’re the ones who pass on the stories.”

Cheryl Strayed (Wild): “I’m always asking myself if material I have from my own life would be best used in a novel or a memoir or a short story or an essay. I was moved to write Wild as a memoir because I thought that was the best way to tell that particular story.”

Jesmyn Ward (Men We Reaped): “The further I got into the book, the worse it got. Recounting the events when my brother died was so difficult….especially the very big edit I did with the direction of my editor, Kathy Belden, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in relation to writing. I did four drafts, and she was asking me at every point to offer some judgment, some assessment of these events…..I recounted a story about a cellar in the woods. Kathy had a page of notes on the section. She kept telling me to dig deeper, to look at myself in the past, to figure out why that cellar meant something to me…..I finally realized…All the feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness I had at that age were embodied by the cellar. It symbolized all the dark things that happened to me, things I thought I deserved because of the way I thought of myself at that time: as a young black woman in the South.” (Note: Jesmyn won the National Book Award for her novel, Salvage the Bones.)

The Mistress's DaughterA.M. Homes (The Mistress’s Daughter): “There were many points at which I thought, I don’t really want to be doing this. I want to stop. What propelled me to keep going was that I felt I could bring to the memoir my experience and training as a writer–finding language for primitive emotional experiences. One of the things that worked about the book was that it gave voice to people who hadn’t found language for the adoption experience. It allowed them to explore their own experience in a different way, and/or to have their feelings about it articulated and confirmed.”   

(Note: I especially liked Homes’ memoir.)

Dani Shapiro (Three memoirs: Slow Motion, Devotion, and Still Writing) “After I gave my mother the galleys, her therapist called and asked me to meet with her. What can I say? We were all New York Jews. I gave the therapist a set of galleys so she could read it before my mother did. After she read it, she said she didn’t think there was anything that would upset my mother, that it was very fair to her. I had two thoughts: First, that this therapist didn’t know my mother at all, and second, that my mother had been wasting her money for years…

…when people in her life heard that her daughter had written a memoir, they all read it as a way of trying to understand her: her doorman, her lawyer, her dentist, her neighbors. I couldn’t have imagined such a thing happening. It was like she was in The Truman Show. The whole thing was very sad and painful, but not painful enough for me to wish I hadn’t written the book.”

James McBride (The Color of Water“The narrative of the book was as thin and muscled as my life was at that time. You know, with every story you do, you’re trying to shove a lot of things into the keyhole and drag the reader with you. You have to narrow the focus of the story so it has the push of a creek in a narrow spot.”

“You write a memoir for the same reason you write a song–to help someone feel better. You don’t write it to show how smart you are or how dumb they are. You’re trying to share from a sense of humbleness. It’s almost like you’re asking forgiveness of the reader for being so kind as to allow you to indulge yourself at their expense.”

(Note: James McBride won the National Book Award for his novel, The Good Lord Bird.)

Here’s my 2016 list of memoirs to read – who knows how many I’ll get to:

In Other WordsIn Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri

Welcome To the Goddamn Ice Cube, Blair Braverman

A Common Struggle, Patrick J. Kennedy and Stephen Fried

Beautiful Affliction, Lene Fogelberg

The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander

Into Great Silence: A Memory of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, Eva Salitis

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi

Just Kids; M Train, Patti Smith

Life From Scratch, Sasha MartinWelcome

Shepherd, Richard Gilbert

A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail, Jenna Butler

I would love to know if you have a favorite memoir, one that really spoke to you and that you’d recommend to others.

 

 

Reading Kazuo Ishiguro

IMG_2640 (1)

“Then he took the sword in both hands and raised it—and Gawain’s posture took on an unmistakable grandeur.” – The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

My son gave me a signed first edition of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant, for Christmas. The book has been cast in some marketing circles as a fantasy, with allusions to King Arthur and Beowulf and the like, although the author has said he doesn’t set out to write in one particular genre or another and doesn’t like his books to be labeled as such.

Ishiguro is one of my favorite novelists, so I read every new book of his that comes out.

Never Let Me Go (dystopia/science fiction) and When We Were Orphans (in the tradition of the mystery/detective novel but with a literary twist) are my favorite Ishiguro novels. In fact, Never Let Me Go is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, one of Ishiguro’s more accessible stories. If you want to read Ishiguro, you might start with Never Let me Go, which was made into a movie starring Carey Mulligan. Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (pre World War II) was also brought to the screen with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

As much as I enjoyed the screen versions of these books, there is something about Ishiguro’s writing that seems to be lost in a movie, at least for me. His novels are like dreams verging on nightmares from which you can’t awaken. Things don’t quite make sense in Ishiguro’s novels – you know this is not “reality” and that something is off, but what? The main character(s) are usually on a quest of one kind or another. They long for something that seems to be just out of reach.

You come to discern that Ishiguro’s characters are operating under some grand delusion. It’s unsettling, because you sense something familiar about the delusion; you begin to recognize that perhaps you operate under the very same delusion.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroEspecially if you’re of a certain age and you have children who have left the nest as I do, you might find The Buried Giant particularly affecting. Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who leave their village and set off to find their son, whom they apparently haven’t seen in many years. They can’t remember the circumstances under which he left, or exactly where he lives, just as they can’t remember much of anything about their own pasts.

Axl and Beatrice aren’t unusual, though. No one in their village or anywhere else remembers much about their own past, nor do they seem to want to; a fine mist over the countryside, thought to be the breath of the dragon Querig, is said to be responsible for shrouding both personal and collective memory.

It is somewhere around the year 600 AD, and England is in ruin. Axl and Beatrice want to find their son, and they want to regain their memories. As they wander in search of their son, they meet others on their own quests. Clues and sightings suggest a terrible slaughter between the Saxons and Britons that no one remembers, just as no one recalls the dark secrets that lurk in their personal pasts. Perhaps the mist is in place so Britons and Saxons can live side by side without wanting to exact revenge.

As one reviewer pointed out, don’t we all operate under collective memory loss, or denial, that’s partly deliberate? Over climate change, for example, even though climate scientists have been warning us about it since the seventies? Or the atrocities of war?

Axl and Beatrice become caught up in a scheme to slay the dragon so memories can be recovered, but as Sir Gawain, the knight and nephew of the dead King Arthur, asks Beatrice, “Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”

Just as the Saxons and Britons fought a terrible war, you gradually learn there was upheaval in Axl and Beatrice’s relationship as well. What will happen when this couple, who seem to be so in love, recall their betrayals of each other? And what happened to their son?

Axl and Beatrice meet a boatman who they must rely on to help them cross a river in their journey. He says, “When travellers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them to disguise the truth. A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years – that we see only rarely.”

Beatrice replies: “But God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.”

Ishiguro builds up to a powerful and haunting conclusion. Like all of Ishiguro’s novels, I can’t get this one out of my mind.

There has been some interest in making The Buried Giant into a movie, but there are no definite plans yet.

Here is an excellent 4-minute video of Ishiguro talking about his novels made into movies.

In this interview, Ishiguro talks about how a book can be the raw material for a movie, which becomes something new and powerful in and of itself; how literary genres are breaking down and overlapping in exciting ways; and how he embraces the Leonard Cohen model of artistry and aging in which the artist looks to aging as new material for his/her art.

 

Kazuo Ishiguro authograph

 

Have you read The Buried Giant or other novels by Ishiguro? Do you have a favorite? Have you seen the movie versions of Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go?

 

 

 

 

 

H Is for Hawk

H is for Hawk

“….her feet were gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thunder-cloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell….”  H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald’s reaction to her father dying suddenly was to embark on the extraordinarily difficult task of training a goshawk, one of nature’s fiercest and most ruthless predators.

Goshawks are cold-hearted, lifelong loners with no social instincts whatsoever. They bond with no one, not the goshawk they mate with, not other goshawks, not any human who wants to train them. You can’t look them in the eye, either, because if you do they might attack you.

Goshawks don’t respond to punishment. The only way to train a goshawk is to be submissive and patient, eyes cast down at all times. Tim Gallagher, in a review of H Is for Hawk, likens this to being a kind of monk. It is not a part-time thing. Training a goshawk is all-consuming. It takes over your life.

Helen writes about the hawk she is training, whom she names Mabel:

“Everything about the hawk is tuned and turned to hunt and kill. Yesterday I discovered that when I suck air through my teeth and make a squeaking noise like an injured rabbit, all the tendons in her toes instantaneously contract, driving her talons into the glove with terrible, crushing force. This killing grip is an old, deep pattern in her brain, an innate response that hasn’t yet found the stimulus meant to release it. Because other sounds provoke it: door hinges, squealing breaks, bicycles with unoiled wheels – and on the second afternoon, Joan Sutherland singing an aria on the radio. Ow. I laughed out loud at that. Stimulus: opera. Response: kill.”

Two goshawks

Goshawk. Rare Book Division, New York Public Library

 

Helen’s father was a prominent photographer, Alisdair Macdonald, and the two were close. When she was a child, they spent many days roaming the countryside as Alisdair indulged his passion for airplanes and Helen her growing passion for birds.

After Alisdair died, Helen wanted a distraction from her grief, something deeply immersive and challenging. In this respect, H Is for Hawk is unlike other memoirs. There isn’t a lot about Helen’s father or her relationship with him, or about Helen’s feelings of sadness and loss, per se. These are subsumed into an arresting narrative of Helen’s struggle to achieve what seems to be impossible as she grapples with her grief.

As Helen comes to understand, “Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.”

Helen was, in fact, an experienced falconer, but she’d never taken on a goshawk before. She brought along a companion in her unusual undertaking: T. H. White’s, The Goshawk, White’s account of his own experience training a goshawk in the 1930s. (Remember T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, The Once and Future King, and other tales of Arthurian legend? Even if you didn’t read the books, you’ve probably seen the movie/musical Camelot and the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone.)

This weaving of T.H. White’s experiences into Helen’s narrative is fascinating; White, who was gay in a culture and time when this was unacceptable, was grappling with his own loss and inner darkness. Helen writes,

“It took me a long time to realise how many of our classic books on animals were by gay writers who wrote of their relationships with animals in lieu of human loves of which they could not speak.”

And this:

“….White wrote one of the saddest sentences I have ever read: ‘Falling in love is a desolating experience, but not when it is with a countryside.’ He could not imagine a human love returned. He had to displace his desires onto the landscape, that great, blank green field that cannot love you back, but cannot hurt you either.”

Helen’s immersion with Mabel, her goshawk, is harrowing. She holds nothing back in the struggle, and she holds nothing back from her reader. Ultimately, Helen has to confront her obsession with the goshawk and her nearly complete withdrawal from friends and family. Where does obsession end and madness begin?

Before you read H Is for Hawk, I highly recommend that you read this fascinating review by Tim Gallagher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds site. Gallagher puts the human-training-a-goshawk challenge into context, and I think it will pique your interest. Not knowing a raptor from a falcon from a hawk myself, I wish I’d read this review first. And I’ve a soft spot in my heart for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the good work they do. We live not far from there, and I’ve seen at least one of their research sites in the Finger Lakes countryside.

Read H Is for Hawk if you want a different kind of memoir that demands to be read slowly, one word, one phrase, one sentence at a time. If you’re willing and want to slow down and immerse in another world entirely.

I expect I’ll read H Is for Hawk once or twice more down the road, as I simply couldn’t take it all in the first time through. If I’ve painted a rather dark picture of this unusual memoir, there is light and wisdom gained, too:

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, […]”

Have  you read H Is for Hawk? What did you think? Are there similar books you might recommend?

Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night book cover

“I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.”

“What? How do you mean?”

“I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.”

He stared at her, watching her, curious now, cautious….

….he stood at the door watching her, this medium-sized seventy-year-old woman with white hair walking away under the trees in the patches of light thrown out by the corner street lamp. What in the hell, he said. Now don’t get ahead of yourself.”

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

There is no writer quite like Kent Haruf. He’s been a favorite of mine for a long time. I wrote about his other novels, Plainsong (my favorite), Eventide, and Benediction here.

Haruf passed away a year ago, and his final novel, Our Souls at Night, about the blossoming of an older couple’s relationship, was just published.

Like his other novels, Our Souls at Night takes place in the fictitious eastern Colorado town of Holt. I’m not going to say too much about this book because Haruf’s writing doesn’t lend itself to heavy analysis; I think that might ruin it for readers new to this author.

Instead, I’ll refer you to this review by Ursula Le Guin, who greatly admires Haruf’s writing and does a good job of summarizing Haruf’s themes, characters and style.

If you are new to Kent Haruf, you could start with Plainsong. I think you’ll be entranced by the characters in the lonely little desert town of Holt and you’ll want to read the other books.

Our Souls at Night would make a wonderful holiday gift.

“They stopped in one of the towns for hamburgers and then drove up the highway through the Arkansas River canyon, the beautiful fast water, steep red jagged cliffs on each side, there were Rocky Mountain sheep along the road, all ewes with short sharp horns, and went on and then turned off toward North Fork Campground on County Road 240 and entered the national forest…..They could hear it running and rushing. The clear icy water, with brook trout holed up in the hollows below the rocks. There were tall fir trees and big ponderosas and aspen along the creek and back in the hillside.”

The Wonder Garden

The Wonder Garden book cover

“She opens her eyes and looks at the television, a car commercial. An American couple achieves the top of a mountain, commanding a vista. She breathes in and breathes out. It is all right to retreat. She will pull back, she will redraw her boundaries. She will find her balance. When she emerges again, she will be refreshed, reenergized. She will be the best Rosalie she can be. The best and only.”

The Wonder Garden is a collection of exquisite short stories by Lauren Acampora, a new writer whom I’ve added to my “read-everything-by-this-author” list.

I’ve been reading more short stories lately, and I especially like these because they are linked: a protagonist in one story appears as a supporting character in the other stories, so that the collection reads like novel.

The stories are wickedly funny, psychologically complex, dark, uniquely American, and occasionally bleak – but leavened with an understated joy in the ebbs and flows and seasons of life. Living in suburbia and having raised children there, I find them so resonant.

Fictitious Old Cranbury is John Cheever and Mad Men territory, except post 9/11: an upscale Connecticut town on Long Island Sound, the home of a few have-nots but mostly haves. There is a memorial dedicated to five fathers who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and were killed on September 11.

The houses of Old Cranbury form a motif that further links the stories. The restored salt boxes and farmhouses, pretentious mansions, and humbler ranches fitted with granite countertops and fake shutters reflect their inhabitants’ aspirations and obsessions.

Acampora has compassion for her characters, but she can be scathing, too. Rosalie, for example (see above quote) is the type of hyperactive suburban mother who does everything and knows everyone and gives over her life to her five children: she is on the school board, she is prominent in the PTA, she hosts a book club, she makes themed halloween costumes for the entire family, including her brain surgeon husband. She is a good Christian woman who understands she has been greatly blessed and decides to host a poor Bangladeshi foreign exchange student for a semester.

There is a wonderful turning point in the story when the student, Nayana, expresses her sympathy for Noah, Rosalie’s youngest.  Rosalie is puzzled by this, and Nayana explains that Noah had revealed his true history to her: he was adopted into the family, having lost his birth father in 9/11. Noah’s story is sheer fabrication and Rosalie is horrified, having seen to it that her children have lacked for nothing.

Confronting Noah, she is undone by this previously unseen side of her son: it may as well be true, he says, because his neurosurgeon father is never around, implying that Rosalie, too, is lacking as a mother. Concurrent threads in the story reveal that the all-male members of the school board condescend to Rosalie and, most chillingly of all, her husband seems to view her with contempt.

I disliked Rosalie and was highly entertained by her, but at the same I recognized that, though she works hard and means well, she is an aging, marginalized woman in what is still a sexist culture. She is in many respects a throwback to the 1950s, pre-feminist, stay-at-home wives.

Another story is about a young single mother who meets a brain surgeon (yes, Rosalie’s husband) and really believes he will whisk her away to a glamorous life in Paris.

The brain surgeon gets his own story, and we find out he has a few really bizarre secrets of his own.

I loved the aging artist and his wife who transcend themselves to make one last work of art.

Then there’s the newly married advertising executive compelled to leave his job so he can follow his animal spirit.

And the 50-something real estate broker caught in traffic who decides to just stop; she turns off the ignition as cars maneuver around her and spends a long night in the driver’s seat, reviewing her life.

Here is a couple who live as though it’s the 18th century and regularly attend early American reenactments. I recognize this ritual of the children leaving home after a holiday visit:

“The next morning, Cheryl and Roger drive them to the airport. They embrace at the security gate. Both parents resist the itch to remind and advise, to command their son to complete the semester, to tell their daughter to skip Afrikaans. Instead, they let their children pull out of their arms and join the security line. They watch them remove their shoes and put them on the conveyer belt….They watch their children pass through the metal detector’s trellis and, on the other side, give a brief wave and disappear around a corner. They will sit together for the six-hour flight, then part ways in San Francisco, one aimed south, the other east. By the time the sun sets in New England, they will be speeding over freeways their parents have never driven, along the lurid blue coastline at the edge of America….”

In another story, the young adult children of some of the characters we’ve met go to a music festival, including Noah, Rosalie’s son, now a few years older. I love the final image in this passage, where we see Old Cranbury from the perspective of a young person who grew up there:

“Eventually, she will distance herself from the incident, tamp it into a story she tells at parties. She will put herself apart from the man who died. He was fundamentally different, she will rationalize, not from Old Cranbury, unanchored by good parents and constructive surroundings….Far off to the side, before the parking lot, Bethany notices a gathering of people on an open field. This would be the morning yoga session, offered to those able to rise early enough, still interested in breathing. The rows of people move in sync, adopting the same poses, configuring and reconfiguring their limbs like children experimenting with their bodies. Bethany watches as they all bend at once to plant their hands upon the bare field, then arch up in unison, a hundred arms saluting the sun.”

Oh, and, by the way, we haven’t seen the last of Rosalie, who rises like a phoenix in the final story.

Lauren Acampora lives in a suburban town much like the one she depicts. Her husband is an artist, and one of his works is the cover art for The Wonder Garden.

This is one book to add to your holiday wish list, and it’s a great book club choice.

Here is a video that features Lauren Acampora and her husband:

Circling the Sun

A life has to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.”  Beryl Markham

Circling the Sun book cover

If you want one last, lush, escapist summer read, consider Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, a fictionalized account of the life of Beryl Markham,  the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west.

Born in England and raised in Kenya, Markham was a larger-than-life adventuress and socialite – a renowned horse trainer, an accomplished bush pilot, perpetually in the spotlight of gossip and scandal.

Especially if you’re a woman of a certain age, you might remember the romantic Out of Africa, a 1985 movie based on the memoir by Dutch writer Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), who for some years ran a coffee plantation near Nairobi. Karen, played by Meryl Streep, had a long-term affair with charismatic safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford.) Denys had the power to make women of the day swoon, but was adamantly against commitment and marriage. Karen and Beryl became friends, and Beryl went on to have a secret, short-lived affair with Denys.

Though Beryl married three times and had other lovers – allegedly one of them Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester –  many believe that Denys Hatton was the true love of her life. Author Paula McLain is adept at writing about affairs of the heart – she did a masterful job in depicting Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage in The Paris Wife – and she depicts Beryl’s affair with Denys in a sympathetic light, while plumbing the depths of the friendship between Beryl and Karen, who were in many respects kindred spirits even though they loved the same man.

I enjoy Cleveland-based author Paula McLain’s writing. She was drawn to Beryl Markham’s story when she learned that Beryl’s mother abandoned her at the age of four, only to reappear again when Beryl was twenty – which is exactly what happened to Paula McLain. She calls it a “shared emotional genealogy.” McLain writes with particular authenticity and empathy as she explores the lifelong effects, both good and bad, of maternal abandonment.

Despite Beryl’s remarkable feat of aviation, there isn’t a whole lot about flying in this novel. McLain instead focuses on the first half of Beryl’s life – her remarkable childhood in Kenya as she grew up next door to and on an intimate basis with the Kipsigis tribes, and her years spent learning and perfecting her horse training skills. McLain portrays Beryl’s love of Kenya in lyrical prose that will cast a spell over you if you love exotic lands and nature still relatively unspoiled by the ravages of civilization.

I think that one of Paula McLain’s strengths is her depiction of remarkable women who have not received the attention they deserve. As I read, I chafed at the difficult lot of women in Beryl Markham’s time. In the 1930s, many women still survived by making a good marriage. In both The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun there is a distinct feminist subtext.

West With the Night book coverI’m now inclined to read Beryl’s memoir, West With the Night, which didn’t initially receive the acclaim that Dinesen’s memoir, Out of Africa, did, though it sold well when it was later republished. Some believe that Beryl’s third husband, a journalist, wrote the memoir, though I almost hesitate to write about what could be a sexist rumor. Maybe it doesn’t matter – Beryl Markham lived a remarkable life that many a man and woman envy. Ernest Hemingway had this to say about West With the Night:

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

In Circling the Sun, Beryl says this about her lover, Denys:

“More than anyone I’d known, Denys understood how nothing ever holds still for us, or should. The trick is learning to take things as they come and fully, too, with no resistance or fear, not trying to grip them too tightly or make them bend.”

The publisher kindly provided an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of Circling the Sun.

Was Harper Lee ahead of her time?

Go Set a Watchman cover

As most of the world knows by now, Go Set a Watchman was an early draft of what went on to become To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee turned Watchman in to her publisher in 1957, and her editor encouraged her to write a very different story.

Lee’s initial draft was about a young women (based on Lee herself) living in New York City who visits her Alabama hometown and clashes with the racist views of her father, Atticus Finch, and her boyfriend, Henry, in the aftermath of the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which declared unconstitutional state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students.

This story morphed into the iconic novel we all know and love, set in the 1930s when Harper Lee was a child and Atticus defended a falsely accused black man.

In my last post, I wrote about how Lee’s publisher has marketed Go Set a Watchman as a newly discovered novel, a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. This has confused, upset, and disappointed devoted Harper Lee fans. Some people believe Lee has dementia and would not have wanted this second book published. Harper Lee has stated in the past that she’d said all she wanted to say with To Kill a Mockingbird and that she would not publish again.

Nonetheless, we now have Go Set a Watchman, and before I ever opened the book I decided to read it to the end because I was curious. As many have pointed out, usually a first draft of this nature is of interest only to literature scholars and writers seeking to learn from another writer’s process. Now the rest of us have the opportunity to read a young novelist’s first attempt and make of it what we will.

Some things have surprised me. First, while many readers have been disappointed (as a novel it doesn’t work for me, but I didn’t expect it to), other readers are enjoying Go Set a Watchman, happy to experience more work by a beloved author. For some, Watchman is simply a good story; for others, it’s fascinating to read an author’s first crack at writing a novel; and still others see this new vision of an imperfect Atticus living in an imperfect time as especially relevant, given the racial tumult playing out in America. They find Watchman’s Atticus a more authentic, believable character than the idealized hero portrayed in Mockingbird.

Much as I dislike the publisher’s tactics, I do think Go Set a Watchman is a valuable contribution to our conversation about race. In the end, I don’t think Harper Lee’s reputation will be damaged. Nothing can take away from the power of To Kill a Mockingbird. And those who are interested in the genesis of truly great literature can see, by comparing the two books, how far and difficult a road a writer must sometimes travel to craft a story that speaks to readers. It’s been said that at one point in writing To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee threw the manuscript out of her apartment window in despair.

There is something that I wonder about, though. Harper Lee initially tried to tell the story of a young person striking out on her own who can’t abide the attitudes and beliefs of those she loves in her hometown.  Isn’t this what many of us have experienced? At the time, Harper Lee’s editor may have persuaded her that American readers weren’t ready to grapple with the provocative views held by Atticus and Henry as Harper portrayed them. I think it is a shame that Harper Lee never had the opportunity to take her initial idea and give voice to that story as well, in a more fully formed and crafted novel than the current Watchman.

So much of Atticus, the fictionalized character, was based on Harper Lee’s true father. It takes a lot of courage to portray someone you love in a less than attractive light, and it takes a lot of skill. Contemporary writers of memoir and autobiographical novels do it all the time, but only a few succeed in doing it well. I’m sure Harper Lee had it in her to bring her original story to life, if she’d had the right editor and artistic support (clearly not those currently at the editorial helm of HarperCollins), but I’m not sure Harper Lee herself knew she had it in her.

Many have wondered why Harper Lee never published again. After the initial overwhelm of To Kill a Mockingbird’s publication, Harper Lee granted no interviews. Though she shared with friends a list of the additional books she wanted to write, she apparently never wrote them. She said herself that she couldn’t face the intense publicity again, and that she wouldn’t be able to top To Kill a Mockingbird, that the only place for her to go was down.

Who’s to say how Harper Lee really felt, but it may have been very frustrating for her if she was blocked in her writing after Mockingbird. Perhaps having her original story of a family portrayed in a less than flattering light rejected by her editor, and then being encouraged to craft a more idealized, palatable one, alienated Harper Lee from her own truth.

Writers of memoir and autobiographical novels often struggle with a sense of shame as they write the truth as they see it. Often they are criticized for being self-serving or narcissistic or for violating privacy. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club are two memoirs that come to mind which required brutal honesty and tremendous courage to write. Nowadays, there are coaches, instructors, and editors skilled at helping memoir writers, especially, write their own truth; this wasn’t so much the case when Harper Lee was writing.

In Go Set a Watchman I see the seeds of an equally valuable story that may have been ahead of its time.

Have you read Go Set a Watchman? What do you think? Should it have been published? Has it changed your views of Harper Lee? How do Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird compare, or are they incomparable?

On Reading the Tough Stuff

The Gorgeous Nothings book coverThis week I’m passing along a few of my favorite bloggers, people who have important things to say and they say it well.

I’ve recently become a follower of Book Guy Reviews, written by James Neenan, a Denver high school English teacher. I love what he says about reading difficult books.

On Reading the Tough Stuff

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