Last year I encountered two new-to-me writers who bowled me over.
I would say that one of them, Margaret Renkl, is a kindred spirit; she cares deeply about family, the natural world, and the fate of our earth. I never fail to read her opinion pieces in The New York Times.
I’d like to press her memoir into the hands of every reader I know. Late Migrations is a meditation in short, interlocking essays about family, love, loss and backyard nature, destined to become a classic.
It won the 2020 Reed Environmental Writing Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center, and was named a 2020 Notable Book by the American Library Association.
You couldn’t find a better book at a time like this. It’s written in short, exquisite essays of a page or two, so you can read it in small bits if you’d like.
There is grief – for lost family and a wounded natural world – but mostly her writing is a celebration of the natural cycles of life and death, and the wildlife accessible outside our windows and in our backyards.
In lieu of saying more, here is a 9-minute video trailer featuring Renkl, who calls her memoir “a love letter to my family and to the natural world.” The video is like a mini-retreat. Enjoy!
Have you read Late Migrations? Or another memoir about family and nature that is comparable?
Next on Books Can Save a Life: The other writer who bowled me over – just about the coolest and most uplifting and loving and literary and funny and expansive collection of essays you could ever read.
“I assisted in washing him and dressing him, and then laid him on the bed, when Mr. Lincoln came in. I never saw a man so bowed down with grief. He came to the bed, lifted the cover from the face of his child, gazed at it long and lovingly, and earnestly, muttering, ‘My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!'” – Lincoln in the Bardo byGeorge Saunders
Lincoln in the title refers to Abraham Lincoln, and the bardo is, in Tibetan tradition, the suspended state between lives when the soul is separate from the body. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, has entered the bardo upon death from typhoid, where he meets all manner of discontented souls who are similarly suspended, unable to let go of their former lives and move on to whatever comes next. In this bardo, whatever obsessed the person or remained unresolved at the time of death looms large (literally).
After Willie’s funeral, a stricken Abraham Lincoln came to the cemetery alone in the night to assuage his grief, according to historical sources. In this extraordinary novel, at the cemetery, Lincoln is unable to see the panoply of ghost-souls around him desperately trying to persuade the young Willie to move on because, in Saunders’ conception of the bardo, children who remain suffer a terrible fate.
It is the early stages of the Civil War, which weighs heavily on the President. Three years of staggering bloodshed loom and over half a million deaths, mostly sons of other grieving parents.
During this one chaotic evening, all of the restless souls, living and dead, are changed.
“The gentleman had much on his mind. He did not wish to live. Not really. It was, just now, too hard. There was so much to do, he was not doing it well and, if done poorly, all would go to ruin. Perhaps, in time (he told himself) it would get better, and might even be good again. He did not really believe it. It has hard. Hard for him.”
Lincoln in the Bardo is not an ordinary novel by any means, but Saunders is no ordinary writer. (See my post about his collection of short stories which I loved, Tenth of December.) Bardo reads like a play, and I believe plans are already in the making to produce a play. If so, I predict it will be every bit as popular as Hamilton.
George Saunders is a consummate writer of short stories, and he has often said in interviews that novels aren’t his thing – he’s tried without success to write three or four. And then, Lincoln in the Bardo, came along.
It took me a few pages to acclimate to this strange story, which is essentially a collection of formally cited historical sources, a few brilliantly conceived fictional sources, and lots of dialogue by a grand chorus of characters. It’s a quick read and vintage Saunders: funny, heartbreaking, with piercing, essential truths about life. When I reached the end, I went back to page one to begin again, so I could pick up on what I missed. I missed a lot, there is so much nuance in every scene.
You must read Lincoln in the Bardo. Besides, everyone is talking about it, and you want to be in on the conversation too, don’t you? If you love it, I recommend you follow it with Tenth of December.
“And there was nothing left for me to do, but go. Though the things of the world were strong with me still. Such as, for example: a gaggle of children trudging through a side-blown December flurry; a friendly match-share beneath some collision-tilted streetlight; a frozen clock, bird-visited within its high tower; cold water from a tin jug; toweling off one’s clinging shirt post–June rain. Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth. Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease.”
Here, George Saunders talks with Stephen Colbert: (Fair warning, there is some talk of Trump here and the cultural divide.)
Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo or any of George Saunders’ extraordinary short stories? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.
“….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.”
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.”
“….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?
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?