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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

First the one I read and hated: The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger. I chose it to fill the “book from the teen zone” on my book bingo card. It’s a graphic novel in a picture book layout and the premise drew me in: a woman escaping a fight with her partner finds a mysterious bookmobile stocked with everything she’s ever read, staffed by a friendly librarian. A blurb on the back said the message is that we are what we read. What’s not to love?

Except this book is about a woman who reads and enjoys remembering what she’s read to the point of obsession and madness. It’s a story about losing hope, clinging to to our own desires even if they make us lonely and miserable, and perishing in a mire of self — and then the ending glorifies that. Don’t read this book.

There.

On to a much happier selection, even though it’s about grief and pain and loneliness. It’s H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, and it’s also about heart and hope and love, family and friendship and wildness. This is a story celebrating the redemptive quality of both seeking something we care deeply for, in Macdonald’s case hawking, and doing it well as a way of reminding ourselves how very alive we are when the world has overwhelmed us with sorrow. It’s beautiful and in some ways the opposite of The Night Bookmobile.

Macdonald can write. Damn, can she write. When the book opens she is describing a morning when she woke up feeling she must go out, and then “only when my frozen ancient Volkswagon and I were halfway down the A14 that I worked out where I was going and why. Out there, beyond the foggy windscreen and white lines, was the forest. The broken forest. That’s where I was headed. To see goshawks.”

She goes on to describe how hard a task she’d set herself: “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace; it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.” It seems strange she’d just woken up and gone looking for them until not long after when she receives shocking news: her father has died suddenly.

Macdonald is stunned, horrified, immobilized by grief. She’d been devoted to hawking since she was a child, and as she processes her father’s death and struggles to stay sane, she revisits those memories, and her books on hawking. And before long, she has a goshawk, a young female she names Mabel.

And one of the books she re-reads is The Goshawk by T.H. White, the same man who also wrote The Once and Future King. Macdonald dips into many of White’s books in the telling of H is for Hawk. White, she sees, was deeply scarred by his childhood and deeply afraid of the potential pain and loss of human relationships. As an adult she can begin to understand that which she didn’t as a child. The reader watches as Macdonald’s compassion for White grows into healing for herself.

The brilliance of H is for Hawk is that it is several stories: Mabel’s and Macdonald’s, her father’s and White’s and also the story of hawking, and a loving tribute to the English countryside. It’s a book about grief and depression and how Macdonald manages to pull up as her life seems headed for a crash landing. And it’s the story of deep and abiding friendships –and Macdonald’s appreciation for them, and for Mabel, and ultimately, for life itself.

Often I don’t like this style — the Computer Scientist and I have discussed the fad for rambling, wide-ranging memoirs that seem not to have a clear point. But Macdonald manages both to ramble pleasingly and relevantly through history, literature, ecology, geography, hawking, and more, and to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.There is no forced cleverness, no jarring sense that you can see the puppetmaster’s strings distracting you. If you’ve struggled to like cross-genre memoirs, try this one and you’ll see how it really ought to be done.

H is for Hawk is also warm. It’s about horrible things, hard things, lost things, but it’s also about things that are soulful and heartfelt. There’s a sense of ancient continuity in what Macdonald and Mabel do, and what Macdonald is feeling. And everything Macdonald relates belongs. It all comes together as if you were listening to a very intelligent, very interesting friend.

And I did listen; I took out the audiobook, which I don’t often do. Macdonald read it, even doing different voices. I liked hearing her narrate her own story, and I managed to knit a good bit of a scarf while listening. I do think I probably get more out of reading than listening, but perhaps that has to do with the fact that I’m a novice knitter and my attention was divided.  I’d like to go back and read it in print.

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Last May I wrote here about being pleasantly surprised by Me Before You  by Jojo Moyes. Last night I stayed up waaaayyyyy later than I should have reading the sequel, After You. Some people would probably derisively categorize this as “women’s fiction.” I don’t care — first of all I think labels are lame, and second of all, any book that keeps me awake because I can’t stand not knowing what’s going to happen to these people is a good read.

When After You opens, Lousia Clark is reflecting on the eighteen months that has passed since the events at the end of Me Before You. She misses Will and doesn’t feel she’s doing what he asked — “Just live.” Louisa has moved to London but she’s stuck in a dead end job at an airport bar, the person she most frequently converses with runs the Mini Mart, and she’s drinking more than is healthy.

And then she has a freak accident. Her family, who had previously stopped speaking with her (because of the events at the end of Me Before You that I don’t want to give away), rush to her side. Louisa is happy to have her family back and the accident gives her some resolve. She’s going to turn things around, get a better job, start living. She joins a Moving On grief support group, mainly to appease her mother. And then Lily shows up.

Lily is sixteen, and she claims, to Louisa’s total shock, that she’s Will Traynor’s daughter. She has a terrible relationship with her mother, she’s been in trouble at school, she’s “a handful.” But Louisa can sense the hurt beneath the bravado, perhaps because she has her own private pain and public face. And getting to know Lily lets Louisa relish her memories of Will, as she tells the girl about her father.

In the midst of all this, Louisa gets reacquainted with Sam, the paramedic who took her to the hospital and with Will’s parents. As she worries about the people she cares about she tries to work out what “just living” will mean for her. There are a number of twists and turns and a lot of emotion, and I enjoy how Moyes gives her characters really interesting lives. Lily turns out to be a terrific gardener, for example, and Sam is building himself a house. Louisa’s mom takes a continuing education course in feminism and stops shaving her legs. All the little details make these people come alive.

At the end of After You Louisa has made a big decision and is about to embark on a new chapter in her life. I wondered whether Moyes has already decided there will be a third book? I’d certainly like to know how things turn out for Lily, Louisa, and the others. After You wasn’t quite as gripping as Me Before You — the drama builds more subtly, and the material is a little more familiar —  but it was still a lovely, entertaining read.

 

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I review books by two Maine authors in this week’s Mindful Reader column in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Kate Braestrup’s new memoir is Anchor and Flares and Robert Klose’s hilarious send-up of campus politics is Long Live Grover Cleveland.

Here’s the first paragraph for each:

Kate Braestrup is chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. Her new memoir, “Anchor & Flares,” deals with all of the things she’s written about before – family, love, grief, faith – and also service. Ranging across topics as diverse as the condition of a body that has been decomposing under a frozen lake and a study of the qualities shared by Germans who rescued Jews rather than turning a blind eye to the Holocaust, Braestrup talks about hope and despair, joy and devastation. And she writes of these things in the context of her eldest son’s decision to enlist in the Marine Corps.

and

University of Maine biology professor Robert Klose’s novel “Long Live Grover Cleveland” is a delicious farce. Grover Cleveland is a small college in Maine, founded during the Vietnam war by a distant relative of President Cleveland as a haven for students – and some faculty – who want to avoid the draft. When the college’s founding president dies, he designates his nephew Marcus Cleveland, a used-car salesman in New Jersey, as his successor. Marcus is a good salesman who doesn’t seem entirely in touch with the world.

You can read the entire column here.

 

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I really enjoy reading Boston Bibliophile and often enjoy Marie’s recommendations. When I saw her review of Have You Seen Marie?,written by Sandra Cisneros and illustrated by Ester Hernandez, over the weekend I knew I had to read it. It was sitting on the new book shelf when I got to work at the library yesterday so I brought it home. And read it as my husband suffered through the Patriots’ 3rd quarter, before Downton Abbey.

Yes, it’s that short. It’s a gorgeous little book, a story of love and patience, of understanding and community, of acceptance and healing. In the first few pages the narrator explains that when her friend Rosalind arrived for a visit in San Antonio, her cat Marie “ran off” after a long car ride. We also learn that the narrator’s mother died recently. She says, “Every day I woke up and felt like a glove left behind at the bus station. I didn’t know I would feel this way.”

The rest of the book is about the search for Marie, and the narrator’s grieving. As the two women search for the cat, they meet people from all walks of life and backgrounds, almost all of whom offer help or comfort, food or drink, or empathy. There is a real sense of community in their search because just about everyone has experienced loss. The illustrations are as important to the story as the text. Cisneros says in her afterword that she and Hernandez really walked around her real San Antonio neighborhood to get inspiration.

Also in the afterword, Cisneros describes the comfort she finds in both her human and natural neighbors. And she explains one reason why over-reliance on prescriptions is flawed. When her doctor wanted to prescribe anti-depressants* after her mother died, Cisneros said no, because “I need to be able to feel things deeply, good or bad, and wade through an emotion to the other shore, toward my rebirth. I knew if I put off moving through grief, the wandering between worlds would only take longer. Even sadness has its place in the universe.”

This is a story that is simple and clear, but not childish. It’s a profound meditation on grieving and healing and on the way we are connected to others, including people we don’t even know, by our shared experience. Cisneros’ story reminds us, too, of the power of beauty in nature as well as in art to comfort us in difficult times. And she acknowledges both the pain and the purpose of mourning.

Cisneros says she wrote the book because “I wish somebody had told me love does not die, that we can continue to receive and give love after death. . . because something was needed for people like me who suddenly found themselves orphans in midlife. I wanted to be able to make something I could give those who were in mourning, something that would help them find balance again . . . .” Thanks Marie (Boston Bibliophile) for bringing this book a wider audience on your blog.

(* Lest I offend someone, please let me add I’m sure some people benefit from anti-depressants and that prescriptions are helpful and even life-saving in some situations. I simply agree with Cisneros that grief is a normal and important emotion to feel. And I think that  in our culture, we tend to expect more from prescription drugs than is merited.

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