Tag Archives: Memoir

H is for Hawk: In which I read non-fiction and nothing explodes

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H is for Hawk is non-fiction. It’s not the book’s fault. It’s the story of a real woman (author Helen MacDonald) and her real hawk (Mable). And it has gorgeous writing. Really beautiful stuff. The kind that makes you stop and read it out loud to whoever is in the room with you (which, thankfully, was only S. and not my fellow bus passengers – though I bet they’d have appreciated the beauty, too).

It’s also kind of slow. Helen’s father dies. She gets a baby hawk. She teaches the hawk to hunt. She experiences depression. She mourns. It’s not the plot of a novel; it’s the plot of someone’s life, Helen’s life. Well, it would be except that the book also includes a sort of mini-biography within the memoir of falconer and author T H White. The bits about White were… distracting and dull. I suspect they were meant to illuminate ideas about Helen’s life and her work towards healing. Suffice it to say I found the parts about Helen and Mabel more engaging and enriching. I found it hard to make the leap between White and Helen, as if the relationship between the two was meaningful for Helen, but not sufficiently argued for me to see the connection.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not all about engagement and excitement. I appreciated that much of this book was thematically and structurally about patience. Waiting for the hawk, waiting for grief, waiting for plot. It’s also about time. And about how our sense of our self shifts in place, time and relationship. And space – the contours and power of a specific location. I appreciated the gentle and the meditative. I really did.

And there’s no but. Just the caution that you might expect long – and elegant and surprising and sharp – explorations of landscape and a bird’s movement through it. Plus some brambles.

Read it for the beautiful writing. And let me know what you think.

 

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My Struggle: Karl Ove Knausgaard and the Book You Should Be Reading

tumblr_inline_n8cflnHeOh1qzy8r9Don’t make the mistake I did and be caught off guard by this literary sensation. Go read the first installment (and then immediately all the others because you won’t be able to resist) of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s masterful, genius autobiographical series My Struggle. You probably already did. You’re probably one of the bazillions of people who have read the book and have read the countless articles extolling its virtues, its genius. And if you are, I say to you: Why didn’t you tell me earlier? Why did you let me wander around without this book? (to be fair, the book was endorsed on the Slate Political Gabfest ages ago, and was a book recommended by the fabulous L. – thanks!)

Okay, okay, so why so great? Why so necessary? Continue reading

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Say Her Name: Lessons in (Im)permanence

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I heard a story last night while at dinner with P. and E. about a young woman who died suddenly and seemingly without cause. While running this morning I listened to Radiolab’s podcast on “Things” that explored (among other things) how it is that we, human beings, are able to devote ourselves to objects – but more importantly, to other people – when we know, and are constantly reminded, of the impermanence of both.

The two stories helped me make more sense of (or maybe complicated?) Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, a memoir that follows Franscico – Frank – as he grieves the death of his wife, Aura, after she dies in a “freak” or “random” accident. While these two threads in the book – grief and the apparent senselessness of her death – weave together (his grief is magnified, he thinks, by the accidental nature of her death; the senselessness of death is magnified by its material influence on those who continue to live), their separation is important – I think – in allowing all readers (and certainly this reader) to put loss into, and out of, scale and perspective.

What do I mean? I mean that because the book thinks about death as both loss *and* impermanence, it lets the reader see the ways we must continuously convince ourselves of the permanence of those we love (and the ways we love them), even while we are confronted, also continuously (and often violently) with the awareness and experience of their (imminent or inevitable) loss.

The book looks at this experience in the grand displays of grief, the bureaucratic consequences of death (lawyers, estates), but also in the mundane and material experience of trying to live in the space formerly occupied by the loved, now dead. It explores the capacity of others to recognize – at the most basic scale of seeing and the more complex of empathy – grief; the urge of others to “fix” and “finish” grief for the grieved; the incapacity of others and society to make space and time for the continuation of loss and the fundamental change to the grieved.

But more than a book about how Frank grieves – much more, really – it is a book about and of Aura. Her life – her liveliness, humour, potential and warmth – “live” on the page (in one of my more cliche descriptions) as character: a superbly drawn, wrenchingly humanized and believable character. The book presents no photos of Aura directly – though it does offer a few traces (shadows) in a way that shows the extent to which the book is not interested in “fixing” Aura in place, not of making her – here in the book – permanent in a way she – and none of us – can ever be, but instead lets her fill the pages and the reader’s imagination with the full force of description, action, belief and dialogue. We know her through the fragments of her writing contained in the book, but what we really know is the Aura Frank experienced. We know her through him and through text and the rendering he offers is simply beautiful.

It is a book worth reading not only for its beautiful writing, its expression of love and its exploration of character, but for its explicit evocation of “relative” scales of grief. Frank knows his loss is not empirically greater, nor his reaction or feelings. What he describes is the absurdity of trying to make such comparisons. Instead the book gives a portrait – a briefly permanent representation – given to each reader, of love, loss, Aura and Franke. It gives to each reader a sort of assurance that here – in words and in the reading of them – we find for the duration of reading a groping towards sense and permanence.

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What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: The Arrogance of “I’m soooo busy”

G. bought me Haruki Murakami’s *What I Talk About When I Talk About Running* for my birthday this year. It was a thoughtful gift in that the book combines the things I love best in the world: running, writing and reading. Alas, shortly before my birthday I sustained a concussion and was unable to read or run for several weeks (a near intolerable state). In any case, between the concussion and its recovery (I’m only now able to run 15km at a time) I hesitated to read Murakami’s book. I suspected (rightly) that whatever his intention, I was going to read the book as an indictment against non-runners and a clarion call to pick up my shoes.

Hence reading the book now that I’m able to run again.  And I’m glad I waited. Sure the book is about a lot of other things, among them the “making” of time for things like running, the illumination that comes from solitude, the benefits of self-awareness in defining and reaching goals and the need for determination and courage in meeting these goals. More explicitly the book is also a book about writing and the writers life. A sort of metaphoric welding of how (long distance) running-is-like-writing and how writing-is-like-running: both require determination, focus, sacrifice and solitude.

And both, for Murakami, are to be admired. Oh sure, at several points in the book he makes claims about how these things he does – long distance running or writing – are just his personal preferences and *not* to be mistaken for declarations of what *should* be for everyone, and yet, an unmistakable tone of arrogance and self-satisfied judgements underpins these very claims. For instance, on discussing his choice in shoes, he writes “I like the fact that this brand of shoes doesn’t have any extra bells and whistles. This is just my personal preference nothing more. Each person has his own likes […] They have no gimmicks, no sense of style, no catchy slogan. So to the average consumer, they have little appeal” (92). In setting up the shoes as the bare-bones runners and putting these in contrast with the “average consumer” who will be taken in by “gimmicks” (bright colours? snappy laces?) Murakami implicitly makes himself – the exceptional consumer – one who is wise to the gimmick and a “real” runner. The rest of us, who hold our “personal preferences” just happen to have a crasser preference.

This tone that says on the one hand “to each her own” and the other “but other approaches are inferior” smacks of an arrogance that I found tough to get past. Much as I felt the book was written for me – a reader, a runner, a writer – and much as I could identify with the parallels he drew among these activities, I couldn’t get past the quiet arrogance that permeated the text that argued for these activities as superior. That by taking part in marathons (and Murakami pointed out that he’s also done ultramarathons the *real* marathon in the age of the bucket list and that in his younger years he ran marathons in “good” times inviting, of course, the observation that there are “bad” times) Murakami was proving his credentials as a masochist. Sort of like the colleague who constantly complains of being “sooooo” busy, or the insomniac who takes pleasure in how little sleep he gets “I’m sooooo tired” as if to take you to task for managing your time well, or getting enough sleep for health, or – heaven forbid – enjoy social sports, watching television, running a mere 4:30 marathon and buying shoes in bright colours.

And clearly I do identify with parts of Murakmi’s work and attitude to non-runners. I started out this post, after all, pointing out that I *do* run, talking about how far I run and explaining away my slow arrival to the book. So yes, I see myself in the arrogance of the long-distance runner, and I don’t like it. So perhaps a point of praise in that I like to think I’ll be more deliberate and circumspect in my discussions of exercise.

For all these complaints I’d still suggest the book if you run – or perhaps it would be better still if you didn’t – or write (though it is a book much more about running than writing) because it offers space to think about the deliberate construction of our identities by way of the habits we adopt, practice and come to see as essential to who we are. That these identities must be worked upon and worked over – that we cannot be writers unless we write, nor runners unless we run – but that there is flexibility in these categories, too, that we can call these our identities our own even if we do not inhabit them with perfection or even to our own ideal. That sometimes we can be satisfied with having done the thing at all (but never, in this book at least, if we didn’t bother to try). 

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