H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

9780802124739_p0_v2_s118x184

Macdonald’s memoir has won prizes and gotten rave reviews; it deserves them all. She lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise with moments of grace that left me breathless. In a rare consensus, my book club all thought it a remarkable, if harrowing, story.

There are three strands to this book. The most obvious is her story of raising and training a hawk—and not just any hawk, but a goshawk, fiercest and most stubborn of them all, whom she names Mabel. Then there is the motivation behind her decision to adopt the hawk: her grief over her father’s death, which is wound tightly through the story of training Mabel. The third strand tells of T. H. White’s life and his attempts to train a goshawk.

The images in the first few pages tell us that we are going to be in for a rough ride. She is headed to an area called the Brecklands: the broken lands. In Neolithic times, it was the center of the flint industry. She gives us half-eaten pigeons and a fragment of a songbird’s leg, bomb craters and crumbled buildings on a base where nuclear bombs were stored. She walks through clearcut forest patches with torn roots, where even the light is broken. Amid all this harshness and death, she gives us a pair of goshawks in a startlingly apt description:

. . . they were loving the space between each other, and carving it into all sorts of beautiful concentric chords and distances. A couple of flaps, and the male, the tiercel, would be above the female, and then he’d drift north of her, and then slip down, fast, like a knife-cut, a smooth calligraphic scrawl underneath her, and she’d dip a wing, and then they’d soar up again.

Who cares about mixed metaphors when the montage works so well? She describes her difficulty remembering the days immediately following her father’s death: “The memories are like heavy blocks of glass. I can put them down in different places but they don’t make a story.”

Even individual words shiver and resonate, such as when she speaks of the falconers with “vowels that bespoke Eton and Oxford”, conjuring images of made-to-order suits.

It’s hard for a writer to balance three strands of story. At points, the strands are explicitly intertwined and other time left to echo against each other. Some of us in the book club gloried in the knowledgeable details of training Mabel, while others found that part repetitive. Several people thought there was too much about White’s tragic life and unintentionally cruel attempts to train his hawk.

What moved all of us though, was Macdonald’s growing identification with her hawk, the way they played together, understood each other, partnered in the hunt. While not explicitly stated, it seemed obvious that she saw in Mable not just companionship, not just a challenging task, but an escape from her misery, even a way to control death itself.

Some of us felt qualms about taming a wild creature. Macdonald makes it clear at the very beginning that it is the breeders and trainers who have brought these hawks back from the edge of extinction. Still, when I watch the hawks circling and diving into the woods behind my house, I cannot imagine any justification for taming them to my commands. Our relationship to animals is a complicated business, and it is to Macdonald’s credit that she provides us space and experience to give shape to our discussion.

Macdonald’s long experience with hawks, her wide reading and close attention to her surroundings enrich almost every passage in this book. There are gorgeous descriptions of chalk fields and brambles and forests. There are references to other books, such as to J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, which I read several years ago. Sharing some of her research into White’s life, she comes up with surprising insights into some of the sources for incidents in his beloved book The Once and Future King.

There is a lot of loss in this book, and Macdonald doesn’t flinch from showing you gory death close up. There is also much that is sweet and even triumphant, such as Mabel playing catch with her or the memory of her father’s quirky quest to photograph all the bridges across the Thames. And like the best memoirs, it gives us a chance to live someone else’s life for a bit, experience the world as they do.

Have you read a memoir that has changed your view of the world?

The Constitution of the United States of America

constitution2

One of my book clubs chose to read the U.S. Constitution a few months ago, inspired by Khizr Khan’s speech at the 2016 Democratic convention. This week seemed to be an appropriate time to look at it again. Regardless of your political leanings, if you are a U.S. citizen this is the foundational document and primary source for your country’s government.

I realise that one can spend years learning about all the interpretations and rulings that have added layer after layer to this short document. Some book club members read additional books to expand their understanding, but I wanted to start fresh here.

Some of us had read the Constitution back in our schooldays; others never had. I think we were all surprised by how much we’d forgotten or perhaps not noticed in the first place.

Of course, this week all eyes are on Article I, Section 9: the emoluments clause intended to ensure that our elected officials are not bribed by “any King, Prince, or foreign State.” We expect our elected officials to put the good of the country before their personal gain. You could argue that this possibility is already covered by the treason clause (Article III, Section 3), since accepting a bribe would also be putting another country’s interest before that of the U.S. and therefore giving them “Aid and Comfort.” Still, I’m glad it is spelled out.

The sentence just before that in Section 9 amused me: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” A few years ago I visited Sulgrave Manor in Oxfordshire, England, home of George Washington’s ancestors. One of the guides told me that a few days earlier a contingent of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) members had toured the house. These women had assured the guide that they were the aristocracy of the U.S. I said no, that was just their personal fantasy, and that I was sure they were not representative of the DAR as a whole. I added that my mother, who had been invited to join, had refused. Despite her interest and pride in her family history, she thought it was un-American to think yourself special because your family had been here since the revolution.

I was also surprised that there were only two casual mentions of Native Americans in the document. This was another headslap moment, though, because I certainly knew about tribal sovereignty. Tribal nations are considered “domestic dependent nations” whose relationship to the U.S. is different from that of a foreign nation. There are limitations on tribal nations’ sovereignty just as there are limitations on the sovereignty of states and the federal government.

Whatever else I’d forgotten, I remember the first ten amendments to the Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights. I come back often to the first of them which assures freedom of religion, speech, and the press; and rights of assembly and petition. This one seems in most danger today.

Other amendments provide a curious glimpse into the country’s history, such as Amendment III against housing soldiers in people’s homes without their consent (except in case of war and then only according to law). This is not something most of us worry about today, but it was a big issue for the colonists.

And the U.S.’s shame is spelled out here as well. Why would amendments be needed to guarantee the right to vote regardless of race or color (Amendment XV) or gender (Amendment XIX)? Surely Amendment XIV should have been enough since it guarantees the civil rights of “All persons born or naturalized in the United States” and says that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Thus we are reminded that there was a time not that long ago when people of color and women were not actually considered “persons”.

I’m glad my book club pushed me to reread the Constitution and reacquaint myself with this country’s first principles.

Have you read the Constitution recently?

No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, by Ann Bracken

NoBarking_front cover

This powerful new collection of poems by Ann Bracken, author of The Altar of Innocence, tells of her work with learning disabled and emotionally disturbed students in settings from inner city Richmond to several Maryland public high schools and colleges.

In the best poems, she helps us see beyond the fierce bravado of the teenagers to the scared child within. The power of these poems comes from Bracken’s attention to detail, her evocation of voice, and her emotional restraint. She holds her sorrow and indignation in check while giving us a chance to get to know these young people before revealing their secrets.

While demonstrating the control that enables the reader to fully enter the experience, Bracken’s generous heart drives these poems. In describing teachers’ struggles with administrators who sometimes appear to care more about numbers and public perception than children, she doesn’t lose sight of the forces constraining the administrators: the numb surrender to seemingly intractable problems, the determination to keep the school running.

In Bracken’s hands, poetry becomes a peculiarly effective way to convey the reality of the classroom. Individual poems are intensely focused on a single person, giving a voice to those whose voices are rarely heard. Together these poems create an unforgettable mosaic of the experience of teaching adolescents, whether they are learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, or stressed in other ways.

The understanding gained from experiencing a student-centered teacher as she works with students, administrators, and other teachers will benefit anyone interested in education and the reality of classroom teaching.

Best books I read in 2016

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2016. Although I read much fiction, I’m a bit surprised to see how many of the books I’ve selected are nonfiction. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, by Barbara Hurd

Stirring the Mud is a slight book, only nine essays, but I’ve been reading and rereading it for weeks, pondering the images and leaps of thought. Reading these essays, I came to love standing with Hurd as she lets her shoes sink into the mud, water seeping in to wet her socks, thinking about what grows there, what is lost there, what is preserved there. She examines the liminality of these places, how mysteriously hidden their edges are.

2. Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels

Tom Wessels’ book helps me understand what I’m looking at when I examine the woods that come almost up to my porch. This is not a tree identification book, however. It’s more like a magic decoder ring. It gives the information you need to look at a patch of woods and make a pretty good guess at what it looked like 100 years ago and what has occurred to disturb it in the meantime. This book changed my view of the natural world.

3. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Gawande examines these issues through stories of his patients and his own family, encouraging us to look at that phase of life that we mostly try to pretend will never happen, that inevitable decline into death. Most interesting to me, he takes us through the history of solutions for how to make the end of life meaningful, comfortable and affordable, from the first retirement communities to exciting new ideas.

4. Islands, the Universe, Home, by Gretel Ehrlich

This collection of essays is truly stunning. In the things of her world Ehrlich finds tangible evidence for the thoughts and ideas jostling in her head, anchoring them to coherence. Her world is primarily her ranch in Wyoming, its five-acre lake, the nearby mountains. Other essays take us further afield. Whatever destinations we find in these essays come from the resonances between the pieces of her mosaic and the echoes they call up in our own hearts.

5. The House of Belonging: Poems, by David Whyte

The poems in this book are different from those to which I’m usually drawn. At first glance they don’t even seem to be poems—aside from the line breaks—but rather the sort of heart-to-heart you have with an old friend late at night over a cup of tea or glass of whisky. Yet within the plain speaking is a core of light. Such poems may look easy, but must require great patience to revise and revise again in order to craft something so seemingly inconsequential into a work invested with such meaning.

6. Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, by Marita Golden

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been getting a lot of press since it came out last year. With good reason: Coates’s letter to his son is an essential reminder to all of us, in the U.S. at least, that a hope and a dream alone are not enough to undo centuries of racism built into the structure of this country. Yet it was this slim book by Marita Golden that I first read twenty years ago that truly brought home to me the dangers faced by young men of color and the emotions endured by their parents.

7. The Edge of Heaven, by Marita Golden

The story opens with twenty-year-old Teresa Singletary and her mother, Lena, facing a major turning point in their lives: Lena is being released from prison. Through a “chorus of voices”, the story conveys the terrible damage not just to the person imprisoned, but also to her or his family. While the journey is sometimes dark and the human cost is huge, it is in the end a story of love’s possibilities.

8. Burning Your Boats, by Angela Carter

I love these stories. Actually Carter calls them tales, saying they draw on images from dreams and legends, from fairy tales and the unconscious. While these tales do provoke unease, they also overwhelm with audacity and rich allusions and tangled passion. She layers in the descriptions and emotions until you feel as though the whole thing is going to explode—and then she reels you back with a coolly humorous detail or sarcastic observation.

9. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family love their dilapidated home: a house attached to and using a corner of a partially ruined castle. It would be better, though, if they had some money for little things like, oh, having more candles so they can read at night, fixing the leaks in the roof, actually getting enough to eat, and paying the rent. I love Cassandra’s storytelling, her humor, her peculiar turns of phrase, her odd outlook. Every page holds delightful surprises.

10. Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

As this story opens, fifteen-year-old June remembers when and her sister Greta were being driven by their mother to Uncle Finn‘s apartment to continue sitting for the portrait he was painting of them, Uncle Finn who was dying of AIDS. This is more than a coming-of-age story, more than a dealing-with-the-first-death story. It is an engrossing story of deeply human emotions, ones we deny or fear, ones that lead us into actions we regret and the connections we crave.

What were the best books you read last year?

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

9780140434248_p0_v1_s118x184

This 1855 novel has much to say about our own times. It is the story of eighteen-year-old Margaret Hale who moves with her parents from a rural hamlet in the south of England to the fictional Milton in the industrial north. There is a bit of misdirection at the beginning of the story, which starts in London where Margaret has been living with her aunt, uncle and cousin Eliza for half of her lifetime.

The story then moves to Margaret’s beloved Helstone, where she has returned to live with her parents after Eliza’s wedding. She says Helstone is “‘only a hamlet; I don’t think I could call it a village at all. There is the church and a few houses near it on the green—cottages, rather—with roses growing all over them.’” While there, she awkwardly receives a proposal from the brother of Eliza’s new husband.

So far it seems like a romance, a novel of manners. But then Margaret’s father suffers a crisis of conscience, gives up the church, and moves the family north where he will become a private tutor.

Similar to the U.S., with its tensions between red and blue states, coasts and midlands, the U.K. has traditionally been divided between the industrial north and the agricultural south. These tensions drive the story. Set in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Gaskell uses Margaret’s mistakes and misunderstandings to explore issues related to the first-generation cotton mills and those who own or work in them.

When the Hales first arrive in Milton, they detest the noise and hurry and dirt. Margaret takes a dislike to her first acquaintance, John Thornton, brusque owner of Marlborough Mill and her father’s first pupil. She looks down on him as a tradesman, “sagacious, and strong” but “not quite a gentleman”. She criticises him, too, for not caring for his workers outside of work hours, saying he should be giving them moral instruction and making sure they have enough food and a decent place to live. But that is not how things are done in the north, where workers are free to make their own choices once they leave work.

Margaret quickly befriends a young woman, Bessy Higgins, whose father John works in another mill. Horrified by their poverty and Bessy’s “cotton consumption”, a disease caused by the air quality in the mills, Margaret invites herself to their home to bring a basket of food, as she used to do in the south for her father’s poorer parishioners. To her surprise, the Higginses are offended. As she learns to respect their independence, they become friends.

Margaret’s mistakes and missteps in what to her is an entirely new culture mirror our own easy assumptions from the beginning of the story: that a London wedding and an awkward proposal in a pastoral rose garden signalled a familiar story of romance. Gaskell’s clever misdirection resulted in my feeling great sympathy for Margaret as she struggles to to look past her preconceptions and recognise what is really there.

Margaret’s coming-of-age story alone is sturdy enough to carry the reader’s attention, but what I found intriguing were the even-handed discussions about the rights and responsibilities of “masters” and “men”. These organically arise in the story as Margaret’s reactions, conversations between her father and Thornton, Thornton and his fellow mill owners, and—most interestingly—between Thornton and Higgins, whom Margaret brings together.

Thornton complains that workers don’t understand the market forces that prevent him from raising their wage, while the workers believe he is just living in luxury while they suffer.

As Thornton and Higgins begin a strange sort of friendship, their mistrust and misunderstanding of each other fade and their respect grows. Thornton has already installed a wheel to draw out the cotton fluff that fills the air and destroys lungs, over the objections of some workers who believe all the fluff they swallow inadvertently helps prevent hunger. Thornton works with Higgins to provide a hot midday meal for the workers, so they at least get one good meal a day.

As workers, our concerns today are less about food and more about health care and other benefits, but the same mitigation holds true. In companies where owners and workers communicate, such as the one where I was lucky enough to work, benefits and the occasional necessary belt-tightening are out in the open.

The novel takes place during a time of great social upheaval. Industrialisation was changing the job market—Margaret’s mother can’t find a maid willing to work for a Helstone wage when young women could be earning more in a factory—at the same time that railroads were revolutionising movement. And everything was speeding up.

We are at a similar crossroads. Globalisation and automation are changing the face of work. Without unions—whose pros and cons are explored here too—workers are at the mercy of the bosses. With so many companies being publicly traded rather than owned by one person or one family, there is no Thornton to appeal to. Income inequality is even worse than during Gaskell’s time. And, yes, things seem to be speeding up even more.

One way to gain a more balanced view of the issues which divide us today is to look at how they played out in the past. This novel, sweetened as it is by Margaret’s story, is an excellent start.

Have you read a novel that’s helped you understand one of today’s issues?