borrowing bones

The occasional weblog of writer Dora Dueck

R is for Recommend

I had read several ecstatic reviews of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a memoir of grief via the taming of a goshawk named Mabel, so eagerly reserved the book at the library. It arrived for me then, some months later, at an inconvenient time. We were going away, plus there was a pile of other books I’d committed to already.

Fortunately, I thought, as I retrieved the book from the Reserve Shelf and signed it out, I had in the meanwhile read a dissenting opinion by a blogger whose views I appreciate. I too sometimes find myself disappointed with the latest hot thing to read. Relieved at the possibility of this being the case again, I decided I might just take a quick peek for peeking’s sake and return the book to the library unread.

H is for HawkNo such luck. I was immediately hooked. Not by the theme, for though interesting and important, grief is ubiquitous in memoir, and not by its topics of falconry or hawks or the life of T.H. White, author of Arthurian books, The Once and Future King, which winds through Macdonald’s narrative. It was the writing. Her descriptions are remarkable — “a brumous, pewter light outside, as if someone had stuck tracing paper against the glass”– and the language rushes along with both suspense and insight — “my heart is salt”– even though there is much that remains unrevealed and most everything concerns not human encounters but fear and wildness in nature and the psyche. And just when I was beginning to wonder if she would ever address the killing business, which is what hawks do–“Kill things. Make death.”–she does. I watched Macdonald train her Mabel and tramp about the fields with her like one watches something repellent yet impossibly compelling. Like one stares at an accident. It’s the kind of book that makes one ache to write like that.

downloadI finished the book before we left (me to meetings in Fresno, Cal. and both of us to a week with our children in B.C.), no longer sorry it had trumped my pile. For being away, I took along All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This book is not nearly as intense as the previous, but certainly as masterfully written. Set during the Second World War, the novel weaves together the stories of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and an orphaned German boy, Werner Pfennig, and a rare and beautiful diamond called the Sea of Flames. If that sounds suspiciously kitschy, it’s not, but tender and sad and hopeful instead, though almost too good to be true. But hopeful because of it. I was especially taken with Doerr’s ability to convey the blind girl’s world through her other senses, and by the intimate, beguiling role of radio. R is for recommend.

What was the highlight?

“What was the highlight?” I’m frequently asked this question about my recent trip to Europe with my daughter C.

A good question, and a completely reasonable one too, even its built-in hint for the Coles Notes version, please, not the Complete Works Of… And I do love to answer it. But honestly, it’s difficult, because once again I realized–more forcibly than ever this time–that travel accrues intensely and steadily in a long series of experiences, moments not huge in and of themselves perhaps, but memorable in their combination. Read the rest of this entry »

Havel: A Life, and more

Just in from a bike ride, unaccustomed thighs aching. A lovely morning, the green unfurling at last. I hadn’t intended to wait until (visible) spring to show up at my blog again, but that’s how it turned out, and I was thinking about that too while I pedalled, and about some reading experiences I’d like to share.

Since my daughter and I are planning a trip to the Czech Republic, I enjoyed Havel: A Life by Michael Zantovsky, a new biography of Vaclav Havel. I was alerted to it by Michael Ignatieff’s fine summary of the man and book in The Atlantic. A biography has to succeed on two levels for me: the subject must be compelling and the life well written. This one ranks high on both counts. Zantovsky was a friend and colleague; his work is affectionate and insightful but never hagiographical. The poet/playwright/philosopher turned president was as flawed as he was noble; he helmed the Velvet Revolution, but could not prevent the breakup of Czechoslovakia. He was a man of great vision who fussed about details like office curtains. Most astonishing–and inspiring–to me was Havel’s ongoing introspection, which power couldn’t shake out of him. “Being in power,” he said, in fact, “makes me permanently suspicious of myself.” Read the rest of this entry »

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