Books I Read in January

January was my month for reading memoirs, according to my reading plan for 2017. I only read two, but both, which had been on my TBR shelf for quite a while, were very good.


Macdonald, Helen. H Is for Hawk
Grove Press, 2014
ISBN: 978–0–8021–2341–1

Highly Recommended

H Is for HawkWhen Helen Macdonald’s father died unexpectedly, she was nearly overcome with grief. She cancelled an upcoming teaching assignment and struggled to find a way to reconnect with the world. An experienced falconer, she decided to fill her days by training a goshawk, the wildest, fiercest, most difficult to train bird of prey.

Macdonald had trained other hawks, but never a goshawk. She knew well the literature of falconry and followed The Goshawk, by T.H. White (well known author of The Once and Future King, a tome of Arthurian legend), as she progressed through her own training program. White’s book is a narrative about his experiences trying—and failing—to train a goshawk during the mid 1930s (although the book was not published until 1951). The comparison between her progress and White’s lack of progress in the difficult task of training a goshawk provides the underlying structure of Macdonald’s book.

Macdonald obtained a female goshawk, whom she soon named Mabel. As Macdonald became acquainted with Mabel, she realized “without knowing why, I’d chosen to be the hawk” (p. 58). Her identification with Mabel became stronger as the training progressed:

I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life”(p. 85)

The hawk became a symbol “of things that must be mastered and tamed” (p. 113).

As she trained Mabel, Macdonald read about White’s fits and starts with his goshawk. In her book she examines White’s approach to training for clues about the mind of this brilliant yet troubled man, whose unhappy childhood underlay life-long insecurity and difficulty fitting into the world. Implicit in Macdonald’s process of understanding White through his book is the realization that readers will understand Macdonald, just as she comes to understand herself, through hers.

H Is for Hawk contains that necessary ingredient of a good memoir, an epiphany—something missing from many memoirs, such as the much over-hyped Wild. Macdonald’s epiphany begins with this realization: “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all” (p. 195). She knew that she had wanted to slip onto the wild world of the forest with the hawk:

part of me had hoped, too, that somewhere in that other world was my father. His death had been so sudden. There had been no time to prepare for it, no sense in it happening at all. He could only be lost. He was out there, still, somewhere out there in that tangled wood with all the rest of the lost and dead. I know now what those dreams in spring had meant, the ones of a hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world. I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home (p. 220)

In the end she realized that she couldn’t overcome her grief by abandoning the human world to become a wild, feral hawk. Rather, she had to bring the lessons of the wild world back into the human sphere:

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, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are (p. 171)

The key to a memoir-worthy experience is not simply to endure, but to learn, to change, to grow.

Part of that growth is the ability to see new meaning in other aspects of the world. The broadly educated Macdonald fills her book with
details of the natural world: fields, flowers, bushes, trees, animals, rocks. Nature takes on new meaning because of the experience rendered in this moving and enriching memoir.


Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Free Press, 2012
ISBN 978–1–4516–2137–2

Highly Recommended

Brain on FireOne day in 2009 Susannah Cahalan woke up in a hospital room, strapped to her bed, unable to speak, move, or remember how she got there. As she stared at an orange band around her wrist, the words FLIGHT RISK came into focus.

Cahalan’s journey to that hospital room had begun weeks earlier. Out of nowhere she began having paranoid thoughts; for example, with no evidence she suddenly believed that her boyfriend was cheating on her, and the voice in her head nearly overpowered her: Read his e-mails. The paranoia was rapidly followed by other symptoms: slurred speech, over-reaction to colors and sounds, nausea, insomnia, wild mood swings, uncontrollable crying, lack of focus, inability to write, facial tics, drooling, involuntary muscle movements, and seizures.

Physical examinations and extensive medical tests revealed no discernible cause for her symptoms. Various doctors prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-seizure medications and used phrases ranging from all in her head to psychotic break as Calahan’s family and friends watched her condition continue to worsen. Finally, a new neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar, joined the medical team and did one more medical test that saved her life. Dr. Najjar tested Cahalan for a newly discovered, rare autoimmune disease that causes the body to react against the brain. The disease causes inflammation that Dr. Nijjar explained this way: “Her brain is on fire.”

This book differs from most memoirs in that Cahalan has almost no memories of what happened to her during the period she writes about. Her father, who spent most days in her hospital room, kept a personal diary of the ordeal (hers and his own). In addition, her father and mother left a notebook in her room in which both documented what had gone on during their visits; the purpose of this notebook was to keep both parents informed about their daughter’s condition. Cahalan used these two documents, her medical records, and interviews with family, friends, work colleagues, and medical personnel as the basis for the book. Her journalism background enabled her to do the extensive research necessary to supplement those sources.

Despite the absence of her own memories, Cahalan maintains the focus on personal experience that’s necessary in memoir. When she can’t focus on her own experiences, she frames the story with the experiences of the people close to her: her parents, her boyfriend, her friends, and her colleagues at the New York Post.

Cahalan excels at describing complex, arcane medical material for a general reader. Here, for example, is her description of how memory works:

My short-term memory had been obliterated, a problem usually rooted in the hippocampus, which is like a way station for new memories. The hippocampus briefly “stores” the patterns of neurons that make up a memory before passing them along to the parts of the brain responsible for preserving them long term. Memories are maintained by the areas of the brain responsible for the initial perception: a visual memory is saved by the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, an auditory memory by the auditory cortex of the temporal love, and so forth. (p. 101)

After Cahalan was successfully treated for her brain inflammation, there remained questions about how much of her former self, particularly her mental faculties, would return. This book, with its extensive research and clear writing, demonstrates that her brain is now back to functioning quite well.

Brain on Fire has been made into a movie that will come out on February 22, 2017. You can find information about the film, including a link to the official trailer, here.


© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

11 Memoirs by 20th-Century American Radicals | Literary Hub

With the Trump era now a week old and storm clouds gathering, many decent, salt-of-the-earth Americans not previously given to shows of popular unrest, never mind civil disobedience or outright vio…

Source: 11 Memoirs by 20th-Century American Radicals | Literary Hub

25 Great Books by Refugees in America – The New York Times

From Bertolt Brecht to Vu Tran, a sampling of major contributions to American literature by those who were forced to leave their own countries.

Source: 25 Great Books by Refugees in America – The New York Times

Last Week’s Links

All the buzz this week has been related to the U.S. inauguration.

Knitting protesters grab back at Trump with pink cat hats

The day after Donald Trump is inaugurated president, the signature fashion statement of women marching in protest will be this: a handmade pink “pussy hat” with cat ears tipped directly at Trump and the word he uttered unforgettably on a hot mike. Call it an effort to grab it back.

Both playful and polemic, the cheeky pink hats will appear by the thousands at the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., and at similar demonstrations in cities across America on Saturday.

Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books

New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani reports on an interview with President Obama, who said that “reading gave him the ability to occasionally ‘slow down and get perspective’ and ‘the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.’” Kakutani points out that Obama found helpful presidential biographies and the writings of Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. But she reports that novels were also important; examples include Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the novels of Marilynne Robinson, and the science fiction apocalyptic novel The Three-Body Problem by Chinese writer Liu Cixin.

The New “O” Book Club: 12 Fiction Picks from President Obama 

Off the Shelf elaborates on the previous story with a list of 12 books recommended by President Obama.

Every book Barack Obama has recommended during his presidency

And here is the definitive list, according to Entertainment Weekly.

Inauguration sparks writers to lead protest

This article in the Boston Globe discusses protests around the U.S. by writers who oppose the policies of President-Elect Donald Trump. Here’s what one protest organizer has to say about these planned events:

“I think when you are engaging in the diversity of human experiences, you cannot help but have a broader empathy for people who struggle,” says [Daniel Evans] Pritchard, a poet and translator who is editor and publisher of the journal the Critical Flame. “Writers are engaged in that every day, through language. And that’s important because language is the medium we use to construct our laws and our politics.”

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

2017 Edgar Award Finalists for Mystery Writing Announced

On the 208th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, the Mystery Writers of America have announced the finalists for the 2017 Edgar awards. The Edgars cover everything from best novel and best short story to best biography and best TV episode teleplay. The 2017 Finalists include big names like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, and unsurprisingly, everyone’s favorite fall breakout series Westworld made the longlist for best teleplay. Stay tuned, the winners will be announced in April in New York City!

Source: 2017 Edgar Award Finalists for Mystery Writing Announced

10 Memoirs That Explore the Mother-Daughter Relationship (in remembrance of Debbie Reynolds & Carrie Fisher)

Shortly after the deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds on subsequent days, Susan Dominus examined the strained relationship between this mother and daughter in the New York Times: Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, a Mother-Daughter Act for the Ages. Dominus writes:

There is something about celebrity mother-daughter acts like the one lived by Ms. Fisher and Ms. Reynolds that capture the imagination in a way that famous father-sons simply do not.

I’d say we can leave out the words celebrity and famous. Even the most ordinary mother-daughter relationship is archetypal, fraught with push-pull, attract-repel, love-hate, bond-reject, up-down, engage-disengage, support-undermine dynamics.

The HBO documentary Bright Lights, first aired on January 7, 2017, further reveals the intertwining lives of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.

And here are 10 memoirs that focus on the relationship between mothers and their daughters:

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Returning to My Mother’s House by Gail Straub

Don’t Call Me Mother by Linda Joy Myers

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Then Again by Diane Keaton

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

Mother Daughter Me: A Memoir by Katie Hafner

We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Memoir by Jennifer Coburn

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

National Book Critics Circle: National Book Critics Circle Announces Finalists for 2016 Awards – Critical Mass Blog

The National Book Critics Circle, founded at the Algonquin Round Table in 1974, honors outstanding writing and fosters a national conversation about reading, criticism and literature.

Source: National Book Critics Circle: National Book Critics Circle Announces Finalists for 2016 Awards – Critical Mass Blog

6 Books About Martin Luther King, Jr. for Readers of All Ages | TIME

In honor of the civil rights leader‘s birthday, here are five books on his life and legacy for readers of all ages.

Source: 6 Books About Martin Luther King, Jr. for Readers of All Ages | TIME

Last Week’s Links

He Fixes Cracked Spines, Without an Understudy

A wonderful story about Donald Vass, who cares for damanged books for the King County Public Library system near Seattle, WA. At age 57, Voss is approaching retirement age, but there’s no one to take his place.

NOT MY SHERLOCK

There was a lot of discussion on my Facebook feed about how bad the first episode of the new season of BBC’s drama Sherlock was. I don’t watch the show, so I can’t comment. Here, dedicated Holmes fan Brittany Cavallaro discusses how the making of a series from a canon of self-contained stories affects the way the persona of Sherlock Holmes is presented.

Sherlock’s New World Order

Josephine Livingstone uses that first of the season’s Sherlock episode as a springboard to a larger discussion of the role of detective fiction in society:

Murder mystery detectives usually live on the outskirts of society, or they pass unnoticed (Miss Marple, Father Brown) under the noses of authority. But that very outsider status depends on a stability at the middle of society. That stability is now wobbling. For as long as Sherlock can winkingly engage with its own tradition without becoming an absurd relic of a time of lost safety, it will succeed in helping its viewers escape their lives. But if it continues to overreach, to act out its plots on the global stage, the show will fall apart.

Considering the Novel in the Age of Obama

Christian Lorentzen looks at fiction as it represents the cultural times of various American presidents.

What will we mean when someday we refer to Obama Lit? I think we’ll be discussing novels about authenticity, or about “problems of authenticity.” What does that mean? After the Bush years, sheer knowingness and artifice that called attention to itself had come to seem flimsy foundations for the novel. Authenticity succeeded storytelling abundance as the prime value of fiction, which meant that artifice now required plausible deniability. The new problems for the novelist became, therefore, how to be authentic (or how to create an authentic character) and how to achieve “authenticity effects” (or how to make artifice seem as true or truer than the real).

According to Lorentzen, four types of books have sprung from “four strategies of approaching the problem of authenticity”:

  1. autofiction, “narratives that appear to do away with much of fiction’s familiar scaffolding”
  2. fables of meritocracy, “often satiric”
  3. historical novels set in the near past
  4. narratives that “have placed the experience of trauma — rape, pedophilia, homophobic abuse, incarceration, the horrors of war — at their center”

This is a long read, but it’s well worth the time and effort required for the analysis of several recent novels within this framework.

Meryl Streep’s 10 Best Book-Based Movie Roles

In honor of Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump speech, here’s a look at her best book-based movies:

  1. Kramer vs. Kramer
  2. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  3. Sophie’s Choice
  4. Out of Africa
  5. Ironweed
  6. Postcards from the Edge
  7. The Bridges of Madison County
  8. Adaptation
  9. The Devil Wears Prada
  10. Julie and Julia

I’ve seen eight of these films.

What About You?

How many of these have you seen?

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Video Games Are Changing the Hero

Videogame heroes take up a larger amount of people’s imaginations today than they ever have before. In the cultural economy they are as big a force as the heroes in books and movies. But as relatively new as videogame heroes are, some still question their ability to impact us on the level of more traditional art.

Jon Irwin argues that the hero’s story in a video game is not static, locked in, as it is when we read a book or watch film. Rather, when we take on the hero’s persona while playing a video game, the hero’s story plays out according to the decisions we make along the way. He backs up his point with references to scientific studies.

There’s an interesting point to contemplate here: in a video game we don’t merely observe a character, we become the character. How does this changed perspective affect the way we understand the significance of the hero’s story?

Reading Etiquettes for Dummies

What I am going to tell you is the correct way to read

I’m always a little suspicious of any title telling you what you must or should do. Nonetheless, Naina does have some good advice for anyone whose New Year resolution is to start a reading program.

However, most of you reading this blog will already be avid readers, with your own ways of approaching reading. I’m curious to hear:

What is your reaction to Naina’s directives? Do you use any of these approaches, and do they work for you? Let us know in the comments.

Fahrenheit Zero: 7 of the Best Novels Set in the Depths of Winter

As yet another snowstorm blankets the Northeast, settle in for a reading adventure with one of these “novels that explore winter in all of its forms, from the tragic to the comic, and from the terrifying to the transcendental.”

Farewell to the reader in chief

In the San Francisco Chronicle John McMurtrie bids a fond farewell to President Obama, who “has been an exemplary ambassador for literature, a leader who has championed reading as a way to open our eyes to the world, to nurture understanding, to see ourselves in others.”

McMurtrie also takes a look at our next President-Elect Trump, who “claims he doesn’t have the time to read.” McMurtrie ends with a call to action for writers and other artists:

there is no reason that these coming years cannot be a time in which writers, and all artists, create meaningful works, works that celebrate the true wealth of the world in all its diversity of peoples and cultures and experiences, works that question and provoke.

What Doctors Can Learn From Looking at Art

Medical schools and hospitals are beginning to include the reading of literature in their training programs for physicians. Here Dhruv Khullar, M.D., explains why:

Therein lies the significance of learning through art: It is subtle and indirect, yet it ingrains insights deep within your consciousness. You feel and know even before you can think or speak.

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown