“H is for Hawk” Book Review: The Value of Animals Apart from Us

A northern goshawk. Image by Norbert Kenntner.

A northern goshawk. Image by Norbert Kenntner.

I gave this memoir five out of five stars on Goodreads not because I agreed with everything in it but because I found it thought provoking and well written. It’s the story of Helen Macdonald, an Englishwoman who is dealing with the death of her father.

To help her get through her grief, Macdonald decides to train one of the most difficult of hawks: the goshawk. She names hers Mabel. She contrasts her experience with that of Terence White, author of the childhood classic, “Sword in the Stone,” and an avid falconer who wrote about his experience in “The Goshawk.” I listened to the audio version of the CD, read by the author in her classic British accent.

So many things to say. Where to begin? To start, it’s ironic that Macdonald chose to deal with death by training an avian killing machine. It’s kind of like dealing with a job loss by helping other people get fired from their jobs over and over again. But this technique worked for Macdonald, who wanted solace by forming an attachment to an animal, and by coming closer to the wild.

However, by the middle of the book, I found myself thinking how unfair it was to burden the bird with the owner’s grief and mental health issues – both for Macdonald’s and White’s goshawks. I mean, they are birds, not people. They are separate beings, but both authors are so caught up in themselves they don’t see this. It’s a lesson I learned years ago from living in the wilderness, and something I suspect most people, who are used to having animals around as pets or for food, don’t have an opportunity to realize.

Macdonald’s attitude of animals being defined in the world by the meanings given to them by humans came to light in a section where she attended an art exhibit about California condors. She says, “I think about what wild animals are in our imaginations and how they are disappearing, not just from the wild but from people’s everyday lives – replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually, rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction . . . How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it if all it means is loss?”

My argument is you fight for endangered animals because they have value apart from us. It’s perhaps the ultimate hubris to think the world revolves around us and our meanings. Most wild animals don’t need us to survive. In fact, they would probably do much better if humans were out of the picture. And why did the condor nearly go extinct in the first place? From human actions (poaching lead poisoning, etc.) It seem so unfair for humans to cause these problems and then to complain that thinking about these animals is depressing. What’s really depressing is what we do to some animals.

Toward the end of the book Macdonald finally realizes that people are more fitting agents for emotional support than animals. While animals provide great solace, they are no substitute for a pair of human arms around you. And she realizes that animals have intrinsic value apart from humans.

She writes, “Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees, stones and grass, all the things that crawl and run and fly – they are all things in themselves. We make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world.”

Right on. She says she learned with Mabel how to “feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.” She could have ended the book there and I would have been happy but she continued on with White’s story, which at times, overshadowed her own. I could have done without much of the detail of his story and the book would have been stronger for it. I also found myself getting tired near the end from hearing mini dramas about how she was always losing her hawk. But I still gave it five stars, so it these things must not have bothered me too much!

One thing I thought was funny was how, once Macdonald started using antidepressants, she described the hawk as looking much happier, too. I think this was when she was still caught up in the hawk being an extension of herself.

And I was happy to see that Macdonald delved into the “conversation of death” described in Barry Lopez’s book, “Of Wolves and Men.” This is an exchange that happens between wolves and their prey that either triggers a chase or diffuses the hunt. If you’ve read my novel “Eye of the Wolf,” you know that I delved into it, too.

As I was thinking about writing this review, I came across a quote from Henry Beston (“The Outermost House”) that sums up my philosophy and what I think Macdonald was trying to say with her memoir well:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

Agree? Disagree? Am I some psycho loony? (Smirk.)

A Review of “The Goldfinch”

The Goldfinch“The Goldfinch” is an ambitious book, dealing with questions like: what is art? What is love? Is fate more due to relentless irony, divine providence, or a mix of the two? Just simple questions like that. (Smile.)

I found myself comparing this novel to “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” because they both have boy narrators who lost a parent to terrorism. In the case of Extremely Loud, it’s the World Trade Center crashes. In this book, it’s the bombing of an art museum. I like “The Goldfinch” better because the narrator isn’t as unreasonably anxious. He’s anxious yes, but in a calmer, more reasoned way, if that’s possible. And the timeline is more straightforward, which makes it easier to follow.

The story follows the life of Theodore Decker from age thirteen until his late twenties, exploring his longing for his dead mother, his relationship with his dead-beat father, adjustments (or lack thereof) to his new living conditions, and his attachment to a famous painting.

I liked how the author shows feelings of emotional displacement through descriptions of the characters’ surroundings – furnishings, food – and not only through human interactions. She incorporates a huge amount of detail, which makes the story real. Unless one is a writer, it’s hard to appreciate how difficult this is to do well. I also enjoyed the author’s fresh metaphors. There’s a reason “The Goldfinch” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.

Toward the end, I started getting impatient with Theo’s inarticulateness and inability to function. And when he does function, it’s like he’s outside of himself. He’s so inactive, it’s like he’s the opposite of a protagonist. He just stands there saying, “Ummm… ahh…” and things happen to him.  Theo’s Russian friend Boris takes over as protagonist at this point, and I ended up with a fondness for him despite his bad influence on Theo. I learned more about drinking and drugs than I ever wanted to know. Also, the author has the Russian soul down.

Some readers complain that the ending paragraphs aren’t worth all the angst in the previous parts of the book, but I don’t agree. The ending starts several chapters before the last chapter. I was listening to it on CD, so I’m not entirely sure of the organization of the book, but to me, the summation starts with Theo’s “coming clean” discussion with his mentor Hobie (I love Hobie!) and continues through the remainder of the novel. I thought it was cohesive and worth the wait. In fact, it was so worth the wait that I incurred my first library fine in recent memory so that I could complete the story. So beware: “The Goldfinch” is a bad influence – it could encourage you to incur library fines without remorse for the rest of your days.

“Zenith City” Offers a Broader Understanding of Duluth

Zenith_City-210“Zenith City” is a collection of stories by former Duluthian Michael Fedo (cousin of former Duluth Mayor John Fedo). The memoir chronicles his time growing up in Duluth, Minn., in the 1950s and 60s.

I enjoyed reading the book. I recognized Fedo’s references to the city’s inferiority complex (which is turning around, now, thank you, with Duluth being named things like Best Outdoors City, etc.), and Fedo’s references to Duluthians’ relationship with their hills, KDAL Radio, dear old Denfeld High, the Flame Restaurant, and the Pickwick.

However, in many instances, Fedo writes about a Duluth with which I am unfamiliar — one where relatives live next door (my parents were the northernmost transplants of their central- and southern-Minnesota families), where the vices and haunts of downtown were nearby (I grew up in more distant Piedmont Heights), and where folk music was popular (I was born about 15 years too late for that).

But that’s all right. The descriptions gave me a better understanding of the place where I live. I especially enjoyed his reminiscences about Don LaFontaine, the famous movie trailer voiceover actor (think, “In a world where….”), his encounter with Louis Armstrong, and with Bob Dylan’s mother. And because of my exposure to this book, I now intend to read “Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis, who lived in Duluth for a time. (Also because my home economics-major mother once made and served him dinner when she was working in college for a family who entertained him.)

I noticed two punctuation errors: one where closing quotation marks are missing, another where a sentence ends with both a period and a comma. This surprised me since I’ve come to expect better from the University of Minnesota Press. I don’t know if it’s a sign of their quality slipping or of my editorial eye getting sharper with experience.

The only other thing that gave me pause was the repetition among the stories. For instance, we hear that Fedo worked at the local college radio station at least four times throughout, but I suppose this is an artifact of the book being a compilation of stories that were written for other publications. Just be aware it’s not a seamless memoir written in a singular effort.

Earlier this year, I went to an event by Fedo at Duluth Public Library. He read from many of the stories, and afterwards, he and his wife were generous with their time for a discussion with me, a newbie novelist. They were a class act. I highly recommend this book, even to non-Duluthians.

Making Mosses Sexy (The Signature of All Things – Book Review)


I picked up this book because I like Elizabeth Gilbert’s nonfiction (I’ve read “The Last American Man,” “Eat, Pray, Love,” and “Committed”). I haven’t read any of her novels, so I wanted to see what she could do with fiction. Also, I wanted to see how/whether she could make botany interesting. Caution: this review contains spoilers, so if you don’t want to know how the novel ends, it’s best to stop reading now.

The story follows the life of Alma Whittaker, a scientifically inclined child born into a wealthy American family in the 1800s. Alma’s life is so lonely and sterile in the first part of the novel that I began to wonder why I was continuing to read. Finally, when she meets a botanical artist, Ambrose, things look up for her. Gilbert does an admirable job taking readers along with Alma’s joy and hopes/fears at this point, so that when they come crashing down, so do readers’ hearts. I liked how Alma dealt with life’s disappointments by grinding them under her boot heel. That’s a philosophy worth emulating.

Midway through the novel, when Alma is casting about for things to occupy her time, I found myself asking – why doesn’t she try to help someone else for a change? That thought doesn’t come to her at that point and she turns instead to a solitary life of studying mosses. I was thankful to see altruistic motivation finally come to her after her father dies.

So how does Gilbert make botany interesting? She combines it with a life story, sex, and spiritualism. Gilbert uses Alma’s situation to explore the dichotomies between science and the soul, and how a woman can endure a lifetime of sexual frustration, yet still function in the everyday household and business duties required of her.

I want to share a quote from the story that particularly resonated with me: “These are two things I have always observed to be in singular accord: super-celestial thoughts and subterranean conduct.” I have found this to be true, as well. Think of all the televangelists and others in positions of authority who have been brought down by sexual scandals. But I am meandering…

One thing that bothered me is that when Alma was in Tahiti, she did not even think of showing a drawing of the mysterious Tahitian boy to someone. She did mention there were some facial drawings of him that weren’t lewd. Showing one to someone she trusted, like the reverend or the ‘wild boys,’ would have saved her a lot of time trekking around the island. She could have said she found it in Ambrose’s things and was wondering who his friend was. Gilbert didn’t even have Alma consider showing someone a drawing, which bothered me and seemed unrealistic (even for fiction!)

Another thing that bothered me that one of Alma’s major goals in life was to give a man a blowjob. I mean, seriously?! The feminist in me is just so affronted by that. Alma’s character is already so intelligent, capable and self-sacrificing. I would have been much more comfortable if her goal in life was to have a man give HER oral sex. (Smirk.)

The dust jacket description says that events take place at a galloping pace. I wouldn’t say this is true. The pace is more like that of a pachyderm than a horse. Both Alma and her father are so deliberate in their speech and actions that all sides of an issue are explored before action is taken. This is hardly galloping. But the good side of this is that you come to know the characters intimately.

I ended up wanting SOMETHING good to happen for Alma – better than performing a blowjob on a lovely male Tahitian in a cave (which is not bad, but still….) Near the end, there’s another glimmer of hope when she develops her own theory of natural selection. But does she publish it? No. Like the aforementioned slow-moving pachyderm, she has to investigate all sides of her theory, which takes time. She’s not satisfied that it provides the answer to everything everyone would ever want to know about how the world works, so she lets the document sit in a valise under her couch, until it’s too late and Darwin beats her to the punch.

In a Hollywood ending, Alma would have published her theory to great fame and finally be recognized. But since this is not a Hollywood book, it ends with Alma being satisfied that just one person recognizes her for what she is. This was a good ending for the circumstances, and refreshing in some ways, but it’s much too realistic. If I wanted to realism, I would just plod along in my own daily fight for survival and grinding of life’s disappointments under my boot heels. I read to escape or to see characters overcome obstacles and succeed. However, Gilbert did manage to make mosses interesting.

Overall, I give it a mixed review. There’s no question that Gilbert knows her mosses and how the scientific mind works. Her character development is outstanding as is her insight into the human condition. I just had problems with certain aspects of the story that didn’t fit my personal escapist needs.

I am Finally Killing a Mockingbird

MockingbirdI may be one of the only semi-literate people who have not read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I can’t even use the excuse that it’s because I live at the end of the world in Duluth, because the book was promoted as a community read a few years ago.

I’m in the process of rectifying this oversight. I like to listen to books on CD from the local library during my commute to work, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” is my most recent choice. Before reading the description on the back cover of the CD case, I knew vaguely that the novel was about a white southern lawyer who defends a black man; that it was written by the no-speech-giving and friend-to-Truman-Capote Harper Lee; that it was turned into a movie starring Gregory Peck; and that Bruce Willis and Demi Moore named one of their daughters after a character in it.

What finally attracted me to listen to the CD is that the story is told through the eyes of a child, and a precociously literate girl child at that. I am a sucker for unusual narrators. I’ve listened to about half of it by now, and I am coming to understand its classic appeal. Although the beginning is rather murky — you don’t really know why you’re reading (listening to) it because it doesn’t spoon feed the themes like authors do for readers now — if you give it a chance, you’ll notice it addresses all sorts of social issues.

Instead of being praised for her skills and sent on to a higher grade, the precociously literate girl (Scout) is made to feel bad that she can read by her insecure teacher. There’s sexual role modeling: Scout is under pressure to act more like a “lady” even though she’s only in early elementary school. There’s discrimination in the form of gender and color. A creepy neighborhood house and family stands testament to the damage that being overly religious can cause. And I haven’t even gotten to the trial part of the book yet.

If I were to dare to criticize the story (and I dare, for I am about as ladylike as Scout), I would say that sometimes the words used by Scout are too advanced for her age, even given that she’s literate. But the tone is spot-on as are the topics. The story also unintentionally provides a scathing commentary on the status of our communities today, where neighbors barely know each other or their histories.

It’s a great story. Go kill a mockingbird if you haven’t already.

An Aversion to Introversion

MarieBook 005

I’m listening to the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” by Susan Cain. As about a two-thirds introvert and one-third extrovert, I’m finding the information useful to better understand myself, and I recommend it to all who are introvertedly inclined.

What are introverts? People who would rather read a book than go to a party; people who tend to study social situations before entering into them; people who are more comfortable writing than talking; people who are slow but creative thinkers; people who don’t like violent, gory movies. And did you know there are ambiverts? Those are people with an equal mix of introversion and extroversion.

The main thing this book does is dispel the societal myth that it’s bad to be an introvert. Introversion is seen as unnatural in our current society, which values sociability and boldness. Cain explains how the condition is biologically based (in the brain’s amygdala and elsewhere) and how it is valuable from an evolutionary and societal point of view.

I recall my parents pushing me many times as a child to be more assertive. I was urged to make my way to the front of the crowd, speak up for what I wanted, and criticized for my shyness. I don’t blame my parents. They were just trying to help me fit into our extrovert-loving society, and it is good to go beyond your comfort zone sometimes.

But their actions did make me feel like I was lacking. This book helps people understand that introversion is just a different and natural way of relating to the world and all the sensory input we receive.

“Quiet” gives various suggestions about how work environments can be modified so they are more introvert-friendly, from group brainstorming sessions to the physical layout of offices. I shared these ideas with my son (who is also rather introverted) as considerations when he takes a job after college.

And Cain’s tips for finding your “sweet spot” (the best emotional place for one’s self, offering a balance of stimulation and relaxation) really resonated. Even though I am introverted, I enjoy being around people and need it to feel happy, perhaps more than other introverts. I gained ideas on how I can change my environment to make that so.

As for a criticism: I couldn’t figure out why the topics were organized like they were, but that could be an artifact of listening to the book on CD instead of reading it.

“Quiet” covered a lot of ground. However, I found three things I wished it addressed. 1) The author cites a lot of brain research, but I would love to hear if there’s a link between right- and left-brain thinking with introversion/extroversion. The section on “flow” comes close, but not quite. 2) The nervous system research on babies made me wonder about the mysterious condition of colic and whether there’s any link between it and intro/extroversion. 3) I wonder if there’s any link between introversion and post-traumatic stress disorder. It seems likely that introverts would be more susceptible to PTSD, given their natural aversion to violence and its deep impact on them. If there is a link, perhaps only extroverts should go into battle??!

I’ve worked hard to develop more extroverted traits over the years – studying assertiveness techniques, taking public speaking classes, chairing national committees (on communications, no less!), even organizing and participating in conference panels. I’ve learned coping mechanisms, which have allowed me to become what the book describes as a “socially poised introvert.”

Even so, I’d still rather sit by a fireplace and read a good book. And you know what? That’s okay!