Review of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Image result for h is for hawkH is for Hawk is hard to categorize. It is part-memoir and part-biography. The author, Helen Macdonald, is a naturalist and professional hawker, who, after the death of her father, decided to train a notoriously unruly bird of prey: a goshawk. But her personal story is punctuated by passages from the fictions and memoirs of T.H. White. The author of The Once and Future King also attempted to train a goshawk.

As a child, Helen Macdonald was obsessed with birds of prey. She read 17th-century books on falconry and was conversant with the specialized vocabulary of the trade. Her father Alisdair, a British photojournalist for the Daily Mirror, taught her to consider the world from different angles and from different heights. Thus, Macdonald attributes her passion for falconry to her father.

Unlike Macdonald, T.H. White was not a professional austringer. There seems to have been a number of psychological reasons for his fascination with birds of prey. White was a homosexual, with sadistic tendencies. Macdonald references White’s story throughout her memoir because she feels a certain affinity to the early 20th-century author. She too struggles with guilt, loneliness, and depression.

Macdonald is a brilliant prose-writer. Although I don’t usually grab for memoirs, I was hooked from page one. In one of my favorite passages in the book, Macdonald attempts to understand why early modern austringers insisted on describing goshawks as fractious and emotional. Sure, Mabel the goshawk has her days, but Macdonald is surprised by the words goshawk experts have used throughout history to describe a bird of prey. “Capricious”, “emotional”, and “spiteful” are adjectives that have also been used to describe women. H is for Hawk is noteworthy for its humanistic approach to nature writing.

Nevertheless, Macdonald makes assumptions about White’s personality that didn’t always sit well with me. Although White struggled with his sexuality, I am wary of Freudian interpretations of a person’s life. I suspect that White fought with his goshawk Gus not only because he had an impatient personality but also because he was not a professional falconer; he did not have experience training other birds of prey. Finally, Macdonald’s analysis of T.H. White felt a bit unfair. A memoir is a very intimate genre. The author is the most frank with her reader. I wish that Macdonald had stuck to telling her own story, because White already told his in his own memoirs.

Despite my frustration with the passages on T.H. White, I know many readers who loved Mcdonald’s take on the author of the Once and Future King. I am certainly glad that I read H is for Hawk because the writing was beautiful and the descriptions of depression were on-point. Macdonald has also inspired me to read T.H. White’s The Goshawk in the near future. I consider that a successful book.

Reflections, Religious Texts

Those Grieving During the Holidays

Clear Glass Candle HolderThe holidays can be a difficult time for people who have lost loved ones. While it may seem that everyone is celebrating life and love with friends, some are alone in their grief. Thanksgiving may be a burden for someone experiencing a loss. It is with them in mind that I write today’s reflection.

The 12th century Cistercian monk and reformer Bernard of Clairvaux was known for his beautiful reflections on divine love as well as his fiery and aggressive personality. He was, above all else, a leader. And a leader wasn’t allowed to show emotional weakness – especially an austere abbot.

But in his 26th sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard cut short his commentary to express his grief over the death of his biological and spiritual brother Gérard. Gérard joined his brother in the monastery and became the cellarer of Citeaux. He was Bernard’s lifelong friend and companion. Gérard wasn’t educated, but he kept the monastery up and running. His death devastated Bernard, but an abbot wasn’t supposed to mourn. Monks were taught to anticipate and embrace death. So, Bernard hid his emotions from the other brothers and stoically officiated his brother’s funeral.

But in Sermon 26 of the Song of Songs, Bernard finally broke the silence and shared his true feelings with the monks in his care. Perhaps, death was supposed to be interpreted as a great good, but it was only good for Gérard. Bernard had lost his best friend, and nothing would ever be the same without him.

To Gérard, Bernard exclaimed:

All my delights, all my pleasures, have disappeared along with you.  Already cares rush in upon me, troubles press about me on every side; manifold anxieties have found me companionless, and, since you departed, have stayed with me in my solitude.  In my loneliness I groan under the burden.  Because your shoulders are no longer there to support it, I must lay it down or be crushed.  O, if I could only die at once and follow you!  Certainly I would not have died in your stead, I would not deprive you of the glory that is yours.  But to survive you can mean only drudgery and pain.  My life, if you can call it that, will be one of bitterness and mourning; it will even be my comfort to endure this painful grief.

Could Gérard still hear his brother’s voice? Did he care about his brother’s suffering even though he was in a better place? Bernard concluded that it was impossible for any soul in contact with a merciful God to be indifferent toward the plight of the living. Therefore, Gérard was present in spirit. He did care about his brother’s suffering. But he was no longer in the flesh, and Gérard’s physical presence mattered.

I am that unhappy portion prostrate in the mud, mutilated by the loss of its nobler part, and shall people say to me: “Do not weep”?  My very heart is torn from me and shall it be said to me: “Try not to feel it”?  But I do feel it intensely in spite of myself, because my strength is not the strength of stones nor is my flesh of bronze.  I feel it and go on grieving; my pain is ever with me.

Bernard may have been the abbot of Citeaux and one of the most powerful men in his day (his student became pope), but he was still human. He was tired of putting on a show, of pretending that death didn’t matter.

Will you say then that this is carnal?  That it is human, yes, since I am a man.

It must have been shocking for the brothers to see their abbot in this emotional state. Many of the monks were former knights, so they were probably accustomed to hiding their emotions and acting tough. In a patriarchal society, men especially feel discouraged to show their true feelings.

As I mentioned above, I’m writing this post with the grieving in mind. Holidays can be wonderful times of the year. Friends and family gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) or Christmas. But holidays can also be burdensome for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. They may feel like they have to perform for the occasion, and if they can’t, they may experience guilt and regret. They don’t want to “ruin” the occasion. And of course, they may miss their loved ones the most during the holidays because the holidays are supposed to be joyful occasions. The grieving often experience the most loneliness during the holidays.

For personal reasons, Bernard’s story resonated with me when I first read it at the end of 2016. We still live in a society in which emotion is interpreted as weakness. We are asked by society to hide our pain not only at work but among friends, and especially during the holidays. But death is a tragedy. It leaves a mark on the living.

During the holidays, we who are not mourning need to remember those who are and give them space and support to do so. Advertisements tell us to have the perfect Thanksgiving or the perfect Christmas. But the need to play a certain role in company (as a teacher, a CEO, a parent, etc) is a huge burden for those who are grieving. They may feel that they don’t matter as human beings. Let’s not preference our celebrations over the lives of our loved ones.

If you are grieving, I hope you find the comfort and support you want and need this season.

Saunders, George

Review of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

What was it about? 

Image result for lincoln in the bardoWillie Lincoln, the 10 year old son of President Abraham Lincoln, has died. But while in the Bardo (a limbo-like state), Willie’s soul attempts to make contact with the boy’s living father. Two ghosts named Roger Bevins III (a closeted gay man who committed suicide) and Hans Vollman (a newlywed who died while lusting after his wife) narrate most of the story. They think they are only sick, so they refer to the coffin as a sick box. Bevins and Vollman have made it their mission to reconcile Willie with his father. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is experimental fiction that explores love, death, guilt, and war through the eyes of eccentric ghosts. Passages from the writings of Lincoln’s contemporaries are combined with the observations of outrageous-looking ghosts to illustrate one of the most intimate and tragic events in President Lincoln’s personal life.

What did I think of it?

If you have been following my blog for any length of time you know that I am a sucker for experimental fiction that explores large existential questions. After all the hype surrounding this novel, I expected Lincoln in the Bardo to become one of my favorite books of 2017. Unfortunately, it did not live up to my expectations. An experimental narrative structure can help or hurt a story. It is usually employed to explore more abstract aspects of life. When evaluating experimental fiction, I consider how the style relates to the questions or themes the novel is addressing. Lincoln in the Bardo is about one of the darkest moments in President Lincoln’s life: the death of his son Willie. The chapters that deal with Lincoln’s grief were some of my favorite chapters. I enjoyed reading Lincoln’s most intimate thoughts. The passages from contemporary writers were also quite powerful because they placed the boy’s death in the larger context of the ongoing civil war. Seen from the perspective of the civil war, Willie’s death allowed President Lincoln to experience what thousands of parents around the country were already experiencing. Unfortunately, the Bardo itself felt like a distraction from the overall story. The ghosts reminded me of the monsters in Nightmare Before Christmas. As someone who has had personal experience with the death of a child, I expected the novel to cause me to revisit certain thoughts and events. The outrageous and at times vulgar behavior of the ghosts prevented me from feeling for Lincoln’s loss. Just when the ghosts began to discuss larger existential questions, the dialogue would be interrupted by an event that had nothing whatever to do with President Lincoln or Willie. If the Bardo was supposed to serve as comic relief, it was definitely overdone. Overall, I felt that Lincoln in the Bardo was all style and little substance.

Maybe it’s not entirely the book’s fault. I picked up the novel for very personal reasons. I may not have been the intended audience. I’m interested in knowing how other readers who know something about Lincoln’s grief felt about Lincoln in the Bardo. In general, I want to know what readers thought of the ghosts. What role do you think they played in the novel? Did you enjoy the narrative style?

Favorite Quote

“What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.”