H Is for Hawk
Doris: This is a beautiful passage from a new book called H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a British naturalist and falconer. It’s about a period when she the author battling grief after her father died and began dreaming of hawks after the death of her father. This passage doesn’t mention her grief, but it’s a parallel theme to the discovery that emerges later:
The birds she studied with a team of scholars…
“were goshawks, and one in particular. A few years earlier, I’d worked at a bird-of-prey centre right at the edge of England before it tips into Wales; a land of red earth, coal-workings, wet forest and wild goshawks. This one, an adult female, had hit a fence while hunting and knocked herself out. Someone had picked her up, unconscious, put her in a cardboard box and brought her to us. Was anything broken? Was she damaged? We congregated in a darkened room with the box on the table and the boss reached her gloved left hand inside. A short scuffle, and then out into the gloom, her grey crest raised and her barred chest feathers puffed up into a meringue of aggression and fear, came a huge old female goshawk. Old because her feet were gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell, even to staff who spent their days tending eagles. So wild and spooky and reptilian. Carefully, we fanned her great, broad wings as she snaked her neck round to stare at us, unblinking. We ran our fingers along the narrow bones of her wings and shoulders to check nothing was broken, along bones light as pipes, hollow, each with cantilevered internal struts of bone like the inside of an aeroplane wing. We checked her collarbone, her thick, scaled legs and toes and inch-long black talons. Her vision seemed fine too: we held a finger in front of each hot eye in turn. Snap, snap, her beak went. Then she turned her head to stare right at me. Locked her eyes on mine down her curved black beak, black pupils fixed. Then, right then, it occurred to me that this goshawk was bigger than me and more important. And much, much older: a dinosaur pulled from the Forest of Dean. There was a distinct, prehistoric scent to her feathers; it caught in my nose, peppery, rusty as storm rain.
Pat: Here is rich, dense writing that really hits every physical sense of the reader’s body. We feel that bird, touch its bones “light as pipes,” inhale its “prehistoric scent” and most of all — well, this really brought it visually home to me — we see this “meringue of aggression” coming out of the box to “completely fill the room.”
Doris: Well, this is a dream, so we know that’s not true, and yet we understand the exaggeration. Same with the bird being “muscled as a pit bull.” Well, of course not, but we get it. So much is implied, and so descriptive: the scent of the bird’s feathers: peppery and rusty. I can almost smell it.
Pat: Yes, this goshawk is both real and imagined, something “bigger than me and more important,” like a “dinosaur pulled from the forest.” She too is being pulled out of her own box of despair.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Pat: Last time on The Bookmobile I read a passage about upended toilets covering bombs that hadn’t exploded after they rained down on a village in Chechnya during wartime. This scene is so unusual and so gripping, it’s typical of the crazy and amazing things we learn, as well as the incredible writing found in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.
One thing that struck me here is the way people in war have to adjust to the sudden disappearance of loved ones who may never be seen again. In this scene Sonja, a surgeon who’s spent a great deal of energy purchasing an ice machine on the black market for her decrepit hospital, has just realized that her sister has been kidnapped by men who’ll sell her to a sex trafficking ring. Eventually, once used up by the clientele, she’ll be murdered.
It’s in that state of shock that Sonja walks around her apartment until she comes upon a tray of melting ice in the kitchen. The process of solids turning liquid catches her eye as she ponders the way death turns people from physical bodies we can touch to memories that cling to us emotionally and run over us like sheets of water.
You know how when you first pull the ice cube tray out of the freezer and it’s all solid and crisp and squared off by the cold? Well, this is what Sonja discovers after the tray has been sitting there for a while.
“Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared. Despite the shock wave of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”
It’s a stunning metaphor, and it suggests for people in grief that sometimes losing the physical body is almost the easy part. It’s the memory of that person that stays with you for a very long time because it isn’t solid — it’s intangible in remembrance; there’s nothing to hold onto.. The loss feels like a slow, excruciating dissolve, to repeat this part of the quote. It’s
“not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”
Doris: It’s interesting that of all the profound images in this book—those turned-over toilet bowls covering unexploded ordinance, in particular—the description of the ice cubes melting is one that stopped me in my reading. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I think you’ve explained it here, Pat: that physical softening, an “excruciating dissolve,” as you put it, that mirrors Sonja’s loss.
This was a book, our listeners might want to know, that we read for Pat’s book group in Point Reyes, and one that lives up to the high praise it received. It’s also a first novel for the author, Anthony Marra, whose photo in the back of the book suggests he’s no more than 16 years old.
It’s funny — before reading this book I felt ignorant of Chechnya and found myself avoiding news about the country and its tormented history. Now that I’ve devoured this book I can’t get enough of Chechnya and am looking forward to reading The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen, which just came out.
It’s about the two Chechen brothers named Tsarnaev who bombed the Boston Marathon a year ago, and I think no one could report this story better than Gessen, the Russian-American author of a truly eye-opening book about the rock-resistance band Pussy Riot, and a tough-minded biography of Vladimir Putin.
The Brothers is an important story because the two Tsarnaev brothers were descendants of ethnic Chechens whom Joseph Stalin deported to Central Asia along with hundreds of thousands of others. How a dictator can simply ban an entire population to another country is both impossible and understandable when you read about it in a work of fiction as good as A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
West Marin Review, Volume 4
Doris: Susan Trott is a whacky, funny novelist, but in this story she gives us something very serious. Bunin was Anton Chekhov’s biographer, and he’s thinking back on their first meeting at the seashore some sixty years before. There Bunin is so intimidated by the great Russian writer that he thinks only sophisticated words should be used. So he begins with an attitude of dismissal.
“How full of disdain I was for that word. Bunin smiled to himself. Chekhov, my Antochka, however, seemed to relish it, seemed to delight in its apt discovery. But I, 20 years old, ten years younger than he was, full to the brim with the egotism of youth, in my mind patronized such a paltry adjective to describe the sea, while far better words coursed through my mind how I would describe the sea. For instance, how beneath its glittering serenity lurked the lassitude of death….
“But! Bunin remembered, I was also cowed at the time because he was Checkov, and if he believed the word ‘big’ to be descriptive, I was on the wrong track entirely. I would like to write in my book how I trembled in his presence at that first meeting, in Yalta, at the edge of the Baltic. I’d been waiting hours for him to pass by. It was not a chance meeting at all, more like what they would call a stalking. And then I would like to tell how he sat and talked to me with the utmost friendliness, his eyes shining through his pince nez, so genuine and modest.
“He asked me to come see him the next day at his villa and then, as we continued to talk, sitting on that wall, overlooking the sea, how dismayed I became that this conversation, going on so long, might replace the next day’s invitation. Why meet this young man again so soon, he would think, and be bored anew?”
Doris: It’s the language that appeals to me with this excerpt. For instance, the use of the word patronize: Bunin “patronized such a paltry adjective” as “big,” meaning he thought of the word condescendingly. The year of their meeting is 1890, and though Bunin is in his 80s when he writes this, I feel as if I’m hearing a turn-of-the-century sensibility.
Pat: But you know, the first word that comes to mind when anybody sees a body of water as large as the Baltic is that word, “big.” We live on the coast next to an ocean, and every time I see the water, I think to myself, “it’s so big!” If we tried to say, “it’s so immense!” or “enormous,” we’d feel like a phony. So it’s kind of amusing that the word “big” IS “paltry” compared to the way a great master of language like Chekhov could use it, but he chooses it just the same. So Bunin is right on both counts.
Doris: I’m also impressed that Susan Trott captures Bunin with unexpected depth: his near-embarrassment in the present at the inexperienced writer of half a century ago who dared to disdain a simple adjective then. (In fact, we’re not even sure he’s almost embarrassed. Maybe he still thinks “big” was too paltry.) His love for Chekhov, to whom he refers with the affectionate “Antochka.” His careful way of arranging to meet Chekhov—what he sees as “almost a stalking.” His fear back then that he would bore the master with his prattle. And look how much Susan Trott reveals about Bunin’s description of Chekhov: friendly, shining eyes, the pince nez, Chekhov’s modesty. The scene: the two of them, sitting together on the sea wall, their legs probably dangling like two new friends (Bunin so hopes!) gazing out to sea….
The Orphan Master’s Son
Pat: Dory, you and I were surprised that this Pulitzer Prize winning novel wasn’t mentioned very much during the recent e-mail-hacking fiasco at Sony Motion Pictures — do you remember? This and apparent threats from the North Korean government followed release of the latest Seth Rogan gross-out movie, The Interview.
I say gross-out because it stars two typically dumb and dumber American stoner-journalists played by Rogan and James Franco, who cuss and copulate and stuff things up their posteriors when they find themselves ordered to assassinate North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.
Quite surprisingly, once you get past the toilet and genital humor, The Interview is a revealing and funny movie. Kim Jong-un is portrayed as a very smart, media savvy guy who deftly exploits American narcissism to his own ends.
That works in a simplistic movie, so enough kudos for Seth Roganbut it’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel called The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson that goes much deeper in a literary way to provide us with one of the most knowledgeable and penetrating works of fiction we’ll ever see about North Korea — and one of the best novels I’ve read.
For one thing, this story about a soldier who’s trained to be an assasssin, a kidnapper, a sailor, a tunnel explorer, a diplomat and an interrogator is a blistering indictment on propaganda as a way of life, not only in North Korea but in the United States. Often couched in Communist lingo, these exaggerated statements are supposed to evoke pity and disgust at the self-indulgent and backward ways of Americans.
“[America is] a crime-laden land of materialism and exclusion, where huge populations languish in jail, sprawl urine-soaked in the streets, or babble incoherently about God on the sweatpants-polished pews of megachurches.”
These observations are funnier when you consider they’re all true in a way.
The American guitar, which most North Koreans have never seen, is described as theinstrument of choice [in the United States] for playing “the blues,” which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision-making.”
When an American athlete leaves after a visit, “her departure was a sad one, as she was returning to America and a life of illiteracy, canines, and multicolored condoms.”
Doris: I also read this book and loved it. There are lots of surprises in it, but the descriptions of life in North Korea, the brutality, the insanity—all of which the reader absolutely believes—though how could the author know all this about a country that remains so secretive and unknown to the western world?—causes you to constantly be shaking your head in wonder. And there is as much to laugh at here as to be horrified by: remember, Pat, the part where they talk about “canines”?
Pat: Right, mention of “canines” occurs several times because in North Korea, dogs as pets are illegal and unthinkable. “The canine (is) an animal not meant to be domesticated,” we learn. If you say to a dog, “sit” or “lie down,” you’re guilty of using “indolent phrases from capitalism.” Dogs in North Korea are raised in warrens, as are ostriches and rabbits and goats, so the way Americans treat dogs is seen as possessive and maniacal.
“You must never hurt a dog in America,” a North Korean expert says. “Dogs are considered part of the family and are given names, just like people. Dogs also have their own beds and toys and doctors and houses, which should not be referred to as warrens.”
The question is later asked if dogs in America have their own groomers, their own food, and their own aisles in supermarkets. “Oh no,” says the expert, “that would never happen.”
What do North Koreans learn from all this? Discovering that in Texas, hunting dogs are given treats by their owner, the North Korean visitor “understands that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.”
Doris: I’ve got to say, this is one of the best books I read last year. There are no false moves. The story is fascinating, the characters drawn beautifully. The writing is sophisticated and smart. Never a cliché, no manipulation of the reader by the writer—which is something I’d like to talk about another time.
Doris: Leo Litwak is a novelist and journalist in the Bay Area who’s been a professor at San Francisco State University for 30 years. He served as an Army medic during World War II, as were thousands of others, but what attracts me to this passage is its simplicity. He was 18 at the time and seems to want only to state, as clearly and succinctly as possible, the reality of combat in Belgium as the war came to an end in 1944.
“The captain told us, ‘When you hear the order to attack, stand up and start marching and firing and keep marching and firing and don’t run, don’t hit the ground, don’t take cover, don’t lose your intervals, always stay in line with the advance. It doesn’t mater that you can’t see what you’re shooting at.’
“Captain Dillon called this maneuver ‘marching fire.’
When we used marching fire, I had to force myself to rise and start marching. I walked into enemy fire and didn’t hit the ground, didn’t start digging, didn’t wiggle on my belly toward the nearest tree, didn’t hug the ground and hide my face. I walked at a steady, modest pace, buddies strung out to the left and right, utterly exposed. It was against all my inclinations. I was as terrified and resentful as if I had been offered as a sacrifice to a god in whom I had no faith.
Doris: I know nothing about war, about the rules of war — the idea that the captain will ask these men to walk into their possible death, and that the men will do it, even if they have to force themselves to. Could I do that? The author is terrified and resentful, and he does exactly as he’s told. How is that possible? What kind of brainwashing is necessary for this to be possible? All of this is suggested in this short passage.
Pat: I think they’re taught in boot camp that the only way to survive the war is to do exactly what they’re told — after all, if the troops give into fear, they’ll be killed. No wonder Leo Litwak writes with such minimalism — he’s so terrified his sentences are skeletal, like stick figures. And yet that word “resentful” comes through; they may have turned him into an unquestioning soldier, but how could we miss that last line: “I had been offered as a sacrifice to a god in whom I had no faith.”
Doris: We get it. He doesn’t have to say another word.