H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Apologies for the very long review that follows, but I just loved this book so much.


Originally published in 2014, H Is for Hawk is a blend of memoir, nature writing and literary musings – a work of creative nonfiction that sounds made for me, in fact. Why did it take me so long? I have heard about this book for all these years but for some reason held off. Maybe it was simply the perversity of resisting reading something that sounds so obviously right. (Why do we do this??) Recently I read something (can’t remember what!) that prompted me to finally get into this book, and I’m sorry it took me so long. This is, indeed, a perfect book for me. It’s likely to wind up the best of the year; I’m putting it alongside Fire Season and Things That Are.

Helen Macdonald is a research fellow at Cambridge University when her father dies suddenly. She has also been a passionate lifelong falconer. One bird she’d never worked with before was the goshawk, a famously difficult bird to train and fly. But after her father’s death – reeling with grief – she feels the need to give this challenge a go. While navigating grief and struggling with her new goshawk, she comes across an old book: T.H. White’s The Goshawk, which she read (along with so many other bird and animal books) as a child, and found fault with then. Revisiting it, she still finds much that troubles her about White’s bungled, amateur efforts with his own gos (he knew a fraction of what Macdonald does when he entered unwisely into the fray), but also finds a kindred in suffering. The book that eventually comes out of this process, H Is for Hawk, is a braid of three threads: the author’s staggering grief at losing her beloved father; her time with the hawk she will eventually call Mabel; and her study of T.H. White’s life, falconry, and philosophies.

She blends these threads beautifully, moving smoothly between them in ways that always feel natural. The woman who is training the hawk is also the woman mourning her father, moving in a dream state through a world that no longer makes sense; in rereading The Goshawk she naturally reflects on her own falconry and her own gos, and on her childhood (when she first read the book) and therefore on her early relationship with her parents, and therefore on her father again – it’s all circular; it’s all linked. Macdonald must also consider the unhappy life of White (whom you may recognize as the author of The Once and Future King and others), a problematic figure in his political leanings, who wrestled with his own sexuality. I’m still describing Macdonald’s subject matter; but the seamless weaving of memoir, grief, falconry, literature, and history is just part of the charm. It’s her writing, and her stark, honest portrayal of the mad human experience, that shines.

It’s an astonishingly crafted book, too. I marveled, for example, at how it opens. Check out the first half of the first paragraph:

Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed. It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. There are ghosts here: houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry. There are spaces built for air-delivered nukes inside grassy tumuli behind twelve-foot fences, tattoo parlours and US Air Force golf courses. In spring it’s a riot of noise: constant plane traffic, gas-guns over pea fields, woodlarks and jet engines. It’s called the Brecklands – the broken lands – and it’s where I ended up that morning, seven years ago, in early spring, on a trip I hadn’t planned at all.

And then the way the first chapter ends, after describing a piece of reindeer moss picked up on that trip.

Three weeks later, it was the reindeer moss I was looking at when my mother called and told me my father was dead.

There’s something very neat and circular about this chapter and how it establishes the interconnection between the natural world, and the narrator’s walk looking for goshawks, with the loss of her father. When I read this first chapter, I had little feeling for the shape of the whole book; I was impressed at the time with what that opening and closing promised, and fulfilled. I felt it was a great start. Now that I’ve finished the book, I can see what a *perfect* opening it was, and the promises it makes and fulfills for the whole.

I feel that Macdonald views and portrays her subjects in fresh and new ways. Her father’s death (by natural causes) she experiences as if it were a violence or a natural disaster, with all the power and senselessness of weather. I appreciate the way she describes Mabel, her own goshawk – and other birds, but especially Mabel – the attention and detail with which she evokes the complications of color and feathers. “Formidable talons, wicked, curved black beak, sleek, café-au-lait front streaked thickly with cocoa-coloured teardrops, looking for all the world like some cappuccino samurai.” Indeed, part of what I loved so much about those opening sentences of the first chapter was the level of detail. She’s concerned as well with class and gender in the world of falconry and beyond; she muses on her awkward childhood (and her dear, tolerant parents), and racism and fascism in both historic and contemporary Britain. The best books, I think, open up like this. Falconry and the loss of a beloved parent lead naturally to British colonial history, and why not?

This is absolutely in part a book about the grieving process, descriptive rather than prescriptive. It reminds me strongly of Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which also conjures the muddy, dreamy, drugged madness of grief. But I felt far closer to Macdonald’s narrator than I ever did to Didion’s. I just like Helen better (sorry, Joan). She successfully defamiliarizes her own world by becoming (it seems) part hawk. Part of the training process involves holing up together, falconer and hawk, in the quiet and the dark, to bond and establish trust; when they must emerge, the narrator finds the outside world as strange as the hawk does. “She watches a woman throwing a ball to her dog on the grass, and I watch too, as baffled by what she’s doing as the hawk is. I stare at traffic lights before I remember what they are. Bicycles are spinning mysteries of glittering metal.” This seems a necessary part of Helen’s grieving, but it nearly breaks her, too. “The day-book that records White’s long, lost battle with Gos is not simply about his hawk,” writes Helen, and we sense that she knows the same is true of her book.

This is a masterpiece of writing about the natural world and the points where the wild and the human are the same. It’s a masterpiece of lovely writing, period. It’s a feeling and singular evocation of grief, which I understand to be experienced differently in each instance. It’s a thoughtful consideration of many intersecting threads about the human experience and history, including some of our thorniest issues. The narrator is hard on herself but also winds up with some healing, and some hopeful outlooks – I could see this being a difficult but finally therapeutic read for someone suffering a great loss. It’s a gorgeous and profound piece of literature, the kind I had to pause frequently (at least after every chapter, sometimes within them – and they’re short chapters generally) to let sink in, to take breaks. It will stick with me for a long time.


Rating: 10 drawings.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s voice is as powerful as you’ve heard, and Citizen is many things, in ways that can be challenging but also make it a rewarding meditation. A slim book, it rewards slower-paced reading, because there’s a lot to think about (and look at). I think I had envisioned a book of poetry in more traditional fashion, which would be challenging for me (because I find poetry difficult; I think I look too hard for literal readings). What I found was a little more form-bending, which mostly made it a little easier to take in. Lyric essays intersperse with poetry, and there are a handful of images of visual art as well, and references to other media, including YouTube videos and Rankine’s own “situation videos.” Predictably, I follow along better in the prose-ier sections than the poetry-leaning ones, and the former come first in the book, which I think made the transition a little harder. This is a problem on my end (when will I get over my fear of poems?). I sort of wish for a reading guide, although that runs the risk of prescriptivism.

Citizen is about race, or about race in America, or about what it is like to be Black in America. It relates macro- and microaggressions so that they build up: does the reader feel shocked? weary? angry? reading them? Well, maybe that’s the point. The small, everyday experiences have cumulative effect. The narrator spends a chapter (essay?) describing what it is to sigh incessantly, and be shushed in her sighs. She spends time observing Serena Williams: her play, the aggressions she experiences, when she does and does not react with outrage, and how the world reacts to her reactions. There is a chapter of scripts for Rankine’s situation videos, about which she says on her website: “It is our feeling that both devastating images and racist statements need management.” (I couldn’t figure out how to watch the actual videos on her website, although some are on YouTube.) There is a list of names of Black men and women killed by police; it fades out into gray text because the list is too long. The visual images that come in between the text sections might be said to offer a break, but it’s more like a different way of looking.

On the cover image, I most like these words from The New Yorker‘s review: “The book’s cover, an image of a black hood suspended in white space, seems to be a direct reference to Trayvon Martin’s death, but the image is of a work from 1993, two years after Rodney King was beaten senseless by members of the L.A.P.D. It’s called ‘In the Hood,’ and it suggests that racism passes freely among homonyms: the white imagination readily turns hoods into hoods. The image also makes you think of the hoods in fairy tales and illustrated books, part of the regalia of childhood. But its white backdrop recalls the haunting quotation from Zora Neale Hurston that keeps cropping up in Citizen: ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.’ The hood becomes an executioner’s headdress, too.”

In the end after finishing the book and trying to review, I find my impression is more of poetry than of prose, because there’s an overall feeling even between the moments where I was frustrated because I couldn’t always parse the literal meaning. (Maybe Vince will show up to explain it to me.) Not for the first time, the poet is smarter than I am. But it was a hell of an experience, and I’d read more. Her reputation is deserved.


Rating: 7 lessons.

rerun: Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson

A lyrical, textured, and meticulously researched meditation on Hemingway from a fresh new angle.

Paul Hendrickson, NBCC award-winning nonfiction author for Sons of Mississippi, pulls off the remarkable feat of finding a fresh, new angle from which to approach Ernest Hemingway: his boat Pilar. Purchased in 1934 with an advance from his longtime publisher Scribner, she saw him through three wives, great achievements and critical failures in his writing career, big fish and little ones, and the beginnings and the endings of many relationships. Hendrickson suggests that Pilar may have been the love of Hemingway’s life.

This is not a biography but a careful and compassionate rumination on the man through the lens of the boat. Hendrickson has brought to his readers a Hemingway who is neither object of worship nor monster, but a full and complex human who made serious mistakes in his relationships and fought pitched battles against his own demons, and finally lost.

The Hemingway fan will be enthralled with new details of his life, and the study of figures previously treated as minor but now revealing new facets of the man. The less familiar reader will be fascinated by this comprehensive account of the master and his complex spiderweb of varied effects on so many lives, large and small. Hendrickson presents his unusual and noteworthy story with beautifully quiet intensity and contemplation. Hemingway’s Boat achieves a terrific feat in reworking Hemingway’s story.


This review originally ran in the September 23, 2011 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Further notes… Hendrickson treats Hemingway sort of gently, but doesn’t spare the man in his moments of monstrosity. Hendrickson comes from several different angles, interviewing different people who knew Hem more or less well, unearthing some new details. Hemingway’s Boat approaches the subject with the relatively unique concept that he was just a man – a great artist, but also human, with flaws and moments of everyday beauty. This book was noteworthy in all my reading about Hemingway and the surrounding literature. It made me laugh and cry. I wholeheartedly recommend this book for fans of Hemingway, or of literary biography, or of well-written nonfiction, or for those looking for vignettes in Key West or Havana history.


rerun: Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors

Trying something new here, friendly readers. Without getting too far into it all, the last weeks have been a stressful time for me, for both personal and work-related reasons. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed, and I’m in danger of getting behind here at the blog. Of the irons in my fire, this is not one I really want adding to the stress. So, an experiment. On occasional blog-post-days, I’m going to rerun old content. We are nearly 12 years old here at pagesofjulia! My hope is that some newer readers may be exposed to reviews they’ve not seen before, and I get another chance to expose you to (or remind you of) some of my favorite books. If this is old news, obviously, skip it, as you please. (Bonus: I had fun going way back to look for reviews to rerun.) I’ll try to keep the editing of my original reviews to a minimum.

Naturally we’re beginning with one of my all-time favorites, Phil Connors’ brilliant first book, Fire Season. I first reviewed this book in May of 2011. You can also read my father’s review, and friend Tassava’s, of same.

Please enjoy.


This is an amazing book. The first sentences immediately grabbed me. Connors works summers in a teeny, tiny tower room way up in the sky in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, as a fire lookout. His job is to spot smoke and call it in for control or “management” of the fires. But his “field notes” tell so much more than the story of his career as a lookout. This is the story of his time alone in the Gila, and of the visitors he receives and the visits he pays back to town; it’s the story of his and his dog Alice’s interactions with nature. It’s the story of fire and smoke and the Forest Service’s management of fire. It’s a history of fire, of the Forest Service, of the Gila, of so very many aspects of our nation’s history, and the natural history of the southwest. Connors discusses the varied reactions the government has had to fire: the policy of fire suppression, consistently and in every case, versus the concept of “controlled” or “prescribed” burns, and the ongoing debates. He contemplates society, its benefits and our occasional desire to escape it. He discusses his unique model of marriage, in which he spends some five months a year living alone and mostly out of touch. He also relates ecological issues like fire as a natural control mechanism, erosion, and the preferences of flora and fauna. And more.

I found Fire Season astounding and important. There’s a zen-like balance in it. Connors is a rather balanced man, in that he still craves human contact; he’s not an entirely back-to-the-wild isolationist, nor does he fail to appreciate cold beer and a variety of media. But he achieves a special and rare state of commune with nature, too. His writing, for me, parallels this balance. He can wax philosophical, crafting lyrical, beautiful odes and hymns of reverence to nature, fire, and life; but he never gets overly wordy, tempering the poetry with (still beautifully written) narrative history.

Connors tells so many little stories I would love to pull out of this book and share as vignettes. For example, the story of Apache Chief Victorio’s last stand (that lasted over a year) in the vicinity of the lookout tower where Connors is stationed:

That September day in 1879, on the headwaters of Ghost Creek, marks a peculiar moment in America’s westward march: black soldiers, most of them former slaves or the sons of slaves, commanded by white officers, guided by Navajo scouts, hunting down Apaches to make the region safe for Anglo and Hispanic miners and ranchers. The melting pot set to boil.

Or the history of the smokejumpers, which I didn’t know before – the parachuting firefighters who pre-date paratroopers and taught them their trade. Or the tale of the Electric Cowboy. Or the story of the little fawn. I cried, mostly because I empathized. Really, it could be read as a series of anecdotes; but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The larger story is important, too. I even glimpsed traces of the training I’ve received in trail-building and (more broadly) land management.

The history, the lore, the anecdotes, the author’s relationship with nature, his relationship with his wife, the landscape of the Gila, the details about local species of bird, fish, and game… there are so many gems in this thoughtful, loving, lovely book. I am not doing it justice. It’s a very special book and I strongly recommend this to everyone, no matter who you are. But I especially recommend it if you are… a nature lover, a hiker, a dog lover, a government bureaucrat, a pyromaniac, an environmentalist, a city dweller, a romantic, a firefighter, a skydiver, a cribbage player, a whiskey drinker, a writer, a loner, a philosopher, a historian, a student, or a teacher.

This review originally ran before I instituted a rating system, but obviously –


Rating: 10 phobias.

Curing Season: Artifacts by Kristine Langley Mahler

These experimental essays about place, home and the failed effort to belong are closely tied to Eastern North Carolina, but will resonate everywhere.

Kristine Langley Mahler’s Curing Season: Artifacts is an essay collection selected for West Virginia University Press’s In Place series, which features strongly place-based literary nonfiction. In these often experimental essays, Mahler considers a brief but powerful part of her youth spent in eastern North Carolina: four years of preadolescence in which the young Mahler struggled with feeling that she didn’t belong. While this is arguably a universal preadolescent experience, Mahler’s story is indelibly linked to the community in which she lived, made and lost friends and attended school.

In Pitt County, N.C., the author encounters matters of race and class for the first time. The profitable sale of her family’s home in Oregon has enabled them to enter a prosperous suburb where her neighbors attend cotillion. White children, like Mahler, who go to public school are bussed into a majority-Black part of town as part of 1990s desegregation efforts. Her neighbors’ families seem to all rely on generational relationships to the place. She feels her outsider status at every turn. Also characterizing Mahler’s experience are difficult preadolescent friendships, including the “mean girl” type, and one relationship in particular: Mahler’s best friend Annie, long estranged and eventually deceased. By the end of Curing Season, the troubled, dead friend haunts the author as much as the place does.

While some essays use relatively straightforward narrative storytelling, others are fragmented, rely on images or borrow forms from other works. There are list essays and hermit crab essays based on dictionary entries and proposals for project fundings; Mahler explores astrology, references Joan Didion’s famous rational detachment and borrows lines from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and the local history Chronicles of Pitt County. “I grafted my history onto theirs; I twisted the lessons until I could wring out similarities between my past and theirs; I removed and imprinted my history on top of theirs until I could not tell the difference between their truth and mine.” In blending Mahler’s experiences with those of Pitt County, she digs into the very nature of truth and memory. The author of these formally inventive essays is forever circling both the specific place and the experience of feeling disconnected and othered. “I have returned a hundred times; I have never come home.” She remains preoccupied, even obsessed, decades after leaving, still trying to belong or gain a greater understanding of what didn’t work.

The title Curing Season: Artifacts refers to the tobacco-curing season in Pitt County and to both literal and figurative acts of excavation. Mahler’s investigative ponderings on belonging, displacement and a sense of home are both specific to place and universally familiar.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 stolen pins.

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

Another one hit way out of the park by Liz. I no longer remember what she said, but I think it involved some superlatives; I bought the book and finally got around to it and now have some superlatives of my own. It was just early April when I read this book, but I’m confident stating this will be the best book I read all year.

Why Fish Don’t Exist is one sort of book I love, in that it involves several threads woven together. In her prologue, Lulu Miller pits our most precious loves against the force of a capitalized Chaos. “Chaos will crack them from the outside–with a falling branch, a speeding car, a bullet–or unravel them from the inside, with the mutiny of their very own cells. Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike. It will decay your most precious memories…” Etc. Then we first meet David Starr Jordan, as Miller did. He was a taxonomist specializing in fish. An earthquake destroyed his collection of thousands of specimens, dashing them in their glass jars to the ground, separating them from their identifying tags. To which he responded by hand-stitching tag to fish specimen, and starting over. Miller is entranced by this “attack on Chaos.” She struggles herself with the forces that tend to defeat us, and wonders of Jordan: “Who are you?… A cautionary tale? Or a model of how to be?

From here we accompany Miller on her study of Jordan – his life and his thoughts – in search of a model for how to be, how to live with joy and be indefatigable in the face of all frustrations, all forms of Chaos. Why Fish Don’t Exist is thus partly a biography of Jordan and a layperson’s introduction to fish taxonomy and its principles. (The title is not a joke. There are existential arguments and philosophies to be discovered, too.) It’s also part memoir, as we get to know Miller better, the demons she’s faced and the tools she’s used to try to mend herself. Her father is a delightedly nihilistic scientist, with some parallels to Jordan, which is of course fascinating. The book is perhaps most of all an inquiry into Miller’s original concern: how to live and not despair, not choose to die, in such an overwhelmingly imperfect world as this one.

Miller’s writing style is colorful, phantasmagoric, impassioned, with high highs and low lows. She sees beauty and desolation in the world, and describes them evocatively. Among Jordan’s discoveries are

A small lantern fish with glowing spots, “which had risen from the deeps in a storm.” A tiny, rainbow-scaled fish that was found inside the belly of a hake, which was found inside the belly of an albacore. A crimson fish with yellow stripes that they nicknamed “the Spanish flag.”

The only fish he ever named after himself, “breathtaking, absolutely, but frightening, too, in the way of an M.C. Escher drawing.” “Its fins look like dragon wings, serrated and sharp.”

Without ruining too much of the story, I will say that Jordan, like all our heroes, is not purely heroic. He turns out to be in fact profoundly problematic, as our heroes tend to, and so Miller must wrestle with that, too. Chaos again. His methods are ruthless –

He began inventing more aggressive techniques for capturing fish. Blowing them out of the water with dynamite, hammering them out of coral, and perhaps most ingenious, for the “myriads of little fishes” that hid inside the tiny cracks in tide pools: poison.

and he’s harder on people than he is on fish. In more than a few ways I won’t give away here he will disturb our modern sensibilities. He disappoints us, as he disappoints Miller – horribly – but her own perspective never disappoints.

Illustrations by Kate Samworth open each chapter and advance their contents; these lovely black-and-whites resemble woodcuts (if that’s not in fact what they are) and will be part of what makes this book memorable for me. I think Samworth deserved to have her name on the book’s cover.

Transcendent. Best book of the year. Wrecked me, but in the best way. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.


Rating: 10 holotypes.

An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

What is Odysseus, in the end – the hero whose final act of vengeful violence is compared, by means of another memorable simile, to a bard stringing his lyre – but the poet of his own life?

This is the first book I read in 2022, and I feel sure it will make the year’s best-of list, so that’s an excellent start. Another happy synchronicity: I bought this book based off a review I read, but find that Mendelsohn is also the author of a book I’ve had on my shelf for a few years, from a grad school reading list I never got to: The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. After this read, that one just moved up the list.

An Odyssey is a memoir focusing on a father/son relationship and a journey, both a literal one and the figurative path to greater understanding facilitated by a yet more famous Odyssey. Daniel Mendelsohn’s father Jay is eighty-one years old the spring he asks his son Dan if he can sit in on his undergraduate seminar course on Homer’s Odyssey. Dan says yes, and together with a small group of college freshmen, father and son explore a work of classic literature and, as Dan sees it, their own relationship. Just after the course ends, they go together on a Mediterranean cruise that follows Odysseus’s presumed route home from the Trojan War. A year later, Jay would be dead.

I bought this book because I read a lovely review of it (which I now cannot find. I thought it was Shelf Awareness but apparently not), but then it sat on my shelf for some time, I think because the concept sounded a little precious, a little pat. And it could have been, in the wrong hands, but Daniel Mendelsohn was the right writer for this story, and I’m so glad. For one, he has a deep expertise in Homer and indeed in the classics – as I briefly (in high school) aspired to do, he learned Greek and Latin sufficient to read Homer, Ovid and Virgil (etc.) in their original forms, just for a start. He is the kind of thoughtful, introspective student of relationships and families that I most appreciate as a writer. He has the nuance to handle such a premise – father and son study the Odyssey and take a trip together – with the subtlety it needs. Talk about a book matched to its reader: Homer, parent/child relationships, contemplative memoir… and a focus on teaching. The result is a beautiful book that I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

Here are a few lines that made me pause.

I was going to read Greek, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the elaborately unspooling Histories of Herodotus, the tragedies constructed as beautifully as clocks, as implacably as traps…

How lovely – and makes me think of Amy Leach’s “Pea Madness.”

And so ring composition, which might at first glance appear to be a digression, reveals itself as an efficient means for a story to embrace the past and the present and sometimes even the future – since some ‘rings’ can loop forward, anticipating events that place after the conclusion of the main story. In this way a single narrative, even a single moment, can contain a character’s entire biography.

A single moment containing a character’s entire biography feels like why I read and write.

About competing literary interpretations,

Whatever else it may mean, the fact that both of these hostile camps could make use of the same examples to prove diametrically opposed interpretations suggests a truth about how all of us read and interpret literary texts – one that is, possibly, rooted in the mysteries of human nature itself. Where some people see chaos and incoherence, others will find sense and symmetry and wholeness.

Following a half-page discussion of the etymology of a certain word that I care about,

In time, this wistful word nostos, rooted so deeply in the Odyssey‘s themes, was eventually combined with another word in Greek’s vast vocabulary of pain, algos, to give us an elegantly simply way to talk about the bittersweet feeling we sometimes have for a special kind of troubling longing. Literally this word means ‘the pain associated with longing for home,’ but as we know, ‘home,’ particularly as we get older, can be a time as well as a place. The word is ‘nostalgia.’

This takes me immediately to a Jason Isbell song (forgive the whiplash), “Something to Love,” and the line “don’t quite recognize the world that you call home.” Naturally, this is a song about art and creativity, and it is sung in the voice of a parent speaking to his child. The idea that two people a generation apart – parent and child – necessarily come from different worlds, because of the way the world changes over time, has been a powerful one for me in the last decade or so.

Here’s another passage that gets to the heart of some of (again) my own thinking about parents.

If only they knew the real him, I thought. Glancing around at the others as they listened to Daddy, at the charmed smiles on Brendan’s and Ksenia’s faces, and then back at his face, relaxed and open, mellow with reminiscence, a face so different from the one he so often presented, at least to his family, I wondered suddenly whether there might be people, strangers he had met on business trips, say, bellhops or stewardesses or conference attendees, to whom he showed only this kindly face, and who, therefore, would be as astonished by the expression of contempt that we knew so well as we were by the rare glimpses of the other, softer side. How many sides did my father actually have, I asked myself, and which was the ‘real’ one? Perhaps this expansive and charming person, so different from the crabbed and coiled man whom only a month or two earlier, I ruefully thought, my Odyssey students had come to know, this song-singing old gentleman who could be so affable and entertaining with total strangers on a ship in the middle of the sea, was the person my father had always been meant to be. Or, perhaps, had always been, although only with those others, the bellhops and stewardesses. Children always imagine that their parents’ truest selves are as parents; but why? ‘Who really knows his own begetting?’ Telemachus bitterly asks early in the Odyssey. Who indeed. Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysteries to them.

On teaching:

It was from Fred that I understood that beauty and pleasure are at the center of teaching. For the best teacher is one who wants you to find meaning in the things that have given him pleasure, too, so that the appreciation of their beauty will outlive him. In this way – because it arises from an acceptance of the inevitability of death – good teaching is like good parenting.

This feels like a revelation but also something I recognize because I already understood it. It gets at why passion and excitement make for good teaching. And there’s a profundity to the idea that teaching is about what lives on beyond us. Although shortly after, he’ll make the point that teachers never know who they will reach with which lesson, because these things take years to reveal themselves; just as our own teachers rarely know who they have reached. I think again of Mrs. Smith, who introduced me in high school to Homer and Hemingway.

These moments go on and on. I love a book that offers both lovely lines and thought-provoking ideas.

The only critique I’d make of this exquisite work is some minimizing or simplification of women, especially by contrast to another recent read, Natalie Haynes’s excellent Pandora’s Jar, which was one of the best books I read in 2021, and helped inspire this read. (I regret that my weird reading-and-review schedule has reversed the order in which they appear here.) Haynes set out to address the roles and reputations of women in the Greek myths, and Mendelsohn concerns himself with fathers and sons, so, fair enough. But there were a few moments where I felt Mendelsohn missed a chance to see certain issues of gender, such that it felt like an oversight to me. It’s up for debate, of course, what agency Odysseus gets for his affairs with Calypso and Circe and his flirtations with Nausicaa and others (as opposed to the-gods-made-him-do-it), but to credit his “allegiance to his wife… withstand[ing] the seductive attentions of various goddesses and nymphs” seems a bit rich. I missed a more nuanced treatment of gender relations, both in Homer and in Mendelsohn’s own life. But perhaps this is unfair, considering his stated focus on male relationships.

I’ll be thinking about An Odyssey for a while.


Rating: 9 doors.

The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums by Amy Leach

Amy Leach’s signature playful style, joyful humor and wise questioning of the universe delight and fascinate in these 23 essays, her second such collection.

With The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums, Amy Leach (Things That Are) takes her readers on a playful, rigorous, mind-bending romp through human nature, the natural world, spirituality and more. Her perfectly singular voice sings the most surprising notes in an imaginative blend of silliness and seriousness.

This sophomore collection of 23 essays opens with its title offering, in which the narrator welcomes all 20 quintillion animals to the Everybody Ensemble. How will they be arranged and organized? What songs will they perform? Leach glories in lists of the unlikely, the weird and the underappreciated: “speckled and plain, perfect and imperfect, indigo-feathered, green-skinned, orange-toed, squashed of face, cracked of shell, miniature of heart, young as ducklings, old as hills, everybody raise your sweet and scrapey, bangy, twangy, sundry, snorty voices.” This embrace of enormous, diverse multiplicity serves as appropriate introduction to an ecstatic exploration of “everybodyism.”

Leach employs a huge range of rhetorical devices while retaining a sense of whimsy and plain fun. Her genius perhaps shows best in her selection of the singular, startlingly unexpected detail. Adept as she is at wordplay, Leach’s writing goes much deeper than that, wondering and speculating at larger questions. In “The Wanderer,” she considers how to critique the extravaganza show called Earth, “already in production for five million years now” but unfinished. The artist of this show has strengths (facility and versatility), but “imagination unchecked can result in a mishmash.” If only “we could just establish the genre, whether this is supposed to be comedy or tragedy or romance or what,” we could make sense of the effort. Don’t be misled by her joyful absurdity or wit with words: Leach is deadly serious in her questioning of the cosmos, Earth’s composer and whether “even with all the troubles of our time, maybe it can still be fun to be a frog.”

“O Latitudo” ponders the imagined choice of a supervolcano: to erupt or to self-suppress, “consequently composing a gassy, burpy, muddy Ode to Joy.” “In Lieu of a Walrus” offers a list of writers to whom one might turn when the first-choice interlocuter is unavailable, including Hafiz, Ovid and God. “Green Man” honors the mesquite tree, loved by few, who has been given “the freedom to dig his own disputable way.” “Beasts in the Margins” considers the more incongruous illustrations of 14th-century books of psalms: “Who let the monsters into the psalter?” These and other essays range widely in subject matter but accrue to a meaningful whole. Leach is smart, effervescent, earnest and funny. Her voice is perfectly unmistakable, her themes expansive; her prose glitters. The Everybody Ensemble is a revelation.


This review originally ran in the October 14, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 extracommercial tigers.

podcast: S-Town

S-Town is an American investigative journalism podcast hosted by Brian Reed and created by the producers of Serial and This American Life. All seven chapters were released on March 28, 2017.

I have been hearing about this podcast for years, and I’m sorry it took me so long. As soon as I started it I was hooked, riveted, couldn’t stop. So beware.

S-Town is the polite abbreviation for Shittown, which is the moniker given Woodstock, Alabama by a colorful character who is from there. John B. McLemore contacts Brian Reed by email, and the two end up emailing and talking on the phone for some time – at least many months, maybe a year or more – before Reed is convinced to go down and meet the man in person. John B’s original story for Brian is about a murder that has been covered up by corrupt Bibb County, which he would like the journalist to investigate. Well, this is an early spoiler but a mild one: the alleged murder never actually took place. But by the time Reed figures that out, he’s met John B, who is an addicting character. Wildly eccentric, genius, and yet somehow also an everyman. S-Town thinks it’s about a murder, for a minute, but really it’s about John B himself.

Or is it? I coach my students to pay close attention to titles, and this podcast is titled after the town itself; or rather, John B’s colorful description of the town. Maybe the show is about John B’s worldview. The man himself; the town; John B’s philosophies; Brian Reed’s unresolved feelings about these subjects; the final disposition of the man at the center of things.

To quote the Vox article that is linked later in this review:

John is all of the following: a queer liberal conspiracist who socializes with neighborhood racists; a manic depressive consumed by predictions of cataclysmic global catastrophe; an off-the-grid hoarder of gold who takes in stray dogs; a genius with a photographic memory who’s spent his whole life caring for his mother while designing a massive and elaborate hedge maze in his backyard; and one of the most skilled antique clock restorers in the world.

I feel that, on one level, S-Town is an example of the best of what creative nonfiction can do. It focuses on a man who is, at least in some ways, just a regular dude from a backwater town in a part of the country that we are accustomed to looking down on. It turns out that the everyman is remarkable, however: he is inarguably hyperintelligent; he’s also eccentric, disturbed, deeply troubled. (He actually reminds me so vividly of someone I have known intimately for much of my life that I was often freaked out by the similarities, so much that I don’t think I can name that person here, although those close to me will recognize who I mean.) He’s endlessly fascinating. Reed gives the impression of simply capturing the outpouring of weirdness from John B and passing it on to us – artfully composed, but otherwise authentic. Look how crazy real life can be! Fact is stranger than fiction, and all that; the best stories occur in nonfiction because we wouldn’t find them believable in fiction, I often feel.

Of course, there is a little bit of a falsehood there. All narratives are mediated in some ways. No story could tell everything about a man, and this one is limited by time (seven episodes averaging just under an hour apiece), and by Brian Reed’s limited access to John B. (The subject here is extremely forthcoming, but who can ever share all of himself; and they only know each other for so long.) Any narrative necessarily shapes its subject, no matter how honest it tries to be. But I find this piece of creative nonfiction – the seven episodes as a whole – an extraordinary example of craft and art, and an exemplar of the power of creative nonfiction at its best.

It’s also been the subject of some controversy. I’ve tried to keep the rest of this review pretty nearly spoiler-free, but if you want to appreciate the podcast as intended, stop reading now and go listen to it first.


There have been complaints (and lawsuits) over Reed’s use of personal information. Did he exploit John B? Has he aired more personal business than the subject intended? John B is not here to speak for himself, which makes these questions harder to answer. But I think… if Reed has exposed a lot of John B’s innards, that’s just what journalists do. John B contacted a journalist, knowingly invited Reed into his life, and then granted him enormous access to himself, his home, his mind, and his writings. And John B was a smart man. If it’s a bit off-putting to see so much personal stuff exposed – and I do find it a bit uncomfortable – well, what else did we expect? It is certainly great storytelling. We can’t know what John B would have thought of the final product. But he doesn’t strike me as a man worried about outward appearances. Sometimes journalism, and creative nonfiction, can be a little unsavory, folks. (Perhaps this is why I’m pretty much a nonpracticing nonfictionist at this point.) But S-Town no more so than the rest of it. If anything, I think Reed did a decent job of resisting the temptation to view Woodstock with disdain or even the curiosity of a visitor to the zoo; I think he tried for nuance.

Rather unusually, I’m writing this review more than a week after finishing the podcast – I generally like to get to things much more quickly – and so I can tell you it’s sticking with me, as fascination and as a bit of a puzzle. I’m not ready to indict Brian Reed or the podcast, but I don’t feel excellent about the whole thing, either. For a few other perspectives, many of them less complimentary than mine, check out Medium (with spoilers!); even better, I think, is Vox‘s coverage (also with spoilers). The latter does a very good job of explaining what is outstanding and what is troubling about S-Town, in my estimation. But best of all would be to go listen to it yourself.

John B will be with me for some time.


Rating: 9 drops of mercury.

“These Precious Days” by Ann Patchett

From the January 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine, sent to me by the infallible Liz, a transcendent essay by Ann Patchett. Now, I’m not sure if this is for real or how stable it is, but at least for now this link will let you read it for free, which you definitely should do. And it’s worth whatever they want you to pay for it, in any case.

“These Precious Days” is a lengthy essay, but it is riveting at every point. I had to put it down and walk away just to give my mind and my emotions a break, and to stretch it out – it is that strong and beautiful an experience. And it was hard to figure out where to take that break, because it wants to flow right through from start to finish.

There is a story running through this piece, and it is a story of a friendship, formed and forged during extraordinary times. As Patchett reminds us, she is a novelist, with a real interest in how stories are structured, where they begin and where they end. So it is with purpose that she gives us the story’s chosen beginning: it’s almost bedtime, Patchett has just finished a novel, and she needs something short to read before bed. From the umpteen books that naturally surround Ann Patchett, she chooses a collection of short stories by Tom Hanks. She is surprised to find it “a very good book,” and this sets her off on a journey where she gets to know Tom Hanks a little, interviews him for a television show, meets his assistant, sees him a few more times. This leads to Tom Hanks narrating the audiobook of The Dutch House, among other things. I’m not going to say any more about what happens. Trust me, you won’t be able to walk away from this one (unless you force yourself to do so with great effort, as I did, mostly for the pleasure of returning to it).

One thing I love about this essay is how it performs as a braided essay, barely. Patchett stays in a single narrative for the most part, telling the story of the developing friendship in the extraordinary times. After her introductory story about Tom Hanks (who is not the new friend, but reappears occasionally), she stays in this main thread so much of the time, and tells it so beautifully (and it is such an absorbing story) that I forget about the other thread – that there is a meta-thread in this essay about story, and about the shape and the shaping of this story. Those few and brief moments when she reminds us of the other topic are all the more effective for their scarcity. We are reminded that the narrator’s character is a novelist, and that the need she feels to shape narrative can’t be divorced from the life she’s living, where she has a dear new friend who is in danger. It’s extremely skillful writing, and I loved several facets of it: that weaving of threads (just barely, just a touch of one for seasoning in the main dish), the expertly paced storytelling, the appreciation for so-called coincidence, the delightful characters (of whom the author’s husband is a secondary example, but one I really liked), and the self-aware voice of Patchett herself. I’m left with the impression that Patchett is like Tom Hanks in a way (or my impression of Tom Hanks): despite being famous, they’re both also very decent and nice, more than one might expect. She’s allowed us intimately in here in a way that I think will appeal to many readers as it did to me.

Now’s a good time for me to confess that I’ve read none of Patchett’s fiction. (I think I’ve read a column or two, within the world of her bookstore advocacy.) I know her by reputation as a fine novelist and an important advocate of independent bookstores. I can now see that she is absolutely gifted and I need to read more of her work.

I can’t remember the last time an essay so bewitched and transported me. I insist you seek this one out. Thanks a million times as usual, Liz. (How’d I do?)