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.

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson

This one is a surprisingly quick and easy read, considering that it undertakes the history of a much-debated punctuation mark. Early on it made me giggle and brought me great joy. Later, it took me into Moby-Dick and Henry James, which I did not enjoy. At over 60 pages, the Melville & James chapter (“Semicolon Savants”) was by far the longest in the book, and occurred late in it, so it disproportionately colors the impression I walk away with, and not for the best. But earlier chapters on semicolons in legal arguments and the ever-changing nature of language rules, and pithier (than Melville) examples of semicolons as style (Twain, Irvine Welsh, Raymond Chandler, Rebecca Solnit!), made me very happy. Perhaps I felt that the Melville and James examples misportray the semicolon; perhaps it’s merely an expression of my preferences. I very much missed a discussion of the semicolon’s present symbolism in mental health awareness movements and tattoos, since I feel like that usage is cleverly figurative (even if it misconstrues my own semicolon tattoo, which is actually about punctuation). But maybe that aspect is too of-the-moment and has not yet stood the test of time.

I do love that there are books about this.

And I enjoyed where the book wraps up. Watson has spent its length periodically referring to her own movement from (more or less) grammar nerd and prescriptivist to descriptivist admirer of language and style in their diversity. She finishes by reminding us not to get too caught up in the rules. I appreciate this message very much, and I agree with it, although it’s hard to find where to fall as an English teacher of reluctant students. I many times found myself wishing I could convince them all to read this book, which feels like endorsement enough.


Rating: 7 clauses.

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.

In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Cover-Up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press by Katherine Corcoran

The unsolved murder of a Mexican journalist has implications for the free press and free society everywhere in this in-depth investigation.

In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Cover-Up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press is American journalist Katherine Corcoran’s first book, focusing on the murder of Mexican journalist Regina Martínez in 2012, its aftermath and implications for the free press in Mexico and beyond. Corcoran details the years she spent investigating Martínez’s death, without the satisfaction of a final conclusion; the case remains unsolved, along with many other cases of slain journalists.

“To the foreigner, Mexico charms, cajoles, and seduces. There are so many Mexicos: so many climates, cultures, foods, and languages; contiguous, concentric, stacked; native and colonial; current and past; invisible yet present.” With this same attention to multiplicity, Corcoran relates the complicated nature of a single murder case and all that it represents. Already familiar with Mexican culture, politics and journalism, Corcoran, as Associated Press bureau chief in Mexico City, had also received threats to her staff by the time that Martínez was brutally killed in the bathroom of her own home in Xalapa, Veracruz. Killings of journalists had been on the rise, but this case was different, not least because Martínez was nationally known: “Everyone, including me, knew she was beyond reproach. I had tried to hire her once.” Martínez was known for covering potentially dangerous subjects, frequently including the connection between government corruption and organized crime. No one in her tight-knit circle of journalist friends could say what she’d been working on when she was killed, and the official line quickly became that she had been the victim of a crime of passion–something none of her friends believed, but a difficult theory to disprove.

Into a mess of stories and theories, and still under threat of surveillance and violence years later, steps Corcoran, with archival research and hundreds of interviews with a dizzying cast of characters (helpfully listed in the front of the book) from the media, politics, organized crime, and Martínez’s family and friends. She brings a journalist’s careful accounting of where truth meets speculation, where the author has chosen between versions of the same story, where corroboration has been impossible. In the Mouth of the Wolf offers the results of this research, numerous unconfirmed theories and the personal story of a journalist chasing an elusive truth. By its finish, Corcoran has become alarmed by the state of the free press in the United States as well as in Mexico, and concludes that Martínez’s unsolved murder–and so many like it–have chilling effects not only on the freedom of the press but on society itself, all over the world. This compelling, carefully researched investigation is a sobering clarion call.


This review originally ran in the August 26, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 vests.

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.

The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser; introduction by Catherine Venable Moore

Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead was originally published as a poem cycle in her 1938 collection U.S. 1. It was unearthed, if you will, by Catherine Venable Moore, and republished in a new edition in 2018 with Moore’s introduction. (Disclosure: Moore was a visiting faculty member in my MFA program when I was a student there; I have met her, very briefly.) That introduction is lengthy, occupying fully half the pages of this book, which I hadn’t realized in advance; that is to say, while Rukeyser’s poetry is its raison d’etre, Moore’s essay is indispensable to the reading experience I’m reviewing here. That essay was published in Oxford American (a magazine I adore) in 2016, in its entirety – I did a pretty close page-by-page spot check, and if the two versions differ, it’s by words or punctuation marks, not paragraphs. (OA actually offers more images, too.) You can read Moore’s work here, and you absolutely should (I write, at the risk of unselling a copy of this book; but you will still want Rukeyser’s poems!).

The subject is the years-long industrial disaster at Hawk’s Nest Tunnel near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Miners were tasked with both tunnel construction and the mining of silica, a convenient byproduct of the tunneling; they worked without protective equipment and inhaled quantities of silica, which caused silicosis (as it was known at the time it would), of which they died by the hundreds. Most of the miners were migratory Black Southerners housed in temporary work camps. The death toll is still unknown.

Rukeyser, a young lefty poet/journalist, traveled to West Virginia to document these events in 1936, as the last of the miners testified before a congressional committee even as they coughed and died. She was accompanied by a photographer friend (whose photographs, but two, were lost). The Book of the Dead was Rukeyser’s result: documentary, poetry, journalism, testament. Moore’s essay places this and much more information in context so that the reader is ready to appreciate Rukeyser’s poems when they come. Recall that I am infinitely more at home with essays than with poetry, but I found Moore’s work to be very moving, beautifully done, and informative. I found the poems more challenging, and I would not have gotten as much out of them without Moore’s help. Perhaps my favorite was the title poem, which is also available online at The Poetry Foundation, for whom I am grateful.

I’m very glad I spent a day immersed in this story, certainly an important one in our national and regional history. This was a bit of homework before, hopefully, visiting the recently dedicated memorial myself. I am very glad that Moore did the work of getting these poems and this story out into the world again.


Rating: 8 hills of glass.

Cults: Inside the World’s Most Notorious Groups and Understanding the People Who Joined Them by Max Cutler, Kevin Conley

This shocking study by the creator of the podcast Cults recounts and dissects the leaders, followers and histories of 10 extreme cults.

“Everyone wants to believe in something or someone: a higher ideal, a god on earth, a voice from heaven…. When this appetite for belief combines with the need to belong, great things can happen…. But what about those rare moments when the dark side of human nature takes hold?” The shocking Cults, based on the Parcast podcast of the same name, surveys some of the most famous and disturbing examples of small, extremist, ill-fated sects. Parcast founder Max Cutler is joined by Kevin Conley (Stud; The Full Burn) in writing this roundup of frighteningly charismatic leaders and their followers.

Ten chapters cover 10 cults chosen for their impacts on the world’s imagination, beginning (naturally) with Charles Manson and his “family.” Cutler’s focus is both narrative, detailing the story of the leader’s upbringing and the cult’s rise and fall, and also probing: Cults is interested in motivations and, to the extent possible, diagnoses. “With so many cult leaders who died suddenly or violently, any diagnosis of psychological disturbance is purely speculative,” but the temptation is strong. “Cult leaders make such good case studies: because the gruesome facts of their biographies are both widely known and easy to connect to a psychological disorder.” Cults are labeled in the table of contents by the root cause Cutler has identified for each leader’s actions. According to this system, Manson was motivated by shame, as was Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo, whose Narcosatanists were responsible for at least 16 deaths in Mexico in the 1980s.

Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple was driven by exploitation, taking advantage of his followers financially and sexually until the deaths of 908 Americans (including Jones) in what was called “Jonestown” in Guyana. Likewise exploitative was the bizarre Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose ashrams in India and then Oregon supported his desire for both nitrous oxide and Rolls Royces (he owned 93 at one point), and who laced Oregonian salad bars with salmonella in a bid for local political control. Pathological lying, megalomania, sadism, escape and denial of reality cover the remaining cults: Claude Vorilhon’s Raëlism, Roch Thériault’s Ant Hill Kids, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, Keith Raniere’s NXIVM, Credonia Mwerinde’s Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, and Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate. Manipulative, self-aggrandizing, compelling and lacking in empathy, these characters (in every sense) are by turns laughable, inexplicably strange and chillingly, brutally cruel. Not for the faint of heart but absolutely for the true-crime junkie, Cults is packed with details and unafraid to posit theories to explain these superlatively weird and scary stories.


This review originally ran in the April 22, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 mixtures containing applesauce.

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.