Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Full disclosure: Katie Fallon is my faculty advisor this semester, meaning we’ll be working closely together. I read this book just before meeting her.


Mid-April in our southern mountains is a gentle time; blooming forsythia lights up yards like bursts of yellow fireworks, magnolia trees sport gaudy white and pink blossoms, and median strips swell with lilacs and tulips.

cerulean-bluesCerulean Blues is a book about the cerulean warbler, a migratory songbird in danger but not listed as endangered (yet); it is also a book about the author’s becoming a fan and ally of the little bird, a year in her life.

It is organized by seasons: spring, summer and fall. In spring, Fallon discovers the bird and its possibilities for her, and the danger it’s in. This just happens to be as well the spring of 2007, and she is teaching at Virginia Tech when a school shooting takes place there that kills 33. The trauma of these events will shadow everything that follows for her. But she continues on through summer, when she travels to visit the cerulean in its northern habitats near her own Appalachian home, and fall, when she goes further afield to its migratory home in Colombia.

While Fallon is reflective and personal throughout, and the reader gets to know her husband and their rescue dog Mr. Bones as well as the narrator’s own insecurities and grief, this is very much a book about a bird species and its plight. While also showcasing some lovely language (see quotation above), she teaches us a great deal about cerulean warblers and the research (and personalities) that have taught her about them. It’s ultimately a work of science reporting by a non-scientist, as well as a memoir. I found her emotions and minor human flaws easily accessible, and the bird facts equally so. I felt that I got to know her by reading this–which turns out to be particularly applicable to my own studies, but will be rewarding for any reader. The Katie Fallon of these pages is an easy-to-like, easy-to-read instructor, and I think the cerulean warbler will gain more than a few more allies in its readers. (Quick hint: be sure to buy shade-grown and/or bird-friendly coffee!) Nice to meet you, Katie.


Rating: 7 colored bands.

Keep your eyes out for Katie’s next work of nonfiction, available in March of this year. I am especially looking forward to this one, titled Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. Vultures are among my favorite birds, as they were Ed Abbey’s.

Take Me to Paris, Johnny by John Foster

This beautifully written memoir of a lover’s life and death will impress readers with its lyricism and emotion.

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Originally published in Australia in 1993, John Foster’s Take Me to Paris, Johnny recounts the life of his lover Juan C├ęspedes, who died of AIDS in 1987. This Text Classics edition–the first in the United States–includes an introduction by critic Peter Craven and an afterword by Foster’s close friend John Rickard. While these supplementary materials provide context and develop Foster’s character, the original work gleams abundantly without their help.

Juan was a Cuban refugee studying dance in New York City when he met Foster, an Australian history professor, in 1981. A one-night stand became a summer-long affair and then a long-term, long-distance relationship, to Foster’s surprise. As the couple wrangled with the Australian immigration authorities to gain Juan’s permanent residence there, his illness became undeniably serious. He died in a hospital in Melbourne with Foster by his side.

This sensitive, perceptive memoir keeps Juan at its center, outlining his boyhood and escape to the United States before focusing on the love affair and Juan’s death; the final event receives due gravity without defining his life or the book. In a mere 200 pages, Take Me to Paris, Johnny achieves a full emotional range, sketches Juan’s rare and changeable personality and imbues a tragedy with poetry. Foster’s writing is exquisite: thoughtful, lyrical and with an eye for detail. While this is undeniably a sad story, Foster resists wallowing, choosing instead to celebrate Juan and even to laugh at their troubles. Take Me to Paris, Johnny is incisive, wry, loving and deeply lovable.


This review originally ran in the January 10, 2017 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.


Rating: 8 red gladiolas.

Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life by Haider Warraich

This interdisciplinary study of death and how we can improve–not avoid–it is highly readable and timely.

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In Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life, Haider Warraich explores how human death has evolved over the course of history and offers recommendations for its future. A medical doctor, Warraich supplements his research with anecdotes from his personal experience, and draws on literature, theology, statistics and legal theory as well as the hard sciences. The resulting expert opinion is heartfelt, convincing and well informed.

Warraich begins with the mechanics of how cells die and the opportunities for analogy they offer: cells choose to die to promote the good of the organism; not dying on time is as bad as dying too soon. He recounts the medical advances that have increased human life spans astronomically in the last two centuries. Chiefly, people now die far less frequently from infection and simple injuries, instead living long enough to die of cancer and heart disease. Because of both medical and cultural shifts, more people die in hospitals or nursing homes than at home.

This is the story of how medicine learned to save and expand lives–especially through procedures like cardiopulmonary resuscitation–and then how medicine learned not to resuscitate. Warraich shows what modern death looks like, how it works, its achievements and shortcomings–and then investigates what a good death could look like, and how we can do better. Science has lengthened lives so successfully, delayed death so thoroughly, that our new problem often is not staying alive, but letting go.

In what comes to feel like the real heart of Modern Death, Warraich then studies the nuances of euthanasia, assisted suicides and the withdrawal of life support systems, and their legal histories in the United States and worldwide. He finds that these three categories of death are far less distinct than generally believed. Finally, he advocates strongly for patients’ control over their own ends of life and exhorts his readers–patients and physicians alike–to discuss death openly.

These conclusions form the book’s central purpose. Along the way, Warraich explores different cultures’ and religions’ approaches to death. He also discusses the philosophical and legal difficulties in defining death and life. Warraich’s chief goal is a better end-of-life experience for everyone.

If Modern Death occasionally uses a few more words than necessary, the inclusion of Warraich’s anecdotal experiences enliven what could have been a dry academic text. For readers interested in its thesis–that death is an important part of life, and medicine and society could do a better job of delivering this experience–it is a sincere and thorough examination of an often overlooked subject. Well served by Warraich’s professional expertise and earnest emphasis, this is an indispensable entry into the conversation about death.


This review originally ran in the January 6, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cells.

A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord

giacometti-portraitFor school, again: this book informs an upcoming seminar entitled “Process, Image, Form: What Writers Can Learn From Visual Artists,” taught by Richard Schmitt. A Giacometti Portrait is a record of the creation of a work of art. James Lord sits as a model for his friend Alberto Giacometti, a well-known and successful painter living in Paris. Lord flew over from New York to sit for an afternoon; he ends up sitting for 18 days, during which he takes notes and pictures to document the process. The portrait is not finished at the end of this time – it is central to Giacometti’s theory of life and art that such a thing could never be finished – but they agree to stop.

It is an odd but intriguing book. Giacometti is a real character, and the friends become very close while sitting and talking together through Giacometti’s dramatic crises of artistic frustration, and many other threads of life. While Giacometti’s passionate, pessimistic, but oddly magnetic personality is a feature, the portrait itself is at the center of this book, to the exclusion of characterization of Lord himself, outside events and characters, and all else. The book itself, of course, is also a portrait. The title acknowledges this with its syntactic ambiguity.

The material here for a discussion about art, different art forms, techniques and mutual reflections upon one another is obvious, especially as Giacometti writhes and moans, undoing and redoing his work, experiencing one revelation after another, and every one (to him at least) failing. I am most interested to see where our seminar takes us. It’s not a book I’m necessarily prepared to love on my own; it’s too thin, somehow, too occupied with the one thing. But I suspect there’s more here than meets my immediate eye, so I’m very glad to be studying this with help. An unusual, but strangely compelling portrait.


Rating: 7 hard-boiled eggs.

Teaser Tuesdays: Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Again for school, I am reading Katie Fallon’s first memoir (she has Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird forthcoming from University Press of New England in March 2017). I look forward to meeting her in just ten days or so! This is not an assigned book; I’m reading it by choice to get to know her a little better.

cerulean-blues
Her opening lines read,

I stepped onto the tarmac in Bucaramanga, a city of more than five hundred thousand people in northeastern Colombia, and blinked in the fierce October sun. Black vultures lazily circled in the clear blue sky overhead, and swallows chittered to each other as they cut and dove above the Avianca jets idling on the runway.

I like that birds appear in the first two lines, since it is a bird that brings Fallon to these pages. The cerulean warbler does not appear so quickly; that’s a large part of the point of the book. I also enjoy the very full picture she paints in these few lines. Glad to be here with her.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, letters between Leslie Marmon Silko & James Wright, ed. by Anne Wright

the delicacy and strength of laceAs I wrote in my beginning, I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. I struggle with poetry, and the snippets included here out of context (it seemed to me) challenged me. I was not familiar with the protagonists. But quickly their voices and personalities revealed themselves; and the story of James Wright’s death, and the introduction to this book by his wife, add a poignancy. There’s something about knowing the sad ending to a story before you read it.

I found many lovely lines (naturally) and scraps of wisdom here. My instinct is to just begin sharing those with you.

I enjoyed Wright’s lines,

I hope you don’t mind post cards. They are a way of sharing something, some place or other delight, and they can also, when written and sent truly, offer small wavelets, so to speak, to the rhythm of a correspondence.

and perhaps even more, that he wrote so instructively, so consciously of this – that he felt the need, and the meta-quality of explaining one’s correspondence. They were still kind of new to each other, you see.

From Silko,

I always resented Shakespeare’s use of the delayed messenger in Romeo and Juliet, maybe because such things are so ordinary and so possible, and so much can be lost for two people that way.

which is both amusing, and profound, and a little confusing – why resent the use of something ordinary and enormous, and isn’t that what we do as writers? Hm.

And then,

I believe more than ever that it is in sharing the stories of our grief that we somehow can make sense out – no, not make sense out of these things… But through stories from each other we can feel that we are not alone, that we are not the first and the last to confront losses such as these.

and I think of the impulse we all seem to share to tell our stories in response to one another. This can be selfish. One person shares something personal and painful, and the response is “well I…” or “my…” as if to turn it back to the speaker every time. But Silko has a point, that there is a function to this return-to-me, and that in the right setting & relationship it’s how we perform empathy. I think about this in conversation sometimes, the effort to not always “me” everything. But it can be well done.

And very pertinently to nonfiction writers in particular, Silko again –

Memory is tricky – memory for certain facts or details is probably more imaginative than anything, but the important this is to keep the feeling the story has. I never forget that: the feeling one has of the story is what you must strive to bring forth faithfully.

This is the trick, or the puzzle, and the much-discussed central problem, with creative nonfiction or with memoir: the tension between strict “fact” (which is what, exactly?) and the richness of imaginative memory. See also Sejal H. Patel’s “Think Different” in issue 58 of Creative Nonfiction (I reviewed here), where she and other memoirists explore the use of technologies to aid memory.

Finally, and perhaps most centrally to the question of correspondence in general and especially between writers:

With you to write to, I go through the day with a certain attention I might not always have. I look for things you might want to see for yourself, but I can’t seem to get them into a letter.


I enjoyed reading this slim epistolary collection, and I think I got a lot out of it. But what was I supposed to get out of it? Despite a few classes taken early this year, I feel rusty at reading literature with a class in mind, and I am so curious about what the seminar that assigned this book will hold. Most of all, I’m excited. So thank you, school and world, for that.


Rating: 8 roosters.

book beginnings on Friday: A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

This is another I’m reading for school (see last week’s teaser), and deals with a work of visual art. The portrait of the title is both one being painted by the author’s friend of the author himself, and the book I hold in my hands: a portrait of the painter.

giacometti-portrait
James Lord is in conversation with the painter Alberto Giacometti as the former sits for his portrait.

“But is even a photograph really a reproduction of what one sees?” I asked.

“No. And if a photo isn’t, a painting is even less so. What’s best is simply to look at people.”

And I thought those lines began to capture part of what the book is about. Also, they spoke to me as a writer who tries to capture life. It makes it all a little futile, perhaps; or maybe it helps the artist to refocus. Plenty to think about.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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