Another bird-as-a-means book, and one I found compelling, is this memoir by the all-but-unacknowledged son of the late Heathcote Williams, once a notable eccentric, poet, playwright, documentarian and lead activist in London’s “squatting” movement. Gilmour writes with engaging frankness about both the injured magpie he “fathers” and his longing for his own father (who also housed a bird, a jackdaw, in his time) as it played out during Williams’s last couple of decades – a period in which Williams’s behaviour seems to have moved beyond anything the term “eccentricity” would encompass. It’s an uplifting book in some ways, but don’t read it if you don’t want to feel the pain.
Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder: A Memoir, by Julia Zarankin
This is a book of personal essays, in which various aspects of Zarankin’s extensive birding activities remind her of various things about herself. (Birds, in other words, are often treated as means, rather than an end.) I found some pieces wonderfully well-written, others not so much (the one concerning which bird she would like to be in terms of hairstyle, for example). But I loved spending this much time with someone so devoted to birding, so willing (almost eager) to look like a klutz, and so knowledgeable about birds in the Toronto area. She writes well, and I found the book, on balance, well worth reading.
Birds of America, by Mary McCarthy
It’s time to pull unread books from the cottage shelves, and this summer, Birds of America came to hand. Written in 1965, it follows the thoughts of young Peter Levi, a half-Jewish, half-European American, who is attempting to live his life by Kant’s Categorical Imperative: to treat other people as an end, rather than as a means, and to live as if his actions were to become a universal law of nature. For Peter, this means endlessly second-guessing himself and basically feeling guilty 100% of the time, both in Rocky Port, the small New England town where he lives with his mother for a year, and in Paris, where he has enrolled for a year of study abroad to evade the draft. Yes, he is a member of the Junior Ornithologists in Paris, but the birds in question are chiefly Americans, at home and abroad, and Peter’s struggles to analyse and interact with them fill these pages. You can’t help liking him or enjoying the scope of McCarthy’s knowledge and perspicacity. But 350 pages is a lot of thinking, and I was glad when it was over.
She Turned Her Head Away by Patricia Moffat.
She Turned Her Head Away by Patricia Moffat. Subtitled “An Adoption Memoir”, this book is in fact so much more than that. Sometimes it reads like an intelligent whodunit (as the author pursues the trail of her birth-mother), sometimes like an insightful psychological novel. And on every page, it provides what I think I primarily read for: a fully engrossing immersion in another person’s life.
But adoption is, after all, the book’s raison d’etre, and I often thought as I read it, “This book should be provided as a case study in how to stay ‘on topic’.” I don’t think Moffat gives single detail that doesn’t pertain directly to her subject, which in her hands becomes an absolutely fascinating one.
In her Acknowledgements, Moffat mentions that “Taking a Freefall writing course in 1991 from Barbara Turner-Vesselago spurred my interest in returning to this manuscript after almost two decades of neglect.” I am delighted to think that Freefall played a part in the creation of this excellent book.
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I think I’ve written before about this jewel of a novel, written in the 1950s, when the novel had aspirations for itself that are only a distant memory now. It’s as intimate as it is rich in metaphor: a beautifully written book that no amount of time or the making of a film version should obscure. I’m reading it now for the third time in about 30 years, with pleasure.
The Victorian and the Romantic by Nell Stevens
The Victorian and the Romantic by Nell Stevens. So many memoirs these days seek uniqueness by bringing two unlikely things together. Here, a fictionalized love affair between Victorian novelist, Mrs. Gaskell, and American writer, Charles Elliot Norton, is paired with the author’s mysterious, on-again, off-again relationship with Max, her present-day lover. Amazingly, Stevens pulls this off very well, with fiction (about Gaskell) that feels real and memoir sections that have all the drama of fiction. I read it because a reviewer claimed it rivaled My Life in Middlemarch, as the remarkable expression of a reader’s love for a particular writer. And so it does.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This sprawling family saga explores the world of Korean immigrants living in Japan (who currently number 700,000). Many jobs are closed to these “resident aliens”, but the “pachinko” (pinball) emporiums they run gross over $200 billion annually, or 30 times the annual revenue of Las Vegas (who knew?). Tenderly and with compassion, Lee evokes this fascinating society through 4 generations of a single family, where the long arm of pachinko makes its presence felt on a number of levels and in a variety of ways. It’s a book I found well worth reading.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I haven’t seen the BBC movie (with Redgrave and Coleman), though I would love to. But the book that gave rise to it, a Gothic suspense novel to rival (more or less explicitly) Jane Eyre, strikes me as being, as much as anything, a celebration of reading. The main character, who lives in her father’s bookshop, has been chosen to write a biography of the most famous living novelist in England, Vida Winter. To do so she must live in Winter’s (possibly haunted) house, comb through the burnt-out shell of the decaying mansion where Winter grew up, but above all sort her way through Winter’s various versions of her life story, itself the missing story from a book Winter has just published. Did I say that both she and Winter (separately) are twins, with lost doubles who haunt their footsteps and absorb their waking thoughts? “Which reality do you choose?” seems to be the question everyone’s lips. And the answer: “Which one do you prefer?”
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Unlike many people, I could never get into Bel Canto, which always felt a bit too elaborately fabricated for me. But I did enjoy this novel. It’s almost a family saga, centred around an improbably imposing house to which all of the members of its not-very-blended family feel entitled (unless, like the narrator’s now-absent mother, they reject it out of hand). In fact many things about the novel are improbable, but I liked the way the characters, including the narrator, would morph from admirable to obscurely untrustworthy, constantly giving the impression that there was more to what was being said than met the eye. I liked spending time with these clever, complicated people and above all, I liked the fact that I looked forward to getting back to the novel when I put it down – an experience that seems to become rarer as time goes by. (Apparently the book is also rife with literary allusions, but except for a moment when I started thinking about Housekeeping, I’d have to say they largely passed me by.)
The Overstory by Richard Powers
The Overstory by Richard Powers is a towering book. Slow to come together, it eventually becomes impossible to put down, as trees get their say in about seven different languages. The characters are unique and memorable. And it’s hard to imagine how anyone could know as much as Powers knows about trees, just for starters. Clearly, he picks things up like a magpie. (A main plot line is borrowed directly from the 2010 documentary, If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, for instance.) But he also knows a staggering amount about computer programming, psychology, science, art… The miracle for me comes toward the end, when it seems to me we truly begin to see life from the trees’ perspective. Yes, human beings will come to an end. Trees? Those too. But life will go on re-inventing itself, whatever happens. And strangely enough, it seems there is solace to be found in that.