Into The Magic Shop, A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty

Into the Magic ShopJames Doty never really set out to write this book, but he told his story to so many people with whom it resonated and being one of the founding creators of CCARE (The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research) he was eventually convinced how many more people could be inspired by his story and learn about the amazing work being undertaken, that he agreed to share his experience.

Doty came from a poor background, raised in a dysfunctional family, his mother was frequently depressed and had suicidal tendencies, his father, who when he was sober he adored, often disappeared after one of his drinking bouts and when he did return was violent and abusive. Consequently, as a child he lived in a constant state of fear, in anticipation of when the next bad thing was going to happen, it made his heart race, his body tense and constantly made him dwell in anger and sadness.

The first major turning point in his life occurred in his early teens when he went to the local magic shop looking for a replacement thumb tip and there he met the mother of the owner, a woman named Ruth. Ruth recognised something in him and invited him to come to the shop every day that summer, promising to teach him a kind of magic he could use all his life. So he did.

She talked to him about different feelings and the emotions they stem from and taught him:
Trick 1. to Relax the Body,
Trick 2. to Tame the Mind,
Trick 3. to Open the Heart (the only one he didn’t learn) and
Trick 4. to Clarify your Intent.

She taught him to visualise and to never accept that something was not possible. He took the lessons and they enabled him to attain goals he believed would not have been achieved without the insights and practices that Ruth taught him. He went to university, to medical school and despite absences and the lack of excellent grades, became a doctor, a successful businessman and entrepreneur, a husband and father. But at a price, something he wouldn’t learn until many years later when he finally understood what the third lesson that he had failed to learn and practice was about and began to live and work in accordance with it.

Ruth was helping me form new neural connections in my brain. It was my first experience with neuroplasticity, well before the term was commonly used….Not only was Ruth training me to change my brain by creating new neural circuits but she was also training me to regulate the tone of my vagus nerve and, by doing so, affect both my emotional state and my heart rate and blood pressure.

James Doty became a neurosurgeon and shares a little of what he learned about the brain and uses it to explain how those early interactions with Ruth were changing and remapping his brain in a way that would help him in the future.

Neuroplasticity

In another turning point in his life, later when he has risen to great heights and achieved the great material success he believed was all he desired, he would come to learn how much more he was capable of with an open heart, he would bring together a group of people to scientifically research the effect of compassion and altruism on the brain.

As well as great scientific minds, he would meet with the Dalai Lama, who on listening to Doty explain his research and answering a number of questions, decided to support and sponsor the research with a significant and unprecedented financial donation, so impressed was he with the project.

When our brains and our hearts are working in collaboration – we are happier, we are healthier, and we automatically express love, kindness, and care for one another. I knew this intuitively, but I needed to validate it scientifically. This was the motivation to begin researching compassion and altruism. I wanted to understand the evolution of not only why we evolved such behaviour but also how it affects the brain and ultimately our health.

It is a wonderful, honest account, a compelling and easy read. Doty shares his story, flaws and all, sharing the beneficial effect on his life of the rare gift of meeting someone who shared those simple life resources with him at an early age, and importantly where he got it all wrong. Through this book he and many others hope that more people will have access to them, or at least become interested enough to find out more.

It is fascinating and heartening to see the increasing scientific development in the 21st century into understanding the effect of compassion, altruism and meditative practices on the brain through science, something that ancient Buddhist cultures have known, experienced and passed down the generations through practise for thousands of years.

Dr James R.Doty, MD Stanford University and His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Dr James R.Doty, MD Stanford University and His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Brother Im DyingI first read Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat last summer, her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (review linked below) about a young girl living with her Aunt in Haiti, while her mother lived in New York, a little like the life of the author herself, much of which is revealed in this non-fiction title, Brother, I’m Dying where we learn more about her life, though the primary focus is on her father Mira and in particular, her Uncle Joseph.

After having read a number of books in the Caribbean tradition recently, it is both unique and a gesture of deep reverence to read about the special connection between a daughter and her two fathers, for she sees both these men, and rightfully so, as her fathers.

The novel opens on the day of two discoveries, the author learns she is pregnant with her first child and hears that her father has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The pulmonary disorder had required him to take medicine (containing codeine) resulting in his taxi licence being revoked. The medicine did nothing to alleviate his symptoms, worse it lost him his job and his dignity.

The chapters alternate between their present life in America and the author’s early life in Haiti, recounting the lives of the two brothers. We come to understand the lives they create from the choices they made, how they reinvent themselves, the obstacles they face, whether it’s family, work, the establishment, or navigating the political and legal demands of the countries they inhabit.

Mira leaves Haiti to create a better life in America for his family, a departure the author has no memory of, though her Uncle Joseph’s adopted daughter Marie Micheline shared stories with her, in a tradition common to people like her, anecdotes of poignant memories for those that have been left, to serve as reassurance that they were and are loved.

“Unfortunately I wasn’t told many stories like that. What I did often hear about was the future, an undetermined time when my father would send for my mother, Bob and me.”

Life was difficult for her mother and she often left the children with her brother-in-law to ensure the children had a decent meal. Then two years after her father left, when she was four and Bob was two, her mother’s visa was approved and she too departed, alone.

The two children became very attached to their Aunt and Uncle, while they waited out the nine long years before they too could make their eventual transition to join their parents in New York. Finally happening when Edwidge was twelve years old, it would be an even greater emotional challenge, not least because they had two younger brothers born in the US, one of whom believed he was the rightful, elder child of the family.

Back in Haiti, Joseph’s voice had begun to quiver, it worried him so he travelled to a hospital where US doctors were visiting, learning of a suspected tumour that would block his airways and suffocate him if not removed. It could be extracted in the US, but so too with it, would be his voice, reduced to a bare whisper, a death-knell for a pastor.

Almost like a miracle, on a subsequent visit for a check-up, he is shown a contraption he can use to amplify his whispers and allow people to hear him.

“My father took my uncle’s hand and led him to a lamp in a corner of the room, so he could better see the machine and its interaction with my uncle’s neck. This was their first two-sided conversation in many years and they both seemed to want to move it past the technicalities to a point of near normalcy.”

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat

The one thing that remains constant throughout their long separation, is their love and respect for each other, as witnessed and shared through the eyes of their daughter and niece.

Edwidge Danticat writes in such an honest and compassionate way, you can’t help but become drawn into their story and feel concern at the various dramatic points that arise, willing things to turn out for the best – except that’s not what happens in real life – in reality, not everything will turn out as we will it to, but the memories will remain and the experiences contribute to forming the characters that we become.

It is a credit to the author to have chosen to share something of her life, her early childhood, without elevating herself as the main character of interest, it is both a story and a tribute to the extended family and the men who tried to lead them to live in safety.

The brothers chose different paths, one deciding to leave, the other to stay and though they were separated for 30 years their relationship remained strong, seeing each other as often as they could and keeping this strong connection between all the extended members of the family and their birth country.

As Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuba (one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015) put it:

“Edwidge Danticat’s moving tale of two remarkable brothers – her own father  and her beloved Uncle Joseph, separated for thirty years – is as compelling and richly told as her fiction. Politically charged and sadly unforgettable, their stories will lodge themselves in your heart.”

Breath Eyes Memory

A wonderful book, an honest portrayal of lives, where joy and struggle go hand in hand, where fear is never far from the front gate and sadness its companion, yet full of hope and spiritedness as an eighty-one-year old man refuses to let thugs take all that he has, and even though he risks his life, he will continue to pursue with righteousness, what is necessary in his own country to ensure justice. Which only serves to make what follows so immensely tragic.

A 5 star must read for me.

Further Links:

Edwidge Danticat, my review of Breath, Eyes, Memory

Cristina García, my review of Dreaming in Cuban

Tales From The Heart, True Stories From My Childhood by Maryse Condé

I came across Maryse Condé recently via the Man Booker International Prize 2015 list of 10 nominated authors. She is third from the left in the picture below.

FinalistsNot a book prize as such, it is an award conferred on an author who has a significant body of published work, regardless of the original language it was written in, though some of it must have been translated into English.

It is from such long lists the gems are found I say, and having read about all 10 thanks to this excellent Interview: The Finalists Speak in The Guardian, I spotted my potential winner immediately. A winner in the sense that I intend to read a few of their books. The Indian writer Amitav Ghosh was the only author I’d read on this list.

One writer jumped out at me straight away and I pursued her works with little consideration for the pending award result. Maryse Condé didn’t win the prize, the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai did, a writer whose books intellectuals rave about, but who I’m not sure I’m ready for yet.

Tales Maryse CondéSo I took Maryse Condé’s advice and started by reading this slim volume of essays of her childhood in Guadeloupe, Tales From the Heart, True Stories From My Childhood.

She takes us right back to the beginning, to the day of her birth. Being the youngest of 8 children, the family possessed an extended collective memory and she was fortunate to have heard the story of her birth from other perspectives.

Her appearance was both a source of pride and shame for her then 43-year-old mother and 63-year-old father, proud that her body remained robust enough to support the creation of a child and shame that it publicly displayed evidence of their continued indulgence in carnal pleasures.

The first chapter Family Portrait describes her parents relationship with France:

“For them France was in no way the seat of colonial power. It was truly the Mother Country and Paris, the City of Light that lit up their lives.”

World War II wasn’t considered dark on account of all the dreadful atrocities that occurred:

“but because for seven long years they were deprived of what meant the most to them, their trips to France.”

She recounts an anecdote of a waiter in a café complimenting the family on their excellent French pronunciation, to which her parents felt indignant, considering themselves just as French as a Parisian waiter, even more so because of their higher education, manners and regular travel.

Not understanding why it mattered so, she asked her brother Sandrino:

“Could he explain my parents behaviour?” to which he replied “Papa and Maman are a pair of alienated individuals,”

a mysterious word that would rest a long time in her consciousness until she came to understand it. She realised that not only did they take no pride in their African ancestry, they knew nothing of it, however:

“They believed they were the most brilliant and most intelligent people alive, proof positive of the progress achieved by the Black Race.”

Maryse Condé

In their neighbourhood all the mothers in their circle held a profession and with it contempt for the manual work they believed had been the undoing of their own mothers. They employed a servant who, though she raised 6 children of her own would begin work at 5am to take care of the needs of the family.

We meet her best friend Yvelise, two girls who did everything together, their friendship almost destroyed by the unfortunate intervention of one of her teachers, causing a temporary rupture.

Maryse’s mother Jeanne, knew the life she didn’t wish to lead, nor her children either, she had succeeded in breaking the cycle endured by her mother and grandmother and a good education was key (and perhaps being married to a successful and much older husband). Jeanne was a school teacher, revered and feared in equal measure by those around her. Her eldest son Sandrino and her youngest child Maryse the only two children who weren’t afraid to stand up to her, the others too terrified to challenge her.

On her birthday, her favourite pupils recited compliments, gave her roses, her husband bought her jewellery and the day would culminate with a family play, a short piece of theatre written themselves, in her honour.

‘Beneath her flamboyant appearance, I imagine my mother must have been scared of life, that unbridled mare that had treated her mother and grandmother so roughly…Both of them had been abandoned with their “mountain of truth” and their two eyes to cry with.’

10-year-old Maryse asked if she could read one of her compositions for her mother’s birthday.

‘I had no idea what I wanted to write. I merely sensed that a personality such as my mother’s deserved a scribe.’

If a book of essays can reach a crescendo, this is the moment when we reach it. The moment when Maryse learns that not all lessons come from one’s parents and school teachers, some come from life itself and often when we least expect it.

In the chapter School Days , she is at school (lycée) in Paris when her French teacher asks her to present to the class a book from her island. It is a watershed moment.

‘This well intentioned proposition, however, plunged me into a deep quandary. It was, let us recall, the early fifties. Literature from the French Caribbean had not yet blossomed. Patrick Chamoiseau lay unformed in his mother’s womb and I had never heard the name Aime Césaire. Which writer from my island could I speak about? I resorted to my usual source: Sandrino.’

Sugar Cane Alley

Sugar Cane Alley

Sandrino introduces her to to a treasure. La Rue Case-Negres (Black Shack Alley) by Joseph Zobel and his hero José Hassan. It was made into an award-winning film titled Sugar Cane Alley.

It was her first introduction to a world no one up until that moment had ever mentioned; a world that highlighted slavery, the slave trade, colonial oppression, the exploitation of man by man and colour prejudice.

‘I was scared to reveal how José and I were worlds apart. In the eyes of this Communist teacher, in the eyes of the entire class, the real Caribbean was the one I was guilty of not knowing.’

These glimpses into the more significant and memorable aspects of childhood that shaped the author Maryse Condé are insightful, engaging and honest. Just as her consciousness is awakened, the vignettes finish and leave the reader desperate to know more.

I had intended to read this volume over time, but once I started reading I couldn’t stop, it is almost like reading a coming-of-age novella and at its conclusion, the writers fiction will begin. For Condé’s first novel Hérémakhonon is about a character raised in Guadeloupe, educated in Paris, who then travels to Africa in search of a recognisable past, just as she did.

‘Veronica has spent her childhood in Guadeloupe and, after a period as a student in Paris, wants to escape that island’s respectable black bourgeoisie, which she regards as secretly afraid of its own inferiority. She travels to an unnamed West African state and, while there, seeks an authentically African past with which she will be able to identify.’

Tales From The Heart is an excellent read and an intriguing introduction to the writer and her influences and will certainly make you want to read more of her work. I am very happy I have these three novels on the shelf to follow-up with only I am missing that debt novel which I really want to read now too! Very highly recommended.

Literary Works of Maryse Condé

Unbowed, One Woman’s Story by Wangari Maathai

WangariWangari Maathai was an exceptionally hard working, charismatic, altruist, who came from humble rural beginnings, toiling the land barehanded from a young age to become one of a group of young Africans identified as part of the “Kennedy Airlift”, provided the opportunity to gain bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the US, then completing a PhD in her native Kenya and using her education to work for the betterment of her country and people in terms of sustainable environmental practices social justice.

In addition to a senior role as a scientist and researcher at a university in Nairobi, needing to do something practical and far-reaching, she founded the sustainable tree planting initiative, The Green Belt Movement and would go on to become a responsible and practically minded activist, working to protect the natural resources and people of Kenya, through her knowledge of where to apply pressure, through her strong international network and above all the high regard in which she was esteemed by many, though sadly, that didn’t include the government of Kenya, who over many, many years continued to block her, plant obstacles in her way, arrest her and make it very difficult for her to continue in her role as an academic and to run her own business.

Wangari Maathai possessed a spirit that refused to lie down, with every setback, she gathered herself and whatever limited resources she still had, and at times this was nearly nothing and always looked towards the one step she could take, that first step towards a solution.

Wangari Maathai, Tree Hugger Extraordinaire!

Wangari Maathai, Tree Hugger Extraordinaire!

Planting a tree was both symbolic and life-sustaining. As more and more of Kenya’s forest was being deforested, underground water sources were drying up, land that had been planted with indigenous trees was being replaced with cash crops like tea and coffee, stripping the soil of nutrients and occupying land previously used to produce traditional foods for people to eat. As a consequence women began to feed their families more processed foods, requiring less energy to produce, less firewood and increasing the incidence of malnutrition.

“While I was in the rural areas outside Nairobi, I noticed that the rivers would rush down hillsides and along paths and roads when it rained, and that they would be muddy with silt. This was very different from when I was growing up. “That is soil erosion,” I remember thinking to myself. “We must do something about that.” I also observed that the cows were so skinny that I could count their ribs. There was little grass or other fodder for them to eat where they grazed, and during the dry season much of the grass lacked nutrients.”

And she took people with her, she made them part of the solution. To grow The Green Belt Movement required a large network of people to plant trees and to source and nurture seedlings. She went to the women, women like herself who grew up with their hands in the earth, she empowered them to create nurseries in their villages and tend the small trees and keep planting.

“Although the leadership of the NCWK (National Council of Women of Kenya) was generally elite and urban,  we were concerned with the  social and economic status of the majority of our members, who were poor, rural women. We worried about  their access to clean water,  and firewood,  how they would feed their children,  pay their school fees,  and afford clothing, and we wondered what we could do to ease their burdens. We had a choice: we could either sit in an ivory tower wondering how so many people could be so poor and not be working to change their situation, or we could  try to help them escape the vicious cycle they found themselves in. This was not a remote problem for us. The rural areas were where our mothers and sisters still lived. We owed it to them to do all we could.”

Tumutumu Hills nursery

Tumutumu Hills nursery

These women were already farmers, they knew how to nurture beans, maize and millet seeds, and Wangari and her team reminded them, they didn’t need a diploma to plant a tree. All they needed was their “women-sense”. These women succeeded, they showed other women what to do and became known as their “foresters without diplomas”. At every stage they looked to see if they could improve the way they did things and to overcome any obstacles the women encountered. It was a huge and sustainable success.

Unfortunately, the government for much of the 80’s and 90’s was against her, almost as if it were a personal affront, to witness a woman speak out and lead and inspire others to stand up to authority; Wangari Maathai was an advocate for proper governance and management of public resources and as soon as she heard about abuses of powers that threatened to remove public rights, she moved her supporters to action.

Through perseverance she won many battles, to save the last big public park in the middle of Nairobi, Uhuru Park from urban development, preventing Karura Forest from being given to friends and political supporters of politicians, the release of political prisoners and even the lobbying of the World Bank to forgive Kenya’s national debt which had escalated out of control. due to interest payments, despite the original loan amounts having been repaid .

“When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning, I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one day walk there.”

« Maathai and Obama in Nairobi » Source: Fredrick Onyango,  Nairobi, Kenya Wikipedia

« Maathai and Obama in Nairobi » Source: Fredrick Onyango, Nairobi, Kenya Wikipedia

Unbowed, One Woman’s Story, is an astonishing and important recollection of the life and work of Wangari Maathai. She applied herself to everything she did with vigour and heart, the opportunity to be educated, something that continues to be lobbied for so many girls in third world countries, was a major turning point and became the first of many open doorways she walked through and made the most of, not for own benefit, but always for the good of all.

It seems almost like a utopian fantasy, to imagine what the world could be like, if more women were given the opportunity to gain the necessary knowledge that could allow them to facilitate solutions to village and country problems, that allowed them to live sustainably and not in fear or poverty without understanding why. Wangari Maathai knew and practised that one person can’t change everything, it is through showing and empowering others that change happens.

She was an amazing, inspirational and practical woman, who responded to the call for help on many significant issues that would benefit all Kenyan’s and was an example to the world, rightfully acknowledged and awarded the Nobel Prize for peace in 2004. Sadly she passed away in 2011 from ovarian cancer.

“Throughout my life, I have never stopped to strategize about my next steps. I often just keep walking along, through whichever door opens. I have been on a journey and this journey has never stopped. When the journey is acknowledged and sustained by those I work with, they are a source of inspiration, energy and encouragement. They are the reasons I kept walking, and will keep walking, as long as my knees hold out.”

Wangari tells a wonderful story of how the hummingbird responds to a forest fire, in a delightful metaphor that describes exactly her attitude to life and the many challenges that surround us. It has been made into a 2 minute animated film, Dirt, narrated by Wangari Maathai and is a wonderful introduction to her faithful, persevering spirit. A wonderful short film and one of my Top Reads for 2015.

I will be the hummingbird…

Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee

cider with rosieA nostalgic memoir of early boyhood in a Cotswold village, recalling memories from the age of 3-years-old, surrounded by older sisters and siblings, the father having long abandoned the family household, leaving the housekeeper who had become his wife, to raise the children of his first marriage and the four he had with her.

Rather than a tale of struggle and poverty that we might expect given the circumstance of being raised in a large single parent family, in Laurie Lee’s hands, family life is narrated as a bundle of daily adventures and anecdotes that celebrate village life, sibling love, old lady madness and an attitude of making the most of it.

Born in 1914,and writing this memoir in 1959, Lee’s style shares what he saw looking out at his view of the world, rather than looking within, it is a celebration of the time and a tribute to those he loved, respected, feared and was in awe of around him – including young Rosie, who makes the briefest of appearances luring him into the haystack, a significant turning point in his life no less.

Bank Cottages, the Family Home

Bank Cottages, the Family Home

It is unique to read an author recalling tales of his relatives and sparing a thought for their sensitivity to what he is about to make public, something that today might be glimpsed in the acknowledgements, but rarely in the text, where the current trend is to hold nothing back and share all.

“On my Mother’s side there were these five more uncles: squat, hard-hitting, heavy-drinking heroes whom we loved and who were kings of our youth. For the affection we bore them and the pride we took in them, I hope they’ll not be displeased by what follows.”

This reluctance to spill all, means that the one thing that modern readers are no doubt curious about, the absent father and Laurie Lee’s thoughts about him, rarely get a mention.

“The three or four years Mother spent with my father she fed on for the rest of her life. Her happiness at that time was something she guarded as though it must ensure his eventual return. She would talk about it almost in awe, not that it had ceased but that it had happened at all.”

Acceptance or denial, they all just get on with living, surviving, getting an education and taking care of each other. Certainly they are always entertained, if not by each other, then by the two eccentric Grandmother figures who live within the same building complex and whose mutual hatred for each other seems to be the thing that sustains their life force.

“For several more years the lives of the two old ladies continued to revolve around each other. Like cold twin stars, linked but divided, they survived by a mutual balance. Both of them reached back similarly in time, shared the same modes and habits, the same sense of feudal order, the same rampaging terrible God. They were far more alike than unalike, and could not abide each other.”

Slad ValleyLee paints a picture of village life that is vivid and alive with character and memory as if it happened today without compromising respect for any of the inhabitants; even at their most villainous, he narrates their stories with compassion and mild regret.

His narrative captures the passing of time, the slow encroachment of city life and innovation that will ultimately kill that old village way of life that encapsulated them all, from the Squire down to the struggling newborn. He does so by sharing the stories and anecdotes of others seen through his eyes, rather than turning his gaze inward.

“The last days of my childhood were also the last days of the village. I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life…Myself, my family, my generation, were born in a world of silence; a world of hard work and necessary patience, of backs bent to the ground, hands massaging the crops, of waiting on weather and growth; of villages like ships in the empty landscapes and the long walking distances between them; of white narrow roads, rutted by hooves and cartwheels, innocent of oil or petrol, down which people passed rarely, and almost never for pleasure, and the horse was the fastest thing moving. Man and horse were all the power we had – abetted by levers and pulleys.”

A wonderful narrative of a not so distant time, lost forever.

"LaurieLeeHeadstone" by Jongleur100 - Source: Wikipedia

“LaurieLeeHeadstone” by Jongleur100 – Source: Wikipedia

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson was unknown to me, though she is a prolific writer, having already published 30 books and been shortlisted this year for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lasting contribution to children’s literature.

Brown Girl DreamingI saw it mentioned on twitter, as it recently won a National Book award in the US and it has the most beautiful, striking cover and when I read that it is a memoir of the author’s childhood, written in free verse, I just knew I had to read it. And I’m not the only one, of the seventeen books US President, Barack Obama bought on a recent book buying spree with his two daughters, this book was sitting on the top of the pile.

Brown Girl Dreaming is an easy reading collection of anecdotes in free verse, that tell of Woodson’s childhood growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn , New York, not so much focused on herself, she paints a picture with words of all those around her, their inclinations and beliefs, the daily rituals that made up the ambiance within which she spent her early years.

She has something of both the North and South in her, moving comfortably between the two and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She collects aspects of her childhood that have stayed with her and that shaped who she is today and she discovers old stories that fill out her experience and deepen her roots and sense of belonging.

“When we ask our mother how long we’ll be here,

sometimes she says for a while and sometimes

she tells us not to ask anymore

because she doesn’t know how long we’ll stay

in the house where she grew up

on the land she’s always known.”

After her mother leaves her husband and Ohio behind, bringing three small children to her own childhood home, the children are drawn into their Grandmother’s ways, including regular attendance at the Kingdom Hall, where they become part of a Jehovah Witnesses community, which has a significant impact on their upbringing and keeps them out of trouble, though it also has its consequences and is something the author will eventually leave behind.

“Everyone else

has gone away.

And now coming back home

isn’t really coming back home

at all.”

Jacqueline, named after her father who wanted her to be Jack, observes the individual brilliance of each of her siblings, she acknowledges their talent and discovers her own, a love of words and despite the challenges they confront her with, she never loses sight of her dream to be a writer and to catch those words that sometimes eluded her on the page.

“I am not gifted. When I read, the words twist

Twirl across the page.

When they settle, it is too late.

The class has already moved on.

I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them

Then blow gently,

Watch them float

Right out of my hands”

I couldn’t help but recall the Cuban writer Margarita Engle’s exceptional The Wild Book, not just because it too is a brilliant volume of prose poetry written for both a young and adult audience, but because its subject also includes a child with a love and fear of words.

Jacqueline WoodsonBrown Girl Dreaming is a beautiful book and a compassionate collection of childhood, a celebration of all the author’s family and n its writing, it enabled her to reconnect with many of those whom she hadn’t seen for years and in doing so, to learn of and preserve more of the family’s stories that had been within the family for generations.

Her poems are like a giant tapestry and the members of her family, her neighbourhood and friends make up the complex colours and patterns, infused with story, emotion, excitement and foreboding, the fabric of her childhood.

By the time you get to the end, you feel like you know them all and to complete the experience the author has shared her collection of black and white family photos.

H is for Hawk, Winner of Samuel Johnson Prize, Costa Prize

H is for Hawk and for Helen Macdonald, and her Hibernation from Humanity in coping with her father’s untimely death and her own pending transition, as her Cambridge University fellowship is coming to an end and she must soon leave the comfortable country cottage that came with it.

H is for HawkResponding to an instinctive need to escape reality she obtains a goshawk, retreats into her cottage, unplugs her telephone and focuses on training the raptor at the same time observing her own behaviour which begins to resemble the bird’s.

“The kind of madness I had was different. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world. The problem was that it had nothing to work with. There was no partner, no children, no home. No nine-to-five job either. So it grabbed anything it could. It was desperate, and it read off the world wrong.”

In all her years as a falconer, she had never wanted to fly a goshawk, she feared them and comes to realise she has taken on the attitudes of those who glorified falcons, bird of nobility, of aristocracy, men of privilege, those who mocked the humble goshawk. But times and perceptions had changed, and getting to know and train a goshawk was the challenge she set for herself.

“Goshawks were ruffians: murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign.”

She waits on a Scottish pier for the Belfast ferry, which is transporting a man and his goshawk, soon enough she will become the owner of the bird she names Mabel.

The days pass and her focus must be with Mabel, she spurns human company, spending her free time in the company of T.H White, rereading The Goshawk, a book she had read as a child when her passion for birds was in its formative stages. White wrote about his failed attempt to train a goshawk, his account wrapped up in childhood fears and inclinations. Helen Macdonald reads around the life and writings of this man in order to understand him, as if to explain to her childhood self, why he did what he did.

“I understood why people considered it a masterpiece. For White made falconry a metaphysical battle. Like Moby-Dick or The Old Man and the Sea, The Goshawk was a literary encounter between animal and man that reached back to Puritan traditions of spiritual contest: salvation as a stake to be won in a contest against God.”

Mable and Helen playing with a paper telescope Photo by Christina McLeish @_Xtin_

Mable and Helen playing with a paper telescope
Photo by Christina McLeish @_Xtin_

It is a fascinating and insightful read as the author shares her commitment to an obsessive need to tame the hawk and exposes her vulnerability in coping with all that she wishes to avoid. Writing about the training of a goshawk is also a way of avoiding talking about herself. We must read outside the narrative of the book to know more about Helen’s previous experience and expertise with hawks, we can tell she is no amateur, however she avoids looking back or enlightening the reader too much about her past, we are kept very much in the present, as unnerved as she is by her descent into hawk-like behaviours and instincts.

I love nature writing that stimulates the imagination, that offers more than just an observation of what the author sees, but describes the environment and what an observer brings to it, one that provokes us to think about our own relationship to birds, animals and nature. Helen Macdonald comes to her goshawk challenge with fixed ideas about the need to escape all, she sets herself up like a scientific hypothesis, begins her transformation into a hawk like creature and then slowly deconstructs it, coming back to the realisation of her own humanity.

“Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

Falconry_sport_of_kings_(1920)

Falconry, the sport of Kings Source: wikipedia

She reminds us of the place and symbolism of falconry within humanity, its association with the hunt, with death, war, power and subservience.

It is unique in being a woman’s perspective within a heritage that has long been the domain of men, nobility, landowners, gentry, medieval lords.

It is refreshingly alive, honest and knowledgeable, exhibiting how our weaknesses and our strengths advance and recede in unison as naturally as the ebb and flow of tides.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.