Sunday, March 26, 2017
Sunday, February 26, 2017
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Helen Macdonald's book is about training a goshawk. But it is also, and perhaps more so, about what loss can do and how we see that loss manifest in our endeavors and in ourselves. Macdonald shows us how the experience of losing her father is poured into her developing relationship with the goshawk, whom she calls Mabel. Macdonald clearly understands that the type of relationship she has with Mabel is of a different character than what she had with her father. She does not conflate her sense of emotional connection with the hawk's. Yet, it would be a narrow understanding of relationships - of any kind - to denigrate the one between a person and a bird as somehow less worthy of our examination and reflection.
Taking solace in a relationship, say between human and animal, does not mean that it replaces the relationship lost. The world is expanded when we bring others into it. Whether they be human or otherwise. How it is expanded says more about the interactions of the relationship than it does about either participant.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
Foote conveys sideline skirmishes and massive battles with equal attention. Both the mountains of eastern Tennessee and bloody excesses of Shiloh are given space. As the conflict ratchets ever upward (more Americans were killed at Shiloh alone than all prior American conflicts combined), Foote unblinkingly peers into woods, along the trenches, and across the fields. He excels in communicating the chaos, noise, and uncertainty of battle without losing individual voices in the fray. It is so terrible to behold because men do the reaper's work: mowing one another down. Embodying the terrible scythe.
By the end of the first volume the country is firmly entrenched in the indispensable American conflict. Many on both sides thought it would be a short and decisive war. While the Confederates pursued international recognition, the Union believed a crushing blow on the road to Richmond would demoralize the South. By the end of 1862 this much was clear: there would be no easy resolution. The South had won its share of signal victories; in many cases Union armies seemed to under-perform. At this juncture the feeling is simultaneously one of hard-fought experience and a tenuous waiting. While the Confederacy struggles to prop up an impoverished nation and resource-limited army, the Union has yet to bring down its hammer. By the beginning of 1863 it appears that only through overwhelming force would the Union prevail. While only through northern exhaustion could the Confederacy break-away.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
McPhee recounts Alaska and its people negotiating the complicated meanings of being both part of and apart from the United States. The infiltration of people, technologies, and governmental order along the frontier could, for many, make this vast place seem increasingly small. Along the foothills and inlets of Juneau, spreading across the Turnagain Arm, into Denali and up to the North Slope would come employment, services, communication, as well as laws, rules, oversight. Alaska was the last place in the United States a person could homestead - set out for an unoccupied plot to make their own.
Though a vast space of wilderness and wildness, Alaska is also a place of people. These are McPhee's favored subjects. The city planner for a would-be newly cited state capital. The trapper on his line. The town council. The homesteader. The miner. Alaska in its many iterations dominates,and yet is shaped by its people. The land is vast, yet not untouched. Its meaning is apparent for some; to others, only hinted at. McPhee's work is as capacious as the state, finding space for the plurality of human and natural voices. It is a testament to a specific time, in a seemingly timeless land.
Monday, October 24, 2016
John Grady Cole starts as a young man, moving gradually toward adulthood. There are no plans to speak of. He takes what is allowed to him, but is not swallowed by circumstance. Both he and Lacey seem content in the knowledge that most things don't have a suitable explanation. There are human powers which move our lives and we can choose how to meet these powers, but most people will have little say in their actions. The world is alternately bright as the open plains and dark as a jail cell. Only at certain, fleeting times is there balance between the two. Nevertheless, life pulses with blood and there is no horizon beyond death.