H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Black River bookjacketThough I don't read a lot of typical Westerns, I love authors who experiment with the form. I enjoy Mary Doria Russell's approach to iconic stories of the Wild West (Doc and Epitaph) and I've always appreciated how Kent Haruf could take the stoic and hard-bitten cowboy out of history and place him in the modern world - in his stories set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.

Sadly, Kent Haruf died in the fall. But according to Ron Charles of Washington Post's Book World, with Black River, S.E. Hulse is poised to take up Haruf's torch. As a Haruf fan mourning the loss of an author who could capture a depth of character in just a few lines of dialogue, I immediately placed Black River on hold. I tried not to see the very young looking author photo on the back - how could she possibly write with the gravitas of Haruf?

I'm glad I didn't let my biases stop me. Black River is a beautifully taut and painful story of an embattled man who has lost everything. After the death of his wife, Wes Carver returns to the small Montana town where they met. At a time when he should be mending his troubled relationship with his stepson, he is instead intent on one thing - preventing the parole of a man Wes guarded years before while working at the local prison - a man who took something essential from Wes.

There are authors who can keep you emotionallly attached to a character even as you're mentally exhorting him to take another course of action. S.E. Hulse seems to have that knack. I hope you enjoy Black River as much as I did.

Imagine a world where a spell of forgetfulness sits like a fog over everything, rendering the past incomprehensible; where an ancient knight in rusted armour swears to defeat a dragon; where two people set out on a quest through a country divided by clan loyalties and war.

The surprise is that I am not talking about George R.R. Martin or Tolkien, but Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

Ishiguro sets The Buried Giant in an age of decline. The idealistic reign of King Arthur is a distant memory and chivalry is, if not dead, then mostly gone. An elderly couple makes their way across a ravaged landscape on a quest to reclaim something important but long forgotten. Though Axl and Beatrice are old, they are naive, having subsisted in a hovel in the ground with their fellow villagers for as far back as they can remember, which is not very far. Their journey is one of children in a strange world, wide-eyed at the ways of outsiders. As they travel, bits and pieces of their past lives come back to them. These memories fortify them sometimes, and burden them at others.

Ishiguro has crafted an odd and beautiful combination of adventure and psychological drama. It's also a study of love, forgetfulness and forgiveness, companionship and death. It's Joseph Campbell's the hero's journey redone in a totally unexpected way. This book will very likely find its way to my top picks for 2015.

Our Souls at Night jacketWhat's it like to be inside someone else's head, looking out? That's a nut technology has yet to crack. Luckily we have fiction. Everything I know about what it's like to be...a young gay man in a repressive society, an elderly woman looking back on her life, a Japanese man struggling with identity... and on... I learned from reading fiction. With each book, I push a little outside the known world of myself.

Kent Haruf was one of those writers who could take you directly into the experience of another. In language that is deceptively simple, he describes the emotional and often isolated lives of people living in the small towns and country of the west. He died in November of last year, and so sadly, there is nothing more to read except for his last book, Our Souls at Night.

Louis and Addie live a couple houses away from one another in a small town. They know each other to say hello at the grocery store, and of course, because it's a small town, they know the rough landscapes of each others' lives - how forty years ago, Louis had an affair; how Addie and her family lived through a tragic accident. Some believe that small towns have a stronger sense of community, but in fact, it's just as easy to be isolated and removed from life in a small place as it is in a large. Addie makes a decision to poke at this loneliness by inviting Louis to be her bed-mate, to come over each night and lie in the dark with her and talk. After some initial awkwardness, they settle into a quiet joy in their companionship. Their contentment is shared out to Addie's grandson, who stays with her when her son's marriage begins to disintergrate. But the solace they find in one another will be tested by the bitterness and anger of others.

Haruf's story is heart-rending in its simplicity, and if you have older parents, it will challenge you to think about how aging, and loss, and the judgement of others affect our elders. And it will make you mourn for the loss of this great writer.

 

The Life-changing magic of tidying up bookjacketI am susceptible to the idea of 'organize your home = organize your mind', so with all the buzz around The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I had to try it. Though the author, Marie Kondo, had me at "life-changing", the subtitle is equally intriguing: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. I was thinking about the path to beauty through study and simplicity - bonsai, sushi, ikebana. Would there be an equally methodical approach to tidying?

The verdict? There are some eye-opening and sustainable tips here, including storing everything, including clothes, vertically (don't worry, she'll tell you how.) In light of our consumer culture and the rise of movements like Buy Nothing Day, the author's advice about keeping or buying 'only those things that spark joy' makes sense; um...well, except for underpants...and insurance...and, oh, never mind. 

But the bits about the crushed and defeated clothes on the bottom of the pile and the sadness and despair of socks that have been tied in knots? Well, sorry, I'm not buying the sentient clothing argument. But, if you're interested in a peaceful and organized home, this book is well worth a read. If you adopt Kondo's methods, you'll probably enjoy a more restful space - that is, if you can convince the rest of your family to play by the same rules!

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