Oh my WORD!

Cover of ReachThis morning in a café, three of my favourite things came together for a sort of a bookish group-hug.

First there was the cappuccino, then a book: Reach by Laurence Fearnley, and finally a delicious little custard tart. Life is good. Three ladies came across to find out what I was reading. I love when that happens. Then an elderly man joined in and said that he knew Laurence Fearnley and her parents but he didn’t like her writing. Mountain men don’t argue, he said of  The Hut Builder. She got it wrong. By now the whole coffee shop was becoming quite intrigued.

Cover of H is for HawkAnd that is is exactly the sort of thing that happens at a literary festival such as the up-and-coming WORD Christchurch Autumn Season from 13th to 17th May. That same shared interest in books, authors, reading and ideas. And it’s why I wouldn’t miss attendance for all the world.

This time, I’ve got my sights set on Helen MacDonald and her talk on her memoir H is for Hawk. This is a book about the author’s grieving for her father, a photographer, whose last photo was taken as he collapsed and died.

Grief stricken, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for GBP800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge. Then she fills the freezer with hawk food and unplugs the phone, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals.

Cover of The Year of Magical thinkingThe only other book that I have read which deals specifically with grief and grieving is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Both MacDonald and Didion, so suddenly bereft, embark on their own spiritual journeys to come to grips with loss. The first words Didion wrote after her husband’s death are:

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

At the WORD Festival event I attended in Christchurch last year, I bought the first copy of Reach that had ever been sold. I know that because I was there when Fearnley told me, and inscribed those words in my new purchase.

Who knows what bookish joys await me at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season this month. See you there!


Family blues

The Year of Magical Thinking was Joan Didion‘s book about the death of her Book coverhusband, novelist and journalist John Gregory Dunne.  Blue Nights is about the life, illness and death of her daughter, Quintana, and it’s a read to set any parent thinking.

I was particularly struck by the chapter that begins:  “I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents”, because I don’t either.

Fictional failures can bring some comfort, so I’ve been idly compiling “My List of Books Featuring Parents who are Worse than Me”.

Top (mostly because it was read most recently) would be The Family Fang.  Camille and Caleb Fang are performance artists who use their children as props in their work. Buster and Annie, or Child A and Child B as they are known when taking part in the always confronting and often cruel situations their parents construct, find adult life something of a struggle.   The adult Fangs are fiends, but Kevin Wilson doesn’t make it all too bleak.

Next is We need to talk about Kevin, both because it’s a great if painful read, and because I saw Book coverLionel Shriver at a Writers Festival a few years ago. Kevin has shot nine people at his high school, and his mother is writing about it to her estranged husband.  Using such an event in a novel turned Shriver into an expert in school shootings, at least in the minds of the journalists who would contact her for comments after each horrible incident. Who is to blame? Shriver is skilled enough to show, not tell.

Coraline ends up with an uncomfortable number of parents when she enters the identical flat next door. The Other Mother  is so much better than Coraline’s busy real mother, distracted by her computer. The Other Mother has time for Coraline;  it’s just a shame she wants to replace Coraline’s eyes with black buttons.  The  incomparable Neil Gaiman is at his very best here.

Any advances on this crew as the worst parents in fiction of this or any other year?