IAM AFRAID OF FLYING, BUT RIGHT AT HOME WITH BIRDS. So Brad Kessler’s 2006 novel “Birds in Fall,” a story of the aftermath of a plane crash in which two characters are bird biologists, wielded a powerful but tricky pull. Loving it, I then quickly read Kessler’s memoir, “Goat Song,” a tale of leaving behind the city for a pastoral life in New England. The other day, there both books were in a bookshop I was speaking at, and I knew they would become the subject of this latest giveaway.
“Birds in Fall” begins in the cabin of the failing aircraft; we briefly meet those who will perish—including a Bulgarian cellist; an ornithologist named Russell, whose first-person account the opening eight pages give voice to; and others around whose loss the rest of the story will center. (The stark and beautiful opening section is excerpted here, by “The Kenyon Review.” A caveat: I dare you to manage to read that and not buy “Birds in Fall” for its other 230 pages.)
For the rest of the book, we are on the ground—and in the third-person voice—as loved ones left behind gradually gather at the scene in Nova Scotia. Several, including the innkeeper, form an accidental but wildly intimate bond as they find themselves lodging together.
In the group are Russell’s widow, Ana, a bird biologist herself; the cellist’s spouse, also a musician; and an Iranian man inclined toward reciting Persian legends, so the tale is infused with music and avian metaphors like migration and with mythology—all layered like tissue between brittle layers of grief and brave, varied attempts at emotional survival despite the losses. I cannot recommend it enough; even with its darkness, it soars. Toward the end, the narrator says this:
“How is a story like a bird? It keeps us aloft. It flies. It goes from one place and lands at another, seemingly at random. But its movements are carefully choreographed, and if you look closely, you’ll know exactly where it will next perch.”
IN THE 2009 MEMOIR “GOAT SONG,” it is another of nature’s creatures who leads us deeper into self-awareness, and all the goings on of daily life and nature are sacramentalized within its pages. With his wife, photographer Dona Ann McAdams, Kessler learned to care for a herd of Nubians, attending birth and death and making cheese in the milk-filled days between.
“To make a cheese you need a Mardi Gras of different life-forms—bacteria, fungi, yeasts, plants, mammals—all commingling in an age-old carnival,” Kessler writes.
The excerpted paragraph below from Kessler’s memoir probably holds the key to why I find him so compelling. Our belief systems, apparently, have much in common. Here’s how he puts it, just after telling a Yiddish fable about a boy who finds the land of milk and honey by following a goat into a cave:
“Yet what interests me is how a goat led a boy to paradise. How careful attention to one animal took him through a rabbit hole and revealed a hidden world. ‘Every species of animal,’ writes E.O. Wilson, ‘opens the gates to the paradisaical world.’ If you follow living beings assiduously in the field—or through the lens of a microscope—they lead you to an understanding of their lives, and all life. They usher you into a kind of Eden.”
What creature or aspect of nature is it that has informed and inspired you?
How to Win the Books
IHAVE BOUGHT TWO SETS of Kessler’s books to share with you. To enter, just comment below answering that question:
What creature in nature is it that has informed and inspired you?
Mine have ranged at times from my mainstays of birds, frogs and plants to spiders, foxes and snakes, as those who have read “And I Shall Have Some Peace There” are aware.
You know me; I won’t try to force you to elaborate—you can get away with simply typing “Count me in,” or “I want to win the books” or some such into the comments box. But if you have a source of inspiration from the natural world to share, all the better.
Two winning entries will be selected at random using random [dot] org’s tool after entries close at midnight, Saturday May 14. Good luck to all, and even if you don’t win, I hope you’ll explore Brad Kessler’s writing.
- Buy “Birds in Fall”
- Buy “Goat Song”
(Photo of Brad Kessler and the doe Hannah by Dona Ann McAdams. Quoted material copyright Brad Kessler, whose work is published by Scribner.)
(Federal regulations require that I reveal that any books purchased on Amazon via links from my site earn me a small commission. I use it to help buy more books for these giveaways.)