book giveaway: the soaring work of brad kessler

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.

(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.)

  1. Doreen says:

    I would have to say that Mahitabel our 18 year old white cat has taught me that it’s important to rest and relax whenever you can even if it’s only for a few minutes. She visits us several times during the day, lets us know when she is hungry or wants to be loved. She’s a sun seeker and loves to lie in the warmth of the sunshine. She has taught me that it’s important to enjoy life.

  2. pamela n. richardson says:

    All of nature is inspirational. As a youngster, I used to focus on three pine trees that stood beside an old tobacco barn at the edge of our back woods. They represented what lay in the future for me. When times were lonely or too difficult for me, I drew sustenance just by looking at their forms. I could always dream with them…

  3. Drea says:

    I was fortunate to grow up up in the woods north of New York CIty. We lived alongside the seasons with all attendant wild life – raccoons, skunks, deer, rabbits, garter snakes, box turtles, spiders, all Eastern birds of course. I vividly remember witnessing the annual spring rite of frog births in our brook: cloudy masses of jelly, black dot eggs steadily giving way to tadpoles then ready-for-their-close-up frogs. I so looked forward to this gradual, mysterious, delighful miracle every year. And so it remains for me today. I learned all growth is eternally patient, graceful, at times hilarious and always ineffable. Now I live on another creek and still beam as I hear the nighttime bullfrogs boom.

  4. Bettina says:

    Nature inspires me to write poems. When creatures are the subject, most often I am informed by birds. Their voices remind me to greet each day with gratitude for the gift of presence, anticipation for what is possible, awareness that my voice matters and courage to fly to new places on the path to my truest self. I share two of them here:

    In the early morning hours before light appeared
    The birds celebrated the coming of a new day
    With melodic song and spirited conversation.

    Gliding effortlessly from high on above
    Travelling in a pattern of circular motion
    Momentarily in search of a landing place
    An eagle soars off into the distance.

  5. Sara Monzo says:

    Wow, what creatures in nature have NOT inspired me? That’s the true question.
    My dog inspires me every day. She was abandoned, left to starve to death in negative degree weather for who knows how long before she was rescued.not only did she learn to scavenge to stay alive, but when she came to us literally skin & bone, she was just so darn happy to have a warm place to stay. She ate a ton & slept probably 99% of the first 3 months we had her- she finally had a comfy, warm, safe place to sleep alongside her new people, not having to worry about predators or freezing to death. She is now plump, happy & absolutely the light of my life.animals amaze me by their ability to survive – plain & simple. But how dogs can overcome such awful circumstances & not be forever jaded, inspires me to look at life a lot differently. Thank you Miss Weezy the rescue Bullie!

  6. karenleigh says:

    My hens. I never realized how much I could love chickens. They cheer me up when nothing or no one else can. I lost my favorite hen Clementine about 6 weeks ago, and I am still brokenhearted over her.

  7. Deirdre Brackett says:

    My dogs inspire me to love unconditionally and to remember that we are who we are… accept, love, and embrace! But out in nature…I’m inspired and moved by the lowly earthworm…I know…why in the world?
    Everytime I leave for work on a drizzly morning I meet these little creatures struggling to survive from the flood that has hit their homeland. They have unfortunately ventured onto the pavement where they will die if left there. They can’t dig down, the water is full of oils and chemicals washed from the pavement which I’m sure if burning their skin. Skin so sensitive that if I pick them up, the salt on my skin will burn them. My job…dip my fingers in water to wash off the salt and pick each worm up, find it a high spot in the yard where it can dig down and be safe. After I do this, I feel grateful for my life and how easy I have it in comparison. I also feel grateful for all the life under our feet that we aren’t even aware exists.

  8. molly says:

    A creature crossed through the garden one evening in the dusk and though I saw it and my husband did too, we have totally different impressions of what we saw. Did it have a bobbed tail or no tail to be seen? Was it up to the hip or the knee? Was it a cat-like creature or more of a fox-like thing? Was it somebody’s pet or obviously a wild thing? We each are pretty sure of what we saw, but there’s very little overlap! I take a little lesson from that experience of indeterminacy. Nature has more going on than we readily understand, and the inroads we can make are sometimes private ones, no less interesting for being unconfirmed by others’ experience.

  9. Mary Lou says:

    May, with the migration of birds, especially the hummingbirds, here on the Erie Canal, remind me of my childhood where I spent countless hours watching these delightful creatures creep into flowers to partake in the delicacy of nectar. It also reminds me of how He always takes care of the birds and so He will always take care of us.

  10. dawn says:

    I love watching all forms of wildlife in my yard, but the most interesting encounter I’ve had was with a wild turkey that kept showing up to forage. I got in the habit of stashing handfuls of sunflower seed in my pocket when I went out to garden, and eventually I was able to get this extremely cautious bird to feed from my hand.

  11. Margaret says:

    ENTRIES ARE NOW CLOSED (but the comments will stay open, if you care to add to the discussion if not have a chance to win the books).

    I have drawn two winners using random [dot] org and am contacting them by email.

  12. Mary Lynch says:

    In 1972 I had my first child. Two weeks later, my husband brought home a milk cow.
    Now, I had not ever been around a cow, much less a milk cow. But I went about learning how to milk a cow. Bessie (the cow) , was kind and patient with me. I would bring my new baby out to the barn when I milked Bessie. Bessie showed a great interest in my sweet baby girl and would watch her as I milked her. Bessie would lean herself against me as I milked her. Those quiet mornings and evenings with Bessie became some of my most treasured moments. i still think of her fondly.

  13. Mel J. says:

    I would say our 14 year poodle. 15 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My 3 kids were babies and my husband promised me he when all the treatment was over he would get me anything I wanted. I never had a pet growing up and wanted a dog. We picked her at the breeders when she was 8 weeks old and she is the best dog in the world. Two months ago she suffered a stroke and we thought it was the end. She still can’t do steps and has limitations, but she is so happy and still full of life. She nutured me back to health and now it’s my turn.

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