As with many of us, the life of acclaimed novelist Howard Norman has had its share of incidents of “arresting strangeness.” Yet few of us connect these moments, as Norman has done in this spellbinding memoir, to show how life tangles with the psyche to become art. Norman’s story begins with a portrait, both harrowing and hilarious, of a Midwest boyhood summer working in a bookmobile, in the shadow of a grifter father and under the erotic tutelage of his brother’s girlfriend. His life story continues in places as far-flung as the Arctic, where he spends part of a decade as a translator of Inuit tales—including the story of a soapstone carver turned into a goose whose migration-time lament is “I hate to leave this beautiful place”—and in his beloved Point Reyes, California, as a student of birds. In the Arctic, he receives news over the radio that “John Lennon was murdered tonight in the city of New York in the USA.” And years later, in Washington, D.C., another act of deeply felt violence occurs in the form of a murder-suicide when Norman and his wife loan their home to a poet and her young son. Norman’s story is also stitched together with moments of uncanny solace. Of life in his Vermont farmhouse Norman writes, “Everything I love most happens most every day.”
In the hands of Howard Norman, author of The Bird Artist and What Is Left the Daughter, life’s arresting strangeness is made into a profound, creative, and redemptive memoir.
I'm normally not a big memoir person but I think I might have to start making exceptions. I was sent this book on the recommendation of a publicist and I thought it sounded interesting enough so I started reading it right away. And then could barely put it down.
I've never read any of Howard Norman's books but I was faintly aware of them, as I had had a professor in college that was very big in the Canadian Literature field. Turns out, the man himself has lived a very interesting life. From growing up in Grand Rapids to working in the Arctic to summers in Vermont to life in Washington, the man leads a very interesting life. It's one of those things where, if you think about, almost everyone has important things happen to them and I think, if almost anyone sat down and wrote about the most interesting events that they feel happened to them, you would have a great book. Which makes this one exceptional is Norman being a gifted writer already. Combined with the personal nature of this book, this is a real treat.
What makes the narrative so strong is that it's not a typical memoir in the style of 'I was born in…' and telling a life story. Instead, Norman takes periods of his life, normally one season in one year, and writes about that. He has chosen five moments that could be seen as turning points, interesting stories and important events to him and has written about those. What could have been an awkward life story instead becomes memories of a life, fascinating events narrated by the man that lived them, reflecting back decades later but not judging his past self but embracing it. From poor decisions he made in the wake of a girlfriend's death to a summer spent battling a fever while somewhat obsessed with the Civil War, Norman shows us glimpses of his life with immediacy and reflection.
The only spot of bother I found with the book is the number of times he uses the phrase "beautiful place." It stuck out like a sore thumb every time and pulled me out of the narrative. However, considering that's really the only things I can say to its downside is really more of a compliment.
I really enjoyed this book and read it in one day, skipping things I normally do on Sundays to sit on the couch and read. I will definitely be lending this out to friends and I think it's a book everyone would enjoy because, honestly, what about other peoples' lives isn't fascinating? If you're curious, please check it out.
I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place comes out July 9th (tomorrow!) from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thanks to Leila for the review copy!