Review: “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place” by Howard Norman

  • Posted on: 16 August 2014
  • By: TedG

A small group of three met to discuss Howard Norman’s I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, and while I will refer in passing to some comments from the group, I regretfully will speak of this book mostly from my own perspective. More on that later.

I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place is classified as a memoir. It is a collection of stories that moves from Norman’s childhood in Michigan up through to the early 2000s. Each story, Adrian pointed out, involves a death. In the first story, it is the accidental death of a swan. Young Howard Norman is realizing an interest in birds and sets out to live-trap a duck, perhaps to be closer to the objects of his growing passion. But the trap is accidently sprung by a very territorial swan and culminates in the bird’s drowning.

The second story, “Grey Geese Descending,” centers on twenty-year-old Howard’s life in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he has moved on a sort-of whim. He meets a painter and the two become a couple, though the relationship is strangely challenging. Never the less, it is a committed relationship until she is tragically killed in a plane crash in Saskatchewan. So Norman goes there to find the crash site. He does this quite frequently: he meets problems head-on, confronts them with a mix of determination and trepidation, not wanting to dwell, but unable to move on until he has resolved the inner conflict the problems create within him. He certainly has a dark side to his demeanor. Reading the book, I kept hearing Woody Allen fretting about whatever small detail was irking him at the time. Norman seems to do the same, but he is also very direct, and the way he deals with tragedy is the best example of that.

Death is not the focal point of two of the stories, but it does figure into them. In fact, the tone of both stories––“I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place” and “Kingfisher Days”––is brighter. Norman is focused on the inherent though intangible beauty of places and the people in them in the first essay, while he repeats a mantra throughout the second story: “Everything I loved most happened most every day.” The theme of these two essays seems to be change and facing adversity.

The final story is indeed about the jarring nature of sudden and violent death and how Norman ultimately finds solace (he hates the word “closure”) in birds. We have come full-circle from the death of a swan in the first story to the salvation from death found in the simple watching of birds on the seashore.

In all of these stories, Norman is looking for connections, for confirmation that he is not alone even though he prefers to deal with his troubles by himself. He quotes other writers and poets, and in at least two of the stories, he purges his feelings by writing dozens of letters to friends and family. In the same way, I often look to books and to stories for those connections. I, too, keep a collection of quotes from other writers that I refer to when I need help in articulating feelings.

I chose this book simply on the title alone––I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place––as I struggle with the prospect of moving away from Cable (only north to Washburn; nothing drastic). There are numerous reasons––mostly economic––why the idea is wise, but there are just as many––perhaps mostly intangible––why it is not. I was looking to this book to help me sort through my conflicted feelings. Books can sometimes do that. I did the same thing after 9/11 with Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes, a collection of fiction in which one story is about a group of friends who rent an apartment in Manhattan in the weeks leading up to that fateful day when the World Trade Center collapsed. As it turns out, the apartment provides a literal window-view of the attacks. I turned to books again when a friend fought her final battle with cancer. Then it was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which is Didion’s story of dealing with the sudden death of her husband and how, for a year, she imagined that he had not died and that he would soon return home. So she kept his things just as they always had been, and lived in a sort of expectant dream state. In both of those instances, and again with this book, I was looking for other people’s stories to help me navigate my way through troubled times. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t. Most often, other people’s stories are an adjunct we use as a sort-of map, but we ultimately have to make our own way; we have to find our own path. Everyone can, of course, but it’s good to know we are not alone.

Though Adrian and I enjoyed the book very much, and Jim (having read “40%” of it) also found it to be a good book, Jack felt it was only mildly interesting. It is “reasonably well written, but not up to the level of our recent reads,” he said in an email. He gave it a 2.5 for both Interest and Readability. Ron agreed, writing in his email, “He rated it even lower than I did!!” With Jack’s votes and those of the three of us at the meeting, our group gives this book a 3.75 for Interest and a 4.25 for readability. The three of us at the meeting demonstrated a narrow range of interest in reading something else from Norman, averaging a 4.1 out of 5 (which translates roughly as, “sure, we could read something else”).

Our next book is Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken.