I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place
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Howard Norman’s spellbinding memoir 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. Years later, in Washington, D.C., an 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. In Norman’s hands, life’s arresting strangeness is made into a profound, creative, and redemptive story.
“Uses the tight focus of geography to describe five unsettling periods of his life, each separated by time and subtle shifts in his narrative voice . . . The originality of his telling here is as surprising as ever.” — Washington Post
“These stories almost seem like tall tales themselves, but Norman renders them with a journalistic attention to detail. Amidst these bizarre experiences, he finds solace through the places he’s lived and their quirky inhabitants, human and avian.” — The New Yorker
news didn’t reach you in California. I’m never flush.” “Speaking of license plates, you’re pretty flush now, aren’t you?” “Were you listening to WGRD, maybe? Like Mom says, miracles never cease.” “Your mother and I don’t agree on that. I think miracles cease the minute you’re born.” “Mom’s life is not easy. I don’t know what yours is.” “Imagine how proud I felt—just dropped in to have a cup of coffee at a counter on Division Street, on comes the radio, and on comes my own son’s name spoken
seemed—fell into severe despondency. As if all his years had actual weight that was pressing on his shoulders, he slumped on the sofa and tears filled his eyes. He opened a bottle of vodka, poured us each a glass. Then he used one of his favorite phrases, which characterized his inventive locutions in Yiddish-accented English—unconditional unforgiveness. “I have unconditional unforgiveness toward myself,” Isador said, pouring himself a second shot. You understand what I refer to?” “I was worried
University, and then at Western Michigan University, I took, sometimes one per semester, courses in various subjects—philology, zoology, literature—finally earning a degree from the Folklore Institute at Indiana University. And I had to keep finding ways to pay tuition. With assistance from professors and museum directors, and a willingness to live in remote places, I signed up for postings in half a dozen Arctic locales in order to record Inuit life histories, medical histories, and folktales.
directions and admired your handiwork,” my aunt said. “They spent a good hour with us,” he said. “Well, people from those countries—Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the like—appreciate snow toboggans, even in summer,” my aunt said. “Lord help us, I’ve just had a sorry thought,” my uncle said. “What if that Swedish family wants to pay me in Swedish money?” “I’d deal with the problem right away,” my aunt said. “Discuss it in a letter ahead of time. Then just hope the war lets a letter get to
winner. The deal was, WGRD’s director of programming, at eight-fifteen sharp, would reach into a bin containing, on strips of paper, the license plate numbers of “every legally registered car in Grand Rapids, Michigan.” There was a lot of excitement at the radio station. Though WGRD was just background noise while I ate breakfast, when the winning number was announced, a bell went off in my head. I turned up the volume. Mad Marty repeated the number again and again. “If this is your license plate