Regional Books: “Bless the Birds,” “The Good Hand” and more – The Denver Post

Regional books of note for April:

“Bless the Birds,” by Susan Tweit (She Writes Press)

Toward the end of her husband’s two-year battle with brain cancer, Susan Tweit told him, “I want you to know you can take your time letting go. You don’t need my permission, either.”

“What a beautiful benediction,” her husband replied.

“Our love will last when we don’t,” she told him.

Anyone who has lived through the long and painful death of a loved one is tempted to write about it.  The idea is to give death — and life — meaning.  Rarely do those accounts rise to the level of poetry.  Tweit’s does.  Well known for her essays, Tweit turns the story of her husband, sculptor Richard Cade, into a moving tribute.

Cade’s cancer battle began when he saw birds, hundreds of them, on trees and grasses and distant mesas.  Only there weren’t any birds out there.  That was the start of surgeries and treatments, sometimes twice-weekly trips from their Salida home to the VA hospital in Denver.  In the midst of the battle, the couple embarked on the honeymoon trip they hadn’t taken when they married 30 years earlier. With Susan at the wheel, they drove nearly 4,000 miles to the Northwest and down through California, visiting family and friends, stopping to observe birds and landscape.

They returned home to live as normal a life as possible. David resumed his career sculpting giant rocks while Susan, a plant biologist, worked in their garden.  But hanging over them was David’s life sentence. Sometimes all you can do in a crisis “is “simply keep living with as much composure as we can summon,” Tweit writes.

Subtitled “Living With Love in a Time of Dying,” “Bless the Birds” is a joyful account of love mixed with the agony of impending loss.  In difficult times, how you respond is a choice, Tweit says.  “Richard and I chose to respond with love.”

“Little and Often,” by Trent Preszler (William Morrow)

Trent Preszler was brought up in a family that never said, “I love you.”

“I wanted to say I love you, but I couldn’t,” writes Preszler about the last time he saw his father.  “I never heard him say those three words my entire life.”

Preszler, the CEO of a winery whose merlot was served at President Obama’s first inaugural luncheon, returns to South Dakota for Thanksgiving, after years of estrangement from his father.  The dour cattle rancher had turned on his son after Preszler admitted he was gay.  In fact, the father had even caused his son to be excommunicated from the Lutheran church.

After his father’s funeral only days later, Preszler’s mother gives him his inheritance: his father’s toolbox.

Tormented by the fractured relationship with his father, Preszler decides to use the tools to make a canoe, and to launch it on the anniversary of his father’s death. It’s beside the point that he knows nothing about woodworking.

“Little and Often” is Preszler’s story of his struggle with the past and his attempt to understand his father, who once told him he didn’t have what it took to be a man.  “We had both tried our best but fell short of being the man each of us hoped to be for the other,” he writes

Despite its bleak beginning, “Little and Often” is filled with joy, as Preszler teaches himself the craft of woodworking.  As he works with his father’s tools, Preszler begins to understand his father, a Vietnam veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange.  Preszler’s sister was born severely handicapped. The old man lost the family ranch in the 1990s and had to take a job as a welder.

As the canoe takes shape, Preszler discovers much about himself, too, and realizes he is man enough after all.

“The Good Hand,” by Michael Patrick F. Smith (Viking)

“I came here to do the hardest thing I could find to find out if I could do it. … I outwork all these (expletive),” writes Michael Patrick F. Smith.  He makes a good hand.

During the 2008 recession, Smith, an actor and musician, gives up New York to move to the oilfields of Williston, N.D.  He is a greenhorn, and some of his co-workers bet he won’t make it.  But Smith sticks it out, working in 100-degree summer heat and minus-20-degree winters.

He eventually trades in his green hat for the white hat of a good hand.  He works 14-hour days, gets drunk and swears like a oilfield worker. (The book would have been considerably shorter without one expletive.)

“A good hand is a person who does honest work to the best of their ability every day and who offers that work to the world as a living prayer,” Smith writes. He depicts Williston as a hard-living town where crime runs rampant. The men he meets share both dangerous work conditions and violent backgrounds.  They talk of brutal fathers, such as Smith’s own unhinged father who raped his daughter and threatened his wife and children.

“The Good Hand” is a personal exploration of an American boomtown and the men who tear up the earth in the search for the country’s unquenchable demand for oil.

“Going to Trinidad.” by Martin J. Smith (Bower House)

In the 1950s, when Christine Jorgensen returned to the U.S. amid much fanfare following her sex-change operation, she said had become America’s biggest dirty joke.  Americans have been uncomfortable with gender dysphoria ever since.  Many shun those who believe they’ve been born with the wrong body.  Religious leaders rail against changing what God wrought.

Still, sex-change surgery is no longer unusual.  In fact, for years, Trinidad was the hub of such surgeries, and “going to Trinidad” had a special meaning.  Two physicians there performed some 6,000 surgeries over four decades. “Going to Trinidad” by Granby author Martin J. Smith is the story of the Southern Colorado clinic and the history of sex changes in the United States.

Smith’s story is a sensitive look at the pain and despair of transgender men and women. They have trouble finding jobs, are ostracized by family and friends, and some commit suicide.  Before undergoing painful surgery, they must live for a year and often more as their chosen sex.  Even after surgery, their troubles are not over.

The author covers two transgender subjects in detail. One is relatively happy with her change; the other is not. But both have written extensively about their experiences before, and it’s a shame Smith didn’t find new subjects.

Despite that, “Going to Trinidad” is a groundbreaking work on sexual dysphoria and Colorado’s place in treating it.

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