Thursday, May 21, 2015

H is for Hello Again. . . and also for Helen Macdonald's Hawk book. . .

Very near the top of my What Will I Do Now That I'm Retiring list is "Resurrect My Reading Blog" with perhaps ten or twenty exclamation marks following that commitment.

This is a teeny, tiny step in that direction, and I do hope you'll be patient with me as I totter tentatively back onto the path. I have managed to keep adding titles read this year to a single draft post, and perhaps I'll post that soon rather than waiting until the end of the year as I usually do -- that way, you'll see that I have been reading steadily even though I've not managed to write, here at least, about any of that reading. Meanwhile, though, now that my teaching term is over and I'm just tying up loose ends at work over the next few weeks, cleaning out my office, saying my good-byes; now that my week in Paris is over and I've shaken off most of the jet-lag; now that I've dead-headed the rampant cornflowers and pruned back the wild roses. . . . let me share a couple of titles with you.

Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk. This astonishing memoir is everything that any reviewer has written about it. Deeply, painfully, at times, elegiac, it's a mesmerizing account of the author's training of a goshawk in the wake of her father's death. The book also traces her fellowship, since childhood, with other falconers, both the (mostly male) contemporary ones who -- oh, I must avoid saying "take her under their wings," mustn't I?! -- share the mysteries of their craft with her and those she meets through literature on the topic, old books she's collected over the years. In fact, Macdonald's memoir is structured as much by one of those old books as by her mourning of her father or her chronological account of training Mabel:  as she untangles T.H. White's troubled life -- his lonely, difficult childhood, his closeted and tormented sexuality, his yearning for intimacy and love, his recourse to the magical world he wrote in The Once and Future King -- she compares the doomed training of Gos that he records in The Goshawk with her own fears and challenges and eventual success with Mabel. Doing so, she also weaves in memories of a warm, close relationship with a loving, supportive father, and limns the contours of the devastation she, her mother, and her brother experienced in their sudden loss. As well, she offers a fascinating natural history that mixes together bird lore with the rich ecology of English forests (now and as they were) -- and a cultural history that meshes in interesting ways with some other reading I've been doing (that whole 1930s-ish fascination with walking the countryside, for example, particularly as manifest in British literature; Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways;  Sara Maitland's Gossip from the Forest). And the nomenclature and paraphernalia associated with hawking -- just marvelous, really!

As well, I've just finished reading Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, the first in what will apparently be a series of four, three of which are already completed, with the fourth and final novel to be published this fall. I already regret that I purchased My Brilliant Friend as an e-book for my Kobo reader, and I've ordered the second and third books in their print versions -- I'll probably get a print copy of MBF as well. These are books to savour, to make notes in the margins, underline favourite passages, leave comments for my future self and for other readers in the front pages. . . .The descriptions, first of all, of place, of 1950s Naples, its poverty but also its liveliness, intrigues, community, social constrictions -- and particularly the compelling attention to close female friendship. This attention depicts a particular friendship in such a particular time and place -- two young girls whose bond is built of their mutual intelligence and attitude to scholarship, an intelligence and scholarship which mark their difference and their potential escape route from their community while conferring upon them a certain status, but one which must be managed carefully. They support each other, but there is a constant note of competition that denies any possibility of real trust, and questions what friendship might mean for either -- their intense connection is as close as any of them will get to friendship, at least by the time the first novel closes. Despite the particular nature of the friendship, there is so much here that will surely recall to many readers the fraught intensity of girlhood, the confidences betrayed, the peculiar colouring of long-long-ago intimacies, and the way their light and warmth continue to be cast on our later years. . .

Given that I'm trying to move back to semi-regular posting, I am going to Click on "Publish" now, rather than revise and edit as perhaps I should. Let me know if you've read either of these OR come back later if you're inspired to do so and tell me what you think.


  1. I too loved H is for Hawk,

    I was recently in Northern Idaho taking care of my 95 year old Mother and 74 year old sister who needed eye surgery. While in Coeur d'Alene, I read in the paper that some locals were attempting to remove Of Mice and Men from 9th grade reading list. This strengthened my resolve to corrupt my grandchildren with good literature. Therefore, I bought Of Mice and Men for them. I also reread To Kill a Mockingbird and Brave New World. I remembered last reading Brave New World in the 70s so was interested in how well it would hold up. It does. I went on line and watched a 1958 (I think) interview with Mike Wallace and Aldous Huxley wherein Huxley was lamenting that so many of the things he wrote about in the book had come to pass. He would be even more surprised to see how far we in the U.S. have gone down that road.

    I just finished God Help the Child by Toni Morrison. As usual well written but subject matter, suffering in childhood,is depressing.

    I will be eager to read about your reading.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Sarah -- such an encouragement to my return to this blog. Brava, you! Your grandchildren are very lucky. I remember reading Of Mice and Men when I was 11 or so -- I found it so very moving, and it's hard to see the downside to it, especially given what young people are already having to confront outside the pages of books.
    I'm looking forward to reading the latest Morrison -- actually, I'm really hoping retirement will afford me the time to reread some of her earlier work again. I taught Jazz a few years ago -- so challenging in all the right ways. And eye-opening, to things we sometimes want to deny via our blinkers...

  3. So glad you're back posting here, Mater, because your reviews and recommendations have led me to some of my favourite reads the past few years.

    Elena Ferrante's book sounds like it will be my next purchase--and I'll take your advice to buy the print version.

    Sarah's idea of corrupting the young through good literature reminds me of the time one of my IT students came to my office clutching a copy of Great Expectations. She earnestly recommended it to me as "a really GOOD book" and asked me if I knew of others like it she might enjoy.

  4. Oh, I'm so happy you've enjoyed reading some of the books I've written about in the past -- spreading the news about good books is one of my goals here.

    And I love your anecdote -- that anecdote, that wonderful (naive, but in a good way) earnestness. Wonder what that student is reading now. . .

  5. So glad you are posting here again. Like Marilyn, I have gotten some great reads from your previous posts. Congrats on your "new" life!

  6. I was waffling between whether I should read H is for Hawk, or Bringing up the Bodies next (as soon as I finish my current, short, read) and you may given me a gentle nudge toward H.

    I will have to look into Elena Ferranti as well.

  7. Thanks, Brenda, and glad to hear you've found some of my posts worthwhile.
    Mardel, that's a tough choice, but H is for Hawk might give you a welcome break from Mantel's bloody histories (which, as you know, I loved!). And I'm sure you'd like Ferrante. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of her series AND to getting the backlist.

  8. I'm so glad you're posting here, Frances. I'm always looking for book recommendations. My time is limited so I usually listen to audiobooks.

    I have to comment on Of Mice and Men. Why would anyone remove it from a reading list? My younger son, who has never been a reader of fiction (to my dismay), was tremendously moved when he read that book in about 6th grade. He still considers it the best book he's ever read.

    I've noticed that middle- and high-school reading lists consist mainly of modern books now. The ones I've read have been very dark, and some downright depressing.

  9. It's hard to understand, Marie, why anyone would want to ban books, especially ones that stir humanity as effectively as Of Mice and Men. My personal preference is for wide, eclectic reading with judicious steering (not too much interfering) by a sensitive, widely-read mentor -- I must say, I'd include at least as much contemporary fiction as I would classics, and I wouldn't shy away from dark and depressing, as many teens find comfort in recognizing that part of reality in lives beyond their own. Dark humour has its own special appeal. . . One thing I'll truly miss about my work is the challenge of finding fiction that holds my (mostly young adult) students' interest . . .

  10. I didn't know there was a book blog too! Fantastically helpful. Must say I adored My Brilliant Friend and your summary is spot on. And I am so happy knowing that there are more to read.

    I shall be taking a closer look at your 2014 list no doubt. Many thanks.

  11. Welcome, Colleen, I'm glad you found my book blog and that you're finding it useful. I've got to post here again soon, 3 or 4 titles to add before I open the next Elana Ferrante which has just arrived in the mail. . .