H IS FOR HAWK

H Is for Hawk

Love this cover

H Is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald

Sometimes our most irrational decisions are also our most defining moments. They are the moments when we know we’re acting a bit mad, as they say on Downton, yet we feel better, freer, and wilder than at any other time. Perhaps we’ve quit our job to write a novel. Perhaps we’ve quit our life to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Or perhaps we’ve brought home a baby goshawk.

That last one is what Helen Macdonald did after the unexpected loss of her father. And while I don’t know Helen Macdonald, after reading her unique and idiosyncratic memoir about this attempt to harness her grief, it’s safe to say that it’s a book only she could have written. With beautiful, poetic language (that works surprisingly well when describing the sometimes gory details of training a hawk), Macdonald narrates her surface story while weaving in meditations on grief and nature and our relationship to animals and the meaning of solitude.   She also gives us just enough on the history of falconry to understand its place in the British class system and its place in her life. And then there’s her metaphysical kinship with the late T.H. White (author of the Once and Future King series and falconer).

Now I should back up and explain that Macdonald is a trained falconer and naturalist (in addition to being a writer and historian), so her decision to adopt a hawk wasn’t quite as far off the rails as it might sound. Although for yours truly, a self-proclaimed indoorsy type, the concept was still a little hard to get my head around when I picked up her book.

It reminded me of when we first adopted Henry The Wonderdog a few years back: he’s no bird of prey, but he is still undoubtedly a member of the animal kingdom. And while he immediately won us over with his loving personality and striking resemblance to a Gund stuffed animal, there was a part of me that couldn’t help feeling a little, well, grossed out, frankly, at the thought of having “an animal in my house.” Six years later there are still times when I feel like I know where the wild things are – on my sofa – and my ambivalence surfaces.

I suppose this is to say that the next time I start to lose my mind (the clock is ticking), I probably won’t be donning a falconer’s glove and waistcoat, but H Is for Hawk did help me remember why I keep this crazy terrier/hound mix around. (He’s snoozing on my freshly vacuumed sofa as I write this.) Anyone who’s had a pet (or been to the zoo or the petting farm) will bashfully admit that we tend to project our motivations and needs onto animals. But Macdonald reminded me that it’s reciprocal; we also long for the purity of what animals can give and receive.

 

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P Is for Pup

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There’s an animal in my house

THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE

TITSOAHMThis is the Story of a Happy Marriage
by Ann Patchett

Oh how I dread writing about the books I love. The task makes me wish I had just finished a book I only liked or felt okay about or disliked. These reads lend themselves to short, distilled blog posts much more obediently than the books I love. Because the books that really speak to me have so much to say and I can’t possibly do them justice in less than 600 words – a self-imposed word count that I feel committed to maintaining.

From its title, I had assumed this book was a set of memoir-ish essays about Patchett’s relationship with her husband. And while the eponymous essay in the collection covers that topic, the book as a whole is about the many different kinds of marriages that she has had in her life, it is about the things to which she’s committed herself and loved deeply: her husband ranks high on the list, but so does her reading and writing, her friendships and her dog Rose.

As a species, we tend to catalogue things, especially the things we like. It’s fun to think about what makes us happy and creating lists gives us a sense of order and accomplishment and—I’ll speak for myself here—it can help us remember. But such cataloging and collecting can turn us into people who only skim the surface, who are more consumers than thinkers. Patchett’s collection of essays, carefully culled from the mound of non-fiction she’s crafted over the last 20+ years, is an antidote to these types of superficial, fetishizing tendencies. While the common thread here is clearly that which she adores most, the theme emerged organically through her years of writing and only made itself known explicitly once she started to pull together different pieces that represented her non-fiction career. In other words, Patchett didn’t write “My Ten Faves” at the top of a piece of paper and then proceed to develop corresponding essays.

But I am not Ann Patchett. And (as is evident if you glance to your left) I am not above having lists of faves. So I’ll just go ahead and tell you that within this collection, my favorite essays lean toward the ones about the literary world, the ones describing life on a book tour, opening an independent bookstore and my most favorite of all, The Getaway Car, “A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.” She also writes beautifully about her relationships—human and canine—like only a true introvert can, with great devotion and depth.

I could feel bitter and resentful that Patchett manages to write about the things she loves with such ease, but instead I can only feel camaraderie because I know that what appears easy for her is in fact the product of a lot of time and hard work. One of her many wonderful analogies in the book compares our ideas to a beautiful butterfly that flits about our heads until we have to kill and pin it in order to get those ideas onto paper. As she says, “The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies.”

Up Next: H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, recent winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize.

IN A COUNTRY OF MOTHERS

IACOMIn a Country of Mothers
by A.M. Homes

Do you remember the books you read?

As some of you know from recent posts, I’ve been working on a tidying project around the house, inspired by the brilliant Marie Kondo and her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. One of Marie’s recommended stages in the tidying process is the curating of one’s books. Given all the moving I’ve done in recent years, I knew my book collection was pretty well-culled, but as a faithful acolyte of Marie’s, I was curious to take a look at my collection using her criteria.

Overall, the books I’d chosen to keep made sense. But there were three titles—two by A.M. Homes and one by Mary Gaitskill—that I could not, for the life of me, remember reading. What’s really strange about this is that I’m certain I’ve been carrying these three books around with me for the last 20 or so years. I believe I bought them back in my early days in Boston and most likely they were on the recommendation of my cool, all-knowing and still dear friend, Michelle. Back in Boston, Michelle was one of the only people I knew who’d taken more women’s studies classes and had more bookshelves than me and to this day, has more moves under her belt (in other words, serious soul sister).

When I say I couldn’t remember reading these books, I’m not talking about major plot points or the full roster of characters, I’m talking about that shadowy presence a book leaves on you once you’ve read and absorbed it. That presence may tell you that you liked it or you didn’t or you were bored. Even if you can’t remember the specific details, there’s some remnant of a recollection rattling around in there. Yet with these three books (one of which was In a Country of Mothers, in case you haven’t already guessed), it was like a selective form of amnesia.

By my count, I’ve moved eight times since I purchased these books; each move an opportunity to let go, a moment when I stopped and asked, “Is it worth it to pack, unpack and pay someone to transport this?” Each time, I said yes to these particular titles – why?

As I held them in my hands and considered the outdated author photos and copyright dates, it struck me that these particular books and their writers were so very much of a particular time to me, which is how I can tell you with confidence that I bought them in Boston in the mid-1990s on the recommendation (or at least the influence of) Michelle. A.M. Homes and Mary Gaitskill were exactly what a couple of gals working at the women’s clinic, reading a lot of hip female authors were into at that time. It was the experiences they represented, more than anything within their covers, that had compelled me to keep them all this time.

So last week, I pulled all three books from the shelf and added them to the unrelenting “to-read” pile, arbitrarily deciding that In a Country of Mothers would go first. Did anything come back to me once I cracked it a second time? Not really. I’m guessing I didn’t completely “get it” on the first read. But now? Like all the best relationships, the story had matured and so had I. We were ready for each other. I’m so glad it was right there waiting for me.