Monday, March 21, 2016


b is for book

Judging books by their covers?  I still do it all the time.  Two instances follow.

The first: when I saw H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Grove 2014) at a local bookshop recently, the cover was so strong that my hand reached for the book before I even knew what I was doing.  The original jacket, when this book was published in the U.K., looked like this, in its entirety (illustration by artist Chris Wormell):

My U.S.A. copy has award medallions in a row on the right side, and the wonderful back cover image has been replaced by blurbs from major papers and magazines (cover review from the New York Times Book Review, quotes from the Boston Globe, New Yorker, Washington Post, etc).  So, although I haven't read any of those reviews in their entirety yet, and I usually don't pay much attention to blurbs (least favorite blurbs of all time:  Hilarious! and Witty and wise... and Chatwinesque), these made me do just that.  I had to buy the book, and I did.  And I'm not sorry.  It has so much to offer.  A true stunner of a book.  Helen Macdonald writes a memoir about the death of her father and her ensuing depression and recovery.  And she is a falconer and writes a memoir about training and hunting with her goshawk Mabel.  And she writes a memoir about the author T.H. White and her life-long relationship with his book The Goshawk, and her fascination with him in general.  And all of these memoirs are the same book, this book.  It is so rich, and often devastating, and frightfully beautiful.  She puts sentences together in ways that I respect and admire.  Setting the scene for us readers:

"I sat down, tired and content.  The goshawks were gone, the sky blank.  Time passed.  The wavelength of the light around me shortened.  The day built itself."  (p.9) 

About the sudden unexpected death of her father:

"The memories are like heavy blocks of glass.  I can put them down in different places but they don't make a story." (p.14)

About T.H. White's motivation, and perhaps her own:

"'Need to excel in order to be loved,' White had written in his dream diary.  But there is an unspoken coda to that sentence.  What happens if you excel at something and discover you are still unloved?"  (p.146)

This book.  When I finished it I thought, This is what happens when you spend years writing a book - experience something, and write about it, and leave categorization by the wayside completely, to allow the narrative to say what it most needs to say.  She puts in everything that is relevant and necessary.  I love the book's scope, and her language and themes.  All of it.  Even the difficult places - perhaps especially those - places in which she almost loses herself in the life of the hawk and in the darkness of her depression.  Years ago I read T.H. White's book England Have My Bones (Collins 1936), which is another stunner, although the gruesome parts about hunting rabbits are very hard for me to take, and H is for Hawk has those moments too.  Helen Macdonald carves up rabbits and pheasants that Mabel kills.  They both eat them.  The moments of violence are real and metaphorical.  The language of falconry reminds me in an odd way of The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, with its arcane (to me, at least...) vocabulary of change-ringing - campanology - woven throughout and central to her story.  The plot moves forward, the vocabulary becomes familiar, and by the end of the book you feel you understand something of that world.  Sayers does it, and Macdonald does it too. 

In relation to the above, I want to now mention the following, which I read just before H is for Hawk.  I found this for two bucks at Goodwill and loved that retro Modern Libraryish cover, so I took a chance on it.  Hoping it wouldn't be another one of those books-about-books that looks good but... isn't.  The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller (Harper 2014):

The title is a little silly, it sounds like one of those catchy canned year-long-self-improvement-project titles.  But I like it anyway, and besides, he addresses this very issue early on and tells us of all the other titles he considered before settling on this one.  He also says the subtitle never changed:  "How Fifty Great Books (And Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life."  And while it is indeed a chronicle of a year-long-self-improvement project, Andy Miller is a real book person.  He worked in a bookshop for years, and then became an editor wading through slush piles of manuscript submissions, and then became an acquiring editor, and then an author.  The book business is at the heart of this book and I love him for writing so honestly about it.  He is also a reader, but the main gist of the book is that he has gotten out of the habit of reading - work, marriage, young child, middle age, no time - and he is determined to challenge himself, by reading a personal selection of the world's masterpieces.  Including the ones he's lied about reading, in the past.  The List of Betterment, as he calls it, includes Bulgakov, Eliot, Murdoch, Beckett, Melville, Austen, Shelley, Homer, Dostoevsky, Morrison, Atwood, Houellebecq, and so on.  Fifty books (the last of which is The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse, and I love him for that too).  He finds a way to fit reading into his life once again.  And it deepens and elevates everything.  While the ending of The Year of Reading Dangerously felt too scattered - as if he tried to fit everything in but the kitchen sink, and not in a coherent way - overall I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I could quote copiously, but will settle on just a few passages that I particularly love, about the ways our minds engage with books and their contents.

About tackling Beckett's The Unnamable -

"Either the book was beyond my capabilities or there was simply no space in my life where I could attempt a book like this."  (p.93)

He reads it, then in an attempt to understand it he listens to it on his iPod while walking a London neighborhood he once knew well:

"After a couple of miles, I had to sit down, not from fatigue but because I was overwhelmed by what I was experiencing."  (p.97)

I love how he describes the effect that books can have.  Just reading, right?  But:

"Reading is not an activity one associates with action.  Yet as the end of the List approached, I found it difficult to accept that I had done nothing except look at words on the page.  The last couple of months had made me ask serious questions about art, work, family, freedom, integrity..."  (pp.137-138)

After a long flight he lingered in a freezing airport to finish the very last of Middlemarch:

"...before walking home, elated.  I mean exactly that; I was elated.  I felt the unmistakable certainty that I had been in the presence of great art, and that my heart had opened in reply."  (p.49)

That's how I often feel - reading, viewing art, experiencing nature - absurdly grateful for the ways in which the tangible things of this world intersect with the intangible, and create something whole, within us and in actuality.  He sums it up, at one point, particularly well:

"...words are our transport, our flight and our homecoming in one."  (p.35)

I finished reading that, a bookish book written by a book person for other book people, and began reading H is for Hawk the next day.  This transition felt perfect.  Two books about the effects books have on us.  Two books - both grounded, both soaring, in their own ways.  

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