H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

Some time after her father’s sudden death, English writer Helen Macdonald decided to train a female goshawk, who she named Mabel. Though experienced in falconry, Macdonald had never trained a goshawk, a bird with a reputation for being difficult. H is for Hawk explores the emotional territory of her grief as well as the emotional territory involved with training this hawk to trust her. Macdonald’s book also is partly biographical, as she recounts the life and falconry of author T.H. White.

I was glad that Macdonald was an experienced falconer, as it reassured me that there wasn’t anything “stunt-like” about her training the goshawk. She is able to explain the details and history of falconry in a way that has been digested through her own lifetime of experience.

There is a lot to love about her writing. I liked this quote in particular, which I think conveyed the nature of her grief:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.

Macdonald also shares some great vignettes from her training of Mabel. I liked the story of her conversation with a man from Kazakhstan, who is reminded of his home country as he looks at Macdonald’s goshawk.

Macdonald is fond of descriptive passages with rich vocabulary. It can be quite beautiful, but sometimes it tipped over into being too much for me. I was reading the book on my Kindle and came across a landscape description that included the phrase “the argillaceous shimmer of tinder-fine clay.” Unfamiliar with the word “argillaceous”, I looked up the definition, and found it meant “clay-like” or “containing clay” – a pretty redundancy. It was instances like that where the writing became a little too ornamental for my tastes.

I struggled with the passages about T.H. White. I hadn’t realized they would comprise so much of the book. Once I realized that H is for Hawk was almost a dual narrative between Macdonald’s story and T.H. White’s, I tried to adjust my expectations accordingly. But I just was not very interested in White’s story, and these passages often seemed like retellings of his book The Goshawk and the journals he wrote about his falconry attempt. I started off the book thinking I was going to love H is for Hawk, but the T. H. White sections really dragged down my overall reading experience.

I can totally see why others loved it though, because it is a finely written book and others may find T. H. White as fascinating as Macdonald does.

Excerpt from others’ reviews:

BooksPlease – “This a book unlike any other that I’ve read, about wildness, grief and mourning, and obsession, which made it heavy reading for me.”

Memories from Books – “[The writing] captures the fierceness of the hawk itself; the depth of Helen MacDonald’s connection with the hawk; her despair; her single-minded focus on the hawk that deflects her grief, and the occasional moments of peace.”

Olduvai Reads – “Is it memoir? Nature writing? Literary? It’s a little of everything and it is brilliant.”

Also, I liked this review by dovegreyreader scribbles, who wasn’t getting on with the book in her first couple of tries, but ended up really connecting with it.

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My Taxonomy of Weird Books: A Weirdathon Sign-up and TBR post

Julianne of Outlandish Lit is hosting a #Weirdathon during the month of March. Sign-up post is here.

As Julianne says in the sign-up post, what counts as weird is anything that is weird to you. Like most book bloggers, I love to make lists of books. I decided to trawl through my Ridiculously Long™ Goodreads to-read list and identify all the weird books.

MONTH-LONGREADATHON copy

I quickly realized that I had a personal taxonomy of “weird” books:

Form & Style – these are the books where the form is unusual. The author has done something unconventional with the way they wrote the book.

  • I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters by Rabih Alameddine [consists of the main character’s attempts to write the first chapter of her memoir]
  • *Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau, trans. by Barbara Wright [consists of 100 retellings of the same plot, each time in a different style, e.g. sonnet, opera, etc.]
  • The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order by Joan Wickersham [the author reflects on her father’s life and death in the form of an index.

Short Stories – a lot of the “weird” books were short stories collections where fantastical, absurd and strange things happened to people. (Does anyone feel like short story collections often have the best titles?)

  • The Thing About Great White Sharks by Rebecca Adams Wright [featuring robotic dogs, futuristic flying circuses, and sharks of course]
  • 29 Ways to Drown by Niki Aguirre [stories influenced by Latin American magic realism]
  • *Kalpa Imperial by Angelica Gorodischer, trans. by Ursula LeGuin [stories w/ fantasy and magical realism, all presented as the history/myths of a fictitious Empire]

Narrated by Animals – I didn’t have a lot of these, but enough to see it as a trend. It’s rare for there to be adult books with animal protagonists, and so it’s kind of weird when it happens.

  • The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy [Elephant herd sets across the African plains on a quest]
  • Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis [From the synopsis – “a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto vet­erinary clinic.”]
  • Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann [A flock of sheep attempt to solve the mystery of their murdered shepherd]

Translated Fiction – An unusual preponderance of weird books on my list happen to also be translated works. The books listed above with an * are translated works.

  • There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, trans. by Keith Gessen [These are also short stories.]
  • Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov, trans. by George Bird [A strange suspense novel involving a man and his pet penguin]
  • The Room by Jonas Karlsson, trans. Neil Smith [A government office worker discovers a secret room, which his co-workers do not see]

I had other weird books that didn’t fit into any of these categories but I thought these recurring themes were interesting. In general, with the exception of books from the Form & Style category, my “weird” books usually involve fantastical elements but are not quite fully in the fantasy genre. I would call it magical realism, but I’m not sure what that term means nowadays.

I have picked four books to be on my #Weirdathon TBR pile. I don’t know that I’ll read all four, though none are particularly long, so it’s possible I might. Three I’ve already mentioned in my taxonomy above: The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy, Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, and There Once Lived a Woman . . . by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. The fourth is a recommendation from Julianne, host of the #Weirdathon: Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce.

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My ancestor’s journal is now a blog

As some readers of this blog may be aware, I’ve been engaged in a transcription project of sorts for the past few years. My great-great grandmother’s journal was typed up in the 1930’s and later xeroxed into many copies. I possess one of these xeroxed copies. I took the next modernization step and re-typed the journal into a Word document. As I’ve worked, I’ve occasionally posted excerpts from the journal as posts to this blog. Now I’ve made my ancestor’s journal into its own blog: The Journal of Emma Tilton Richards: 1888 to 1902.

If you want to start at the first entry, here is January 1, 1888. So far, I have all of the 1888 entries on the blog, and have started on 1889.

Emma lived in the town of Williamsburg, Massachusetts with her husband, Frank. At the start of the journal, they have five children and more children are born in subsequent years. Frank’s mother and stepfather also live with them.

The journal entries are usually very brief, and sometimes just consist of a report of the weather and the work that have been completed by the family for that day. But for me, I’ve found it a fascinating peek into that time and place.

I’ve added contextual notes to some entries, according to my own curiosity. One of my favorite discoveries was that Marion MacBride, one of Emma’s close female cousins, was a journalist based out of Boston and was active in all sorts of organizations.

I also have a page called “Cast of characters” which is an index to the names of people who appear in the journal. I don’t index the immediate family members and I don’t index people who are mentioned only once. I figure that some of the main visitors to the blog will be people conducting genealogical research and this page will hopefully help them find all the entries in which their relation is mentioned.

I’ve changed the template of the blog numerous times. I’m moderately satisfied with the current one and it’s free, so I suppose I can’t complain too much. In any case, I had decided that I would make the blog public and searchable once I had a full year posted and annotated. And that happened this weekend, so hooray! Thanks to all those who commented on the excerpts I shared, as that helped spur me to turning the journal into a blog of its own.

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East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden

1952. Penguin. ebook. 620 pages.

East of Eden was one of my favorite reads last year. I felt like Steinbeck threw his whole self into writing this epic novel. You can see where East of Eden could have become wild and unwieldy and at times it’s careening down a philosophical tangent, but he keeps this gargantuan story on course. There are two brothers (Adam and Charles) and then later two more brothers (Cal and Aron), and their stories evoke Biblical parallels. In the background the history of America plays out and its wars. Just when you think you know where you’re headed, the book introduces Cathy, and you realize – oh! this book has a psychopath. And meanwhile, into this fiction Steinbeck weaves what appears to be some of his own family history, about his mother’s family, the Hamiltons. John Steinbeck even makes a couple of cameo appearances as a little boy.

One of my favorite characters was Lee, a thoughtful, kind character who is the son of Chinese immigrants, and works for the Adam Trask. Lee’s relationship with his surrogate father and later his surrogate daughter were the main emotional touchstones for me.

The writing is magnificent. At one point, Steinbeck begins a chapter by noting that the story approached the year 1900. “In the books of some memories it was the best time that ever sloshed over the world.” This passage soon wends its way into a brief and cynical two-page summation of the 19th century:

The Mexican War did two good things though. We got a lot of western land, damn near doubled our size, and besides that it was a training ground for generals, so that when the sad self-murder settled on us the leaders knew the techniques for making it properly horrible.

This strain of cynicism, and worldly-wise is balanced by moments of gentle heartbreak, such as when the patriarch of the Hamilton family surrenders to old age and decides to go live with his daughter until the end of his days. The emotional scope and tone of the novel is as great and varied as its cast of characters.

I’d read and enjoyed short works by Steinbeck previously – Of Mice and Men and “The Red Pony” – but wasn’t expecting to love this book as much as I did. It’s got that spark of timelessness that all good classics do. I’m not a stranger to reading classics, but I still get surprised by how accessible they can be.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Owlish Reader – “The story left me overwhelmed, but in a subtle way. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was that left me with that immense feeling of contentment and fondness.”

Rivers I Have Known – “This novel is genius diluted by mediocre,  resulting in a tolerable, reasonably interesting read that will perhaps improve on rereading because I will know which parts to skip.”

Tiny Little Reading Room – “One thing that really amazed me was that, amongst all the threads, there were a bunch of little anecdotes that had nothing to do with the main story, yet they enriched it greatly.”

 

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BBAW Day 3: the book recs of destiny

Today’s Book Blogger Appreciation Week prompt is: “What have you read and loved because of a fellow blogger?”

Before I start naming names, some background: I have a ridiculously long to-read list on Goodreads . . . it’s insane. And to add to the insanity, every time I add a book to that list because of a blogger, I put the blogger’s name in the “recommender” field of the web form. I’ve been tracking recommendations from the moment I started blogging in November 2009. (Oh the nerdery!) Which means, with some sorting, I can list off some five-star reads and the blogger responsible.

In no particular order:

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (Ana of things mean a lot)

The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway (Alice of Reading Rambo)

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley (Eva of The Charm of It)

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman (Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness)

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (raych of books i done read)

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (Heather of Capricious Reader)

The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman (Thomas of Hogglestock):

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (Michelle of Fluttering Butterflies)

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (Jenny of Reading the End)

The Arrival by Shaun Tan (Leslie of Regular Rumination)

This is by no means a complete list of worthy recommendations I have received, but it makes me happy to give some specific examples of bloggers who connected me with great books.

Before I close out this post, I want to give an additional shout-out to the bloggers who are most guilty for the lengthy state of my to-read list. I counted, and the bloggers with the highest amount of recommendations in my to-read list are (in order):

Eva (The Charm of It), the combined force of Teresa and Jenny (Shelf Love), Ana (things mean a lot), Jenny (Reading the End), Aarti (Booklust), Jackie (Farm Lane Books), Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Maphead, and Claire (Captive Reader).

I fully expect to find more books that I love thanks to their recommendations!

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BBAW post: Interview with Florinda of The 3 R’s Blog

For Day 2 of Book Blogger Appreciation Week (#BBAW), I have the privilege of sharing an interview I did with Florinda of The 3 R’s Blog: Reading, ‘Riting and Randomness. Florinda currently hails from Southern California and has been book blogging since March 2007. I’m sure many reading this post count her as a friend as she’s been active contributor to the community for many years. I’d previously seen Florinda around the blogosphere but it was a pleasure to learn more about her and interview her over email.

I started off my interview by asking Florinda to name three highlights of her years as a book review blogger.

Two of the three highlights I’ve chosen are things that would never have happened without the blog:

After four years of writing about books for free, my first paid, published-elsewhere book review went online in July 2011.

I have attended Book Expo America three times (2011, 2012, and 2014) and will make it four in May 2016

I reached the milestone of 2000 posts on this blog in November 2013. I’m on pace to make it to 2500 sometime this year!



Though Florinda had said in a recent blog post that she is currently taking a break from deadline reading and paid reviewing, that is an aspect of book blogging in which she has a good deal of experience. I asked her for an observation about current publishing trends:

I know this will sound cynical, and I’m not sure it really address the question you’re asking, but I’ll put it out there anyway: There are more books out there than ever, but it can be really challenging sometimes to find one that doesn’t feel like you’ve read a version of it a dozen times already.



Florinda is on the advisory board for this year’s Bloggers’ Conference at Book Expo America. I asked if there were any topics guaranteed to start an animated discussion among book bloggers:

Let me plug two Facebook groups that are regular sources for animated discussions and dedicated to book bloggers, TLC Readers and Book Bloggers Do It Better–if you’re not a member of these (and you don’t despise Facebook), consider joining! Popular talk topics include blogger/author/publisher relations, ethics in book blogging, review policies, and of course “What are you reading right now?”


Then I asked what are some things she’s learned about her own reading taste, thanks to blogging:

I doubt I would have become an avid audiobook reader if not for blogging! My interests in narrative nonfiction have widened. I read more genre-influenced literary fiction, but I’ve learned that I’m not terribly interested in “experimental” fiction that plays with form for its own sake–I still care about a good story most of all.

I saw that Florinda had once mentioned she had 150 blogs in her blog reader. I asked: what kinds of posts usually catch your eye? What motivates you to comment on a post?

I don’t comment on posts nearly as much as I’d like to, mostly due to lack of time. But I try to share links to posts that strike a nerve–sometimes I don’t know if I have anything to add to a discussion, but I think it merits wider circulation so it can be seen by people who do. I respond to posts that make me think of something differently, relate to my own experiences, or express something that I’ve thought about more effectively than I could do myself.



And to end the interview looking ahead, I asked: what are some things you are looking forward to this year (doesn’t have to be blog related)?

I’m anticipating my trip to Chicago for Book Expo, and hoping to spend time with some of my best blogging friends while we’re there! Also, my husband and I will be celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary this October, but I think we’ll probably keep that pretty low-key–we’ll save it up for the trip to Italy we’re planning for the spring of 2017! (I know that’s really not “this year,” but I really am looking forward to it!)

I love that Florinda plugs community resources in her answer to my third question. I know I’ll be checking those out. Thanks again to Florinda for being my interview partner!

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Book Blogger Appreciation Week: A five book introduction

Book Blogger Appreciation Week kicks off today. It is being hosted by Jenny of Reading the End, Heather of Capricious Reader, Andi of Estella’s Revenge and Ana of things mean a lot.

For the first day, participants are invited to post five books that represent you as a person or your interests/lifestyle. I was daunted when I saw the prompt yesterday, but when I saw a couple of bloggers’ introduction posts this morning, it got my mind thinking of possible books for my list. I leaned a bit more toward books that represent me as a reader. So here goes:

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

As a high school junior, I had a major assignment that involved reading several books by an author, as well as gather literary criticism and biographical information. I don’t remember why I chose Eudora Welty out of the list of suggested authors. Maybe because I had never heard of her before, and because she was a woman. With Delta Wedding, I remember thinking I didn’t fully understand this novel but that I loved it anyway. (After a couple of re-reads, I understand it more now, though some aspects are still mysterious.) I think it was about this time in my life that I decided to major in English when I went to college, and this assignment was a good preamble for entering that field of study.

Also, Welty’s description of a house full of extended family reminded me of getting together with my mother’s family for Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ house.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

I remember reading this short book in the first month of starting my first professional job. I was temporarily staying with my relatives and taking a long metro ride to work. I was still feeling that post-school high of having the time to read whatever I wanted.I had read about this book in Entertainment Weekly (they gave it an A) and was just about game for anything reading-wise. I loved this book but more than that, Winter’s Bone also represents that rush you feel when you realize that the world is full of great books just waiting to be read.

Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon

I picked up this book at a San Francisco bookstore where the staff had left recommendations next to particular books on the shelves. I decided I would buy at least one book that was recommended with the additional caveat that it be a previously unknown book to me. I’ve since adopted variations of this approach in other bookstores of cities I’ve visited – e.g. Powell’s in Portland, Tattered Cover in Denver. I’m more of a library hound than an avid book buyer, but this kind of book tourism really appeals to me. Into the Heart of Borneo also represents my interest in travel memoirs.

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

I grew up in Maine and this classic book set in Maine definitely reminds me of home, though it was written over a century ago.

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk

This book represents my philosophy that it is never too late to quit a book. 250 pages into this 384 page book, I decided I’d had enough and stopped. There have been others where I’ve DNF’d after making it pretty far into the book, like Tana French’s In the Woods and Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf. However, I think Istanbul was one of the first where I consciously abandoned after significant time investment (as opposed to putting a book down “for a while” and never actually returning). I also have the philosophy that it’s never too early to quit a book either. Sometimes you just know from the first few pages. So yeah, I’m definitely not a completist when it comes to reading!

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Although I may not one of the most active bloggers, I do greatly enjoy the book blogging community. I look forward to reading other participants’ Book Blogger Appreciation Week posts!

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