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Posts Tagged ‘Helen Macdonald’

At a glance, the two novels I read in the last several days couldn’t be more different. One is a classic, the other a contemporary debut that could possibly be classified as a”geek mystery.” They both fit on my book bingo card.

Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner is on the Guardian‘s list of the “100 Best Novels.” The book is set in England between WWI and WWII, and features a “maiden aunt.” Laura, known as Lolly, doesn’t leave her childhood home until her father dies when she is in her twenties, past marriageable age, and then she moves to her elder brother’s home in London.

Stifled by her limited, proper existence she one day buys a map and a guidebook and is taken with a village called Great Mop, inconveniently located according to her sister-in-law, in the Chilterns. Free, finally, she begins to notice odd things about the village, including a kitten she sees as her familiar, and is eventually invited to a Witches’ Sabbath. She doesn’t really enjoy it but does enjoy the sense of coming into her own — when she was younger she had brewed herbal concoctions and she sees now that she is a witch, in league with the devil.

It doesn’t come as serenely as all that. There’s a threat to her independence when her nephew Titus comes to Great Mop, and Laura, in a state of great agitation goes out walking and finds herself in a field, surrounded by woods, just as boxed in as her family has always made her feel. She cries out, and ” . . . the silence that followed it had been so intent, so deliberate, that it was like a pledge . . . if any grimly favorable power had had been evoked by her cry, then surely a compact had been made. . . .” Shortly after, her nephew gets engaged and heads off to London with his fiancee.

Lolly is comfortable with the devil, who appears as a gardener and a hunter (the subtitle of the book is The Loving Huntsman), a man she can sit beside and talk philosophically with, and who offers her salvation from family ties that bound her to a life she did not choose. It’s an interesting novel, which I’d never heard of until I read Helen Macdonald’s “By the Book” in the New York Times. It would be a good book club selection, and deserves to be more widely read.

The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore caught my eye because of the cover (yes, I sometimes choose wine by the label) and because of early reviews comparing it to Nick Hornby’s work. I didn’t find it as thoughtful, but it was entertaining. It’s a mystery set in Brooklyn, with characters like Jett (the heroine) and KitKat (the murdered woman) whose “boyfriend” is really gay (and black, so he feels he’s more easily accused of the murder) and Jett’s G.B.F. (guy best friend), Sid, who thinks he’s fallen for a stripper named Cinderella who turns out to have paid for her breast implants with a grad school research grant. A little much? Kind of, but not in an off-putting way. The thread that links Jett, her friends, and even the suspects is music.

Jett discovers the body when she lets herself into KitKat’s apartment to leave her mail, a mix tape that was inadvertently delivered to Jett. The tape evokes the rewind of the title as Jett unravels the clues in the mix so she can find the real murderer — she never buys the notion that the “boyfriend” did it —  and works her way through her own love life’s musical history, even re-entangling herself with a couple of exes along the way. The book is part romance, part coming-of-age (yes, Jett is older than most coming of are heroines but coming-of-age happens later these days), part geek noir, part playful send up of hipster Brooklyn where a vegan brunch hotspot and retro clubs are as important as Bath’s assembly rooms were in Jane Austen.

The result is pleasant enough, but I don’t know if I’m the target audience. I found the and mean militant feminist stripper depressing, and the social scene alarming (most of Jett’s acquaintances don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves, and the author’s take on marriage is not pretty), but Jett herself is endearing. She takes in her dead friend’s cat, is a kind soul, keeps her word, and wants to be like her grandma, who is, I grant, hipper than most grannies, but I liked that clue to Jett’s character. Mostly I found the nonstop stream of cultural references tiresome; even though I recognized most, it was distracting to place all of them all and stay with the story at the same time. I suspect that my kids’ generation, who are used to distraction in a way I’m not, will love this book.

So, looking at them again, do these novels have anything in common? Single women trying to live their lives the way they want to. Lolly has to make a pact with the devil to become truly herself — a witch — and be free of family ties. Jett gets her man (I won’t reveal which one) and solves a mystery. But Lolly feels serene and pleased about her future despite her deal, while Jett doesn’t make any progress in determining her life’s direction. That’s probably emblematic of our age — few people in their twenties or thirties today know what’s ahead. But like Lolly, Jett’s content. And in today’s multi-book deal world, I suspect we haven’t seen the end of her.

 

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First the one I read and hated: The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger. I chose it to fill the “book from the teen zone” on my book bingo card. It’s a graphic novel in a picture book layout and the premise drew me in: a woman escaping a fight with her partner finds a mysterious bookmobile stocked with everything she’s ever read, staffed by a friendly librarian. A blurb on the back said the message is that we are what we read. What’s not to love?

Except this book is about a woman who reads and enjoys remembering what she’s read to the point of obsession and madness. It’s a story about losing hope, clinging to to our own desires even if they make us lonely and miserable, and perishing in a mire of self — and then the ending glorifies that. Don’t read this book.

There.

On to a much happier selection, even though it’s about grief and pain and loneliness. It’s H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, and it’s also about heart and hope and love, family and friendship and wildness. This is a story celebrating the redemptive quality of both seeking something we care deeply for, in Macdonald’s case hawking, and doing it well as a way of reminding ourselves how very alive we are when the world has overwhelmed us with sorrow. It’s beautiful and in some ways the opposite of The Night Bookmobile.

Macdonald can write. Damn, can she write. When the book opens she is describing a morning when she woke up feeling she must go out, and then “only when my frozen ancient Volkswagon and I were halfway down the A14 that I worked out where I was going and why. Out there, beyond the foggy windscreen and white lines, was the forest. The broken forest. That’s where I was headed. To see goshawks.”

She goes on to describe how hard a task she’d set herself: “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace; it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.” It seems strange she’d just woken up and gone looking for them until not long after when she receives shocking news: her father has died suddenly.

Macdonald is stunned, horrified, immobilized by grief. She’d been devoted to hawking since she was a child, and as she processes her father’s death and struggles to stay sane, she revisits those memories, and her books on hawking. And before long, she has a goshawk, a young female she names Mabel.

And one of the books she re-reads is The Goshawk by T.H. White, the same man who also wrote The Once and Future King. Macdonald dips into many of White’s books in the telling of H is for Hawk. White, she sees, was deeply scarred by his childhood and deeply afraid of the potential pain and loss of human relationships. As an adult she can begin to understand that which she didn’t as a child. The reader watches as Macdonald’s compassion for White grows into healing for herself.

The brilliance of H is for Hawk is that it is several stories: Mabel’s and Macdonald’s, her father’s and White’s and also the story of hawking, and a loving tribute to the English countryside. It’s a book about grief and depression and how Macdonald manages to pull up as her life seems headed for a crash landing. And it’s the story of deep and abiding friendships –and Macdonald’s appreciation for them, and for Mabel, and ultimately, for life itself.

Often I don’t like this style — the Computer Scientist and I have discussed the fad for rambling, wide-ranging memoirs that seem not to have a clear point. But Macdonald manages both to ramble pleasingly and relevantly through history, literature, ecology, geography, hawking, and more, and to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.There is no forced cleverness, no jarring sense that you can see the puppetmaster’s strings distracting you. If you’ve struggled to like cross-genre memoirs, try this one and you’ll see how it really ought to be done.

H is for Hawk is also warm. It’s about horrible things, hard things, lost things, but it’s also about things that are soulful and heartfelt. There’s a sense of ancient continuity in what Macdonald and Mabel do, and what Macdonald is feeling. And everything Macdonald relates belongs. It all comes together as if you were listening to a very intelligent, very interesting friend.

And I did listen; I took out the audiobook, which I don’t often do. Macdonald read it, even doing different voices. I liked hearing her narrate her own story, and I managed to knit a good bit of a scarf while listening. I do think I probably get more out of reading than listening, but perhaps that has to do with the fact that I’m a novice knitter and my attention was divided.  I’d like to go back and read it in print.

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