End of summer’s here at last, and I’ll miss it despite the fact I’ve done nothing but complain about heat and humidity the past few months. But change always scares me, and fall is a big change, perhaps the biggest seasonal change on the east coast. Why? Because it’s a step toward winter, the deadest of seasons (not the deadliest or ugliest or anything bad, by any means–I love winter, especially here in the South). Still, it’s a step toward death. Which leads me to the subject of this post–Helen Mc Donald’s disturbing yet amazing autobiography, H is for Hawk. What follows is my review.
This was a lovely book. Not a happy book, and not an easy book. But a thoughtful, interesting, beautifully-written one in which Helen McDonald weaves together three main threads–the loss of her father, TH White’s genius vis-a-vis his personal struggles, and her relationship with Mabel, a young female goshawk. How do these threads connect? I’m not sure I can explain it, because the tapestry is subtle, long and complex. The best I can say is the author is devastated by her father’s untimely death, cannot accept it or speak of it at first. She remembers loving hawks as a child, observing and training them with her father. This inspires her to purchase a young goshawk from Germany, I believe, the same place from which revered author TH White had gotten his beloved hawk, Gos. This also spurs McDonald’s memories of TH White’s autobiography, in which he describes training Gos, which McDonald argues has much to do with White’s own childhood. A gay man in merry old England at a time when it was not popular to be gay (especially in the eyes of his judgmental parents) made White feel like a misfit his entire life, despite his acclaimed teaching and writing career. Author of The Once and Future King, it’s ironic that the creator of this story of honor and nobility and equality should have so suffered at the hands of his own parents. But maybe that’s why he valued the beautiful Arthurian legend that inspired his work.
On to McDonald and her father. The pain of her father’s loss also inspires McDonald to raise a goshawk, easily one of the swiftest and deadliest killers on the planet. But McDonald does not judge her hawk, Mabel, for this. If anything, she respects her instinct and integrity. The hawk is an unabashed carnivore, honing in on her prey with laser precision. There’s no guilt, no remorse, and, from what I could tell, no subsequent bonding with her trainer. Still, Mc Donald loves this bird and somehow derives solace from its unrequited killing. It’s as if she identifies with this aspect of the bird (and I think she says so in the book), because raising the hawk helps her deal with her father’s death. He was brutally taken from McDonald, without warning or explanation. It was, in her view, a meaningless death. A sudden and terrible loss of the person she’d adored from childhood on. A gentle, kind man who studied the world through a photographer’s lens–from afar and with great respect, much like a tiny hare who lives his life unaware of the dangers that surround him–dangers like Mabel, who ruthlessly grabs the unwitting hare, crushes him to death with her claws, then devours him.
Similarly, TH White is able to deal with his homosexuality (and his father’s condemnation) through his relationship with his difficult goshawk, Gos. White’s attempt to control his very macho (though I believe Gos was female) hawk is in response to his own feelings of inadequacy for being gay. I’m not quite sure how this works, either. Both Mc Donald and White are in great pain and somehow externalizing that pain by raising remorseless killers helps them overcome it. Perhaps McDonald learns to accept death as part of life–senseless, unexpected, and hurtful to those left behind–but a natural none-the-less. This is what Mabel teaches her–that in order to fulfill her destiny as a hawk, she must search and kill. There is no ulterior motive other than getting food. The hawk is guileless and driven by instinct. There’s no malice in her behavior. It’s simply a matter of survival. In this way, McDonald comes to admire, love and appreciate the hawk for who she is. So, too, she must continue to admire, love and honor her father, despite his swift and sudden death. He’s not killed out of malice either–he just dies because that is what we humans (and all living things) must do. There is nothing more to it–just like the goshawk’s killing. It’s the hand of fate, it’s guileless and remorseless. It’s a ticking clock, that’s all. There’s on one to blame for her father’s death, because there’s no reason or intention behind it. It just is. If she can accept this about the hawk’s nature, she can learn to accept this fact about human life. We live, we die, and we are mourned. Thus, anger is displaced by sorrow, and McDonald can at least understand her father’s death.
In White’s case, McDonald demonstrates how control of the hawk is a substitute for control over his life. His impulses, like the hawk’s, are natural, outside of his control, guileless and, therefore, innocent. He is able to accept who he is by loving and understanding this creature with similarly uncontrollable passions. There’s nothing wrong or right with those passions. They just are. Just as is McDonald’s hawk’s predatory nature. Just as is her father’s sudden and unexplained death. Such is life, such is loss, so she must let it go, much as she and White release their hawks and watch them do the unthinkable. That is life and we must respect it.
I hope this review makes sense to readers. It’s simply my attempt to explain this remarkable book to myself. I look forward to reading critical reviews to see what others think.
Thank you for reading–jgk.
Hello family, friends and poetry lovers! Sorry I’ve been away so long. I’ve been editing/correcting/illustrating/polishing my picture books and middle grade novel for Book Expo America 2015. Held at the Jacob Javits Center in NYC May 27th – 30th, it’s the biggest book fair in the US. Agents, publishers and book buyers from all over the world will attend and (hopefully) buy foreign and translation rights to hundreds (thousands?) of new books. The country of honor this year is China, which is really exciting. It will be fun to see what the Chinese think of American writers!
What makes this especially exciting for me is that it’s the first time any of my books will appear there. And, since my books are self-published, it’s wonderful to have an agent representing them. This is a boon for all self-publishers, because it shows the publishing community is finally starting to recognize them. Woo-hoo!
I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, happy spring, everyone!
New children’s books from purple pie press – free (Kindle) Oct. 29 – Nov. 2, 2014
PRLog – Oct. 28, 2014 – CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Award-winning author Julie Krantz’s newest children’s books are free on Kindle October 29 – Nov. 2, 2014. Bittersweet, STELLA BELLAROSA is about two NYC teens who flee Little Italy after stealing a substitute teacher’s wallet. Humorous, ISABEL PLUM: Ichthyologist is about one little diva about to implode.
STELLA BELLAROSA: Tales of an Aspiring Teenage Superhero (YA/MG Novel, ages 8 – 14, Common Core Objectives: Immigration, Poverty, City Life, 1960’s, Discrimination)
A wallet, a thief, and a brilliant plan–what can possibly go wrong?
At least that’s what Stella thinks when she urges Pin Pin to return the stolen wallet—until she gets caught with the goods, that is. That’s when all heaven, hell and whatever’s-in-between breaks loose, forcing the BFFs to hit the road.
Tag along with Stella and Pin Pin as they ditch Little Italy for midtown Manhattan—all the while battling archrival Angie Como for the title to SOHO’s Annual Food Drive, their ticket to Regis Academy, a posh high school for girls, hidden far, far away in the Catskills. Oh-la-la, for a chance to leave home—for good!
Problem is… the road isn’t much safer than home, especially when the runaways attract the attention of police, museum officials and—worst of all—Stella’s unforgiving father. Also pitted against their extravagant dreams is the threat of Pin Pin and her family’s deportation, including baby sister, Audrey, who lies at the heart of this quirky coming-of-age novel—STELLA BELLAROSA, a serious MG with a funny-bone.
ISABEL PLUM: Ichthyologist (Picture Book, Ages 3 – 8, humorous. Common Core Objectives: early/beginner reader, vocabulary-building, context clues, reading comprehension, inference)
A girl, a fish, and one little wish . . . .
Isabel Plum likes having her way. And–right here, right now–that means getting a cute and cuddly puppy. There’s only one problem–Isabel is allergic. See what happens when Isabel’s disappointment leads to an important discovery–one the single-minded heroine least expects!
Available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Isabel-Plum-Icthyologist-childrens-friendship-ebook/dp/B00HPC7TCS
This was an interesting book, despite being difficult to read–not because of its subject matter, but its organization. It had a relatively simple storyline, as Jess Walter himself states. But the narrative drive was zero to none. Not that that’s a bad thing, especially in a novel Walter describes as ‘post-modern.’ It’s just that it’s hard to stick with a book that keeps circling around its story instead of driving through it with traditional narrative tools like conflict, tension and suspense.
Let me tell you a little about the book. It’s set in two places and two time periods. The first is Porto Vergogna, Italy, in 1962. The second is Los Angeles (with a trip to Idaho interspersed) in the present. The main character is a beautiful actress named Dee Moray who has an affair with Richard Burton (of Camelot fame) which results in an unintended pregnancy. Fast forward to the present day and we find an eclectic if odd group of people (a sort of modern-day Donner Party according to Walter) in search of Ms. Moray many years later. The most empathetic of these people is Pasquale, owner of the Hotel Adequate View in Italy, where we first meet Ms. Moray.
Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? And it is, despite its narrative peculiarities. Beautiful Ruins is definitely a book worth reading, especially if you’re a student of contemporary literature. The interview with Walter at the end of the ebook version is also worth reading. Insightful and interesting, this is where Mr. Walter describes his writing process (BR took Walter 15 years to complete) and his unusual view of time–in the novel as well as life.
Dear Blog Bros—
I wasn’t planning to post a blog today, but we (finally, finally!) got snow last night. So, in honor of that, I thought I’d write a little essay about my continuing ‘Adventures in Publishing.’
Firstly, I just watched BJ Novak’s book trailer for ONE MORE THING, and guess what? It’s great. And so, according to my local bookstore, is his collection of short stories. Well, I can’t complain about BJ’s talent or success. I’ve been a fan of his for years. But what I can complain about is the amount of loud, laudatory, instant, fantastic visibility his book is getting! Granted, his book is published by Knopf (oh, yeah, Knopf, big name), but that’s not what interests me. What I wonder is what it takes for a poor self-published slob—the one without name recognition, fame, Hollywood ties, Harvard degrees, etc., etc.—to score in this literary landscape.
Ok. So I signed up for a free webinar about boosting your book’s visibility on Amazon. I was not happy about sacrificing family time to do this, but I did. And what did I learn? Horror-of-horrors—the host’s main thrust was to encourage us to write 2 books per month, outsourcing the writing if desired, on any subject* we have a minimal amount of interest in (no expertise required; Wikipedia furnishes that) as long as we find the right ‘niche.’
And how do you find a niche? Study Amazon’s top 100 lists—any of them, all of them. Choose your subject. Then look for the last book on the first page of this particular Top 100 List. Make sure the book isn’t TOO popular (I can’t remember the metric here—something like ranking higher than 50,0000 in the Kindle bookstore) or too unpopular (below a ranking of 30,000, I think). Then, if the book you’ve found fits these parameters, BINGO! Write one of your own on the same subject.
I probably don’t have all the details of this webinar correct, but I did get the gist of it. And while I’m all for self-published books to see the light of day, I’m appalled at the prospect of people finding out what’s popular and writing sham books targeted for a proven (and profitable) audience. So sad. Now, not only are aspiring authors (ones who really want to write a book and have studied/practiced their craft for years) up against the BJ Novaks (god bless him) of the world, they’re battling tens (of hundreds? Of thousands?) of non-writers who just see the internet (and internet book sellers like Amazon) as a place to cast their nets using whatever bogus means possible to make a profit.
Sorry for griping. I’m just so sad about this. I really don’t know what’s in store for folks trying to write/publish/sell really good books without a name, an advocate (eg, traditional publisher) or a glamorous scam-plan.
*Special bonus for children’s writers–the webinar host chose children’s books for his first few forays into publishing–because they’re short, don’t require much expertise, and are ‘easy to write.’