PDA

View Full Version : discussion: H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald



Laer Carroll
12-11-2015, 01:58 PM
Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk is available through Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/H-Hawk-Helen-Macdonald/dp/0802123414/), Barnes & Noble (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/h-is-for-hawk-helen-macdonald/1119935895), and Indiebound (http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780802123411). Click on the links above to go to the book's entries on their web sites. You may also have it in your public library; it is in mine in both printed and ebook form.

If you'd like to read the first ten percent or so click on the following link: H is for Hawk (http://www.amazon.com/H-Hawk-Helen-Macdonald/dp/0802123414/#reader_0802123414).

There is a brief bio (http://www.marsh-agency.co.uk/authors/?id=3513) on her agent's web site, The Marsh Agency. There is longer bio (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Macdonald_%28writer%29) on Wikipedia.

The BBC did a 3:24 minute on-air interview with the author; click on the following link to view it: Helen Macdonald (http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-30886972). The website Electric Literature has a longer text interview (http://electricliterature.com/the-great-natural-drama-an-interview-with-helen-macdonald-author-of-h-is-for-hawk/).

Kylabelle
12-11-2015, 05:32 PM
For those wondering, this thread is a spin-off of this one: http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?313836-The-banality-of-the-NY-Times-YEAR-S-BEST-BOOKS-list where there has been some discussion of the list of NYT Best Books of 2015. Several of us agreed to have a discussion of H Is for Hawk, but aside from one member, I don't think any of us has yet read it. :)

Unless, Laer, have you read the book?

In any case, until some of us have read or at least started reading the book in question, this is a placeholder thread. But, thanks for starting it, Laer.

I'll also note that used copies are available via Abe Books online, and you can probably find it in your local public library as well.

mrsmig
12-11-2015, 05:58 PM
H Is For Hawk popped up as an Amazon "recommend" after I purchased T.H. White's Goshawk. It sounded interesting, so I bought and read it not long after finishing White's book.

Author Macdonald spends a fair amount of the book comparing White's experiences in owning and training predatory birds with her own, so familiarity with the White book might deepen one's appreciation of Macdonald's, although I don't think it's a prerequisite for reading/understanding H Is For Hawk.

That's all I'm going to say about the book until others have had a chance to read it.

Laer Carroll
12-11-2015, 10:23 PM
...That's all I'm going to say about the book until others have had a chance to read it.

I can't discuss the entire book until I've finished it - if I do finish. But I think we can discuss some elements of it if we take care not to spoil important parts of it for those still reading it. Continuing online discussions can be group adventures of discovery if people want them to be.

My first impression is not favorable. I open the book and see one huge block of text taking up all of the page, which starts two-thirds down the page after the chapter heading. That's one single paragraph.

If I were doing this for my solitary pleasure I'd immediately drop the book for another of the many dozens of books competing for my attention. Those huge paragraphs remind me too much of bad text books I was forced to wade through in university.

I persevere despite paging ahead and finding that almost all of Macdonald's paragraphs are like this.

As I read I noticed another feature that I do not like - at first. She mixes thoughts, memories, facts, and ongoing events in no obvious pattern. Slowly it dawns on me that I'm experiencing someone's stream of consciousness, her personal internal as well as external journey. And she is taking us with her.

By the third or fourth page I consciously notice another feature of Macdonald's writing. This is long descriptions of the places she's moving through in this first chapter (into the frigid cold outside her home, down the A14 highway, into a forest of sandy dunes with at least one marshy pond). The descriptions are detailed but not in a laborious way. Without being blatantly "literary" the style is poetically vivid. The pace is not that of "action packed" thrillers which rush toward some big climax. It is leisurely but not slow, if that makes sense to you.

By now I'm along for the ride. How long I do not know. I may bail out from this adventure at any time.

Now comes a hard part: hawks. Here on page 7 is a little lecturette on them, not a tough slog but a gracefully leisurely one. And some disturbing details. Hawks are bloody creatures. They live by killing other birds and Macdonald does not stint on those details. This reminds me of my own childhood on farms and ranches, where you are never too far from the reminder that much life involves excrement and other wastes, and the panicked squawks of chickens as farmwives pursue them and with capable hands wring life out of them.

The chapter ends with her mother calling her at home three weeks after the first day of which she writes. Her father is dead.

Tough stuff. I'm not sure I can follow on this journey with her as she gets over his death. I've had too much death in my life. My daughter. My nephew. My wife. My lady's mother, and years later her father. My own, which is coming ever closer as my retirement wanders on.

But one thing is sure if you pursue this book. You have an amazing journey ahead of you.

cornflake
12-11-2015, 10:33 PM
Err... How is that not a spoiler? I despise spoilers and almost didn't open the thread but then people said they'd avoid them. Then didn't.

Kylabelle
12-11-2015, 10:35 PM
cornflake, sorry, we cross posted. I think most of us already know about Macdonald's father's death as a central theme of the book, so I wasn't seeing that as a spoiler.

However, since you mention it, let's try to avoid giving anything else away!

Great start, Laer and mrsmig, both of you, thank you so much.

Laer, I appreciate the heads up about the format and long paragraphs. I also tend to avoid reading things that are designed that way unless I have strong reason to.

I'm glad to hear that the descriptive passages reached you as poetic writing, because that is one of the things I am hoping for in this book. The poetry of it was mentioned in the blurb and, yeah, that's food for me.

I hear you about death, and I too have experienced deaths I still grieve. This may end up being heavy-going for me but, again, I am drawn to the journey. (Still haven't received my copy and it will be some little while.)

The predatory nature of raptors is not a shock to me. I lived in coastal North Carolina for (too long) a while, and at one point in a place with a little balcony off a small second-floor apartment. I hung a birdfeeder out there, and the sparrows literally took over my little balcony. The bird excrement and the mess of seeds and the expense of keeping the feeder filled, I tolerated, because I enjoyed the liveliness of it all.

One day a Sparrow Hawk found our hideaway, swooped in as I watched, grabbed one of the sparrows and proceeded to kill and eat it on the balcony floor, until I made my presence known through the screen door and it flew off with its prize.

I cleaned up the mess, and stopped feeding the sparrows, because it seemed too much of a trap for them, after that.

But while it was a shocking moment it was also a thrill to watch because that little hawk was such a fierce being.

So, yeah, this is going to be interesting.

Mrsmig, thank you for that information about White's book, too. I think I'll let Macdonald's book speak for itself, though.

mrsmig
12-12-2015, 12:28 AM
I don't have any problem with reading blocks of text as long as they move along, and H moves along at a fairly brisk pace, although Macdonald doesn't stint on detailed descriptions. (I was glad of that detail once she moved out of landscapes and into the world of hawks.)

I live in the suburbs of Washington, DC and I'm also a birdwatcher, so I have more than a passing acquaintance with predatory birds. This week we've had a big juvenile hawk - a Red-Tailed, I think - hanging around our backyard feeders. The local Blue Jays and American Crows usually mob the hawk enough that it moves on after a time. I did have an experience similar to Kylabelle's on a cold winter afternoon some years ago: my husband and I were eating lunch when something startled the birds at the feeders and they flew off in all directions. A little Dark-Eyed Junco slammed into our glass deck door and fell to the deck, stunned. I had just gotten up to get a colander to put over it until it recovered when a Sharp-Shinned Hawk flew down, grabbed the junco and flew off. It all happened so fast that John and I were both a bit bug-eyed. At last he turned to me and whispered, "did you see that?" I felt bad about the junco (I really wished the hawk had taken some of our pesky English Sparrows) but it was breathtaking to see the hawk in action a mere four feet from our dining room table.

Laer Carroll
12-12-2015, 06:24 AM
The death of the father in H is for Hawk is about as unspoilerish as one can get. The back-book blurbs (Hawk has been published in over a dozen countries) all mention it, often in the second sentence. The blurb in Amazon and B&N place it in the first sentence "When Helen Macdonald's father died suddenly on a London street, ...." This event, mentioned at the end of the short first chapter (most of Macdonald's chapters are short) is the "trigger" or "inciting" incident which propels her on a journey toward recovering from her grief.



I'm glad to hear that the descriptive passages reached you as poetic writing, because that is one of the things I am hoping for in this book.


Macdonald's use of poetic language deserves more than a mention. It, or such use, deserves discussion.

Use of poetic conventions is unavoidable when expressing ourselves. They are ingrained in spoken and written language in ways mostly subtle and unnoticed. Much of Hemingway's supposedly "journalistic" style comes from the fact that he was a poet as well as a journalist, long practiced in that hallmark of poetry: concise but vivid language. In Paris part of his living came from his poems, which are available in several books. In one of his interviews he alluded to this aspect of his writing style by saying (in an interview prefacing one of his books) "the secret is writing poetry into prose."

There are at least sixty-five poetic devices (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/glossary-terms?category=techniques-and-figures-of-speech), according to the Poetry Foundation, many with Latin or Greek names. (One of my favorite names is anadiplosis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anadiplosis), for its sound alone, closely followed by onomatopoeia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onomatopoeia), a special form of parachesis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parachesis)!) We need not memorize the names unless we want to so as to master the techniques. Indeed most of us absorbed their use long ago, earlier even than kindergarten. Still, it may sharpen our technique if we spend some time with each of them.

H is for Hawk is a good example of using poetic techniques in prose. Its use is effective but doesn't call attention to itself, which would ruin the effect of the prose for those who want to immerse themselves in the story to the point that the words disappear from their consciousness. Yet the poetry is clear to those for whom the sound and TASTE of language is an important part of their enjoying a story. A very difficult balancing act. At least in the first chapter I feel Macdonald succeeds. (Others may of course feel differently.)

Kylabelle
12-29-2015, 05:37 PM
I received my copy on Saturday (Boxing Day) and was immersed in two other books so didn't open H is for Hawk until this morning.

I am two pages into the second chapter and only put the book down because I wanted to post in this thread before I got too much farther, as I can already tell that my "favorite" passages are going to accumulate swiftly.

As for spoilers, I was reminded that in the AW Bookclub room, a guiding principle is that spoilers ARE going to be posted, that there really is no good way to discuss a book without them.

So I am proposing that same caveat for this thread: Here Be Spoilers.

That said, the first chapter has so much meat in it that I don't want to spoil for anyone, haha. But the shape of the chapter is very satisfying. The early mentions of Macdonald's father reference a childhood memory of a lesson in patience he offered her, while the two of them were observing together in the field, looking for sparrowhawks (not goshawks, which Macdonald makes clear are quite different.)

The natural history aspect of the chapter is wonderful, especially the historical details about the goshawk population in Britain, which I will not spoil here but no doubt it will be mentioned in thread at some point.

I recall alleycat said he had some question about the premise of the book, and now I am even more curious what that might be.

Mac, have you gotten into this yet?

Oh. And as for the poetic language, it's all there: imagery, rhythm, sensory detail -- very rich while never overbalancing into excess.

Laer Carroll
12-30-2015, 02:12 AM
... The natural history aspect of the chapter is wonderful, especially the historical details about the goshawk population in Britain....

... poetic language [is] all there: imagery, rhythm, sensory detail -- very rich while never overbalancing into excess.

The natural history exposition shares the poetry aspect in "never overbalancing into excess." Not only is it in fairly small amounts, but it's also directly relevant to the story where Macdonald puts it, and has emotional force as well as intellectual content. Practically a lesson by example of how to do exposition right!

Old Hack
12-30-2015, 12:22 PM
I started reading this a few days ago and am nearly finished.

It is a delight of a book. There is so much in it: natural history, literary criticism, memoir, psychology, and more; and it's all written so deftly, and so beautifully. Absolutely lovely. I can quite understand why it won the Costa.

Also, I found a picture of Mabel playing with the paper "telescope" which is described pretty early on in the book. Lovely stuff.

Kylabelle
12-30-2015, 03:02 PM
I had never known anything of goshawks before. I am enjoying how she personalizes both the breed and the individual birds. Thugs of the raptor world, sounds like! But exquisite thugs. I am just to the point (chapter 3 I think) where she acknowledges she has been avoiding looking at the T.H. White book.

Jamesaritchie
12-30-2015, 07:09 PM
Now comes a hard part: hawks. Here on page 7 is a little lecturette on them, not a tough slog but a gracefully leisurely one. And some disturbing details. Hawks are bloody creatures. They live by killing other birds and Macdonald does not stint on those details. This reminds me of my own childhood on farms and ranches, where you are never too far from the reminder that much life involves excrement and other wastes, and the panicked squawks of chickens as farmwives pursue them and with capable hands wring life out of them.




I think this is one of the best aspects of the story she tells. For me, she not only tells it well, she tells it truthfully. Hawks are amateurs at being bloody creatures. Humans are still king in this arena, and this, too, comes through in how she tells the story. Hawks kill other birds, but humans kill every creature them is, including other humans. The story turns supermarkets into bloody places, as well. It's a reminder than none of the meat there was created in a lab, but was killed in bloody slaughter, wrapped in pretty packages, and then delivered to the supermarket.

I have no problem with her paragraphs. I find them a pleasant change from the one or two or three short sentence paragraphs of too many novels.