Tuesday, May 31, 2016

H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald (non-fic)

Helen Macdonald is a poet, historian, and falconer.  Her award winning memoir, including being on the "10 Best Books" list of the New York Times for 2015, is a psychological study of the deep emotional healing of the anguish the author felt in the year after her father died.  The book reads like an introspective diary of the road to recovery and the discovery of truths about herself and Mabel, her beloved goshawk. Interestingly, Macdonald's relationship with Mable is not so different than that of the two main characters in Szebo's book, "The Door,"which I also reviewed this month.

Macdonald entwines her story with that of T. H. White, the 20th century author of "The Once and Future King," the story of Camelot. White also tried to find salvation in the training of a goshawk.  Bullied at school and mentally abused by his parents, White grew up timid, scarred, and unsure of his sexual identity.  He ended up teaching in a British Public School for boys where disliking his job,he became cynical and most likely unpleasant to his students. Unlike Macdonald, he failed to fully understand either himself or the wildness of the hawk he attempted to train.

In the aftermath of her father's untimely death, Macdonald became intensely self-reflective. She lived in psychological isolation without close female friends even keeping her mother and sister at arm's length.  Since the time she was a child, Helen was interested in falconry and goshawks, the largest and most powerful of the Falcons.  She aspired to become an austringer and trainer of goshawks.  It seemed she and Mabel we're fated to be together.

While there were many many difficult moments with Mabel, who lived in the house with Macdonald, in the end Mabel, though a prisoner of sort, was Macdonald's liberator.  Macdonald wanted to identify and become Mabel, but in her journey she discovered that she was......"not the hawk, no matter how much I pared myself away, no matter how many times I lost myself in blood and leaves and fields.  I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return."

And also: "In my time with Mabel I've learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.  And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animate it."

Unlike, White's failed experience, Helen's and Mabel's is a success story.  Like Macdonald, the reader comes away with a respect for a wild creature and also a respect for Macdonald's understanding of her own limitations and those of her goshawk, Mabel.

If you love the wild side of nature, you are sure to enjoy this book.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

NOONDAY by Pat Barker (fic)

Pat Barker is one of my favorite authors.  She writes of characters affected by war and its aftermath.  Her Regeneration Trilogy deals with WW1, shell shock and psychological scars in the wake of the war.  The first two books of her second trilogy were "Life Class" and the brilliant "Toby's Room," which I reviewed earlier.  "Noonday" is the final installment.

The action in this book largely takes place in London during the 1940 blitz, though it opens in the Brooke family's country home.  The main characters have all been met in the earlier books.  Elinor's and Toby's mother lies dying, with her family and a young war evacuee waiting for the end.  The family dynamics and stress are entwined with past memories.  As in the previous books, war is a catalyst for the art of Elinor, her now husband, Paul Tarrant, and the third member of the love triangle, Kit Neville who had been horribly maimed in the First World War.  Having met 30 years before at the Slade School for art, these three are now middle aged and facing another devastating and traumatizing war.

After the mother's death, the action moves to London where Elinor is a night ambulance driver and Paul and Kit are working on rescue squads, extricating people from burning and bombed buildings.  The description of war time London is the best part of the book.  Inevitably with daily air-raids the dropping of V-1 and V-2 bombs, Elinor's and Paul's home is hit.  Paul muses that it was: "...nothing like the fear he'd experienced in the trenches; though in one way it was worse: he was experiencing this fear in the safety of his own home, and that meant nowhere was safe."

This book is not as well-presented as the first two volumes of the trilogy.  However I became fond of these characters and wanted to know how their lives unfolded. There are places in the book that are disjointed, and an interesting character named Bertha Mason, a medium, who may or may not be a charlatan makes an appearance. But, it seems she was just thrown into the story and never takes hold. There is also some little mystery involving the boy evacuee who ran away from the country home, but his story is not well developed.  At any rate, I still enjoyed Barker's fine writing and descriptions. The book really should be read as a third installment; I don't feel it would stand alone well.  Barker's main characters deserve the reader to know their background history.  I highly recommend, "Life Class" and especially, "Toby's Room."

Saturday, May 21, 2016


I found this novel both unique and interesting.  It is different, and I enjoyed reading it.  There is quite a bit of dialogue, the characters reveal themselves through their words. Those words are blunt and plain.  The setting is a small town in Nova Scotia.  I am not familiar with the regional dialect of the outlying areas of Halifax, but these characters sound a lot like the plain speaking folk of Maine.  They do not waste words, and are thrifty and hard working.

The narrator is Wyatt Hillyer who is writing a letter to his 21 year old daughter, Marlais, who lives in Denmark where she moved with her mother when she was two years old.  Wyatt, a lonely man, has had no contact with her, and it is important to him that she know the story of his life and what her mother meant to him.

There are many deaths in this novel, yet it is not a sad book.  The author is adept at finding the humor in otherwise tragic circumstances. The book opens with the deaths of Wyatt's parents who both jump to their deaths on separate bridges on the same night.  There is a tongue in cheek humor in their story.  They were both in love with the same woman, a neighbor who strangely shows up later on in the book.

Possessing regional stoicism, the teenaged Wyatt is bundled off to the home of his Aunt Constance and Uncle Donald in the aptly named town of Middle Economy. The dialogue is priceless and so are the foibles of its citizens. It so happens that their adopted daughter, Tilda, is the love of Wyatt's life.  Unfortunately for Wyatt, Tilda becomes enamored of a young German student who is attending university in Halifax.  Hans Mohring is studying Philology and he is equally smitten with Tilda.  This would have been no problem, but the time is right in the middle of World War 2, and Middle Economy is a hotbed of small town prejudice and paranoid suspicion. Never mind that Hans is from a Jewish family that has fled to Denmark.  In the eyes of the townies, he is the enemy, perhaps a spy!

People make choices in war that might not be made otherwise.  For lack of other opportunities, Wyatt becomes apprenticed to his Uncle who is a master designer and builder of toboggans with clients form all over the world.  Tilda becomes a professional mourner, a strange profession I have never heard of.  Somehow it fits in with the other droll oddities in the book.  Music also plays a part in moving the plot along.

Wyatt, whose life takes a very odd and tragic turn, tells his daughter as he sets down his life on paper: " I refuse any longer to have my life defined by what I haven't told you."  Thus we learn his story.

I enjoyed this book, it was different from any other book I have recently read.  The author nails it with his authentic picture of plain spoken rural people and Canadian life during World War 2.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

THE DOOR by Magda Szabo (fic )

Magda Szabo who was one of Hungary's most well-known and important writers died in 2007.  "The Door" her best known novel, was published in 1987 and established her reputation world wide.  Szabo was carefully watched during the communist era, and it was only after the fall of the communist government that she was given the recognition she was due. Newly translated into English, the novel was chosen as one of the New York Times best books of 2015.

"The Door" is a masterful psychological study of the relationship between two mutually dependent women.  This magnificent novel had me in thrall from the moment I began to read to the very last page.  It is the story of Magda, a successful author and Emerence, the proud servant, who "chose" to work for Magda and her husband.  Szabo allowed as how this was a thinly veiled account of a relationship in her own life.  There is also a dog, Viola, who is essentially a third character of importance in the book.

Emerence and Magda came from the same region of Hungry, and as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Emerence is the stronger character of the two, and the relationship begins to take on a mother/daughter role.  Emerence is tall and strong in mind and body, and though stern and forbidding the entire neighborhood was dependent on her, especially in the winter when walks needed shoveling and  sweeping. Emerence stands for old bureaucratic Hungary, and Magda the new order that arrived after perestroika.  The women constantly argue and make-up.  While Magda's ill husband, takes almost no part in their dance for dominance, the dog Viola seems to have uncanny insight into their characters. We often see them through his eyes.

The action takes place in a single street where both women reside.  Emerence mysteriously keeps her door locked against all visitors except Viola.  No one goes further than the porch. The door perhaps stands for the barrier to understanding between these two women of differing backgrounds and makeup.  Like Magda, everyone in the neighborhood is deferential to Emerence, despite her violent manic rages.  We are told "....affection can't always be expressed in calm, orderly, articulate ways...."

The moral complexity and tension between the two women gets to the very essence of relationships of love and dependency and makes this book a modern masterpiece.

In the end, as in life, Magda betrays Emerence by her lack of understanding of who Emerence is and what she is about.  Magda realizes this too late and tell us that Emerence was, ".....a woman for whom no one has made a place in her life.  If we all lacked the courage to admit this to ourselves, she at least had done so, and politely taken her leave."

I highly recommend this book as a true and life-like study of the misunderstanding endemic in human relationships.  It is a beautifully written and brutality honest story of one woman's failure to see beyond her own needs.  Whether read for a book group or privately, it is sure to make an impression on the reader.