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H Is for Hawk Hardcover – March 3, 2015
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month for March 2015: When naturalist and falconer Helen Macdonald lost her beloved father, she “thought [her] world was ending.” Seems apropos, then, that her journey from crippling grief to something resembling grace is on the wings of another deadly bird of prey--the notoriously prickly, and murderous, goshawk. In H Is for Hawk, you will meet Mabel, not your typical bloodthirsty specimen, as she is trained to hunt like the goshawks of yore. It is this brash, slightly mad undertaking that wrenches Macdonald free from despair, and brings her to a place where she can begin again. Doesn’t sound like your kind of thing? You’d be surprised. Macdonald’s gorgeously wrought prose holds you in thrall from the first page, and provides something akin to the escape, and salvation, that nature provides her. In ‘Hawk’ you will also learn about the famed Arthurian novelist T.H. White, a kindred soul to Macdonald in certain ways. One of the things that endeared him to her was his “childish delight” with all things wild, something you’ll be hard-pressed not to experience as soon as you tap into this tome. –Erin Kodicek
* Shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction
* Finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Award in Nonfiction
* The Costa Book of the Year
* Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize
"Breathtaking . . . Helen Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essenceand her ownwith words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering." Vicki Constantine Croke, New York Times Book Review (cover review)
"Helen Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book, H Is for Hawk, reminds us that excellent nature writing can lay bare some of the intimacies of the wild world as well. Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative. . . . [An] instant classic." Dwight Garner, New York Times
"Extraordinary . . . indelible . . . [it contains] one of the most memorable passages I’ve read this year, or for that matter this decade . . . Mabel is described so vividly she becomes almost physically present on the page." Lev Grossman, TIME
"Captivating and beautifully written, it’s a meditation on the bond between beasts and humans and the pain and beauty of being alive." People (Book of the Week)
"One of the loveliest things you’ll read this year . . . You’ll never see a bird overhead the same way again." Jason Sheeler, Entertainment Weekly
"[A] singular book that combines memoir and landscape, history and falconry . . . it is not like anything I've ever read . . . what Macdonald tells us so eloquently in her fine memoir [is] that transformation of our docile or resigned lives can be had if we only look up into the world." Susan Straight, Los Angeles Times
"Had there been an award for the best new book that defies every genre, I imagine it would have won that too. . . . Coherent, complete, and riveting, perhaps the finest nonfiction I read in the past year." Kathryn Schulz, New Yorker
"The art of Macdonald’s book is in the way that she weaves together various kinds of falling apartthe way she loops one unraveling thread of meaning into another. . . . What’s lovely about [it] is the clarity with which she sees both the inner and outer worlds that she lives in." Caleb Crain, New York Review of Books
"One of the most riveting encounters between a human being and an animal ever written." Simon Worrall, National Geographic
"Assured, honest and raw . . . a soaring wonder of a book." Daneet Steffens, Boston Globe
"An elegantly written amalgam of nature writing, personal memoir, literary portrait and an examination of bereavement. . . . It illuminates unexpected things in unexpected ways." Guy Gavriel Kay, Washington Post
"To categorize this work as merely memoir, nature writing or spiritual writing would understate [Macdonald’s] achievement . . . her prose glows and burns." Karin Altenberg, Wall Street Journal
"Dazzling." Kate Guadagnino, Vogue
"Unsparing, fierce . . . a superior accomplishment. There’s not a line here that rings false; every insight is hard won . . . Macdonald has found the ideal balance between art and truth." David Laskin, Seattle Times
"One of the best books about nature that I've ever read. Macdonald's wonderful gift for language and her keen observations bring pleasure to every page." Karen Sandstrom, Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[With] sumptuously poetic prose . . . there is deft interplay between agony and ecstasy, elegy and rebirth, wildness and domesticity, alongside subtle reminders about the cruelty of nature and our necessary faith in humanity." Malcolm Forbes, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"One of a kind . . . Macdonald is a poet, her language rich and taut. . . . As she descends into a wild, nearly mad connection with her hawk, her words keep powerful track. . . . [She] brings her observer's eye and poet's voice to the universal experience of sorrow and loss." Barbara Brotman, Chicago Tribune
"A heart-poundingly good read." Helen W. Mallon, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Incandescent . . . glorious, passionate, and heartbreaking." Sy Montgomery, Orion
"A triumph." Nick Willoughby, Salon
"The hawk-book's form is perfect. It prickles your skin the way nature can when you are surprised by an animal in your path. Some books are not books but visitations, and this one has crossed its share of thresholds before arriving here, to an impossible middle perch between wilderness and culture, past and present, life and death." Katy Waldman, Slate
"A genre-busting dazzler of a book, worthy of the near-universal accolades that it's received so far." Elisabeth Donnelly, Flavorwire
"Extraordinary . . . Macdonald elegantly weaves multitudinous and extremely complex issues into a single work of seamless prose." Lucy Scholes, The Daily Beast
"The echoes of myth in Macdonald’s writing, however subtle and unobtrusive, lend her book an emotional weight usually reserved only for literature, and a grace only for poetry. But this is one of the book’s great achievements: to belong to several genres at once, and to succeed at all of them." Madeleine Larue, The Millions
"[Macdonald’s] writingabout soil and weather, myth and history, pain and its slow easingretains the qualities of [her hawk] Mabel's wild heart, and the commanding scope and piercing accuracy of her hawk's eye." Joanna Scutts, Newsday
"Brutal yet redemptive . . . a real stunner." Alexis Burling, The Oregonian
"Gorgeous." Diane Rehm, The Diane Rehm Show
"A wonder both of nature and of meditative writing." Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air with Terry Gross
"To read Helen Macdonald's new memoir is to have every cell of your body awake and alive." Robin Young, Here and Now
"In this profoundly inquiring and wholly enrapturing memoir, Macdonald exquisitely and unforgettably entwines misery and astonishment, elegy and natural history, human and hawk." Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
"An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling griefwith a goshawk. . . . Writing with breathless urgency . . . Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment. Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it's poignant, thoughtful and movingand likely to become a classic in either genre." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"A unique and beautiful book with a searing emotional honesty, and descriptive language that is unparalleled in modern literature." Costa Book Award citation
"H is for Hawk is a work of great spirit and wonder, illuminated equally by terror and desire. Each beautiful sentence is capable of taking a reader’s breath. The book is built of feather and bone, intelligence and blood, and a vulnerability so profound as to conjure that vulnerability’s shadow, which is the great power of honesty. It is not just a definitive work on falconry; it is a definitive work on humanity, and all that can and cannot be possessed." Rick Bass
"A lovely touching book about a young woman grieving over the death of her father becoming rejuvenated by training one of the roughest, most difficult creatures in the heavens, the goshawk." Jim Harrison
"In addition to being an excellent memoir of loss and grief, H is for Hawk is a wonderful exploration of how birds of prey can function as metaphor to produce art and a roadmap for human lives. Read it and enrich your life." Dan O’Brien
"Rich with the poetry of ideation, the narrative flows through the author’s deeply textured story of personal loss like a mountain wind, swirling seamlessly through fields of literature, biology, natural history, and the art of hunting with hawks. Readers might do well to absorb this book a bite at a timebut be prepared for a full meal." Lynn Schooler
"A beautiful book on so many levels. Macdonald fearlessly probes each facet of grief and traverses its wilderness to reach redemption. But most beautiful of all is the complex, layered bond that builds between her and Mabel, her hawk. Who would have guessed that human and bird could share so much?" Jan DeBlieu
"In this elegant synthesis of memoir and literary sleuthing . . . Macdonald describes in beautiful, thoughtful prose how she comes to terms with death in new and startling ways." Publishers Weekly
"A dazzling piece of work: deeply affecting, utterly fascinating and blazing with love . . . a deeply human work shot through, like cloth of gold, with intelligence and compassionan exemplar of the mysterious alchemy by which suffering can be transmuted into beauty. I will be surprised if a better book than H is for Hawk is published this year." Melissa Harrison, Financial Times
"More than any other writer I know, including her beloved [T.H.] White, Macdonald is able to summon the mental world of a bird of prey . . . she extends the boundaries of nature writing. As a naturalist she has somehow acquired her bird's laser-like visual acuity. As a writer she combines a lexicographer's pleasure in words as carefully curated objects with an inventive passion for new words or for ways of releasing fresh effects from the old stock. . . . Macdonald looks set to revive the genre." Mark Cocker, Guardian
"A talon-sharp memoir that will thrill and chill you to the bone . . . Macdonald has just the right blend of the scientist and the poet, of observing on the one hand and feeling on the other." Craig Brown, Daily Mail
"What [Macdonald] has achieved is a very rare thing in literaturea completely realistic account of a human relationship with animal consciousness. . . . Her training of Mabel has the suspense and tension of the here and now. You are gripped by the slightest movement, by the turn of every feather. It is a soaring performance and Mabel is the star." John Carey, Sunday Times
"A well-wrought book, one part memoir, one part gorgeous evocation of the natural world and one part literary meditation . . . lit with flashes of grace, a grace that sweeps down to the reader to hold her wrist tight with beautiful, terrible claws. The discovery of the season." Erica Wagner, Economist
"The magnificent H is for Hawk [has] grabbed me by its talons . . . [it’s] nature writing, but not as you know it. Astounding." Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller
"It sings. I couldn’t stop reading." Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and A Spot of Bother
"This beautiful book is at once heartfelt and clever in the way it mixes elegy with celebration: elegy for a father lost, celebration of a hawk found - and in the finding also a celebration of countryside, forbears of one kind and another, life-in-death. At a time of very distinguished writing about the relationship between human kind and the environment, it is immediately pre-eminent." Andrew Motion, author of In the Blood
"A deep, dark work of terrible beauty that will open fissures in the stoniest heart. . . . Macdonald is a survivor . . . she has produced one of the most eloquent accounts of bereavement you could hope to read . . . A grief memoir with wings." The Bookseller
"A book made from the heart that goes to the heart . . . It combines old and new nature and human nature with great originality. No one who has looked up to see a bird of prey cross the sky could read it and not have their life shifted." Tim Dee, author of The Running Sky
"The most magical book I have ever read." Olivia Laing, author of The Trip to Echo Springs
Top customer reviews
If that description 'relationship with an animal' sounds fluffy or cosy to you, think again. These animals aren't pets. They are forces to be negotiated with, embodiments of the wild that pitch you into a different way of life and living. You don't invite an otter, a horse or a goshawk to be your friend. You go to their world. You tune into their mind, their instincts, their priorities, their joys, their fears - and in so doing, you find the places where you are wild yourself. And that wildness doesn't mean uncomplicated freedom. Its values have little in common with human concerns. It is a stripped-away state of being, a universe of survival and struggle, where trust might be life or death.
In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald's journey has added significance. She acquired her goshawk when in the depths of mourning after her father died suddenly. So the hawk is a voyage into a land of death, for not only is her hawk - who she names Mabel - red in tooth and claw, she is a mysterious, highly tuned instrument of death. The only fluffiness in this book is the down on the new-born chicks that are Mabel's staple food.
Macdonald does not shy away from this. A lifelong falconer, she defines her world early in the book, banishing any romantic notions of the falconry sport when she writes of a hawk 'murdering a pigeon'. In the same spirit, this book is raw in emotional tone too. As we see what hawks do, we see what grief does. It strips the world to a race of life and death, to basic needs, to negotiations with a creature that does not understand words or language but operates in a key of hunger, speed and instinct. Mabel has to be kept on a careful edge of hunger and satiation in order to hunt and fly. If Helen feeds her too much she won't have the appetite or prowess to perform. Too little, and she becomes desperate and aggressive.
And despite her falconry experience, Macdonald finds the training a harrowing process. Establishing a relationship with this creature is an ordeal of patience, nerves, and a challenge to everything she finds certain in her life - which, in her bereaved state, is very little.
As well as a passage through the valley of mourning, this book is also an exploration of a talismanic work from Macdonald's own past, The Goshawk by TH White. She first read it as a child, and was appalled by White's apparent ignorance, clumsiness and cruelty as his time with his hawk did not go well. Nevertheless, she has read it to shreds over the years, first because there were few books for a falcon-mad girl to read, but latterly because she saw something else. It wasn't about hawks, it was about a man, a homosexual, emotionally scarred man who was struggling to tame his own nature. Parts of her narrative examine White's life, decoding this figure whose book had been such a presence from her childhood days. And just as White was destabilised by his experience taming hawks, Macdonald finds herself pushed to desperation. Taming the bird becomes the centre of her life, and not just for its own sake. It is a rite of reckoning, of approaching a more inaccessible, unavoidable inner process.
I haven't yet mentioned Macdonald's prose - and I must. It is sublime, haunting, transforming, written with the heart of a poet. I could quote the entire book if I started picking choice passages, so I'll make do with just this, her description of walking the fields with Mabel flying behind her 'like a personal angel'.
And so this book will stay with you, as a challenging, mesmerising messenger.
On one level, Macdonald's book is the record of a season spent training a goshawk that she names Mabel. She is no stranger to falconry, having been fascinated by birds since she was a child. As a historian, she has read all the literature on this aristocratic sport. She has trained sparrowhawks and falcons from her late teens. But the goshawk is larger and rarer, with a reputation for being both more dangerous and more temperamental. She orders one from Northern Ireland and meets the seller off the boat on the bleak Scottish coast. "I grabbed the hood from the box and turned to the hawk. Her beak was open, her hackles raised; her wild eyes were the colour of sun on white paper, and they stared because the whole world had fallen into them at once." The saga of her attempt to enter into some kind of relationship with this bird -- patient waiting, sleepless nights, small triumphs, and devastating setbacks -- reads as an emotional roller-coaster described with the precision of a scientist. Yet what she is describing is herself as much as the bird; at times, she virtually becomes the goshawk, seeing the world through her eyes, losing the ability to communicate with other human beings.
The book is also a halting dialogue with the souls of two men, both dead. One is her father, a news photographer whose sudden death sends her into a tailspin; the book might almost be called "The Year of Magical Hawking." I found it just as powerful as Joan Didion's memoir and, for me at least, much closer to home. It is clear that this father-daughter relationship must have been an extraordinary one; the boy who would attempt to bring some order to the destruction of WW2 by obsessively listing the planes returning to Biggin Hill now teaching his daughter the patience required to observe the other kinds of aerial fighters, but also the wonder and variety of the earthbound world all around her.
The other man is the English writer T. H. White, who would become famous for his recreations of the Arthurian legend in THE SWORD IN THE STONE and THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. In between quitting his job as a prep-school master and achieving fame as an author, White moved to a cottage in the country and bought a goshawk which he attempted to train, writing about it many years later in his book THE GOSHAWK. It is, however, a book about a falconer who does everything wrong, treating the bird with an unintentional cruelty that leads only to failure. But Macdonald looks beyond the failure to the psychopathy behind it, the tragedy of a lonely boy treated cruelly by his colonial parents and cane-wielding schoolmasters to the point where he abhors violence yet lacks examples of love with which to replace it. Her portrait of White is extraordinarily perceptive, but it is her own life she must deal with. And here at least, she begins to succeed, as in this final quotation, from late in the book:
"I put White's book on the shelves, make myself a cup of tea. I'm in a contemplative mood. I'd brought the hawk into my world and then I pretended I lived in hers. Now it feels different: we share our lives happily in all their separation. I look down on my hands. There are scars on them now. Thin white lines. One is from her talons when she was fractious with hunger; it feels like a warning made flesh. Another is a blackthorn rip from the time I'd pushed through a hedge to find the hawk I thought I'd lost. And there were other scars, too, but they were not visible. They were the ones she'd helped mend, not make."
Beautifully written, this is a book to savour, to read and re-read, slowly. I lived through every moment of frustration and breakthrough in training Mabel. I loved the wealth of falconry detail and appreciated Helen Macdonald's sharp analysis of 'the baggage' in all the advice. Sexism, philosophy, animal rights and - above all - death: this passionate adventure in the company of a wild creature raises some big questions and offers only the experience itself in response.
I am still thinking about the book; about the egotism of extreme grief, about the way we bring our own beliefs and emotions to our relationships with 'animals', and about the falconry training methods themselves. As I say, this is my kind of book; one of the best I've read this year, perhaps one of the best ever.