H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Apologies for the very long review that follows, but I just loved this book so much.


Originally published in 2014, H Is for Hawk is a blend of memoir, nature writing and literary musings – a work of creative nonfiction that sounds made for me, in fact. Why did it take me so long? I have heard about this book for all these years but for some reason held off. Maybe it was simply the perversity of resisting reading something that sounds so obviously right. (Why do we do this??) Recently I read something (can’t remember what!) that prompted me to finally get into this book, and I’m sorry it took me so long. This is, indeed, a perfect book for me. It’s likely to wind up the best of the year; I’m putting it alongside Fire Season and Things That Are.

Helen Macdonald is a research fellow at Cambridge University when her father dies suddenly. She has also been a passionate lifelong falconer. One bird she’d never worked with before was the goshawk, a famously difficult bird to train and fly. But after her father’s death – reeling with grief – she feels the need to give this challenge a go. While navigating grief and struggling with her new goshawk, she comes across an old book: T.H. White’s The Goshawk, which she read (along with so many other bird and animal books) as a child, and found fault with then. Revisiting it, she still finds much that troubles her about White’s bungled, amateur efforts with his own gos (he knew a fraction of what Macdonald does when he entered unwisely into the fray), but also finds a kindred in suffering. The book that eventually comes out of this process, H Is for Hawk, is a braid of three threads: the author’s staggering grief at losing her beloved father; her time with the hawk she will eventually call Mabel; and her study of T.H. White’s life, falconry, and philosophies.

She blends these threads beautifully, moving smoothly between them in ways that always feel natural. The woman who is training the hawk is also the woman mourning her father, moving in a dream state through a world that no longer makes sense; in rereading The Goshawk she naturally reflects on her own falconry and her own gos, and on her childhood (when she first read the book) and therefore on her early relationship with her parents, and therefore on her father again – it’s all circular; it’s all linked. Macdonald must also consider the unhappy life of White (whom you may recognize as the author of The Once and Future King and others), a problematic figure in his political leanings, who wrestled with his own sexuality. I’m still describing Macdonald’s subject matter; but the seamless weaving of memoir, grief, falconry, literature, and history is just part of the charm. It’s her writing, and her stark, honest portrayal of the mad human experience, that shines.

It’s an astonishingly crafted book, too. I marveled, for example, at how it opens. Check out the first half of the first paragraph:

Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed. It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. There are ghosts here: houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry. There are spaces built for air-delivered nukes inside grassy tumuli behind twelve-foot fences, tattoo parlours and US Air Force golf courses. In spring it’s a riot of noise: constant plane traffic, gas-guns over pea fields, woodlarks and jet engines. It’s called the Brecklands – the broken lands – and it’s where I ended up that morning, seven years ago, in early spring, on a trip I hadn’t planned at all.

And then the way the first chapter ends, after describing a piece of reindeer moss picked up on that trip.

Three weeks later, it was the reindeer moss I was looking at when my mother called and told me my father was dead.

There’s something very neat and circular about this chapter and how it establishes the interconnection between the natural world, and the narrator’s walk looking for goshawks, with the loss of her father. When I read this first chapter, I had little feeling for the shape of the whole book; I was impressed at the time with what that opening and closing promised, and fulfilled. I felt it was a great start. Now that I’ve finished the book, I can see what a *perfect* opening it was, and the promises it makes and fulfills for the whole.

I feel that Macdonald views and portrays her subjects in fresh and new ways. Her father’s death (by natural causes) she experiences as if it were a violence or a natural disaster, with all the power and senselessness of weather. I appreciate the way she describes Mabel, her own goshawk – and other birds, but especially Mabel – the attention and detail with which she evokes the complications of color and feathers. “Formidable talons, wicked, curved black beak, sleek, café-au-lait front streaked thickly with cocoa-coloured teardrops, looking for all the world like some cappuccino samurai.” Indeed, part of what I loved so much about those opening sentences of the first chapter was the level of detail. She’s concerned as well with class and gender in the world of falconry and beyond; she muses on her awkward childhood (and her dear, tolerant parents), and racism and fascism in both historic and contemporary Britain. The best books, I think, open up like this. Falconry and the loss of a beloved parent lead naturally to British colonial history, and why not?

This is absolutely in part a book about the grieving process, descriptive rather than prescriptive. It reminds me strongly of Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which also conjures the muddy, dreamy, drugged madness of grief. But I felt far closer to Macdonald’s narrator than I ever did to Didion’s. I just like Helen better (sorry, Joan). She successfully defamiliarizes her own world by becoming (it seems) part hawk. Part of the training process involves holing up together, falconer and hawk, in the quiet and the dark, to bond and establish trust; when they must emerge, the narrator finds the outside world as strange as the hawk does. “She watches a woman throwing a ball to her dog on the grass, and I watch too, as baffled by what she’s doing as the hawk is. I stare at traffic lights before I remember what they are. Bicycles are spinning mysteries of glittering metal.” This seems a necessary part of Helen’s grieving, but it nearly breaks her, too. “The day-book that records White’s long, lost battle with Gos is not simply about his hawk,” writes Helen, and we sense that she knows the same is true of her book.

This is a masterpiece of writing about the natural world and the points where the wild and the human are the same. It’s a masterpiece of lovely writing, period. It’s a feeling and singular evocation of grief, which I understand to be experienced differently in each instance. It’s a thoughtful consideration of many intersecting threads about the human experience and history, including some of our thorniest issues. The narrator is hard on herself but also winds up with some healing, and some hopeful outlooks – I could see this being a difficult but finally therapeutic read for someone suffering a great loss. It’s a gorgeous and profound piece of literature, the kind I had to pause frequently (at least after every chapter, sometimes within them – and they’re short chapters generally) to let sink in, to take breaks. It will stick with me for a long time.


Rating: 10 drawings.

Spirits in the Sky: Northern Lights Photography by Paul Zizka

Nature and adventure photographer Paul Zizka offers stunning images and narrative in Spirits in the Sky: Northern Lights Photography. Photos with brief, descriptive captions take center stage. They are accompanied by a few concise sections of text, which provide an overview of what the northern lights (or aurora borealis) are; some of the myths used to explain them; and the stories behind Zizka’s work in capturing these breathtaking images. Wildlife, human models, outdoor sports and self-portraits appear among the images, but it is the wildly colorful lights themselves–in the striking landscapes of Canada, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands–that make these photos unforgettable. Spectacular scenery and an elusive natural phenomenon combine in special ways in this gorgeous collection of art photography.


This review originally ran in the November 4, 2022 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 7 moments.

rerun: Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Pulled from the depths of October 2011, please enjoy this rerun review.

Once Upon a River is a beautiful book. The story is not joyful, let me say that right off. But it’s beautifully wrought, and in fact, when I finished it and stepped back and viewed it as a whole, I decided that the story has a certain beauty, too. A sad beauty, but a beauty that’s true to life.

This is the story of Margo. She grows up in a little town on the Stark River in Michigan, hunting, fishing, and living and breathing the river. She is close to her grandfather, and lives in the outdoors; school and social situations are difficult for her. She’s a very skilled outdoorswoman, and an especially good shot; Annie Oakley is her hero. Bad things happen. Margo’s mother leaves, and as her situation further deteriorates, she takes off upstream in the boat her grandfather gave her to look for her mother. Margo lives off the land and the river, mostly. She makes a few alliances but they all fall apart. People and relationships are not as reliable as the river and the outdoor world in which she feels safe and comfortable. More bad things happen. She grows up some, learns about people, and learns more about the natural world. She moves upstream and downstream, learns how to survive with her hands, a few tools, and her skills, along the lines again of Annie Oakley (she will eventually own two biographies, among her few prized possessions).

This story is painful in more than a few spots. Plenty of bad things happen, including several rapes and quite a bit of death. There’s no shortage of young people having sex, to which your reactions may vary. (Consensual? In itself a “bad thing”?) You will cringe. But like many books that are both sad and realistic, the cringing might be worth it. Margo’s story actually looks skyward, hopefully, at the end. She finds and makes some good things, too.

Campbell has full grasp of metaphor. The river flows on, and Margo learns its rhythms, and how to assert herself while following its current. She finds the river to be a more constant (if not predictable) force than human nature. Campbell has full grasp of language, too; she writes beautifully, lyrically, symbolically. In the end it’s a gorgeous book and I recommend it wholeheartedly. So, to recap: bad things happen, but beautifully. It’s a book about life.

I shan’t attempt a retrospective rating at this distance of more than eleven years, but I still remember this one fondly.

Revenge of the Librarians by Tom Gauld

This is a completely delightful collection of cartoons by Tom Gauld, originally published in The Guardian. All have a literary theme and a dry sense of humor, poking fun mostly at bibliophiles, book collectors and writers, and exalting librarians (a safe move!). I am just absolutely charmed & won over, and inclined to just share a few of my favorite strips here in place of review…

At 180 pages, this is very much the sort of thing you can read cover to cover (I did in two sittings) or leave on a side table for joyful browsing in between other activities. For the book lover in your life? This is pretty much a must-have. Consider it for a holiday gift. I loved it.


Rating: 9 stacks.

The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

Well, this is the most fun thing I’ve read in a while (and that’s saying something). Liz let me know that Martha Wells (of Murderbot) gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads. So I bought it.

Tesla Crane is traveling incognito on a space cruise to Mars with her new spouse, Shal. Tesla is an uberfamous and uber-rich inventor-engineer and heiress, and she just wants to enjoy her honeymoon in privacy, but then a woman is murdered on the way back to their luxury cabins after karaoke, and ship security makes the bad mistake of arresting Shal (himself a recently retired detective), so Tesla is on the case. She is also physically limited by some extreme injuries and a touch of PTSD following a lab explosion, for which she uses the assistance of a Deep Brain Pain Suppressor (DBPS, usually turned up a bit higher than is actually safe), occasionally a cane, and most charmingly, a service Westie dog named Gimlet. With Shal locked down, Tesla is a bit hobbled but also highly motivated (not to say pissed). She navigates the ship, high society, and her investigations with cleverness and aplomb and a sometimes imperfect awareness of her privilege, as Shal gently reminds her; she will make a few friends along the way, but everyone’s a suspect, especially as the body count climbs. Tesla herself is very likeable, but Gimlet steals the show (for readers and most of the ship’s passengers and staff).

I love the elements that combine in this story. There is a strong core of sci-fi, which other reviewers assure us is accurate and well-researched (this reviewer is happy to assume this is the case and move along). There are some fun, thought-provoking cultural elements, especially around gender: in the year 2075 we don’t have much patience for gendered language, using Mx. in place of Ms. or Mr. and spouse in place of the gendered versions, and it is extremely rude and outdated to introduce anyone without noting their pronouns. (Tesla’s spouse Shal is a very masculine type and very handsome but also very engaged with textile arts, particularly embroidery.) The protagonist couple takes their cocktails and coffee very seriously, and each chapter opens with a cocktail recipe (some of which are zero-proof); bar culture and bartenders also form a significant framing element. Gimlet the service dog gets full appreciation both for her skills and training and for her dogness (she’s a dog, not a robot). It all forms a really neat combination, although let me also say the plot needed no bolstering: the mystery itself is fully-formed and legit. What’s not to love?

I was completely absorbed and stayed up late into the night finishing this one. Firmly recommend. Thanks for the tip, Liz & Martha.


Rating: 8 ounces.

Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen

Amid the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a scrappy young woman comes of age in this inspiring, humorous and moving novel.

With Factory Girls, Michelle Gallen (Big Girl, Small Town) delivers a heartrending, funny, blistering and beautiful novel of foreboding and hope. In the summer of 1994, Maeve Murray and her two best friends are on the cusp of escaping their small Northern Irish town for bigger, better and safer things. Maeve is a child of the Troubles: “neighbours shooting neighbours was just the way things had always been for her.” She comes from a poor Catholic family and has been taught to expect little, but she has hopes that her exam results will move her beyond the background that, in her world, defines her. “Nobody as poor as Maeve could afford to have notions about herself. Which was why she treasured them.” Maeve and her friends Caroline and Aoife find summer jobs at a shirt factory in town, hoping to save a bit before going away to college. Exam results loom all summer, in this novel organized by a countdown beginning “74 days until results.”

Caroline has a loving family, and Aoife is downright privileged compared to Maeve’s rather stark upbringing, not only in poverty but with the death of her sister (unexplained for much of the novel) shadowing all her family’s interactions. “Maeve sometimes wondered if [her sister]’d still be alive if she’d failed and stayed in the town.” Factory work is a bit of a miracle in this depressed town, but it comes with unforeseen challenges, like working alongside Protestants, while outside the gates a never-ending war of retaliation is played out by paramilitary groups on both sides. Maeve worries about losing her kneecaps or her life before she ever makes it to London. “The news reports had said the children were ‘lucky,’ for despite being packed together in the parish hall, they’d received only minor injuries…. She didn’t feel lucky when she felt the slap of the explosion.” Alongside wrestling with grueling work making shirts that nobody she knows can afford and fending off her slimy English boss, Maeve will find still greater challenges spring from the factory floor. “It was the factory workers–both Prods and Taigs–who were at the bottom of a very long and merciless food chain.”

Factory Girls takes on class, corruption and the Catholic/Protestant and English/Irish divides; gender and labor rights; female friendships; family disappointments; the specter of opportunity and the puzzle of how to transcend one’s roots without leaving part of oneself behind. This may sound like a heavy, ambitious group of subjects, but Gallen draws delightful, richly rendered characters and imbues her narrative with a vernacular voice that will charm readers and keep them firmly rooted in time and place. This novel is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking: not to be missed.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 crisp sandwiches.

Odder by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by Charles Santoso

I fell in love with this book as reviewed by a colleague of mine at Shelf Awareness (here), and bought it for the six- and ten-year-old sisters who are my friends. But when it arrived I couldn’t let it go and so I read it first.

It’s every bit as delightful as it sounds in the above review, and I’m so glad I picked it up, and glad that I have young friends to inspire me. I loved the storytelling style: easy-reading, brief, free verse poems that speak plainly but also with lyricism (Odder’s front paws when she was just a pup were “dream-busy / small and soft as / a toddler’s mittens”). I loved Odder, of course, her name and her personality and frank responses to the world. What do I know about sea otters? but this story and characterization felt true to the natural world, and at the same time, offered many lessons applicable to other life forms. “Why simply dive when she could dazzle?” The ocean isn’t about morality, and there are no villains here; after a shark attack, Odder doesn’t blame the shark. “She’s seen enough to know / that this is how life is, / and this is how death comes.” (Spoiler alert: death has not come for Odder yet.) There are some excellent how-to poems: “how to rescue a stranded otter” offers important points about not rushing in; there are two versions of “how to say goodbye to an otter,” for both humans and otters. There’s a neat little poem called “keystones” that teach the meaning of ‘keystone species’ succinctly, which is a fine example of how Odder gives both naturalist lessons and broader ones.

I’m charmed, and so happy I spent some time with this book. Definitely recommend.


Rating: 9 clams.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s voice is as powerful as you’ve heard, and Citizen is many things, in ways that can be challenging but also make it a rewarding meditation. A slim book, it rewards slower-paced reading, because there’s a lot to think about (and look at). I think I had envisioned a book of poetry in more traditional fashion, which would be challenging for me (because I find poetry difficult; I think I look too hard for literal readings). What I found was a little more form-bending, which mostly made it a little easier to take in. Lyric essays intersperse with poetry, and there are a handful of images of visual art as well, and references to other media, including YouTube videos and Rankine’s own “situation videos.” Predictably, I follow along better in the prose-ier sections than the poetry-leaning ones, and the former come first in the book, which I think made the transition a little harder. This is a problem on my end (when will I get over my fear of poems?). I sort of wish for a reading guide, although that runs the risk of prescriptivism.

Citizen is about race, or about race in America, or about what it is like to be Black in America. It relates macro- and microaggressions so that they build up: does the reader feel shocked? weary? angry? reading them? Well, maybe that’s the point. The small, everyday experiences have cumulative effect. The narrator spends a chapter (essay?) describing what it is to sigh incessantly, and be shushed in her sighs. She spends time observing Serena Williams: her play, the aggressions she experiences, when she does and does not react with outrage, and how the world reacts to her reactions. There is a chapter of scripts for Rankine’s situation videos, about which she says on her website: “It is our feeling that both devastating images and racist statements need management.” (I couldn’t figure out how to watch the actual videos on her website, although some are on YouTube.) There is a list of names of Black men and women killed by police; it fades out into gray text because the list is too long. The visual images that come in between the text sections might be said to offer a break, but it’s more like a different way of looking.

On the cover image, I most like these words from The New Yorker‘s review: “The book’s cover, an image of a black hood suspended in white space, seems to be a direct reference to Trayvon Martin’s death, but the image is of a work from 1993, two years after Rodney King was beaten senseless by members of the L.A.P.D. It’s called ‘In the Hood,’ and it suggests that racism passes freely among homonyms: the white imagination readily turns hoods into hoods. The image also makes you think of the hoods in fairy tales and illustrated books, part of the regalia of childhood. But its white backdrop recalls the haunting quotation from Zora Neale Hurston that keeps cropping up in Citizen: ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.’ The hood becomes an executioner’s headdress, too.”

In the end after finishing the book and trying to review, I find my impression is more of poetry than of prose, because there’s an overall feeling even between the moments where I was frustrated because I couldn’t always parse the literal meaning. (Maybe Vince will show up to explain it to me.) Not for the first time, the poet is smarter than I am. But it was a hell of an experience, and I’d read more. Her reputation is deserved.


Rating: 7 lessons.

They’re Going to Love You by Meg Howrey

This gorgeous, heartbreaking novel movingly evokes family ties and betrayal, love and forgiveness against a backdrop of professional ballet.

They’re Going to Love You by Meg Howrey (Blind Sight; The Cranes Dance) is an unforgettable novel of scintillating beauty and heart-buckling pain about ballet, loyalty, forgiveness and the many forms of love.

Carlisle grows up feeling distant from her mother, with whom she lives most of the time in Ohio, and with a deep and yearning love for her father and, even more, for her father’s partner, James. When she stays with Robert and James at their Bank Street apartment in Greenwich Village, Carlisle basks in the arts education James shares with her. She’s been born into ballet: her mother a former professional dancer, her father briefly the same before managing ballet companies and festivals. James still teaches ballet. Carlisle loves dance and works hard, but tops six feet tall in high school, “the height that–for a woman–is rarely allowed to pass without comment in the outside world, let alone the ballet one.” (There may be other shortcomings as well.) By her early 40s, she is one of the first women to make it as a successful-but-struggling choreographer. She’s been estranged from Robert and James for 19 years when she gets the call that her father is dying.

The estrangement began with a betrayal that takes most of the novel to reveal. Carlisle’s first-person narrative bounces between the present, as she delays and eventually travels back to Bank Street to her father’s deathbed, and the past, her coming-of-age years as a visitor to Bank Street during the 1980s AIDS crisis. James is a mentor and a hero. “My father, I love, and James I sort of want to be. Maybe I mean: have?” It is a young person’s love, pure, ardent and jealous, wrecked by a mysterious episode that shapes the rest of Carlisle’s life–absolutely including her choreography career. Naturally, along with James’s news about Robert’s pending death comes a big opportunity to compose a modern version of the classical ballet Firebird. Carlisle both knows this is a big chance (maybe the big chance) and resists it. The reader will understand before Carlisle does that Firebird and her relationship with her father are part of the same wound.

Meg Howrey’s writing is dazzlingly, mind-bendingly good, and so true it hurts. She considers ballet, music, the artist’s drive to create, being a woman in a man’s world, desire and betrayal, family and the bottomless, haunting hunger to belong (“Are any of these questions danceable?”; “Emotions have a way of collecting and hardening inside us, like neglected grease. We are all smoking stoves”; “There might be undanceable truths.”) Her prose can be as funny and pithy as it is poignant and grand. They’re Going to Love You tackles a broad range of themes, but Howrey is superlatively up to the task. As Carlisle grows from longing, awkward youth to lonely, gifted working artist, Howrey conjures “all this gorgeous, unrepeatable wreckage” in spectacular fashion. Readers will laugh and cry and be changed.


This review originally ran in the October 13, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 gorgon pearls.

Changing Places by David Lodge

This book was a gift to me from a family friend who has had a lengthy career in college-level teaching, when I was one semester in to that job, three years ago now. I’m sorry I waited so long; it was hysterical! I ate it up in just over a day. Thank you, David!

Further confession: I have been using this opening sentence for class writing prompts for a few semesters and never reading beyond it.

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.

Changing Places is a bit of a situation comedy, in which two universities exchange professors, who then experience culture shock, joy, and eye-opening changes. The setting in time is significant: 1969 offers women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, experimentation with pot, and other fun. The settings in place are significant, too. Rummidge is a mid-sized, industrial, English city without much to recommend it, and the University of Rummidge is not particularly well-regarded. The American state of Euphoria is located on the west coast, between Northern and Southern California; this state, and the State University of Euphoria, are known to be gorgeous, scenic, climactically sublime, rarified, and filled with protests and strife in this spring of ’69. Similarly, Rummidge’s professor Philip Swallow is mild, retiring, unambitious, and a bit bumbling, while Euphoria’s Morris Zapp is accomplished, arrogant, and considers himself entitled to both accolades and undergraduates’ sexual favors. This last is why he’s willing to take the stepdown to Rummidge for six months: his wife, finally fed up, has asked him to vacate, and a posting to Europe (however disappointing a version thereof Rummidge may be) seems the least undignified option. Swallow, on the other hand, is honored, if uneasy about leaving his own wife and children behind for half a year. (His department chair wants him far away while a junior faculty member receives a promotion.)

There’s the situation, then. Zapp is taken down a peg, and nonplussed by the failures of England to make a big deal of him. (Also the lack of heat and entertainment.) He will eventually find opportunities in the absence of structure in Rummidge’s English department, however. Swallow is blown back by Euphoria’s gusto and apparently limitless, all-color chances to get into every kind of trouble (sex, drugs and political protests being just the beginning). He will eventually begin to ‘find himself’ therein. Even the unlikeable Zapp achieves growth and a note of redemption at some point (still unlikeable, though). The wives (and other women) are less central and less developed, but actually deep, complex, realistic character development isn’t the point here. And the women have some ass-kicking attitude that I appreciate. No, this is a novel of caricature and satire, poking fun at English departments, at academia, at the changing cultures of 1969, and at types – centrally, the mild-and-retiring professor and the arrogant, womanizing one, although there are certainly others. Originally published in 1975, this does not count as historical fiction but contemporary (in relation to its authorship), and one might fear stereotypes that would offend today’s readers, but I didn’t find it problematic in that way at all. Just good, solid fun.

We end with a scene (written as a screenplay, unlike the rest of the novel) in a New York hotel room, with both professors and their wives gathered to try and sort out their futures. Lodge finishes with a thorough cliffhanger, which I frankly appreciate, even if the lack of answers hurts a bit. This is the first in a trilogy, so there’s that.

David, solid gift. Thank you.


Rating: 7 chicken dinners.
%d bloggers like this: