Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Good Books on Grief: H is for Hawk & Kissing in America

Simpson's Point where I watch bald eagles, ospreys and great blue herons catch fish.

It may sound strange to pair a nature memoir with a young adult novel, but both of these books deal with the death of a beloved father. They describe mourning and depression but aren't depressing to read. Grief is acknowledged with emotional honesty and described with poetic beauty. These marvelous books celebrate life and resilience more than death.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is a memoir about taming and training a goshawk. The author notes the irony of trying to overcome grief with a creature who lives to kill. Unhinged by her father's death, Macdonald is drawn to raptors - more than to people - for comfort.

"The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life."

H is for Hawk is an unusual blend of memoir, autobiography, literary analysis and natural history. Macdonald, a Cambridge University scholar from a middle class background, found parallels between her own experiences with those of the author T.H. White. His disastrous attempt to train a goshawk verged on sadomasochism. Sometimes her book got a bit bogged down on T.H. White, but the history of hawking was fascinating. The Cantabrigian countryside was more than a setting. Grief was described in luscious metaphors, using the natural world to portray a fragile state of mind:
"The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world."

"It's turned cold; cold so the saucers of ice lie in the mud, blank and crazed as antique porcelain."

What makes H is for Hawk so special was the beautiful writing and the respect for hawks as wild creatures. Macdonald goes a bit feral herself, but her hawk Mable was never anthropomorphized. Mabel was a well developed character in her own right: blood-thirsty and vicious but also intelligent and playful. Through the sharp eyes of a hawk and her trainer, we gain a fresh view of the British countryside and of my home state of Maine (chapter 27). The reader can almost imagine what it feels like to fly. The writing itself made me swoon:
"I glance up. And then I saw my goshawks. There they were. A pair, soaring above the canopy in the rapidly warming air. There was a flat, hot hand of sun on the back of my neck, but I smelt ice in my nose, seeing those goshawks soaring. I smelt ice and bracken stems and pine resin. Goshawk cocktail. They were on the soar."
I'd strongly recommend H is to Hawk to nature lovers of all ages. I'm not usually a fan of memoirs, but I loved this one. With its gorgeous woodblock print cover, it makes a great gift (thanks Henry!)

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb isn't a memoir, but it reads like one. The author lost both of her parents as a new adult. The father in Rabb's novel died two years ago in a plane crash. Sick of everyone's morbid curiosity, 16-year-old Eva tells people her dad died of a heart attack. She struggles with depression, unable to let go of her father. To the horror of her feminist-scholar mom, Eva copes with her grief by reading romance novels (ha!)

"I loved romances because when you opened the first page, you knew the story would end well. Your heart wouldn't be broken. I love that security, that guaranteed love....In real life, you never knew the ending. I hated that."

Nonetheless, Eva searches for romance in real life. She drags her Korean American best friend on a cross country road trip from NYC to LA in pursuit of the boy who stole her heart. Will is swoon-worthy handsome, enigmatically biracial and he understands her grief. Unfortunately he's frustratingly elusive:
"He didn't find small things important: returning texts, charging his phone, being on time, punctuation."
Humor helped brighten a dark story:
"She wore green pants that sat high on her skinny waist, and a green blouse buttoned to the neck. Her hair frizzed out sideways. She looked like a stalk of broccoli. Broccoli with glasses."
Other times the writing was emotionally raw and painfully honest:
"You never stop missing them. It was a simple thing to say. But I'd never heard anyone say it before. Not the grief counselors. Not my mom. Everyone seemed to think the opposite: you moved on, you forgot, it was impolite to keep talking about it."
For a book called Kissing in America, there wasn't much kissing. The content was quite tame for young adult fiction. Even the road trip was chaperoned. Although I adore the Americana cover, I wish the book had a less misleading title. Love was explored in multiple dimensions: family and friendship as well as romance. Relationships were realistically messy and well developed. There were no easy fixes, but this book ended with hope. I'd strongly recommend Kissing In America to grieving teenaged girls or to anyone who has lost a loved one. The literary style would cross over well to adult readers.

Reviewer's Disclosure: H is for Hawk was a birthday gift from my husband, purchased at the Wallingford Bookshop in England. It's also available in the USA in hardcover. I bought Kissing in America at the Harvard Book Store in the other Cambridge, USA. I was not compensated for my reviews. All photos are from my part of Maine: a tidal estuary at Simpson's Point, an ice puddle at Morse Mountain, and in the woods near my home last week. I wish I had a photo of the red tailed hawk who occasionally visits our yard.

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@Barrie Summy


Stacy said...

Great reviews. I think I might buy Kissing in America as one of the 13-year-old's Christmas gifts. (Yes, I do my holiday shopping terribly early.)

Rose said...

Judging by the excerpts you've included here, the writing of H is for Hawk is beautiful. Sounds like a book I would enjoy; I could use a change of pace from the mystery/thriller rut I've been in lately. Great reviews, and your photos are stunning as always, Sarah!

tina said...

Beautiful photos as always. Taming a hawk would be quite a task. If I was younger it might be something I'd like to do.

Bee said...

I'm delighted that I have H is for Hawk on my TBR self; it sounds like a very good book for a dark November afternoon. I hadn't heard of Kissing in America, but that also sounds like an enjoyably bitter-sweet book. Let's enjoy the last leaves of autumn while we can!

Stacy Nyikos said...

I've been wondering about H is for Hawk. Thanks for such a great review. The novel sounds as if it's stellar narrative nonfiction. Is that accurate?

A Cuban In London said...

I want to read H is for Hawk. I know I'll like it. I have read excerpts from it and I really enjoyed the language. Thanks for your reviews.

Greetings from London.

Ellen Booraem said...

What an interesting combination, Sarah--and the photos are a lovely addition. Both books sound like accurate representations of grief, although I agree that KISSING IN AMERICA might not have been the best title. Thanks for letting me know about these books!

Cloudbuster said...

Both of these sound amazing. I'm struggling with how to accurately portray grief in my current WIP, and both of these books sound as if they provide a great deal of insight. Excellent reviews on both. Very thoughtful and in-depth. Thanks for sharing!

Stephanie Faris said...

What a cool cover. It looks so Vegas-y and retro and fun!

troutbirder said...

Luscious metaphors indeed. I love the thought and the subject. As you may remember I gave up hunting for birding and photography. I've only seen a goshawk once in my life. It was in the boreal forest during a winter outing in northeastern Minnesota. It left me breathless as they are known as the fiercest predator not above attacking humans who come too close. To train surely would be a "masochistic" endeavor

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I've heard so many good things about H is For Hawk.
Thanks for the reminder! Must read this!

Petra Pavlátková said...

Sarah, Simpson's Point looks wonderful and I absolutely love your photo of the ice puddle. It reminds me of the photos taken from above with mysterious images on the ground that can't be seen otherwise than being high in the air. Perhaps like from hawk's perspective? :)

I'm going to put "H is for Hawk" on my to-be-read list. It seems interesting and I like the language of the excerpts you've chosen to illustrate the book. I've read that the Samuel Johnson Prize is the UK's most prestigious non-fiction award which tips the scales even further in favour of reading the book...

thecuecard said...

Nice reviews Sarah. I have long wanted to read H Is for Hawk which is on my TBR list. I'm glad to hear you liked it. It sounds quite refreshing. What a nice gift!

Jenn Jilks said...

I like this thematic selection! Grief is a hard issues for young people. I loved volunteering with our expressive arts grief program.

cynthia newberry martin said...

I had noticed H IS FOR HAWK in several bookstores. It sounds fascinating. Thanks for the review.