H is for Hawk

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A MUCH shorter version of this ran initially on Book Riot. I’m just now getting around to posting my full review here. BR post: http://bookriot.com/2017/02/01/riot-round-best-books-read-january-2017/

When I first saw this book at the bookstore, I picked it up because I thought the cover looked vaguely medieval. I thought maybe it was a historical fiction that I might want to read. Then I saw that it was a memoir and dropped it like a hot rock. Personal memoirs have never really been my bag, although I’ve read a few of them. I’m typically not too into personal memoirs unless you are Dr. Salk and literally cured polio or something. However, once I started writing for Book Riot, everyone there who had read this book raved about it. The more I heard about it, the more interesting it actually sounded. Then, when I saw that it was available for free on the Audible Channels, I figured what the hell. I started listening to it. And it consumed my brain like some kind of bookish zombie hawk.

The author, Helen Macdonald, was very close to her father. Naturally, she was devastated when he dropped dead unexpectedly one day. She was a falconer, so to work through her grief, she decided to raise and train a goshawk. Previously, she had only ever trained smaller birds of prey like merlins and peregrines. The goshawk is apparently one of the largest and wildest and most difficult to train. So, challenge accepted.

I learned so much from this book. I mean, it would have been impossible for me not to, since I knew absolutely nothing about falconry before reading it. But now I know what jesses are (I’d always wondered when I read the term in historical fiction novels. I don’t know why I never figured it out from context, or why I never looked it up. Usually I do.); what bating is and why it is upsetting to Macdonald when Mabel does it; and, from one of my very favorite scenes in the whole book, that goshawks love to play and have expressions indicating joy and bird laughter. Mabel really fucking loves paper balls (they’re crunchy!) and sticking her head into rolled up magazines while Macdonald talks to her through the other end of it. LOL. I learned that there are very good reasons falconry is so classist and why birds such as the peregrine are considered the elite of the falcons. I learned that goshawks, or at least Mabel, have breath that smells like “pepper and musk and burned stone” and now I hope BPAL makes it into a perfume. I learned that it is a falconry tradition (or superstition?) that if you give your bird a badass name like Nazgul or Killer, it will be a shit hunter, but if you give it sweet little old granny names like Opal or Rosie or Mabel, it will be death on wings.

I loved the writing style. Macdonald makes beautiful words. One of the first sentences that caught my attention, and apparently the attention of many other readers, was when she stated that “Looking for  goshawks is like looking for grace – it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.” And when Macdonald talks about her scars: “One is from her talons when she’d been 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’d 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.”

H is for Hawk is, to me, a perfect blend of memoir and nature writing. I got to learn more about falconry, got to know and love Mabel, got to ramble along through the Cambridgeshire countryside with them as they went looking for things to kill (which isn’t as fucked up as it sounds), and got to learn some comparisons to other kinds of hunting birds. I was sad when I got to the end.

Now I am off to find falconry groups in my area to see if any teach total n00bs.

I read it as an: audiobook

Source: Audible.com Channels

Time: 11 hours 6 min

Publisher: Grove Press

 

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