I don’t normally read books about death and loss, something that comes all too often the older one gets. And mostly I don’t normally read them because all too often they seem insipid, skating across the surface of grief instead of plumbing its depths, holding it close, looking it in the eye. I find it hard to connect with them.
Not so this book.
H is for Hawk is really two stories in one. The main story, compelling and moving, is of Helen Macdonald’s struggle to move through and beyond her overwhelming grief after her father dies suddenly. The secondary story, threaded throughout the first, is her recounting of T.H. White’s failed efforts, some 60 years earlier, to train a goshawk. White I knew as the author of Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King most of all. I had known nothing of goshawks before now.
“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”
Helen and her father shared a deep love of nature. As a child, she became enamored of hawks and falcons, reading every book about them she could get her hands on. At the age of twelve, she pleaded with her parents to go out with a group of falconers, and they agreed. It was her first experience with hawks in the field. Over the years, she became an expert in hawking and falconry. After her father’s death, she decided to buy a goshawk and train it because she came to believe it would help ease her pain.
“But that was not why I needed her. To me she was bright, vital, secure in her place in the world. Every tiny part of her was boiling with life, as if from a distance you could see a plume of steam around her, coiling and ascending and making everything around her slightly blurred, so she stood out in fierce, corporeal detail. The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge.”
Just read a review in the Wall Street Journal of a new biography of Jack London. I’m sure many, perhaps even most, of us have read at least one Jack London novel or short story. Call of the Wild is a fabulous book and one that I first read as a kid about the age of ten. And his short story To Build A Fire is unforgettable.
I knew a bit about London already — that he had spent a lot of time in California (and lived and died in Sonoma County), had travelled a lot in the Yukon, and had worked as a journalist before achieving fame as a writer, especially with Call of the Wild in 1903.
Until reading this review, however, I didn’t fully appreciate his amazing life and all the adventures he experienced. It’s pretty clear from reading his work that he knew — and knew intimately — life in the wild and especially life in the Yukon. He obviously wrote what he knew. The most incredible thing to me after learning more about him is that he managed to live as long as he did, even though he died young at the age of 40.
This inspired me to re-read To Build A Fire from the World of Jack London website. The tension builds from the very first sentence: “Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.”
The man is never named. Keeping him anonymous seemed to add even more to the tension, perhaps because it helps pull the reader into the story and even imagine being that man. And the way London describes the setting and the man’s actions and fate was brilliant.
What is your favorite Jack London work? (I’d create this as a poll but haven’t quite figured out how to do that yet in WP.)
- Call of the Wild
- White Fang
- To Build a Fire
- Never read him
I’ve started reading a new book entitled Creative You that basically looks at Myers-Briggs types and then lays out what, in the authors’ opinions, are the strengths and blindspots for each one. (See Patrick Ross’s Artist’s Road blog for a longer piece on the book, including an interview with one of the authors.)
Now, first, a disclaimer. I am not, repeat not, blindly advocating Myers-Briggs typology or any other assessment tool as a be-all and end-all for understanding our personalities and ourselves. Our personalities and everything that goes with them are so complex and textured that a simple assessment tool such as M-B can only begin to help us better understand ourselves. That said, we use M-B a lot at my agency, and I’m very familiar with its strengths and shortcomings.
Now, on to the book. I’m an INFP, in M-B terms. That means that my personality preferences are Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, and Perceptive. My strengths (and I know this from personal observation, as well) are being able to see the big picture, thinking strategically, making sometimes creative leaps of logic to envision what the future could be, among other things. I’m also introverted, which means that I recharge through quality alone-time. (I just made that word up, but it really fits.)