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Take a wild guess at what my interests are…

Shelf is easy. That’s where the books live!

Shelf is pretty self explanatory, and similar to desk in that the things it holds tell a lot about who I am. Since I recently moved, right now I have a baby bookshelf with just a few books. I only brought things that I hadn’t read yet. My collection favorite books will stay at my old bedroom at my parents’ house for the foreseeable future.

So, my present bookshelf is a little sad. It’s missing the stories I grew up with, and the books I want to re-read. But I’ve still been reading a lot. Right now I’m focusing on non-fiction, generally about science. I’ve been considering science journalism as a career path (though that hasn’t really been reflected in the writing I do for this blog), and right now I feel like absorbing as much as I can about scientific stories. I’m interested in how people tell these stories. How do they work in dialogue from interviews? Create timelines and structure? Present technical information? How do they weave in personal elements, like the voices of characters and a narrator? What kinds of connections do they make between different worlds?

I thought I’d share a little bit about a book I’ve finished reading recently. It isn’t science journalism, but it’s making big waves as a recently published book that fits somewhat into the category of nature-writing.

H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald (2014, Grove Press, NY)

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try… [I was] convinced that I’d hit upon the perfect way to explain how it felt. I was puzzled by the pitying horrified faces….

…Here’s another word: raptor, meaning ‘bird of prey’. From the Latin raptor, meaning ‘seize’. Rob. Seize.

This is a recent book that is getting a lot of attention, and it should, because it’s fascinating. I would call it a genre-bending memoir. It’s a natural history and reflection on mourning, based around falconry. Mourning the unexpected death of her father, the narrator buys a goshawk to train and returns to her childhood obsession with falconry and T. H. White’s very dark novel/ fictionalized memoir, The Goshawk.

The writer studies history and philosophy and while the chapters definitely build on each other, each is so well crafted structurally and conceptually that many could stand alone as personal essays.  The arc pulls together perfectly; her connections are surprising and challenging; and, as the Wall Street Journal review on the back aptly says, “her prose glows and burns.” For example, here’s the book’s opening.

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… In the spring it’s a riot of noise: constant plane-traffic, gas-guns over pea fields, wood larks 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.

I do have to warn you that most the book is often very dark. I always like that in a story because it is real, vulnerable, challenging, and more relatable for me. She writes very frankly about her experience of deep depression and mourning. She also weaves into her own story a parallel retelling of the experience of author T. H. White, who also decided to train a goshawk while enduring horrible suffering. (T.H. White is most known for ‘The Once and Future King’.) The sections about T.H. White are also very sad, as he was a deeply lonely and traumatized person. (I won’t spoil the story, but the book does end with a hopeful emergence from that period of suffering, for Helen MacDonald at least.)

I thought it was an amazing book, equally for its content and prose. For a few days I could hardly put it down. Even if you’re not usually intrigued by nonfiction and nature writing, I’d recommend giving it a try. It might pull you in anyway.

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