Monday, February 27, 2017

"Slade House" by David Mitchell

By my quick count, this is my fifth David Mitchell book. It's a bit surprising I've read this many since I'm often not especially attached to particular authors. But Mitchell's always combined strong storytelling with unusual structure and character voice, which is right up my alley, so it's easy to return to his novels.

Slade House is perhaps one of his weaker offerings, though that doesn't mean the novel was not enjoyable. I didn't realize going in (and perhaps that was intentional) that the book is a sort-of companion book for Bone Clocks, which I read last year. At first I just though Mitchell was just making sly "aren't you an observant reader?" kind of references to his earlier work until a major character from Bone Clocks reappears for the last chapter.

Slade House is a somewhat typical haunted house story, with the only real twist being the reappearance of the Bone Clocks character. That it treads somewhat familiar ground isn't inherently a fault, however, as Mitchell still makes the evil villains and their entrapment menacing. Like with other books, Mitchell relies on changing narrators over a period of years, including a young autistic boy, an arrogant police detective, and a smitten college girl. Though the characters are distinct, the chapters don't feel especially different (unlike, say, in Cloud Atlas), mostly because the characters similarly fall for the villains' trap each time.

However, it was a quick and fun enough read for David Mitchell fans.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

"H is for Hawk" by Helen Macdonald

Somehow I’ve ended up reading several memoirs recently, which is a little unusual for me, mostly because I tend to find memoirs sappy or over-indulgent. Or maybe I just don’t read good memoirs. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Lab Girl, probably because it gave me insight into a field in which I have little knowledge, and the same goes for H is for Hawk. Because, I mean, who knows anything about falconry?

The subject matter--and Macdonald’s take on the practice--is of course what gives Hawk its allure. Though Macdonald is a modern-day practitioner, the practice obviously evokes bygone eras of British countrysides and gentility, and so the vision of a modern woman flying a hawk feels utterly anachronistic.

Hawk is many things at once: an introduction to falconry; a memoir of a woman coping with the loss of her father; a reflection on author T.H. White’s disastrous attempt to train a goshawk. Somehow all three disparate genres come together into a book that feels cohesive, though perhaps slightly muddled when her grief over her father starts to drown her.

I was recently discussing the book with a friend, and she remarked that it made her want to be able to train a hawk. I felt the complete opposite: it made me feel like hawking was an utterly wrong endeavor. And I don’t mean that as criticism of its practitioners, as it seems like modern hawking is (or can be) done humanely, but as a recognition that the hawk is a wild and feral creature, and taming it for our personal enjoyment seems somehow unjust to its power and independence. On the other hand, Macdonald argues that by training hawks she has an appreciation and understanding of them that I, as a casual observer, can never have. Point taken.

I think H is for Hawk is likely to be appreciated by a broad swath of people: falconry novices and experts; nature lovers; and literature devotees. It’s a bit of a weird book, down a path rarely taken.