H is for Hawk (2014) by Helen MacDonald


I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.

It’s been several weeks since I finished this book so you’ll have to forgive the hurried, vague review which doesn’t really do it justice. Despite not being my usual cup of tea (at least on first appearances) this was an early addition to my birthday wishlist; I say this because when H is for Hawk first came out I carelessly dismissed it as a sort of misery memoir until several word of mouth recommendations assured me I’d got that entirely wrong.  I’m pleased I got over my initial reservations; this was very well worth the reading.

It’s a difficult book to describe, H is for Hawk, because there’s a lot going on here but put very simply it’s a memoir of MacDonald’s attempt to train a goshawk named Mabel in the wake of her father’s sudden death. She knits her grief into the story of Mabel, describing both her memories of her father as well as the practicalities of purchasing, training and living with a wild bird.  Alongside this tale MacDonald also provides a study of the reclusive author T.H. White whose own chaotic dabblings in falconry, as described in his 1951 book The Goshawk, were a source of much childhood confusion and inspiration to McDonald. In this way she provides a really moving account of her own grief, carefully scrutinising all the ways in which she consciously or unconsciously looked to the wilderness as an escape from her own life in much the same way White did seventy years before. In her own eyes they both follow an ancient, literary tradition, that of the grief stricken hero who retreats into the wild to forget the traumas of the past. Her attraction to the sullen, troublesome goshawk and to White, a fellow misfit, reflect her own perception of herself as an outsider in grief.

For a memoir about grief this isn’t a dark book although of course it deals with what was clearly a very dark time in the writer’s life. For me it was a surprisingly enjoyable read, told with real passion and warmth. Because it’s so unusual – part nature writing, part personal memoir, part literary biography – it’d be very easy to accuse H is for Hawk of feeling scrappy but I really don’t think it does. There’s a lot going on of course but it’s all meshed together really naturally so you almost don’t notice the switch from one theme to another. The strongest parts, at least for me, were McDonald’s descriptions of the natural world. I think I could read some of her descriptions of afternoons spent flying Mabel over the flat Cambridgeshire countryside again and again and I would still find them lovely.

As I said, it’s just a quickie review today but I’ll be back again soon with a post on The Man in the High Castle. I have more to say about that one… read into that what you will.


Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi


“Now that I could not call myself a teacher, a writer, now that I could not wear what I would normally wear, walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted to or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal, I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe.”

I devoured this book in three short days and enjoyed it hugely. Later I was bemused to read a ton of online reviews and articles piling on the criticism, calling it too dry, too self-important, not academic enough (or too academic in one instance), too Western, too Iranian, anti-men, anti-Islam….. Crikey. I put my own review on hold for a few days while I mulled all this over. Is Nafisi’s tone a trifle imperious at times? Does she insinuate that Western literature is more worthy of study than Persian? I’m really not sure but I’m inclined to think no and in the end I decided that this approach to reviewing was going nowhere. Instead, I thought, I’ll just go ahead and write my own thoughts on Reading Lolita in Tehran, without further reference to the opinions of others. That’s probably for the best.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is, at its simplest, a memoir of Azar Nafisi’s experiences teaching English Literature in Iran. Her story starts in 1995 when, shortly after being forced to leave a university job for refusing to wear the veil, she decided to found a book group. She hand selected seven of her favourite former students, all female, and invited them to meet in her house once a week to discuss great works of literature, beginning with Lolita. She uses the group as a starting point for reflecting back in more detail on her experiences teaching some of these same works immediately after the Revolution in 1979, a time when the prevailing attitude amongst many of her students was that such books were decadent and immoral. In one of my favourite chapters Nafisi recalls asking her students to put The Great Gatsby on trial, to argue in favour or against the novel and to consider what makes it a great work of fiction or, on the other hand, a depraved monument to western capitalism.

I’ve said before that I love books about the love of books and this is just that. Only, it’s not just the love of books that Nafisi explores here but the universal power of literature. She describes spending night after night watching over her sleeping children with only Henry James and Dorothy L. Sayers for company as Iraqi bombs drop on the city around them. She and ‘her girls’ experience not just bombs but veils and prisons and floggings and ‘morality squads’ as they’re forcibly banished by the state from any visible form of public life. In such turbulent and oppressive times, Nafisi encourages her students to see books as a link to a life the regime can’t control.

“Our class was shaped within this context, in an attempt to escape the gaze of the blind censor for a few hours each week. There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our little pockets of freedom.”

It’s telling, I think, that the girls’ favourite heroine becomes James’ Daisy Miller, a young woman unafraid to be herself. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but thinking that for all Nafisi’s admirable intentions, the irony, sadly, is that in writing this book she somehow obscures the personalities that should be shining out of it. Maybe it’s because she introduces her seven young students all too quickly at the start, because they disappear for a big chunk in the middle, or because it’s not really about them so much as it is about Nafisi. I’m not sure, but the women she claims to be giving voice to seem to get lost somewhere in the story and it’s sad. I’d have liked to have seen more of them.

On the whole, however, I don’t really feel like I have much to criticise with this book. Nafisi’s writing style is hard to define but I quite liked it. The chapters are short, there’s little direct dialogue and no use of speech marks to distinguish spoken word from narrative. It gives it an almost hurried, off the cuff, feel, like all these memories have spilled out of her head directly onto the page. She writes really convincingly about the novels she teaches and I was fascinated by some of her insights into characters I already know and love. At one point she describes the story of Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice as a dance in which they are constantly being brought together and pushed apart, which strikes me now as the perfect way to describe their relationship.  Thanks to her, I’m also persuaded that the time has come to get over my fear of Henry James. I’m seriously considering reading Daisy Miller or Washington Square. How times have changed.

Towards the end of the memoir, Nafisi explains her difficult decision to leave Iran. She writes:

“ You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, I told him, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way again.”

If this had been my own book, and not from the library, I’d have furiously scribbled stars and exclamation marks in the margin here. It might sound trite but I’d been trying to express this very idea to a friend the other day and couldn’t find the words to say what I meant. There are some biggish (for me) life changes afoot and for the past couple of months I’ve been torn between excitement about what the future holds and the gloomy feeling that this phase of my life, the one I’m living now, is all set to pass away from me. Nafisi hits the nail on the head.

My thanks to Elizabeth at A Russian Affair for recommending this book.

84 Charing Cross Road (1971) by Helene Hanff


I’m kicking myself for not being able to get hold of a second hand copy of this book. As a book about the love of books, old books especially, it really calls out to be read second hand:

“I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else has turned and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to…”

I bought my copy in Waterstones last weekend for a whopping £7.99. I know that’s not really a lot but it occurred to me afterwards that I once bought six second-hand books in the Oxfam shop for a similar amount. Oh Waterstones. The real problem, I think, is that I’ve never really forgiven them for doing away with their regular 3-for-2 deal a few years ago. I just need to get over it. Anyway, I nearly didn’t buy 84 Charing Cross Road at all but while I was reading the blurb for the third time and ‘umming’ and ‘aahing’ in indecision a nice lady came up and told me how much she loved it. “I grew up in London in the 60s”, she said. “This book describes it exactly as I want to remember it.” So I bought the book.

84 Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters rather than a memoir. In 1949 Hanff was a poor New York writer “with an antiquarian taste in books”, books that she couldn’t find in libraries and bookshops at home. In desperation she wrote to Marks & Co. Booksellers, of 84 Charing Cross Road in London, supplying a list of books that she’d be interested in purchasing. Her letter sparked a twenty year long cross-Atlantic correspondence between Hanff and Frank Doel, Marks & Co.’s head buyer. She and Frank discussed books (of course), as well as dentistry and sports teams and their families. On several occasions Hanff sent him food parcels for doling out between staff in the shop who were still subject to post-war rationing. In return she was sent linen tablecloths and Yorkshire Pudding recipes along with her constant supply of antiquarian books.

I imagine Helene Hanff would have been a wonderful person to know. Her letters are funny and thoughtful and completely disarming. In one letter she’d be gushing about the wonderful tomes she’d been sent, in the next she’d be mock berating Frank for his failure to find an exact volume she wanted.

“I could ROT over here before you’d send me anything to read. I oughta run straight down to brentano’s, which I would if anything I wanted was in print.

You may add Walton’s Lives to the list of books you aren’t sending me…. “

I suppose the informality of it all must have been quite alarming for poor Frank at first but you can tell that he took real joy from these letters. I love the contrast between this warmhearted, brash New Yorker and Frank’s very British stiff-upper-lip reserve.

The correspondence between Helene and Frank and their various friends is touching and, in places, just downright funny. I got a little choked up at one point which I swear almost NEVER happens when I’m reading. Maybe the difference here is that these were real people, not fictional ones. But either way I was genuinely saddened.

My shiny new fresh-from-Waterstones copy of this book includes its sequel, The Duchess Of Bloomsbury Street, which was published three years after 84 Charing Cross Road became a hit. It takes the form of Helene’s diary, published in 1974 but written in 1971 when she finally made her long awaited trip to London. She was able to meet some of her long distance correspondents, visit the now empty Marks & Co. shop and tour the old haunts of her favourite writers. I liked this almost as much as 84 Charing Cross Road, mainly because it’s so nice to see London through the eyes of someone who had never been before. Her love for a city that she’d never visited is kind of lovely.

Sometimes at home in the evening, reading a casual description of London by Hazlitt or Leigh Hunt, I’d put the book down suddenly, engulfed by a wave of longing that was like homesickness. I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die.”

This book made me feel stupidly nostalgic and almost patriotic (which isn’t something I experience often). How nice it would be if the art of letter writing was alive and well (the only person I ever write to is my grandad) and we were still happy to invite strangers into our homes for strawberries and cream in the rose garden. Sigh.

It’s impossible not to like this book. I’m so pleased I finally got round to reading it.

The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher (2009) by Kate Summerscale

“A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.”

SuspicionsMrWhicherA couple of years ago I saw a great BBC documentary by Lucy Worsley about the history of detective fiction, which mentioned the Road Hill House murder and its influence on the development of the genre. In spite of having seen this I was still expecting The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher to be a work of fiction and for Jack Whicher to be a made up detective. I think I thought it would be a bit like Arthur & George, sort of half fact/half fiction. It’s not like that at all – this is very much a factual account of real events – and I felt a bit silly when I realised my mistake. Thankfully the realisation just made me even more intrigued, it certainly didn’t hinder my enjoyment.

On the 29th June 1860 the body of three year old Saville Kent was discovered in a privy in the grounds of his family home in Road, Wiltshire. In the days after his murder suspicion fell onto his immediate family, his nursemaid and the servants who lived alongside them in Road Hill House. It caused a sensation. The idea that this evil could be lurking inside a respectable middle-class home fascinated the public. The gory details were hammered out daily in the press and discussed at dinner parties: the Home Office was inundated with letters from armchair detectives offering possible solutions. Even Dickens had his own theories about the identity of the killer. Kate Summerscale’s book looks at the investigation carried out by Jack Whicher, one of the very first detectives, who was sent by Scotland Yard to take over the murder enquiry after it went astray. She looks at how the public reacted to the crime, the lasting effect on Whicher and its influence on the evolution of crime and detective fiction.

I must admit that I’m not really a fan of the non-fiction ‘true crime’ genre. I tend to prefer my murders fictional. The thing about this book, though, is that the crime isn’t particularly interesting in itself. You can find more cunning suspects, more intricate plots and cleverer detectives in the many works of fiction that were influenced by it. Instead Summerscale shows you why it fascinated people. She suggests that the murder of Saville Kent played on people’s darkest fears and sparked a fascination with crime and detectives that is still noticeable today. This is despite the fact that at the time the public were, on the whole, less than supportive of Whicher’s investigation. In June 1860 Whicher was one of just eight detectives in the entire country and he was treated with a degree of suspicion. Many people associated detective work with spying and it seemed outrageous that a working class man should be allowed to pry into the private affairs of a respectable gentleman and his family. Despite his best efforts Whicher’s investigation was hit by a number of setbacks – not least the lying and resentful local police, an ineffectual legal team and a lack of popular support – and he retired a few years later, a disillusioned and broken man.

For me the most interesting parts of this book were those which looked at the wider influence of the case on fictional portrayals of crime and detection. The Road Hill House case was the first ‘country house murder’, which became a staple of the crime fiction genre. You can see traces of the case in works by Dickens, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins; versions of Whicher and his colleagues appear as Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone. I really like the fact that Summerscale devotes as much attention to fictional detectives as real ones. As a fan of traditional crime fiction it was interesting to see a prototype for some of my favourite fictional detectives in action.

The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher is incredibly well researched and never veers off into gory sensationalism, as it could very easily do in the wrong hands. I’ve heard it described by some as a bit dry and too detailed, a bit like Summerscale was trying to include all the minute details she’d uncovered in her research regardless of whether they were interesting or relevant. I’d disagree though; maybe I don’t need to know how much Whicher’s monthly pay packet was but all those intricate details go towards painting a really vivid picture of the times.

There was a little bit of me that was disappointed this wasn’t a fictional case and could be wrapped up more neatly. I had so many questions remaining at the end – How did the Kents react to the uncovering of the killer? Had they suspected? How did Whicher react when his suspicions were proved right? It’s not Summerscale’s fault, of course, that these questions can’t be answered; there’s just not enough evidence so she (quite rightly) doesn’t speculate. The difficulty is that it’s such a readable book that you can almost forget that these were real people, not characters.