Like the rest of the inhabitants of the Washington, DC area I just spent several days cooped up in the house — trapped by about 25 inches of snow and no snow plow in sight. Besides time spent teleworking (power stayed on, THANK YOU ) what else was there to do? Read of course!
So while the storm was howling I curled up with two fantastic reads — it’s a distraction from the Guardian list, I know, but really enjoyable.
The first was Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: the Final Crossing of the Lusitania (Crown Publishers, 2015, 430 pages). Other books I’ve read by Larson: none completed, I got about half way through his Devil in the White City — which I now vow to make time to go back and try again.
Larson writes of this human disaster in a compelling and skillful way, weaving the substories of pre-WWI isolationist America, President Wilson’s emergence from the grief of his wife’s recent loss to the hope of a new love, the competitive personality of one particular German submarine captain, the top-secret code breakers of the British government, the politics and plots of Winston Churchill’s Admiralty, and finally, the pride and technical competence of a Cunard line captain. All these complex threads converge on a sunny day 10 miles off the southern coast of Ireland to end in a tragic event proving that in 1915, as now, human lives become mere fodder in the face of geo-politics, stupidity, and shocking chance. The story of the actual sinking (the ship went down in 18 minutes!!!) was so horrific that I found myself racing through the book to finish it. What masterful, powerful writing.
The second book was Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (Grove Press, 2014, 300 pages). This was a book I wasn’t particularly interested in until a dear friend insisted — knowing my love of animals.
Macdonald writes about her overwhelming grief at the sudden loss of a beloved father — and how she addressed that grief by absorbing herself in training a wild hawk — a “gos” or goshawk — one of the fiercest of the hawks. This doesn’t sound so strange once you learn that Macdonald is an experienced falconer, obsessed with the birds since childhood. Once Macdonald gets her bird, Mabel (falconers enjoy assigning the fiercer birds sweet and docile-sounding names) she sets out on a life-altering journey to tame and train the animal. Interestingly, Macdonald parallels her own story with the story of T. H. White’s experiences with hawk training. I found Macdonald’s own story more satisfying than White’s, who did not treat his animal well through ignorance and lack of experience.
During the taming of Mabel, Macdonald becomes a hawk, as she seeks to completely bond with her bird. This almost spiritual experience — complete with hours spent sleeping next to the baby bird, exercising incredible self-discipline and excruciating patience — was almost overwhelming to read about. I also found the language of falconers, apparently there is a special word for about everything — to be very interesting, as well as the rich history of this discipline. Macdonald mixes stories of her father’s life with the growing tameness of Mabel — and we realize that the taming of Mabel is metaphor for the taming of wild grief. This was a great story, one for anyone who has loved completely and lost — but found their way back through love and work.