H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Oh I do so love my reading groups! Sometimes they offer convivial chatter, sometimes they give fresh insight into books I read awhile back, but other times they push me into reading something I would never read on my own. Such is the case with H is for Hawk. And wow! What a book!

H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
2015/ 288 pages
rating: 8.75 –  literary memoir 

This is a memoir, no problem with that, I enjoy an occasional memoir. But it’s also a book about training a bird, a goshawk, to be specific and I generally have little or no interest in the life sciences.

Macdonald is a journalist by trade but also a naturalist, and a research scholar at the University of Cambridge. As a child she became fascinated with hawks and her photographer father assisted and befriended her. They explored together, each with his own purposes.

So when he died rather suddenly Macdonald  was devastated to the point of near madness, and decided that now was the time to actually put what she had learned in a lifetime of reading and study into actual practice.  She would escape from the pain by training a goshawk. H is for Hawk is the story of that effort – and a hugely compelling and emotional effort it is to read about her journey with the goshawk while in a profoundly vulnerable state due to grieving her father.

Intertwined with the author’s own a experience is the story of the deeply troubled  T. H. White, the author of The Once and Future King (1958).  White also trained a goshawk but for entirely different reasons and with very different methods –  ineffective,  perhaps counterproductive and basically wrong in places.  This story holds its own interest and the transitioning  from White’s story to Macdonald’s is usually smooth and reasonable – only a couple times really intrusive.

Macdonald compares her training processes and experience to that of the lonely, frightened White. White is an interesting man and Mcdonald identified with him in some ways, I think, but she’s clear he was not in any way a father-figure – she had an excellent father whom she is grieving.

Also, of course there’s a bit about goshawks in general, their history in England, their habitat. That’s all pretty compelling stuff in itself (at least in Macdonald’s hands)  so yes, I googled and googled to see photos of it all,  places in England, what goshawks look like and how they fly, etc.

The best part, the part which is beyond interesting and into the realm of completely riveting, is when Macdonald is actually training, “manning” if you will, her bird.  I try to imagine her patience and am lost.  I almost physically ached for her. And the parts where she described running across fields to find dead pheasants or rabbits is page-turning.  The book definitely reads like a novel – lots of literary devices and touches and references.



T.H. White – The Goshawk

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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

It glows – it radiates and shimmers and shines.  Amor Towles’ new historical novel,  A Gentleman in Moscow,  is so many things but basically a hotel-window view of Russia  from the time of their civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution,  through unification under the USSR,  through the long harsh era of Stalin,  and on into the middle of the Cold War.

A Gentleman in Moscow
by Amor Towles
coming September 2016 / 446 pages
rating: 9.5/historical fiction (Russia)
Published by Viking   (and a huge thanks to them and to Netgalley for the advance copy of this book. 


On the “what’s it about”  level,  the life of an aristocrat,  a “Former Person,”   in Moscow has to be lived within confines of the world famous Hotel Metropol where his good fortune is to have been confined indefinitely under “house arrest” rather than executed or sent to the icy north.  Over the course of several decades the history of Russia and the internal dynamics of a great international hotel are interwoven with his personal life – the life of an honorable, intelligent,  loving and gracious gentleman.

As the book opens,  it’s 1922 and his “Excellency,” the twenty-something Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, has returned to Moscow following a self-imposed exile in Paris. He has come back to reclaim some family heirlooms,  but finds himself confined,  by merciful court order,  to the upper floors of the Metropol Hotel.  His court sentencing also states that if he leaves the premises,  he dies.  Times have changed since the Count was last in Moscow four years prior, during the Revolution,  and the times will continue to change over the next several decades.  And therein lies a theme and a wonderfully well-told tale.

The Count has managed to secrete a fair sized stash of gold coins so he’s not really hurting for money.  He graciously arranges his now smaller and far less accommodating rooms on the 5th floor of the hotel and then meets a precocious young girl named Nina, the daughter of a fellow guest,  who shows him the ins and outs of the hotel – and there are many and it’s great fun.    Then the Count is employed as a waiter at the hotel’s main restaurant, the Boyarski.   His expertise is invaluable as guidance on a good many things from international menus and wines to seating arrangements. He understands princesses and knows what “class” really is.    And the book abounds with amazing descriptions of food.

As the story progresses Russia goes through some changes,  and life inside the hotel and restaurant has to go with the flow of the Stalin and the Communist state,  but the change is probably less evident.

Nina grows up,  Stalin comes and goes,  America becomes important,  but the restaurant “Triumvirate,”  Emile the chef,  Andrey the maitre d’, and the Count as waiter work together and remain fast friends through a series of troubles.   I won’t give away more,  but I became completely involved,  transfixed may be a better word,  in the story of  The Gentleman from Moscow.

Towles tells his story with sustained and perfect pitch matching the character of the Count –  a dignified intelligence,  a splash of humor,  a garnish of elegance, a hint of suspense, a dollop of history,  and a full measure of sparkling love.

I was fascinated by the novel’s footnotes which at times work to nourish the reader’s desire for a bit more information,  or at other times may create an added splash of intimacy,  with a delightful but unnamed narrator “intruding”  once in awhile with his own sardonic little line or bit of information with which to enlighten the reader.

This is the kind of book which is a joy to cozy in with somewhere and have a nice long read,  truly savoring the setting,  delighting in the characters, re-reading chunks of smart and lovely prose.  Get it now and stash it for your next rainy weekend with some blini or dumplings and tea from an old samovar (or vodka after supper), or black bread and borscht might be good or a good bottle of wine. (Did I mention the food descriptions are great?)

“So while dueling may have begun as a response to high crimes—to treachery, treason, and adultery—by 1900 it had tiptoed down the stairs of reason, until they were being fought over the tilt of a hat, the duration of a glance, or the placement of a comma.” –  Book One  – 1922 / An Appointment

And the point of all this is that although everything seems to change,  some people are able to evolve with the times meet the challenges and circumstances and survive- this is the story of one man who did – while keeping the best of the old,  the friendships, the love,  the elegance.


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Bad Country by CB McKenzie

Rodeo Grace Garnett is an ex-rodeo star turned private eye living in an abandoned housing development  just outside of Tucson,  on the Sonora Desert,  in southern Arizona.  One day he comes home from vacation to find a dead man at his gate.  He calls the police and his lawyer.  The sheriff and others show up and it turns out this man is only the latest in a number of murders where the bodies have been just laid out alongside the highway – findable.

Bad Country 
by CB McKenzie
2015 / 294 pages
read by Mark Bramhall  10h 37m
rating –  B+
(read and listened) 

One other murder is central to the plot,  though – the murder of Samuel Rocha,  grandmother of Kathryn Rocha, an old Indian  woman.  She is very poor but will pay Rodeo what she can to find his killer.

The story is definitely set in the southwest and it shows in the descriptions of everything from the heat and the landscape to the bulding interiors and from the ethnic mix to the language.   Even the structure seems like an interesting play on the setting –  McKenzie uses no chapters,  no quotations and no unnecessary commas.  This would be in keeping with the striking plainness of the desert.

There are a few too many characters but that might have been necessary for the development of the plot.  Actually,  I really only got interested at about the half-way point when a new person is found dead and some technology is introduced – at that point the crime turned into a puzzler and a who-done-it,  motives and all.

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The Real North Korea: by Andrei Lankov

I’m fascinated by North Korea and have no idea why.   I’ve read 3 books about it now and this is probably the one most fact-based.  The others were  “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson,  and “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”  by Barbara Demick about the lives of six defectors from North Korea.   At this point I feel like I have a fair background in the subject but I’m always watching the news and the new books.

The Real North Korea:  Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia
by Andrei Lankov
2013  / 303 pages
read by Steven Roy Grimsley 10h 59m
rating:  8+  / nonfiction 
(very little listening) 

Andrei Lankov is a Russian scholar of Asia and a world renowned specialist in Korean studies.  He has personal background from his days as a young exchange student from St Petersburg and many subsequent visits.  He currently lives in South Korea from where he writes columns for the English-language daily The Korea Times[6] and for Al Jazeera English.[7]

On Lankov:
NK News:

Lankov presents a fascinating look into the history of North Korea which is really only about 70 years old – since the end of WWII and the partition of Korea.  The Kim family dynasty/monarchy/dictatorship is central starting from the staunchly Stalinist Kim Il Song.  who was appointed by the Stalin at a time when there were very few Communists in North Korea.    His son  Kim Jong Il carried the mantle from Song’s death in 1994 until 2012 when he died leaving the young (age 32)  Kim Jung Un in power.

The section dealing with the differences between the war-end collapses in North Korea and Vietnam  is very interesting as is the family soap opera section.

The individual names of the leaders have changed,  but only some of the over-riding policy has.  Interaction with the world has happened in spite of the efforts to control it.   North Korea is one of the most backward nations on earth and yet it manages to manipulate world attention and concessions.  The people are starving (or were for many years) but the saber-rattling and research-oriented military gets most of the spending because big weapons can scare world neighbors into giving aid,  preferably without effective controls. But if controls are set these can be avoided – and any promises North Korea makes tend to be broken when they become inconvenient.    Basically,  the Kim family is protecting itself.

After four interesting chapters of history of all kinds,  personal and family as well as socio-political and economic,  Lankov moves to the future – what will happen next?   –  What are the priorities of the countries who continue to give North Korea aid- of China and Russia and others,  the US? –  Why does the carrot and the stick not work?  What are North Korea’s priorities?  Why is collapse of some kind inevitable?  And what kind of a collapse will that be,  in what way will reunification be a part of it, or will it?   How will different scenarios work out in terms of nuclear weapons,  immigration,  the Kim family,  etc.

The book is structured with the turn to the future at about 2/3 through and then comes an “Intermission” to preview or prologue the switch.  It works well –  like “Considering what we’ve learned,  what are the various scenarios which could likely transpire in the future?”

Also about the structure there are various magazine style inserts which depict less important aspects of the situation.   “The Sorry Fate of Katya Sintsova”  and “A Flower of Unification”  are two of the titles.

Lankov’s narrative is very well organized and he writes almost like a native,  there are places where a word seems to be missing or a correct verb tense is lost in a complex sentence structure.  Not enough to be really annoying.  It is a bit dryly academic compared to other nonfiction accounts which tend to try to “read like a novel.”   I think this is a matter of taste.   It took quite a while

If you’re interested in North Korea but don’t have a lot of background this is an excellent book to get up to speed.  A few things have happened since 2012, it’s really more of the same,  but there will come a time when it will all change.

Washington Post: 


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Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Second reading – the 1st review is here and … well … this time round I think McCarthy’s book may be theme driven without pretense,  although there is a plot of sorts – and the theme may be there is no theme.   It’s hard to explain.

I often loathe theme-driven novels where the plot is constructed to emphasize the themes. (Graham Greene, Julian Barnes), but other times I love them (Pynchon, some of Richard Powers). This one is interesting in large part because it’s not only theme driven, that’s almost all there is to it.

Satin Island
by Tom McCarthy
2015 / 208 pages
rating 8.5 / contemp fiction
The plot:   A guy named “U” is doing a big project for a corporation – it’s an anthropological project focusing on the
“Present-Tense Anthropology”-  or how does Starbucks figure in the scheme of things and other matters like oil spills and whatnot.  We follow “U” as he ponders a wide variety of things and tries to find patterns or underlying statements about our culture.  That’s the thing – to find the artifact which signifies deeply,  which resonates,  which defines western (Euro-American) civilization – possibly more.   This is a major quest of the Christ and Holy Grail magnitude – to the company anyway.

And the theme?   That’s what “U” is apparently looking for.   What’s going on beneath the surface?  Beneath the surface of everything from the Shroud of Turin which supposedly covered Jesus who left his mark, to the pavements of Paris which is so good for skate-boarding, to unfortunate parachutist deaths, to the Great Report our protagonist, “U,” is supposedly writing.  Is there a pattern in the universe of things, of life? What is the defining thing, artifact, myth, rite, of our times? What if it’s all wrong – there isn’t anything – no patterns,  no signifying artifacts,  no connecting threads,   no matter how deep you go.

It’s a fun book if you don’t work at it too hard – stick with the plot and the theme will appear.
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A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett

What’s a poor orphaned girl,  raised from birth by her grandmother in a country home and then by a guardian named Doctor Leslie,  to do?   Nan Prince dearly wants to be a doctor and although that’s  not likely in 1885 or so,  she doesn’t seem to know it.  The good Doctor  Leslie has always encouraged her,  she did well in school,  she made a commitment and she found a college.

The twist is that our heroine’s deceased father’s sister enters the picture and Miss Prince has her own ideas of what young ladies ought to set their caps on.   George Gerry seems ideal – at least to Miss Prince.


A Country Doctor
by Sarah Orne Jewett
1884 /  304 pages
read by Kate Reading  7h 58m
rating:  8  /  US classic
(read and listened)

*finished 5/28 or so)

There’s more to this book than that – Jewett is a fascinating author and there are several chapters specifically related to feminist and Christian issues – Chapter 9 needs a reread as  does Chapter 13.

Among the themes Jewett touches on are the role of women in society as well as how a woman can achieve both family and career if they are so called.    “… all people, regardless of sex, receive individual vocational calls”

NOTES >>>>> 

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The Portable Veblen

Hugely funny, insightful, and rather sweet tale of advanced medical technology, San Francisco Bay area (from Paso Robles to Humboldt Couny) socio-economics, love, Thorsten Veblen, Norwegian, and squirrels.

The Portable Veblen 
by Elizabeth McKenzie
2016/ 448 pages
Rating:  8  (for the fun) / contemporary fiction
Veblen Amundson-Hovda and Paul (last name?) are engaged to be married, but they have some problems to work out. First, she is a lowly temp worker, a secretary, who works free lance at translations from Norwegian while he is a brilliant medical researcher.  Next, she is a great protector of squirrels and other wildlife, while his studies use animals in research testing.  Also of serious concern, both families are hugely dysfunctional. Veblen is the only child of a hypochondriacal mother and a man who is hospitalized for psychiatric reasons.  Paul’s older brother has some kind of physical and mental disorder while his parents are aging hippies with the associated reliance on pot and other chemicals.
Veblen lives in old Palo Alto where she managed to rent a tiny run-down house on Tasso Street  and stay within her budget. Her mother and stepfather live somewhere in the Santa Cruz mountains, while her father resides at a mental hospital in Paso Robles.
Paul lives in an upscale apartment in Mountain View (but moves in with Veblen in Palo Alto) and his work is associated with Stanford in Palo Alto and the Veteran’s Administration in Menlo Park. His parents still live where he grew up in Garberville, near Arcata, a very small old hippy-type town in Northern California.
Paul and Veblen tentatively plan to get married at the Atherton estate of Paul’s new “supervisor,” Cloris Hutmatcher. (Atherton includes one of the top 2 most expensive zip code in the US. It also has a large number of very old homes.)
Both Paul and Veblen struggle with their families.  Veblen’s mother is hugely demanding for her hypochondriacal ailments – her issues must always come first.  Paul’s parents devote their complete ex-hippie lives and pot-head attention to his older brother who has serious special needs.  Paul develops the attitudes of a conservative medical researcher buying completely into the consumer culture while Veblen seems to care more for the squirrels on her property than herself.

This is a really feel-good novel but the reader has to be open to some strange and dysfunctional  relationships.   I loved it.

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