W is for Wild

For an urban dweller whose forays into the natural world are, more often than not, limited to irregular visits to the beach, walks in the park and working in my demanding garden, Helen Macdonald’s memoir H Is for Hawk was a revelation. A taste of the wild, like a cold keen wind from a far off place where humankind is peripheral. I found it fascinating, weird at times and somehow refreshing. I should mention that it was the Costa Book of the Year for 2014.

Cover of H is for HawkThe book describes a period in Macdonald’s life when her father dies suddenly and she falls into a deep and disorienting grief. In an attempt to find her feet again she buys a goshawk and sets about taming it. Not as strange as it may sound! As a young girl she had spent hours watching sparrow hawks with her father and in her 20s had become an experienced falconer. The hawk “was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life”.

What follows is an absorbing, brilliantly and beautifully written account of her life submitted to the needs and habits of a tamed, but essentially wild, predator. A time which takes her to the edge of madness and back. During the training of “Mabel” – an ironically genteel name – Macdonald occasionally and frighteningly finds herself losing her sense of human self.

To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so you come to understand it’s moods. Then you gain the ability to predict what it will do next….Eventually you don’t see the hawk’s body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. Notice what it notices. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own… I had to put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, and as the days passed in the darkened room, my humanity was burning away.

Well, it seems that’s what she wanted in her dark time of loss. However she does come out the other side and Mabel is integral to her healing. Not a method you’ll find in the self help books. Interweaving her own story is a biographical tale of the author T H White (The Once and Future King, The Goshawk) who, also in a search for peace within himself, engaged in agonisingly unsuccessful attempts at hawk taming. And woven through all of this again are fascinating accounts, and the arcane language, of falconry history. A rich tapestry of a read.

Cover of Ocean notoriousAfter quaffing some rather more domestic reads the next “wild” book to catch my eye was Ocean Notorious by Christchurch writer Matt Vance. Vance is an intrepid sailor, expedition guide, photographer and fabulous writer with a long standing passion for the Southern Ocean. This is the ocean at our back doorstep, which most of us never encounter, apart from icy blasts blowing in from the south-east. It is the most feared body of water on our planet, infamous for it’s raging winds, monstrous waves and horizontal rain. But people willingly, even eagerly, go there!

Vance takes us to our neighbour islands, closer to our shores than Australia: the Auckland, Bounty, Antipodes, Campbell and Macquarie Islands then on to the wilderness that is Antarctica. He introduces us to people have gone there and sometimes never returned – ocean explorers, polar explorers, sealing gangs, Second World War coast watchers, crazy-brave sailors, wildlife enthusiasts, conservationists, research scientists, artists, writers.

Festival made accessible

Catalogue search for Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami in audiobook formatAbout now you may be wondering what happened to your good intentions of reading all those interesting books by those fascinating authors you heard about at WORD Christchurch or missed out on hearing at Auckland Writers Festival. Never fear, a solution is near!

Listen to your festival favourites

You may have not enough hours in the day to sit by the fire and read your fill of festival authors but help is at hand. You need not miss out on this year’s Auckland festival headliner Haruki Murakami. Try listening to his work in an audiobook. We have him available in downloadable audiobook from Overdrive and on CD.

Catalogue search for Hard-boiled wonderland and the end of the world by Haruki Murakami i n audiobook formatFill in your spare moments on the bus or in the car, or while you vacuum the house, rake the leaves or paint the fence, or while exercising the dog or yourself by listening to an audiobook. If you have had a particularly tiring day and find you’re too tired to read, rather than turning on the television, snuggle up in a chair with an audiobook and soon you will be relaxed. Having trouble sleeping? My mother swears by lulling English voices as a sure-fire cure for insomnia.

Often audiobooks and large print titles have no reserve list so while others are waiting for a print edition, get ahead of the crowd. Better still, even if there is a wait list downloadable audiobooks on Overdrive do not have a reserve charge.

Catalogue search for H is for Hawke by Helen MacDonald in audiobook formatOverdrive is one of our suppliers of audiobooks and ebooks. You can find all their titles in our catalogue.

As well as Murakami, you might also try Booker Prize-winning novelist Ben Okri whose novel The Age of Magic has been newly released and is available on CD. Sometimes the CD format can be limiting as it requires you to be stationary. Happily we have Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk as an ISIS audiobook that is a clever format which you can download to your laptop and transfer to your MP3 player, freeing you up to listen to it anywhere.

The thousand autumns of Joseph de Zoet in audiobook formatA standout from Word Christchurch was the charming David Mitchell. Your ears can ring with the sounds and atmosphere of old Japan listening to his exotic enthralling tale The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet on CD.



Large print – easy to read!

If reading is difficult at night when the light is bad, or because you struggle with print at the end of a tiring day spent staring at a computer screen, large print may be the answer! Why not try David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green or The Thousand Autumn’s of Joseph de Zoet or Xinran’s touching Miss Chopsticks.

Walliams in audio and large print formats

Book cover for Demon Dentist by David Walliams in Playaway formatNothing like a bedtime story so why not borrow one of our children’s titles by the hit author David Walliams in an audiobook format to lull your darlings to sleep? We have audiobooks on CD, preloaded mp3 players, and downloadable audiobooks for your enjoyment.

If you have a child who is yet to find their stride with reading a wonderful way to introduce the love of books is by reading along to an audiobook so why not borrow the book and the audiobook together? We have Demon Dentist as a Playaway, a preloaded audiobook in its own wee player. All you or your child has to do is press play and you can carry it around with you. Ideal for children who are always on the move.

If small print is an obstacle try these David Walliams titles in large print.

Catalogue search for Mr Stink by David Walliams in large printCatalogue search for Ratburger by David Walliams in large print formatThe boy in the dress by David Walliams in Large Print format

More festival goodies

What wild and wonderful creature would you be?

H is for HawkHelen Macdonald, the author of H is for Hawk, would be a goshawk.

She knew this from the age of nine, when after a visit to the zoo with her parents, they had to peel her fat little fingers from the wire of the birdcage and carry her sobbing home. She did not want to leave the birds.

After the sudden death of her father, she took off into a remote area of England with only her newly purchased goshawk, Mabel, for company. In last night’s WORD Christchurch event she took us through her year. And what a year it was – solitary, quite mad, running in the wild with her bird, eating bird-catch and stale pancakes, covered in mud and scratches and passing her time observing Mabel and playing games with her.

Her book covers all of this. Her take on grief:

Grief is love with nowhere to go

Her references to a seminal book The Goshawk by T. H. White – a deeply disturbed man whom Helen at times felt she might be turning into, and her take on falconry. Halfway through I began to wonder what wild animal I would most identify with and like to be. I started with the Big Five – nononononono, then I tried the Little Five – no, horse NO ostrich – maybe … but no.

Throughout Helen Macdonald was a joy to listen to and I was second in line to have my copy of her book signed. When I got to the signing table (and in typical Roberta style), I heard my mouth asking Helen: When will I know what my signature animal is? I am beginning to fear it is a Scottish Terrier.

She looked up, moved her head from side to side like a focussing hawk, stared down her suddenly beakish-looking nose and said: A Scottish Terrier would be good.

And that is why I love Literary Festivals, you enter the venue as a jaded library assistant and you leave as a Scottish Terrier being hunted down by a hawk!

The goshawk and the scottish terrier.

Four quick questions with Helen Macdonald – author of “H is for Hawk”

Cover of H is  for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald has being doing the business – literary awards, bestseller lists, and LOTS of reader love.

We asked her four quick questions ahead of her visit to Christchurch next Tuesday 12 May, as part of WORD Christchurch’s Autumn Season (get your tickets now!)

She will also be at the Auckland Writers Festival and the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival.

What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?

This is my first time in New Zealand, so I’ll probably behave like an overexcited small child rushing around trying to see everything. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to appear with Steve Braunias at the evening event, and can’t wait to meet people and talk with them afterwards. But naturally I want to see the city too. Visit the museum, walk the streets. And of course, there’re the birds! I’m a total bird geek, so I’ll be bringing my field guide, and if there’s time I’ll probably go off to a local forest or reserve and have a wander about with my binoculars, see what I can see.

What do you think about libraries?

They’re so important! So many are closing in the UK and it’s a very depressing state of affairs. I live near Cambridge and am lucky to have access to one of the great research libraries of the world. The library in my local town is very different: packed with novels, dvds, audiobooks, people piecing together jigsaws on tables, children sitting and reading on mats, and noticeboards full of local events. It’s a proper community hub, and I love it.

What would be your “desert island book”?

The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Not an original choice, but, you know. It has to be.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

I’m incredibly allergic to mammals. Pretty much all of them: dogs, cats, foxes, deer, even rabbits and hares. They’re my kryptonite. Horses are the worst. I live near Newmarket, the home of British horseracing, and quite often I’ll start sneezing uncontrollably in the supermarket because some jockey or other has walked past. I’d have been a very sickly person indeed if we still used horses as regular transport!
Helen Macdonald

More about Helen Macdonald

WORD Christchurch recommends:

Oh my WORD!

Cover of ReachThis morning in a café, three of my favourite things came together for a sort of a bookish group-hug.

First there was the cappuccino, then a book: Reach by Laurence Fearnley, and finally a delicious little custard tart. Life is good. Three ladies came across to find out what I was reading. I love when that happens. Then an elderly man joined in and said that he knew Laurence Fearnley and her parents but he didn’t like her writing. Mountain men don’t argue, he said of  The Hut Builder. She got it wrong. By now the whole coffee shop was becoming quite intrigued.

Cover of H is for HawkAnd that is is exactly the sort of thing that happens at a literary festival such as the up-and-coming WORD Christchurch Autumn Season from 13th to 17th May. That same shared interest in books, authors, reading and ideas. And it’s why I wouldn’t miss attendance for all the world.

This time, I’ve got my sights set on Helen MacDonald and her talk on her memoir H is for Hawk. This is a book about the author’s grieving for her father, a photographer, whose last photo was taken as he collapsed and died.

Grief stricken, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for GBP800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge. Then she fills the freezer with hawk food and unplugs the phone, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals.

Cover of The Year of Magical thinkingThe only other book that I have read which deals specifically with grief and grieving is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Both MacDonald and Didion, so suddenly bereft, embark on their own spiritual journeys to come to grips with loss. The first words Didion wrote after her husband’s death are:

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

At the WORD Festival event I attended in Christchurch last year, I bought the first copy of Reach that had ever been sold. I know that because I was there when Fearnley told me, and inscribed those words in my new purchase.

Who knows what bookish joys await me at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season this month. See you there!