Review of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Image result for h is for hawkH is for Hawk is hard to categorize. It is part-memoir and part-biography. The author, Helen Macdonald, is a naturalist and professional hawker, who, after the death of her father, decided to train a notoriously unruly bird of prey: a goshawk. But her personal story is punctuated by passages from the fictions and memoirs of T.H. White. The author of The Once and Future King also attempted to train a goshawk.

As a child, Helen Macdonald was obsessed with birds of prey. She read 17th-century books on falconry and was conversant with the specialized vocabulary of the trade. Her father Alisdair, a British photojournalist for the Daily Mirror, taught her to consider the world from different angles and from different heights. Thus, Macdonald attributes her passion for falconry to her father.

Unlike Macdonald, T.H. White was not a professional austringer. There seems to have been a number of psychological reasons for his fascination with birds of prey. White was a homosexual, with sadistic tendencies. Macdonald references White’s story throughout her memoir because she feels a certain affinity to the early 20th-century author. She too struggles with guilt, loneliness, and depression.

Macdonald is a brilliant prose-writer. Although I don’t usually grab for memoirs, I was hooked from page one. In one of my favorite passages in the book, Macdonald attempts to understand why early modern austringers insisted on describing goshawks as fractious and emotional. Sure, Mabel the goshawk has her days, but Macdonald is surprised by the words goshawk experts have used throughout history to describe a bird of prey. “Capricious”, “emotional”, and “spiteful” are adjectives that have also been used to describe women. H is for Hawk is noteworthy for its humanistic approach to nature writing.

Nevertheless, Macdonald makes assumptions about White’s personality that didn’t always sit well with me. Although White struggled with his sexuality, I am wary of Freudian interpretations of a person’s life. I suspect that White fought with his goshawk Gus not only because he had an impatient personality but also because he was not a professional falconer; he did not have experience training other birds of prey. Finally, Macdonald’s analysis of T.H. White felt a bit unfair. A memoir is a very intimate genre. The author is the most frank with her reader. I wish that Macdonald had stuck to telling her own story, because White already told his in his own memoirs.

Despite my frustration with the passages on T.H. White, I know many readers who loved Mcdonald’s take on the author of the Once and Future King. I am certainly glad that I read H is for Hawk because the writing was beautiful and the descriptions of depression were on-point. Macdonald has also inspired me to read T.H. White’s The Goshawk in the near future. I consider that a successful book.

Memoir, Modern Detour

Review of Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

Image result for redefining realnessRedefining Realness is Janet Mock’s memoir of growing up as a poor, multiracial, trans woman in Hawaii. As you can imagine, this is a difficult book for me to review since it is an autobiography. Instead, I will simply describe my overall impression of the book.

What was it about?

Janet Mock is a trans activist who began her career writing for Marie Claire. Her memoir Redefining Realness chronicles her struggles growing up transgender and poor in a society that was only just beginning to address trans rights. Her father does not live responsibly, and her mother gets into relationships with men who go in and out of prison.

From a young age, her parents and siblings notice that Janet (born Charles) does not behave like other boys. She wants to be a secretary and prefers feminine clothing. Her step brother begins to sexually abuse her at the age of 9. When she does start transitioning at 15, her teachers and classmates are not tolerant. However, she does make friends with other trans individuals and participates in a trans support group. Eventually, she makes enough money while in college (through sex work) to pay for gender reassignment surgery in Thailand.


This is a very graphic memoir. Everything from sexual abuse to sex work is described in detail. But this is Janet Mock’s story. Often, the trans individuals whose voices we hear in the media are white and came from middle to upper class families. Mock wants to bring attention to the majority of trans individuals who do not come from such privileged backgrounds. Many do not have the money to undergo hormone replacement therapy or have reassignment surgery, so they have even more difficulty integrating into society.

I definitely live a very sheltered life. Mock never has a stable home growing up, and has parents who do drugs. She makes choices that most of us would condemn. But there are structures in every society that prevent people from doing the right thing. When we ignore the influence these structures have on marginalized groups we end up blaming the victim.

I am still learning about gender and sexuality. I noticed while I was reading the memoir that I often thought of the trans individuals mentioned as becoming a certain gender. But that is not how trans individuals understand their gender. Mock does not thing she changed from being a boy to a girl. She has always understood herself as a girl.

Perhaps the greatest challenge I had reading this book (apart from the graphic language and descriptions) was relating to Mock’s definition of femininity. I have never cared much about clothing, makeup, or pop culture. I dress fairly androgynously most of the time and spend my money on books. But I’m also aware that many women do feel pressured by societal standards and by advertisement to look a certain way.  I began to be aware of my privilege not only as a cis woman but as a woman who for whatever reason does not feel threatened by the media’s representation of women. I wonder sometimes whether I can appreciate certain initiative in the feminist movement because of my gender neutral presentation, but that’s a topic for another time…

I don’t think I will reread this memoir. This is a book that you read once and give away. The writing is also pretty awful. Still, it took a lot of courage for Mock to write so honestly about her life. I worry how the most recent election in America will affect LGBTQ individuals. If you, like me, are still learning about gender and/or sexuality and are OK with reading something as graphic as Redefining Realness, I recommend Mock’s memoir. We need to listen to and learn from people whose voices are deliberately silenced by society.

I read this book for  The Literary Others reading challenge hosted last month by Adam @ Roof Beam Reader.

Memoir, Wiesel, Elie

Review of Open Heart by Elie Wiesel

What was it about?

While recovering from an emergency heart surgery, the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel meditates on hope, death, family, and God. He asks yet again whether there is hope for a just and peaceful world. Wiesel has done much in his life to promote peace and reconciliation. Still, he wonders where God was at Auschwitz. At the end of a long life Wiesel wants to know that his fight has not been in vain.

What did I think of it?

On July 2, 2016 Elie Wiesel passed away. He did so much to make the world a better place for future generations. His harrowing memoir Night recounts his experience in German death camps during the Holocaust (1944-1945). His mother and youngest sister perished in the gas chambers. He and his father were preserved from the chambers, but his father eventually perished as well. At the age of 82 Wiesel continues to ask himself where God was during the Holocaust and during every other atrocity in history. Open Heart is short and probably not as profound as his other works, but it is still worth reading. He doesn’t say anything original, but the book is all the more powerful for being written by a Holocaust survivor. It is incredible how he can still have faith after all that he experienced. America has witnessed so much suffering in recent years. Wiesel gives me encouragement to work for a more just society. He gives me hope that ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ (to quote Robert Burns) can finally and permanently be overcome by love.

Literary Fiction, Memoir, Saint-Exupery, Antoine de

Review of Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

What was it about?

Terre des Hommes is a memoir by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry about his career working as a pilot for the airmail carrier Aéropostale. The longest story in the memoir recounts his 1935 plane crash in the Sahara. Antoine and his navigator André Prévot survived for days in the desert without food and water. Terre des Hommes is dedicated to the author’s friend Henri Guillaumet, whose plane crash in the Andes mountains of Argentina is also recounted in the book. Like Courrier Sud (Southern Mail)Terre des Hommes describes the beautiful but often melancholic and dangerous life of a pilot in the early years of flight.

What did I think of it?

As you may know, my favorite book of all time is Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), so naturally I begin all of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s other works with very high expectations. Nevertheless, I have never been disappointed by anything written by this author. His prose is ridiculously gorgeous and his philosophy on life is much-needed today. Since reading Terre des Hommes, I have started noticing the connection between details in the author’s personal life and events in Le Petit Prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry loved being a pilot, but he suffered a lot. He was stranded without food and water in the desert, lost friends to flight, suffered from alcoholism and depression, and finally died in the Mediterranean sea during a reconnaissance mission in 1944. Parts of his plane were finally discovered in 2000. Terre des Hommes only tells us a part of his story, but in just over two hundred pages Antoine de Saint-Exupéry captures the magic of flight and reveals the desires of the human heart.

Favorite Quote

“Être homme, c’est précisément être responsable. C’est connaître la honte en face d’une misère qui ne semblait pas dépendre de soi. C’est être fier d’une victoire que les camarades ont remportée. C’est sentir, en posant sa pierre, que l’on contribue à bâtir le monde.”

[To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems to be unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one’s comrades. It is to feel, when setting one’s stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world.]


Lewis, C.S., Memoir

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

I will not be writing a review of A Grief Observed in the way that I usually write book reviews. Instead I will share with you what I wrote on Goodreads.

515MO-yZzLLMy Goodreads Reflection

Over the years I have come to love and respect C.S. Lewis more than any other Christian thinker/writer because unlike the others, Lewis recognized his limitations as a mortal being. He insisted that The Chronicles of Narnia were a “thought experiment” rather than an allegory because he didn’t want his readers to think that he knew more than they did about God and salvation. He wrote The Screwtape Letters from the perspective of the devil because “the devil is a liar.” The protagonist was not God because Lewis didn’t want to lead others astray by making the God character say things that were untrue. He recognized the responsibility that comes with being a Christian writer. Once again, Lewis didn’t want his readers to think that he was a greater Christian than they were. He wrote much about his faith, but he was humble.

A Grief Observed is powerful because Lewis is so brutally honest with his feelings. He doesn’t pretend that everything’s OK because his wife is with God. I imagine anyone can benefit from reading this book, but for me it was extremely powerful because I have experienced a loss in my life. I am so grateful that someone had the courage to put into words some of the feels that I experienced. Death is frightening and heartbreaking. I doubted the goodness of God many times. There’s no denying that. And Lewis doesn’t deny his feelings and doubts either. If only more Christian writers were as honest with their readers.