Books, Boston, October

Well, Dear Readers, I’ve had quite the literary month, getting out and about much more than I usually do in my quiet life. Perhaps you’d like the rundown? If so:

Hamlet: Yes, that one. I thought, London travel not exactly in my budget, that Benedict Cumberbatch as the brooding Dane was not a performance I’d be able to see. And then by chance I heard it was going to show in movie theaters, after which I promptly bought the last two tickets for that showing.

Verdict: Very good. Mr. Cumberbatch was intense, thrilling, athletic, funny, outshining most of the cast with the exception of the fabulous Ciarán Hinds (aka Frederick Wentworth in the only film adaptation of Persuasion you need to see) as Claudius. I wasn’t sold on this production’s take on Ophelia (played a bit unhinged before Polonius’s death), but her final exit was remarkably well done. I agree with the review my husband told me about later that suggested the play was overproduced after intermission. Still, nice set design, and I liked the costuming, which seemed like a bit of an homage to various earlier interpretations of the play. Funniest Rosencrantz (or was it Guildenstern?) I’ve ever seen.

I hear it’s coming back to theaters; if so, do go.

Nick Offerman: Okay, technically he was doing his humorist act (sans spouse Megan Mullally, sigh), but I’m calling this literary since he’s written two books (one of which is waiting on my nightstand/bookshelf to be read) and he’s in rehearsals for a Boston theatrical adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces.

Verdict: Very Good. Funny (of course), with ridiculous songs, anecdotes, life advice, talk of woodworking, etc. Basically, it was like watching an alternate-universe version of Ron Swanson who actually enjoys the company of others. Best moment: He didn’t mention Parks & Rec until the very end (and you know how much I love that show, right?), but then had the entire audience singing along to “Bye, Bye Lil’ Sebastian.” Yeah, it was amazing.

Boston Book Festival

This is the first year I’ve been able to spend more than ten minutes at the BBF, and I’m very glad I did, though I din’t see much of the vendors (magazines, small presses, etc.) since they tore down pretty early on Saturday evening (just after 5). However . . .

Margaret Atwood in conversation with Kelly Link: So happy I got tickets this summer, because the crowd was huge (and appreciative).

Verdict: Excellent. Margaret Atwood is hilarious–just truly, wickedly funny, and Kelly Link was understatedly comic as she asked really interesting questions. I was expecting the conversation to focus mostly on The Heart Goes Last, Ms. Atwood’s most recent book, but instead it ranged over her childhood reading habits, how she approaches writing (like going into a dark wood, and with a character or scene in mind, not a message), reading the Victorians, and more. Wonderful. And bonus: both writers did a signing afterward, and Ms. Atwood signed my 1970 copy of an early book of poems (yes, I did tell her that I liked her Milton references in the new book, and she said “I’m glad.” Swoon).

James Wood: Mr. Wood is a professor at Harvard and a literary critic for the New Yorker; some would argue (and have) that he’s the foremost literary critic writing in English. His approach is aesthetic rather than, say, historical or psychological.

Verdict: Very good. I haven’t heard an academic talk in quite some time, and this one was geared toward a wide audience, but one that would understand references to Flaubert and Nabokov, for instance. Mr. Wood talked about detail in fiction—why details stick with us after we read, how they function, why they function. Fascinating (and just when I was starting to worry that he wasn’t going to mention any woman writers, he referred to nearly half a dozen). He also did a signing at the end of the event, which was delightful since I’d just picked up his new book (The Nearest Thing to Life).

Colum McCann in conversation with Claire Messud: Amazingly, given how popular these two authors are, this event wasn’t ticketed, but there was once more a lively and interested crowd (great job by the BBF organizers in making sure the audio was top-notch). Colum McCann’s most lauded book to date is probably Let the Great World Spin (I haven’t read it, but loved Everything in This Country Must). Claire Messud is an acclaimed novelist, most recently of The Woman Upstairs (she also happens to be married to James Wood, who spoke just before this event).

Verdict: Good. The writers are friends and former colleaugues, which made for a relaxed rapport. Mr. McCann read from his new book (Thirteen Ways of Looking), and while his reading was very well done and affecting, I though it slowed down the pace of the conversation. I was interested to learn about the charity called Narrative 4 that he works co-founded, and saddened to hear of a terrible incident in which he was brutally beaten for trying to stop a man from beating his wife.

Amanda Palmer interviewed by Neil Gaiman: I’ll be honest with you, Dear Readers: I came for Neil Gaiman, one of the most reliably readable authors working today. And charming and philanthropic and all that good stuff. To be honest, I had, before hearing this talk, almost no opinion on Amanda Palmer (Mr. Gaiman is her husband), though I know she provokes Feelings of all sorts in various people (generally love or hate, from what I can tell).

Verdict: Very good. Ms. Palmer talked about the process of writing her memoir, The Art of Asking, and seemed no more self-indulgent than anyone else who’s interested in writing a memoir. She was genuine, honest (as far as this listener could tell), amusing, and shared a charming rapport with Mr. Gaiman. At the end of the talk, I decided I’d rather like to read her book, so well done there. Bonus: An appearance by Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings, which I commend to you; Ms. Popova has every metaphysician/Jeopardy nerd’s dream job), tempered slightly by I think a too-rosy view of Thoreau. Bonus 2: Ms. Palmer sang, and I loved her voice, which I was hearing for the first time (yes, your friendly neighborhood blogger was not cool enough to be listening to the Dresden Dolls in high school).

[Boston book blogging friends: Meet up next year at the 2016 Boston Book Festival?]

Whew. And that’s all she wrote. For now.

Recommended Reading: H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

photo (29)Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk* is the best book I’ve read this year. It is simply stunning, and I suggest you go out and get a copy right now.

Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and a bestseller in the United Kingdom, H is for Hawk is described as part memoir, part natural history, and part literary history (I’d also add that it’s a study of the English landscape). In it, Ms. Macdonald takes readers through the harrowing months after her father’s sudden death in 2007, when stunned by the loss, she decided to distract herself from grief by training a goshawk, a notoriously difficult (and deadly) bird that she had never worked with before.

As Helen finds herself submerging into the hawk’s world, she also becomes immersed in T.H. White’s book The Goshawk, and with White himself. Best known now for The Once and Future King, White was a deeply troubled man who failed spectacularly when it came to training his goshawk, and as Helen explores his life we see the way his relationship with his hawk diverges from her relationship with her own goshawk, Mabel. While White, furious with his own life, seemed determined to make the hawk into his mirror, Helen runs from death and grief by nearly becoming the hawk—a futile pursuit, since the hawk is a death on wings. Surfacing proves immensely difficult.

photo (30)

Reading in the air, which seemed particularly appropriate in this instance.

I feel that I’m not explaining this book very well. Perhaps it would help if I told you that I dislike birds–they are, as Ms. Macdonald points out, essentially flying dinosaurs. I find their reptilian feet and eyes unnerving and their silence creepy (I like the twittering and what-not, romantic that I am). But I could not tear myself away from the descriptions of Mabel’s grace and prowess, and the complicated workings of her body and behavior. Reading H is for Hawk made me think for a full minute about trying falconry one day (more on that below).

That I found the book difficult to read at times is another testament to just how good it is. Having experienced sudden bereavement myself, I deeply admired Ms. Macdonald’s courage in telling it–blinding grief, that is–like it is, in all its ugliness, while at the same time I found myself drawing back at the painful thought of losing my own father, with whom I am very close. H is for Hawk is a moving testament to the love and life of Ms. Macdonald’s parents, especially her father, who encouraged and shared his daughter’s passion for observing the world, wild and otherwise, and noting all its detail.

Those years of watching and noticing are beautifully rendered in Ms. Macdonald’s clear, vivid prose, which ranges from fierce to tremulous and back again. That she is also a poet is no surprise. Here’s her description of her first sight of Mabel, as the box holding the hawk opens:

Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box an in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. (53)

photo (32)At her well-attended first U.S. reading on Tuesday night at Harvard Bookstore, Ms. Macdonald read this passage and tipped her hat to Shakespeare (Referring to “fretful porpentine”: “That just dropped in there. I just wanted to say thank you, Mr. Shakespeare.”), which, combined with her self-deprecating humor (After an anecdote about showing birds of prey to schoolchildren: “Hawks are about 3000 percent more cool than I am, but they don’t talk very well.”) pretty much made me want to take her out to dinner to talk Hamlet and libraries. For those of you who read audiobooks, I can highly recommend this one, since Ms. Macdonald’s voice is perfectly suited to her material. In person she is funny, charming, and full of insight about books and birds and conservation. Falconers, it turns out, are great conservationists, and Ms. Macdonald makes a strong case both for how we tend to “give animals our meanings” (at the reading) and how “the wild can be human work” (H is for Hawk, 12).

I’m pleased as punch to have met her, though I do regret my shyness prevented me from asking about her favorite recipes for rabbit and pheasant.

photo (31)(By the way, longtime readers of the blog will note that I hardly ever get out to readings; they tend to fall in the middle of bedtime for Mr. H the toddler, and I always miss the ticketed ones at Harvard Bookstore. It’s a measure of how great this book is that I made it my business to get to the reading, with an assist from the intrepid Mr. O and the bookstore, which thankfully didn’t require tickets this time.)

I highly, highly recommend H is for Hawk.

If you’re looking for more on the book, check out:

This review (with cool pictures of Mabel) by someone who actually knows something about birds

This interview (with excerpt) on NPR

The Grove Atlantic author book tour schedule

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.