Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Reading roundup

From best to worst...

The Goshawk
T.H. White
Filled with humor, pathos, and damn good writing, White's account of his attempt to train a hunting hawk is justly lauded as a classic. Audaciously and naively, White convinced himself that he could train this most difficult of raptors through book learning and a kind of boy-scout can-do-ism. You will have to read the book to find out whether he was correct. His realism about nature's savagery is unflinching, but it is tempered by a touching sentimentalism. He offers up live pigeons as bait for the hawks he hopes to capture, but grows oddly attached to one of them and is unable to tether it in the trap– nonetheless, a hapless substitute takes its place. He eulogizes a female badger killed by fox hunters. His description of the maggots roiling in a sheep's carcass– easily the stomach-churning equal of G√ľnter Grass's eels in The Tin Drum– displays an admiration for their work that is only partly ironic. His depictions of the English countryside– its vegetation, miserable climate, and folkways– are vivid. He cites specific passages to prove that Shakespeare really knew his falconry. I reckon I should have read The Goshawk before Helen Macdonald's very fine H is for Hawk. Both books leave you wondering whether the connection between austringer* and goshawk is true love or pure delusion. If you have read neither book before, by all means read them both, and start with White's.

A Fairly Good Time
Mavis Gallant
I have nothing against novels in which nothing really happens, but this one left me bemused. Shirley, a young Canadian woman in Paris, is trying to figure out whether her French second husband has really left her. Will you care about the answer? I can't say I did, exactly, but then, I found myself reading it to the end. There's something about this Shirley that makes you want to get to know her better.

Amnesia Moon
Jonathan Lethem
It's California sometime in the not-too-distant future, and something has happened to make everything pretty weird. It may have something to do with aliens, or maybe not– we never meet them. Everything gets more confusing, and you start skimming ahead to see if it all might make sense or have a point. Nope.

Selected Poems
A.R. Ammons
This little hardback from the American Poets Project fits comfortably in your hands and promises a selection of pieces by this most musical and thoughtful of modern poets. What's not to like? Alas, the book's compact format is its undoing. For Ammons, like many moderns, line breaks are unconventional and very important to the sound and meaning of the verse. When the page is so narrow that many lines must be wrapped, it becomes unclear which line breaks are intentional vs. arbitrary. What were they thinking?

* A falconer who uses accipiters (such as the goshawk).

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