Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
As has become my tradition, I’m starting 2018 by recounting my favorite reading experiences from 2017. (That doesn’t mean these books were released in 2017, by the way.)
Oh, and I have an announcement at the bottom of this page about some changes we’re making to the blog. So if you’re not inclined to read about my favorite books, feel free to scroll to the bottom.
Now, back to talking about books.
For me, I had two standouts.
H is for Hawk makes my 2017 Favorite Books List
*One of the New York Times Book Review‘s 10 Best Books of the Year
*ON MORE THAN 25 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR LISTS: including TIME (#1 Nonfiction Book), NPR, O, The Oprah Magazine (10 Favorite Books), Vogue (Top 10), Vanity Fair, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle (Top 10), Miami Herald, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Minneapolis Star Tribune (Top 10), Library Journal (Top 10), Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Slate, Shelf Awareness, Book Riot, Amazon (Top 20)
* Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award
* Shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction
* Finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Award in Nonfiction
* The Costa Book of the Year
* Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize
What the book is about
Brit Helen Macdonald writes this memoir and nature book as she reflects on how her father’s death sent her into a tailspin. Struggling to regain control of her life, she decides to raise one of the most challenging creatures to tame, a goshawk named Mabel. As Macdonald devotes herself to this daunting task, she finds Mabel pulls her into the outdoors and makes her observant about life–and death. For goshawk’s must hunt. Without hunting, they become despondent. So Macdonald enters into the quest for Mabel’s meals eventually with such zest that she actually assists Mabel in a twisted and disturbing manner to win the foraging battles. In an odd way the relationship with Mabel pulls the author back from depression and into life and able to process the loss of her father.
Why I am enthralled with it
As off-putting as that description might make the book seem, it’s masterfully written. Sentence after sentence took my breath away. Here are a few samples of writing clean, simple descriptions that clear the way for meaty imagery that moves from shocking to beautiful.
On the second page of the book, Macdonald writes that few people see a goshawk make a kill. “But maybe you have: maybe you’ve glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon, or a blackbird, or a magpie, and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you have ever seen, like someone’s tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.” Or again, on the next page: “Have you ever watched a deer walking out from cover? They step, stop, and stay, motionless, nose to the air, looking and smelling. A nervous twitch might run down their flanks. And then, reassured that all is safe, they ankle their way out of the brush to graze.”
And I cared about not only Macdonald and Mabel, with her fiercely wild heart, but also about T. H. White, an arthurian novelist and falconer who chronicled his falconry attempts in books that Macdonald had loved since a child. That the author is able to create such a clear link between her work with a goshawk and White’s with his is part of what makes the book exquisite. And heartbreaking. For White fails to train his goshawk and loses her to the wild when his patience is overtaken by personal demons.
Why others were enraptured by it
Critics wrote about H is for Hawk in this way:
“Breathtaking . . . Helen Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence—and her own—with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering.” —Vicki Constantine Croke, New York Times Book Review (cover review)
“Helen Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book, H Is for Hawk, reminds us that excellent nature writing can lay bare some of the intimacies of the wild world as well. Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative. . . . [An] instant classic.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times
“Captivating and beautifully written, it’s a meditation on the bond between beasts and humans and the pain and beauty of being alive.” —People (Book of the Week)
And finally, be prepared
I hope some of what I’ve written about H is for Hawk prepares you for one aspect of the book that set me back on my heels: It’s full of bloody honesty. About what it’s like to watch a goshawk go in for the kill. About what it’s like when Macdonald loses her sense of humanity and becomes too connected to Mabel. And about what it’s like to feel that death has its talons in you and won’t let go. The author writes about all this dispassionately, as from a great distance, which happens to be true. She wrote looking back on how she recovered her sense of self through the rough ministrations of Mabel.
Lab Girl makes my 2017 Favorite Books List
I wrote about Lab Girl recently so I won’t go into great detail about it here. But you can read more here.
Just as a quick reminder, this also is a memoir. I guess 2017 turned into a bit of a memoir fest for me.
*Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography
*A New York Times Notable Book
*Winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru Science Books & Film Prize for Excellence in Science Books
*Finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
*One of the Best Books of the Year: The Washington Post, TIME.com, NPR, Slate, Entertainment Weekly, Newsday, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kirkus Reviews
What the book is about
Amazon’s review of the book did a fine job of summarizing it, so I’m going to offer a portion of the reviewer’s words to you rather than my own.
“I was doubtful that I would like this book. While I appreciate a beautiful flower as much as the next city-girl, the thought of reading a whole book about a geobiologist– a scientist who spends her life studying plants, trees, soils as well as flowers–made me want to run to the nearest dysfunctional family memoir about crazy parents and their wounded children. But Hope Jahren won me over very quickly. Somehow she knows me: “the average person [who] cannot imagine himself staring at dirt for longer than the twenty seconds needed to pick up whatever object he just dropped.” And she doesn’t judge. Instead, she just tells her story, which, it turns out has a lot to do with plants and science, of course…but also has a lot to do with other things. Like life, for instance, and friendship and passion and love, for ideas, for work and for all living beings, including–shocker!–people…. And if Jahren can surprise you about all that messy human stuff, just think how she can change your feelings about dirt.” –Sara Nelson
Why I’m enthralled with it
It’s smart, funny, caring, and captivating. Jahren’s self-deprecating depiction of herself is winsome and honest, and her intense enjoyment of plants really did make me care about them and dirt as I never dreamed I would.
What others say about it
“Lab Girl surprised, delighted, and moved me. I was drawn in from the start by the clarity and beauty of Jahren’s prose. . . . With Lab Girl, Jahren joins those talented scientists who are able to reveal to us the miracle of this world in which we live.” —Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
“Warm, witty . . . Fascinating. . . . Jahren’s singular gift is her ability to convey the everyday wonder of her work: exploring the strange, beautiful universe of living things that endure and evolve and bloom all around us, if we bother to look.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Deeply affecting. . . . A totally original work, both fierce and uplifting. . . . A belletrist in the mold of Oliver Sacks, she is terrific at showing just how science is done. . . . She’s an acute observer, prickly, and funny as hell.” —Elle
“Mesmerizing. . . . Deft and flecked with humor . . . a scientist’s memoir of a quirky, gritty, fascinating life. . . . Like Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir or Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, it delivers the zing of a beautiful mind in nature.” —Seattle Times
And now, what about you?
Thank you for enduring my going on and on about these two books. Now it’s your turn. What book(s) made your 2017 the better for having read it (or them)?
Favorite reads of 2017. Click to tweet.
Join the conversation about favorite books read in 2017. Click to tweet.
And now, for my bit of news concerning our blog. After long discussions among the Books & Such agents, we’ve decided to spend less time writing posts and more time working on behalf of our clients. We love helping writers succeed in creating their very best manuscripts and venturing into the complex world of publishing. That hasn’t changed. We’re not abandoning the blog nor our desire to continue helping everyone who aspires to write a book; we’re just reducing our time commitment. The plan is for new posts to appear twice per week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We’ll follow our same order of appearance, with me leading off and then followed by Wendy, Rachelle, Cynthia, and Rachel. So look for Wendy’s post this Thursday; we’ll see you then.