H is for Hawk

Title: H is for Hawk
Writers : Helen Macdonald
Published: 2014
Genre: Non-fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

H is for Hawk is in parts a memoir, in parts a dissection of T.H. White’s life and review of his book ‘The Goshawk’, and in parts an adventurous journey into the world of goshawks. Helen is devastated when her father passes away unexpectedly leaving her to cope with the grief. Having trained many falcons in her life, she naturally turns to her avian friends to find solace. She chooses to train a goshawk and she sees her own feral temperament reflected in the bird. She buys a baby goshawk and spends days holed up in her apartment making friends with the goshawk and training it.

The focus of the book is mainly on the author training the goshawk. Her hesitation on deciding whether this is a wise thing to do (can she be dealing with another living being when she herself is drowning in grief) and her anxiety when she is choosing the hawk (will the hawk accept her and what if it rejects her) and her fear of failure (“I am overfeeding her” or “I am starving her”) and the ultimate fear of losing the hawk while on a hunt – comes through so well through the pages that at time I almost gasped or cried with Helen. While Helen is training the hawk and teaching it to hunt, she realizes the real reason why she decided to take up this challenge.

I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.

While the main thread of the book is about the goshawk, there is a strong parallel thread about Helen’s grief. She tries to find words to express her grief, share it with her mother and brother and ways to come to terms with it. She reads a lot of books on grief, talks to therapist, goes on a course of anti-depressants but still feels that hole left in her heart. In her attempt to explain her grief, Helen says:

Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It is from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone.

Imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone.

The writing is simply beautiful. Helen has a way of expressing herself – be it the beauty of the wild or the pain in heart – she describes it to beautifully that you are right next to her feeling everything she is feeling.

The author is highly influenced by T.H. White’s ‘The Goshawk’ which she had read as a child (and hated) and she turns back to this book to use a reference when she is training her own hawk. Instead of just sticking to White’s experience of training his hawk, Helen tries to decipher why White went through what he did. His troubled childhood (mother abandons him and never gets his father’s approval), difficult adolescence (he is sent to a boarding school where he is sexually abused), and an even worse adulthood (he realizes he is homosexual and the world doesn’t accept him) and White has to prove himself to the world again and again. His decision of training a hawk is along the same lines – to prove a point rather than for his love for hawks – and that is why White and his hawk suffer through the ordeal and fail miserably in the end.

Let me admit, I had no idea what a goshawk was until I read the book (I still don’t know how to pronounce it, BTW). This world of falcons, hawks and training them to take them on hunts is a whole new world to me which I absorbed with the curiosity of a child. Every object (jesses), technique (whistling to call the hawk back) and the bird’s actions (bating, snaking) in falconry has a word and it was amazing to learn this whole new vocabulary. While this was the part I enjoyed, the part where Helen takes her hawk to hunt pheasants, pigeons and rabbits was disturbing. The author does raise the ethical question of whether it is right to hunt with hawks. Her justification didn’t convince me and I still think it is wrong, but I don’t want that to change my love for the book.

I picked this up with an attitude of ‘not my cup of tea, but let’s this a try’ and was captivated and amazed by the book all the way through. I learnt a lot of new things (alarum is a valid word, though archaic, did you know?) and not just about hawks. I am glad I decided to give this book ‘a try’.

I Let You Go

Title: I Let You Go
Writer: Clare Mackintosh
Published: 2014
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 2 on 5

I decided to read this book after reading the rave reviews on Goodreads. Reviewers called this a psychological thriller and compared it to Gone Girl. I have read the latter and loved it so much that I blindly decided to read this one. I naturally had high expectations from this book and what an anti-climax this was. On every page of the book I was asking myself if I was reading the same book others are singing praises about.

Jenna Gray finds her life turned upside down after a tragic accident in which a 6 year old boy gets killed. She runs away from her past and just when she is settling down, her past comes haunting her. There are quite a few twists and turns in the story, which I cannot mention here without labeling this review as a spoiler. The ‘Big Twist’ which everybody is talking about is very well executed. I had to reread these pages to convince myself I was not misinterpreting it.

Characters are not well developed and Jenna hardly evokes any emotion. There are quite a few handful characters including Ray and Kate, who are the CID investigators, lack depth and their relationships with characters around them looks forced upon. The story starts with a bang and holds your interest for a few pages and then it slows down, never to pick up the pace again. What could have been a wonderful start to an interesting story just fizzles out. Writing is so poor at time I found myself shaking my head and going tut-tut. Shifting POVs (from first person in some chapters to third person in some) is really taxing and the voice/tone doesn’t change to show the difference.

I don’t know why this is labeled as ‘psychological thriller’ because it neither a thriller nor anything psychological about it. And the praising reviews and 5 stars on goodreads is still a mystery to me.

 

 

 

10% Happier


Title: 10% Happier
Writers : Dan Harris
Published: 2014
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 3.5 on 5

The name of the book is actually “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works”, but it is too long, so I call it “10% Happier”.

This book is written by Dan Harris who is a TV news anchor with ABC News. Dan faces a humiliating panic attack on national television (which goes unnoticed by many) which is a pivotal point in his life which forces him to find a way to handle the stress in his life as well as find answers to some philosophical and ethical questions. When Dan is asked to cover spirituality for ABC, he naturally starts his quest in the spiritual world.

The book chronicles Dan’s journey through the world of meditation which¬† starts with him reading Eckhart Tolle’s ‘A New Earth’ as part of his new assignment. He tries meditating and being mindful and what starts as an attempt has him hooked. Dan goes on to interview some big names like Deepak Chopra and Dalai Lama (of course, Tolle too) and probes them in answering questions on how to control our emotions and stress and how to achieve enlightenment and so on. He even goes on a 10 day Vipasana silent retreat.

Dan’s writing is engaging and funny at times. The tone is casual and I felt an instant connect when Dan says he wanted to call this book ‘My inner voice is an asshole’. Instead of taking on a preachy tone (which many self-help books tend to do), Dan writes straight from the heart which makes it slightly easier to take in what he has to say.

There are many pause-and-ponder moments throughout the book. A quote from the spiritual gurus or an observation by Dan or a reference for a book – my Kindle is full of highlights and notes for this book.

Coming to the name of the book – there is no data backing up Dan’s claim that meditation has made him 10% Happier. This is his answer when someone asks him why he meditates.

If you are looking for a how-to on meditation and it benefits, this book is probably not it. Dan has provided instructions and FAQ for newbie meditators, but this is definitely not a how-to-meditate book. It is a funny, fast reading book on a man’s experience of how he found meditation beneficial.

All the Light We Cannot See

Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Writers : Anthony Doerr
Published: 2014
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

This book is set in the WW2 era and follows two parallel threads of story which ultimately culminate. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is one of the protagonists who lives in France. She is the daughter of a locksmith who works at a museum and loses her eyesight at the age of 6. She grows up in the warmth of fatherly love and curiosity fueled by her father and books. Werner Pfennig, on the other hand, is an orphan and lives in Germany with his sister. He is anti-establishment and often questions the system. Two contrasting characters and backgrounds, but they come together in an unexpected way and leave a lasting impression on each other.

Marie and her relationship with her father is one of the things I like in this book. Instead of showering pity on his blind daughter, the locksmith teaches her all the tricks to become independent in life. He makes a miniature of the town they live in and encourages her to ‘know’ the town through her hands. Werner and his equally inquisitive sister find an old radio which they manage to repair. They are hooked onto a regular broadcast where they listen to an enchanting voice with a French accent explaining the mysteries of science.

WW2 breaks out and we see it affecting both our protagonists. While Marie and her father flee from Paris and settle down with Marie’s uncle at a remote, coastal town, Werner enlists into the army and is fighting a battle of ethics¬† vs. duty. The story takes twists and turns and we see some interesting characters and finally the highlight of the book – protagonists meeting. This is one of the memorable moments. It was as if the reader knows all along that they are destined to meet and waiting for it with bated breath.

The book is not a fast read. And shouldn’t be read in a hurry, if you ask me. The book is beautifully written and has very memorable characters. It tugs at your emotions and gives you yet another glimpse of the havoc that WW2 caused on common citizens.

Key takeaway for me is Marie’s determination. Not a minute does she doubt herself because of her blindness. She charges ahead, overcomes hurdles and comes out winner in every single fight. They way she pulls her uncle out of depression with her charm, questions and perseverance is amazing. I couldn’t relate to Werner as much as I could to Marie. Werner appears as a confused soul who has not yet decided what he wants to do or become. His gutsy sister on the other hand – can completely relate to her, especially when she is angry with his brother for destroying the radio.

In short, a book worth not only reading, but savoring.

 

The Girl on the Train

Title: The Girl on the Train
Writers : Paula Hawkins
Published: 2015
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

Girl on the Train refers to Rachel, who is a 30-something woman, divorced, alcoholic who commutes by train everyday for work. As she commutes in the same train and the familiar route everyday, she tends to develop an attachment with the dwellers of the house which line the railway track. She gives them names and concocts her own story about how happy/sad they are in their lives. She can also spot her own house, or at least which used to be hers before her divorce, where her ex-husband and his mistress-who-is-now-his-wife also live. The book is about Rachel, her reluctance to admit her divorce, her addiction to alcohol and the characters that she sees on her train journey. The story takes an interesting turn when one of the characters, one of Rachel’s favorite, disappears and Rachel may be involved in this.

When Rachel gets drunk, she ends up with a gaping hole in her memory and she can’t recall what happened. She happens to be present at the scene of disappearance, but she can’t remember whether she saw that girl as she was drunk. All she knows is she woke up the next day with a nasty blow on her head with blood streaming down her face. With the disappearance at the center of the plot, the other major characters get entangled in this story with Rachel being the most invested. She is emotionally invested as the disappeared girl is her “Jess” who she imagines to be very happy with her husband “Jason”.

The story is passe in terms of the mystery quotient. Some things are obvious and one can guess who the culprit is long before Rachel arrives at it. I liked the characters more than the story. Crime thrillers usually don’t spend time on characterization, but Paula breaks that trend. Rachel comes across as the depressed alcoholic who has lost all hopes and is desperately trying to find a meaning, a purpose to her life. Megan/Jess is another troubled soul who tugged at my heart. I wonder what it is that I can relate to these characters! Scott also has depth, but I wish Tom was etched better.

This book is a quick read with a decent mystery plot and interesting characters. Many people/websites recommended this book to me as I liked ‘Gone Girl’. The latter had psychological element to it and the characters brought the story to life, but the former doesn’t have these qualities. This book is an average one on its own, but not comparable to ‘Gone Girl’.

The Troubled Man

Title: The Troubled Man
Writers : Henning Mankell
Published: 2009
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

When I reviewed and discussed about the Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson on book forums, I heard many recommendations about crime fiction by Swedish authors. Among the many names that were recommended, Henning Mankell was repeated many times. I have read a few books by Mankell already and like them enough to read more books by the author. The Troubled Man is another crime thriller by Mankell, featuring his troubled inspector Kurt Wallander.

This book deals with the mystery of a man going missing, soon followed by his wife’s disappearance. Though Wallander is not assigned to the case, he is sucked into it as the disappeared man happens to be his daughter’s father-in-law. Hakan von Enke, a retired naval officer, goes on his morning walk as usual, but on the fateful day, never returns home from his walk. While the police and Wallander are playing with theories of kidnap and suicide, von Enke’s wife goes missing too. As the case is unraveled, we realize the roots go way back in time when von Enke was in the navy. Many secrets are revealed and many skeletons come tumbling out of the closet.

On a parallel line, we see Wallander’s health deteriorating with age. He notices incidents of memory loss suggesting the onset of Alzheimer’s. While Wallander is fighting his own battles, he is also fighting external forces as he reveals secrets which might shake his daughter’s and his own world.

As a crime thriller, this book is like any other Mankell book, with its strong plot and interesting twists. What makes this book special is the fact that this is the last book in the Wallander series. As Wallander’s mind deteriorates, it is clear that he cannot continue in this profession and that means the end of Wallander stories for the reader.

I have read many crime fiction books and there are many memorable lead characters. What makes Wallander memorable and stand out from the crowd is that he appears very human and readers can relate to him easily. Poirot and Holmes are in a different class altogether – by their place in society and their intelligence. Wallander is like any other common man, fighting the usual battles and working hard to earn his livelihood. He is not very happy in his life – divorced and guilt ridden for not giving his daughter a good upbringing. But, in the end, as his granddaughter arrives, he relives his daughter’s childhood and has many happy moments before Alzheimer’s completely engulfs him.

I am sad to see Wallander go, but I admire Mankell for giving this series a “natural” end rather than anything dramatic like him being killed or gone missing. It is a logical end to a great series and like Wallander, one which readers can relate to.

Start With Why

Title: Start With Why
Writers : Simon Sinek
Published: 2009
Genre: Non-fiction
My Rating: 2 on 5

Like many others, I picked up this book after watching Simon Sinek’s TED talk. The 20-minutes talk had me hooked and I wanted to read more about the Golden Circle. Simon extends his talk to a full fledged book (or is it the other way around?) and builds on the essence of his talk: start with why.

Simon gives many examples of companies (and people) who have a clear definition of why they exist and how they went on to achieve success. He also gives examples of how companies lost their definition and fell off the wagon. We hear about Apple and Steve Jobs (repeated so many times that it hurts) and why Apple is so successful because they know why they exist (to break away from the tradition). Simon also talks about Martin Luther King and how he was able to influence such a large population to follow him – with a clear sense of why he was doing it. The Golden Circle is explained well in the book – start from why and then how you are going to achieve that and then the what part of it.

The first few chapters are really interesting. This is where I introspected and wondered about “my why”. I was looking forward to more such insights in the coming chapters, but sadly, they were more or less a repitition. Simon goes on and on and on about the same things: Apple, Martin Luther King and it gets well, repititive. The writing style is more like talking and that does not make it a good read. Simon could have easily chopped off half the book without losing any message.

Bottom line: Ditch the book and watch the video.