“Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.”

hisforhawkBrown Baggers met at Central on October 18 to discuss the memoir H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Published in 2014, H is for Hawk is part hawk training manual and part dissection of grief. A lifetime falconer, Macdonald decides to try training a much more difficult, larger, and stronger goshawk after her father suddenly dies. She reflects on her modern day experience through the lens of author T. H. White, who recounted his attempt in the book The Goshawk.

Readers really enjoyed Macdonald’s writing style. They found it beautiful and evocative, admiring how she seemed to meditate on each subject and the expert way she wove all of them together. Those who had listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, founding it equally compelling.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, readers found, was Macdonald’s examination of the feral in humans and the humanity in animals. The hawk she trained, Mabel, led her to a wild place deep in her grief but also led her back to her human self in the end. Readers who had no interest in birding, falconry, or hawks found themselves enthralled by the story despite its naturalist themes – a testament to her skill as a writer.

Some felt the process of training hawks was too violent and controlling, especially when hawks no longer serve a purpose of acquiring food for their handlers. Readers discussed whether it was necessary for the author to exert control over another animal to feel in control herself, after the loss of her father.

The sheer social isolation of the author was also discussed, as was the varying depth and experience of grief depending on the individual. While the prose makes it seem like she was completely without social contact while raising the hawk, she does have family, friends, and a professional and falconry community that kept her tethered while she grieved.

Brown Baggers will meet again on November 15 at noon to discuss The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.

Other titles mentioned:
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
The Once and Future King by T. H. White (and other works)

More information:
Interview with author
Second interview
Author bio
PBS documentary (which Central is showing on 10/25 at 7pm)
National Geographic article about falconry in the U.A.E.
Information on falconry

“I was born with the devil in me . . . I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”

devilBooks on Tap read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson at Champion Brewery on September 6.  Instead of usual novels, this title was a work of narrative nonfiction. It follows the men who established the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, those who planned and built it, and the male serial killer who took advantage of the influx of young women into the city.

What we most responded to was the rivalry Chicago felt with both Paris, the site of the previous fair, and New York, who competed to host the 1983 iteration. Larson shows both the civic cooperation and dysfunction that launched the fair, reminding us that the Windy City nickname is a result of its politicians as much as its weather. We also discussed the contrast between the White City of the fair and the Black City of open sewers and dark alleys. It was both the allure of the fair and the chaos of parts of the city that allowed serial killer H.H. Holmes to prey on the young woman who flooded the city looking for independence and work. While more workers at the fair died than Holmes probably killed, the state of police work and the undervaluing of the victims allowed Holmes to go undetected until he kidnapped three children.

All of our readers liked at least some parts of the story, especially tidbits about products introduced at the fair like the Ferris wheel, Cracker Jack and chewing gum. However, some readers thought that the book could have been more satisfying and faster-paced with fewer minor storylines. Larson, a former journalist, is a formidable researcher but not every detail was necessary to the story. He does pull the reader along by hanging the narrative on a few familiar names such as Frederick Law Olmsted and maintains suspense around Holmes’s activities, even though the reader already knows the broad outlines of the story. Ultimately, Larson’s research enabled us to trust him as a reliable reporter as he spun out this at times unbelievable tale.

More Information:
About the author
Interviews with the author
About the book
Upcoming movie
Images from the 1893 World’s Fair
The most recent World’s Fair in Kazakhstan in 2017

Related Recommendations:
Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King
The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan
The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Mathews
David McCullough, especially The Great Bridge
Nathan Philbrick, especially Sea of Glory

Books on Tap Information:

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Previous titles

“We must never be a country that says there’s only one way to love, only one way to look, and only one way to live.”

tomorrowThe LGBTQ Book club met on August 28 to discuss Tomorrow Will Be Different, Sarah McBride’s memoir about coming out trans in college, advocating for trans rights in Delaware, speaking at the Democratic National convention, finding love and losing it to cancer and advocating for trans rights on a national scale. It’s a lot to pack in to 25  years of living and a bit too much to pack into a book of this size.

About half of the group were familiar with trans people and rights before this meeting, although none of us knew much about McBride herself. One reader said that although he hadn’t been familiar, McBride’s authenticity elicited his empathy and that he has a better understanding of trans lives. Another reader had the opposite reaction, wanting more of McBride’s life story and less of the minutiae of her political life. We all agreed that while she does acknowledge her privilege (race, class, parental support), she doesn’t fully explore that but she is taking full advantage of the slide that has been greased for her.  

We explored the ways in which terms such as trans, bigot, and gay have evolved and the intersectionality of identities. One reader spoke of the conflict of including  lesbians and bisexuals in the now-LGBT community. We also touched on the work of trans women in the Stonewall riots.

Ultimately we agreed that the 28-year-old author has already led a remarkable life that is well documented in this book but we were left wanting to know more about the person and less about the potential political candidate.

More Information:
About the author
Interview with the author
About the book
TED Talk

Other Trans Authors of Memoirs:
Arin Andrews
Cris Beam
Chaz Bono
Jennifer Finney Boylan
Katie Rain Hill
Skylar Kergil
Janet Mock
Jan Morris
Amy Ellis Nutt

Recommendation:
As One opera

Next meeting:
The LGBTQ Book Club is going on hiatus this fall. Look for more information on jmrl.org in the spring.