H IS FOR HAWK

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Many books are heaped with praise on their covers before a reader has a chance to gauge their own opinion. Sometimes the reviews are almost too awe-inspiring. Can make a reader nervous. Can make a book unapproachable. In the case of Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk no praise seems too much. I know this because I don’t often feel like rushing out and buying a copy for everyone I know. This book I want to share, extravagantly. I have bought a copy for my medical ophthalmologist Dr Paul Meyer, a man renowned for his precise attention to detail and excruciating patience with every vulnerable being sitting before him. We share a love for the life and writings of Primo Levi, poet, chemist, Holocaust survivor, writer of the extraordinary If This Is A Man, which deserves its own post.

If you haven’t come across this book – part memoir on grief, part hawking encyclopaedia, part biography of TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone – rush out to buy it, download it on your kindle. You won’t regret it. Helen trained Mabel very near to the part of Cambridge I call home. Quite exciting to think I might bump into her one day out in the fens…

Helen and her hawk...
Helen and her hawk…
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VANESSA AND HER SISTER

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Delicious. Cloudsitting. Dust motes in August evening light flurrying around bookshelves in Charing Cross Road approaches the sense a reader gets from the very first pages of Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and her Sister – a historical novel about the Bloomsbury set that reimagines and realigns the most famous sisters. No longer Virginia who holds the centre of gravity; it is the quieter ‘bell that rings true’.

I attended the Cambridge Literary Festival for only one event – Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen (among many others) in conversation with Priya Parmar (also author of Exit the Actress). Two friends of longstanding having the kind of conversation they would normally have over cups of tea; the only difference being they were in a public room – the Cambridge Union Chamber – and there were many pairs of ears snuggling in.

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I’m an English literature graduate. It is impossible to be unaware of the legacy of Woolf. On my own bookshelf, just behind my Mac, I currently have six Woolfian books. So it is a true delight, a relaxing delight, to listen to Bloomsbury told through the painterly soul of the gentler sister.

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CATHERINE ALLIOTT VS CHEMO

Yesterday as the infusion dripped into me and I snarled tighter under my blanket, I was glad for an audiobook of Catherine Alliott’s A Crowded Marriage, even though I’d heard it all before… Imo, Alex, snooty Eleanor, the fox that decapitates Cynthia the chicken, and not one but two possible Heathcliffian suitors… there is also Rufus, 9, who I think runs away with the story. Suzy Aitchison reads most of Alliott’s novels and she is utterly perfect at almost all voices and accents, except perhaps when she attempts Irishmen. They come out sounding a bit Norfolk…

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When you are undergoing Rituximab, which is chemotherapy but the milder form (the pure monoclonal version untainted by high octane cancer cocktails), a nurse invariably switches on the extra heavy duty fluorescent tubes – the ones that burst onto your cornea with sadistic pleasure. You whip out your sunglasses but really, it is your ears you need to seduce into escape. I recommend Alliott wholeheartedly. Also Jill Mansell. And my beloved Marian Keyes. Georgette Heyer must be saved for home because she must never be interrupted by blood pressure cuffs and the young man who will offer you sandwiches and a rather grisly looking cheesecake and although you feel guilty because he has taken the trouble to carry the tray, and ask so politely, you will refuse; you must refuse… Eat melon instead, brought from home. And chocolate, of course. From the vending machine.

OH YOU ANNE GIRL!

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Although he watched the Canadian televised series of L. M. Montgomery’s  Anne of Green Gables at the height of his daughter’s obsession with the books, my father is only just reading the books. He is enchanted, of course. It is never too late or too early for Anne Shirley. It is always the perfect time. And isn’t it the perfect love story? Not Matthew and Anne – that part was easy. It was love at first train station. But Anne and Marilla – that’s the real exploration of love. Because Marilla never knew she needed Anne. Until she did.

Has there ever been a literary character quite like Anne? And isn’t it wonderful that we all became so familiar with Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott and Noyes’ The Higwayman? Two Alfreds made more beloved by one red-haired orphan.

THE CRÈME DE LA CRÈME

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‘The evening paper rattle-snaked its way through the letter box and there was suddenly a six-o’clock feeling in the house.’

One of my wonderful Creative Writing MA lecturers Caron Freeborn was praising the novels of Muriel Spark a week ago, and when she discovered I hadn’t yet read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she told me to get to it immediately. So I did. Part of the same Waterstones exercise that provided me with Miranda July’s short stories from the previous post. And there is ‘a six o’clock feeling in the house’ as I read Spark’s perfect lines. Miss Jean Brodie is a novella, which has always been one of my favourite manifestations of story-telling. Scalpel work woven with a poet’s hand. I feel as though this is a poem disguised as a novella. Maybe that is because poems are woven into the body of the work. Or maybe the best works of fiction always feel like poetry to me. I am enjoying myself, and not a little in awe of the eponymous leader…

‘Plainly,’ said Miss Brodie, ‘you were not listening to me. If only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the crème de la crème.’

JULY IN APRIL

It is probably a dull habit to read all types of books from start to finish, but I find myself unable to dip in and out of a new book of poems or short stories. I like to be thorough. The way I’d eat dessert. I wouldn’t dream of plunging my spoon or fork into the heart and smearing the centre down the sides. Maybe I should…

So it is with my latest current read. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. It has a yellow cover. I like books with some yellow in them. Maybe it’s a glaucoma thing. Or maybe it’s a happy thing. It caught my eye at Waterstones and accompanied me through a solitary lunch at Yo! Sushi where a little boy of eight seemed quite fascinated by the creature opposite him, eating alone and looking perfectly satisfied to do so.

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Reading July in April is a delicious thing. Subversive. Which is the best way to describe these stories. Which I discover later also come in other colours…

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