H is for Helen

Helen and Mabel
Helen and Mabel

Hawk I took H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald off the shelf on a trip to Cape Town because the cover caught my eye. It was part of my setting aside a store of reading for the summer holidays, but later in bed I began to read and then had to stop myself because it’s a book so arresting, so unusual, that I knew if I didn’t stop myself I would rue not giving it the time it deserved by devouring it too quickly.

McDonald is an unusual person and an unusual writer. She’s an academic (at the time of writing in temporary employment at Cambridge) who has had a fascination for falconry and birds of prey since a child. This is not her only book about that ancient art (there is also ), but it was written when she was suffering from a severe case of mourning after the unexpected death of her father, and it binds together that surreal, spiralling state with a sudden desire to train a goshawk, a bird she was wholly unfamiliar with. Continue reading “H is for Helen”

Men of Africa and modernity

I’ve just read two books hard on the heels of each other which are wonderful insights into African modernity and the complexity that is South Africa now. The first is Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope, the story of Somalian Asad Abdullahi, who came to South African seeking his fortune after a life as a refugee drifting through Kenya and Ethiopia. The second is GG Alcock’s account of growing up Zulu in Msinga as a boy during the 1970s and 1980s under the apartheid regime, Third World Child.

These tightly focused tellings which tell the story of just one life of one man (and this of course is significant because they are very much about masculine experiences and choices), shed a great deal of light on social movements across our continent, South Africa’s relationship with other African countries, cities and rural areas, and old networks and relationships and how they endure — and enable survival — in the cities which still lure men with their promises of riches. Continue reading “Men of Africa and modernity”

More than, and exactly, a signature

SOAT elizabeth gilbert

If Eat, Pray, Love was your introduction to Elizabeth Gilbert (as it was mine), you could never have known just how capable she is as a writer of producing the work of magnificence that is Signature of All Things. I came to Signature by mistake because a friend recommended I read The Last American Man and because I trust his judgement (and even though I had also read Committed) I went looking for it, and couldn’t find it. But her latest, a novel, was on the shelves. I’m a sucker for the 19th century, for explorations and botanical drawings and for the secret lives of women, so I bought it. (For a quick synopsis see here. And if like me you didn’t know her pre-history to EPL then see this site.)

It’s completely fantastic on several levels: Continue reading “More than, and exactly, a signature”