Tag Archives: Samuel Johnson Prize

The Samuel Johnson Prize Winner

129 Hawk coverYesterday it was announced that the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction is Helen Macdonald for H is for Hawk. You can find my review here.

I loved it. It fully deserves to win.

Congratulations to Helen Macdonald.

And great to hear BBC Radio 3 announcing it on the national news this morning: announcing a literary non-fiction prize winner! A book makes national news.

 

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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

129 Sin the St coverOn Sunday evenings the headteacher would read a book aloud to the youngest boarders. We jostled our way into his sitting room after supper and arranged ourselves on the sofa, the window seat, the chairs, the footstools, the rugs, anywhere a twelve-year old of any shape and size could fit. When we were settled Hector Jacks would start to read from The Sword in the Stone. I was reminded of this pleasure – of being read to, of the head’s warm voice, as kindly as Merlin himself – by H is for Hawk.

Wart was an outsider, and at boarding school it was easy to feel like outsiders from our families, sent to live in the strange community of a ‘60s coeducational boarding school. For Wart it came good in the end, after his strange education, transformed into a series of animals, learning from the creatures of a vanished landscape (even in the early ‘60s I knew that the countryside he described had disappeared). Wart withdrew the sword and he was King Arthur. We could all draw out the sword one day.

Arthur Pyle: How Arthur drew forth ye sword from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903) via WikiCommons

Arthur Pyle: How Arthur drew forth ye sword from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903) via WikiCommons

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

One of the themes of H is for Hawk is the troubled relationship between TH White and his goshawk. TH White wrote The Sword in the Stone and one of the animals Wart turns into is a merlin.

129 Hawk coverI could not easily leave off reading this book, it lived with me while I was doing other things – washing up, walking, checking emails. I was caught by the intensity of the writing, the wisdom revealed in the dissection of the author’s relationships with death and with a goshawk and the intermingling of her three themes.

First theme: the training of the goshawk Mabel.

I loved the descriptions of the training, (called ‘manning’ huh?) especially when they were outdoors, the slow progress, mistakes, set backs and successes. The passage about her delight in the play that she and the goshawk unexpectedly share is an example. We get minutely observed descriptions of appearance and behaviour, without it ever becoming soppy or anthropomorphic. Here is an example of her writing, describing an early hunting trip.

The next day out on the hill Mabel learns, I suppose, what she is for. She chases a pheasant. It crashes beneath a tall hedge. She lands on top of the hedge, peering down, her plumage bright against the dark earth of the further slope. I start running. I think I remember where the pheasant has gone. I convince myself it was never there at all. I know it is there. Clay sticks to my heels and slows me down. I’m in a world of freezing mud, and even the air seems to be getting harder to run through. Mabel is waiting for me to flush out the pheasant, if only I knew where it was. Now I am at the hedge, constructing what will happen next scenarios in my head, and at this point they’re narrowing fast, towards point zero, when the pheasant will fly. … I’m crashing through brambles and sticks, dimly aware of the catch and rip of thorns in my flesh. Now I cannot see the hawk because I am searching for the pheasant, so I have to work out what she is doing by putting myself in her mind – and so I become both the hawk in the branches and the human below. The strangeness of this splitting makes me feel I am walking under myself, and sometimes away from myself. (182-3)

She uses the beautiful language of hawking: muting, bating, creances. And she uses it to show us step by step about hawking.

Second theme: Helen Macdonald’s grief at her father’s death.

She is knocked sideways by her father’s sudden death and partly sees the acquisition of the goshawk as a means to heal herself. Instead it takes her deeply inside herself, too deeply. But she emerges on the other side as she comes to see the need for social interaction as well as valuing the introspection that her time with Mabel encourages. The solitariness of the hawk, the immersion in nature and the countryside will not cure her without the community of hawkers and her own family and friends.

Third theme: TH White and Gos

The book also explores the life of another outsider, TH White, who was a homosexual. After a miserable time at boarding school, he tried to become a good teacher at Stowe but left just before the Second World War. Helen Macdonald reveals that his training of Gos was cruel, despite his intentions. It arose from his attitude to education (as a teacher and a miserable school boy) not out of knowledge of the hawk. White believed that you need to face up to things, including the challenge of his goshawk. It is also the message of The Sword in the Stone, a comfort to a homesick child, but ultimately judgement is required about when to stop toughing it out, and do something else.

H is for Hawk has been highly praised in blog and newspaper reviews and is shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction (winner to be announced on 4th November). I would not be surprised if it won for the quality of its descriptive writing. I have only recently begun reading nature writing. The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is another good read. Perhaps there is a new type of nature writing.

Links to other reviews:

Vulpes Libris in which the reviewer, Hilary, said ‘it knocked me sideways’

Emily found it ‘a staggeringly good read’, despite the fuss. Read her comments on Emily Books.

Rachel Cooke in the Guardian

Any different views? Any recommendations along the lines of people who liked H is for Hawk also liked … ?

 

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Who or what are literary prizes for?

What purposes do literary prizes serve for readers? It’s clear that they provide writers with recognition and publicity that leads to sales. And for publishers it provides publicity that leads to sales. And for sponsors I guess it adds to their good image (which I assume is designed to boost sales somewhere along the line). So there is a pattern here.

67 MBP dated large

There are prizes for first novels, for biographies, a Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, American prizes such as the National Book Award, and international prizes such as the Nobel Prize for Literature (for a body of work), the Man Booker Prize, the International Man Booker Prize and several awards for different genres (such as crime, sci-fi, children’s literature etc). For all I know there is a prize for last novels.

Zadie Smith is sure that winning a prize is essential for new writers to get noticed. Not everyone is convinced of their value. In the New York Times last month, Daniel Mendelsohn asked

What purposes do these prizes serve? Are the values they promote aesthetic or commercial? And how on earth do the judges arrive at their decisions?

Jennifer Szalai recalled what is said when things go wrong:

The complaints are as common as they are contradictory: Prizes are awarded to tepid, undemanding best sellers everyone reads; prizes are awarded to obscure, abstruse books no one reads. They are awarded to the right authors, but for the wrong work (Hemingway for “The Old Man and the Sea,” Faulkner for “A Fable”). They are awarded to the wrong authors for the wrong work (Margaret Mitchell for “Gone With the Wind”). They are withheld from the right authors for the right work (“Gravity’s Rainbow,” by Thomas Pynchon, won jury approval for the Pulitzer in 1974 but was overruled by a board that deemed the novel “turgid” and “obscene”). Sometimes the grousing has the whiff of sour grapes. “Prize X has never been awarded to Philip Roth,” “Prize Y has never ben awarded to me.”

She concludes that literary prizes should honour good books. Mendelsohn claims that prizes show what is prized and that as a result the real winner is culture itself.

But what about the reader? What do we get from these awards? I used to think that prizes were normative, restricting readers’ choices, operating a bit like the 2for1 tables at Waterstone’s, or reality tv competitions (the Great British Write Off?) or the bestseller lists in the weekend papers. And it is true that plenty of good books miss the awards: the slow burners, books that are idiosyncratic, specialist, appeal to small scale interests, and especially non-fiction and translated books. But we shouldn’t expect the awards to do everything for the book trade.

Awards do draw attention to some books, especially through their long- and shortlists. I admit to being very interested in long- and shortlists, and not much interested in which book or author wins (especially when the press starts speculating about muggin’s turn, as they did Jim Crace for the MBP this year and Julian Barnes in the past).

Here are some awards that have added to my reading pleasure:

IMPAC prize, especially for its longlist, because it is the outcome of nominations for high literary merit by public libraries across the world. Consequently some less prestigious, less artsfartsy books get identified, and frequently the shortlist (and winner) includes novels in translation. Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (2007) and Gerbrand Bakker, The Twin (2010) are two examples. The list this year is very long – 152 titles. Great! Lots to discover.

67 Out Stealing

67 WPFF logo

Women’s Prize for Fiction because it promotes women writers and women are still less published, less reviewed and the literary scene benefits from positive discrimination. See the blogpost in praise of the Women’s Prize for Fiction for a fuller discussion. This year I read and enjoyed all six of the shortlisted titles.

The title of this next one deserves a prize of its own: Not the Man Booker Prize, a list nominated by readers of the Guardian and although readers vote in an arcane system that can only be likened to the rules of Mornington Crescent (see BBC Radio4 show I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue) the panel make a final judgement. I was pleased to see that Magda by Meike Ziervogel lead the readers’ voting, even if Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life actually won.

The Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, because there is some excellent writing and subject matter being written about every year and it’s not all fiction. There is always biography in the list, and history and other books that might slip by. This year I have been interested to read reviews of David Crane’s Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WW1’s War Graves. And Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins also looks very interesting.

And I will continue to rely on several other ways of finding good reading: reviews, end of year and holiday recommendations, word of mouth, gifts, browsing in bookshops, Twitter and my local library.

67 MBP2013

Meanwhile I have one and a half books left to read from the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2013. So far I have read 19cms and still have 8cms to go, including the winner – Eleanor Caton’s The Luminaries.

 

What do you think of Literary Prizes? Have you come across any good reads from a prize? What have literary prizes ever done for you?

 

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5 ways other people decide my reading

Do you have a tall pile of books-waiting-to-be-read? I certainly do – that’s mine in the picture. And how did they get into the pile? Mine are mostly the result of other people’s actions. I have identified five ways they pick my reading.

Reading pile DSC00137

1. Recommendations:

  • Newspapers (especially The Guardian Saturday Review) eg Diego Mariani’s New Finnish Grammar which was highly recommended by Nicholas Lezard in his weekly choice. I read all those end-of-year choices. You know, the ones where writers, or readers, or columnists write half an inch about two or three books they have enjoyed in the last year. Then the paper sits around for months until I transfer the items I’ve marked as interesting into my notebook, or polish my walking boots on it.
  • Literary publications (such as London Review of Books, Slightly Foxed, Mslexia). I tend to read the very erudite reviews in LRB, instead of the book. But occasionally I follow up a review by actually reading it: eg Robert Macfarlane The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.
  • Blogs were invented for people like me. It was a review on Book Snob blog that led me to Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost. I read a review of Miss Ranken Comes Home by Barbara Euphon Todd on Cosy Books and now I want to read that too. Both these books are published by Persephone, by the way, in their tasteful and elegant grey jackets, endpapers that reproduce a relevant fabric design and – delicious treat – tucked inside is a matching bookmark. I love a book that is beautifully produced.
  • Radio programmes such as Woman’s Hour, book and arts programmes. Radio was invented for reading aloud: poems, children’s stories, serial chapters, short stories and god bless public service broadcasting.
  • My friends always talk about what they have been reading. Out comes my pen and notebook and I make a note, or I borrow from their shelves, or pitch in with my recommendations.
  • Literary prize long- and short-lists. Some of the literary prizes are like The X Factor for the literati but I think these work well when they bring unknown but brilliant writers to our attention, like Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. I would never have met Futh without the MBP. And for non-fiction you can’t beat picking from the shortlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize.
  • Literary events such as festivals and readings. At Ways with Words in Devon I heard Anita Desai talking about the importance of place in fiction and read The Artist of Disappearance. Nadine Gordimer at the South Bank Centre told the audience she was most pleased with The Conservationist and Burger’s Daughter. I’m reading the latter at the moment.
  • Writing classes can produce great recommendations through the examples provided by the tutor, and discussions with participants.

2. Book Club. One of the joys of a book club or reading group is the requirement to read designated books. Some people avoid them for that reason, but I love serendipitous discoveries, like The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. We wont dwell on Absolom, Absolom!

3. My local library. It doesn’t exactly select my books, but it adds to the randomness of my reading because reservations arrive in any order and I have often forgotten the impulse that made me request it. I like the idea that others have and will read the same copy.

4. Gifts. My sister sends me books from time to time, which I love. She introduced me to Barbara Kingsolver a decade or so ago. I like to set an example by giving books to friends and relatives.

5. Subscription. For Christmas this year I bought a subscription to Peirene press for which I get three books a year and access to other goodies. They are translations of books that are best sellers and award winners in their countries of origin. What a good model for a small independent publisher. And, as a bonus, they are beautifully presented, great design, nice paper. I loved my first volume: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch – what a treat.

If this makes me seem like a reader at the mercy of other people, well perhaps I am. I don’t suppose I am alone. And although I don’t have a reading plan, I manage to satisfy my intention to read more foreign fiction and more classics and to read as a writer. I’m more than happy to receive your recommendations.

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