Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 1 2016 02:00PM

The year is young, and already I’ve read a book that I consider a masterpiece worthy of my rare five-star Goodreads rating, which I reserve for true classics. Even more exciting, it’s a book that combines two genres – memoir and nature writing – that seldom interest me, proving once again that a great writer can spin any variety of straw into gold.


The book is H Is For Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s fascinating, moving, altogether thrilling account of how she healed from profound grief by training a fearsome goshawk named Mabel. Just read the first few pages. Trust me – you’ll be hooked. It’s an amazing book.


So imagine my sorrow when I read this New York Times Book Review interview* with Macdonald – part of the “By the Book” series, wherein contemporary writers discuss the books that matter to them – and came to this exchange:


Q: Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

A: It’s not her, it’s me, I know, but I have never, ever been able to finish anything by Jane Austen.


Helen! Say it ain’t so! And this after she had just finished recommending some of my all-time favorites, including Euripides’ play “The Bacchae,” the Sherlock Holmes stories and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, one of the great literary experiences of my childhood. I was beginning to feel like I had a kindred spirit here.


Immediately I began wondering how we Janeites could stage an intervention. Which Austen work would most likely convert a person who likes watching birds of prey rip out the innards of small furry animals? That's basically the plot of Lady Susan, wouldn't you agree? Or maybe Macdonald would prefer Mansfield Park, for the Mrs. Norris scenes?


We need to get to work on this project immediately, because Macdonald’s interview concludes this way:


Q: What do you plan to read next?

A: I’m going to try Jane Austen again. Millions of people can’t be wrong.



* The Austen bits are included in the online version, not the print version.


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