SUMMER AT LITTLE LAVA

A SEASON AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

A compelling mix of adventure, travel, natural history, and emotional recovery set against the exotic backdrop of an Icelandic summer. Nine months after his mother was stabbed to death by an intruder, Fergus retreated to Iceland for a healing season with his wife and 8-year-old son in a rudimentary sea cottage they called Little Lava. The solitude and privation (it’s reachable only by crossing a lava field and tidal flats, and then only at low tide; there’s no running water or electricity) are just what he needs to rebuild his life. Though he comes to terms with his mother’s death, the emotional rapprochement takes place offstage, and grief remains a subtext. The real focus is Iceland itself. For Fergus, a sportsman and naturalist (Swamp Screamer: At Large with the Florida Panther, 1996; A Rough-Shooting Dog: Reflections from Thick and Uncivil Sorts of Places, 1991), the country is both analogue and anodyne to his grief. “In Iceland I reveled in the emptiness of the land, which reflected the emptiness inside me,” he writes, but the oddities of a northern summer (which features 24 hours of daylight and weather by turns harsh and idyllic) and the elemental nature of his accommodations help him to begin functioning again: “Any act, of work or leisure, any untroubled thought, was an achievement. . . . helped draw me out of bleak and mindless lethargy.” He spends the interminable days hiking the rugged lava field from which the house takes its name, fishing, mountain climbing, sea kayaking and observing the myriad birds that breed on Iceland’s coast. Among his sightings, the discovery of a rare pair of nesting sea eagles stands out. And he evocatively describes Iceland’s many volcanoes, its dramatic sagas and bewitching folklore, and the legendary hospitality of its people. No tears, but plenty of convincing testimony to the redemptive powers of nature. (b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-374-52552-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1998

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Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a...

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H IS FOR HAWK

An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.

Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.

Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0802123411

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

HORIZON

Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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