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Posts Tagged ‘Sy Montgomery’

This past week or so I’ve been reading Sy Montgomery‘s illustrated memoir How to Be a Good Creature: a Memoir in Thirteen Animalswhich my book club is discussing next week, and Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis. The friend who went to the Five Colleges booksale with me last year went again this year and got Strapless. I had picked it up myself at some point (possibly on a free cart), so when I asked her lately what she was reading I decided to read it as well.

I’ve written about Sy Montgomery’s last few books here at bookconscious — if you’ve been here with me you know she is an excellent writer who combines eye-opening, thought provoking insights into the animal world with similarly observant and self-aware insights into the human animal. Many of her books are part memoir — she is a large-hearted person who shares her own thoughts and emotions and that’s part of what makes her writing so delightful. Reading her work often feels like listening to a friend telling you about their life.

How to Be a Good Creature is more like listening to a wise teacher. Montgomery reflects on how from a young age she felt more at ease with animals than other children, how she took a dream trip as a “citizen scientist” in the Australian Outback that changed her life, and how the many vertebrates and invertebrates (a tarantula named Clarabelle as well as more recently, the octopuses made famous in her best-selling The Soul of an Octopusshe’s known have contributed to her life and added to her understanding of the world. “Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding,” she writes. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

There are some tough things in this book; if you’ve read any of Montgomery’s other books you know she didn’t have the best time as a child and had a longstanding rift with her parents that she handled with grace and empathy. Montgomery has also lived with bouts of depression. But ultimately she has come through some very real challenges with her spirit and her large heart in tact with help from the animals she has known, and she writes about that here. So if you’re in the mood for a book that will restore your faith, if not in humanity (although there are also many wonderful humans in Sy Montgomery’s life and she writes affectionately about them as well), at least in the general goodness of creation, this is a book for you. And of course, if you’ve had an animal help you through difficulties you’ll be nodding along.

If on the other hand you want to read a book that will remind you that obsession with fame and a press that inundates readers with sordid and titillating stories and profits from feeding a perceived mass desire to judge people and relish in their bad fortune are nothing new, Deborah Davis’s Strapless is for you. It’s certainly also a book about John Singer Sargent, and about the wealthy, vain, eccentric French Creole woman, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who Sargent painted in his iconic portrait of Gilded Age Paris, Madame X. Even if you’ve never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see that famous painting you’ve probably seen an image of it at some point. You may or may not know it caused a sensation and humiliating criticism for both artist and subject when Sargent showed it at the Paris Salon in 1884 in large part because it originally portrayed her with one strap fallen off her shoulder.

This is incredible to us today, but Davis does an excellent job of showing exactly how bizarre it was then, given the types of entertainment popular in Paris at the time. This aspect of the book is a fascinating and somewhat alarming examination of how humans have always created strangely detrimental ways of engaging with each other in society. A very popular activity in 1800s Paris was viewing dead bodies at the morgue, another was reading ridicule of famous people in newspapers, and still another was reading sensational reports of crimes. The next time you despair of the endless cycle of bad news and the obsession over Kim Kardashian’s shape, remember this is nothing new.

Beyond this disheartening reminder that dehumanizing popular culture is not a contemporary invention, Davis provides a really interesting look at the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century art world, at Sargent’s career and work, at his friend Henry James’ role in helping Sargent gain the attention he deserved, and the many other people who befriended him, commissioned his work, or admired it. I am an admirer, and I also am a big fan of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose own scandalous portrait (which like Madame X does not appear scandalous today), is one of two portraits he painted of Gardner on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Which also holds one of his famous large scale works, El Jaleo. Gardner actually built a space to display El Jaleo before she even owned it.

Anyway, as my friend noted, there is a lot packed into this book, and it’s a really interesting read. I learned new things about Sargent even though I also read Sargent’s Women not that long ago. That book was also good, but focused more on the wealthy American and English women he painted (including Gardner). If you enjoy art, or even if you don’t but you’re fascinated by culture and history, you will enjoy Strapless.

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Longtime bookconscious readers know I am a fan of New Hamsphire authors Sy Montgomery and Howard Mansfield. I’ve written about their work several times on the blog and in the Mindful Reader column. Recently my good friend and fellow book lover Juliana gifted me with The Good Good Pig: the Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood. We each had piles of books in our arms in the checkout line of The Five Colleges Booksale and when I exclaimed over her finding Sy’s book, she let me buy it instead of buying it herself. If that’s not friendship I don’t know what is.

Anyway, I’ve been reading my own “to read” books instead of library books lately, partly because I bought a lot of books this spring, and partly because I was changing jobs, and thus libraries. Last week was kind of an unsettled one, with some stressful stuff happening (such as becoming a library director) at work and at home, so I wanted a book I knew would feed my soul, and given that, I knew I couldn’t go wrong with Sy!

The only problem with The Good Good Pig is that I want to move to Hancock, New Hampshire, and since Concord is the only place we’ve lived twice on purpose (we lived in Oklahoma twice, but only because the USMC sent us there both times) and The Computer Scientist says he is not moving any more boxes ever again, but instead will live here until he is the one being moved in a box (he has a morbid sense of humor), that’s not likely to happen. Really I just want to be Sy’s and Howard’s neighbor.

So, The Good Good Pig isn’t just about Christopher Hogwood, the runt piglet they adopted who lived to be fourteen and a valued member of their community. It’s about the many ways Christopher taught the people in his life all kinds of things — how to play, how to savor the sunlight and grass on a nice day, how to truly enjoy delicious foods, and simply, as one of Sy’s former neighbors explains, “how to love.” Sy notes that by living a long life, Christopher Hogwood showed everyone who knew him that “We need not accept the rules that our society or species, family or fate have written for us.”

This is not just a fascinating book about animals, peppered with interesting anecdotes about some of the many creatures Sy has loved, researched, communed with, written about, and felt an affinity towards, from pink dolphins to tarantulas and man eating tigers. It’s also a book about two people who fell in love with each other and the writing life and created for themselves a home and a community that fully embraced them and their work. And it’s a book about family in many forms — not only in the traditional sense of the people we come from and often find ourselves challenged by, but the family we make for ourselves, human and inter-species. Sy’s writing about her relationship with her mother is moving and inspiring — she is a model of radical acceptance even in the face of challenges, and the world would be a better place if more people were able to love their way through hurts the way Sy does.

The Good Good Pig  was just the book I hoped, soul filling, life affirming, smart, and thoughtful. We have so much to learn from animals, and although I can’t claim I am as connected to other creatures as Sy is (not many people are!) I am often impressed that my cats are so tuned into my feelings. For creatures who get a bad rap for being aloof, they can be remarkably supportive when I need it, especially the small grey tabby who will curl up against me or on me if she can sense I need her calming presence. As my Facebook friends know, she is also my zen master, running to the meditation cushion after dinner to remind me it’s time to sit and joining me as I meditate. So I totally understand how a pig could be “a big Buddha master” to his friends and neighbors.

I leave you with two peaceful cat pictures, because how could I not? They’re no 750 pound pig, but I think there are probably city ordinances against hog husbandry in Concord anyway.

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During the time that I worked as the events coordinator at my local indie bookstore (Gibson’s in Concord) and then wrote a book review column (for the Concord Monitor and later for the New Hampshire Union Leader) I had the pleasure of getting to correspond with authors of all kinds of books, and their publicists. A few stand out as real people, the kind of people who like to connect as humans and so chat a bit in an email, or before an event. Even rarer are the ones who wrote me later to say they appreciated my reading and caring about their work, or who helped me feel as if my own writing was making the world a very slightly better place. Today I bring you some of the loveliest of those people and their latest books.

First, even though her book will be published last of the three, Tod Davies. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned her and her wonderful Exterminating Angel Press but longtime readers of bookconcious may recall my review of Jam Today Too and even farther back, Snotty Saves the Day (both of which came to my attention because of another really lovely person in the literary world, Molly Mikolowski). Well Tod remembered too, and sent me an email with an e-galley of her new revised edition of Jam Today: a Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got. Confession time: last year around this time I finally bought myself a print copy of the first edition of Jam Today and . . . it’s still on my “to read” shelf. So I decided Tod’s email was a sign that it was high time I read it. I don’t love reading e-books, but needs must.

One more aside before we go on — Tod and Molly were two of the kindest people when I was working on finding a publisher for my debut (and still unpublished) poetry collection, and they, along with Erika Goldman, the thoughtful publisher at Bellevue Literary Press, took time out of their busy lives to give me advice, even though they knew it was probably unlikely I’d ever get that book published unless I wanted to pay for it myself. The publishing world needs more people like these three wonderful women, who probably don’t even remember the emails they sent me, but who helped me see that being a bookless poet wasn’t the end of the world.

Ok, enough digressing already, let’s eat!

Jam Today is part cookbook — in a nontraditional this-is-how-you-do-it rather than a here’s-a-list-of-recipes way — part memoir and part philosophy book. I say that because right from the first pages readers find out that for Tod Davies, the way we think about food, not just the way we acquire or grow and prepare and eat it, is “direct political action.” She says in the book’s opening section, “Why I Love Food:” “If you’re well fed — if you’re well loved — well, that makes it easier to do just about anything. And if you have an entire population that is well fed — and well loved — and believes it can do just about anything . . . this may not be good for those who would rather lull and manipulate us into doing what they think best. But it’s definitely good for us and our world.”

Throughout the book, Tod’s advice is to pay attention; “. . . every moment of everyday life is what our world is made of . . . . Paying attention to what’s right in front of you is what life is about. No other way.” And “. . . food feeds both my physical and my spiritual selves.” She goes on to address what she means by spiritual and that she believes there is a “basic set of principles that all human beings can discover . . . indeed that I think all human beings are trying to discover.” Amen, sister. If only we set aside our quibbling about spiritual matters by focusing on this truth, that we all seek “the Good!” How and in what way wouldn’t matter so much if we all really tried to be, in the moment, human to, and open to the human in, each other.

And, I loved the way she addresses the way coming back home after visiting at the holidays we need to “heal up from the holidays.” And how a meal she made “was absolute crap” after a friend died, “I could see my body running away from the basic facts of my life, because those basic facts killed my friend and would kill me.” Do you see what I mean? This isn’t just recipes — although those are mouth watering — it’s a manifesto, a statement of faith, a guide to living intentionally and loving life and each other, while eating well. Also, she is complimentary towards Millennials (admiring the way “they’ve got this trend going of getting by with as few possessions as possible”) which as a mother and manager of millennials I appreciate. Too many people write off that generation without looking for the Good.

I haven’t tried cooking any of these recipes, but I’ve made paella from Jam Today Too and followed the spirit of Tod’s cooking in many other ways, although lately we’ve been just making food and not feeding ourselves and Jam Today was a good reminder that when we feel we are least able to make cooking a big deal si probably when we most need to. Tod’s spirit of intentionality is inspiring. That’s the key to keeping calm in difficult times, I think, being intentional, living deliberately, sharing love. I wish I lived closer because I’d invite her over for a meal — and you’ll want to do that too, when you’re done reading this delightful book.

If you’ve read any of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘s and/or Sy Montgomery‘s books you know they have much in common and that they refer to each other (and each other’s animals) in their writing. What I didn’t know until I read Vicki Constantine Croke‘s forward to Tamed & Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind is that they became friends when one of Sy’s ferrets bit Thomas.  Croke explains, “The essays here are mostly collected and adapted from their joint column in The Boston Globe . . . .” Croke goes on to say, “They are, one might say, the kettle corn of nature writers,” by which she means they are “sweet” but share “a real saltiness to their skepticism.”

Whether you’ve read some of these essays before or not, this spirit, which Croke alludes to and which shines through both women’s writing, is a pleasure to encounter or re-encounter. Their lovingly writing on everything from snakes to dogs is accepting of animals as our equals in many ways (and our betters, as Sy explains, in others. Can you re-grow a limb?), and yet they are ready to zap irrational human arguments about mistreating or disrespecting animals. Both Thomas and Sy deploy warmth and wit, philosophy and science. They share stories of animals they have observed or loved, and they question much of the habits of thought and misinformation that lead us to flawed human-animal relations.

Thomas writes, “Our species is just one in 8.7 million. How many of these can we name? How many do we know or understand?” If you read this collection you will know about some of them, you will learn to look at things through animal eyes, and you may be less quick to judge (or misjudge, really) what seems like contrary or mis-behavior but which is understandable if you try to think from the animals’ perspectives. And if you love animals you will feel a kindred sense of understanding with these authors who have between them done so much to advance human understanding of both the wild and domestic creatures we are so fortunate to share this planet with. You’ll also be amazed — even the most devoted naturalist is going to learn something from this book. Have you ever heard of water bears? Me neither. And now I am dying to know more! Did you know that rats laugh, we just can’t hear the frequency? Me neither, but it makes me want to re-read Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White was brilliant in many ways but I wonder if he was tuned into rat frequency?

Finally, Sy Montgomery’s husband Howard Mansfield also has a new book out, from the wonderful New Hampshire small press Bauhan PublishingSummer Over Autumn: a Small Book of Small Town Life. Most of these essays were new to me, but are collected from Howard’s writing for magazines and the Boston Globe. He is one of those writers who is not only gracious to bookstore staff and part time book reviewers (and probably everyone else) and whose writing is warm and funny but also, as they say in these parts, wicked smart. He’s a kind of a people’s intellectual, whose cultural and historical knowledge sparkles on the page but whose ability to read other human beings, and not surprisingly since he is married to Sy, animals, infuses his essays with a generosity that makes you feel like you’re sharing in his brilliance, not having it bestowed upon you, the lowly reader. 

Plus, he’s writing about one of my favorite topics: New Hampshire. The Computer Scientist and I tell people this is the only place we’ve lived twice on purpose. It feels like home — for no good reason, since neither of us is “from” here, nor as far as we know are any ancestors. Besides sharing an outsider’s love of our adopted home, I just really admire the way Howard takes ordinary things like yard sales or his local garage and creates something beautiful on the page not only because he notices things and writes well but because he cares about people’s stories. In “On Going Late to Yard Sales,” for example, he writes about the “puzzles that are left when the boxes are nearly empty,” and the way the sellers seem to have “watched themselves scatter to the winds.” Something I had never really thought about, but I recognized when I read his essay.

It’s a good time to read this book as we’re in what Howard refers to in the title essay: “Summer Over Autumn isn’t a season. It’s a glimpse, the moment when we see the skull beneath the skin, the death that is always a part of life.” A few leaves are changing, but it’s still warm, even sometimes hot during the day. Evenings and mornings are chilly enough to cause us to think about a coat was we rush to the car. There are both wonderful tomatoes and wonderful apples at the Farmers’ Market. There is both observation and deep human truth in Howard’s essays.

So, this Summer Over Autumn afternoon you could’t go wrong reading any of these books. Or more importantly sharing time with people who care not only about the books they write, but also the people they ask to be a part of bringing those books into the world. Enjoy!

 

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New Hampshire is teeming with excellent writers, but there are few who are as consistently interesting and eloquent as Sy Montgomery. I review her latest book in The Mindful Reader column this week.

Here’s the beginning:

If you haven’t read New Hampshire author Sy Montgomery’s many books on the natural world, her latest, “The Soul of An Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness,” is a good place to start. Just as with her earlier work, Montgomery’s passion for other species is infectious – if you’ve never given octopuses much thought before, you will after reading this book.

Read the rest here.

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