ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Soul of an Octopus: Sy Montgomery's Latest Masterpiece



Simon & Schuster video with Sy Montgomery
Though I’ve never known an octopus, every encounter I’ve had with animals has been a testament to the existence of their emotional lives. And now, here was a writer brave enough to explore their soulfulness. The title of Sy Montgomery’s latest book hooked me, and I was thrilled to be turning its pages. 

Every chapter took me either into the nooks and crannies of the aquariums where Athena, Kali, Octavia, and Karma lived, or to the depths of the sea from whence they had come. What surprised me, and Sy Montgomery when researching The Soul of an Octopus, wasn’t how different these creatures were, but rather the level of intimacy she felt with them after they met.
Sy’s use of the word “met” implies an underlying premise that guides her through the writing of all her books about animals. We meet them, we don’t merely observe them.  

To Sy, animals are somebodies, not somethings.* Even octopuses (yes, the Greek plural). “Each one of them changed my life and made me a more compassionate person,” she tells us in her talk with her editors at Simon & Schuster. “Oh, I love them all so much.” 

Not surprising language coming from a writer whom The New York Times calls both poet and scientist.  

Octavio, the cephalopod molluscs Sy met right after the octopus came to a New England aquarium, is the octopus that, even now, inhabits her heart.

“I saw her transformation from a shy animal who had been living in the wild as an adult and who was nervous around people to somebody who really relished interactions with people. And then, of course, I got see her lay eggs and tend to those eggs. That was an amazing thing to watch.”

If ever I have coveted another writer’s career, it is the career of Sy Montgomery. Small wonder that The Boston Globe calls Sy “Part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.” 

In addition to her meet-ups with octopuses and gorillas, vampire bats and tarantulas, she has been “deftly undressed by an orangutan in Borneo, hunted by a tiger in India, and swum with piranhas, electric eels and dolphins in the Amazon. She has searched the Altai Mountains of Mongolia’s Gobi for snow leopards, hiked into the trackless cloud forest of Papua New Guinea to radiocollar tree kangaroos, and learned to SCUBA dive in order to commune with octopuses.” (More About Sy)

“When I saw Octavia again,” she writes in The Soul of an Octopus, “she held on to me, gently but firmly, for an hour and fifteen minutes.  I stroked her head, her arms, her webbing, absorbed in her presence. She seemed equally attentive to me. Clearly, each of us wanted the other’s company, just as human friends are excited to reunite with each other. With each touch and each taste, we seemed to reiterate, almost like a mantra: “It’s you! It’s you! It’s you!”

Photo Credit: David Scheel
If only this could be the rallying call heard in the halls of congress, and heard around the world—a call that recognizes all that we share, a call that unites us because of our commonalities, not despite our differences. 

It’s you! It’s you! It's you!

*Note for Writers: A helpful article on 
“How to Handle Animal Pronouns: He, She or It?” (dimatrichino, Writers Digest, August 24, 2010) 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Hidden Stars and Veiled Faces



The proper young women of New York’s Barbizon Hotel all had secrets to keep—especially in 1952 when the city’s unsavory night life lured them into its grip. Decades later, a young journalist living in one of the Barbizon’s converted condos sets out to unearth these secrets, discovering that veils can hide more than scarred faces, and that her own secrets have wrapped a web of deceit around her. 

Fiona Davis braids the stories of these women together in her novel, The Dollhouse. Told with alternating points-of-view, the reader travels gracefully between decades and characters, between secrets and truth.

Author Corinne Joy Brown also delves into decades, even centuries, of hidden stories, perhaps never imagining as she was writing Hidden Star, that her novel’s main character (with a shadowy family history of Jewish persecution) would step so readily from the novel’s fictitious pages and into today’s headlines. Another Jewish cemetery vandalized. Muslims reach out to help. Even as themes of racism persist over the centuries, kindness and love come from unexpected places, as the characters of Hidden Star discover.

Corinne wasn’t merely fascinated by the stories of the descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled to the New World to escape the Spanish Inquisition, she was emboldened and impassioned by these secret stories. Almost 500 years later, her own sister would come into the world during a modern-day Inquisition—the Holocaust.

“Although your mother perished in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Corinne writes in the novel’s Acknowledgments, “she had the foresight to secure you, a child of five, with Christian friends, protected by your blue eyes and a Catholic religious medallion placed around your neck.” Corinne goes on to share that, after the siege on Warsaw, her sister, hidden for months, was brought from Poland to America and then into the arms of Corinne's family. 

Secrets. They have long been the stuff of stories - woven into novels in order to disguise them, or whispered to each other at the dinner table. What, we might wonder, is the one secret my grandmother never told anyone? Or my grandfather? What is the one secret I have never told anyone? Even our characters keep secrets from us. These hidden truths compel us to write, compel us to read, and compel us to imagine a world that is better, kinder. 

NOTE: You may read more about the characters of Hidden Star (First Place Winner of the 2016 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award in Historical Fiction) on Corinne's website. You may purchase Hidden Star here. Read more about Fiona Davis and The Dollhouse on Penguin Random House's author site.