ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Traveling the Backroads with Mary Sojourner


Words flow through Mary Sojourner’s veins. I’m not exaggerating. Nothing else could explain the way her stories pulse off the page. You’ve probably heard that all you must do to be a writer is open a vein and bleed, right? Well, wrong. You’ve also got to clean up the mess. Not all writers, especially writers who enter their work heart first, have a mind capable of resurrecting the messy emotional outpouring. Mary has that kind of brilliant mind.

With Mary’s stories, the words flow through her veins, and into the veins of her characters—an infusion that pumps humanity right back into the reader. Her stories are earthy, and deceivingly simple because they are so accessible - like a vitamin injection, a tonic to the soul.

Over 15 years ago, I stood on the shoulder of a Wyoming highway with Mary Sojourner, overlooking rolling grasslands that edged up to the ponderosa slopes of the Bearlodge Mountains. I pointed east to Sundance Mountain, then west toward Devils’ Tower and the Missouri Buttes. 


I remember sensing a kindred spirit because Mary didn’t just love the land in a sentimental fashion, she wore the land. Dirt under her fingernails and on the sleeves of her flannel shirt. Mud on her boots. Maybe even creased into the lines of her face. Mary didn’t gaze at nature, she got down and dirty with nature.

Mary has lived nestled against evergreen forests, and under the hot sun of a southwest desert. She’s a true sojourner. In Mary’s most recent book, The Talker you will travel the back roads—meeting up with characters as original as the ones you might meet if you were hitching rides on America's byways.

The portal into each story may creak in the wind and have rusty hinges, but the doors swing wide open with little formality and all business. Let's get to it.

Here's how a few of these stories begin:

It all started with black olives, the bogus kind, the ones that look like patent leather and taste worse. (“Great Blue"). 

First my dad died. Then Mom found out he’d borrowed from the life insurance right down to the dust on the last nickel. (“Kashmir”) The dust on the last nickel? I would kill to steal that line.

How about this one? My aunt calls from Burns. “Jinella, I got some sad news. Your cousin Kyrin laid himself down on the railroad tracks up near Pasco and got hit.”

And the title story, "The Talker" - this opening takes you right inside the woman who crafted these stories, and who knows every curve and bend of those back roads.

To imagine how it was where we lived that Northern Arizona autumn, you might burn a little juniper, breathe in the gray-green smoke and picture ten ramshackle cabins gathered in a crescent, as though the young moon has fallen to earth and grown shelter in its light.

Explorer Craig Childs (author of The Secret Knowledge of Water, The Animal Dialogues, and several other of my favorite books) calls Mary “a weaver of the heart.” 

Mary's latest stories, cut from the same richly textured cloth, are woven into a tapestry that rings with truth and heart. When you read them, don’t be surprised if your fingers leave smudges as you turn the pages – you’re bound to come away with a little dirt under your nails. 

Backstory: I first met Mary Sojourner when she was invited to our small town by the local writers' group, Bearlodge Writers. Her residency complete, she was on her way home. I think her short story collection, Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest, had just been published by the University of Nevada Press, and she was working on her memoir Solace: Rituals of Loss & Desire, which would be released by Scribner the following year. Read more about her books here.

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.