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Monday, October 22, 2018

Book Review: How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery

I've never been an animal nut, in fact I was especially good at my job selecting all the books in PetSmart and Petco for 3 years precisely because at that time I had no pets and so was very unbiased. Along with my husband came first one cat and now two, and I had a couple of cats growing up and my sister had a dog. We even had goldfish for a while. But we've gone long stretches between animals and nothing exotic. So you might think a book like this one wouldn't be for me, but I loved it.

It helps that Ms. Montgomery is unabashed about her animal love. She doesn't hedge it, doesn't overexplain, doesn't defend it. It just is. She's felt an affinity, an empathy for animals even stronger than her feelings for most humans, since the youngest of ages with her family dog, Molly. Every other animal has a shadow of Molly in it.

Shortly after college, with her dream job and wonderful boyfriend (now husband), she decided to chuck everything and move to the South Australian Outback for a non-paying research job for 6 months, and ended up following 3 emus pretty obsessively. I've been to South Australia and observed some emus, both in the wild and in an animal sanctuary, and they're pretty hard to identify with. They don't strike one as especially intelligent and are skittish in addition to behaving in a daft manner. That said, Ms. Montgomery makes an excellent argument that each and every animal is smart in their own way that I might not get. I have a lot more respect for emus now, which I didn't think was possible.
She then goes on to tell us about 3 more pet dogs, a pet pig (he got up to 750 pounds! If intrigued, read The Good Good Pig. It's excellent and it solely about the pig, with a dash of dog.), a series of octopuses (no, octopi is not correct), tree kangaroos, tarantulas, and a brief but stunning appearance by an ermine.

I am not 100% sure but I think this is classified as a children's book. Up until the death of her first pet dog as an adult which sent her into a suicidal depression, I was okay with that classification. She discusses it in a straightforward and not maudlin way but it still might be an unexpected turn of events for someone looking for happy animal stories. Still, death is a part of life, one often learned about through the shorter lifespans of pets, and anyone who reads books about animals regularly can tell you how all of them end. It can absolutely be a fine book for more mature kids down to 10 years old.

However, and delightfully, it's also great for adults. It does have cute illustrations throughout, but not in an infantile style. It's beautifully designed and will be a great gift at the holidays for those animal lovers among us, especially the ones who love even the more obscure and possibly icky ones.

I got a copy of this book for free from the publisher at NAIBA.

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