The National Geographic channel meets memoir in this brief, compelling examination of what animals can teach us about...

HOW TO BE A GOOD CREATURE

A MEMOIR IN THIRTEEN ANIMALS

With plenty of heart, acclaimed naturalist Montgomery (The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, 2015, etc.) makes the convincing case that all animals—great and small—can teach us compassion.

Ever since her parents gave her a Scottie puppy, the author’s fascination with the animal world has been insuppressible, and she made that obsession into a career writing about animals in more than 20 books. Montgomery’s latest, however, is not merely an examination of one species, as in The Soul of an Octopus and other books. Here, the author looks at 13 of the most important animals in her life and how they changed her. There’s the aforementioned Scottie, Molly, and three other beloved dogs, but there’s also a pack of emus, a tarantula, and an octopus named Octavia. Each animal receives its own praiseful chapter. For instance, Clarabelle the tarantula is treated with wonder: “Most spiders, after injecting prey with paralyzing venom, pump fluid from their stomach into the victim to liquefy the meal, then suck it dry and toss the skin away. Tarantulas do it differently. Clarabelle ground up her food with teeth behind her fangs.” Montgomery consistently depicts nature scenes with awe, and she occasionally borders on a preachy tone—but not often, and she also reveals certain details about her personal life, including her rocky relationship with her parents. In “The Christmas Weasel,” Montgomery compares her difficult mother to an ermine. As she watched the furry white animal (its fur “seemed to glow, like the garment of an angel”) after it attacked one of her hens, the author couldn’t help but think of her mother’s own ferocity: how she overcame poverty, learned to fly, got a job at the FBI, and married an Army officer. “Her achievement,” writes the author, “was a feat as staggering as an ermine taking down a hen.”

The National Geographic channel meets memoir in this brief, compelling examination of what animals can teach us about ourselves.

Pub Date: Sept. 25, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-544-93832-8

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2018

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A vivid sequel that strains credulity.

THE ESCAPE ARTIST

Fremont (After Long Silence, 1999) continues—and alters—her story of how memories of the Holocaust affected her family.

At the age of 44, the author learned that her father had disowned her, declaring her “predeceased”—or dead in his eyes—in his will. It was his final insult: Her parents had stopped speaking to her after she’d published After Long Silence, which exposed them as Jewish Holocaust survivors who had posed as Catholics in Europe and America in order to hide multilayered secrets. Here, Fremont delves further into her tortured family dynamics and shows how the rift developed. One thread centers on her life after her harrowing childhood: her education at Wellesley and Boston University, the loss of her virginity to a college boyfriend before accepting her lesbianism, her stint with the Peace Corps in Lesotho, and her decades of work as a lawyer in Boston. Another strand involves her fraught relationship with her sister, Lara, and how their difficulties relate to their father, a doctor embittered after years in the Siberian gulag; and their mother, deeply enmeshed with her own sister, Zosia, who had married an Italian count and stayed in Rome to raise a child. Fremont tells these stories with novelistic flair, ending with a surprising theory about why her parents hid their Judaism. Yet she often appears insensitive to the serious problems she says Lara once faced, including suicidal depression. “The whole point of suicide, I thought, was to succeed at it,” she writes. “My sister’s completion rate was pathetic.” Key facts also differ from those in her earlier work. After Long Silence says, for example, that the author grew up “in a small city in the Midwest” while she writes here that she grew up in “upstate New York,” changes Fremont says she made for “consistency” in the new book but that muddy its narrative waters. The discrepancies may not bother readers seeking psychological insights rather than factual accuracy, but others will wonder if this book should have been labeled a fictionalized autobiography rather than a memoir.

A vivid sequel that strains credulity.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982113-60-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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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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