A Memoir in Thirteen Animals
I’ve been waiting to write this review until I found the copy of the book that we’re supposed to have on hand at the store. And when I finally gave up, I ordered another copy from the publisher. Right before we had to close our doors at the bookstore because of the virus.
How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery
From the Publisher Marketing:
Understanding someone who belongs to another species can be transformative. No one knows this better than author, naturalist, and adventurer Sy Montgomery. To research her books, Sy has traveled the world and encountered some of the planet’s rarest and most beautiful animals. From tarantulas to tigers, Sy’s life continually intersects with and is informed by the creatures she meets.
This restorative memoir reflects on the personalities and quirks of thirteen animals—Sy’s friends—and the truths revealed by their grace. It also explores vast themes: the otherness and sameness of people and animals; the various ways we learn to love and become empathetic; how we find our passion; how we create our families; coping with loss and despair; gratitude; forgiveness; and most of all, how to be a good creature in the world.
The Soul of an Octopus was the Nonfiction Book Club‘s favorite read thus far – anytime someone new joins the group and asks which of the previous books they missed that we loved, we always answer in unison: The Soul of an Octopus. And since I loved it so very much, I made it a holiday gift giving recommendation, and also decided to read everything else I could find that Sy Montgomery had written so far.
I listened to the audiobook for How to Be a Good Creature – Sy reads it and I had listened to part of The Soul of an Octopus which she read herself and I was very excited to listen to her read this, her memoir. And while I enjoyed her reading of the audiobook, I hadn’t realized that there were illustrations to accompany each animal in the physical book, so I wish I had done my usual part listen, part actual reading.
Sy Montgomery is quickly becoming one of my favorite nonfiction authors. Her tales of the animals in her life is equal parts heartwarming and humorous. It’s a unique way to look at one’s life, through the animals that they’ve raised and cared for. Such a structure lends itself to looking at ourselves through the eyes of another, but the other in this case being one who cannot convey their thoughts or feelings through speech.
What intrigued me the most, however, was all of the unique personalities Sy’s animals have. I had known of her personification of animals through The Soul of an Octopus where she frequently makes assumptions and inferences about how the various octopus in the book are feeling. Her animals are their own characters in the memoir, and as any pet owner knows, full of their own personalities. And Sy has inspired me to share the story of my own pets, so this post is a bit of an offshoot from my typical Sunday review. Though who am I kidding, most of the posts get personal, that’s how we make connections with the books we read!
I’ve only really had two pets in my life, having lifelong allergies to most animals, including cats and dogs. But I grew up with a mildly hypo-allergenic rescued terrier mutt named Sandiy (“i” and “y” because Laura and I couldn’t agree), also known as Mushnik, who was with us for a decade and my husband and I have an almost 9-year-old rescue cat, Arya. My dear Sandiy was the only quiet dog when we went to the animal shelter when my sister and I were eight and ten respectively. They weren’t sure how old he was, but guessed about two. And he was the best dog, once he got used to us. We cared desperately for him until the end, when he was dying of throat cancer at the same time our step-father was dying of pancreatic cancer. They looked out for each other and I am so grateful to Sandiy for being there for my step-dad.
Arya, our dear cat who showed up one day in my mother-in-law’s garage as a tiny kitten, is named for Arya Stark of Game of Thrones. She’ll be nine years old at the end of May (our best guess for her birthday) and as I write this, she is meowing incessantly at me to feed her. She rarely stops meowing and is incredibly vocal. And as the star of my personal Instagram, my friends insisted she get her own account – @supremeleaderarya. She’s not a particularly comforting cat and doesn’t really like visitors, but she’ll occassionally let me hold and snuggle her and those moments are the best, especially while being stuck at home. Though I am technically allergic to her and after snuggles, I desperately need to use my inhaler!
Recchi Maximillian Holtby Green was the kitten my college roommate showed up with one day at our apartment. She’d desperately wanted a cat once we moved off campus. I wasn’t particularly thrilled as I always thought of myself as a dog lover. But Recchi, oh Recchi, what a playful and energetic cat he was. We named him after our favorite three hockey players (Mark Recchi, Braden Holtby and Mike Green) and threw the Maximillian in there just for fun. He eventually had about ten more players added on, but this was the version of his name that we could remember. We taught him how to shoot a street hockey puck with his paw into a net and it was a particularly proud moment! When we discovered neither of us was going to be able to take him home at the end of the school year, he was adopted by a friend’s parents.
Kato was my uncle’s dog when I was a small child – he passed away when I was 7 years old. He was a German Sheppard and bigger than me for most of my life around him. “Gentle giant” was the best way to describe him – apparently he was an absolute asshole to most adults, but with my cousin, sister and I, he was the epitome of a nanny dog. Last but not least, Popcorn, the only animal my father tolerated. He was not a big pet person but his wife for my teen years (they’re since divorced) loved small dogs – she had a Pomeranian, two obnoxious Yorkies, and the delightful Westie, Popcorn. Popcorn quickly became my father’s dog, and therefore my favorite. She was never without a tennis ball in her mouth and would beg you to throw it constantly. But she was a doll, and I will always be saddened that my ex-step-mother got to keep her in the divorce.
Two cats, three dogs, and a whole host of fish growing up, and many surrogate pets, those whose owners were my close friends and whom I loved as if they were my own. I love(d) them all so dearly and they enriched my life in so many ways.
Rating: 8 out of 10 stars
Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.