Posts Tagged ‘Sy Montgomery’

Lisa Hanawalt, “Hot Dog Taste Test”(2016) & Sy Montgomery, “The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood” (2006,2007)

July 30, 2016

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Is food something that needs to be de-mythologized? It’s one of those things people either think about a lot, or don’t really think about much – it’s such an essential part of life, it’s easy to either take it for granted and cram whatever’s nearby into your mouth, or you turn it into something you obsess about, revelling in specifics and obscurities, to the point where you seem to be in another universe from every other eater on earth. It often feels like all the ideas of nutrition and food-as-art have created these weird class distinctions in an essential activity. I would imagine one of the reasons Lisa Hanawalt received the article assignments that form the majority of this book (following chef Wylie Dufresne, trying New York’s street food one last time, going through multiple Las Vegas buffets) is because she has a real skill at straddling that line, knowledgeable and interested in the complexities and varieties in chef and foodie culture, but more than willing to indulge in the simpler pleasures of more common items. There’s an art to food, but that doesn’t mean only artistic food is the only kind worthwhile – Hanawalt recognizes that food is comforting, but also how food and the process of eating is absurd and just another part of our basic biological functions (food and its counterpart, doof, are closer than we’d like to think), and it’s also a cultural and familial touchstone that brings people together (which is the core of the “Argentina Travel Diary” segment.) There’s too much to food to just ignore but a few of its facets – here we even get some food-inspired horror in “Caballos Con Carne”, which explores the strange relationship between us meat eaters and other animals – it’s both funny and exhaustive in its observations, a hundred or more different ways to look at and appreciate your eating habits.

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Look at some of the spreads in the book – a Lisa Hanawalt spread is always a good thing, with a thousand visual jokes all hiding in different corners, rendered in appropriately smeared water colours that can bring out the best and worst in every piece – you can see many of those ideas in one place, elaborate and ornate and silly and disgusting in equal measures. Food becomes part of everything: design, body horror, ritual, communication, corporate logos, a personality test. Not every piece in the book is about food, but the topic seems to permeate every page, on the book’s mind at all times even when it drifts off to other places. Of course, many of the other sections of Hot Dog Taste Test deal with just other aspects of a normal life – happiness, death, family, that sort of thing – which coalesces quite well with food, all fundamental aspects of existence. Like the food itself that appears on these pages, there seems to be a desire to mix all these different ideas together, to serve them up in unexpected and beautiful ways – they are all part of one greater, very messy meal.

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As a companion to the previous Sy Montgomery book I read, The Good Good Pig offers a similar meditation on human-animal relationships – but while The Soul Of An Octopus focuses on a wild and strange intelligence, this one is definitely more domestic in many different ways. This is also a book about small time life, the idea of going somewhere to free yourself from urban sprawl and crowds, only to have the small population crowd around you as the local flavour – the legacy of Montgomery’s adopted pig, Christopher Hogwood, was to allow her to form relationships with neighbours and other citizens of Hancock, New Hampshire, sometimes by accident (creating a vivid cast of recurring personalities, as she would later do in Soul Of An Octopus as well.) The author openly describes how she has always felt more kinship with animals than people, but at several points in this, animals help bridge the gaps and force her to be a bit more outgoing.

The book presents the small town as the place where everyone knows everyone, everyone kicks in to help (in this case, feeding Christopher scraps), confirming that the ideas of community can actually amount to something – these are the virtues of the small town experience you hear about often. Having an escape artist pig makes Montgomery and her husband “exceptional”, but this brings them closer to others – the interesting contrast Montgomery provides is in her own family life, which appears in many major points in the book, where being eccentric or doing something not in line with expectations is not nearly as accepted. This is sometimes seen as another small town “value”, but it simmers beneath the surface – Montgomery can talk to her mother about her pig, but not her Jewish husband. The book doesn’t delve into that connection – she came from a military family, so not particularly representative of the small town experience – but in a broader sense it does present two different paths those close-knit communities can take: they can become an open community, or a closed community. The author uses both her life with a pig and her career as a way to demonstrate of the open community, emphasizing the different backgrounds of all her friends and neighbours, learning about other cultures (and especially their particular relationships with local animals, such as the stories about the river dolphins in Brazil), and keeping in touch with her associates in other countries. In these cases, too, animal life (especially Christopher, whose fame spreads far beyond New Hampshire) becomes a way to understand others and form connections – with the animals, and with the people, all communities becoming open communities.

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Sy Montgomery, “The Soul Of An Octopus” (2015) & Italo Calvino (Trans: Jonathan Cape, Tim Parks, Martin McLaughlin , “The Complete Cosmicomics” (2002, 2009)

June 6, 2016

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The danger in anthropomorphism is that it not only removes the unique beauty of many non-human animals by simply turning them into a different version of us, with all the same foibles and none of their own, but also because the same effect hinders our ability to understand their own behaviour – the way certain species view the world would be very different, guided by the specifics of their evolution in the same way we were. So, expecting them to operate and react in a similar way to us in certain situations is wrongheaded, and in some ways is even dangerous to both human and non-human.

The Soul Of An Octopus tightly walks the line between degrees of anthropomorphism – the journey Montgomery has in the book is not simply to “humanize” octopuses, but rather to show the commonalities in our separate forms of intelligence. She never denies that the octopus’s mind works on a very different level than our own (she regularly reminds us that it is an “alien” entity with a heightened capability of taste and limbs that may well operate independently), but from her own experiences and further research sees so much evidence of certain things – curiosity, memory, personality, stresses (also mentioned in one of David Quammen’s columns in Natural Acts), and possibly even a sense of humour – the driving force of the book becomes finding how a very different sort of animal could seem to share so many things in common with humans. Over the course of the book, we see how many of those similarities come from differences – an octopus needs to be as clever as many of the more highly-developed mammals because of how vulnerable it is physically – but there remains as many questions about how their brains work as there are for the rest of us.

Of course, the scientific and philosophical inquiries are only part of the book – the rest, and maybe the majority, of it is a recounting of the author’s interactions with several octopuses, in captivity and in the wild, which is what spurs her interest in octopus intelligence in the first place. She also becomes friends with the people who are involved with octopus keeping – the staff members of the New England Aquarium (both veterans of the trade and younger volunteers), partners in diving expeditions, and cephalopod-focused scientists – who help Montgomery become increasingly integrated into the going on of the octopus realm, all of them sharing in the same enthusiasm and awe of these animals. The author documents the lives and personalities of the staff as thoroughly as the octopuses themselves (each of whom have their own distinctive personalities, as Montgomery always tries to demonstrate), and the relationship with all the animals they look after are some of the most interesting parts of the book. Whether or not they go a little too far in making their fish and invertebrate and reptile charges seem more “human”, the idea that these people can identify the distinctiveness of each animal is both practical for the daily goings-on in an aquarium and fascinating – even if our species isn’t exactly the same as all the others, there still seems to be a possibility for some kind of understanding, especially in these close, regular encounters.

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Speaking of anthropomorphism, Calvino’s Cosmicomics engage in that in a different way – characterizing processes both macro and micro, cosmic and terrestrial, as a series of fables driven by desire, an endless pursuit of perfection, and a tragicomic relationship with change. Vast, unknowable processes – the expansion of the universe, the creation of the moon, evolution, light speed travel – become a series of adventures of one character, who is almost always in the pursuit of the same goals (i.e. The love of a specific woman or female-coded abstract concept) and is usually prevented from achieving them (An interesting contrast are the stories in the “t zero” section, where the process is almost reversed – a human situation is written as a complex scientific algorithm offering alternate theories of time and probability.) The inevitable course of history is driven by the travails of often highly abstracted characters, who in their lives mix the everyday and the grandiose.

In including all of Calvino’s stories in chronological order, you also see how these themes recur and change over time – and specifically through his series of stories that follow the structure and theme of Orpheus and Eurydice, the most direct being the trilogy of “Without Colours”, “The Stone Sky”, and of course “The Other Eurydice”, a revised take on “The Stone Sky” which even includes slightly different versions of the same sentences. These three in particular feature the previously-mentioned theme of seeking a state of perfection only to be stymied by the development of our world – a world above the surface of the world, a world with endless colour – with the narrator Qfwfq railing against the new world that ruins his static one (which occurs in other stories such as “Nothing and Not Much”) and robs him of his endless, unchanging life with his one true love, who either is left behind (in “Without Colours”) or leaves him behind (“Stone Sky”/”Other Eurydice” – as well as more in a sillier fashion in stories like “The Aquatic Uncle”). The presence of a world beyond himself and his chosen love is the recurring bane of Qfwfq’s existence in many stories, whether it is other characters like Lieutenant Fenimore in “The Form of Space”, or against a generalized mass of noise in the far more angry and cynical “Other Eurydice” (modern life seems to be a pestilence that is destined for eradication) – the whole of existence outside the pair is an affront to the perfection the narrator seeks in many stories, a compromise to his closed loop. But of course, very rarely does Qfwfq ever consider what others, his chosen partner especially (who often, in his mind, end up as some prize for his self-selected battles and rivalries), seeks in their own lives – so he is baffled when in stories like “Stone Sky”, they seem unwilling to simply follow him back tho their old world, to regress with him – they are lost and he is now alone, no longer having to worry about being overcrowded.