The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow

A fondly affectionate portrait of a Tawny Owl, tempered by wry wit and British reserve.

owl

Military historian Martin Windrow (Our Friends Beneath the Sands) never considered himself an animal lover. But to aid his recuperation after a skydiving accident, Windrow allowed his brother to acquire for him an unusual pet. Wellington, a Little Owl (“this is a species, not a description”), was more than he had bargained for, and too much for his London flat; when Wellington escaped, Windrow found himself shamefacedly relieved. Convinced to try a different species, he made a second attempt with a Tawny Owl hatchling he named Mumble, and they became fast friends.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar is in large part a loving memoir of a dearly departed and singular companion. Windrow also shares his research into the biology, history, folklore and usual habits of the Tawny Owl and its strigine relations. He repeatedly stresses the amateur nature of these studies, but nonetheless imparts wisdom and praise for this corner of the animal kingdom, as well as for his friend of 15 years.

Mumble is an endearing juvenile, a feisty adolescent, and initially tolerant of visitors, but eventually too prickly to admit her master’s friends. Windrow moves out of London and into the country to allow her greater freedom, and watches her personality and customs change as she ages, molts and nests. It has taken nearly 20 years after Mumble’s demise for him to reopen the tender subject of her life, drawing on diary entries that recorded her vocalizations, eating habits, grooming and quirks. Fans of loving memoirs about pets, accessible science writing and dry humor will be charmed by Windrow’s love letter to Mumble.


This review originally ran in the June 13, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 HHS (hoot and head shots).

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

motherI am deeply impressed by Alison Bechdel: her self-awareness, her fraught journey through her life and her relationship with her mother, her psychoanalysis and her work in this book (and, I’ll wager, her earlier Fun Home, which I haven’t read but have heard lots of good things about. I’ve put it on the list). This is a memoir of her mother, at first glance; but it’s more self-involved than that, although I don’t mean that in a bad way. That’s just what this book is. It’s the story of her writing a book about her mother, and it’s that book; it’s really a book about herself, then.

It is also a graphic memoir, which is not a format I’ve spent much time on, as I find it a little exhausting to follow; I guess I’m a traditionalist when it comes to my reading matter! I prefer traditional fonts, and certainly hard-copy rather than electronic (well, there are the audiobooks…). I’ve read very few graphic works, and although I’ve enjoyed them all, I tend to find them a little more effortful. On the other hand, though, I sped through these 289 pages easily in an afternoon. Seeing Bechdel’s visual version of herself, her mother, and her other characters (a father, two brothers, two psychoanalysts, a few girlfriends) added to the experience; so, props on the format as well, as it turns out. (This is where I’ll note that Alison Bechdel is also the author of the esteemed comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and a whole pile of books of said comic.)

I feel the need to address a personal element of my reading this book. I have aspired for a handful of years now to write a book about my own mother. And it was my mother who gave me this book – I believe after she went to an author reading at a bookstore? – with a nudge toward writing my own version. This is funny to me now that I’ve read Are You My Mother?, because for one thing, Bechdel’s mom was less than pleased with her efforts (is there a joke in there, Mom?); also, the book I envision, hope, one day to write is not very much like this one. No criticism there, of course. I dream of something a little more like Haven Kimmel’s mother-book, She Got Up Off the Couch. That is, I want to tell my mother’s story (unavoidably mediated through the lens of being her daughter), because I think her life story needs telling. Bechdel’s need was admittedly a little more self-focused. She quotes Virginia Woolf more than once: about To the Lighthouse, “I suppose that I did for myself who psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.” And that is what Bechdel is working on doing through this memoir: psychoanalyze herself, and put her emotions to rest. At the end, it feels like she does, at least a little.

She is quite involved in the idea of psychoanalysis, and does quite a bit of her own research; in addition to relationships with two different analysts, she reads Freud and some lesser-knowns; her personal favorite is one Winnicott. She opens each chapter with a dream, then sets it in the timeline of her life and discusses what it might mean. It’s an interesting lens, and not one I’m familiar with. I’m not ready to go get analyzed, myself, but I came away respecting Bechdel’s process. Some of the papers she studies and quotes from are overly academic for what I was looking to get out of this book, but that’s okay; I let them flow over me and stayed on track with what Bechdel was up to, which was what I was looking for.

I found Bechdel funny, personable, sympathetic, and authentic. I’m glad for her in what she gained through this process. I expect to come back to this book for some thoughts on my own work, if/when I ever get that far; for now, it was a rewarding read. And I’ll be looking for Fun Home. For feminists, lesbians, mothers, daughters, or people with relationships to solve – I recommend this deftly drawn work of emotion and searching. Thank you, Alison.


Rating: 7 sessions.

Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

Back-to-basics urban farmer Novella Carpenter investigates family in her second contemplative memoir.

gone feral

When Novella Carpenter was 36, her father went missing. It turned out to be a false alarm, but the threat of losing him helped Novella realize that, if she was ever to get to know George Carpenter, she might be running out of time, since their relationship had been stuck somewhere between uneasy and estranged for years. Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild charts her journey home.

After a romantic meeting in 1969 San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, her parents embarked on an idealistic European tour before settling on a farm in Idaho in “voluntary poverty.” But the marriage ended when Novella and her sister were five and seven, and their mother moved them to Washington State; Novella didn’t see much of her father after that. Now, three decades later, she has a small urban farm in Oakland, Calif., which she documented in her memoir Farm City. When she and her boyfriend, Bill, decide to try to get pregnant, she wonders about her own genetic legacy. Breeding ducks, chickens and milk goats has taught her the importance of the stock line. In working to become a parent herself, after the scare of George going missing, she goes in search of her father, hoping to build the relationship they never had.

George is still scraping by near the Idaho farm where Novella was born. He’s a regular backwoods curmudgeon, making a meager living by logging and cutting firewood and sharing his cabin with wild animals. She hopes they’ll go fly-fishing, re-creating the romance of A River Runs Through It. Maybe they’ll forage for wild foods or he’ll teach her how to fell a tree perfectly. Instead, he rants about the devils that possess the old family farm and exhibits previously unnoticed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (the legacy of his service in the Korean War). Novella is disturbed, angered all over again at what she sees as his abandonment, and concerned about the genes she’ll pass on to a child, if she ever succeeds in getting pregnant.

Gone Feral is reflective, as Novella ponders the paradoxes of her upbringing–for example, the liberal hippie value system (hers and her mother’s) that rejects her father the mountain man–and wonders what it is she really wants for her own child. Traveling through the country and her own past teaches her about herself, her origins, and how to build a future that includes father as well as child.


This review originally ran in the May 20, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 babies.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

owl

Sorry; I know I gave you the beginning just the other day. But I couldn’t help myself.

Talk about charming. If this isn’t British and eccentric and oddly, wryly funny enough for you… well, it is for me.

Mumble found herself frantically flapping and back-pedalling on top of (the paper towel roll), riding the ever-diminishing cylinder like a lumberjack on a rolling log until both of them fell off the end of the table. She seemed to find my helpless laughter irritating (one can take umbrage so much more convincingly when one has a lot of feathers).

That final parenthetical kills me.

Martin Windrow kept a Tawny Owl as a… companion, I think, more than pet, for something like 15 years. It is an interesting story and I think I’m going to recommend it. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

owl

This book is as thoroughly delightful as the title implies. I’m only a few pages in, but I’m hooked. Check this out.

Shaving is tricky with an owl on your shoulder.

When I am working on the right side of my throat, Mumble tends to make darting, snake-like passes with her beak at the handle of the razor as it reaches the top of each stroke.

Windrow goes on to note that he has tried to shift Mumble to his left shoulder while he shaves his right side, but she is no more a morning person than he is; they are both reluctant to try new things at such an hour.

Subtitled “Living With a Tawny Owl,” The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar (a bust of Caesar, that is) is absolutely charming so far. I think I’m going to recommend this one.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros (audio)

marieWhat a lovely, lovely book. Fans of Sandra Cisneros, don’t be put off by the sometimes-classification of this short fable as a children’s book. Cisneros says in an afterword that she certainly never thought of it that way; she intended it for adults, and I can confirm that it works that way, very well.

This is a short, dreamy, poetic tale of a woman, the narrator, who has just lost her mother; a visiting friend (“I was the only person Rosalind knew in all of Texas”) has lost her cat, Marie. Together, the two women go walking the streets of San Antonio, distributing fliers and asking folks the title question: Have you seen Marie?

The voice and rhythms and lyrical style that I remember from The House on Mango Street are vibrantly present here. The women ask dogs, cats and squirrels as well as people about the missing Marie, and their reactions are noted, and charmingly represented as being every bit as important as the people’s. On the surface, this is the story of searching for Marie; but it is also the story of Cisneros losing her beloved mother, feeling like an orphan in her own middle age, and gradually coming to understand that “love does not die.”

As I mentioned, Cisneros is careful to point out that this was not meant to be a story for children, but rather one for adults, with the idea of helping others like herself deal with experiences like hers: losing a parent, or a loved one. I am very (very) glad & relieved that I don’t seem to facing this experience now, or soon; but I imagine that this book would indeed help. I appreciate its soothing musical tone and gently loving, inspired advice and creative understanding of death, what it means, the grieving process. It is a tender tale. Cisneros is inventive and calming and this is a beautiful, moving story about family and friendship. I highly recommend it, for anyone.

This audio version is read by the author, and so beautifully; I love her lilt; it’s perfect. I want to very much recommend this version (in both English and Spanish in one edition – one cd of each). But then, the print copy is illustrated by Ester Hernandez, and Cisneros is clearly very pleased with that aspect. Hearing her speak about their collaborative efforts on the illustrations (Hernandez came to visit & tour Cisneros’s San Antonio; she calls it documentary-style) made me regret missing the print. So there you are. Both, perhaps?? I think I will go out and get myself a copy of the book, too.


Rating: 10 trees along the San Antonio River.

book beginnings on Friday: Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

marie

I cannot say enough nice things about this short piece of beauty by Sandra Cisneros. It begins:

The day Marie and Rosalind arrived on a visit from Tacoma was the day Marie ran off. It had taken three days of driving to get to San Antonio, and Marie had cried the whole way.

You will be captivated. Do check it out.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (audio)

In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson describes his experience on the Appalachian Trail. He and his family had just moved to New Hampshire and he discovered the trail almost literally in his back yard, and decided, what the heck? he’d try walking it. At the last minute, an old friend agrees to join him, to his relief (now he won’t be alone out there with the bears); this old friend turns out to be overweight, a smoker, recently sober, and in no shape for such a lengthy walk in the woods, but they set off nevertheless, beginning to walk the AT in Georgia and headed for Maine.

a walk in the woodsOh, Bill Bryson, you funny, infuriating man. I have had a love-hate relationship, as they say, with this book. Bryson is very amusing, and this is his strongest suit; at his best, he had me giggling aloud on the train during my commute, which I try not to do because that’s weird, right? But he can be downright annoying as well. I’m not sure what he conceives this book actually is; amusing memoir? (For which, grade B+, at least.) Nature tale? (C-, on which more in a moment.) Camping satire? (Please stop.) His ineptitude at the outdoorsiness might be funny to somebody, but I just find it obnoxious and …well, kind of stupid. On the other hand, he hiked the Appalachian Trail for months, you guys, completing nearly 900 miles of it, and I have to respect that, as I’ve never done any such thing. But with such an opportunity to tell us about the AT, he spends a great deal of time telling us what poorly prepared rookie campers he and his friend Katz are; the trail itself is often just background, if even that. The book was 1/3 through before he even mentions a view, let alone describes one; and precious few times from then on. In fact, I think I’ve answered my question: Bryson conceives of this book as an amusing memoir, and the fact that it takes place on the AT is mere coincidence and in no way important to the story he has to tell.

When he rails against our destruction of natural areas and our Park Service’s poor management of those lands, he does a fine job, and I both learned something and enjoyed the polemic; but then he pulls punches, as when writing about tree diseases:

A great tragedy, of course. But how lucky, when you think about it, that these diseases are are least species-specific. Instead of a chestnut blight, or Dutch elm disease, or dogwood anthracnose, what if there was just a tree blight? Something indiscriminate and unstoppable, that swept through whole forests? In fact, there is. It’s called… acid rain.

No, Bryson, it’s called people! Call a spade a spade! Sigh.

Later in the book, when Bryson and Katz (the brunt of all the best jokes) part company temporarily, Bryson shifts focus a bit toward the history of the AT and gets less jokey. I appreciate this content, but it lacks the sparkle of his more humorous writing. In other words, I felt that A Walk in the Woods struggled throughout with an identity crisis.

The audio edition is good, I’ll say that without qualification. William Roberts’s reading is hilarious, and suits Bryson’s writing voice well. The book is absolutely at its best when describing Bryson & Katz’s mishaps on the trail, and only mildly interesting (for those interested in such things) when it leaves their narrative to wander the AT on a more intellectual level. One final pet peeve: as far as I can understand, Katz and Bryson do a lot of littering. Katz repeatedly handles the frustration of his heavy pack by dumping gear, and I don’t think there are garbage cans out in the woods. (I hope not.) There are a cigarette pack and three butts discarded by Katz at an important point. This makes me ANGRY. Littering on the AT?!

Representative quotation:

I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings towards the AT that weren’t confused and contradictory.

Me too, Bryson.


Rating: 5 cream sodas.

I wasn’t sure whether to go with 4 or 5; but I did finish the book, so there’s that.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

An essay collection that earnestly examines feelings–the author’s and the world’s.

empathy

Leslie Jamison follows her debut novel, The Gin Closet, with an essay collection that has earned her the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The Empathy Exams opens with Jamison’s experience as a medical actor. In this role, she is given a character, complete with props and not only symptoms, but behaviors: body language, failure to make eye contact, dishonesty. In portraying deception, or a pretended lack of self-knowledge, Jamison contemplates what it is to feel, how we communicate what we feel and what we do with these communications.

While all her essays are linked by the topic of empathy, their subjects range widely. One essay about incarceration deals with a man serving time for mortgage fraud who continues to declare his innocence; another covers the case of the West Memphis Three and the documentaries about them that so moved Jamison as a young woman. “Morphology of the Hit” studies Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, which Jamison calls “a map for storytelling,” and she uses that map to construct a narrative of the random act of violence she experienced in Nicaragua.

Within the context of pain, both injury and chronic illness receive repeated treatment. The Barkley Marathon, a grueling, almost unfinishable race through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, is presented both as a subcultural phenomenon and a subtext for pain. Jamison attends a conference for Morgellons patients–who believe they are infested with fibers and foreign matter crawling out of their skin–and the few doctors who will take them seriously; she finds herself responding with such empathy that she is in danger of catching the disease herself. She also leads readers on two “Pain Tours,” closing with the specter of female pain, and female guilt over pain–making the studied choice to apologize for neither.

Throughout these varied topics, Jamison makes references to many thinkers and influences, from Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), Susan Sontag and Frida Kahlo to her own friends. Her essays often dwell in the theoretical and the academic; she is interested in philosophies, and admits to difficulty experiencing, recognizing and sharing her own emotions–a difficulty that occasionally manifests in pedagogy. However, readers will finish with no doubt she is sincere in her quest to own, identify and comprehend empathy.


This review originally ran in the April 3, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 4 itchy patches.

Not a great rating, right? Reminder: when I write reviews for the Shelf I work to (mostly objectively) state what is of high quality about a book, and who might like it and why; if applicable, I mention who might want to steer clear. When I rate the books here, I am stating my personal reaction. I think Jamison did good research & does some good writing; but the academic & theoretical nature of these essays didn’t appeal to me. I was hoping for a more emotional reaction to the world; and specifically I was interested in the medical acting concept, which received relatively little play time. I wonder if *I* have an essay to write about empathy, based on my experiences working in a cancer hospital. I don’t know that I’m ready to write it right now; but if/when I do, it will be more emotional and less cerebral than these essays here. Not better or worse; but this is how my personal reaction – the personal appeal this book had for me – rates The Empathy Exams.

book beginnings on Friday: Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

gone feral

Novella Carpenter’s Gone Feral tells the story of seeking a relationship with her mostly-estranged father, who prefers the outdoors to the city. It begins:

My dad officially went missing on October 17, 2009.

The morning I found out, I woke up to the hum of traffic from Interstate 980 harmonizing with the nickering of milk goats at my back stairs.

She managed to sneak right in there her own preferred ratio of city-to-outdoors: she has an “urban farm” in Oakland. Not a bad beginning, I think.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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