Sometimes You Get Lucky And Books Find You

Sometimes, you get lucky and books find you.  You come across them when you are much younger and they stay with you. They set the standard for how you will measure every other book you read.

That’s Long Life, by Mary Oliver. And every book of poetry that she has written.

Sometimes, you’re food shopping at Wegmans and as you detour through the magazine and book aisles, you find a paperback that you can’t resist.

That’s Inside Of A Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz.

Sometimes, another blogger writes about a new author’s first book; sings her praises and urges you to pay attention to this new, exciting voice. And, you do.

That’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman.

These are books that force you to take your time reading because the content and the word smithing – the craftsmanship – do, literally, take your breath away. So much so that you don’t want the reading experience to end.

The Mary Oliver story that I like to tell is what happened when she came to give a reading at one of the local community colleges,  after her poetry book Thirst was published in 2006.

She packed the auditorium and received seven standing ovations – the first one for simply walking across the stage.  She was warm, deeply personal, funny and not afraid to be political. Must be that fearlessness that comes with a well lived life.

Here is some of what Mary Oliver has to say

about Wordsworth’s Mountain:

“…For the universe is full of radiant suggestion. For whatever reason, the heart cannot separate the world’s appearance and actions from morality and valor, and the power of every idea is intensified, if not actually created, by its expression in substance.  Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring.  In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.”    (excerpt from Long Life)

about the nature of a dog:

“A dog never will tell you what she knows from the smells of the world,  but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing…”

about seeing an emotion as a change agent:

The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I once loved gave me
A box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
That this too, was a gift.

about the implications of loving someone:

Also, I wanted to be able to love
And we all know how that one goes, don’t we?”  
— New and Selected Poems, Vol. I

Mary Oliver is artistic sensibility, a poignant turn of phrase, a catch in your breath pregnant silence.

Her poetry strips words down to the marrow of the bone where meaning is a juicy feast.  She does what so few poets/writers can: she changes me inside each time I read one of her books.

Which is a rare gift that takes me by surprise every time it happens.

It’s like I said. Sometimes, you get lucky and you find that once-in-a-lifetime book when you’re grocery shopping. Which is my introduction to Inside Of A Dog – What Dogs See, Smell, And Know,  by Alexandra Horowitz.

Alexandra Horowitz is a scientist first, dog lover second. Better than both of these, she is an astonishing writer who brings a poet’s ear to her scientific research about how “…dogs perceive their daily worlds, each other, and that other quirky animal, the human.”            (back cover of book)

In other words, she writes smart about dogs without using that tired, worn out human desire to be anthropomorphic.  And yet…

says Alexandra Horowitz:

“We do no disservice to dogs by stepping away from the leash and considering them scientifically. Their abilities and point of view merit special attention. And the result is magnificent: far from being distanced by science, we are brought closer to and can marvel at the true nature of the dog. Used rigorously but creatively, the process and results of science can shed new light on discussions that people have daily about what their dog knows, understands, or believes …

I’ve gotten inside of the dog, and have glimpsed the dog’s point of view. You can do the same. If you have a dog in the room with you, what you see in that great furry pile of dogness is about to change.”   (pg. 7)

One of the dogs that graces the pages of this book is a mutt called Pumpernickel, or Pump. We get snippets of her: she was the dog that lived with Horowitz for 16 years; she “was born of a spaniel: her black, silky hair fell against her slender frame; her velvet ears framed her face. In sleep she was the perfect bear cub…” (pg 25)

As she grew, she could have been taken for part golden retriever, poodle or lab. “She is curly and round-bellied: clearly the product of a sheepdog who’d snuck into the bushes with a pretty sheep. She’s her own dog.”  (pg.25)

Those of us who have lived with dogs all of our lives, have had a dog like Pump. Pump is the dog that guided us as we deliberately set out to learn about dogs.

Horowitz writes  small vignettes featuring Pump at the start of almost every chapter.  We get to read about the

First Sniff of the day:  Pump wanders into the living room in the morning while I am dishing out her food. She’s looking sleepy but her nose is wide awake, stretching every which way as though it’s doing morning exercise. She reaches her now toward the food without committing her body, and sniffs. A look at me. Another sniff. A judgement has been levied. she backs from the bowl and forgives me by nosing my outstretched hand, her whiskers tickling while her moist nose examines my palm. We go outside and her nose is gymnastic, almost prehensile, happily taking in smells that gust by … (pg 67)

Reading this, we are easily drawn in to the familiar. We’re ready to take that next step and read about the more in depth, scientific explanations for what sniffing’s all about. And, Alexandra Horowitz doesn’t take us in over our heads. She wraps all of that complex data and research into language that is as compelling as Mary Oliver’s poetry.

But, just like Mary Oliver, Alexandra Horowitz asks that we pay attention.  And, I am doing exactly that. I read a chapter every other night. Sometimes, I go back and re-read a chapter.

Then, I set this book aside and pick up Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman … and start another chapter from her book.

I might never have found this author if Jon Katz, another author, hadn’t written several blog posts about her.

Nor would I have known about Battenkill Books, a small, independent book store in Cambridge, NY. Which is where I ordered Bergman’s book because I wanted a signed copy.

Because I had a feeling that this might be one of those special books. The rare ones that grab your heart and your soul … and change you.

This is a book that celebrates stories and publishing. It’s beautifully constructed which adds to the pleasure of reading it.  In this age of digital publishing, hats off to Scribner for making a gorgeous book.

There are 12 stories and I’ve only read the first six … because I don’t want to get to the end. I find myself having silent arguments with the author … because I want a character to fight harder so that the ending is different.

But. When I thought about this one particular story, it occurred to me that even though the story had ended, it might come back as a chapter in a second book.

Bergman’s writing sneaks up on you.

A woman describes the relationship that her mother has with a parrot named Carnie:

“My mother cupped Carnie with both hands and brought him to her lap. She crossed her legs, then scratched the finger-wide point between Carnie’s wings. His eyes, like little black seeds, fell to half-mast as she stroked him. They were accustomed to each other, a pair of sad habits…”    (excerpt from “Housewifely Arts,” pg 24)

Her characters are unrelenting about their passions and ideals. Like this:

“In our house, the word breeding was said with the same vitriol used when mentioning Republicans, Tim Tebow, and pit bull fight clubs.” (excerpt from “Yesterday’s Whales,” pg 79)

She cuts to the chase (like this) in the opening sentence of ‘The Right Company:”

“The month after I found out my husband, Nate, slept with a woman who rode dressage, I rented a run-down cottage on Abbet’s Cove with sloping pine floors and a large front porch that caught the sound-side breeze.”  (pg. 133)

I found myself wanting more for her characters than they wanted for themselves. Even when there was a happy ending, it was unsettling.

There you have it: Mary Oliver, Alexandra Horowitz and Megan Mayhew Bergman. All three women are unerring writers and dog lovers. Their writer’s voices are strong, authentic and intelligent with a little bit of zing tossed in to keep you on your toes.

If you read them as a group project, they will provide you with food for thought for a lifetime, and they may spark your own creativity in ways that you can’t imagine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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