20 Books of Summer, #1–4: Alexis, Haupt, Rutt, Tovey

I was slow to launch into my 20 Books of Summer reading, but have now finally managed to get through my first four books. These include two substitutes: a review copy I hadn’t realized fit in perfectly with my all-animals challenge, and a book I’d started earlier in the year but set aside and wanted to get back into. Three of the four were extremely rewarding; the last was somewhat insubstantial, though I always enjoy reading about cat antics. All have been illuminating about animal intelligence and behavior, and useful for thinking about our place in and duty towards the more-than-human world. Not all of my 20 Books of Summer will have such an explicit focus on nature – some just happen to have an animal in the title or pictured on the cover – but this first batch had a strong linking theme so was a great start.

 

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis (2015)

In this modern folk tale with elements of the Book of Job, the gods Apollo and Hermes, drinking in a Toronto tavern, discuss the nature of human intelligence and ponder whether it’s inevitably bound up with suffering. They decide to try an experiment, and make a wager on it. They’ll bestow human intelligence on a set of animals and find out whether the creatures die unhappy. Apollo is willing to bet two years’ personal servitude that they will be even unhappier than humans. Their experimental subjects are the 15 dogs being boarded overnight at a nearby veterinary clinic.

The setup means we’re in for an And Then There Were None type of picking-off of the 15, and some of the deaths are distressing. But strangely – and this is what the gods couldn’t foresee – knowledge of their approaching mortality gives the dogs added dignity. It gives their lives and deaths the weight of Shakespearean tragedy. Although they still do doggy things like establishing dominance structures and eating poop, they also know the joys of language and love. A mutt called Prince composes poetry and jokes. Benjy the beagle learns English well enough to recite the first paragraph of Vanity Fair. A poodle named Majnoun forms a connection with his owner that lasts beyond the grave. The dogs work out who they can trust; they form and dissolve bonds; they have memories and a hope that lives on.

It’s a fascinating and inventive novella, and a fond treatment of the relationship between dogs and humans. When I read in the Author’s Note that the poems all included dogs’ names, I went right back to the beginning to scout them out. I’m intrigued by the fact that this Giller Prize winner is a middle book in a series, and keen to explore the rest of the Trinidanian-Canadian author’s oeuvre.

 

 

These next two have a lot in common. For both authors, paying close attention to the natural world – birds, in particular – is a way of coping with environmental and mental health crises.

 

Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (2009)

Lyanda Lynn Haupt has worked in bird research and rehabilitation for the Audubon Society and other nature organizations. (I read her first book, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds, quite a few years ago.) During a bout of depression, she decided to start paying more attention to the natural world right outside her suburban Seattle window. Crows were a natural place to start. From then on she took binoculars everywhere she went, even on walks to Target. She spent time watching crows’ behavior from a distance or examining them up close – devoting hours to studying a prepared crow skin. She even temporarily took in a broken-legged fledgling she named Charlotte and kept a close eye on the injured bird’s progress in the months after she released it.

Were this simply a charming and keenly observed record of bird behavior and one woman’s gradual reawakening to the joys of nature, I would still have loved it. Haupt is a forthright and gently witty writer. But what takes it well beyond your average nature memoir is the bold statement of human responsibility to the environment. I’ve sat through whole conference sessions that try to define what nature is, what the purpose of nature writing is, and so on. Haupt can do it in just a sentence, concisely and effortlessly explaining how to be a naturalist in a time of loss and how to hope even when in possession of all the facts.

 

A few favorite passages:

“an intimate awareness of the continuity between our lives and the rest of life is the only thing that will truly conserve the earth … When we allow ourselves to think of nature as something out there, we become prey to complacency. If nature is somewhere else, then what we do here doesn’t really matter.”

“I believe strongly that the modern naturalist’s calling includes an element of activism. Naturalists are witnesses to the wild, and necessary bridges between ecological and political ways of knowing. … We join the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who refuse to let the more-than-human world pass unnoticed.”

“here we are, intricate human animals capable of feeling despair over the state of the earth and, simultaneously, joy in its unfolding wildness, no matter how hampered. What are we to do with such a confounding vision? The choices appear to be few. We can deny it, ignore it, go insane with its weight, structure it into a stony ethos with which we beat our friends and ourselves to death—or we can live well in its light.”

 

The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt (2019)

In 2016 Rutt left his anxiety-inducing life in London in a search for space and silence. He found plenty of both on the Orkney Islands, where he volunteered at the North Ronaldsay bird observatory for seven months. In the few years that followed, the young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. He’s surrounded by storm petrels one magical night at Mousa Broch; he runs from menacing skuas; he watches eider and terns and kittiwakes along the northeast coast; he returns to Orkney to marvel at gannets and fulmars. Whether it’s their beauty, majesty, resilience, or associations with freedom, such species are for him a particularly life-enhancing segment of nature to spend time around.

Discussion of the environmental threats that hit seabirds hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider conservation issues. Rutt also sees himself as part of a long line of bird-loving travellers, including James Fisher and especially R.M. Lockley, whose stories he weaves in. This is one of the best nature/travel books I’ve read in a long time, especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations and the elegantly evocative writing, making particularly effective use of varied sentence lengths, brought back to me just what it’s like to be in the far north of Scotland in the midst of an endless summer twilight, a humbled observer as a whole whirlwind of bird life carries on above you.

 

A favorite passage:

“Gannets nest on the honeycombs of the cliff, in their thousands. They sit in pairs, pointing to the sky, swaying heads. They stir. The scent of the boat’s herring fills the air. They take off, tessellating in a sky that is suddenly as much bird as light. The great skuas lurk.”

My husband also reviewed this, from a birder’s perspective.

 

With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.

 

The Coming of Saska by Doreen Tovey (1977)

I’ve read four of Tovey’s quaint Siamese cat books now; this was the least worthwhile. It’s partially a matter of false advertising: Saska only turns up for the last 15 pages, as a replacement of sorts for Seeley, who disappeared one morning a year earlier and was never seen again. Over half of the book, in fact, is about a trip Tovey and her husband Charles took to Edmonton, Canada. The Canadian government sponsored them to come over for the Klondike Days festivities, and they also rented a camper and went looking for bears and moose. Mildly amusing mishaps, close shaves, etc. ensue. They then come back and settle into everyday life with their pair of Siamese half-siblings; Saska had the same father as Shebalu. Entertaining enough, but slight, and with far too many ellipses.

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18 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #1–4: Alexis, Haupt, Rutt, Tovey

  1. I’m most attracted by Crow Planet and The Saafarers. In fact it was your husband’s review of the latter that put it on my list. It should be a nice complement to Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry. By the way, I see Nicolson has turned his attention to poetry, in The Making of Poetry. It looks an intriguing read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They made an excellent pairing. I think The Seafarers is just as good as The Seabird’s Cry, just more anecdotal than research-led. I’ll look forward to that new Nicolson. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a lovely set of books! Crow Planet and The Seafarers are books I would never normally choose but since you give them such great reviews, I will seek them out. I loved the link to your husband’s blog, what marvellous photos. Does he still have the long hair? 😜 I like the sound of the dog novel but am worried it will be too sad. And I cannot read the cat book, my dog would never forgive me.

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    1. Alas, he’s been gradually balding through his twenties and thirties — the long hair had to go long ago.

      I am very sensitive to animal deaths, and I coped with Fifteen Dogs. I think because you know it’s a fable? So the dog characters are more like people.

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  3. Okay, the edmonton thing is random! I assume this is an older book, as it hasn’t been called “Klondike Days” in a while (someone eventually realized that edmonton has little to no connection to the klondike!!). Now it’s just “K Days”. The government sponsored them? Im intrigued lol

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    1. The Tovey was published in 1977, but I think might have been remembering a trip from a fair bit earlier, maybe the early 1970s? (And almost seems even older because of her backward references to “Indians.”) I have no idea how they got the government to sponsor them! Very random.

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  4. PS I love that cover of 15 Dogs and im glad you liked it! The poetry is so good, I also had to go back and look for the dog names. I have yet to read more from the series, which are only loosely connected.

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  5. Oh the Crow one looks wonderful, I do love a corvid (although we have much corvid activity outside the front of the house at the moment, with both magpies and jackdaws clacking away and they bother the cat!) and of course I have Seafarers to read almost next, so can’t wait for that. I will file away this review and your husband’s for when I’ve read it. I’m excited about the Nicolson mentioned above now, too!

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  6. I’ve attempted reading this post several times over the past couple of days, and keep getting distracted by real life.

    I’m so glad you liked Fifteen Dogs! I have read Pastoral, Fifteen Dogs and Hidden Keys, and I don’t think the stories themselves are meant to be “linked” – I found a quick explanation here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Quincunx_Cycle

    Both of the “bird” books sound good. I read your husband’s review as well – I love the photos he included. You guys are so young! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the link — I’m convinced that Pastoral, with its faith theme, would be perfect for me.

      It’s looking like a bird-heavy project for me: the next book I’ve started is all about owls.

      (Correction, we *were* so young. The photos are from 2005 and, alas, I no longer feel young!)

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