How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals

How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals

National Book Award finalist Sy Montgomery reflects on the personalities and quirks of 13 animals--her friends--who have profoundly affected her in this stunning, poetic, and life-affirming memoir featuring illustrations by Rebecca Green.Understanding someone who belongs to another species can be transformative. No one knows this better than author, naturalist, and advent...

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Title:How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals
Author:Sy Montgomery
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Edition Language:English

How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals Reviews

  • Maggie Holmes

    I loved Soul of the Octopus and I was eager to read this book (thank you Edelweiss for the prepub copy.) I cried and laughed throughout; wanted to go on expeditions to see some of the animals; and marveled at Sy's wonderful supportive group of friends. As my cat meows constantly at me because I've shut him up in a room so he won't eat my muffin, I wonder if cats teach us to be a good creature. I'll have to pay more attention. This book -- like all good nonfiction -- makes you want to go learn mo

    I loved Soul of the Octopus and I was eager to read this book (thank you Edelweiss for the prepub copy.) I cried and laughed throughout; wanted to go on expeditions to see some of the animals; and marveled at Sy's wonderful supportive group of friends. As my cat meows constantly at me because I've shut him up in a room so he won't eat my muffin, I wonder if cats teach us to be a good creature. I'll have to pay more attention. This book -- like all good nonfiction -- makes you want to go learn more, read more, experience more. Thank you, Sy.

  • Dorie  - Traveling Sister :)

    The cover of this book is what caught my eye, what a beautiful illustration. There are whimsical drawings throughout the book and a wonderful gallery of photographs of Ms. Montgomery with some of her animal friends at the end of the book.

    I won’t go through all of the animals that are mentioned in the book but my favorite was Christopher Hogwood the pig and his very large personality. Even when he had grown huge and powerful he was a gentle pig. Sy describes the two preteen neighbor girls giving

    The cover of this book is what caught my eye, what a beautiful illustration. There are whimsical drawings throughout the book and a wonderful gallery of photographs of Ms. Montgomery with some of her animal friends at the end of the book.

    I won’t go through all of the animals that are mentioned in the book but my favorite was Christopher Hogwood the pig and his very large personality. Even when he had grown huge and powerful he was a gentle pig. Sy describes the two preteen neighbor girls giving him a spa treatment “We fetched warm buckets of soapy water . . . we added products created for horses to apply to his hooves to make them shine Grunting his contentment as he lay in his pool of soapy water, Christopher make clear he adored his spa “

    Ms. Montgomery seems able to bond with all sorts of creature even a tarantula, I love animals but they have to be the furry kind. Although Ms. Montgomery would even argue that point as she describes the tarantula’s legs “Despite spiders reputations as dirty, nasty “bugs,” tarantulas are as immaculate as cats, carefully cleaning any dirt that falls on their bodies by meticulously drawing the hairs on their legs through the mouth, using their fangs like the teeth of a comb”

    Despite the whimsy of the illustrations there is genuine heartbreak here also. Ms. Montgomery describes the early years of her arranged living style with her partner, Howard, and her animals in such a loving way, however apparently her mother felt she was living so out of the sphere of what she considered “normal” that she disowned her.

    Along with the love of an animal, of course, comes the heartbreak when they pass away. It seems as deeply as she was in love with her animal friends she also suffered severe depression upon their passing. It sometimes took several years before she even considered added another pet/friend to the household. Because the author honestly tells us how deeply her depression was felt with even thoughts of harming herself I would suggest caution in giving this book to anyone under the age of perhaps 15? Of course that is my personal opinion, she is being honest with the reader but sometimes depression can be very hard to understand.

    I was very glad that I read this memoir as Ms. Montgomery certainly has lived a life worth remembering and sharing. I love the quote below that was in the author’s biography :

    “Go out into the world where your heart calls you. The blessings will come, I promise you that. I wish for you the insight to recognize the blessings as such, and sometimes it's hard. But you'll know it's a blessing if you are enriched and transformed by the experience. So be ready. There are great souls and teachers everywhere. It's your job to recognize them.”

    ― Sy Montgomery

    I received an ARC of this memoir from the publisher through Edelweiss

  • Candace

    What a treat. Having only previously listened to a part of The Soul of an Octopus’ audio before my library loan expired, I knew what Montgomery was about: Animals. Unique experiences. Love.

    This book made especially for young readers is wonderful. It chronicles the animals that taught Montgomery throughout her interesting life. Although there are a few of man’s best friend (dogs) count also emus, a tarantula, a pig, an octopus, and a weasel among others. With life lessons, gorgeous illustrations

    What a treat. Having only previously listened to a part of The Soul of an Octopus’ audio before my library loan expired, I knew what Montgomery was about: Animals. Unique experiences. Love.

    This book made especially for young readers is wonderful. It chronicles the animals that taught Montgomery throughout her interesting life. Although there are a few of man’s best friend (dogs) count also emus, a tarantula, a pig, an octopus, and a weasel among others. With life lessons, gorgeous illustrations and a note of sadness (if you’ve recently lost a pet bring Kleenex) Montgomery shows how animals can teach us valuable lessons even when you least expect it.

  • Enchantress  debbicat ☮~Traveling Sister

    5 BIG HAPPY stars! If you wanna know how to be good creature, you can learn this from animals, like Sy did with 13 written about here. Such a good book! I must buy a copy. I enjoyed hearing about all 13 of her animal loves. My favorites were the dogs, Christopher Hogwood, the good pig, Octavia the Octopus, and the Clarabelle, the tarantula. So much to learn here and enjoy. "Understanding someone who belongs to another species can be transformative. No one knows this better than author, naturalis

    5 BIG HAPPY stars! If you wanna know how to be good creature, you can learn this from animals, like Sy did with 13 written about here. Such a good book! I must buy a copy. I enjoyed hearing about all 13 of her animal loves. My favorites were the dogs, Christopher Hogwood, the good pig, Octavia the Octopus, and the Clarabelle, the tarantula. So much to learn here and enjoy. "Understanding someone who belongs to another species can be transformative. No one knows this better than author, naturalist, and adventurer Sy Montgomery." ~(from the library book blurb)

    I have read one other book by Sy Montgomery. It was The Soul of an Octopus. I enjoyed it immensely. Now I want to read all of her books. At the end of the book she gives a list of 10 books she recommends to read that helped her on her journey. She writes with such a true heart. I feel like we would be very good friends.

    I also have a number of rescues that live with me. I learn daily from them and can relate to much of what she trys to relay in her book. I don't know where I would be without the animal friends of my life. I would not be who I am today.

    Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley and Sy Montgomery for a digital copy to read for review. I highly recommend it!

  • KC

    This is a fascinating look at one woman's journey with the animals she's met and loved throughout her life. The illustrations are captivating. I can't believe I cried over an octopus!

  • Sarah

    Author Sy Montgomery’s childhood Scottish Terrier taught her to be tough and independent. Twelve more animals she has shared her life with, including an octopus and a tarantula, have each taught her something about life and herself. Sy truly understands and appreciates animals. This illustrated memoir is so charming and reminded me that to slow down and give my own fur babies extra cuddles is good for the soul, theirs and mine.

  • Barbara

    Sy Montgomery writes books and documentaries about animals for both children and adults. In this book, Montgomery shares stories about some of her favorite creatures, including her family pets; an octopus in an aquarium; and creatures in their natural environment.

    Montgomery travels around the world to research her books, and has visited the cloud forests of Papua New Guinea; Mongolia's Gobi Desert; Amazon rivers; the Australian Outback; and much more. Every animal Montgomery got to

    Sy Montgomery writes books and documentaries about animals for both children and adults. In this book, Montgomery shares stories about some of her favorite creatures, including her family pets; an octopus in an aquarium; and creatures in their natural environment.

    Montgomery travels around the world to research her books, and has visited the cloud forests of Papua New Guinea; Mongolia's Gobi Desert; Amazon rivers; the Australian Outback; and much more. Every animal Montgomery got to know was a good creature - "a marvel and perfect in his or her own way" - and each one helped her become a better person.

    Sy's love affair with animals began when she was a child and her family adopted a Scottish terrier named Molly. Young Sy wanted to be just like Molly, "Fierce. Feral. Unstoppable." The author relates anecdotes about Molly breaking her tether to chase rabbits; stealing black dress socks and shaking them to death; capturing soccer balls and killing them; and being saluted as she trotted by the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (though that might be because Molly was the General's canine).

    Sy was enraptured by Molly's "otherworldly powers" - the dog's enhanced abilities to hear, smell, and see in the dark. To learn more about these superpowers, little Sy intensely studied every inch of the canine, from her tongue to her anus - and daydreamed about running away with Molly, living in the woods, and learning the secrets of wild animals. Sy grew up to fulfill this ambition, and became a renowned naturalist and animal expert.

    *****

    Montgomery has studied animals of every description. For example, she made friends with three emus in the Australian Outback after, in her words, the first sight of them felt like a "shock stung the top of my head, like a laser bolt." To determine if emus were important dispersers of seeds, Montgomery spent her days searching for 'emu pies' and following the birds, who she named Black Head; Knackered Leg (for a leg injury); and Bald Throat (for a whitish patch on the neck).

    It took a while, but the huge flightless birds eventually accepted Montgomery's presence, allowing her to follow them and even sleep with them. The writer studied the emus for six months, and wept when it was time to return home, where she would miss the peace, joy, and satisfaction the birds had given her.

    *****

    Sy and her husband Howard Mansfield (the writer) live on a farm in Hancock, New Hampshire - perfect for raising animals. At a low point in Sy's life - when she was deeply depressed about the cancellation of a book deal and the loss of her father - Howard arranged for the adoption of a sick baby pig to cheer Sy up.

    The piglet, named Christopher Hogwood, needed warmth, love, and TLC - and caring for him helped Sy heal. Christopher loved to eat, play, snuggle, explore, and meet people, and he often broke out of his pen to visit the neighbors.....who would call Sy to retrieve him. Thus Christopher helped Sy make new friends, and gave her something to talk about at parties.

    Christopher was soon joined by 'the ladies', a gaggle of black, sex-link hens gifted by Sy's friend. The chickens enjoyed being petted, picked up, and kissed on their combs.

    Then came Tess, a previously abused two-year-old black and white border collie - who liked to play with toys, catch frisbees, and go for hikes. Tess amazed Sy with her intelligence, strength, and agility.

    The menagerie at the farm attracted visitors from the entire neighborhood, especially two schoolgirls next door, who saved their lunches for Christopher, made him a 'pig spa' (for baths), and visited the farm every day - essentially becoming part of Sy and Howard's family. In essence, the domestic animals helped Sy (who's childless by choice) acquire a large extended family to love.

    *****

    Montgomery traveled to French Guiana in South America to meet the "Goliath birdeater", the largest tarantula on Earth, who has a leg span that can cover a person's face (think of the larval monster in the movie 'Alien' 😵☠ ).

    In French Guiana, Sy fell in love with a tarantula called Clarabelle, who became the spider ambassador to a group of Guianan schoolchildren. The brave kids even consented to hold Clarabelle on their palms, and one little girl exclaimed, "Elle est belle, le monstre." (She is beautiful, the monster.)

    [FYI: In graduate school I worked for an entomologist/arachnologist who whipped out a tarantula whenever he interviewed a new job applicant, just for fun. He probably lost a few prospective employees. 😁]

    Other animals Montgomery writes about in the book include:

    - An ermine that, following its instincts, killed one of the farm's pet chickens (Sy was sad but doesn't hold a grudge).

    - Tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea - which required three days of arduous mountain hiking to reach.

    - A giant Pacific octopus called Octavia, who lived in the New England Aquarium and liked to embrace Montgomery's arms with her tentacles.

    *****

    When - at ripe old ages - Christopher (the pig) and Tess (the dog) died, Montgomery was so grief-stricken that she considered suicide. Sy's hair fell out, her gums bled, and her brain misfired, making it hard to remember words. Months later Tess came to Sy in a dream, showing her a new border collie to adopt. After considerable searching, on border collie rescue sites and at rescue facilities, a friend came up with the exact right dog. Sy's husband Howard took some convincing, but soon enough Sally - a female border collie who'd been seriously mistreated - came to the farm.

    Sally was a handful! She dug holes in the lawn; constantly ate and rolled in other animals' poop; and ate any food she could reach - including Howard's crab cakes; a birthday cake; an entire box of oatmeal; lunches out of backpacks; and sandwiches on their way to a person's mouth. But Sally was also a fun playmate, an enthusiastic hiker, and an affectionate pooch. Sally loved to be kissed and brushed, and she made Sy "unspeakably happy."

    After Sally passed away, Sy and Howard got a third border collie called Thurber, who's "so happy that he sings." Thurber is especially prone to howl along with morning radio; Bruce Springsteen; and the songs 'Say Something' and "Gracias a la Vida."

    *****

    In addition to talking about her animals, Montgomery includes snippets about her personal life - which wasn't always easy. In addition to suffering from repeated bouts of deep depression following the loss of people and animals, Montgomery had a fraught relationship with her parents.

    According to Sy's aunt, her mother smothered and shook her repeatedly when she was a baby, because her crying "ruined mom's cocktail hour." Whatever happened, two-year-old Sy fell dangerously ill, and didn't play, talk, or grow for months. Sy's parents worked hard to make her well, and small Sy's love of animals (including Molly) helped her recover.

    Montgomery's parents also rejected her as an adult, after she became a naturalist. They were disappointed that she didn't train for the army in college and adopt their lifestyle. Sy's parents kept a membership for her at both the 'Army Navy Town Club' and 'Army Navy Country Club' in Washington, D.C., hoping she'd meet a suitable military man. Instead, Sy married a middle-class, liberal Jewish writer.

    A week after the wedding, Sy's wealthy, conservative Methodist father wrote her a letter in which he formally disowned her and compared her to "the serpent that did sting thy father's life" (a quote from Hamlet). Sy later (more or less) reconciled with her parents, but they never allowed her husband Howard into their home.

    Nevertheless, in her acknowledgements Montgomery notes that, although she and her parents had many disagreements, "I always loved them. I know that, in their own way, they loved me, too." Sy notes that she wouldn't have wanted any other parents, because her folks made her the determined person she is.

    At the end of the story, Montgomery lists the ten books that inspired her to write about the natural world, and the books she's penned for adults and children.

    Because of the personal anecdotes, this book is probably suitable for ages 12 to adult (though small children would like the animal stories).

    I enjoyed the book and recommend it to people interested in animals and nature.

    Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Sy Montgomery), and the publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) for a copy of the book.

    You can follow my reviews at

  • Sarah Shoo

    This book was provided by Edelweiss in return for an honest review.

    Sy Montgomery's ability to humanize animals is incredible. I was reluctant to go with her as she learned a lesson from a tarantula, as I'm terrified of spiders, but even I was charmed by Clarabelle.

    But it was her later chapters on loss and love that really affected me. Her words on love multiplying and staying with us were poetic.

    She was even able to make a tentacled octopus, sucking hickeys into her skin humorous and lovable.

    I

    This book was provided by Edelweiss in return for an honest review.

    Sy Montgomery's ability to humanize animals is incredible. I was reluctant to go with her as she learned a lesson from a tarantula, as I'm terrified of spiders, but even I was charmed by Clarabelle.

    But it was her later chapters on loss and love that really affected me. Her words on love multiplying and staying with us were poetic.

    She was even able to make a tentacled octopus, sucking hickeys into her skin humorous and lovable.

    I've already pre-ordered my hard copy of this book. Montgomery's lessons are ones I plan to return to.

  • Cheryl

    Squee!!

    Oh I do hope at least one of my libraries gets this promptly!

    Or maybe I'll have to buy it, though I really shouldn't.

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