16 February 2013

Defending The Intelligence Of Chickens

Chicken Lovers

Chicken Lovers

It appears I ruffled the feathers of chicken lovers when I wrote recently – actually many times – that the chickens I know are not smart – "dumb" was the word I used. I wrote that in my life with chickens (many chickens for more than a decade) I observed that everything in the world  wants to eat them, and chickens are dumber than all of them.

I got a good number of polite but clearly upset and offended admirers of chickens pointing out that chickens are not dumb and asking that I reconsider my repeated descriptions of them as not being bright. I got a number of eloquent and impassioned stories about the intelligence and loyalty of chickens and in great and illustrated detail. It is touching for me to know how many people love chickens, and follow their behavior closely. It is wonderful to be reminded that there are groups of people who love almost everything, including idiosyncratic writers.

I have been thinking about this and I want to do the whole thing justice without knuckling under to one of the many thin-skinned animal cultures online and in the world. I am fond my chickens – we have a rooster and three hens. I cannot honestly say I love them as I do the dogs and donkeys. But I am fond of them and I treat them well, I hope I end up in as well designed a residence as their coop. Chickens remind me of Labs in a way. They are very smart about the things they care about – food, mostly, and judging from Strut, sex too. But they don't seem brilliant about anything else.

This does not mean they are dumb. Chickens are industrious and energetic, generally peaceable if you don't get in the way of their eating. They stay out of the road and avoid Frieda if they see here coming. They are very adept at finding warmth and their bodies are efficient eating and pecking machines.They are agile at squeezing under fences and through gates. They do not get lost or wander too far from the coop. They eat bugs and ticks and flies if they can catch them. They find shady and sheltered spots in which too nest. They are sensitive to the shadows of hawks flying overhead and stay near the trees and shelters. They lay eggs, of course, at least in general terms. They parade around with authority and dignity and try and mind their own business.They have learned the importance of the camera at Bedlam Farm and seem happy to pose for me, as long as I don't get too close.

If it might be a disservice to call them the intellectuals of the barnyard, it is perhaps a bit flip and inaccurate to call them dumb. As a writer, I concede that I can find better words than "dumb" to describe them, although I love the things-that-eat-them line. As I read over the impressive list above, I realize I've had many dogs who could not do as many things well as chickens do.

So I take the point from the friends of the chicken, and there are many. Writers are taught not to label things, just  describe them. I've got it.

Posted in Farm Journal, General

Portrait: The Princess Lenore, Hound Of Love.

Hound Of Love

Hound Of Love

Lenore is a great dog. She goes everywhere, loves everyone. She has the Lab lust for disgusting things to eat, and enjoys throwing them up in various places. She is the most generous of souls, and inspires me to honor her great spirit and grow my heart.

Posted in General

Book Review: “Vampire In The Lemon Grove”

Myth and adventure

Myth and adventure

Friends, these reviews are part of my work with Battenkill Books, an effort by a writer to support a bookstore in a direct way (and get supported as well.) If you can, please consider buying these books from Battenkill Books, 518 688-2515, or your local independent bookstore. If you mention me or this review, you will receive a free gift of some notecards (not mine) as long as supplies last.  If you have a Kindle or Kobo or Nook, please don't hesitate to order your books in any way that works for you. Connie and I are not into charity or e-book or Amazon bashing. Publishing and writing are alive and well at Battenkill, and the store takes Paypal. and ships anywhere in the world. Connie's website will include links to my reviews, for those who have missed them.

I try not to read other people's reviews when I decide to write about a book, but I have to confess I was drawn to this collection by the raves I was hearing about in The New York Times and elsewhere." Amazon and Shelf Awareness picked this as one of the best books of February and the Times called it "lyrical and funny, fantastic and meditative," as well as "hilarious, exquisite, first-rate." Kirkus called it "consistently arresting..startling..profound." I often react negatively to effusive praise, it triggers my anti-hype genes and sets the bar too high, and I end up being disappointed. I was not disappointed when I read Karen Russell's brilliant fourth book. "Vampires" is just as good as all the hype. It is a literary event in itself.

I know many book lovers who do not read short stories, for reasons I have never understood. Many booksellers even avoid the term, there is so much resistance to it.  Short story writers (I can testify) are viewed with skepticism in the publishing industry, few of them sell well. "Vampires," though, is one of the best books I have  read, and Karen Russell has emerged as that rarest of things,  a young writer with a master's craft of language and imagination. The stories defy easy description, they are so original, eight strange tales that  range from funny and rueful to chilling, all wonderful in their own way. The title story – two aging vampires living together in a sun drenched lemon grove in Italy, seeking to quench their thirst for blood, is a fable of mortal terror love and addiction – is marvelous. I was hooked from the minute the protagonist learns from his new love that he never really needed to avoid the sun all those many years or sleep in coffins, that was all just silly rumor.

One haunting story tells of a community of Japanese girls held captive in a silk factory, their poisoned bodies slowly trans-muting themselves into silkworms, spinning threads from their own bellies. The girls, all taken from their villages by an mesmerizing but heartless "agent,"  take revenge and escape by seizing the means of production for their own rebellious ends. I took this as a fable of the de-humanizing nature of work in America, a story to reminds us of the ravages to the workplace brought on by greedy corporations (I thought of the people working endless hours in those vast Amazon warehouses for little money under great pressure so we can get our free shipping).

A massage therapist discovers she has the power to heal the most grievous wounds by manipulating the tattoos on an Iraqi veteran's lower torso. A depressed teenager discovers that the universe is communicating with him through talismanic objects left behind in a seagull's nest.  A group of boys stumbles across a mutilated scarecrow bearing an eerie resemblance to a vanished boy they cruelly tormented,  and what seems to be an ordinary tale of high school bullying becomes a sinister fantasy of guilt and atonement. In the American West, families are obsessed with acquisition and legitimacy, and they pay an almost unimaginable price for their obsession and hunger.

Everyone will see these extraordinary stories differently but I saw them as piercing  and beautiful commentaries on our live in the contemporary world. It  takes an extraordinary amount of confidence and skill for any writer to take on stories that are so brave and brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed. I enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone who loves language and imagination. Put an evening aside, drink a glass of wine, turn off your devices and go on this wild and wonderful ride into the very best of the human imagination. These stories will massage your heart, whisper in your ear. Maybe tickle your soul a bit.

__

To order this from Battenkill Books (and get a free notecard), call 518 677-2515 or e-mail Connie Brooks at [email protected] or order it via Paypal at www.battenkillbooks.com.

Posted in General

Bookstore Love Story: Dennis And Linda

Dennis and Linda

Dennis and Linda

My new job as Recommender-In-Chief for Battenkill Books is nice, I love it. We are recommending and reviewing  books (Connie will put links to the books I review on her website), people are e-mailing orders, calling them in – the reviews are gaining traction, thanks. The job has also focused my love of reading in a new way and I am delighted at the wonderful books I am reading. Kate is usually working on Saturdays, and she is expanding her new career as a life coach, and I like hearing about that.  Life coaches are becoming important, I think, filling a gap between professional therapists and spiritual counselors. We share a passion for encouraging people to live their lives.

There is also  a new and unexpected fringe benefit iand that is that people come to meet me and bring me their sweet stories of life. Ever since I became one, I love hearing love stories. Linda Wigmore is a name that is very familiar to me. She began reading my books after I wrote "Running To The Mountain," a book that inspired her. She came to see me at the Texas Books Festival in Austin four or five years ago to hear me and meet me and didn't realize until I wrote about it later that I was in the midst of a spectacular post-divorce crack-up at the time. I'm glad it didn't show, there is a vaudeville hoofer in my family somewhere. I've seen Linda post from time to on Facebook and every now and then she will send me a thoughtful e-mail. I know the name well, as sometimes happens, even amidst the blizzard of e-messages. I believe she was of the first people to hit my contribution button.

I was delighted when she walked in the door of the bookstore today with her man Richard. Linda was living alone in upstate New York a few years ago and Richard was working as a musician in Texas. They had gone to high school together years ago but didn't know one another well or stay in touch. Linda decided to go to their class reunion, and so did Richard. They fell in love, and Linda moved to Austin, where she lived for five years. Then Richard retired and sold his home, and they moved back Northeast, to Vermont, just a short ride to the bookstore. I don't remember meeting Linda in Austin, but I was happy to see her now and hear her love story. I enjoyed talking to Dennis about the changes in the music industry, and his life playing in Texas bands. He still works as a sound engineer. They love taking drives around Vermont, and I am fortunate I became one of the destinations. She bought some notecards and books.

I could feel their connection to one another, it is always a sweet, sweet thing to see that. I like the job. It suits me. Almost every week, someone comes into the store to meet me. February is quiet time in bookstores, but we are doing some steady business, and in the summer and fall and around Christmas, we will make some loud noise for independence, literature,  individuality and human connection.

Posted in Farm Journal, General

Recommender In Chief. Great Books, Bought Local, Shipped Anywhere

Battenkill Books

Battenkill Books

Red and I will be at Battenkill Books this morning at 11 a.m. in my part-time job as Recommender-In-Chief, a job I love and is well suited to me. I will help find books for people in the store or on the phone (you can call 518 677-2515) or via e-mail – [email protected] or on the store's Facebook Page. I am connecting people with good books, I think, and I am also reviewing books which can be purchased through the store. People say literacy is dead and bookstores are over but I am reading more great books than ever and Connie is having her best year ever. Make your own news, as we are doing. Let me know if I can help you. My next book for review (later today or tomorrow) is "Vampires In The Lemon Grove," one of the best short story collections I have read in my life. Then, a great new non-fiction book about Detroit, of all things. We are just realizing how the Internet can advance this idea of ours and Connie is offering some nice notecards (not mine) to people who purchase books through our little program. The classy little bookstore is becoming a bigger bookstore. You can buy local anywhere, it seems.

Posted in General