Awhile ago, I reviewed a book for the Plain Dealer called Frog Music* and soon after read a book with a similar title. My reactions to the two were very different, however.
Emma Donoghue, an Irish writer who lives in Canada, scored a big success with her novel Room (2010). It concerned a woman held captive for years by a crazy guy, a la Ariel Castro, and is narrated by her little boy, born in captivity. “Room” is all he knows of the world. Many book groups, including mine, read that book. I liked it pretty well but felt the ending went haywire.
In Donoghue’s new book, Frog Music, a French dancer and prostitute in 1870s San Francisco befriends a vivacious cross-dressing gal named Jenny, who catches frogs for a living–frogs being a delicacy among the French and the source of their derogatory nickname. The disgusting details–salacious sex, slippery frogs, sickening smallpox–overwhelmed me. Lots of other reviewers loved it, though, so don’t go by me.
Then, somewhere, I ran across the title Goat Song: A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese (2009) by Brad Kessler. This attracted me for several reasons: I understood it had a spiritual element, and I like spiritual books. I like to read about animals and also artisanal foods. And when I was a kid I raised a couple of goats. My grandfather had several acres of land, along with a chicken coop and a couple of other buildings. My sister Marge got it into her head to join 4-H and raise a sheep. I followed in her footsteps and then added my own creative twist, with goats: Katy the first year and Daisy the second. I learned to love the playfulness and curiosity of goats.
So do Brad Kessler and his wife Dona Ann McAdams, a photographer, who moved from New York City to a farm in Vermont and started raising goats. Novices, they read lots of books and consulted lots of old hands. They bred their goats and started getting milk and making cheese. One blogger/goat farmer* objected to Kessler’s spiritual meanderings, as well as his literal meanderings with his goats through the woods. But I viewed him as primarily a writer who was using his life experience (and his goats’ life experience) for his work, and his work (writing) to support his rural lifestyle. Although he and his wife grow a lot of their own food and make use of what the goats provide, they don’t pretend to be full-time farmers.
Here’s an interesting footnote about Brad Kessler’s books. He dedicates Goat Song to Annie Dillard, one of my favorite writers, who’s also concerned with nature and spirituality. Then, when I checked out his novel Birds in Fall, I noted that the epigraph which begins the book quotes the beginning of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, another favorite.
I like it, too. “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is still my favorite.
Annie D’s “an American Childhood” is one of my favorites.