Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 21, 2019

The Grass Library, by David Brooks

The Grass Library is a gorgeous book.  Anyone who loves animals will be enchanted… but it’s a book that will challenge your thinking as well.

David Brooks is the author of some books I’ve really liked.  He’s a very versatile writer, publishing poetry, short fiction, essays, non-fiction and novels, two of which I’ve read and reviewed here: The Umbrella Club (2009) and The Conversation (2012), and before that, The Fern Tattoo (2007).  But The Grass Library despite its fanciful name, is a work of non-fiction, quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before.  This is the blurb:

A philosophical and poetic journey recounting the author’s relationship with his four sheep and other animals in his home in the Blue Mountains. Both memoir and eloquent testament to animal rights.

But that doesn’t really convey the fun and delight in reading this book.

It had never occurred to me that even a word-processor can be ‘speciesist’.  Mulling over whether it was an appropriate use of the word ‘tragedy’ to describe the fate of a cicada trapped to die in its own shell, Brooks considers the Shakespearean sense of tragedy and how we tend to reserve it not only for humans at the top of a human hierarchy—kings, Caesars, generals— [or a beautiful young princess whose power lay in her celebrity status] but we also apply it in the non-human realm for larger, more powerful creatures, such as lions, elephants, and whales.  But the fate of a cicada halfway through its metamorphosis seems to Brooks to be tragic too:

Why then did I have such conversations with myself about the term?  But the cultural discourse is speciesist, the very language is speciesist (the Word program, for example, at just this moment, tells me that the word ‘speciesist’ doesn’t exist: no point in asking it about anti-speciesism, then, or counter-speciesism, trans-speciesism), in ways that contain and constrain one just as a cicada’s shell must contain the larva—except that they, cicadas, seem to have found a way to get out, even if not every one of them succeeds. (p.128)

[Mind you, I’ve heard people talk about sporting defeats as tragedies too, so I think perhaps that ‘tragedy’ is a word that lends itself to pondering about a sense of proportion].

Brooks and his partner T. are vegans, and they’ve transitioned from an inner city life to a small property in the Blue Mountains.  They share the property with four ‘rescued’ sheep—Henry-Lee, Jonathan, Jason and Orpheus Pumpkin—plus a dog called Charlie and other animals not exactly there by invitation, such as (inevitably) possums who eat their tomatoes; a rat that I’m surprised they didn’t name Houdini; foolish ducks who lead their ducklings into a pond that’s too deep, and the occasional snake.  It’s the complexity of this menagerie and its needs that brings all kinds of ethical dilemmas if you believe as they do, that all the members of this ‘postmodern herd’ have an equal right to life.

[I confess that here I part company with Brooks and T.  I’m ok (of course) with the sheep and the dog. I don’t mind the possums (though I think that if they’re going to help themselves to my vegies they ought to help with the labour). Ducks and any other birds are welcome any time; and I can even tolerate the snake because I grew up with them in the back yard so I know that distrust is mutual.  But the rat? Um… no.  No…

[LH: It’s not just that they spread disease.  Tonight on Gardening Australia, there was a report about conservation efforts at Melbourne Zoo to rescue the critically endangered Lord Howe Island Stick Insect. Totally extinct on the island after the introduction of rats.]

But I still enjoyed having my assumptions interrogated by the ideas in this book.

I also liked learning that Henry and Jonathan like to visit the space just outside the Writing Room when Brooks plays music.  These sheep have catholic tastes, but they don’t visit when there’s no music.  They don’t come when it’s just the author in the cabin.  Perhaps, he muses, it’s a substitute for the music of the herd:

… if music it can be called (but how else to call it?): the sound of hooves shifting in the grass or tapping on stone, the occasional bleat of a lamb, response of its mother, grunt or growl or call of a ewe or a ram, the sound of snipping at grass-blades, coughs, throat-clearings, nudgings, strokings, as one sheep passes another, regurgitations, ruminant chewings, fartings, belches, sounds nearer and further off, all in all a constant, rolling concert, approximated—very distantly resembled, in a bizarre, post-something way— by the muted rhythmical under-music of whatever it is that I might be playing on the stereo system in my cabin, an aural equivalent of warmth, the ghost of companionship.

Is it too much to call these herd sounds music?  I don’t know.  The other day as I drove into town I heard a composition by the Californian sound designer Steven Baber made of sounds from different parts of a bicycle.  He could tune the spokes of a bicycle wheel, he was saying, so that every spoke had exactly the same pitch.  And there were mudguard sounds, tyre sounds, handlebar sounds, frame sounds.  I wonder what he’d make from grazing sounds, or Henry and Jonathan’s wanderings through the scrub, their rummagings and settlings in the coop. (p.87)

 

What’s most interesting about this book is the way it is so sensitive to the perspective of animals, but is witty rather than sentimental.  For example, sheep do not share the human love of books…

Amongst other things, human spaces, non-sheep spaces, can be dangerous.  Henry and Orpheus Pumpkin have each taken a stumble from the veranda stairs, and Jonathan has tumbled down the three stairs from the cabin kitchen into the writing room.  And boring.  All the books in these rooms!  Leaves of Grass doesn’t smell of grass at all! Antic Hay doesn’t smell like hay.  There is no grain in Silo.  A Body of Water is undrinkable.  A Million Wild Acres is barely five centimetres wide. By the same token, one could get annoyed by the way the sheep, when one is carrying something from the house to the cabin, or the car to the house, or one part of the yard to another, will come up and insist on investigating, or one could build the likelihood of such investigation into one’s movements, showing them what one is carrying: a roll of masking tape a can of paint, a box of papers, one’s computer, one’s cup of coffee (which isn’t to say that, unless one’s prepared to share, one should carry bread or fruit or leafy vegetables when the sheep are anywhere near).  Doubtless our own relations with them would be all the smoother—and better informed—if we felt the same kind of curiosity.  (p.146)

My curiosity about animals has certainly been stimulated by reading this book!

Highly recommended.

PS My apologies to the friends whose blogs I usually visit.  This week I’ve been laid low by a shoulder so painful that although I’ve read three books while indisposed, I haven’t been able to sit up at the computer to review them—or to read new reviews by my friends.  I’ve got some catching up to do, and at the moment, 15 minutes in a chair is my limit.

Author: David Brooks
Title: The Grass Library
Publisher: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2019, 221 pages
ISBN: 9780648202646
Review copy courtesy of Brandl & Schlesinger

Available direct from the publisher or from Fishpond: The Grass Library


Responses

  1. I like the sound of this and might even cheekily indulge it as a bday present for my retired sheep farming father.

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  2. I have this book too, so will come back and read your post, when I’ve read it myself – but I’m prepared for what your first paragraph suggests!

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  3. Oh, and I read your PS, because I actually checked my inbox earlier this evening to see when you’d last posted as I felt I hadn’t seen a post for a few days which is unusual! I’ve been in Melbourne for Max’s 1st birthday, until Wednesday, so I didn’t start wondering until last night. So, thanks for explaining because you would have had an email this weekend if you hadn’t posted or explained!

    We came back and immediately visited my parents, to discover that Mum’s GP believes she has a degenerative tear in a ligament in her shoulder. She just thought her arthritis was moving into her shoulder. Poor Mum. And poor you (though I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with your shoulder but I understand bad pain in joints.)

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    • Oh your poor mum… my damage, they assure me, should sort itself out soon. But the cure involves a good bit of pummelling to loosen up the muscles, and for a while it feels worse than before.
      I had so many good things to do and enjoy this week, and I had to cancel them all. I feel quite sulky…

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      • I would too. Life seems so precious – we don’t want to waste any of it do we.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. As a vegan, I would probably enjoy this! And hope the shoulder improves soon!

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    • I’m sure you would. One thing this has made me realise is that it’s not just about what we eat, it’s about the natural living habits of animals as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice review, Lisa. Sounds like a book that would make a good present for animal lovers. On the subject of rats, let me recommend a book called ‘Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife.’ It’ll give you a whole new perspective on rats! Also, a great fun read.

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    • LOL I know rats get a bad press. But there are exceptions: Ratty in A Wind in the Willows is a good fellow, and there’s a rat in The Tale of Despereaux who has his endearing moments too. I am referring to the book by Kate DiCamillo, of course, not that travesty of a Disney film. If you have children, I beseech you to read them the book because there is much to talk about (the nature of perfidy, for instance, when a brother betrays another brother ‘for the good of the community’). But shred the film if you get the chance (Can you shred a DVD? I am not sure…)

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      • Haha, you can shred a DVD in fact Lisa – at least, our shredder will take credit cards and CDs/DVDs.

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        • Good. That movie is dreadful, and the tragedy is that some children won’t read the book because they think they know what it’s about…

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  6. Hi Lisa, I am sure I would love The Grass Library, I must look out for it. I hope the pain in your shoulder eases soon.

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  7. I’m sorry to hear about your shoulder pain! I hope so relief is in sight.
    I love the cover of this book! I have to agree with you though, all creatures great and small but never rats!

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    • That sheep has a noble face, don’t you think?
      Actually, the physio may not agree, I reckon I put things out by craning around trying to read the book titles on this cover!
      (I probably shouldn’t confess this, but the first thing I do when I go to the home of any strangers is to check out their books, to see what sort of person they are…)

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      • So do I! And if they have pictures on social media with bookshelves in the background I zoom in and try to see what the titles are! 😁

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  8. Me too Lisa. And the book sounds one to read. Sympathy about your shoulder as am recovering from injured sternum after car accident and it’s such a test of patience to put all the pleasures on the back burner. But ah the joy of extra reading is one bonus. Get well.

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    • That’s the secret, Fay, look for that silver lining. But an injured sternum sounds awful, I hope you’re on the mend as well.
      Actually, it seems to have been a near car accident for me. The Spouse, on our Queenscliff weekend, had to do a very sudden hard stop, and the seat belt hurled me against the seat, all the pressure landing on the shoulder still fragile after a frozen shoulder and bursitis 18 months ago. I’m not complaining, better that than hurled through the windscreen or colliding with The Idiot, and thank goodness for The Spouse’s quick reflexes—but all my old usually quiescent and long-forgotten injuries (whiplash, crook back, frozen shoulders left and right) all ganged up together and have been going into spasm ever since.
      PS My physio says no housework either, so that’s another bonus!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Small mercies welcome Lisa. But it’s an interesting position being the invalid and at least for me it has opened my mind to new understanding of what that means for it’s a jolt to one’s sense of self. How quickly life can change and we get to tell the tale.

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    • Yes, that’s true. I’m so used to being independent and doing things for myself, and needing to ask for help doesn’t come easily to me.

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  10. Oh, this looks lovely. And very thought-provoking (the idea of anticipating the sheep’s curiosity is a nice one). I do hope your shoulder is feeling better—so wretched to have that chronic sort of pain.

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    • Knowing my own dog’s curiosity, I can easily imagine other animals being the same.

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  11. Ouch, bursitis is VERY painful – I hope you heal quickly. As a farmer I don’t think I would relate to this book but, funnily enough, I picked up a copy of The Fern Tatoo in an opp shop the other day.

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    • Hi Sharon, bursitis certainly is painful, but the physio (who’s got a PhD!) says that it’s basically a new whiplash injury stirring up the old one and sending referred pain everywhere and stirring up all my old injuries in other places. She seems to know what she’s talking about because I certainly felt better yesterday though I know from my previous whiplash that it can take ages to heal.
      So it’s hasten slowly, I’m still a bit stymied with reviews because I can’t spend more than 10-15 minutes here at the computer, and not more than about an hour altogether for the day. I hope I haven’t forgotten what the books are about by the time I get to their reviews!

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  12. I think sheep have particularly stupid faces but I do enjoy “the music of sheep”, having spent lots of my youth walking, playing where I could hear them in distant paddocks. I doubt that I could now – tinnitus. On the other hand, despite my vegetarianism I’m not a great fan of saving animals, and not a fan at all of saving animals which are not native.

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    • I think that what you’d find if you read this one is that it challenges the idea of having hard-and-fast rules. Everything is so much more complicated than it seems…
      I don’t like cats, but I think I’d be more inclined to save one than not because I don’t like to see animals suffer.
      With the exception of rats, mice and mosquitoes…

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  13. […] RELATED REVIEW • If you’d like to read a “stranger’s” review of this delightful book — visit this link Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers […]

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  14. […] with them made me think of another recent book, The Grass Library by David Brooks (see my review here).  It’s a deeply thoughtful (and yet often light-hearted and amusing) book about the ethical […]

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  15. My post is about to be published. I really enjoyed this book. I think I’ve mostly taken a slightly different tack to yours, but I have also talked about the herd music, because, like you, I loved that bit. Really fascinating.

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    • I see you have also talked about the dusk anxiety: it struck a chord with me too because of the Twilight Barking in 101 Dalmatians. (The book, of course, not that idiotic movie). When the puppies go missing, Pongo and Missus take Mr and Mrs Dearly to the park to broadcast their loss and seek the help of dogs from all over England. And when they return the next day there are messages relayed from miles away where the pups have been taken. Incontrovertible proof that dusk anxiety is a thing with dogs, at the very least, eh?

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      • Haha, Lisa … yes, good example. It struck a chord with me because I used to frequently have an asthma attack at duck (but I think that was physical to do with the change in temperature – still it used to make me anxious!)

        I need to read some of Brooks’ other books I think.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book. […]

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  17. […] The Grass Library, by David Brooks […]

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