Shelf Talks #7: Susan

Susan's bookshelf

Shelf Talks is a series of interviews in which writer and librarian Oleg Kagan asks interesting people questions inspired by the contents of their bookshelves. Susan Montgomery is an artist, author, and musician in Bowling Green, OH. Montgomery discusses her interest in history, particularly the Civil War and WWII, and how she integrates it into her artwork. As a visual learner, Montgomery explains how she uses mnemonic devices to learn the ukulele and the piano, and how her visual brain influences the recipes she prefers. When asked if there is anything missing from her shelf, Montgomery shares that she's always on the lookout for new and interesting books.

OLEG: I notice that among the majority of your books, which are about creation (whether it’s music, art, or food), there are two books on destruction, the Eyewitness Guides to War — the Civil War and WWII. How did those find their way onto your shelf, and do the other books make them feel welcome?

SUSAN: The war books made their way on my shelves when I had a sudden interest in learning more about history. I always had a hard time paying attention and understanding history throughout my schooling, but as a near middle aged adult, I feel it’s never too late to learn. I see the value in understanding the different points of view, the impact on families, and issues of race. I am a visual learner which is why my books on war are large and full of color photos. There is one book I feel is a bridge between the hefty war books and my books on creating and that is Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to American Warriors by George W. Bush. This is also full of color images of the portrait paintings Bush created honoring veterans who have served our country since 9/11. I feel like I can really understand when I’m viewing history and veterans issues through the eyes of an artist who uses color, form, shape, texture, etc. to show the bravery, emotions, and the invisible wounds of war. A book like this draws me in and makes me stay a little longer than other books. The veteran stories are so important and I’m glad Bush not only painted the portraits of these brave men and women, but also has met them personally and continues to raise funds for veterans through the sales of his book. As an artist, I can understand why meeting your subject matter would be so important for informed creation and inspiration. My books on creation on the shelves, when viewed next to the war books, remind me to be inspired and informed with whatever I create whether it’s a journal page, a collage, or a watercolor painting. The war books also remind me that it’s never too late to learn about subjects you are interested in. They all coexist rather well. 

OLEG: The title of George W. Bush’s book reminds me of another former President’s book, Profiles in Courage, which was written when John F. Kennedy was still a Senator. Both books focus on courage, though from different angles, Bush’s book is courage under fire, whereas Kennedy’s book describes examples of political courage from past Senators. I knew that GWB had taken up painting as a hobby in his post-Presidential years, but I had no idea that he had published a book of his work. In any case, to pivot, you mentioned that you’re a visual learner, how does your style of learning adapt to mastering the ukulele, which requires another sense altogether?

SUSAN: As a visual learner, I’m always looking for pictures or creating my own. With the ukulele, I’m able to construct pictures of the chord shapes which is also how I learned chords when I picked up my first instrument last year, the guitar. Mnemonic devices have long helped me learn tricky subject matter. In art history courses, I would learn the year of a piece by looking for the shapes of the numbers in the image of the work. With guitar and ukulele, I create mnemonics about the chord shape and name. C on the guitar stands for cat and actually looks like a cat’s tail in the air when I look at the little circles on the lines of the chord chart. B on the ukulele stands for bowling because I see a bowling ball traveling down a lane and knocking down pins. As long as I have a little story in my head, I can find the shape on the fretboard, no matter how silly it is, and it helps me learn how to play. I’m trying to do this with piano as well, another instrument I’m learning how to play. Even when just viewing dots on lines, my mind sees animals, stories, people, hobbies, and objects. The real fun begins when I connect my visual brain with my auditory brain and get a feel for how those chords sound. 

OLEG: Since we’re on the topic of senses, you also have a few cookbooks on your shelf. I think most people have some general thoughts on the aesthetics of food — does your visual brain influence the recipes you prefer or prompt you to make substitutions in recipes that turn out to taste as well as look better?

SUSAN: I think my visual brain definitely prefers dishes that look aesthetically pleasing. And I will make substitutions if I feel they are necessary for the overall taste and look of the dish. Sometimes, I won’t make a new dish a second time if it looks disastrous, even if it tasted heavenly. I also get visuals from tasting foods. For example, I made some super healthy whole wheat muffins years ago with various additions like nuts and mixed fruit. They tasted like cardboard! I still can’t get the image of cardboard out of my head and won’t make them again. They looked quite good but from now on I’m sticking with muffin mixes that are made with white flour and not whole wheat. 

OLEG: Ha! I definitely identify with remembering the taste of certain recipes, most especially if they remind me of something that no human would consider food. Pivoting now, is there anything missing from your shelf? A book that doesn’t exist yet, or something you’ve always dreamed of owning?

SUSAN: I’ve always wanted to read and own a graphic novel series or a fantasy novel series. I don’t know where to begin as there are so many sub-categories. It’s an area that became popular after my days in school. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of dragons so I might start there. Wings of Fire, Dealing with Dragons, How to Train Your Dragon, Dragon Rider, and Raya and the Last Dragon are all on my list to check out. I don’t want anything too violent and I want to find a series I like so it can have a permanent home on my shelf. I love to reread books! I think this would be a really neat addition to my collection and it might even inspire new art. 

OLEG: There are so many wonderful graphic novels out there on just about any topic. The variety is astounding and heartful. I recently reread the two-volume manga, My Brother’s Husband, and yesterday I finished This Place: 150 Years Retold, a collection of stories about the history (and future) of indigenous people of Canada told by various authors. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve read any comics featuring dragons — I’m much more on the science fiction side of the speculative fiction genre. You’ll have to tell me if you read any really good ones. For the final question: What’s a book you’ve read that you weren’t expecting to like but, in a surprising twist, did?

SUSAN: That’s a great question! I have The Way Things Work by David Macaulay on my shelf. I originally picked it up at my favorite coffee shop and used bookstore because I absolutely love his books Castle and Cathedral. The Way Things Work is about machines and inventions and science and engineering – all areas that I am not familiar with at all. The artist in me thought I would value the book for the illustrations and not really be interested in the descriptions, but I found myself very fascinated with the stories of everyday items that I’ve always wondered how they actually work. I have the 1988 version but there is a newer version available I’m interested in checking out, along with his book on the human body. He has authored so many great books that I should really add more of his to my shelves as well. They are great books to sit down with and flip through at any time. I think he’s a fascinating author and illustrator.

OLEG: Thank you so much for your time, Susan!