In the late 18th century, Toby, the “learned pig,” enthralled audiences all over Britain. He counted, he spelled, and he even read the minds of ladies — but only with their permission, it was said. Now English professor Russell Potter of Providence is introducing the traveling novelty act to a new audience.
“Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig” (Penguin) is written in the form of a rediscovered memoir “edited” by Potter, who teaches literature at Rhode Island College. In an e-mail, Potter explained his mash-up of a debut novel: “The entire book is a work of fiction, though it draws from the various anecdotes of the actual ‘Learned Pig’ popular in the 1780s, and in one case — Toby’s meeting with the great Dr. [Samuel] Johnson — I quote his exact remarks. There is a historical foundation to all the major details, but Toby’s voice and character are all my own creation.”
Potter writes in an old-fashioned style with idiosyncratic capitalization and imbues Toby with a large measure of humanity and humor. On the very first page Toby acknowledges that if not for the 13-year-old boy who liberated him from the farm, “there can be little doubt that, instead of this my Book before you on your Table, you would have a rasher of Bacon and a Rack of Ribs — and that these would be my only mortal remains.”
Boston has a special place in Cheryl Strayed’s heart, she told an audience at Harvard Bookstore earlier this month. The packed house heard the Portland, Ore. -based author read from her two bestsellers, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” (Knopf) and “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” (Vintage).
Strayed said she will never forget the first question from the audience at Brookline Booksmith five months ago. After she read from “Wild,” about a low-budget 1,000-mile hike she took to cope with her grief over the death of her mother, an elderly gentleman raised his hand and asked “Have you ever had sex with anyone in exchange for food?” Her answer: “No, but would you like to have dinner?” She now opens every reading by recounting the exchange and it always gets a laugh.
Another reason she loves Boston is that it was local writer Steve Almond who made her an advice columnist for the online magazine The Rumpus. He had been writing the column but he thought she’d do a better job so he offered her the unpaid gig in 2010. Strayed’s soul-baring columns became enormously popular, leading to a book deal.
“Wild” and “Tiny” may be categorized as a memoir and a self-help book, respectively, Strayed said, but they’re both about “how we bear what we think we cannot bear.”
“The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era” by Michael Grunwald (Simon & Schuster)
“Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ ‘Go-To Person’ About Sex” by Deborah Roffman (Da Capo)
“The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues” by Angela Y. Davis (City Lights)
Pick of the week
Josh Cook of Porter Square Books in Cambridge recommends “You & Me” by Padgett Powell (Ecco): “Experience the utter joy of shooting the breeze on the porch with a couple of crotchety, intelligent old codgers. Inventive, funny, and profound, Powell turns phrases like a dervish in this Southern-styled ersatz retelling of ‘Waiting for Godot.’ A wonderful book that perfectly captures kicking back and trying to make sense of the crazy world streaming by.”