Wednesday, February 23, 2011

All Creatures Great and Small

Memoirs seem to come in cycles. For a while, childhood memoirs were front and center; authors wrote about raising their own children or about their own childhood (the stranger the better).

Things can get messy, however, when family members dispute your claims (Augusten Burroughs and Dave Pelzer). Things also get messy if you’re a famous talk show host with enormous power in the book business and you book an author who later admits that he largely fabricated his memoir (James Frey).

Is it any wonder that publishers have eagerly fostered the latest craze in memoirs: pet memoirs? Go into any pet care section of a library or bookstore. There you will find the shelves crammed full of books with enormous puppy eyes on the cover. A nation of people who throw birthday parties for their pets and send their pups to doggy day care regularly sends these tales of man and beast to the top of bestseller lists. Of course, there’s an enormous chance that the cute little pup (or cat, or bird) on the cover will be dead at the end of the book, but if the author shows any mercy, there’s usually a little tidbit (and picture!) about a new puppy (or pet) that heals the family’s hearts.

No matter how much of an animal lover you are, these pet memoirs seem to run together after a while. If you’re in the mood for some out-of-the-ordinary books about our furry (and feathered) friends, check these books out.

The granddaddy of all pet memoirs has to be James Herriot. The memoirs of a 1930s Yorkshire country vet are addictive reading. While they are undoubtedly heartwarming, an English country vet’s life at that time was quite difficult. Have the Kleenex ready. I’ve heard that the BBC miniseries of the books is excellent (they are popular among our patrons). Herriot’s books are not just lovely (and heartbreaking) animal tales; they are also engrossing tales of a Yorkshire community before and after World War II. I first read All Creatures Great and Small in high school; the calf birth that opens the book remains ingrained in my brain.

Ted Kerasote’s Merle’s Door: Lessons From a Freethinking Dog is one of the most memorable and compelling animal memoirs that I have ever read. Karasote raised Merle in a very unusual way; Merle was free to go as he pleased and was rarely on a leash (they lived in a remote Wyoming town). Karasote sought to treat Merle as a responsible individual rather than as a submissive pet, and ascribes human thought and feelings to him in his writing. The incorporation of theories and research on dogs and human-pet relationships make for a meaty and thought-provoking read, even if you don’t fully support Karasote’s beliefs and training. Be warned: this is one humdinger of a tearjerker. Pukka: The Dog After Merle (which I haven’t read) is the “sequel.”

Looking for something with more action? Don’t miss The Cruelest Miles by Gay Salisbury. This is a breathtaking and awe-inspiring account of the 1925 dogsled run to Nome, Alaska, which brought life-saving serum to the diphtheria-afflicted town. The historic run brought Balto to fame and inspired the Iditarod. Truly a gripping read.

Jim Gorant’s 2009 Sports Illustrated cover story about the fate of the Bad Newz pit bulls generated the greatest number of letters to the editor that the magazine has ever received. Gorant expanded the article into The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Pit Bulls and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption. Most dogs were not euthanized; several were adopted into pit-bull experienced homes and some even serve as therapy dogs (including one that participates in a library “Paws for Tales” program). Gorant introduces us to these dogs and the rescue owners, explores the controversy surrounding their survival, and the efforts to bring Vick to justice. This is a humbling read about second chances, resilience, patience, and downscaled happily ever afters.

Cat fans and library fans (they often go together!) shouldn’t miss Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. Like many superstars, Dewey had a difficult beginning. Tossed into the library materials return box on an Iowan cold winter night, Dewey was discovered by Vicki Myron, the library director. Dewey became a fixture in the library, making it a destination point for the small town and bringing the often-fractious staff together. In between amusing and heartfelt Dewey tales are stories about a small Midwestern town and the library’s struggles to survive; Myron’s own personal health issues and relationship issues with her daughter; and Dewey’s rise to fame. Have Kleenex ready. For younger readers, there’s also Dewey the Library Cat: A True Story.

Bird aficionados should flock to Alex and Me, Irene Pepperberg’s reminiscences of the amazing African Grey Parrot Alex. For 30 years Dr. Pepperberg trained and studied Alex; they changed scientific thinking on the cognitive abilities of AGPs. You’ll also meet his fellow compatriots; although they are smart in the typical AGP way, they are no match for Alex, who often interrupts their training. Pepperberg’s challenges in getting the scientific community to accept her findings are frustrating and inspiring. Although Alex’s death was sudden and unfortunate, his legacy lives in our greater respect and understanding of these magnificent birds.

On a lighter note, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill by Mark Bittner is a sweet and funny account of a man who drifts along in life until he ends up in San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill area, where he encounters the neighborhood wild parrots. Finding them amusing and full of individual personalities, he feeds, observes, and bonds with them. Life is fairly normal until a documentary filmmaker knocks on the door. You’ll want to watch the documentary after reading the book.

For more pet memoirs, explore the 636 section of the library, where you’ll also find pet and breed specific care guides (including guides on selecting the right pet for your home).


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