Thursday, January 11, 2007
Books! Birds and Bea!
As some of you doubtless know, we here at Stevereads love a good animal-book. Not formal, documented natural history - although Gawd knows we love those too - but those which for want of a better word we'll call anecdotal. Of these there are three kinds, one of each of which recently crossed our path: the kind where the animal in question is a domesticated pet, the kind where a wild animal is taken into benign captivity, and the kind where some enterprising human goes out to live with an alien species.
The first kind is the most accessible - everybody's had a pet at some point, and many pet-owners believe it would be duck soup to write such a book. Every year, some new bestseller will come along with an adorable dust jacket picture of the dog, cat, parrot, or pig in question. These stories are perforce of a type - that's their appeal, and exceptions are generally unwelcome (as was the case with Jon Katz' execrable "A Good Dog," in which he broke with formula by executing the star of his story in mid-book). These books comfort by offering a mirror to their readers' experience.
Our example today of this first kind is "For Bea - The Story of the Beagle Who Changed My Life" by Kristin Von Kreisler, the story of a woman who comes into possession of a slightly broken-down beagle who'd been the subject of lab research. Some of you will no doubt guess our feelings here at Stevereads about medical research conducted on dogs, especially beagles. Von Kreisler got off comparatively easy: her beagle hadn't lost her eyes to cosmetics acidity testing, hadn't lost her legs to stress-fracture tests, hadn't lost huge chunks of skin to artificially induced tumors.
No, as far as Von Kreisler could determine, poor Bea was 'only' used for repeated breeding of other victims. She's a sweet-natured, long-suffering dog whose nervous reluctance to trust or love her new human caretakers is both understandable and movingly described. I especially liked how Von Kreisler risks the ridicule of her readers by unhesitatingly referring to the 'conversations' she has with Bea. Dog-owners will know that such 'conversations' really happen - and beagle owners will know that with this particular breed, they practically happen in English.
This is a warm, untaxing book that can be whole-heartedly recommended to any dog-owner. Von Kreisler's tone is a bit overwrought and dippy, but self-consciously and thus endearingly so. Dog people will be nodding in agreement the whole time they're reading it.
Our current example of the second kind is that perennial little classic, Margaret Stanger's "That Quail, Robert," the story of a Cape Cod couple who find a quail egg (probably Laprodus laprodus, although nobody's counting), take it home as a curiosity, and are as surprised as anybody when it hatches into a noisy, needy little chick.
As the book's many thousands of readers already know, there follows a quintessential story of inter-species exploration. That quail, Robert (so dubbed by accident, even though he turned out to be a she), quickly takes command of the household, quirkily investigating everything and everyone.
This type of anecdotal account has its predictable joys - foremost of which is watching the little alien being try to understand all the mundane realities of our daily lives. The animal in question - whether it's a tiny quail or Elsa, the lioness from "Born Free," perhaps the quintessential exemplar of the type - takes nothing for granted and understands nothing of human life, so we are allowed through them to see ourselves anew and re-assess our daily priorities. Those daily priorities never look more adorable - and negotiable (it's always amazing how many parts of their former lives our host recipients appear willing to sacrifice, upon demand) than when someone like Robert is turning them upside-down.
The third kind of animal-book is represented here by a new and altogether remarkable work by Joe Hutto called "Illumination in the Flatwoods." Hutto 'imprinted' two dozen wild turkeys and parented them to adulthood, taking meticulous observations along the way. The result, told in fine clear prose and copiously illustrated by the author, is quietly, unassumingly unforgettable.
Hutto spends a great deal of his time just out walking ('foraging,' he puts it, often making it sound like he himself is out grubbing for termites) with his brood, encountering all the things they encounter (creeks, rotting logs, and a disconcerting number of rattlesnakes) and noting all their behavior. I'd like to say it would be impossible to think of turkeys the same way again after reading this book - utterly unthinkable to EAT one, for instance - but I've met my share of dedicated fowlers, and I know this wonderful, heartfelt book would only serve to make them hungry.
But the REST of you will find it fascinating and involving! Hutto carefully reigns in his sentimentality and just writes about what he sees, but you end up attached to his brood anyway.
Of course, the problem with all three kinds of animal-books is their inevitable ending. To speak plain, the animal always dies. With Bea and that quail, Robert, the scenes are written with deeply moving sensitivity - with Hutto's turkeys, the end is less conclusive: animals prefer to die in private (if given the chance, even domesticated pets will do so), so the natural observer like Hutto will most often only be able to note the last time he saw an individual. The feeling of inevitability is still there, but it's softened by the chance, however long, that you'll run into that individual at the head of the trail one of these days.
In any case, these are three excellent examples of their kind! They come with the Stevereads stamp of approval, if you're in the mood for animal-books!