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!

15 comments:

Elmo said...

And if there's any tissue left after "That Quail, Robert" one can try to find the rarer "Owl" by William Service.

Hippolyta said...

Wow, not even a hint of animosity, Steve! Good job compartmentalizing!

Jeff E. said...

Interesting collection. I don't think I've ever read an animal-book.

Kevin Caron said...

Not even Watership Down?

Jeff E. said...

Well, I did read that but it didn't correspond well with Steve's three categories. I mean, does the presence of a kzin make Ringworld an animal-book?

steve said...

I was going to work a mention of 'Owl' into this post, but then I thought surely I'd already nattered on about it in person to virtually everybody here AND given them a copy, so I didn't.

I second Elmo, though: it's a wonderful book.

Sam Sacks said...

Don't forget "The Cat Who Came for Christmas"!

And while I don't think Watership Down would qualify (nor Animal Farm), a fourth category for fictional animal books could include such things as William Wharton's "Birdy" and of course "Call of the Wild" and "White Fang".

Kevin Caron said...

Whoops - wasn't thinking about Steve's 3 forms of 'animal-book' when I mentioned Watership Down - it was just the first (and only) book that popped into my head when I asked myself the question, "have I ever read an 'animal-book'?"

The comparison to Ringworld seems a bit out there, though.

Beepy said...

Oh, yes, start with "That Quail, Robert." It is absolutely charming. Jeff E., I dare you not to like it! "Owl" is also very good, but the author took a more distant, scientific view of his subject, which pleased me less.

Steve - is "Owl" still in print?

One of my favorite animal books is one I read as a teenager. I think it was quite old at the time, surely out of print even then. It was called "My Zoo Family" (incrediably stupid title) and was written by a woman who hand-raised big cat cubs when their moms couldn't. Has anyone ever heard of it (Steve?) or does anyone know where I can find a copy (Steve?)?

Jeff E. said...

Yeah, I was just being stupid bringing up Ringworld. It was that time in the evening for being silly.

Owl is out of print, but I'm going by the Book Barn tomorrow so if they have a copy I'll pick one up.

locke said...

The best animal books are the ones with recipes in them.

Sorry, not sure where that came from -- I think Ted Nugent briefly took control of my fingers...

I am realizing that I have NOT read many animal books in recent years -- I used to enjoy -- at SteveReads' recommendation -- the Barry Lopez books on wolves and the arctic. And I was kind of making my way through that collection of essays you gave me a few years ago, Steve -- can't think of the name of the book or author and can't be bothered to get up and go look -- he was a general interest columnist in Arizona? It had a pretty great essay about black widow spiders? But then I lost interest in it (and seemingly banished all identifying information about it from my brain pan).

Anonymous said...

In this connection one must mention - and recommend wholeheartedly - Barbara Gowdy's novel The White Bone, a hallucinatory rendition of the world as experienced through the consciousness of an African elephant. Where Watership Down gives us anthropomorphized rabbits, the sensibility in The White Bone is so alien that the narrator might as well be Neptunian, and the book classed as science fiction. It goes without saying that our good host Steve would deride it as gimmicky.

-Bertrand

steve said...

A) 'Watership Down' is most certainly NOT an animal-book in any way - nor is 'White Bone,' although I agree with the enigmatic Bertrand that it's quite good as a reading experience. Naturally, a novel REALLY told from the point of view of an elephant (or a rabbit, for that matter) would be impossible to write - and impossible to read (and the book IS gimmicky - what else would you call all the run-together words and made-up words?). But in the elephant context, Cynthia Moss' 'Elephant Memories' is certainly worth everybody's time and attention!

b) Locke, I think it's probably David Quammen you've banished from your brain! His natural history essays are great.

c) Beepy, have thou more faith! Of course I've read 'My Zoo Family,' and I found it quite charming! I'm sure it's out of print, but given the vast resources of Stevereads, that hardly need slow us down in getting you a copy!

d) Sam, I can't for the life of me see 'Birdy' as any kind of animal-book. The very suggestion stumps me, although I dearly love the book.

e) Hippolyta, I'm thinking that 'not even a hint of animosity' in a posting about animal-books might just be the most SLY comment you've yet posted ...

Hippolyta said...

Well, my comment was in reference to your plan to listen to our monkey leader's speech and then write this blog without any residual anger.

locke said...

I thought Hippolyta had meant that when writing about animals, Steve sets aside the animosity he usually lets fly at filthy humans.