Friday, January 15, 2010

If Animals Were Authors

Elephants can remember and dogs are man’s best friend, but there’s a lot more to the animal kingdom than that. When writers take on an animal’s perspective, the thoughts and ideas of entire new species become available for all manner of memoirs, mysteries, romances, and adventures. Cats turn literary; bears have better things to do than hibernate all winter. Wolves and leopards describe life in the wild in their own words; even quiet critters like lambs and bunny rabbits get in on the action. Readers won’t be too surprised to discover that these furry critters share the same problems of their human counterparts: jealousies, triumphs, failures, secrets. This means that animal tales are every bit as powerful, poignant, and page-turning as books about people, and with a decidedly original point of view. If animals could talk, oh the stories they would tell!

Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story by Leonie Swann, 2007, Doubleday/ Flying Dolphin Press (Mystery)

When George the shepherd is murdered, his sheep are understandably upset. George may not have been the best shepherd (he did stuff calcium tablets down their throats every now and then, after all, and put a fence around his tomatoes) but he was their shepherd. He gave them hay and a place to graze; he talked to them and even read books out loud. But now George is dead in the grass, stabbed through with a spade, and his flock wants justice. George’s sheep may be better at grazing, but led by inquisitive Miss Maple; Othello, the black sheep of the bunch; Melmoth, who disappeared long ago; and Mopple the Whale, who’s always hungry but can remember anything, this herd has a mystery to solve. And what with flock mentality getting in the way of sleuthing and the common problem of human-sheep misunderstandings and miscommunications, it is a wooly problem indeed. First-time German author Leonie Swann writes with a straight-faced focus that graces these unlikely detectives with personality, charm, and even the occasional existential dilemma. Human characters, like the terrifying butcher Ham and the charismatic new shepherd Gabriel, take on new dimensions when seen through the eyes of the suspicious sheep, and it is those sheep the reader will be rooting for. Three Bags Full is darkly humorous and joyfully ingenious all at the same time, making it a fresh and funny entry in the mystery genre. Don’t count on this flock of fellows obediently jumping fences to put you to sleep; these baa-baa black sheep will keep readers up all night turning the pages instead.

The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle, 1996, Doubleday (Fiction)

Eccentric university professor Arthur Bramhall hides his new book manuscript under a tree in the Maine woods for safe-keeping. Much to his chagrin, it doesn’t work. His briefcase is found by a foraging bear who, while not the sharpest tool in the shed, knows that he’s got a hit on his hands—er, paws. Renaming himself Hal Jam, the bear sets off to New York City to take the literary world by storm. The book, Destiny and Desire, has lots of sex and fishing and becomes an instant bestseller. Hal Jam is suddenly a much sought after celebrity, pursued by the literary press, Hollywood agents, and pretty girls. Hal Jam, big, clumsy, often bewildered by his new human identity and confounded by the things people say and do, somehow manages to get along swimmingly—because even though he’s still very much a bear, the people around him see and hear only what they want to see and hear. Meanwhile, old Arthur Bramhall, completely distraught over the loss of his book, has taken refuge in the woods and has begun to exhibit distinctly ursine characteristics. The many outrageous situations that arise from these cases of switched mistaken identity are clever and funny and original. The publishing business is satirized with zest and good humor, as are academics, publicists, agents, and politicians. Author William Kotzwinkle’s varied career includes the novelization of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and his children’s book series Walter the Farting Dog, making him something of an expert in quirky unconventionality. It’s all in good fun, and The Bear Went Over the Mountain a great deal of fun indeed.

The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily by Dino Buzzati, 2003, New York Review Children’s Collection, originally published in 1947 (Children’s Fiction)

First published in 1947, author Dino Buzzati’s sprightly fable chronicles a period of forgotten history in Sicily’s ancient and noble past. During an especially frigid winter, starving bears leave their mountain home and come down to the valley, where humans dwell, in search of food and warmth. Led by valiant King Leander (who is also searching for his long-lost bear cub son Tony), handsome Saltpetre, Marzipan the inventor, and sharp-eyed Dandelion, the bears tackle an army of wild boars, ghosts, a sea serpent, the ruthless Grand Duke, and maybe-good maybe-bad Professor Ambrose. This colorful story is further brightened by a wryly intimate and teasing tone, stylish illustrations, a smattering of sweetly rhyming poems, and smartly drawn characters both animal and human. The New York Review Children’s Collection is a series of previously out-of-print children’s books republished and repackaged in attractive editions for new generations to enjoy. The editors picked a real gem with The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily and its remarkable ability to convey adult themes to young readers with subtlety and understanding. Talking animals may be a hallmark of children’s literature, but The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily is a sophisticated, elegant little tale about war, corruption, courage, and humility that is as much intelligent allegory as it is whimsical fairy tale.

Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda-Leopard by Patrick O’Brian, 2000, W.W. Norton, originally published in 1930 (Fiction)

Author Patrick O’Brian (1914-2000) is best known for his best-selling and well-loved Aubrey and Maturin books, a series of historical fiction novels about Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin and their adventures on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. But long before O’Brian began richly describing the lives of Aubrey and Maturin, he was just a sickly kid passing the time with pen, paper, and imagination. Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda-Leopard is his first novel, written when he was just twelve years old and published at the tender age of fifteen. It’s a slim little book, but it already demonstrates the O’Brian uncanny ability to transform stiff facts into detailed storytelling. Caesar is a panda-leopard, the son of the union between a male panda bear and a female snow leopard. Caesar himself has more of the leopard in him, since he begins stalking, hunting, and killing almost as soon as he can toddle out of his cave after his mother. Caesar’s adventures include forest fires, battles with wild boars and wolves, the hunting of humans, capture by humans, a stint in a cage followed by a trusting relationship with a man, and his eventual return to the wild. Nature is indeed “red of tooth and claw”; young O’Brian was clearly in favor of an unsentimental narrative style. The writing is matter-of-fact, without any contemplation or reflection, though there is plenty of dry wit and—it is clearly the work of an adolescent, but the attention to detail and the fascination with the natural world still make for a compelling read, particularly for O’Brian’s many die-hard fans.

Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London, 2002, Modern Library Classics, originally published in 1903 and 1906 (Fiction)

Call of the Wild and White Fang, both by author Jack London, are two of the best known and best loved books ever narrated by a couple of canines. In Call of the Wild, a pampered pup named Buck is dog-napped and transported to Yukon wilderness, where he makes an ideal sled dog for a number of alternately cruel and kind human masters before heeding to his natural instincts. White Fang is the antithesis of Call of the Wild and its companion novel, the story of a wild half-wolf who, slowly but surely, finds comfort and joy in human companionship. Both Buck and White Fang are tough, hard-working dogs with mad survival skills, and they’re going to need every ounce of their strength, common sense, and instinct to survive the threatening mix of nature and man that they each face. The setting of both novels is the stark, cold wilderness of Alaska during the Klondike gold rush, and that atmospheric, barren land is as much a character as any of the desperate men, women, or animals who inhabit it. Call of the Wild and White Fang are classics; there are dozens of editions available to readers, including graphic novel adaptations. The 2002 Modern Library edition presents both novels in one volume, along with another bleak but gripping Jack London short story, To Build a Fire.

The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy, 1998, H. Holt (Fiction)

In The White Bone, a herd of African elephants face challenges so immense as to dwarf even their hefty bulk. Drought has ravaged the once-rich grasslands and humans hunt them for their ivory tusks with brutal regularity. Young Mud is a female elephant adopted by one herd after her own was wiped out by hunters. Mud has a kind adoptive mother in She-Scares, a best friend in fellow youngster Date Bed, and even something of a love interest in a young bull named Tall Time. In fact, Mud is expecting her first calf. But this potentially joyous occasion is significantly marred when her family is slaughtered by poachers. Mud sets out to find the mythical White Bone, a legendary artifact that will lead the finder to the Safe Place. Her quest is not an easy one for elephant or reader; author Barbara Gowdy doesn’t hold back when describing the violence, tragedy, and despair that accompanies the near-extinction of an entire species. The White Bone is a difficult read in other ways as well; the kinship and names of the elephants get complicated at times. Each female of the herd is named She-something, the “something” beginning with the same letter as the matriarch elephant’s name (She-Swaggers, She-Demands); the cow elephants get these names when they reach maturity and before that are known by other names; male bull elephants keep their childhood names; and it takes awhile before the reader is fully immersed in the elephants’ vocabulary (a “big fly” is an ostrich, “hindleggers” are humans). Gowdy’s intention with her detailed family trees and glossaries is to instill her animals with the same intricate histories, families, and memories that people are both blessed and cursed with. Elephants never forget, and Gowdy has gifted her cast of gray-eared giants with so much empathy and emotion that her human readers surely won’t forget, either.

Waiting for Gertrude: A Graveyard Gothic by Bill Richardson, 2003, Thomas Dunne Books (Fiction)

The famous Parisian cemetery of Père-Lachaise holds the mortal remains of such famous and varied celebrities as scandalous 19th century playwright Oscar Wilde, Victorian-era stage and silent screen actress Sarah Bernhardt, the master-composer Chopin, and rock star playboy Jim Morrison. The cemetery is also home to any number of stray cats, and in author Bill Richardson’s playful novel, the souls of the renowned deceased are reborn in feline form. Oscar is a moody, moony lovesick kitty; the tradition of leaving love letters on Chopin’s tomb means he’s the cats’ postmaster general. Jim Morrison is a big, bold tomcat looking to get laid, and Sarah Bernhardt’s fake leg has been stolen, which is just one of several unusual thefts that have been plaguing the graveyard. There’s a mystery in Père-Lachaise, one waiting to unfold in a dramatic burst of a climax at the annual Christmas pageant, complete with sex, intrigue, feuds, and unrequited love. But for Alice B. Toklas, a quiet puss who keeps to herself, life is about waiting. In her human life, Alice was the long-time romantic partner of famed writer Gertrude Stein. Alice outlived Gertrude by many years and was hoping for a swift reunion in the afterlife, but Gertrude has yet to be reincarnated with whiskers and tail, so Alice waits and watches. Told as a series of interwoven episodes and through intercepted letters that the cats write to each other, the mystery at the graveyard and the nine lives of these soulful cats is an inventive, thoughtful, fanciful piece of work.

Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe, 2006, Atheneum Press, originally published in 1979 (Children’s Fiction, Mystery)

Harold is a dog who takes his work very seriously. He knows how to sit and speak. He knows which member of his family (little brother Toby) is most likely to feed him cupcakes under the table. And, teamed with Chester the cat, Harold knows a bit about detective work. Chester, a bookworm of a feline, is the mastermind crime-solver, but he appears to have met his match one dark and stormy night when the family brings home... a tiny baby rabbit. The little fellow was found in a movie theater during a showing of Dracula (Toby nearly sat on him) and he’s quickly welcomed as a new pet. But soon some suspicious goings-on--Bunnicula sneaking out of his cage, vegetables drained white--lead Chester to suspect that Bunnicula is a vampire in rabbit form. Chester’s attempts to warn the family are hilariously misunderstood, leaving faithful Harold to worry about cat and rabbit alike. Few people have as much personality as the animals in Bunnicula, and husband and wife authors Deborah and James Howe write Harold with good old boy charm and Chester with an irresistible manic energy. Bunnicula proves that dogs, cats, and bunny rabbits knew the popularity and power of vampires long before Twilight and True Blood  made blood-suckers trendy. An imaginative spoof on literary legend, Bunnicula is a “rabbit-tale of mystery” that’s been delighting readers of all ages for thirty years.

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