Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Monday, August 17, 2009
Monday, August 10, 2009
We called him our Hairy Houdini. An escape artist par excellence, he could get through anything. Fences, locked doors, leashes. Nothing could hold him. I wanted to try him out on Alcatraz, but he would have hated flying.
He celebrated his last day of obedience class by slipping his leash and racing across the marshes of Squantum in Massachusetts, ears flapping, scattering water fowl before him, and trailing an entire herd of humans, all feebly calling, “Come, Thurber! Come!” It took an hour before they caught up with him, muddy and triumphant. They let him graduate anyway. He was just that cute.
Over the years, we perfected opening the door just wide enough to squeeze through – even while holding grocery bags – blocking the opening with our body until we could whisk the door closed. We kept a leash tied to the front door, so we could hook him up before letting guests inside. And still he would shoot out, rear legs churning like egg-beaters. Destination: Canada. We would chase after him, but unless there were children out playing, we didn't have a hope of catching him. Fortunately, our neighborhood was filled with kids, and he would always pause to admire them.
Usually an hour or so after his prison break, we'd get a call. Will Rogers had nothing on Thurber. We met more nice people during his escapades – it's amazing how many folks will go out of their way to help a lost pet. He wandered across main streets and into other people's homes. They were usually happy to make his acquaintance. He had a beautiful set of beagle-brown eyes, and knew how to use them. (Begging is for amateurs. At mealtimes, he would simply make himself available and sit nearby, head either on his front paws or cocked just so.)
At other times, if there was something on the table that looked tasty, he took it. During his first year or so, this included a wood Oaxacan turtle a coworker brought me as a present, a candlestick shaped like a swan that was a wedding gift, and my dad's eyeglasses. (That one still makes me wince.) None of it even gave him a stomach ache. We were sure he was part goat.
He weighed less than 40 pounds, but he could pull harder than Balto on the final stretch to Nome. I got yanked off my feet a number of times during our walks. Add ice, and I was sure to land on my butt by the end of winter. He once was so excited to see a friend of mine (who is rather a cat person), that he leaped up to say hello and knocked her flat on my bed. That bed was also the site of his greatest disgrace. My father-in-law wasn't feeling well one afternoon and went to lay down. Thurber was shocked to find a stranger in the pack bed, and expressed his displeasure in a way that … well, let's just say that my father-in-law is an extremely forgiving man.
It was my fault. My husband's always had cats. The Christmas we were engaged, I got him a young Maine coon cat from a shelter north of Portland. We named him Zeke. But I wanted a beagle, and I wanted to name him Thurber. (James Thurber's New Yorker cartoons featured dogs that were sort of beagly. Yes, I'm an English major. It's incurable. Most of the time, I manage to keep it to myself.)
When we bought our first house in 1996, we celebrated by getting (me) a puppy. He was two months old and fit in the palm of Brian's hand. He promptly peed on him on the car ride home. You can't say he didn't warn us. When we had our son, my mom, who took the longest to see his charms, said we'd probably find raising a child easier than raising Thurber. Barring a few months of toddlerhood, she's been right.
He slept with us from the first night until last winter, when his legs just wouldn't get him onto the bed anymore. I lifted him up and down, but it scared him to be stuck high up. So we made him a bed in the corner of the room, and I mourned my newfound ability to roll over freely without running into a furry body, spread out to take up more room than the laws of geometry would admit possible for a largish small dog.
Despite all the times he swiped the cats' food, Thurber had a fondness for all creatures. (Especially the cats: They were a valuable source of snacks.)
Once, while walking him past an empty field in Michigan, he stopped stock still and headed into the grass urgently to investigate. I followed him over to what I was sure was going to be a really nasty smell, and found him sniffing gently a small black and white rabbit someone had dumped and wagging reassuringly. (There was a new apartment complex across the street. It turns out they didn't take pets.) When I arrived, he nudged her and looked up at me as if to say, “Well, pick her up. She can't stay here.” Francesca was always a rather timid soul, but she seemed quietly content to live out her days with us and let us keep her in lettuce and other salad ingredients. Even our coon cat let her be, and he considered outside rabbits a menu item and new pets an affront.
Speaking of which, my husband came home with a surprise three years ago. It was 2-1/2 pounds of sneezing white fur (actually two pounds, the half turned out to be fleas). Zeke eyed the newcomer with disdain, cast an outraged gaze at Brian to say, “What you did!” and left the room. Thurber once again sniffed gently and let us know he'd take it from here. He raised the kitten, now bearing the outsized name of G.K. Chesterton (Brian is also an English major. Yes, it's a disease) and instructed it in the ways of petdom. That's not to say he didn't steal his kitten food whenever the opportunity presented itself. But whenever we got home, Thurber and GK would be snuggled together on Thurber's dog bed under the pew in the front hall. He did such a thorough job that the cat goes for walks (although NOT on a leash), racing ahead of Thurber and me with his rocking-horse gait and meowing if he ever loses sight of us. He also comes when he's called, and sometimes you can even get him to fetch. That usually only lasts one or two rounds before he remembers that he's a cat and immediately starts bathing to change the subject.
Thurber even welcomed our newest pets, my son's rats (I know, I should just move to a barn and have done with it. The rats are a long story involving my mom, a baby chipmunk, and a couple of hamsters. I needed something hardier that was less likely to break my son's heart. I know the tails creep people out. I'm over it. Go see “Ratatouille.” No, really. You'll thank me.) GK's reaction was pure cat. He sidled up to Brian, who was wearing the dainty and cream-colored Miss Bianca like a parrot, and eyed her. His meaning was clear: “I don't wish to alarm you, but you seem to have some vermin on your shoulder. If you just want to bend down a little, I'll clear up that infestation for you.” Thurber, on the other hand, wagged happily and regarded them with interest. He even put up with Nate giving Miss Olivia, the brave dumbo, a ride on the beagle. (In my defense, I didn't hear about this until after the fact, and made it clear that she wasn't getting a return trip.)
Miss Olivia, who fancies herself quite the alpha, weighs in at about 12 ounces. She liked to charge the 40-pound dog. Thurber, terrified he was going to step on her, would immediately move out of her way, much to her triumph. (I always pictured her crowing, “I win, I win,” in the voice of the lavender kitten – voiced by the fabulous Eartha Kitt – in “The Emperor's New Groove.”)
So, I'm sure you've noticed the past tense, and you know where this is going. I now can open my front door wide and stand there gazing outside for 10 minutes, and no one barrels past me anymore, ears flapping with the delight of running. He died at home, after a brief illness. We had about a week to say good-bye.
I think I'm doing all right, and then I start crying at odd moments. I started up tonight while making chicken soup. (Thurber always was an eager companion in this chore. It's the first time I've ever cleaned a carcass by myself.) Last week, my brother-in-law asked me what to do with steak scraps left over from a cookout, and I stared blankly at him for a moment, before admitting that the subject just hasn't come up in the last 13 or so years. I finally settled on the disposal. If meat fat is likely to clog or wreck it, could someone please let me know?
Our kitchen trash can is actually in the kitchen for the first time in years, instead of safely locked out on the porch. (Thurber viewed it as his nosh pit.) I hate the sight of it, and want it gone.
So in honor of a great-hearted dog, here's a list of books and movies that feature like-minded canines. Dogs that like to escape, although usually for good reason. Dogs that befriend birds and small children (but who cannot be trusted around chicken pies). Happy endings are a must. Don't talk to me about “Sounder,” or “Where the Red Fern Grows” or “Old Yeller.” Yes, they are acknowledged classics of children's lit, and I'm not going to be able to read them again, possibly ever. It's a darned good thing we already saw “Marley and Me,” because that's also on the not-going-there-for-a-while list. Jon Katz writes wonderful books about dogs, but again, there's the crying thing. That said, I liked “Izzy and Lenore” very much.
“Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School,” Mark Teague. That last week, Nate read to him every night, while Thurber rested his head on my knee. This was the first book Nate chose. Toothy, misunderstood chicken-pie connoisseur Ike LaRue had a sense of drama any beagle would appreciate. He also knows how to escape with style.
“The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog,” John Erickson. The head of Ranch Security is “four legs, a tail, a couple of ears, a pretty nice kind of nose that the women really go for, two bushels of hair and another half-bushel of Mexican sandburs.” Whether he's facing off against skunks across his owner's clean laundry or out-singing coyotes, Hank is a legend in his own mind. Unbreakable rule: Anyone reading this book aloud must drawl. The idea is to sound like a combination of Tommy Lee Jones, Clint Eastwood, and Owen Wilson. Only less self-aware.
The Halloweiner, Dav Pilkey. This was the second of Thurber's bedtime stories. It involves a dachshund, a hot dog costume, and a lot of Halloween treats. Candy and hot dogs? A winning combination in my dog's mind. One Easter, he found the candy I'd hidden for my son in the spare-room closet and ate everything except the jelly beans and the crème eggs. (The crème eggs, it turned out, were disgusting, and no one ate them. My dog knew food.) The fact that we didn't lose him then I attribute to his cast-iron stomach and fervent prayer.
“Snoopy Come Home,” Charles Schulz. 'Nuff said. Also, “It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” “It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown,” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Ooh, and the Thanksgiving special where Snoopy makes everybody toast, popcorn, and jelly beans, and nearly gets taken out by a lawn chair. Basically, I'm going to need a lot of Snoopy for a while.
“The Incredible Journey,” Sheila Burnford. Funny, my dog was always heading in the opposite direction....
“The 101 Dalmatians,” Dodie Smith. Forget the live-action Disney movies. (Really. Glenn Close will thank you. She's a fine actress and deserves better. And no one should ever have to wear heels like that.) The book by Dodie Smith may be a little old-fashioned for today's kids, but it still makes me happy. And the original animated movie, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman is 79 minutes of wonderful.
“Lad, a Dog,” Albert Payson Terhune. If all you know about collies is “What's that you say? Timmy is stuck in the well?” try Terhune's wonderful story. It's a classic, and with good reason.
“Feed the Kitty,” Chuck Jones. Bulldog Marc Antony is completely smitten with his tiny black and white kitten, and goes to great lengths to hide her from his owner, who told him he couldn't bring “one more thing” into her house. Cleo likes to fall asleep by kneading her claws into poor Marc Antony's back until she's comfy, which always reminds me of GK and Thurber. How great is this animated short? In “Monsters, Inc.,” there's what I would bet is almost a shot-for-shot homage. Check out the scene where Sulley thinks Boo has been crushed by the trash compactor, and then watch “Feed the Kitty,” where Marc Antony, who has hidden his beloved in the flour, believes she's been turned into cookies.
“My Dog Skip,” Willie Morris. Either the memoir or the very fine movie starring Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane, and Frankie Muniz. I won't be joining you for the movie, but I remember both fondly. (For feline lovers, Morris was an equal-opportunity pet owner. “My Cat Spit McGee” is also well worth your time.)
“The Dog That Bit People,” James Thurber. Because it's hysterical, and because it's necessary.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
My son recently emerged shaken from an encounter with one of the scariest classics of children's literature. No, not the collected works of Mr. Stine. I refer to the rhyming environmental apocalypse that is “The Lorax.”
You remember the Lorax? He speaks for the trees. Also the brown Bar-ba-loots, in their Bar-ba-loot suits. (Say it with me. It's fun.) But despite the little guy's best efforts, the greedy Once-ler just keeps turning Truffula trees into ugly double-knitted Thneeds.
“I thought Dr. Seuss books were supposed to be happy,” Nate said, wide-eyed and a little tearstained after his cousin screened the 1972 animated short for him. “She kept telling me I needed to relax,” he told me. “But I couldn't bear to watch everything being destroyed by the Once-ler. He's an old crook.”
I remember sitting in an elementary classroom with similar feelings, hoping that the film would break while there were still a few candy-colored Truffulas left.
We've dabbled in Seuss, but that particular book never made the bedtime reading list. For one, he's all about “The Lightning Thief” and “Dragon Slayer's Academy” and for another, I prefer that our time together not be punctuated with outraged protests. Also, as I explained to him, “The Lorax” isn't purely a story. The fable is a powerful piece of propaganda. (I'm not exactly opposed to trees or clean water, so I'm fine with its message.) Not for nothing did Ted Geisel work in advertising before he created “The Cat in the Hat.”
I know at least one child who became a vegetarian after seeing “Babe,” and I'm betting many of today's environmentalists started out as second-graders determined to bring back the Lorax. The recipe, if you'll recall, is simple: “Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water and feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax, and all of his friends, may come back.” How effective is “The Lorax”? I haven't read the book in more than 25 years, and I didn't need to look up that quote.
So, I was a little skeptical when Universal announced yesterday that it is making a new version of “The Lorax,” for release in 2012. At just 22 minutes, it's rough going for the second-grade set. How are they going to stretch it out to two hours? Lots of close ups of axes on trees? A lingering pan to the line of Humming Fish drearily trudging away? (And will the controversial Lake Eerie line that Seuss cut from the book but kept in the DVD make it into the new version?) For sure, there will be plenty of slapstick and some potty humor to soften the uncompromising message, but at bottom, it's not really a heartwarming comedy. Will the Once-ler become a Johnny Appleseed-type convert, sowing Truffula seeds the length of the Street of the Lifted Lorax?
All I have to say is: They'd better not mess with the ending.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
In other words, I never really got the whole “Gossip Girl” or “Blue Bloods” ethos. Nothing wrong with a little wish-fulfillment in your reading – after all, what are books if not escapes? But if shopaholic reading material is feeling a little shopworn, lo, these many months into the recession, here are some great heroines whose closets were also a little lacking in the Prada department.
1.“I Capture the Castle,” by Dodie Smith. Cassandra's dad is a genius who has had writer's block so long that the family is mired in eccentric English poverty. This means they get a picturesque, leaky castle to live in, but little food. I didn't find this book until I was grown-up, but lordy, is it a good one. Please hand it to as many bookish teens as possible.
2.“Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott. OK, this one's a gimme, but I'll take any excuse to hang out with the March sisters. (Bonus points: “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” also by Alcott. Poor country girl helps her rich friends adjust to life after their dad loses everything in a business crash. Perhaps she could teach seminars.)
3.“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee. Tomboy grows up in the Great Depression with possibly the world's most perfect dad.
4.“Little Heathens,” Mildred Armstrong Kalish. This terrific memoir is not technically a young adult book, but my son had to listen to it as my mom and I read it out loud to each other on a road trip, so on the list it goes. Kalish's memories of growing up just about destitute on an Iowa farm under the care of her strict grandparents is full of life and free of self-pity. Plus, there are recipes for homemade marshmallows.
5.“Where the Lilies Bloom,” Bill and Vera Cleaver. After her daddy dies, 14-year-old Mary Call tries to keep her siblings together and her “cloudy-headed” big sister out of the clutches of their landlord. The North Carolina girl finds money by heading up into the mountains and harvesting medicinal plants. No matter how hard the recession has been, the Calls had it worse.
6.“Homecoming,” Cynthia Voigt. Another teenager trying to keep her family together – this time in the 1970s. Thirteen-year-old Dicey's mom abandons her kids in a mall parking lot, and Dicey has to get them to their great-aunt's house in Bridgeport, Conn., with only $7 and a few sack lunches. Voigt won a Newbery for the sequel, “Dicey's Song.”
7.“The Hunger Games,” Suzanne Collins. There are no hard times like post-Apocalyptic hard times. Katniss Everdeen, a sci-fi descendant of Mary Call, uses her woodscraft and hunting skills to keep her mother and sister alive in the poorest remnant of what used to be the United States. Then her sister gets chosen for a “Running Man” style reality show, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. The sequel comes out in September. I can't wait.
For younger readers:
8. “All of a Kind Family” series, Sydney Taylor. These charming books follow the story of five sisters living in New York's Lower East Side during the turn of the 20th century. The family doesn't have much money, but Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie seem never to have heard of the disease of boredom. To this day, I can't dust a room without thinking about their mama's game involving buttons and pennies (and wishing someone would liven up the chore for me). Only three are still in print, but I remember lugging home more than that from the library.
9. “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” Mildred Taylor. This Newbery-winning story follows one harrowing year in the Logan family, as 10-year-old Cassie's family struggles to hold onto their land during the Great Depression in Mississippi.
10 a. “The Little House” books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Life with Ma and Pa and Half-pint wasn't exactly brimming with creature comforts, but I sure wanted to give pioneer living a try as a third-grader.
10 b.For a multicultural twist with a literary pedigree, try Louise Erdrich's native American answer to Wilder's much-read series, “The Birchbark House.”
11. “Ramona and her Father,” Beverly Cleary won a Newbery Honor in 1978 for this entry in the Ramona series. Ramona's dad loses his job and the family has to scramble to keep afloat (Ramona's dreams of winning a contest, notwithstanding). I can still remember poor, hungry Ramona, stuck in the neighbors' living room when her family is late to pick her up one evening, realizing that there wouldn't be an extra pork chop for her.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
In honor of the movie, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” The Christian Science Monitor hauled out my old review of Book 6 over the weekend. After Book 3, these became exercises in speed-reading and sleep-deprivation. (I don't write for the NYT, so we didn't rate a review copy.) The basic drill was simple: Pick up a copy at a midnight party, read all night, and then write like crazy. Amazingly, the books are still enjoyable even when consumed in this manner, unlike a whole lot of college reading.
So, I don't tend to look back on my Harry Potter reviews and think, “Wow, I really nailed that one.” (Actually, I don't tend to go over old reviews period – too many new books out there beckoning, siren-like.) But one of my sleep-deprived asides seems to have struck a chord with a few commenters, who don't feel I gave C.S. Lewis his due.
Here's the thing: Growing up, I loved “The Chronicles of Narnia.” To this day, all I have to do is say, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and I get a similar feeling of peace as the magic words, “The Wind in the Willows” or “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But as a fourth-grader reading “The Last Battle,” I was absolutely aghast when I realized that Susan didn't get to come back to Narnia. (It may be the only instance when my reaction to hearing that someone didn't die in an accident is shocked horror.) As I kept reading, I was aghast for other reasons: What do you mean you're packing up Narnia and shutting the place down? But what if I finally make it to England and get a chance to go through all the cupboards? (I held on to my dreams a little longer than most kids.)
Now some people have argued that Susan never had the character Lucy did, and was just a vain, shallow creature who didn't deserve any magical adventures. But take Eustace Scrubb, whom Lewis introduced in “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” as “There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Or Edmund, who sold out his family for candy that didn't even have chocolate as an ingredient? They were transformed into heroes by their experiences in Narnia. Why didn't Susan rate a similar makeover, my inner fourth-grader howls. (My inner fourth-grader is all about injustice.) Lots of teenage girls get silly about looks and makeup – usually they grow out of it. Doesn't she even get a chance?
And what about the events of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”? Susan and Lucy were both witnesses to Aslan's sacrifice and resurrection. Wouldn't that experience have unalterably changed Susan? (I still say yes, for the record.) To say nothing of ruling in Narnia for all those years (although granted, she wasn't always the wisest of rulers. See “The Horse and His Boy.”) And besides, Lewis promised: “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”