Monday, March 08, 2010

I haven't added to this blog in a long time, but some books have stuck in my head for months after I read them, which seems like true proof that they are worth blogging.

I can only remember three books in my life that made me cry. They are William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Albert Camus' Les Justes, and Ted Kerasote's Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog. The last is the only one in twenty years to make me cry, but the story of the life and death of Merle the dog and the depth of his relationship with Ted, hit my emotions in the same way as the life and death and love of Romeo and Juliet (or Yanek and Dora) had done in high school. I've read a lot of memoirs focusing on people-animal relationships, but this one truly stands out. Rather than just reminding me of the best relationships I've had with animals, the book made me feel like I was missing something by never having known this particular dog, and it also made it clear that dogs (at least some of them) have a lot of potential that their human owners don't allow them to live up to -- even though with the best of intentions to protect the dog's own safety. Ted had the good fortune to live in a relatively rural area, where adding a dog door could allow Merle to truly make his own decisions about where and when to be in any one place, what people to go visit, etc., making Merle "a responsible individual rather than a submissive pet," in the words of the Publishers Weekly review. While many dog owners would find this an uncomfortable situation because they have to rely on the dog's desire to come home and ability to avoid accidents, Ted seems to have been able to trust that Merle, who chose Ted as the one he wanted to stay with rather than the other way around, would continue loving him and always want to be with him, despite Merle's deep friendships with nearly every other person in the area.

The book also contains references to a lot of scientific work about dogs and other animals which back up the ideas about their abilities being greater than humans often realize, and at least one Amazon reviewer considered this to be a liability, but I think it's woven into the story very well; it did not seem at all intrusive, even though the real-life events made much a deeper impression on me. Merle was lucky to come across Ted Kerasote (and made a good choice in going home with him), but the rest of us are lucky that the person Merle chose to make his life with was also someone talented enough to tell the story so movingly.

On a very different note is Sandra Kalniete's With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows (translated by Margita Gailitis) -- this book didn't make me cry but it kept me up at night. Kalniete's family were from Latvia, which was at the time of her birth a part of the Soviet Union. However, she was born in Siberia because both her parents' families had been moved there by the Soviet government; the title comes from the lack of supplies available to the deportees in the small towns where they were essentially dumped, far from home with no preparation for the very different conditions they had to live under. I read Esther Hautzig's The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia years ago in elementary school, which tells the story of a similar Soviet deportation (Hautzig's family were Polish Jews sent to Siberia), so the fact that the Soviet Union did this was not new to me. But Kalniete's book seems more aimed at adults, first because she has to rely on her older family's stories of how things happened before her birth and when she was just a baby, and also because we know a little more, just from the book jacket, of Kalniete's adult achievements. Hautzig's story, on the other hand, is often given to younger readers because it's her own memory of her life from ages ten to fourteen, without mention of her adult self. But both books had the same effect on me that one of the Amazon reviewers says that Endless Steppe had on her: pondering how I would cope in that situation, what would I have thrown in a suitcase on short notice, could I have even gotten through what these people survived? These are the sort of questions a lot of people living comfortably in developed nations ought to think about at least once in a while.