What a unique writer Susan Orlean is. I was thinking about her writing, and I came cross this description of it in a review of her breakout book, “The Orchid Thief.” She was already well-known for her pieces in the New Yorker (another fine writer’s career, launched by that magazine) when “The Orchid Thief” came out. The New York Times reviewer characterized her style well: A piece by Susan Orlean “would be stylishly written, whimsical yet sophisticated, quirkily detailed and full of empathy for a person you might not have thought about empathetically before — might not have thought about at all.”
The subject of “The Orchid Thief” is John Laroche, a man who, along with two Seminole Indian assistants, was caught red-handed emerging from a Florida plant and wildlife preserve with 200 species of rare orchids. He was planning to clone them for sale to orchid collectors. You know those small, quirky, weird articles in the paper that catch your eye? Orlean read a short newspaper piece about Laroche, and a best-selling book was born.
Orlean decided to hang out with Laroche while he awaited his trial, and she was plunged into the world of orchid collectors, which like most worlds of collectors, is pretty weird (ask me about book collectors sometime). Collecting is a passion for one particular thing – orchids, teapots, books – and once you are infected it’s almost like withdrawal to be released from its grip
Those who keep up with such things know that “The Orchid Thief” was made into a movie called “Adaptation,” starring Meryl Streep, Nicholas Cage and Chris Cooper. Not as good as the book, in my humble opinion.
Let’s move on to great dog books.
One thing that struck me in considering this list is how many of these books I read as a child. Which is not to say that they are children’s books – it’s just that children have such a powerful connection with dogs, any book about them will really go to the heart of that relationship.
The man who put the dog book front and center was Jack London. His two dog books, “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” are simply unforgettable.
“The Call of the Wild” was based on London’s experiences in the Klondike during the gold rush. Sled dogs were part and parcel of human survival in a very tough place.
It’s the story of Buck, a St. Bernard/Scotch Collie who through happenstance is moved from a comfortable life on a California ranch to the exceedingly tough life of an Alaskan sled dog. Buck is brutalized – compassion, though it exists, is the exception in this book – and Buck eventually reverts to the life of a wolf in the wild.
London was a troubled guy, and a lot of “Call of the Wild” is informed by his belief system that was fueled by the philosopher Nietzsche and the “survival of the fittest” concept prevalent in Darwinism. Buck is anthropomorphized, given human traits. London wasn’t the first author to do this – think of Aesop’s fables – but he certainly made this kind of animal fiction popular. “Call of the Wild,” published in a1903, has never been out of print.
When I was a kid I hated this book because of the cruel treatment dished out to Buck. It is a book that is often recommended for school reading lists, but it’s not a rosy view of the world – it is unrelenting in its depiction of the brutalities both humanity and nature can inflict on animals. “White Fang,” published in 1906, is a kind of companion book, recounting a wolf-dog’s journey from the wild life to domestication. He has at least as hard a time as Buck – another tough book, though with a happy ending.
Moving forward, I want to talk about a couple of books that were turned into either TV shows or movies that pretty much defined life for us Baby Boomers when we were kids.
The first was “Lassie Come Home” By Eric Knight. In this 1940 heartbreaker, a Yorkshire family is forced to sell their beloved pet, the collie Lassie, because of hard times. The new owner, a wealthy duke, takes her to Scotland. He is not a nice guy. Lassie escapes and walks hundreds of miles through all kinds of bad weather, mishaps and adventures, until she returns to her beloved family.
Parenthetically – the daughter of the duke, who helps arrange Lassie’s escape, was played by a young Elizabeth Taylor! After several “Lassie” movies, the “Lassie” concept turned into the iconic television show of the 1950s. Can you still hear Timmy calling to Lassie? Lassssssie? Lasssssssie! I can. Pal, the real collie dog actor who played Lassie both in the movies and in the pilots of the TV shows, probably deserves his own book.
This book demonstrated the love and loyalty dogs show to their masters, as did another classic, the 1956 book “Old Yeller” by Fred Gipson. In this book (and in the movie) a yellow stray becomes incredibly attached to a ranch family, saving them on several occasions. Then Old Yeller gets rabies while defending the family from a rabid wolf. You know how this came out, if you saw the Disney version of the movie – millions of Baby Boomers were in tears over what happened next. This movie was such a seminal event in the lives of BBs, there’s tremendous affection for it – the film criticism web site Rotten Tomatoes gives it a rating of 100 percent.
Two more recent books helped fuel the mania for dog books and more dog books. I would like to briefly mention two: “Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog” by John Grogan, and “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein.
“Marley and Me” is of course about a completely rambunctious and largely uncontrollable Yellow Lab with a heart of gold. It tells the story of Marley’s adjustment (of sorts) to his family, and vice versa, and the way the dog’s devotion sustained Grogan and his wife through the raising of their children and beyond. I laughed when I read the New York Times review of this book:
“It’s a book with intense but narrow appeal, strictly limited to anyone who has ever had, known or wanted a dog.” A masterpiece of understatement – that’s a lot of people! “Marley and Me” sold 2.5 million copies in its first two years of publication.
Finally, let me recommend “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” a tremendously sweet and affecting story by Seattle author Garth Stein. This book is narrated by Enzo, another Yellow Lab, who keeps a weather and caring eye on his master. Enzo, another dog with the soul of a philosopher and a heart of gold, has educated himself about human nature by watching TV. He labors mightily to protect his master, Denny, from heartbreak. This is another one of those not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house books. Dogs have a way of getting to people. This book remains on the best-seller lists, five years after its publication.