No one writes like James Herriot...

…except, of course, James Herriot himself, who passed away in 1995. If you're looking for more good animal stories, there are some recent ones out there that you may enjoy reading.

Nick Trout’s Tell Me Where it Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in my Life as an Animal Surgeon will leave you alternately laughing and crying until you begin to wonder if you have lost your mind. (For more on this title see our previous review.)

In a similar vein, you may want to try All My Patients Have Tales: Favorite Stories from a Vet’s Practice, by Jeff Wells. Fresh out of veterinary school, Wells settled in South Dakota where he treated a variety of problems. Several animals were not as cautious as they should have been around porcupines. The quills became embedded in their flesh and were difficult for Wells to remove, causing a great deal of anxiety for both him and his patients. Then he had a male cat with the classic symptoms of pregnancy! If that didn’t make him question his career choice, the pet owners were always advising him on their animals' treatment. They always thought they knew better.

If you like cats, try Dewey: The Small-town Library Cat who Touched the World, by Vicki Myron. It was 1988 and the coldest night of the year in Spencer, Iowa. Dewey was dropped into the book drop of the Spencer Public Library by some unknown miscreant. Iowa has cruel winters and Dewey developed frostbite while trapped in the book drop. He was only four weeks old and his eyes hadn’t opened yet.

Luckily, the next morning he was found by the author who was also the director of the library. Dewey recovered from his ordeal and charmed the patrons and staff of Spencer Public Library. He seemed to sense when one of the patrons needed special attention and went directly to that person to offer comfort. Not surprisingly, Dewey soon became the official mascot of the library.

If you have a soft spot for animals rescued from rather sad conditions, you may want to read Chosen by a Horse: A Memoir, by Susan Richards. Richards went to adopt a horse rescued from an owner who took very poor care of him. When she opened the door of her horse trailer at the adoption center, she was quite surprised to see one of the horses stride into the trailer before she had even had time to blink. That horse was the one who went home with her. Their relationship flourished and became mutually beneficial and nurturing.

Whether you like owls or not, you may enjoy Stacey O’Brien’s Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and his Girl. O’Brien was a student researcher at Caltech when an injured baby owl was brought in. The owl could not be rehabilitated and sent back into the wild again so O’Brien decided to adopt him.

She provides insight into the human-animal bond and many interesting facts about owls. However, if you think the book sounds dry, you may be pleasantly surprised to find yourself wanting to laugh out loud. As Wesley reached sexual maturity he was like a young human teenager who did not know how to handle the changes in his body. Stacey became the object of his affection in a new and different way.

No one writes quite like James Herriot, but perhaps you'll find some good reading here.

Joseph Conrad's "whited sepulchre" in Heart of Darkness may have been Brussels, but mine is a refrigerator. Every time I open it, I journey into a composting culinary darkness that makes me shiver. What evil lurks deep in the dark of forgotten Tupperware? And why don't I throw out the jar of drained artichoke hearts that are about to celebrate their second Christmas? And why do I never remember that ignored produce inevitably turns into a puddle of black goo at the bottom of the crisper drawer?

Before I had children and refrigerators I analyzed Joseph Conrad line by line. Lately I'm just lucky to read more than one page of anything without keeling over in a sleep-deprived heap moistened by my own drool. 

It's the busy mom's dilemma at the end of the chore-filled day: read or sleep. Anything that is going to keep me awake has to be worth the sacrifice of sacred slumber.

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux has been on my "to read" list since the movie came out over twenty years ago and now it's keeping me up at night. I'm only halfway through, but this story of a crazed and driven father dragging his family into the wilds of Honduras to save them from the evils of modern America is a fascinating adventure dense with palpable detail.

While the father and the adolescent son Charlie take center stage, I find myself wondering more about Charlie's mother and the role she plays. If you liked The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (and I still think of those four girls traveling to the Congo with Betty Crocker cake mixes down their pants) then this is a book for you. 

Another fantastic trip into the heart of mothering darkness I've been enjoying is The Passion of the Hausfrau: Motherhood, illuminated by Nicole Chaison. This is laugh-out-loud funny for moms. You WILL get weird looks if you read this on public transportation (especially if you are drinking a beverage that you could possibly end up snorting out your nose.) I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to resist a hero's journey in the form of head lice, home renovation, tantrums, and cat diarrhea.

You will travel with the Hausfrau from "How it Came to Be that I Gave Birth in a Hospital Utility Closet" to "How it Came to Be that I Tried to Squeeze My Enormous Ass into Brazilian Surfing Shorts" to "How it Came to Be that I was Bitch-Slapped by the Parenting Gods in the Seasonal Aisle of CVS."

The book has illustrations on nearly every page, which helped to nurture my personal delusions that I am a fast and efficient reader. And it promises to be "the most fun you'll ever have with an illuminated manuscript." Who can resist?

And is it just me, or does anyone else find literary irony in spoiled sour cream?

One of the features of the library catalog I love most is when it tries to re-spell whatever it is I've just typed. The greatest potential substitution I've had yet came recently when I tried to type "Scooby Doo" without a hyphen. 

"Did you mean Scabby Doom?"

Ah, Scabby Doom. 

Scabby Doom can be leaving your freshly packed lunch on the table near the door. Again. 

Scabby Doom can be waiting for a bus in a cold rain with no hot coffee because you forgot to set it the night before. 

But real Scabby Doom, I've decided, is that adrift-on-an-iceberg feeling I get when I don't have a promising stack of books waiting to be opened. It's that "nothing good to read" feeling, something so ridiculous to contemplate in my line of work that when it happens I feel I must be in an alternate universe. Water water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.

I was recently treading water in this book-less sea looking for something to occupy my commute when a hold I had forgotten about crashed ashore. Children of the Sea by Daisuke Igarashi is exactly the kind of imaginative and atmospheric manga I look for and rarely find. The story and pictures combine a detailed realism with an element of fantasy that is compelling.

Ruka is a troubled girl from a broken home stuck hanging around the aquarium where her father works. Umi and Sora are strange siblings raised by dugongs with an otherworldly affinity for the ocean. The drawings of the sea and its creatures are striking; whale sharks and beached oarfishes are particularly memorable. 

Japanese culture meets an urban legend from Fisherman's Wharf?

Feral and occasionally luminescent manatee children?

A mystery of disappearing fish involving the world's aquariums?

Scabby Doom be gone! 

(Now if only I could get rid of Scooby-Doo, too. These are the animated perils of living with children who have not been raised by manatees.)

Has the library catalog given you any fantastic or semi-hilarious substitutions? Post a comment!

So I returned from my road trip to discover that I took a total of nine pictures.

I'm a lousy photographer and even worse at remembering to take pictures in the first place. As a consequence I have almost nothing to show for those sixteen epic hours at Disneyland, an ill-timed visit to a jellybean factory, or the frosted tragedy of a dropped birthday cake. No evidence of the hobo spider bite I got hours before leaving for California or the I'm-really-going-to-die-this-time feeling I always get on the freeways of Los Angeles when surrounded by speeding tanker trucks carrying flammable materials. No proof of the fantastic five-foot hole my nephew dug in the sand at Newport Beach which functioned as a novel working playpen for Child the Younger.

It's probably better that way.

I don't know about you, but the pictures I take are never the ones I wish I could take. They never quite sync up with the memories I have of the event they supposedly record and the effect is one of a poorly dubbed foreign film. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the idea of scrapbooking my photos into organized and themed albums makes me break out in hives. (If there were stickers to commemorate spider attacks or page borders to mimic the sounds that two bored children make in an enclosed space I might reconsider the hobby.)

I much prefer other people's pictures.

Two books of photographs I have been unable to put down are  American Photobooth  by Nakki Goranin and Suburban World: the Norling Photos by Brad Zellar. 

American Photobooth's introduction is the fascinating history of the photo booth and the people who invented, perfected, and championed it in its variety of forms. Photo booth pictures of Andy Warhol and honeymooning John and Jackie Kennedy are included. But the real draw of the book is the collection of plates: random finds of nameless Americans in all their creased, scuffed, stained, and noted glory.

Suburban World features the photographs of Irwin Denison Norling, a policeman who seemed to record the ordinary and extraordinary with equal and unblinking fervor. Black and white pictures of smiling girl scouts selling cookies and family suppers share the book with images of horrific car accidents and murder-suicide scenes. Gravely injured and presumably dead people are sometimes, but not always, visible. The pictures are simultaneously and paradoxically revealing yet inscrutable.

And then there is the book of pictures I just had to buy. 

Our True Intent is All for your Delight: the John Hinde Butlin's Photographs is a collection of amazing postcards from Butlin's Holiday Camps in Britain. These camps were conceived as a 'social revolution': affordable holiday destinations for the working classes visited by some 10 million people.

The carefully staged photographs feature restaurants, swimming pools, lakes, ballrooms, bars, and playgrounds of the 1960s and 1970s complete with all of the hideous themed décor, bad hair and unfortunate fashions mandated by those times. Throw in a giant fiberglass rooster or the guests snorkeling in a glass-walled aquarium and I'll bet you'll want your own copy, too. In the words of Martin Parr's introduction, the pictures "show an idealised view of the world and, after the passage of time, acquire the power of a lost dream."

Idealized worlds and lost dreams. Indeed. A vacation in five words.

As Americans we demand choices. Choice equals happiness.

Or does it?

I have an un-American confession: sometimes I'm sick to death of choosing. That secret forced-to-wear-a-uniform-to-school envy I harbored as an ordinary public school kid washes over me once again. I want the choice made for me. Or no choice at all. It's just easier that way.

My happiest summer vacations at a kid were spent stuck at cousins' houses in rural parts of Washington and New Mexico. There was no roster of camps, lessons, or play dates. The only scheduled activity was go play. We poked at anthills with sticks, picked blackberries until we were covered in blood and juice, read the same two ratty books over and over because they were the only books lying around. There was nothin' to do and it was pretty rockin' great.

I can make a great argument for single-payer health care, but I'm more likely to sound off about the drinks in the vending machine at work (twenty-eight varieties of sugar water but not a single root beer.) Recently I started whittling the choices I offer to Child the Elder. Hungry? Here's the one thing you can eat right now. Time to read a book before bed? Mommy's voice means Mommy's choice. He complains, sure, but secretly I think he's pleased with this totalitarian turn of events.

Summer is when I give myself a break and go back to the things I want to read repeatedly. Most people in high school are forced to read both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Shirley Jackson. They either become English majors or they run the other way, screaming, into their sensible adult lives and never discover both authors have written hilarious tears-will-leak-out-your-eyes memoirs about raising children.

Shirley Jackson's Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages are her fabulously funny accounts of surviving life with four children as a professor's wife in the 1950s. She is a woman who treats hospital childbirth as a well-deserved vacation and flips a coin with her husband to decide who will talk to the detested teacher during Parent's Visiting Week. She is a one-woman taxi service minus modern car seats and has sarcastic conversations with clueless college students:

"Certainly," I said. "My only desire was to be a faculty wife. I used to sit at my casement window, half embroidering, half dreaming, and long for Professor Right."

"I suppose," she said, "that you are better off than you would have been. Not married at all or anything."

"I was a penniless governess in a big house," I said. "I was ready to take anything that moved."

"And of course you do make a nice home for your husband. Someplace to come back to, and everything so neat."

"My spinning lacks finesse," I said. "But I yield to no one on my stone-ground meal."

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny is a personal diary extract and will show you a side of Hawthorne you never dreamed existed. Think of the guy who wrote the Scarlet Letter. Now think of that same guy stuck at home taking care of a spirited five-year-old while his wife is away. He is alone and this is his debut as a single parent. In Hawthorne's experience this includes application of curling tongs to the tot's hair with predictably poor results and encouraging the boy to, um, evacuate his bodily waste on the property of the neighboring Shakers. Hawthorne didn't like the Shakers. 

Lucky for us, they wrote all of this down. Jackson and Hawthorne both knew the value of a good haunting but probably never intended to haunt me with their quirky parenting. Now they can haunt you, too.

Go play. And don't come back until I call you for dinner.

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