Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wild Things Tamed and Free

I love a very particular genre of book, true accounts of a foundling or injured animal that becomes, for a time, a pet in the house. There are, of course, the Gerald Durrell books (My Family and Other Animals, and many others) but I can't really recommend then because for some reason, as animal-crazy as I was growing up (and am, now) I never got into those. But I adored William Service's Owl: The Size of a Beer Can, The Personality of a Bank President which is hysterical and sweet by turns. I particularly remember Owl doing a little dance of frustration around a glass jar with a garter snake in it, and the author's wife opening a cupboard to get something out and discovering Owl among the coffee mugs.

And Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water about life with an otter Maxwell brought back from Iraq and raised in Scotland. My obsession with the wild-creature-as-temporary-houseguest got to the point where I could not pass up any I found in used bookstores, so we have one from the 1920s about The Sprite, who was a pet fox. It wil require a trip to the attic to refresh my memory about the rest. I know they're more, and they're in the category of books that will fit into the slightly rickety painted bookcase I plan to have in the summer house by a lake I am always happily furnishing in my imagination (and where it will likely stay).

This book is a special sub-genre of the Wild Thing as Pet motif, where the wild animal insinuates itself into the life of an illustrator and his family, and allows us a glimpse of the artist at work. The author of Martha is one of my favorite artists, ex-patriate Russian Gennady Spirin. The book is the story of how his wife and young son find a wounded crow and nurse it to health. The illustrations are wonderful...this seems to be Moscow in the 1970s, The scenes where they take the crow to the vet are wonderful, and the contrast between the drab winter streets and the wonderful interior of the Spirins' cozy, art-filled apartment, with all the rich colors of a jeweled icon, makes you think Moscow circa 1975 couldn't have been so bad... I love the images of Spirin at his drawing table, and the description of how the crow, Martha, recovers enough to explore the studio.

I also love Bill Peet's older book, Capyboppy, about the pet capybara brought home by their son. I couldn't, alas, find online the wonderful self-portrait of Peet at work with Capyboppy snoozing on the couch.

If anyone knows of other artist-adopting-pet books, I'd love to know about them.

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