16 July 2007

Jon Katz on people and other animals

When we began coming to the little lake cabin called Sidetrack a decade ago, Nancy and I got library cards at the Amery, Wisconsin public library.

Amery, 16 miles mostly south of Sidetrack, is about three times the size of Lake Wobegon and has a great public library. The library is well-supported by its public and run by people who love reading. There are always great new books inside the front door, and the rest of the place is packed to the rafters with books. Every window in the building has become the frame for added bookshelves. And the librarians are gracious enough to offer library cards to us summer people.

We got into the habit of stopping in Amery Fridays for groceries, pop, beer, and books on our way to Sidetrack. On Sunday, our ride home included a stop in the library parking lot to drop books into the return slot.

It's mid-July and only my second trip to Sidetrack this summer, but I remembered to stop for a book in Amery.

What I found was Jon Katz's latest book, Dog Days, Dispatches from Bedlam Farm. I enjoyed a couple of Katz's mysteries long ago, and I really liked his "middle age crisis" account of buying a mountain top retreat, Running to the Mountain. Since then, it seems, he's been writing mostly about his dogs.

Katz is a keen observer and a good story teller. He's also worked hard at learning how to have good relationships with his dogs and other critters.

He has left his mountian retreat for a farm in upstate New York. He makes a living writing and teaching. I can't figure out how he has time. Bedlam Farm is home to named animals, like his dogs, donkeys, and cows. The farm is also home to numbered livestock, the sheep. Katz is also overseeing the restoration of the old house and barns on the farm.

I liked Katz's stories, but I liked his stories about people better than his stories about animals. His stories about Rose and Izzy the border collies are a close second to those about "grunt and grumble" sessions, Annie, the goddess of Bedlam Farm, Adelaide, and the "Quiet Group." The people stories reminded me of what I liked best about Running to the Mountain.

Unlike Chip and Jon Katz, I'm not an animal person. I can't imagine wanting to expend the effort and emotional energy to maintain and tend the animals on Bedlam Farm that Katz describes as normal. There aren't many people I can imagine who would ungrudgingly get that kind of effort and attention from me. (Luckily, I can think of several people who fit into that category.) So most of the animal stories left me shaking my head and unable to understand the rewards of scratcing donkey noses, being licked awake by a large smelly dog, or mucking out a barn after a rainy spell.

If you're an "animal person," you'll probably like these stories a lot. And if, like me, you're not an "animal person," you might still like this book. The people stories are great. Give it a shot. The book is brand new, but even the Amery library has a copy.

Tell us what you think of the book. (See the "comment" link below? That's what you click on in order to add your comments to mine.)

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