Saturday, August 27, 2016

FOLLOWING ATTICUS: a remembrance


Tom Ryan

Although the book has been out for a few years, I felt compelled to write a few words about it given the recent (May) passing of its hero, the miniature schnauzer Atticus M. Finch.

Tom Ryan started his own newspaperpaper in the overly quaint town of Newburyport, MA, stepping on toes as he exposed hypocrisies and petty politics. He also gained a strong and loyal following and was gradually accepted into the community.

When he found Atticus online, through a breeder in the south, he knew the puppy was meant to be with him. The two developed a bond that was unbreakable except, of course, for the ultimate separation. And both man and dog found their mutual passion in hiking the forty-eight high peaks of New Hampshire. The mountains became their spiritual sustenance in the midst of some daunting physical challenges faced by both man and dog. Lyme disease, cataracts, injury, and terrors did not sway these two intrepid adventurers from continuing on their journeys.

Fundraising was the original motivation for Tom when he sought the challenge of hiking the 48 peaks during the winter, twice. They’d already done them once, so why not? The goal was unreasonable, crazy, dangerous, but both man and dog were up to the task. Except when they weren’t…. There were times when Atticus simply looked out the car window then curled up in his seat. Those were the days when Tom turned around and went home. He never forced his companion to go if the little dog wasn’t up to it.

Other times, Tom forced himself to face his fears of the dark, and of heights: two tough obstacles to overcome when hiking:

“Then in the woods to our left, a boomlike crash sounded in the shadows of the tight trees and startled me. I turned to see if it was the witch, all the while knowing it was!
In turning, I lost my footing, and suddenly I was airborne. . . . When the trail made an abrupt turn to the left, I didn’t and instead went sailing through the air, landing in deep, soft snow. Back, head, shoulders, knees, legs, arms. I was in one piece. I lay like that for a while, thinking of the absurdity of being in the woods in the mountains in a pile of powder, gazing up at the bottoms of evergreen trees. 
Atticus caught up, climbed onto my chest, and stood there looking down at me.
In that ludicrous position, with a little dog on my chest, I decided that the time had come to put away the fears of my childhood. It was ridiculous.”

FOLLOWING ATTICUS is a deeply personal, intimate book by a man who was known around town for being a social loner—not at all a contradiction. He could chat with anyone, and as a newspaperman, he was always listening and watching. But he was happiest alone, gazing out over the expanse of New Hampshire from a summit. Alone, that is, except for his constant companion, Atticus M. Finch. May Atticus rest in peace.

Friday, August 26, 2016


Review by Julie Fiorilla

Hardcover, $25.99 (our price $20.79)

Baker & Taylor may be the name of a distribution company, but it’s also the name of two very special cats who captured the hearts of a library, a quickly growing community, and the nation. Jan Louch, a librarian in Carson Valley, Nevada, adopted the cats for the library, thinking they would provide both companionship and mousing. But after the mice disappeared upon the cats’ arrival, their main job became brightening the days of anyone who cared to cross their path and scratch their ears.

The memoir begins when Jan becomes an Assistant Librarian at the Douglas County Public Library after a difficult divorce and moving her family to her parents’ ranch. A lifelong bookworm and animal lover, she couldn’t imagine anything better than combining her two favorite things. Hence, the idea for library cats was born. After making sure the board would approve two literary felines, Jan and her boss, Yvonne, set about finding the perfect pair.

Baker came first. A pure-bred Scottish Fold formerly named “McLean’s Clint Eastwood,” Baker quickly took to the library and its patrons, soaking up all the attention he could muster. He was welcomed warmly by the small community, and the patrons were delighted to be greeted by a gray cat with folded ears who would sit quietly as they buried their hands in his fur and shared their stories with him, both joyous and sad.

Soon after, Baker’s nephew Taylor arrived courtesy of the Baker and Taylor distribution company. He, too, had the classic Scottish-Fold ears and gray coloring, but he had his own unique personality and quirks. Instead of Baker’s mellow charm and bizarre obsession with cantaloupe, Taylor was more reserved and was predisposed to yogurt. Taylor also brought much laughter to the library with his less-than-graceful “sitting-Buddha” pose. 

This charming memoir traces the lives of both Jan and the cats as both the library patronage and the Carson Valley population grew exponentially. As their primary caretaker, Jan also served as their ambassador to the general public, who were quite smitten with the two cats. Soon, though, this responsibility grew into an almost full-time job once the cats became a national sensation after the Baker & Taylor distribution company photographed the cats for a promotional poster. After bribing and begging with the cats during an extended photoshoot, one of the most popular library posters was created.

To get a grasp of just how popular these two (blissfully ignorant) library cats were, between 1990 and 1992, 750,000 shopping bags, 250,000 posters, and 200,000 calendars were given away to librarians who still clamored for more. With this popularity, it was inevitable that fan clubs would emerge, the most active being the Baker and Taylor Fan Club in Ohio that had nine years’ worth of second graders writing letters to Baker and Taylor and receiving missives from the felines themselves (channeled through Jan).

Caring for the cats and dealing with the popularity they brought wasn’t always easy, and Jan describes times when she had to scrape together money with Yvonne in order to pay for their vet bills. And times were quickly changing for librarians, between the advent of computers and new education requirements. But despite the challenges she faced in both her personal and professional life, Jan makes one thing clear throughout the book: she never wavered in her commitment to Baker and Taylor.

The book is interspersed with entertaining interviews of other library cats (from the cats’ perspectives), lyrics from a song penned by the children of the Baker and Taylor Fan Club, and even a note from Carole Nelson Douglas, a prolific author who featured Baker and Taylor in one of her novels. Where the book really shines is in highlighting the particular ways Baker and Taylor changed library patrons’ lives. One particular instance stands out: Mr. Figini, an autistic man who asked about the cats every day and who could often be seen reading a magazine with his hand resting on Baker’s back. After all, as Jan points out, “the cats were the great equalizers.”

This memoir translates what was a national phenomenon into a personal narrative about the two cats who changed one librarian’s life. As many animal lovers know, they usually end up giving us more than we can ever give them. As Jan says,

“Baker and Taylor were great teachers, and in the end, I am grateful to my feline officemates for teaching me several vital life lessons. The first thing they taught me is to be true to yourself. If it’s in your nature to sleep twenty hours a day, go for it, as it was for Baker, then go for it and don’t let anything get in your way…. Next, be the best at what you do. If that happens to be sleeping, then take those paws, put them over your face, and just concentrate…. Lastly, never lose sight of your primary purpose in life. I’m not sure if Baker and Taylor had conscious goals, other than Baker’s ceaseless quest to find the warmest place in the library and Taylor’s desire to personally lick clean every cup of yogurt that crossed his path, but the fact that I never saw them waver in their determination helped me immeasurably in my own life.”

THE TRUE TAILS OF BAKER AND TAYLOR is filled with such life lessons imparted by two unwitting but incredibly lovable felines, who also happened to be among the most famous cats in the country. Their likenesses live on as Baker and Taylor’s ever-popular mascots, but if you want the real story of two cats who changed a librarian’s life and the community around her, don’t miss this great read.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

This Little Piggy: review of ESTHER THE WONDER PIG

Changing the World One Heart at a Time

Steve Jenkins & Derek Walter with Caprice Crane

Hardcover $26.99 (our price $21.60)

She was supposed to be a "mini pig," a species which does not, in fact, exist. But Steve Jenkins was so taken with the thought of having a house pig, he didn't investigate the allegations any further. When he picked her up from a (former) friend, she was "as big as a sneaker," and as adorable as a baby animal could be. He was told she was six months old (she was actually only six weeks old), and that she'd grow to be about seventy pounds (times ten, in fact). 

As it became apparent that Steve and Derek's "little girl" wasn't going to remain so little, and that she was what's termed a "commercial pig," their lives and their home were turned inside out. Esther was brilliant at breaking into anything that might contain something edible. She was reluctant to be house trained, and preferred to cuddle on the bed with her humans, dogs and cats, rather than stay outside. In other words, she became a pet, an animal companion, a non-human cohabitant. And there is nothing whatsoever commercial about her.

The turning point really hit when Steve set up a Facebook page on Esther's behalf, and suddenly the Likes and Shares and Comments grew into the thousands. Fans of Esther popped up everywhere, and each one pledged support for the pig and her suddenly vegan "parents." That support was especially important when the time came, as it was bound to, to move from their 1000-square-foot home to a farm that would allow Esther room to root and become a sanctuary for other rescued farm animals.

ESTHER THE WONDER PIG is written in a casual, funny, light-hearted voice that will produce some audible laughter, and a few cringes (the failed house training is truly cringeworthy). But of course, there is a deeper purpose to the book, and that is that we need to pay attention to the cruelties of factory farming and the importance of considering alternative lifestyles. Commercial or Large White pigs are the most prevalent domestic pig raised specifically for food. They grow large at an accelerated rate and are slaughtered at a young age. On small farms, they are at least given room to root and frolic before meeting their end, but in large commercial farms, their short lives are as miserable and frightening as their deaths. 

Esther's story is another call to end our dependence on factory farm meats and dairy products. Going vegan is one way, but there are other ways to combat the cruelty. A first step is to meet Esther and her compatriots and recognize their intelligence, personality, and right to a safe and humane life.