Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Fierce and Gentle Heroine: review of THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE: A War Story

Diane Ackerman
$15.95 (our price $12.76) paperback

I first read an essay by Diane Ackerman in The New Yorker in 1988 titled simply “Bats.” Her humor, empathy, research, and unique turn of phrase led me to find other works by her, all of which I’ve read with relish. Her work never disappoints, bringing a warmth and style that just cannot be imitated or duplicated. She has a scientist’s eye for detail and a poet’s ear for phrasing. Her descriptions of the German invasion of Poland in The Zookeeper’s Wife, are poignant and memorable, bringing the crumbling buildings and hollow-eyed inhabitants to vivid life. Each animal, each person, has his or her own story to be told, and their narratives are displayed in full color. The movie based on this book will, I hope, bring an even larger audience to Ackerman’s works.

Ackerman relied on Antonina Zabinski’s own writings as well as diaries and interviews of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, to tell the story of the Warsaw Zoo and its role as a haven for “Guests” who were escaping Nazi brutality. She addresses the important and controversial issue of the Nazi’s fascination with eugenics and their somewhat bizarre determination to preserve “pure” species of some animals. As in Elizabeth Letts’ The Perfect Horse, we witness both the horrific brutality of the regime and their strange protection of (at least some) animals.

Antonina and Jan Zabinski were ardent animal lovers, whose care for the most exotic as well as the more mundane of their creatures made the destruction of the zoo that much more heartbreaking. But rather than give up or escape with their young son, they chose to stay and risk their lives to save as many Jews as they could, hiding some in the empty cages, where secret passageways connected to the villa so that food could be smuggled in to them, and playing elaborate schemes to keep the Germans off track. Each Guest was given a new name, sometimes harking back to the zoo’s original purpose; thus an artist who particularly loved birds was renamed Starling. Sometimes the names were just intentionally Christian. The change of names was just one more dent in the Jewish identities, but was a necessary and at times life-saving practice. The animals, too, were all named. A hamster named Piotr (Peter), for instance, became the close companion to one guest, Maurycy Fraenkel, called Pawel (Paul). Such friendships brought some levity into a dark time:

“After supper each evening Maurycy turned Piotr loose on the table’s polished mesa, where the hamster skittered from plate to plate, whisking up crumbs until his fat cheeks dragged. Then Maurycy would gather him up in one hand and carry him back to his cage. .  .  . the pair became inseparable, and villa-mates began referring to Pawel and Piotr collectively as ‘the Hamsters.’”

Jan Zabinksi left each day to a job that provided adequate cover for him to extract more people from the Ghetto and to distribute food to the starving. Each day Antonina cared for the hiding Guests, her young son, and the few animals they managed to save. “[She] was a housewife,” Jan is quoted as saying. “[S]he wasn’t involved in politics or war and was timid, and yet despite that she played a major role in saving others and never once complained about the danger.” It was her intense understanding of animals, he believed, that gave her the strength to stand up to mortal danger. “[F]rom time to time she seemed to shed her own human traits and become a panther or a hyena. Then, able to adopt their fighting instinct, she arose as a fearless defender of her kind.”

In the course of the war, Antonina became pregnant and was bedridden, and yet still managed to protect those in her care. When her baby was born, her fierce protectiveness was all the more in evidence. She was gentle, soft-spoken, always questioning herself, and yet she never faltered, no matter how terrified, when standing up to the enemy.

The ever-present vigilance required to stay alive was exhausting. Most of those that did survive, did not live to a ripe old age. Four years of war scraped twenty years or more off their life spans. Consequently, we are seeing now the last of the witnesses leave us, and soon will have to rely on accounts such as this one to remember the mass psychosis of the Nazi era. Without knowing the history as intimately as possible, we will always face the possibility of another insane ideology taking root.

This account of true and honest heroism is uplifting and inspiring, but also a grim reminder of how the world can turn tipsy below our feet under the right—or wrong— circumstances. Can we afford to cater to leaders who are ignorant or dismissive of this history? Antonina Zabinski would most certainly shudder at the thought.

Friday, March 17, 2017

HUGE!—Review of GIZELLE'S BUCKET LIST, Lauren Fern Watt

Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog

Lauren Fern Watt
$24.99 (our price $19.99)

     OK, get out the tissues. Memoirs of loving and losing a special companion are tear-inducing, of course, and Lauren Fern Watt’s tale of her English Mastiff’s rich but short life is right up there with Marley & Me in that regard. But there is a lot of laughter, too, and a great deal of empathy for this young woman’s foray into adulthood, with all of its awful pitfalls. She was fortunate to have an enormous companion by her side during those dicey days sliding from teens to twenties, and from school to the workplace.

     As a puppy, Gizelle (named after Princess Giselle in Enchanted) was obviously bound for greatness, with paws the size of baseball gloves, but just how large she grew was still awe inspiring. And like the Great Dane in The Ugly Dachshund, Gizelle seemed oblivious to her giant size:

She was our resident bulldozer, spilling coffee and knocking over frames with her tail. And if my sister and I were snuggled on the small two-person love seat in the living room watching a movie, Gizelle was blind to the fact there wasn’t space for her, too. She would always make room for herself, stealthily placing one paw up and then another paw, then a graceful launch of 160-something pounds of her and finally a dainty landing into our laps. . . . She wore a smile, her mouth open as she panted, as if she thought: They do not even know I am here.

     Lauren Watt was brought up in a suburb of Nashville, in a family that was constantly sidelined by her mother’s addiction to drugs and alcohol. Growing up with an addict kept Lauren on edge, never sure what to expect. But it was her mother’s love of dogs combined with her impulsive nature, even when sober, that resulted in Lauren finding Gizelle. With two dogs already in the household, Lauren chose to lie to her father about the sudden appearance of a robust puppy. She told him the puppy was a lab mix and just a foster, not a permanent addition. “Is it me, or is she growing kind of fast?” he asked, but accepted his daughter’s word. Of course, he discovers the truth, but by then he had witnessed the bond between his daughter and the rapidly growing pup, and after a mild scolding, agreed to help take care of Gizelle while Lauren was in college.

     Taking care of Lauren’s mother, however, proved too much for everyone. Rehab never seemed to hold for long. Briefly, the mother she loved would return and life would seem perfect. But before long, the addiction took hold. And returning home from college, Lauren again found her mother undone. It seemed to be a last straw for her. She packed up Gizelle and left Nashville, determined to find her way someplace grittier, livelier, and more cosmopolitan, and away from the constant tension of home. She moved to Manhattan.

     Just as Giselle, the princess in Enchanted, pranced through Central Park, so it seems fitting that her canine doppelganger should also romp through the City. But Gizelle the 180-pound muscle-bound creature, who startled pedestrians and drew repeatedly ridiculous comments (that’s a T-rex, not a dog!) was frightened of the city noises, and cowered every time she heard a horn or saw even something as innocuous as a balloon on the sidewalk. And the only apartment Lauren was able to find that could house a super-size dog and not cost a small fortune was right smack in Times Square. Thus, she nicknamed their new home Times Scare, and struggled to find her own footing while reassuring her intimidated dog that nothing would hurt her. (Managing the bathroom habits of a giant dog in a city was equally challenging and particularly humorous.) Gradually, both Lauren and Gizelle learned to love the City. New friends are made, good jobs are found. So long as Lauren ignores her slowly dissolving home in Tennessee, she can keep moving forward, a mastiff by her side. When Gizelle begins to limp, Lauren can no longer hold panic at bay.

     You know the fairy tale has to end, but it is heartening to read of the author’s personal growth as she devotes her life to making Gizelle’s diminishing days as good as they can be, writing the bucket list of things she feels Gizelle would enjoy: trips to New Hampshire and Maine to jump in leaves, walk in sand, eat ice cream, and watch the snow fall on the beach. Gizelle seems to love all of the activities Lauren plans, but most of all, Gizelle simply loves being with her human companion. It’s through Gizelle that Lauren herself learns about forgiveness and empathy.

     So yes, keep the tissue box handy, but as the items in Gizelle’s bucket list are ticked off, you will find yourself inspired and humbled by Lauren’s devotion and Gizelle’s courage. We all generally outlive our animal companions. If they manage to teach us something before they go, that is cause for celebration, not sorrow.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

To Forgive, Canine: review of ALWAYS BY MY SIDE, by Edward Grinnan

Life Lessons from Millie and All the Dogs I’ve Loved
Edward Grinnan
Hardcover, $24.99

The author of this beautifully written memoir is the editor-in-chief of Guideposts Publications, and thus his perspective of life is colored by his Christian faith. Not sharing that faith did not at all diminish my admiration and enjoyment of this book, because first and foremost, this is a book about dogs. Whether or not dogs are sent from a higher power, or are simply nature’s gift to us, their importance in our family dynamic is clear, and their ability to see beyond what we humans can see, smell, or hear, does seem miraculous given our comparably limited senses.

Edward Grinnan’s dog Millie is the central focus of his story, but he glides back to childhood and the dog who comforted him during his violent asthma attacks; later to the dog who brought his wife Julee to him; and to Sally, who forced him to see the crumpled old wino as a human being, needing comfort and acceptance. Other dogs prance in and out of his life, and he relives their stories for us with grace, wit and awe.

He writes,
If Sally had helped teach me to be a more compassionate human being, someone who was not so quick to judge and rationalize the sufferings of others, then what I was to learn from Millie was an amplification, on a level that touched the spiritual.

Millie, a white golden retriever, first came to the couple via Florida, flying into New York City in a small crate, and bounding into Edward and Julee’s life with that crazy loving energy only goldens seem to possess. (My only complaint is that Grinnan bought Millie from a breeder. Whether or not that breeder was part of a puppy mill is unknown, but I’m an advocate of adopting rather than buying dogs.) Millie’s entry into city life was difficult. She refused to walk on the pavement, preferring to take care of her bodily needs on newspaper in the apartment. She was terrified of horses, and came unglued at the sight of a one (there are quite a few around Manhattan). When Julee had a bad fall down their stairs and broke her collar bone, Millie lay on top of her, keeping her from going into shock. She was a clutter of conflicting impulses, but she was also insightful, compassionate, and intuitive.

Grinnan’s own life was likewise a bit of a clutter. He had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for years, and was only recently sober when he met Julee and her dog Rudy. Dogs became ever more crucial in his growth as a human being. They trained him in deeper, more profound ways, than he trained them. His career at Guideposts likewise offered him the inspiration of other dog lovers and their stories, a few of which he retells here. He leaves the reader with the comforting assurance that our relationships with our dogs are important and not trivial. Dogs are a vital part of our pursuit of happiness. And, he assures us, they do go to heaven.