Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Nice Summer Read

image from State Library of Victoria, Australia
I have some pretty specific ideas on what makes a good "summer read." The book should be light, both in weight and in content (I once read the hardcover edition of Russell Banks' excellent novel Cloudsplitter on the beach. My arms were sore the next day). It should be the kind of thing that's easy to put down and leave at almost any point. It shouldn't be shallow, but should make you feel happy.

James Herriott's series of books on his life as a country vet in Yorkshire fit the bill beautifully. The books are a series of anecdotes about his more memorable cases and incidents in his life, so they're very easy to stop and start with. They're short, and out in paperback so they're portable. But the most notable thing about them is the deep vein of happiness that runs through them.

image from
There are seven books in the core series. They roughly chronicle his life from a young vet, newly qualified and beginning the hopeless task of finding employment during the Great Depression (an era when the economy and the shift away from farming led to frequent ads in his professional journals that read "Experienced Vet, will work for keep."), settling in to life in Yorkshire, getting married, serving in World War II and having a child. But there's no particular need to read them in order. I just discovered the other day that I hadn't read the first one, somehow.

I took a break from the gloom and doom (thus far) of my library haul to enjoy it. It reminded me of all the things that were good about those books. Herriott's love for his profession and his surroundings seep into every word he writes. This being an animal practice, of course, many of the stories are very sad. Mallock, the "knackerman" who euthanizes large animals and renders their carcasses for a variety of uses, features prominently in the series. But a lot of them are amusing, too, such as his long relationship with his "nephew," Pekingese Tricki Woo, who sends him postcards and Christmas gifts, or their "cat about town" who made a point of attending all rummage sales, Grange meetings, and church socials in the town. Since Herriott had to make house calls at all hours of the day and night, there's ample opportunity for slapstick as well, such as the time he went out to see a cow in his pajamas and Wellingtons, then wandered exhausted and unfortunately penniless into a local diner and tried to get breakfast.

My all-time favorite story was about the small farmer who had an epidemic sweeping through his stock. It looked like he was going to lose everything to this hopeless, untreatable illness when Herriott asked for permission to experiment with a new drug sample he'd just received that was supposed to work miracles. Overnight, the calves all returned from death's door, and antibiotics had come to Yorkshire.

The books I have belonged originally to my grandfather, and were among the last he read. I do hope they're still in print, because they're very enjoyable and pleasant for any animal lover to read.