August 16, 2007


Peanut. By Linas Alsenas. Scholastic. $16.99.

Dreaming in Libro: How a Good Dog Tamed a Bad Woman. By Louise Bernikow. Da Capo. $22.95.

      For children and adults alike, it can sometimes be more pleasant to seek the companionship of animals than humans. And there can at times be more rewards to human-animal relationships than to human-human ones. But the attitude toward these interspecies attachments changes when books for children become ones for adults, and not always for the better. The underlying simplicity of the love of humans for their animal companions – and the love humans receive in return – can sometimes be better told in a simple story of words and pictures than in a larger one designed to display human angst and uncertainty. Thus, Peanut is a thoroughly delightful book about people and animals, while Dreaming in Libro is a somewhat overdone, rather pretentious and too-self-important one.

Linas Alsenas’ Peanut is simply the story of a lonely old lady named Mildred, who one day is lucky enough to find a stray puppy and bring it home. Except that it isn’t a puppy – it’s a baby elephant. Does Mildred realize? Does it matter? She loves the supposed puppy, which she names Peanut after its favorite food, and the two develop a contented life together, with Peanut watering the plants (with his trunk), sitting on the couch with Mildred, and taking walks in the park. Mildred notices that, unlike other dogs, Peanut does not play games or roll over or bark; but she loves him, and they enjoy life with each other…until a circus man finds Peanut in the park and identifies him as a missing circus elephant. The man is quite kind to Mildred, as are the other circus people when Mildred goes there to see Peanut perform; but something big, even elephantine, has left Mildred’s life. Still, there is a happy ending when Mildred, again alone in the park, spots a stray…well, she thinks it’s a kitten… Hope springs eternal, particularly when people hope for the uncomplicated affection that comes from joining one’s life to that of a companion animal.

One should not, however, make more of the relationship – or of one’s own part in it – than it can bear. Louise Bernikow is an overdoer of things, as she makes amply clear in her chronicle of eight years of life with an abandoned boxer that follows her home. Dreaming in Libro has enough heart-tugging and sincere moments to earn a (+++) rating, but it has plenty of frustratingly self-centered, gaze-at-my-own-navel, celebrate-the-New-York-City-experience ones, too. Indeed, Bernikow’s book will be most enjoyable for dyed-in-the-wool (or in-the-fur) New Yorkers, since she loads it with tales of the Hamptons, of city scenes galore, even of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. Bernikow is self-described as a writer, which is fine – she wrote this book, after all, plus a previous one about Libro, plus half a dozen others – but she is irritatingly smug about what she does. “It is an odd failing of historians and biographers that the presence of a dog in a writer’s life goes largely unnoticed by them. …If inspiration and support for male writers has come from benevolent, maternal, sometimes sexy, female Muses, what then has it been for women? I say the dog.” Serious? Half-serious? Just kidding? Bernikow’s tone isn’t always clear. Scenes of real humor (some of those in the Hamptons, for example) fit uneasily with ones that are presented seriously but that will border on the ridiculous for non-New-York non-writers (pet therapy after 9/11, or such passing comments as, “We both needed an hour of meditation”). Dreaming in Libro has some charming elements and some heartfelt ones, but it is hard to escape the thought that it would have been a more appealing book if Libro had written it and called it Dreaming in Louise.

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