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Roger Caras' Treasury of Great Dog Stories edited by Roger Caras (Truman Talley/Dutton: $19.95; 497 pp.) : Roger Caras' Treasury of Great Cat Stories edited by Roger Caras (Truman Talley/Dutton: $19.95; 495 pp.)

May 31, 1987|Mordecai Siegel | Siegal's latest book is "When Good Dogs Do Bad Things" (Little, Brown)

Writing about cats, dogs and people requires no justification, just as reading for pleasure requires no apology. For too long, the human involvement with companion animals has been regarded as a trivial preoccupation. Can a passion involving so much of the Earth's population be trivial, especially when it elicits behavior from the most base to the most exalted?

The struggle for survival (and a bit more) or the realities of existence are themes worthy of any writer's attention and as necessary to the ardent reader as paper and light. Ever since the first humans shared a bit of meat and fire with a dog or cat, they have faced the prehistoric dawn together for better or worse. The Caras Treasuries prove that this is the stuff of fine writing.

These anthologies are logical outgrowths of Caras' most recent books, "A Celebration of Cats" and "A Celebration of Dogs," in which his vast knowledge and love of the species is generously shared with his readers. He is the author of 40 books about animals and is the ABC-TV pets and wildlife correspondent.

Giving the readers an amazingly varied selection of stories, Caras deliberately takes them into uncharted waters of the human/animal adventure and occasionally sets them adrift in a swamp of inhumanity or a pristine current of Brigadoon-like joy. In each volume, the reader slowly comes to realize he is enmeshed in the editor's design to move, stimulate, horrify and delight.

At times, Caras seems to be in the wings like Hitchcock on television, sardonically introducing the horror and madness of stories like "The Black Cat" by Edgar Allen Poe, diabolically placed after the deliciously funny "The White Cat" by W. W. Jacobs. Be cautious of Mark Twain's "A Dog's Tale," which begins with the funniest opening line in print: "My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian." Do not be fooled. This turns into a tale of human cruelty to animals contrasted against the sweet innocence of nature's creatures. It is an unexpected dimension of Mark Twain, sad but urgent in its statement.

Throughout both dog and cat volumes, there are stores that will stir the heart or create laughter. On the canine side is "For the Love of a Man," which is the opening chapter of Jack London's "Call of the Wild"; "Rabchick, a Jewish Dog" by Sholom Aleichem, and the memorable "Mumu" by Ivan Turgenev. Also notable are contributions by Mackinlay Kantor, Zane Grey, D. H. Lawrence, Booth Tarkington, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Francoise Sagan.

Possibly the most delightful cat story in print and well placed in the collection is "The White Cat" by William Wymark Jacobs, London's master of the short-story form. It unfolds in the English countryside in a timeless setting crammed with devilishly funny characters scheming for an inheritance bound to the survival of a white cat, the adored pet of a recently deceased landowner. Many fine cat stories are to be found in this book by such respected authors as Rudyard Kipling, Paul Gallico, Stephen Vincent Benet, P. G. Wodehouse, Eleanor Farjeon and Italo Calvino among others.

An uncommon collection of stories, there is literary gold here. John Muir's "An Adventure With a Dog" is an unexpected treasure. It is about a breathless adventure in the icy regions of southeastern Alaska, shared with one of literature's most fascinating dogs. The entire spectrum of animal and human response is unleashed on these pages. Courage, cruelty, compassion, meanness of spirit, madness, need, generosity, and the transcendence of instinct are all here in these dog and cat stories, masterfully compiled and edited by Roger Caras. One musn't allow the dog and cat lovers to hoard these gems. They are for everyone.

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