Everyone loves a human interest story. Recognizing this, Lisa Belkin has collected the cream of the crop from the pages of the respected New York Times. The stories are, some of them, Big Apple specific, but more are about people from all over, like Notrees, Texas, where one citizen tries to keep two trees alive, in contrast with the goings-on in Austin, where a saboteur is trying to kill a 500-year-old live oak whose picture once hung in the tree Hall of Fame.
For my money, the biggest hero in the collection is still Lance Armstrong, the first American racing for an American team to win the Tour de France after his recuperation from testicular cancer. The cancer had gotten to his brain, requiring extensive surgery and chemo, and as soon as he realized he was going to live he started training for the race.
But there are others less sung. One girl deserves an award for refusing to compete with her injured friend in a Tae Kwan Do match, thus giving up her medal and helping to assure her friend would be eligible for the Olympic Team. This incident brought into question the Olympic policy regarding injured players - if their record is sound, why shouldn't they be on the team, injured or not?
Clearly an animal lover, Belkin has devoted a large segment of the book to articles that cover the four-footed beat. Not always the warm and fuzzies, the beasts range in user-friendliness from chickens and monkeys to the salutary tale of the Mayor of Husavik, Iceland, who wants to import alligators to swim in the natural hot pools that have formed there from steam generated by volcanoes: "Tourists who come to see the whales would really LOVE the alligators." And once the gators get too big from eating the waste from the fish processing plant, the citizens of Husavik will eat them - a perfect eco-system.
Memorable are stories of the couple who have married in the nursing home after the passing of their respective spouses and live for the day they can get a shared room, the twins separated at birth who found each other in their twenties, and the often painful accounting of life as a street dentist, ripping out teeth with pliers while the world watches.
Everyone will find a favorite, or two, in this collection - it could be the kid who's dedicated to ride through every stop on the New York subway, or the man who sent an itemized bill for $14,000 to the restaurant that lost his briefcase. It could be the story of the three old ladies who sold their cows and finally enjoy a life of relative freedom, or the vignette about Ronald Reagan saving acorns from Camp David to feed to the pesky White House squirrels. One sad and thoroughly engrossing segment concerns the man who lived for so long as a refugee at Charles de Gaulle airport that when finally granted his walking papers, he was afraid to leave the mini-metropolis where he had become completely acclimated.
The book is a reminder that even in the most parlous times, and even in the prestigious Times, it's the little guy and the human angle that get our attention. It isn't always good news, but it has as much sticking power as the big headlines. Thanks, Lisa Belkin, for bringing it all down home.