A young friend recently asked me to choose my favorite dog book. I had to think really hard on that one. I’ve read a whole lot of them. I believe in the power of a dog. And there’s a special place in the universe for writers who can script a good dog story – whether it’s through poetry, fiction, personal essay, photo captions or a good dog obit.
At the time I got this question, I had just started “The Splendid Beauty … A Dog and His People” by Rick Bragg. “All Over but the Shoutin’” was Rick’s first book that pulled me into his writing many years ago. I’ve long admired his spot-on southern-isms that completely avoid the “fingers on the chalkboard” of writers who try to fake knowing the real south and how it sounds, feels, smells and tastes.
In this book, Rick tells the stories of Speck, a bad-boy mixed breed (or mutt as he would have been called before that term lost favor). Sixteen essays lay out various episodes of Speck’s egregious behavior woven in with stories of Rick’s sideways love for this wild creature. This passage foretells the whole concept of the book:
“In his first two months here, he [Speck] was incarcerated twenty-nine times. Telling him to behave, even after almost two years now, is like telling him it is Tuesday.”
In one paragraph, Rick would have me crying. The next had me laughing out loud. And there’s lots of talk of food – both the human and canine kind (sometimes they are the same). Speck gets factored into the count for Thanksgiving dinner and has a Christmas list that includes cocktail weenies, sliced ham and a dog bed (which Rick kind of counts as edible since Speck ate the last two he had).
If you’ve ever had a dog that wasn’t perfect, you’ll recognize many of Rick’s perfectly told stories.
A little extra this week (this puts me over my 300-ish word count commitment so consider this a bonus)
As I read this book, I found myself reflecting back on dog books that have fed my soul, tickled my funny bone, brought me to tears. Part of why I love to read is to learn how to be the kind of writer of stories I’d want to read. These four dog books all taught me something about dogs and about writing.
“Dog Medicine” by Julia Barton. At first, this book seemed to be the story of the author’s struggle with depression. My interest waned a bit at first…based on what I saw on the cover, I wanted to read about Bunker, the dog. But it didn’t take many more pages to understand that, while depression is certainly a major player in the book, it is by no means is it the main character. The real story here is about resilience, acceptance, trust, connection and belief in something bigger. And all of that comes alive through Bunker and how he leads the author through her depression. Read my earlier review here.
“A Year of Dogs” by Vince Musi. This one feeds my need for visual tickling and great writing. Vince’s stories in this book reflect his canine subjects’ personalities and quirky habits with a humor that can only come from his lively imagination plus his willingness to let dogs just be dogs. The narratives that accompany each pup’s unique photo range from sentimental to side splitting. Even if you think you can’t abide a dog, Vince’s book leaves you with that feeling of having just been loved on by a gentle Great Dane with a really long tongue. Read my earlier review here.
“Dog Songs” by Mary Oliver. While I’m not a big poetry reader, Mary Oliver’s collection of poetry is probably the only book on my nightstand that never gathers dust because I pick it up so frequently to just read a poem. You can read these poems as either her musings on daily life with her beloved canines or deeper reflections on the role of our connections with dogs in enriching our existence on this earth.
“The Last Will and Testament of Very Distinguished Dog” by Eugene O’Neill. I discovered this little gem when it fell off the shelf and landed on my foot during a visit to Kramer Books in DC. It was just weeks after my beloved Golden, Dixie, had died, and it brought me great comfort. It’s a moving and humorous last will and testament of the playwright’s beloved dog reminding the author that every dog we own expands our hearts to make room to love another.
My summer challenge is to get off the screens and back to books. My accountability is to write a dozen-ish short Blink Book Reviews of 300-ish words. Join my summer Blink Book Review FB group to get the reviews and book suggestions from others. Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your own favorites.