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Book Notes From The Underground: Going To The Dogs


"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend.  Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."  —Groucho Marx

Dogs and books.  What could be better?  How about if we combine the two?  What do we get?  Books about dogs!  If you're like Groucho Marx and are a fan of books and dogs, here are a few titles that may interest you:

In 1956, J.R. Ackerley wrote My Dog Tulip, a memoir of his relationship with his Alsatian.  While many pet/owner relationship books often fall victim to a sickeningly-sweet mawkishness, Ackerley avoids that pitfall (he's too good a writer) as he describes their (chaste, thankfully) love affair and the nearly-Sisyphean task he has of trying to find a male dog for her to mate with.   The book was made into a very good animated film in 2011, which is also available through the library.

Speaking of films, several years ago, I had the pleasure of watching Clash of the Wolves, a 1925 silent movie starring none other than Rin Tin Tin.  Susan Orlean wrote Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, an exceptional biography about the world's first canine matinee idol and the special bond he formed with his owner Lee Duncan, who found "Rinty" on the battlefields of France during the Great War.  The book is full of interesting information (including the fact that Orlean was so obsessed with Rinty that she began to question her sanity) and is as thrilling and exciting as a Rin Tin Tin movie.

Did you ever wonder whatever happened to the pit bulls used in the dog-fighting ring that Michael Vick was involved in?  Sports Illustrated contributor Jim Gorant explores the aftermath of that affair in The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption.  Of the 51 dogs rescued,  most were successfully rehabilitated and are now living with loving families.  Some of the dogs are even being used as therapy animals.  Gorant also makes a convincing case that pit bulls are not more dangerous than other breeds.  They can be just as loving, sweet and loyal as any other dog... if given the chance.

Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Jon Franklin became interested in the relationship between humans and dogs after he adopted Charlie, a standard poodle.  So he did a lot of research and ended up writing a book about his findings called The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection Between Humans and Dogs.   This historical survey examines the nearly simultaneous evolution of domesticated canids and homo sapiens.  He concludes that the two species have evolved symbiotically and are as essential to each other today as they were more than ten thousand years ago.

Mary Oliver is a member of a rare and exclusive breed of poets—one whose books become best sellers.  Some poetry lovers are perhaps distrustful of that success and poo-poo Oliver's poetry because of it.  In their eyes, they  may see poetry as being a difficult medium, one that can only be grasped by a rarified few.  If so, they must have certainly scoffed when she published Dog Songs, a collection of thirty-five poems and one essay about dogs.   What they might not understand is that Oliver's simple language masks her often profound insights into the natural world.  Exploring the natural world of dogs is an easy fit for her style, and her insights here are pitch perfect.

In choosing a dog-centered novel, I had a number of strong candidates (e.g., Paul Auster's Timbuktu, Peter Mayle's A Dog's Life and David Wroblewski's Edgar Sawtelle), but ultimately I opted to go with a tried-and-true classic:  Jack London's Call of the Wild.  If you haven't read the book since... well, since you were a child maybe, now might be a good time to revisit it, because the hundred plus years since it has been written have not diminished the luster of this beautiful story about Buck, a mixed-breed sled dog who must fight his way through life during the Alaskan Gold Rush of the 1890s.

Why do dogs bark?  Why do they play?  How come some like to play fetch and some don't?  If you've ever asked yourself any of these questions, then you will be interested in reading How Dogs Work by Raymond Coppinger and Mark Feinstein.  By exploring the biology of dogs, the authors delve into what makes dogs tick.  According to them, the shape of a dog is a major factor in how its psychological and behavioral aspects develop.  Thanks to this illuminating study,  we may find that Groucho Marx was wrong; that perhaps the inside of a dog isn't so dark after all.

Oh, and in case you were wondering who that handsome lad is at the top of the page, that's the domesticated canid that this particular homo sapien has a very symbiotic relationship with.  His name is Monk.


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