Yes, indeed they are, in California. Unrelentingly hot and humid, not to mention smoky…
So many idioms, positive and negative, in our eclectic language, relating to dogs!
“Going to the dogs.”
“Sick as a dog.”
“Let sleeping dogs lie.”
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
(and its opposite) “There’s life in the old dog yet.”
“Dog in a manger.”
“A dog-eat-dog world.”
They go on and on. But the one appropriate to this blog post is:
Every dog will have its day.
Why? Because it’s National Dog Day!
In celebration of that, you could read and enjoy a book about a dog! There are many from which to choose, encompassing the preferences of all ages and popping up in all genres. Here are a few suggestions…
Just Life, by Neil Abramson
Here is my review: https://bookadept.com/2020/02/04/empathy/
The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein
On the eve of his death, Enzo, a terrier/lab mutt, reflects back on his life. A philosophical dog, Enzo believes that he will be reincarnated as a human, so he has spent much of his life closely observing his human, Denny, and the rest of his family, so that he will have a head start in his next life. Charming, sad, insightful.
Suspect, by Robert Crais
In this departure from his Elvis Cole series by this popular mystery author, Crais examines the relationship between two broken cops, one a person, the other a dog. Scott is an LAPD cop with PTSD, trying to recover from a violent assault in which his partner, Stephanie, was murdered. Maggie is a sniffer dog, formerly with the Marines, who lost her handler to an IED and is equally traumatized. Eight months later, the two are paired as Scott tries out for the K9 unit as a way to stay on the job. [mystery]
The Plague Dogs, by Richard Adams
This is a tough one to read, heart-wrenching and tragic in parts, but so beautifully written. It’s the story of two dogs who escape from the horrors of a medical testing laboratory, and attempt to learn to live in the wilderness with the help of a fox named Tod, after the lab puts out a public alert that these dogs may be carrying bubonic plague. Find out what happens to Snitter and Rowf.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
A young mute boy and his family happily live and work on their Wisconsin farm that they have turned into a dog-breeding kennel. Then the incursion of an ill-intentioned relative and a personal tragedy send the boy running away into the Wisconsin backwoods with three loyal dogs he helped raise. This seems to be one of those books that people either love or hate…which will you be?
Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo
India Opal Buloni, 10, is sent to the market (the Winn-Dixie, a southern supermarket chain) by her father, the preacher, for two tomatoes, a box of macaroni and cheese, and a bag of white rice. She comes back with a dog. The inadvertent acquisition of Winn-Dixie (the name she gives the dog in a moment of panic when she claims him for her own) helps Opal befriend a quirky group of locals, and also to deal with the loss of her mother, who left when Opal was three. A Newbery Honor Book. [children’s fiction]
Travels with Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck
In September of 1960, John Steinbeck set out on a road trip in his pickup truck, Rocinante, accompanied by his distinguished French poodle, Charley. It was a quest to reacquaint himself with the flavor of the country’s identity. Given the decade in which this autobiographical work was written and lived, the identity (at least in the southern portion of the trip) was tumultuous. But it’s also a thoughtful firsthand account of the beauty of the country and the character of its varied people.
Travels with Casey, by Benoit Denizet-Lewis
America has the highest rate of dog ownership in the world. Denizet-Lewis, secretly insecure that his dog, Casey, didn’t like him, decided to explore both his personal relationship with his own dog and the relationships of other Americans with theirs by taking a four-month, 32-state, 13,000 mile trip in a rented motor home, interviewing dogs and their owners in every setting and profession. This Steinbeck-lite journey is entertaining and often hilarious.
Dog Years: A Memoir, by Mark Doty
A poet celebrates the 16 years he shared with his two beloved dogs, Arden and Beau, during a period of devastating personal and human tragedy. Beautiful and sad.
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean
Allegedly found in the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel in France during World War I, then brought to Los Angeles by Lee Duncan, the soldier who found and trained him, by 1927 Rin Tin Tin had become a Hollywood star. Orlean researched both the dog and the legend; her book spans 90 years and explores both dogs and Hollywood.
The Genius of Dogs, by Brian Hare
A scientific study of how dogs think (and their genius at getting along with people). What motivates your dog, and how much has he learned through cohabitation with you? “Dognition” has some surprising aspects!
The Trouble with Poetry, and Other Poems, by Billy Collins
Not all of the poems in this book are about dogs, but the ones that are…are not to be missed.
Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver
“But I want to extol not the sweetness nor the placidity of the dog, but the wilderness out of which he cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit. For wilderness is our first home too, and in our wild ride into modernity with all its concerns and problems we need also the good attachments of that origin that we keep or restore. Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world. The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, and the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of the forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him.”
Please note that this list is not necessarily “the best” (who decides that, anyway?) and by no means complete; it is an eclectic sampling of all sorts of books about dogs, from every viewpoint (including their own), but there are hundreds more. Just Google “best books about dogs” or search for lists on Goodreads and you’ll see what I mean!
If your inclination on National Dog Day is to go beyond the act of reading a book, here are some other ideas:
- Adopt a dog
- If you can’t adopt, volunteer at a dog shelter or rescue organization
- If you can’t volunteer, donate to one
- If you’re broke, you can still give old towels and blankets
- Help out an ill or elderly neighbor by walking his or her dog
- On a lighter note, have a party for your dog, or go for a long walk in a new place
If nothing else, greet the dogs you meet along the way today with a hearty “Happy Dog Day!”
What? You say you’re a cat person? Then here’s a final read…
Dog vs. Cat, by Chris Gall
Bringing closure (not really) to history’s greatest battle…
I woke up this morning and checked the calendar to discover that it’s International Cat Day! I must commemorate that, or Gidget and the spirits of all my house cats who have gone before will haunt me. Here, therefore is an eclectic and by no means complete list of some books that feature felines as protagonists and companions. The array of adult books seem to fall into one of two camps: The cats who solve mysteries with their human counterparts, and the cats of science fiction, who are sentient to various degrees. The children’s books celebrate cats in all ways possible from the realistic to the bizarre. These are in no particular order, except possibly by the age of the humans to which they may appeal. If you wish to find hundreds more books about cats, look here, under “lists” in Goodreads.
The Cat Who… mysteries, by Lilian Jackson Braun, in which a reporter and his cat solve mysteries. First book: The Cat Who Could Read Backwards.
The Mrs. Murphy mysteries, by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown, in which Mrs. Murphy and her human companion solve mysteries. First book: Wish You Were Here.
The Joe Grey mysteries, by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, in which there are talking cats and also a human who discovers an ability to morph into a cat. First book: Cat on the Edge.
Catfantastic: Nine Lives and Fifteen Tales, by Andre Norton, editor, in which sci fi and fantasy writers tell tall tales about furry felines. (Short stories.)
The Dalai Lama’s Cat, by David Michie, in which the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s cat offers insights on happiness and meaning.
The Chanur novels, by C. J. Cherryh, in which a leonine species—the Chanur—take in a human refugee and by so doing threaten the interspecies Compact. First book: The Pride of Chanur.
The Cinder Spires books, by Jim Butcher, in which there are also cat clans and some naval airship action. First book: The Aeronaut’s Windlass.
The Cult of the Cat books, by Zoe Kalo, in which Trinity is left with a dead grandmother and a thousand grieving cats. A sort of Egyptian urban fantasy. First book: Daughter of the Sun.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T. S. Eliot, in which the author describes cats each by their distinct personality. (Poetry.) Someone should set this to music…
Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág, in which a lonely old couple acquires companions. This is known as the original picture book for children.
The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, in which Sally and her brother receive a visit from a madcap cat.
Socks, by Beverly Cleary, in which the cat has to learn to share his family with their new baby.
The Warriors books, by Erin Hunter, in which a house cat discovers clans of cats living in the wild in the forest…. First book: Into the Wild.
Varjak Paw books, by S. F. Said & Dave McKean (illustrator), in which a cat goes Outside and overcomes challenges.
The Wildings books, by Nilanjana Roy, in which a small band of cats lives in the alleys and ruins of Nizamuddin, an old neighborhood in Delhi, India.
The Feline Wizards series, by Diane Duane, in which feline wizards time travel to avert disasters. First book: The Book of Night with Moon.
The Cat Pack books, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, in which brothers Marco and Polo go adventuring. First book: The Grand Escape.
The Black Cat Chronicles, by Aileen Pettigrew, in which there are cats, zombies, and magic. First book: Soul Thief.
Stray, by A. N. Wilson, in which a cat without a home tells his own rather bleak story.
Tales of the Barque Cats, by Anne McCaffrey, in which cats are essential members of the crews of space vessels…until an epidemic threatens their extinction.
The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford, in which a bull terrier named Bodger, a Labrador retriever called Luath, and Tao, a Siamese cat, travel 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness to reunite with their people.
I’m sorry for the gap between posts—I, like most people, have been self-quarantining, and in my concentration on reading up about various issues on social media I haven’t spent a lot of time on recreational reading. I have been more drawn to making art during this time, simply because I have many artist friends who are doing likewise and it’s fun to share it in various groups.
I haven’t quit reading entirely, however, and this past week I continued my exploration of children’s books, but this time instead of revisiting old favorites I read one that I somehow missed when it was first published back in 2007—The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. I probably missed it because that was the year I graduated from library school at UCLA. Nothing like getting a degree to prevent you from reading what you want!
We read the prequel to this book, entitled The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, when I was running the 6th and 7th grade book club at Burbank Public Library. It follows the fortunes of Mr. Benedict when he was nine, an orphan with a pickle-shaped nose and an unfortunate habit of falling asleep at the drop of a hat. In this book he was sent to a new orphanage, where he had to use his peculiar genius to evade bullies, pull the wool over the eyes of the pompous adults, and solve a mystery.
When I finished reading that book, I wrote on Goodreads:
“I sort of hate how much I love this book, because now I’m going to have to read all the others. And while that is a delightful prospect, it’s also a daunting one, given that there are three of them, each of which is 400+ pages, and
I have many other things in life to do besides read!”
The rest of my reaction was equally laudatory:
This was such a well done, engaging, literary book.
I was worried that it wouldn’t be mature enough for 6th- and 7th-graders, given that the protagonist is nine years old (the “wisdom” in reading for children and teens is that most kids like to read about people who are at least a year or two older than they themselves are), but given the vocabulary, the descriptions, the scene-setting and world-building, and the wonderful dialogue, I think this book would appeal to almost anyone who likes this sort of thing.
It made me think about Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan, simply because the protagonist in that one is also a precocious genius, and because I was continually debating with my colleagues over the audience for that book. The publishers described it as a middle-grade novel, but the subtleties of the concepts conveyed by Willow’s story are more mature. Similarly, although Nicholas is nine, this book is universal in its appeal. Also, there’s just something about the boarding school/orphanage trope that is immediately attractive,
Although that book is not a prerequisite for the rest of the series, I was glad that I had read it first, since it gave me a little more context for who Mr. Benedict was and what one could expect from him. I really enjoyed The Mysterious Benedict Society; I particularly liked the beginning where the children take the tests that are all puzzles designed to ferret out the truly innovative from the merely smart.
I also enjoyed the interactions of Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance, and how they went from acting separately to functioning as a team, bringing all their complementary assets to bear on the various problems they encountered. Although the story has many ridiculous and exaggerated aspects (mass hypnotism, world domination, highly unlikely physical feats), underlying those is a sweet tale of neglected children who are enabled to find each other and form lasting bonds, with the aid of some compassionate adults. It has an old-fashioned flavor but in the best way possible. In fact, I was somewhat surprised when I looked up the publication date because, based on both the story-telling and the writing, I was convinced it dated from back in
I can’t leave this review without complimenting the illustrations of Carson Ellis—quirky and delightful, they add substantially to both the story and the mood.
Although I bought all three volumes of the Benedict trilogy, I think I will leave the other two for now and read some adult fare. I have two Ruth Galloway mysteries by Elly Griffiths lined up waiting on my Kindle.
If you are curious about my artistic escapades, please take a look at my art blog, at https://theslipcover.blogspot.com.
When I teach Young Adult Literature, one of the things we discuss at the beginning of the class is the concept of the “home run book.”
Dr. Stephen Krashen is a leader in the field of reading, and discovered through his research that people who read because they want to, with no assignment components—no book reports, no questions, no tests, no analysis—do better in school by far than those who don’t read, or who only read under compulsion.
But the key ingredient in creating a reader is to hit upon the book that gives them that one positive experience that forever cements their relationship to reading. Jim Trelease came up with the concept of the “home run book,” basing it on a quote from wordsmith Clifton Fadiman, who said:
“One’s first book, one’s first kiss, one’s first home run are always the best.”
Trelease did a lot of anecdotal research, asking people who were readers whether there was one particular book that made them into regulars. He was surprised and pleased to discover that almost every reader could cite the very book that changed their attitude about reading to a positive one.
This issue came up for me lately when a good friend of mine read for the first time a book that has been a beloved one for me since childhood. Although I can’t cite The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, as my “home run book,” it is definitely one of the top 10 that kept me interested in reading. As an only child, I empathized with the heroine’s isolation; I loved gardens and nature and the thought of a secret one that I could discover and have all for myself was compelling; and I liked how being forced into relationships with others almost against her will finally turns Mary from a sourpuss into a better, nicer, happier person.
Kim, however, came at it with a contemporary perspective, and her judgment was anything but flattering. Her first reaction was that while the descriptions of the gardens are lovely, “the entire book is a sermon on a set of values that have no place in a humane world.” She goes on to cite the colonialism and racism, comments on “healthism” that betrays both the disabled and the physically able child, and notes the “noble savage” trope depicted in the “peasant” character, Dickon. Despite the descriptive writing, the bright and resourceful children, and the extolled virtues of playing outside in nature, she concludes that the story cannot be disentangled from its classist moralizing, and maintains that it’s time to retire the book.
This reaction made me cringe, mostly because I recognized that she was probably right. Her comments made me remember a discussion in my YA Lit class one year about the relative merits of continuing to require the book Huckleberry Finn to be read by upper grade students, despite its rampant racism, and how severely my young students judged it, despite my urging them to consider context. It also made me recall what a shock I experienced when I recently reread a book that I had previously listed as one of my most beloved—China Court, written in 1961 by Rumer Godden—only to encounter an inexplicably forgotten and utterly shocking example of sexist physical abuse in the last chapter that effectively spoiled my previously unalloyed delight.
Suddenly, my judgment was suspect as I thought back over six decades of reading and wondered how I had been shaped by books that I had embraced unquestioningly at various stages of my life. This prompted me to revisit some of those, to see if books other than Burnett’s should have modern judgment pronounced upon them. So I picked up a few I had particularly loved, and began to read with a gingerly sense of both anticipation and dread.
The first, from a series that I read over and over as a child, was The Children of Green Knowe, by Lucy M. Boston. The initial theme of the book is eerily similar to that of The Secret Garden, in that the child’s parents (well, his father and stepmother—that trope is present here!) are out of the country, and the boy, whose name is Toseland, is sent to live with his great-grandmother in her big old mansion verging on castle (it has a moat) in the English countryside. But the similarities (in characterization at least) end there: The boy’s personality is trusting, open, and sweet, and the grandmother is delightfully quirky and kind. Toseland becomes Tolly, except when Grandmother Oldknowe forgets and calls him Toby after his ancestor (the stepmother, unforgivably, calls him Toto), and is welcomed into the rarefied atmosphere of her life surrounded by the memories of generations of the occupants of Green Knowe.
The question for Tolly, however, quickly becomes whether they are memories or something much more tangible. He hears giggles coming from the upstairs bannisters, and catches quick movements out of the corner of his eye as he enters rooms. Gifts and trinkets turn up under his pillow, on his chair, in his pockets, and as Grandmother tells him the stories of the three children who lived at Green Knowe in the long-ago days—Toby, Alexander, and little Linnet—he begins to believe they have never left.
I still loved this book, and found nothing objectionable that would prevent bringing it up as a favorite to contemporary children (although I didn’t read past the first book in the series, so I can’t vouch for all of them). I wonder if this series is the origin of my love for the surreal? You could call them ghost stories, but with the interactions with animals, with supposedly inanimate objects (a carved mouse, a garden topiary, a statue) that occasionally come to life, and with the three dead children, we’re talking magical realism. The relationship between the grandmother and child is touching, the fanciful narrative is wonderful, and I probably loved the whole thing the most when I was a child because I, too, was an only, solitary child who longed for playmates, loved animals, and had a vivid imagination.
The second book about which I had fond memories—again the beginning of a series and this a lengthy one—was The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner. This is the story of four enterprising brothers and sisters—Henry, Jessie, Violet, and little Ben—who have been raised by their father to believe that their maternal grandfather is an unkind and unloveable tyrant. So when their father dies the day after they have moved to a new town and the neighbors propose to find their grandfather and send the children to him, the children respond by running away. They find an old boxcar, buried in shrubbery along a disused railroad siding (and adjacent to a convenient brook), and turn it into a home, finding clever ways to provide water, food, clothing, and entertainment for themselves, even though they are children without adult supervision.
This one has a few coy moments, and the author does that prescient thing (“they were not to know that this moment would be a lasting influence in their lives…”) that informs you not at all but nonetheless manages to take you right out of the story in a most annoying way; but in most respects the book was surprisingly good. Although at one point Jessie, who is “motherly” to her younger siblings, is referred to as “the housewifely girl,” and the oldest boy, Henry, takes the fatherly role by going “out” to work (mowing lawns, picking fruit, and doing various chores for a doctor in a nearby village), mostly the children work together at chores and projects without too much regard for gender roles, and take delight in objects (Ben and his pink china cup) without any remarks about “girliness” and such.
When the children’s situation is eventually discovered, near the end of the story, and they go to live with their grandfather, I was further pleasantly surprised. Ben asks their grandfather, a curmudgeonly sort, what they will all do when they grow up; at first he says that Henry will take over his business (typical). But then, when I expected him to say something sexist about Jessie’s and Violette’s prospects as girls (marriage and family), he instead tells Ben, “You will all four of you go to college, and then you can choose to do whatever you want!” Considering the book was first published in 1942, that is an exceedingly progressive sentiment! Bravo, Gertrude!
I have a few more childhood favorites I’d like to revisit, but I’ll leave this subject for the moment, just concluding that, as painful as it can sometimes be, it’s never too late to become cognizant of our blind spots when it comes to learned prejudices. So while I still treasure my memories of The Secret Garden, perhaps I will find books less fraught with flaws to recommend to contemporary children.