Summer Books 2018

By The Bark, August 2018

There’s no better tonic to the dog days of summer than a good book. So for your reading pleasure, our editors have compiled a list of this year’s favorites. From fiction to non-fiction to memoir, all these books share a common thread—exploring the life-changing effect dogs can have on us.

Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do by Marc Bekoff
(University of Chicago Press)

Marc Bekoff is both a renowned ethologist and a lifelong observer of and advocate for non-human animals (as he likes to call everyone but us). In his new book, Canine Confidential, he displays his depth of knowledge and involvement on both those fronts, gathering up the latest research from canine cognitive/behavioral fields (as well as his own) and presenting it to us would-be citizen scientists.

Bekoff uses an inviting conversational mode that makes complicated topics much easier
to grasp. It is as if we had run into him at the local dog park and could ask those questions that pop up as we watch our dogs cavort with others of their species.

This rather slim volume covers quite a lot of ground, from canine cognition and their rich emotional lives and behavioral proclivities to, of course, their relationships with us. He does caution that since the study of dogs is all the rage these days, sometimes findings can be
a little premature, or based on small sample sizes. He’s also quite willing to admit that he doesn’t know the answers to some questions and is waiting to see what future research reveals. In the appendix we are exhorted to become citizen ethologists, and we are given a “Cliff Notes” guide to show us how it’s done.

Bekoff knows just about everyone in non-human-animal field, and enthusiastically shares their work with us in this volume and via his popular blog on PsychologyToday.com. This informative and accessible book is an invaluable resource that deserves an appreciative audience.

 

Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog by Linda Case
(Autumn Gold Publishing)

Linda Case, who is both a nutrition and training expert, has a must-read new book, Dog Smart, that will definitely make all of us—newbies to pros—smarter about dogs. She does a fine job in putting together the latest from the world of evidence- and behavioral science-based training in a conversational and approachable manner. She also coaches us in what to say to that “know-it-all” neighbor (we all have at least one) who thinks that dog training skills can be gleaned from TV personalities.

I especially appreciated that at the end of each chapter, she provides a list of bibliographic peer-reviewed references. Although Case ably summarizes and interweaves their findings into everyday examples, this approach makes looking up the research much easier.

Her writing style is a combination of Bill Nye: Science Guy and cheeky humor. I liked the way she clearly explained the difference between wolves and dogs, and why the behavior of this far-distant cousin doesn’t apply to the behavior of dogs any more than bonobo behavior predicts how Homo sapiens behave.

For students of canine behavior or for every dog guardian who wants to understand their dogs better, this book is both entertaining and an invaluable resource.

 

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey by Stephen Kuusisto
(Simon & Schuster)

Stephen Kuusisto, professor and poet, is a master of the memoir. His two earlier works —Planet  of the Blind and Eavesdropping—are now joined by the joyous Have Dog, Will Travel. In this book, we are treated to the story of how (and why), as a 38-year-old blind man, he was paired up with Corky, an exceptional yellow Labrador and Guiding Eyes graduate.

For most of his life, Kuusisto, who was born legally blind, had navigated that impairment, albeit only semi-successfully. Because his mother feared that his options would be restricted if he “presented as blind,” he never learned Braille and certainly never had a “seeing-eye” dog. Finally, when he lost a teaching position and his employment options seemed limited, he decided that it was time to accept the reality that he needed a guide dog.

And so, the story starts: “Essentially, on the day I met Guiding Eyes Corky #3cc92, the blind part of me was starving.” In accepting his need for a guiding companion who “[l]ooks out for you. All the time,” he entered a new phase of his life. Lucky for us, the book gives us a front-row seat as this new relationship unfolds.

I have to say I can’t recall smiling so much while reading a book. To learn how guide dogs
so positively and fundamentally affect the lives of their human partners is a joy in itself. That it’s so eloquently expressed by someone with Kuusisto’s talent is an additional bonus.

As you’ll see in the excerpt and Q&A with the author (page 75), life with Corky is positive and loving. Kuusisto, who learns to lavish praise upon her, extolls this good girl’s talents, crediting her with bringing out his own and others’ better angels. As he admits, not only was his dog changing him into “someone who could think more clearly,” she also “enticed” him “back into the world.” We learn how professionally Corky conducted herself, and the importance of respecting (and not interfering with) these dogs as they work. This book, which is a marvelous achievement on many levels, categorically proves that dogs do indeed “make us more human.”

 

The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez
(Riverhead Books)

Novelist Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend (Riverhead Books) is a poignant story of loss and grief as well as a meditation on the redemptive relationship between a woman and the Great Dane she inherits. Poet Stephen Kuusisto’s memoir, Have Dog, Will Travel (Simon & Schuster), is, true to its title, a joyous trip into the intensity of the partnership between a blind man and his guide dog.

The Friend is told from the viewpoint of an unnamed female narrator, a writer and teacher who’s floundering after her best friend and mentor, a much-admired literary figure, commits suicide. Contemplative and darkly funny, she examines the meaning of their friendship and questions the point of being a writer après le déluge of profound loss. In recalled and imagined conversations, she probes the reasons for his death, often relying on examples from literature (great quotes abound).

In the midst of this introspection, she gets a call from her mentor’s “Wife Three,” who informs her that he has bequeathed her his dog, a Harlequin Great Dane named Apollo. And though she lives in a small, pet-unfriendly NYC apartment, she accepts the bequest. At that point, the story’s focus shifts slightly from the man who was her best friend to the dog who becomes her best friend.

Both dog and woman have a deep sorrow to overcome, and both seem to be waiting for their deceased friend to reappear. Drawing upon literature as life’s lesson plan, she is attracted to stories such as J.R. Ackerley’s classic My Dog Tulip, about the obsessive, intense relationship between Ackerley and his female German Shepherd. We see the narrator’s relationship with Apollo take on the same qualities. At long last, she finds solace and a reason to love again.

In less skilled hands, a narrative with death and grieving as its through-line could have maudlin overtones, but Nunez completely avoids that trap, which makes the book all the more remarkable. A masterful celebration of our relationship with dogs, The Friend is also an unforgettable, uniquely told story about that relationship’s redemptive and healing powers. This is an elegant, erudite and fully charming, life-affirming book, and I urge everyone to read it. (See our interview with Nunez.)

My Patients and Other Animals by Suzy Fincham-Gray
(Spiegel & Grau)

This sterling diary-like book, tender and thoughtful, explores the relationships between us and our animals. In her debut work, Fincham-Gray, a British-born veterinarian, shares stories she has collected while working in the U.S. She deftly brings us behind the scenes in her workplace, giving us an accurate sense of just how hard it is to face the challenges that a vet has to face, including ethical and moral dilemmas. Fincham-Gray, who also holds an MFA in writing, puts her talents to good use in this book. She’s a mighty fine writer, which, along with her  compassion for animals, makes this an especially compelling read.

 

Craig & Fred: A Marine, a Stray Dog, and How They Rescued Each Other by Craig Grossi
(William Morrow)

Craig Grossi has achieved much in his comparatively young life. He was a U.S. Marine for nine years, which included intelligence work for the RECON unit. He won a Purple Heart, came home and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency, then got a degree from Georgetown University. Along the way, he rescued a remarkable dog, a short-legged, personality-plus pup he met while on duty in Sangin, a remote area of Afghanistan. And now, he’s written his first book, Craig & Fred, telling the story of how it all came to be—how, in between fighting the Taliban, he struck up a friendship with a stray dog he’d seen nosing around his unit’s compound, and sealed the deal with a piece of beef jerky.

Their story of mutual rescue is inspiring and also enlightening. Grossi, a talented storyteller, gives a sense of immediacy to the combat scenes, and to the everyday slog that comes from going out on nighttime patrols looking for IEDs and the men who are planting them. His portrayal of Fred, and how he won the hearts of the marines by giving the troops a feeling of home also rings true. As Grossi says, the dog had a “way of reminding me of the little kid inside of me. It was a thing that only a dog could do.”

The book’s chapters don’t follow a linear timeline; narratives about Afghanistan—including how Grossi managed to get Fred out of the country—are sandwiched in with a cross-country road trip that Craig, Fred and Josh, a veteran pal, took in 2015, visiting many of the men who knew Fred back when. If the reader feels a little overwhelmed by the sheer brutality and terror of battle, the next page will provide relief with a story about Fred’s rescue, or where the trio is on the road trip.

We learn that the military has a strict no-dog policy, and often kills dogs who have befriended the troops. But somehow Fred made it, with a little help from a lot of friends, including the Ugandan manager of a DHL office in Camp Leatherneck (the marine base in Helmand Province), and Grossi’s sister back home, who made sure all the “export” paperwork was in order.

This work has a lot in common with one of my favorite books of 2015, No Better Friend, by Robert Weintraub. In that one, which is set in WWII, the dog, Judy, was a prisoner of war on the Pacific front. Similar to Judy’s, Fred’s story highlights the nature of resiliency, courage, and the strength of the bond between man and dog. There is just something so compelling in these rather extreme cases of “how I got my dog” stories, and how the dog, in many ways, saves the lives of those he or she touches. Timed well for holiday gift-giving, Craig & Fred is published in two versions, including one for children.

 

Artists and Their Pets by Susie Hodge, Violet Lemay (illustration)
(Duopress)

Lovers of art and animals should enjoy Artists and Their Pets, a colorfully illustrated account of notable artists and their animal companions … Picasso and his numerous cats and dogs; Frida Kahlo and her menagerie; and lesser-known creatives such as Franz Marc, who, via his paintings, tried to visualize the world through the eyes of animals. Both the writing (Susie Hodge) and illustrations (Violet Lemay) are spirited and revelatory. This charming book, which will appeal to both adults and children, encourages the reader to view these artists’ work with fresh eyes and a renewed appreciation.

 

Rescued by David Rosenfelt
(Minotaur Books)

Part-time defense attorney and full-time dog lover Andy Carpenter makes his 17th appearance in Rescued. Unlike many of his clients, the one he represents in this book doesn’t deny that he fired the fatal shot; his defense hangs on his reason for doing so. While the story isn’t as dog-centric as others in the series, the transporting of homeless dogs from bursting-at-the-seams southern shelters to the Northeast, is central to the plot. Aside from the puzzle, the book is worth reading for Rosenfelt’s characterizations of the Carpenter family dogs, a Golden Retriever and a Basset Hound.

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