Review: The Difficulty of Being a Dog

The Difficulty of Being a Dog, by Roger Grenier.

I’ve always hated sappy stories about dogs. I’ve been this way since I was young. Even though my obsession with dogs began when I was a child, I loathed films about dogs, mainly because they were so cheesy and the dogs always die in the end. I also refused to read all of the classic dog-related books for children. I hated Where the Red Fern Grows when I was young. My mother was reading it aloud and I started yelling in agony when the boy finally gets his long-desired hounds. He finally gets these dogs and then has the idiotic aplomb to name them Big Dan and Little Ann! It was the worst. My eight-year-old self was deeply insulted on behalf of those red hounds.

Memoir-like books about dogs tend to be equally bad. No one really wants to read Marley and Me. No one wants to hear dramatic, hyperbolic stories about your bad dog who tore up your house but eventually stole your heart; I’d much rather get to know a real dog. Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul sounds like a perfect nightmare to me; I wouldn’t read it if you paid me.

All that to say, I was fairly wary about reading The Difficulty of Being a Dog, by French author Roger Grenier, translated by Alice Kaplan. It looked like it might be one of those little books that dripped with overwrought emotion about dogs. Thankfully, Grenier is not one inclined to displays of overwrought emotion. No, he is a proper and meditative Frenchman who loves dogs and old stories about the people who love them.

The book is composed of 43 very small vignettes and reflections about dogs and their place in our lives. And, to my great delight, it is very beautiful and not at all sappy. Grenier walks slowly through centuries-old anecdotes about kings, artists, and ordinary people who are very attached to their canines. He treats his subjects with respect and wry humor and never dips into the fatal charms of hyper-emotionality. Many of his stories and quotes will likely make their way onto this blog at any given point.

Specifically, I liked Grenier’s presentation of the French view of owning a dog. One of the things my sisters told me I’d love about Paris was how many dogs roamed the streets–but roamed politely next to their humans. They often told me about the dogs who would be left, leash-less, outside the door of a cafe and wait patiently for their people to return. You’d be hard-pressed to find any dog in urban America who could do that. I like the French sense of canine companionship. Even though there is the danger of treating your dog like a human, the French seem to get the notion of a dog as a true companion. The dog goes everywhere I go; he sits with me in restaurants, he goes with me to the market, he rides in the basket of my bicycle. Grenier paints a portrait of the dog as a free and welcomed component of city living; it’s an image toward which I happily gravitate.

All in all, I loved this tiny book. I’d give it as a Christmas or birthday gift to someone else in my life who shared my unabashed love of dogs–and I’d give it without any embarrassment.

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