Review: Rin Tin Tin

Rin Tin Tin, by Susan Orlean.

Susan Orlean, best known for her book The Orchid Thief, which was turned into the film “Adaptation,” hasn’t written anything for a long time. So when I heard that her new book was about a dog, and specifically, about a famous German shepherd, I thought I ought to read it.

Orlean is a talented writer. She moves effortlessly between stories and her work here on “the life and the legend” of Rin-Tin-Tin is evidently very well researched. She spent hours interviewing the remaining ties to Rin-Tin-Tin’s legacy and provides many thoughtful and fascinating anecdotes about old Hollywood, dogs as actors, and the rise and fall of the German shepherd in America.

Overall, however, I have to say that this book did not completely hold my interest. There was nothing “wrong” with it, nothing I patently disagreed with, but I had a hard time finding the story interesting. I think maybe this is because I was not alive when Rin-Tin-Tin (or his many successors) were on film or television. Orlean says at the beginning of the book that her motivation to write a biography of Rin-Tin-Tin came from an early childhood memory of her grandfather’s German shepherd figurine, a token pointing to the mythical and noble Rin-Tin-Tin. She had a strong emotional connection to Rinty’s story, and this does come through effectively in this book. And yet because I did not already have a profound emotional connection to the legendary dog, I think I had a harder time getting into the book itself.

Simply, if you’re a Rin-Tin-Tin fan, then this is the book you need to read. Orlean is a meticulous and expressive storyteller and researcher and her work here is commendable. But, if you’re like me and you don’t consider yourself especially close to Rin-Tin-Tin, your time may be better spent elsewhere. I think this was a book written for true Rin-Tin-Tin fans only.

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Review: Flush, a Biography

Flush, a Biography, by Virginia Woolf

Most people who know me know two things about me: that I am obsessed with dogs and Virginia Woolf.

You can imagine my delight when, many years ago, I learned that Woolf had written a biography of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beloved cocker spaniel, Flush. My two favorite things, together at last! I wrote my honors thesis on Woolf and her portrayal of mothers as artists in her novels, but never got around to reading Flush as part of my research.

At long last, this summer, I finally picked it up. For a deep Woolf devotee as myself, I could not be disappointed. And I wasn’t. Flush is a delightful, humorous memoir of the great love between a woman and her spaniel. Woolf naturally takes a good deal of creative license with this “biography”–since Flush and Barrett Browning lived many decades before her time–but taking creative license is what Woolf does best.

Flush is funny and charming, just like the loyal spaniel himself. Rumor has it that Woolf developed much of the portrait of Flush based on her own English cocker spaniel, Pinka.

I think what I was most surprised and delighted by was how well Woolf seemed to understand dogs. Reportedly, she was not as much of a dog person as her husband, Leonard, was, but she was clearly attentive to them. Her approximation of a dog’s perspective seems to be quite accurate, judging from what we now know about a dog’s power of scent compared to our own.

Listen to this passage from the novel, in which Flush gets carried away by an overpowering and alluring scent:

But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger, more lacerating than any–a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts, releasing a million memories–the smell of hare, the smell of fox. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. He forgot his mistress; he forgot all humankind. He heard dark men cry ‘Span! Span!’ He heard whips crack. He raced; he rushed. At last he stopped bewildered; the incantation faded; very slowly, wagging his tail sheepishly, he trotted back across the fields to where Miss Mitford stood shouting ‘Flush! Flush! Flush!’ and waving her umbrella.

“He forgot all humankind.” How often I have seen a dog do the same thing! The beauty of Flush, besides uniting my two great loves, was to remind me to think more like a dog. Woolf certainly seemed to be able to–and she channels this ability into a delightful fictional memoir of one very loved spaniel.