Review: My Dog Tulip

My Dog Tulip.

At least in the Western world, the English are somewhat famous for their undying love of dogs. James Herriott is the father of all modern country dog legends. The stereotype of the “stiff upper lip” does not apply to the national English feeling toward canines. Indeed, as J.R. Ackerley himself says in the beginning of this book, My Dog Tulip: “Unable to love each other, the English turn to dogs.”

All that to say, I was excited to read his memoir, which I have often heard about. I love dog memoirs (great ones like Dog Years and Pack of Two come to mind) and this one was about a proper Englishman, J.R. Ackerley, and his love affair with his Alsatian (aka German shepherd), Tulip. (Tulip’s actual name was “Queenie,” but Ackerley’s publishers made him change her name in the book, because they were worried that the dog’s name might become a derogatory, if oblique, reference to Ackerley’s sexual orientation.)

Instead of a charming memoir, though, this little book is really just the record of one Englishman’s positive MANIA to pimp out his dog. The poor girl. Aside from one chapter about the social difficulties of your dog defecating on the sidewalk, the rest of the book is about Tulip’s heat cycles, her vulva, and her long parade of unsuccessful suitors, including the long and tiresome descriptions of her failure to copulate.

As a side note, I am not surprised that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote the introduction to my edition and that she loved the book. (She would.) As you may recall, I have a rather low opinion of Thomas’s methods of dog rearing and it therefore was not surprising to me that she adored this book about one man’s unscrupulous treatment of his dog, her behavior, and her reproductive faculties.

Supposedly, this memoir was made into an animated film, but wow, that is not one film that I would ever want to see.

Unqualified, unconditional regard

Click for source.

“Another human being will never bring us to the same unqualified, unconditional regard that a dog does. Our full immersion in language brings with it qualification and condition; once we enter the world of signs, we can never again be so single-minded.”

— Mark Doty, Dog Years

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Happy weekend, everyone! Hope it is restful. I may be arranging a small play-date between Bo and Zoe while their owners are out of town. Should be fun! Let’s just up the Bo-ster isn’t too rambunctious for Zoe, the dignified older woman…

Review: Dog Years

Dog Years, by Mark Doty.

My husband is a poet in the process of earning his MFA. I read a lot–mostly literary novels, classics, and dog books, as you know–but I like to keep up with his side of the world, too. He always speaks very highly of the poet Mark Doty. Last year, at his urging, I read Doty’s beautiful collection My Alexandria. I loved it and have been interested in him and his work ever since.

You can imagine how thrilled I was when I found out that Doty had written a memoir about dogs. How perfect! The book is about dogs, yes, but it is primarily about grief, love, loss, and the hiddenness of the human soul. Dog Years covers the time during which Doty’s partner, Wally, died of AIDS and during which he had two dogs in his life, Arden and Beau, who shepherded him through this devastating loss.

While Wally is dying, Arden and Beau themselves are steadily aging. A large part of the book also deals with Doty processing Beau’s somewhat premature death from kidney failure. He adopted Beau from the local shelter when Beau was a young adult, perhaps one or two years old. Beau, a golden retriever, was so severely underweight at the time that the shelter had called him a “saluki mix” due to his sunken chest and visible ribs. Over time, however, Beau becomes a healthy, vibrant, funny dog who brings the standard amount of light and joy into Doty’s life.

These real stories from Doty’s life with his loves–Wally and his dogs–are so breathlessly beautiful and sad. They are never sappy. They are never excessively overwrought with emotion. Rather, this memoir of grief is so palpable and authentic that it is difficult to read without one’s eyes welling up.

I’ve already posted this passage from Dog Years before, but I want to quote it again, because to me, it captures why I care about dogs so much:

Being human is most likely a much lonelier endeavor than being a dog. Of course, many dogs spend a great deal of their time in solitude, waiting for someone to come home, for the world to begin again–but they live in a state of connectedness, it seems, that we have lost, if indeed we ever possessed it. Is that why we turn to them, they who are always ready to receive, to join in wholeheartedly, as we so often cannot? To be human is to be a watcher; sometimes even at our moments of great joy or great grief there is a part of us conscious of our being, observing that being. I do not think dogs have such a part; they are all right here, involved in whatever it is, and therefore they are a sort of cure for our great, abiding loneliness. A temporary cure, but a real one.

Doty recognizes this beautiful quality of the canine soul, the dog’s ability to enter into that “state of connectedness” that so often eludes us humans. And yet he is consistently a watcher himself. He dutifully records his emotions, his doubts, his rages. But he trusts Beau and Arden to guide him through the deeper, more difficult moments.

Quite simply, Dog Years is one of the most beautiful memoirs I’ve ever read, and I think I’ve read quite a few excellent ones. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone, especially with those who have loved and lost.

A state of connectedness

Click for source.

“Being human is most likely a much lonelier endeavor than being a dog. Of course, many dogs spend a great deal of their time in solitude, waiting for someone to come home, for the world to begin again–but they live in a state of connectedness, it seems, that we have lost, if indeed we ever possessed it. Is that why we turn to them, they who are always ready to receive, to join in wholeheartedly, as we so often cannot? To be human is to be a watcher; sometimes even at our moments of great joy or great grief there is a part of us conscious of our being, observing that being. I do not think dogs have such a part; they are all right here, involved in whatever it is, and therefore they are a sort of cure for our great, abiding loneliness. A temporary cure, but a real one.”

— Mark Doty, Dog Years

(One of my favorite passages from the wonderful memoir.) Happy Friday, everyone!

Review: Dogged Pursuit

Dogged Pursuit, by Robert Rodi

Initial comment: Thanks, everyone, for all of the kind and encouraging comments this weekend. I was floored and flattered to be featured on “Freshly Pressed” on the WordPress home page. Your input has been so valuable to me! I hope that Doggerel will continue to be a fruitful and useful guide to the wide world of canine pursuits. With that, and my humble gratitude, here’s a semi-scathing book review… — Abby

This book had a lot of potential to be an interesting memoir. The subtitle is “My Year of Competing Dusty, the World’s Least Likely Agility Dog.” I read a few agility blogs and am interested in the sport as a whole, particularly since the dogs I’m interested in tend to be fairly good at agility.

But I found Dogged Pursuit, by Robert Rodi, to be almost unbearable. Mainly because Rodi comes off as such a pretentious jerk. I’m sure he’s probably a very nice human in “real life,” but his writing persona was so arrogant and off-putting to me.

The book chronicles Rodi’s journey of adopting Dusty, a nervous wreck of a Shetland sheepdog, from a sheltie rescue agency in Illinois. Rodi decides to get Dusty after his agility champion dog, Carmen, another sheltie, is forced into retirement by an injury. Clearly, he is adopting Dusty to turn him into a champion athlete. Which is fine. But it seems like that’s the only reason Rodi wants another dog. Throughout the book, Rodi expresses not a shred of affection for Dusty. Which is also fine–the dog does sound like a disaster–but it’s also not particularly endearing when you’re reading a canine memoir.

From the beginning, Rodi wants his readers to know how extremely cultured and educated he is. He wants you to remember, constantly, that he just “doesn’t fit in” with his fellow agility aficionados. He reads Tom Stoppard; they read Tom Clancy. He eats pancetta and pappardelle; they eat pizza rolls. In every chapter, he has to detail why he chose this particular, delicate Dvorak symphony for his drive to the next trial. Ugh. I think he keeps harping on how sophisticated he is for comic effect, but it falls completely flat. Instead, Rodi just comes off looking like a pretentious ass.

But that’s not even his most egregious vice.

What’s more upsetting to me about Dogged Pursuit is that Rodi is blatantly breaking what, to me, should be the cardinal rule of agility: You should only compete in agility if your dog genuinely loves agility. If agility trials turn your dog into a bundle of snapping nerves and you have to drag him out of a crate to compete, maybe you shouldn’t be competing in agility. Rodi never gets this. He forces this poor, anxious dog from trial to trial, desperately trying to prove something with this trembling creature, and for what? The dog certainly doesn’t care about qualifying for Regionals; Rodi does. And this dog doesn’t even enjoy being here. So stop. Shut it down, Rodi. Go home and stop dragging your dog to agility trials. He clearly hates it.

So, what did I learn? If decide to try agility one day, I’ll just do the opposite of everything Rodi did. In that sense, I suppose this book was helpful.

Review: Bad Dog: A Love Story

Bad Dog: A Love Story, by Martin Kihn

I’m skeptical, as you know, about dog-centric memoirs. They’re almost always too sappy. Thankfully, this new book by writer Martin Kihn doesn’t allow itself to become saccharine. Rather, it’s the tough and motivating story of the author’s struggle with alcoholism, a failing marriage, and one very big and very bad dog.

The book chronicles a dark time in Kihn’s life. He can’t stop drinking. His dog–a Bernese mountain dog named Hola–attacked his wife. His wife moved out. He joins a support group, only to find out later that his sponsor had been lying to him about being clean the whole time.

To prove to his wife that he and Hola can get their lives together, Kihn decides to train Hola to pass the Canine Good Citizen test. This is an AKC-sponsored obedience test that is the foundation for dogs who want to go on to therapy work and more advanced obedience. Its tenets, however, were designed to show that “ordinary” dogs can exist politely in society. Hola doesn’t seem to know what this means. At all.

I breezed through the book–the style is light and very informal–but enjoyed following Kihn through his introduction to the bizarre world of obedience junkies. It is a strange world filled with big women in fanny packs, but Kihn learns to navigate it successfully–and Hola is finally awarded her CGC certification in the end. You’re proud of her–but mostly you’re proud of Kihn. The success is his and you finish the book wishing him and Hola a long and happy life together.