Five new books about dogs

By Yvonne Zipp
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dogs are easy to love. Dog books are trickier.

For every "My Dog Skip" or "The Dog That Bit People," there's an author out there exploiting dogs' selflessness for his own mawkish ends. These folks are easy to spot. They inevitably kill off the dog. Exhibit A: A Dog's Purpose (Forge, $22.99), a new novel by W. Bruce Cameron, in which a dog is reincarnated repeatedly as he (and sometimes she) tries to figure out the meaning of his (or her) lives.

But if you want to read about a dog who's a real hero, try Susannah Charleson's refreshingly grounded memoir, Scent of the Missing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26). Charleson recounts the journey she and her golden retriever puppy took as Puzzle grew from a "fuzzy tater tot" to a search-and-rescue dog with a Dallas area K9 unit. Charleson has to train as intensively as her flirty blond partner, spending weekends learning to rappel from several stories up and run through burned-out buildings. The reward for all this hard work? Waking in the middle of the night to search for missing children, Alzheimer's patients and, in one instance, the remnants of the space shuttle Columbia. Did I mention she and Puzzle are volunteers? "We do it for service would be the summary response, and accurate too, but sounds a bit lofty, and canine SAR folk are not generally a lofty group," Charleson writes. "We trudge through Dumpsters too often, carry our dogs' warm poop bags too frequently to claim much glory."

Barrie Hawkins and his wife, Dorothy, aren't in it for the glory either. They turned their home in England into a rescue center for German shepherds, leading to an unexpected sideline in junkyard dogs. When Tea and Dog Biscuits (Chicago Review; paperback, $14.95) opens, Hawkins is trying to corral the largest one he's ever seen. As the dog -- dropped off without collar or leash -- explodes into the yard, who should show up but a tour bus of Cub Scouts led by a vicar. Then a little old lady collecting for charity helpfully opens the gate. The only thing missing is nuns pushing prams. Over the course of their first year, the Hawkinses take in animals that have been horrifyingly neglected (one hadn't been let out of his pen for eight years). Then there's the back-alley rescue of a dog who was kidnapped by a vengeful ex-boyfriend and taken to a vet to be put down. The Hawkinses find homes for them all. "Tea and Dog Biscuits" offers good-natured storytelling, judicious use of self-deprecating humor and a genuine love of its subject.

Then there are books that just don't seem to get dogs. For example, canines, on the whole, are not generally known for sarcasm. (But who knows, perhaps beagles secretly nurse a deep appreciation for irony.) In Pete Nelson's new novel, every time Paul comes home, his mixed-breed named Stella tells him, "I thought you were dead." When he reassures her, she sniffs dismissively, "Joy unbounded." Well, yes, in fact, dogs do exhibit joy unbounded when they see you. That's why most of us have dogs. To elicit that kind of response from any other housemate, you have to show up with a novelty-size check. I Thought You Were Dead (Algonquin, $23.95) has a low-key, indie-movie vibe, with Stella sounding like Juno's older, world-weary aunt and demonstrating perhaps the most complete lack of dogginess since Scrappy-Doo. When Stella's not around, "I Thought You Were Dead" is a fairly traditional middle-aged alcoholic's coming-of-age story, complete with unresolved parental issues and the kind of hyper-articulate and ultra-forgiving girlfriend found in real life about as often as a talking dog.

Where "A Dog's Purpose" is too effusive with its dog-as-guardian-angel shtick, Every Dog Has a Gift (Tarcher, $23.95), by Rachel McPherson, isn't effusive enough. It offers short articles detailing the work of therapy dogs in a purely informational style. McPherson's Good Dog Foundation has won awards for its work with the victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and these dogs have transformed the lives of everyone from autistic children to disabled veterans. But one wishes for a Jon Katz to tease out the storytelling possibilities here. Since the aim seems to be to inspire readers to give to the causes listed at the end of each "Closing Tails" section, dog lovers could always send a check to one and then do themselves a favor and sit down with "Tea and Dog Biscuits" or "Scent of the Missing."

Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor.

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