If you must, you may call me a dog lover, but the truth is I haven’t partnered up with a pooch since my childhood sidekick Bessie, female runt of a German shepherd litter. (It’s said German shepherds were renamed Alsatians in the aftermath of Word War I to render them more politically palatable to the English and the Americans. Don’t feel sorry for those critters, however, since even the British royal family found it expedient to switch their heritage from the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the House of Windsor, as we know them now.) You might even say I currently play for the other team. Nevertheless, I get silly around dogs, talking to them in funny voices, offering my hand and proffering pats and lavish admiration. So far not a single member of the tribe has indulged in more than sniffs and licks, so I must be doing something right. Maybe it’s because I’ve a massive penchant for books about dogs—which is to say, fine books about dogs. Marley and Me is a quick, light read, and I’ve no special beef with it, but in this case I’m talking about substantial works that speak more deeply, fervently, and intelligently of canines and humans and the rich intricacies of their relationships. Hence:
King: A Street Story by John Berger
It beats me why Berger hasn’t won the Nobel for literature, yet he hasn’t. But you can get ahead of the game with this book. Don’t let the fact that it’s my favorite Berger novel sway you, hell no! Because it’s also one of my all-time favorite reads ever. It’s rough and tough, sweet and bitter, fine and raucous, beautiful and ugly, pro- and anti- and any number of contradictory combinations that add up to a finest-kind read. The title character, King, is streetwise, leadership-able, and as courageous as he is discerning. No one could have a better guardian, and that’s what King is to a poverty-ridden elder couple forced to subsist on the ghettoized edges of a rich European city, where every day is a hand-to-mouth struggle. King’s pack includes his doggy mates and his human adoptees; he has a purpose, which is to see goodness and justice line up as they should—alas, not the way of the world. But not for the lack of King’s protean efforts, great heart, and wise head.
Timbuktu by Paul Auster
This is another guardian story. Ostensibly the male human (Willy G. Christmas, homeless, but from Brooklyn nevertheless) is the guardian of a rescued pooch (Mr. Bones) who must find a new home before Willy expires (he’s in a bad way). But who is to say who guards whom? Who nurtures whom? What’s clear is that the threads of this profound relationship knit together in many ways, and the reader is privileged to bear witness to a story that makes a home for the homeless in us all.
Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Greg Paulson
This is a stealth book … but not for long. Just a few pages in readers begin to chuckle, and soon it’s difficult to avoid laughing out loud with delight. Another aspect of its stealth has to do with its seemingly underground, yet universal, appeal. There’s simply no one who doesn’t get a kick out of this book, and if one such should happen to exist I dare say a heart is not beating within the relevant chest. I’m not much taken with true stories, but this book happens to be a good one: a Minnesota man who decides his greatest ambition is to run the famous Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska, and sets about doing so with no expertise whatever with dogs or sleds or gear. Even snow seems to be a less-than-known quantity for someone already living in a northern clime. It takes a (gloriously funny) while for the writer to gather together the entities, skills, and tools he needs, and it only gets better from there. (At least twice a year I re-read the skunk episode and die laughing yet again.) It’s not all delightful, however. The Iditarod is serious business, and not everyone who competes is devoted to the well-being of dogs—or humans. Paulson has the soul of a gifted raconteur who respects his dogs and his readers.
By definition, this series at Like Fire is a threesome—but since I am infamously innumerate, allow me to slip in two more titles which are de rigueur, both by Jack London: The Call of the Wild and White Fang.
You’re all topped up now—sit! stay! go read!
(Image is “Studio Portrait of 3 Dogs” by Julius Hall, late 19th c., courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.)