Books for the News

A Bo-dacious Reading List for the First Pup

News leaked over the weekend about the resolution of a months-long national debate: who would become the Obama’s First Dog? The answer arrived Sunday, resplendent in his fluffy black fur: Bo, a six-month-old Portuguese water dog. A gift from Senator Edward Kennedy, a Portuguese water dog enthusiast, Bo will not be officially introduced to the nation until Tuesday, but already, photographs of the newest chew-toy destroyer in chief have the country sighing “awww!” Given that the headlines dominating the news today have gone to the dogs (sorry), we thought we’d offer a canine reading list to honor and welcome Bo.
jacket imageLest Bo should learn to dislike the national spotlight, he may take comfort in Roger Grenier’s conclusion that it’s not always easy to be a dog. On this literary dog walk, Grenier visits the great dogs of history and legend In forty-three self-contained and lovingly crafted vignettes. Beginning at the beginning, with Ulysses and his dog, Argos, the only creature to recognize him after years of absence, Grenier continues on to Virginia Woolf, who became the self-appointed biographer of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, to André Gide, whose diary records his bemusement at his dog’s propensity to mount his ancient cat. Grenier also surveys the opinions, writings, and experiences of men and women throughout history for clues to the mysterious symbiosis between people and dogs. He introduces us to Freud’s chow Lün, who was able to make him understand he was about to die; to Fala, FDR’s Scottish terrier, who now has his own statue in Washington; and to Michael and Jerry, the heroes of Jack London’s novels. We learn of the dog who shared Napoleon’s bed and of the dogs collected and deported from the city of Constantinople in 1910, sent to a desert island without food or water. Along the way, Grenier tells us about a few of the dogs who have occupied his own life and heart. Though the rapport between dogs and people remains a mystery, it is also, for him, the source of the purest form of love. (Read an excerpt here.)
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Should Bo ever feel a little, well, depressed, he would do well to turn to Alice Kuzniar’s Melacholia’s Dog. Bred to provide human companionship, dogs eclipse all other species when it comes to reading the body language of people. Dog owners hunger for a complete rapport with their pets; in the dog the fantasy of empathetic resonance finds its ideal. But cross-species communication is never easy. Dog love can be a precious but melancholy thing. An attempt to understand human attachment to the canis familiaris in terms of reciprocity and empathy, Melancholia’s Dog tackles such difficult concepts as intimacy and kinship with dogs, the shame associated with identification with their suffering, and the reasons for the profound mourning over their deaths. In addition to philosophy and psychoanalysis, Alice A. Kuzniar turns to the insights and images offered by the literary and visual arts—the short stories of Ivan Turgenev and Franz Kafka, the novels of J. M. Coetzee and Rebecca Brown, the photography of Sally Mann and William Wegman, and the artwork of David Hockney and Sue Coe. Without falling into sentimentality or anthropomorphization, Kuzniar honors and learns from our canine companions, above all attending the silences and sadness brought on by the effort to represent the dog as perfectly and faithfully as it is said to love.
jacket imageBut judging from those precious first portraits, Bo will prove to be a happy pup and a best friend to the President. He might, in the end, prefer the irreverence of Mark Derr’s Dog’s Best Friend. A comprehensive, humane, and bemused tour of the dog-human relationship, the book combines anecdote, research, and reportage to illuminate our complex rapport with our cherished canine companions. Tracking our national obsession with an animal that now outnumbers children in American households, Derr chronicles the evolution of “the culture of the dog” from the prehistoric domestication of tamed wolves to the modern horrors of overbreeding and inbreeding. Passionate about his subject and intent on sharing his zeal, Derr defends dogs with wit and flare, producing here a quirky, informative, and fitting tribute to our love affair with canines big and small.
Welcome Bo! You are the nation’s dog now.