Going to the Dogs: Some Waggingly Good Tales | The Reader’s Shelf, June 1, 2013

Dogs are not just our best friends. As these books prove, they are also our saviors, traveling companions, and earnest and loving teachers.

In the early 1960s, John Steinbeck took a long and winding road trip across America with his poodle, Charley, by his side. Drawing on his sardonic wit, Steinbeck recorded many keen observations along the way. In general, he found a nation comprised of hardworking people with a strong national identity, but he also noted a concern about the future of our natural resources. Travels with Charley: In Search of America (Penguin. 2012. ISBN 9780143107002. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101615164) is a classic memoir, moving, visceral, and highly evocative of a time and place.

In Oogy: The Dog Only a Family Could Love (Grand Central. 2011. ISBN 9780446546300. pap. $13.99; ebk. ISBN 9780446574877), Larry Levin tells the story of his remarkable dog who showed up at just the right time. When Levin and his two sons took their terminally ill cat to the vet, they were greeted with lots of sloppy kisses from a rescue dog at the clinic. Even though Oogy had survived a tough early life, as bait in dogfights, he was full of love and boundless spirit. After being adopted by the Levin family, this miraculous dog with a lopsided face and only one ear made friends with everyone he met. Levin tells Oogy’s inspiring story in straightforward and simple prose, with a quick pace and a heartwarming tone.

Julie Klam’s smart and funny memoir reveals that love sometimes arrives in unexpected ways. You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness (Riverhead: Penguin Group [USA]. 2011. ISBN 9781594485411. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781101444733) details the many life lessons Klam learned once Otto, a bug-eyed Boston terrier, came into her life. Otto taught Klam about trust and patience, stubbornness and compromise. Over time, other dogs (as well as a husband and daughter) offered Klam abiding love and happiness.

Can a struggling alcoholic take an out-of-control Bernese mountain dog through the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test? Martin Kihn finds out in Bad Dog: A Love Story (Vintage. 2012. ISBN 9780307477460. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307379870). Bad Dog Hola has never been taught how to behave (she flunked out of two obedience schools) and thus this beast of a dog, huge, bounding, and seemingly ungovernable, creates havoc—a state of affairs with which Kihn is all too familiar. Through training, he and Hola each begin to heal. She gains some needed behavioral skills, and he overcomes his addiction issues and begins to rebuild his family. Kihn’s memoir is funny, honest, and compelling—and is as big-hearted as Hola herself.

When Associated Press journalist Paul Chutkow was living in India with his family, a mangy street dog charmed her way into their hearts. Finding her irresistible, they cleaned her up, nursed her back to health, and named her Zelda. When work took Chutow to Paris, Zelda went, too, and became the toast of the town when she helped the police solve a burglary. Loved by her traveling family, Zelda has enjoyed adventures in such enticing locales as Sardinia and the Napa Valley. Chutkow’s Zelda, The Queen of Paris: The True Story of the Luckiest Dog in the World (Lyons. 2011. ISBN 9780762771479. $22.95) offers the multiple pleasures of memoir, travelog, and dog story.

Rather than easing into retirement, Terry Darlington and his wife, Monica, decided, against all reason, to take a journey via a canal boat, which is just seven feet wide. As the Welsh couple made their way across the English Channel and into the heart of France, their dog, a whippet named Jim, journeyed with them into the fortified town of Carcassonne. In Narrow Dog to Carcassonne (Delta: Dell. 2008. ISBN 9780385342087. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780440337560), a hilarious and witty romp, Terry recounts the trip, chronicling their adventures and close calls and the ever wonderful company Jim provided.

In the endearing memoir Katie Up and Down the Hall: The True Story of How One Dog Turned Five Neighbors into a Family (Center Street: Hachette. 2012. ISBN 9781599952567. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781599953854), Glenn Plaskin shares how Katie, a blonde cocker spaniel, created a family out of the strangers living in a lower Manhattan apartment building. Ignoring all social rules of privacy, Katie runs the hallways and makes friends. She accompanies Plaskin on his job as a journalist and thus meets some of New York’s elite including Bette Midler and Ivana Trump. When the events of 9/11 overtake the city, Katie brings comfort and support. Sweetly charming and heartfelt, Plaskin’s tale is engagingly written and quickly paced.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net