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Dog Memoirs Will Fetch, Sit And Stay On Your Shelf

Jul 3, 2012
Originally published on July 3, 2012 2:13 pm

The Morning Edition mailboxes are always overflowing with books sent by publishers. And recently, a fair number have fallen into a category you might call "dog memoirs" — books about how dogs transform their owners' lives.

Ever since the success of Marley & Me, it seems publishers are looking for the next big dog — or little dog. We wondered if any of the more recent dog memoirs are any good, so we started to collect them. And then we turned over a whole stack to NPR's own Julie Rovner. You know her for her coverage of health care policy, but what you may not know is that she's a dog lover and proud owner of a champion Corgi named Gromit.

Most recently, Rovner has been working her way through Jill Abramson's The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout and You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness by Julie Klam. "I actually liked them both," Rovner tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. Abramson is better known as the executive editor of The New York Times, and Rovner says that reporting background is apparent in her writing. "She clearly went at this when she was training this dog ... and whenever she had a problem, she went out and interviewed an expert."

Rovner says You Had Me at Woof is a lighter read, and one she enjoyed because of the author's interest in Boston terriers and dog rescue operations. "This is something I think that's really not very well understood by a lot of people," Rovner says. "Everybody thinks ... you have a choice when you want a dog. You go to the breeder and you buy a purebred dog, or you go to a shelter and you adopt a mixed-breed dog." But, she adds, there's a third way: breed-specific rescue groups that take in the dogs people can no longer care for. "So if you want a Boston terrier, there'll be a Boston terrier rescue, and that's what this woman is involved with."

Not all of the dog memoirs in Rovner's pile were so lighthearted. Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him is by Luis Carlos Montalvan, a U.S. Army captain wounded in Iraq. Rovner says there has been some dispute about the military actions depicted in the book, but that doesn't detract from the story of a man and his dog. "This is a guy who clearly went through something very difficult, and really opened himself up to write about it, and it's really a beautifully written book."

Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred by Josh Dean is not quite a dog memoir; it's about the business of purebred dogs and the shows they compete in. Rovner says she particularly wanted to read this book because she and Gromit compete in obedience and agility shows, which are often held in conjunction with what she calls the "pretty dog" shows.

Dean followed a top show dog for a year to get an idea of how much a show campaign costs. "But he's also just a big fan of dogs, and he writes with an infectious style," Rovner says. She points out one passage in which Dean explores a dog show and decides his new favorite breed is the Norwegian Lundehund, which possesses an unusually jointed neck and can touch its forehead to its back, "which is both functional and a cool party trick," as Dean writes.

Rovner looked at close to a dozen dog books, and she says she was surprised to find herself enjoying all of them. "I should say, I was not a big fan of Marley & Me, so the fact that I liked all these books, I'm kind of a hard sell," she says.

And there was one more book in Rovner's stack: Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die by Jon Katz. "[He's] probably my favorite dog writer, although I will warn people that he's such a lovely writer that he ... tends to make me cry," she says. "I have at least twice ended up in tears on an airplane reading a Jon Katz book." Pets are family members, Rovner says, and many people don't really know how to cope with losing them — but Going Home can help.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Here at MORNING EDITION, we see a lot of books, publishers send them to us. And we've noticed a fair number fall into a category we might call Dog Memoirs. That is, books about how dogs transform their owners lives. Ever since the release of "Marley and Me," it seems publishers are looking for the next big dog, or little dog.

We wondered if any of the more recent dog memoirs are any good. So we started to collect them, and then turned the whole stack over to NPR's own Julie Rovner. You know her for her coverage of healthcare policy. What you probably don't know is that she is a dog lover and the proud owner of a Corgi named Gromit. Lately, she's been plowing through titles like "You Had Me At Woof," and "The Puppy Diaries."

Julie, welcome

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Nice to be here, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So, the books I just mentioned, what did you think of those two?

ROVNER: I actually liked them both. The "Puppy Diaries," let's start with that one, was written by Jill Abramson who I think many people will recognize as now the editor of The New York Times. This one I think I identified with because it was a book in which she was going from one breed of dog to another breed of dog, which is what I did. I used to have Labrador Retrievers, now I have a Corgi.

But you could really tell that it was written by a newspaper reporter, because she clearly went at this when she was training this dog - and her new dog is a Golden Retriever and she used to have a West Highland white terrier. So she went from a little dog to a big dog. And whenever she had a problem, she went out and interviewed an expert.

(LAUGHTER)

ROVNER: And it shows up in the book. It was quite a nice read. And I actually know a lot of people who read the book and said they didn't like it. I really liked it very much.

WERTHEIMER: "You Had Me At Woof."

ROVNER: "You Had Me At Woof" is a book by a writer named Julie Klam who's more of a magazine writer. It's a lighter read. One of the reasons I liked this book in particular, she is an aficionado of the Boston terrier. These are little dogs with big googly eyes. And she's into dog rescue, and this is something I think that's really not very well understood by a lot of people, that everybody thinks you either have a choice when you want a dog. You either go to a breeder and buy a purebred dog, or you go to the shelter and you adopt a mixed-breed dog.

There's actually a third way to get a dog. There are these rescue groups that are run mostly by purebred breeder groups. And what happens is when someone can't keep a dog anymore - family moves, an owner dies, something happens - they turn them over to the rescue groups and they adopt...

WERTHEIMER: That is specific to the breed.

ROVNER: ...specific to the breed. So if you want a Boston terrier, there will be a Boston terrier rescue. That's what this woman is involved with. It's a very amusing book about some of the dogs that she has both fostered, kept for a period of time to adopt out, and some of them she ended up keeping.

(LAUGHTER)

ROVNER: But there are every - every breed pretty much has a rescue. So if you want a Golden Retriever, you can go Google Golden Retriever Rescue or Labrador Retriever or a Boston terrier. There is a rescue group pretty much for every breed, which is one of things I particularly liked about the book. But it was also a really fun read.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there is a sub-genre of dog memoirs, a lot of them having to do with war with titles like "Sergeant Rex" and "Soldier Dogs." We gave you one called "Until Tuesday."

ROVNER: This was not a light read. Of the ones that I read, this was probably the heaviest to read. It was by a veteran named Luis Carlos Montalvan, who's probably well-known to listeners of this network as an Iraq War protestor. He came back, had two tours in Iraq and wrote about how this Golden Retriever named Tuesday really helped him heal from his PTSD.

Now, I should mention that there has been some dispute about some of the actions that went on in Iraq; whether or not his injuries were severe as he said they were. But I think that really doesn't detract from the book itself, and from some of the things that he went through with the dog, and how the dog has really helped him. And it's really very heartfelt memoir.

And it's really sort of remarkable to see, you know, a man in particular. Most dog books are written by women, about women and their dogs.

(LAUGHTER)

ROVNER: This is a guy who clearly went through something very difficult and really opened himself up to write about it. And it's really a beautifully written book.

WERTHEIMER: There's a book that is not quite a dog memoir. It's about the business of purebred dogs called "Show Dog," by Josh Dean. What about that?

ROVNER: You know, I particularly wanted to read this one. I compete in obedience and agility. And many of the obedience shows are held in conjunction with what I call the pretty dog shows, the confirmation shows. And Josh Dean is a magazine writer who spent an entire year following around a very beautiful, and very successful Australian shepherd named Jack.

It starts and ends at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. And he trailed around with this dog, its owner, its handlers, the breeder, to see really what it takes to...

WERTHEIMER: The manicurist. The pedicurist.

(LAUGHTER)

ROVNER: Yeah, to campaign a top dog, how much it cost, what you go through. But he's also just a big fan of dogs, and he writes with a very infectious style. At one point, he was at a show where Jack, I think, left early. So he started walking around and he found his new favorite dog of the weekend, was this Norwegian Lundehund. I loved his description here.

He said: Finally, the Lundehund is the only breed with an intentional U-neck that can turn 180 degrees to either side or straight back, enabling the dog to touch its forehead to its back, which is both functional and a cool party trick.

(LAUGHTER)

ROVNER: And the book is full of just all kinds of dog trivia like that. Anything that he saw that caught his fancy, he would just go off and talk to as many people as he could. And he put as much of that as he could in the book, which makes it - if you're really into dogs - a really, really fun read.

WERTHEIMER: You had about a dozen books. We've had a lot of dog books come in this year. What's your overall impression?

ROVNER: My overall impression is they're pretty good. You know, I should say, I was not a big fan of "Marley & Me," so I mean the fact that I liked all these books, I'm kind of a hard sell when it goes to them.

I should mention, I read one more book by John Katz who is probably my favorite dog writer. Although, I will warn people that he's such a lovely writer that he tends to make me cry, at least. I have at least twice ended up in tears on an airplane reading a John Katz book. And his latest is about how to cope with the death of a pet, which is really an important subject.

You know, pets really do - they're family members and pets do die. And you do have to cope to that and people really don't know how. And I think his latest book, which is called "Going Home," is really a lovely little treatise on how to cope.

WERTHEIMER: OK. So, Julie, a dozen books on dogs and obviously you weeded them out and gave us the ones you liked the best. But, you prepared to take on cats?

ROVNER: I'm not really a cat person.

(LAUGHTER)

ROVNER: So I'm going to stick with dogs.

WERTHEIMER: OK. NPR's Julie Rovner is the proud owner of Gromit. Gromit is a Corgi who likes to compete on agility courses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITIOIN from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.