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These Books Have Gone to the Dogs

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These Books Have Gone to the Dogs

Books

These Books Have Gone to the Dogs

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A book about a dog - yes, a dog - has been at or near the top of the non-fiction best-seller list for about a year now. Given the rabid success of that title, Marley and Me, we've asked librarian Nancy Pearl to suggest some other notable books featuring, although not necessarily written by canines.

Nancy, welcome to the program once again.

NANCY PEARL: Thank you. It's great to be here.

INSKEEP: Have you got a dog?

PEARL: I did have a dog, but now I live in a very small apartment so I didn't think it would be fair to a dog.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, you want dogs in your books?

PEARL: Well, first of all, I just have to say that one of the best perhaps apocryphal lines of Bennett Cerf - someone once asked Bennett Cerf, the great Random House founder, how he could guarantee a best-seller, and Bennett Cerf said write a book about Lincoln's doctor's dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: I think I read that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Although what happened to old adage that actors have: Never share the stage with a child or a dog.

PEARL: Oh, that's true. And what happens in many of the books that I brought is the dogs actually steal the show; that the dogs perhaps appear to be a minor character, but when you finish reading them you realize that it's the dog that you remember and that you want to take home with you.

INSKEEP: May I begin with a classic that's at the top of our stack of books here, a book that I'd heard about but never read until you gave me this assignment: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. What happens here?

PEARL: In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck decided that he had kind of lost touch with America - and this was after his great awards, the Nobel prize and after he had written East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath - and what he decided to do was pack a pickup truck, very well outfitted with an enormous amount of liquor. I mean the amount of liquor he took in that pickup truck was staggering to me.

But then he and his standard poodle Charley went off to see America. And it was in 1960. And reading it, you get this very, both nostalgic sense both in good and bad ways because the things he found in America were not always the best that we had to offer.

But you also see how much Charley, this wonderful, wonderful standard poodle, really becomes in a way Steinbeck's altar ego, his passport to talk to other people, because who can resist a dog, especially a dog as charming as Charley was.

INSKEEP: Nice dog, and the conversation is started. There you go.

PEARL: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Now the next book on our list is Timbuktu. I'm just pulling it off the stack here - Paul Auster. And of course there is a picture of a lovely dog on the front.

PEARL: A mutt.

INSKEEP: What's the story here? What's Timbuktu?

PEARL: Well, Timbuktu is a story narrated, actually, by Mr. Bones, a dog who has lived since he was a pup with a man named Willy G. Christmas.

INSKEEP: It's the master/dog relationship from the perspective of the dog.

PEARL: Yes. And the situation is now that Willy and Mr. Bones have been together a very long time. Mr. Bones realizes that Willy is very sick and is in fact on the verge of dying. And Mr. Bones knows, because Willy has told him over and over again, that when humans die they go to Timbuktu. And Mr. Bones has gotten into his head, he loves the sort of - the way that word flows.

But he's not sure whether dogs go to Timbuktu or not. And he doesn't want to leave Willy at all and that is very, very worrisome to him. And he says - at one point he says: What if Timbuktu turned out to be one of those places with fancy carpets and expensive antiques? What if no pets were allowed? It didn't seem possible, and yet Mr. Bones had lived long enough to know that anything was possible, that impossible things happened all the time. Perhaps this was one of them. And in that perhaps hung a thousand dreads and agonies, an unthinkable horror that gripped him every time he thought about it.

INSKEEP: Mr. Bones is a good writer.

PEARL: Mr. Bones is a great writer.

INSKEEP: Well, let's move right on to Lucky in the Corner, a novel by Carol Anshaw. And for some reason, they again have decided to put a cute dog on the cover. I can't imagine why this is happening.

PEARL: Because every dog-lover will pick that book up and they will be so lucky. This is one of my all-time favorite novels. And it's a novel about family relationships. But in fact the being whom you come to love when you read this book is Lucky.

The main characters are Nora and her 21-year-old daughter Fern, who's never really forgiven her mother for coming out as a lesbian and leaving her father. And then there's Nora's cross-dressing brother Harold and his alter ego Dolores.

INSKEEP: Typical family, yeah.

PEARL: And Fern's best friend Tracy. But the characters in this book - what really sets this book apart are the characters, including Lucky, who are presented with such honesty by Carol Anshaw that you just root for them and kind of wish them well as they meander their way through what's often a difficult, turbulent and sometimes unfair life. I loved this book, Steve.

INSKEEP: Now the next book, Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs, the publisher took a great risk by not putting a dog on the cover but a broken heart actually. What's going on here?

PEARL: Well, that's because the dog in Foreign Affairs is invisible. It's a dog named Fido, and it accompanies a professor named Virginia Miner whenever she's feeling depressed and sorry for herself. In fact, Fido, this invisible dog, is someone who represents self-pity. And here's how this begins:

(Reading) On a cold, blowy February day, a woman is boarding the 10 a.m. flight to London followed by an invisible dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PEARL: Now could you stop? I don't think so.

INSKEEP: My first question is how do you handle that at security?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PEARL: Well, this was again a more innocent time.

INSKEEP: Well, let's bring up another book on this stack. City by - how do you say that name?

PEARL: Clifford Simak.

INSKEEP: Clifford Simak.

PEARL: Ah, now here's another fabulous book. This is science fiction. The stories were written in the 1940s. It was originally published in the 1950s, out again in a beautiful anniversary centennial edition of Clifford Simak's works. And City is set at a time in the far future when mankind has left Earth for the stars and all that's left on earth are dogs, who have taken over. And they sit around the campfire at night and they wonder whether man really existed or whether he was just some myth that the dogs in the past had invented, a kind of creator myth.

INSKEEP: Oh, I love this.

PEARL: And they're interconnected stories, but in each one you see how this dystopian Earth has led to man's abandoning it.

INSKEEP: You know, this reminds me of another writer of almost the same generation - he's a little younger I think - Ray Bradbury.

PEARL: Yes, yes.

INSKEEP: These far-out stories that make you think really big thoughts.

PEARL: Yes. And Clifford Simak is one of the best science fiction writers for doing exactly that kind of thing. Way Station is another one of his great books. No dogs there, or I would have brought it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: There we go. It's just lovely to talk with you again, Nancy.

PEARL: Thank you. It's great to be here.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl is the author of Book Lust and More Book Lust. Her reading recommendations, along with excerpts from the books, are at npr.org.

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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