Lessons from Lucy, by Dave Barry***-****

3.5 rounded up; thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy.

Dave is seventy, and his dog Lucy is up there in years as well. Unlike most of Barry’s essays and books, this one has a reflective aspect and a bit of advice for those nearing or entering their senior years. There’s still a great deal of humor, but there’s a gently philosophical self-help thrust not present in his earlier work. As a 60-year-old retired reader that loves her dog, I represent his target demographic. And I also have to say—his demographic is clearly Caucasian, and this made me a mite uncomfortable. I’ll get back to that in a minute. I have to, since apparently no other reviewer anywhere is going to address it. *

Dave breaks his advice down into seven suggestions, all of which are in some way inspired by Lucy. None of his points are especially new or profound, but because he is so capable in describing and explaining them, he makes old tired advice seem worthy of my attention. A number of his observations left me nodding my head, and he includes liberal humorous anecdotes that in some cases, made me laugh out loud. And here I will put on my teacher hat and tell you that brain studies reveal that learning is easier when there is positive emotion that goes with it.

Dave wants senior citizens to stop merely being content—which is exactly what I am—and take the occasional trip out of our comfort zones. He describes a family trip to a wildlife preserve in Africa to illustrate his point, and his story is so hysterical that it leaves me gasping for air. I can never imagine myself participating, as Dave has, in a parade involving decorated lawnmowers, but I love reading about it. And he reminds senior men to find their friends and tell them how important they are. A great many men have friends that are very important, and that they haven’t talked to in person or even by phone for years. What are you waiting for? At some point, one of you will be dead, and then the survivor will realize his mistake. Barry argues for seizing the moment. (He also makes me glad I am female. My friends hear from me all the damn time, and when I leave the planet, they will know what they meant to me.)

I began reading Barry’s work in the 1980s, and during the ‘90s and ‘00s, I used one of his columns, “How to Play with a Dog,” to teach middle school students expository writing. Step by step, he told us how to do it, and in the most enjoyable way; and that’s what expository writing is. Kids that didn’t like to write sat up and listened to this. It is a genius piece of work, and because of this, and because of the long period during which I loved each and every thing he wrote, this book receives a favorable rating from me. Because there’s also a big problem with it. Keep reading.

I loved the way Barry skewers the whole ‘mindfulness’ shtick even as he also advocates for some of its better aspects. When he digs into the topic of the diversity workshop, I feel a little hitch in my breathing, a twinge of anxiety. I read Dave Barry Does Japan, and the things he said about the Japanese demonstrated that his understanding of other races and cultures needs an upgrade. Here he tells us that his wife is half Cuban, half Jewish, so we know he’s probably not an alt-right white supremacist, but at the same time, some of the jokes he makes are cringe-worthy at best. When he tells us that if he was ever forced to sit through another diversity workshop (as was required by the Miami Herald,) he would join the Klan and the Black staff members would go with him, I slumped. Aw, shit. Dave, statements like this are why diversity training even exists. If there’s a training and you are invited, run there and get you a real good seat. In fact, there’s a chance that other staffers had to go to a workshop that was mostly aimed at you!

I have had a similar experience with 3 or 4 other books I’ve reviewed, and there’s always someone out there that will leave a comment saying it’s ridiculous to fuss over one little sentence in the book. In anticipation, I have an analogy just for those people, and here it is:

imagine you have been invited to a potluck supper. You hand your contribution, maybe a bowl of potato salad to the host to add to the collection of food, and you grab a plate. There are three long tables, and you move down the row selecting from among the crispy fried chicken, the smoky ribs, watermelon, three-alarm chili, coleslaw, nachos, garden salad, pasta salad, fruit salad, a bowl of human excrement, baked squash with cinnamon, homemade cherry pie, key lime pie, shrimp salad, pesto salad, deviled eggs, and of course, your own contribution, the potato salad. But once you sit down, your appetite has fled, hasn’t it? You came in feeling hungry. You skipped a meal before this thing, cause you knew there’d be a lot of good things to eat. And of course, when you passed that bowl of human poo, you didn’t take any of it, and like everyone else, you politely diverted your eyes away from it once you were satisfied that it was exactly what it looked like. What the hell…? After a glance around the room to see whether a joke is about to be sprung, or at least a conversation had about this inappropriate addition, you edge toward the garbage, where you quietly deposit your uneaten meal, and then you edge toward the door…all because of that one thing.

Why would you toss a plateful of delicious food merely because there was one distasteful thing on the table? Because neither you nor your food could be close to that mess for even a minute.

So that’s how I see the Klan reference. It’s hard to chuckle after a bomb like that has been included, and he even includes a snarky remark after it about the fact that some will be offended, which comes off like an extended middle finger to anyone that doesn’t like a Klan-friendly joke.

And maybe that’s how it rolls with him; he has all the money he needs, and he doesn’t care if there are people that don’t like what he wrote. But I cannot for the life of me understand why someone would write a memoir like this, one intended to provide an excellent philosophy for his aging readers, one which will also be a part of his legacy after he’s gone, and then include something that will hurt some of the people that read it. I just don’t get it.

Do I recommend this book to you? From where I sit, if you want it, don’t pay full price for it. I wouldn’t buy it for anyone I like, but now you have my take on it, so the as always, the decision rests with you.

*Sigh!

Being a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz****

beingadogHorowitz is the author of Inside of a Dog, and here she follows it up with an examination of the sensory experiences a dog encounters, primarily that of smell.  I received my DRC courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. And though I’ve never been a science maven, Horowitz’s unbridled enthusiasm for dogs had me at hello. It’s a book bound to engage any dog lover.

So, do you have a dog?

I’ve had a dog nearly all of my 58 years, with a brief interim here and there.  I’ve never been dogless long, though; either a dog has found me, or I’ve gone looking for one. And so I was glad of the opportunity to read more about what makes my dog—right now it’s Ox, the oversized beagle puppy—work. I’d read a fair amount about dogs, particularly beagles, my favorite breed, and I thought I was well schooled, but I learned a great deal from Horowitz that I hadn’t known before, or in one main instance, in a way I had known intellectually, but not in my gut.

Almost every dog lover has heard at some point that a dog tends to be governed by its smell, and that this is its dominant sense. But until Horowitz took it apart for me and gave me the details, I didn’t grasp the implications. For example, when we throw the ball, the dog pauses before running after it, right? And with our last little dog, my husband and I would note that he wasn’t really looking in the right place, and we concluded that he was as dumb as a box of rocks. We’d yell; we’d point to it. And eventually, after he had sniffed its perimeter, he’d hone in on the ball and bring it back. And this book explains why that is exactly the correct way to do the job, if one is a hound (or other dog) rather than a human.

Sight is so important to us humans; next comes hearing. If we are in a carnival’s haunted house, and if the first room is sightless and soundless, what do we do? Do we sniff? Of course not! We fling out our arms in front of us or to the sides, partly to find out where things are, and partly to protect ourselves from slamming our face into a hard surface. And now when I consider Ox’s sense of scent, after which is hearing, I realize that by the time he has to look at something, he’s probably gained most of the information he needs already. Why would we fling our hands out in an ungainly manner if we can see and hear? And so indeed, why would my beagle do a visual scan if he can find what he wants through the use of sniffed air currents and hearing? After all, he always brings the toy back to us.

Chapters that engaged me less contained miniature chemistry and physics lessons, never my favorite, and some had longer passages having to do with human olfactory sense than I really wanted to read. I confess after the first few times the author moved from dogs’ senses back to those of humans I skimmed until we were back to the dogs.

There was so much here I hadn’t seen. For example, where does one find the best material for search and rescue dogs, or arson, bomb, drug, cadaver dogs, and so forth? I’ll give you a hint: I was crushed to find out that my beloved hound dogs aren’t necessarily the favorites here.  But it sure is interesting!

Once I had read this book, I felt that I knew my dog a lot better, and this new information solved many of Ox’s previously puzzling habits. To learn more, check out Horowitz’s new release, which became available to the public yesterday.

Because although I don’t know whether a dog is man’s best friend…I know he’s mine.