I love to read about dogs, especially books that teach new behavioral theories, offer training tips and provide information about dog care.
But sometimes I just want to read a book for the sake of reading a book, and that’s when I pick up an engaging and entertaining novel I can savor while relaxing, preferably on the beach.
When I find novels about dogs, it’s like chocolate and peanut butter. I’ve found that the very best fiction focuses on our very best friends. If you feel this way too, check out these five novels by outstanding authors, all of which are told from human and canine points of view.
I have to warn you that although these books are extremely well written, they’re also weird, sad and often disturbing … just like me.
1. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
By Dave Wroblewski. One of those books you see in huge remainder stacks at Barnes & Noble, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (affiliate link) didn’t have much appeal to me, especially when I learned it was a modern retelling of Hamlet, in which, as you might remember, everyone dies. But when a dear friend thrust it into my hands, I sighed and gave it a try.
I’ve read great first fiction from new authors, but this book showed the skill and talent writers usually achieve only after years of honing their craft. A coming-of-age story about a young mute boy and his unique connection to the dogs he and his family breed and train, Edgar Sawtelle is told from varying points of view, including the family dog. Wroblewski’s is the kind of beautifully written prose that demands you read and enjoy every single word. (The dogs are not part of the tragedy, so don’t be scared to pick up this one.)
2. Sight Hound
By Pam Houston. I have long admired Pam Houston’s ability to fictionalize her real-life experiences and create short stories that combine nature writing, dogs and good storytelling. Sight Hound, Houston’s first novel, is the story of Rae, a fictionalized version of Houston, and her relationship with a three-legged Irish wolfhound named Dante, who has been diagnosed with cancer. The story of Dante’s life and the lessons he taught Rae is told from several points of view, and not all of them human. Warning: This one’s a tear-jerker.
3. Wild Dogs
By Helen Humphreys. About five years ago, I picked up a remaindered copy of this book for about a buck, having no idea who wrote it or what it was about. It was a dollar, and it had “dogs” in the title. Who could resist? It sat on my shelf for several years as I worked my way through stacks of other books. When I finally picked it up, I was surprised to find it was one of the most intriguing novels I’d read about the similarities between human and canine behavior.
Wild Dogs is told from the different viewpoints of dog owners whose dogs have run away from home to live in the forest, joining a pack of domesticated dogs that have turned feral. Each night, the characters meet at the edge of the woods and call their dogs’ names for hours at a time, hoping their friends will hear them and come home.
As the weeks pass, the characters learn from each other and find that while looking for their lost dogs, they find something within themselves. Okay, that sounds cheesy, but you’re going to have to trust me on this one. The book is good, and you get the dog’s point of view from time to time. Best of all, you’ll learn what it’s like to live with a pack of wild dogs. (Hint: You’ll miss opposable thumbs.)
4. The Dogs of Babel
By Carolyn Parkhurst. When my book club decided to read The Dogs of Babel, I was delighted. I’d seen tempting stacks of it on the new arrivals table, but hadn’t had a good enough reason to shell out $12 for a new book. Not everyone in the group loved it as much as I did, but it made for an interesting discussion.
Before the novel begins, the main character’s wife has fallen to her death from a cherry tree in the backyard. The only witness was the family dog. Unsure if his wife’s death was an accident or suicide, the man becomes convinced he can find a way to communicate with the dog and find out what he saw. Was it a slip of the foot or a purposeful act that ended a life of depression?
Parkhurst takes you to some pretty scary places, including a meeting of a secret society who believes that dogs can be “engineered” to talk, so this book might not be for everyone. But the overwhelming message is one of despair and acceptance, of letting go so that you can begin to heal. If you like well-written books about human relationships with just a bit of freak thrown in, you might love this book.
5. Lives of the Monster Dogs
By Kirsten Bakis. I’ve saved the most disturbing for last. After I read The Dogs of Babel, someone told me I should read Lives of the Monster Dogs, which also dealt with talking dogs. A very different book, Lives of the Monster Dogs has been called a postmodern retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
American magical realism at its finest, Lives of the Monster Dogs recounts the history of a breed of genetically and bio-mechanically engineered dogs created by a mad scientist in 19th century Germany. The dogs have human intelligence, speak “human,” walk on their hind legs and wear Victorian clothing. All but extinct, the remaining monster dogs live like aristocrats in New York City, enjoying fine cuisine, wine, the arts and the same dismal press of time as the humans on which they were modeled.
Okay, I know that sounds like a huge downer, but it’s a fascinating and highly readable book that will really make you think about how human creations, no matter how perfectly designed, always contain the same flaws that make us, well, human. But if nothing else, read this book so you can fantasize about what it would be like to have a dog that could have a conversation with you about your favorite novel while wearing a velvet cape and sipping tea.