Tag Archives: dogs

Books I didn’t finish

This post is a sop to the obsessive being that occupies part of my mind and insists that if I’m going to blog about my reading I should Leave Nothing Out. So here they are, the books I didn’t finish:

A C Grayling, Descartes: The life of René Descartes and its place in his times (2005, Pocket Books 2006)

1416522638 We started this as a read-aloud on a medium-length car trip, perhaps Sydney to Canberra, after hearing A C Grayling speak at a Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Art Student had previously read his polemical Against All Gods, and regaled me with some of the good bits. Neither of us knew all that much about Descartes: the AS had come across him in her Art History course and wanted to know more, and all I had was dim memories from second-year University French: ‘Je pense, donc je suis,’ a long night sitting in a stove, etc. And the cover blurb offered us revelations involving a spy story.

It’s not that the book wasn’t interesting, but the combination of philosophical seriousness and careful assembly of evidence for the hypothesis that Descartes was a spy was far from riveting. We hadn’t got much further than 50 pages (again) when we agreed that conversation or the radio would be a better option, and later neither of us felt any urge to read on solo.

Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog: What dogs see, smell, and know (Scribner 2009)

1iadThis was read-aloud for a relatively short drive, discontinued because the book was a loan rather than because of any failure on its part to hold our attention. We knew we weren’t going to read the whole thing, so as reader-aloud I was given licence to pick and choose. I read the chapters towards the end about dogs’ theory of mind – asking the question whether dogs have versions in their minds of what is going on in our minds. It’s lively, fascinating stuff. Just as interesting as the dogs are the people who construct meticulous experiments to determine what dogs are actually doing when we project so much onto them.

Manuel Puig, Pubis Angelical (1979, translation by Elena Brunet, Random House 1986)

1paThis book begins with a woman waking up alone in sumptuous surroundings the night after her wedding, having been drugged and subjected to sexual violence by her bridegroom. In the following chapters, written variously as diary entries and unannotated dialogue, a woman – not, it turns out, the same one – is in a hospital recovering from cancer surgery. Manuel Puig wrote The Kiss of the Spider Woman, and this novel has some kinship with that and the movies of Pedro Almodóvar. Evidently this style of febrile introspective suffering doesn’t do it for me in a novel, but I struggled on joylessly to page 50, where an arms dealer entertains some nasty images of brutally humiliating and killing his wife. Then I I gave up.

This post is about books I have no intention of returning to each of them when the urge strikes. There are others where my reading has stalled – Byron’s Don Juan, Grayling’s The Good Book, the Lehmann and Gray anthology of Australian poetry – but I’ll return to each of them in the fulness of time.

Sonnet #2: The dogs outside Orange Grove Markets

There are so many more important things to be thinking about, from Woolworths’ continuing to make money out of problem gamblers to an Onion article about Sandy that rings too true for comfort, with the NSW government’s plans to destroy the employment prospects of thousands of aspiring artists somewhere in between. But the muse has handed me half a dozen dogs tied to a fence:

Sonnet 2: The Dogs outside Orange Grove Markets
The dogs line up at Orange Grove.
A Whippet whimpers, Shih Tzus yip
and won’t take comfort, Collies move
their twitchy eyebrows, Labs – so hip –
refuse to look abandoned, while
undaunted Staffies wag and smile.
It’s farmers’ market day. They’re tied
here while their owners go inside
for reasons past dogs’ understanding.
There is affection between species.
We house them, feed them, bag their faeces.
But now, resigned, sad or demanding,
dogs wait until, they know not when,
the rapture when we come again.



Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy

Eva Hornung, Dog Boy (Text 2010)

Our species has long been fascinated by stories of human children raised by wild animals , as the Wikipedia page on feral children attests. I don’t have to strain my memory muscle too hard to come up with (in order of my encountering them) Mowgli, Romulus and Remus, Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage, and the ‘wolf girls’ Amala and Kamala (about whom we published a story in the School Magazine, not realising the whole story was made up to raise funds for an Indian orphanage). Dog Boy tells one of those stories, and evokes that fascination brilliantly.

On page 15 Eva Hornung gets explicit about the challenge she has taken on:

And so it was, trotting with three dogs through ordinary lanes, past ordinary tenements, past ordinary lives, a lone boy crossed a border that is, usually, impassable – not even imaginable.

The stories of feral children I’ve encountered (add to the list above the Werner Herzog movie about Kaspar Hauser, and Louis Nowra’s first play, Inner Voices, and wasn’t there a Peter Handke play as well?) focus on what happens when the child returns to human society, and chronicle the process of learning, or failing to learn, how to be human. I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that  this book pretty much ends where those stories start. I was given it as a Christmas present with a card suggesting it might help me get in touch with my animal nature. Certainly it was a wonderful book to read while walking a couple of dogs: Eva Hornung may have done extensive research on the ethology of feral dog clans, but it’s very obvious that she has also had intensive personal experience with dogs. There’s a lot I could say about the way the book explores what it is to be human, our relationship with other species, especially dogs,  parenthood, love, post-Soviet Russia (the story unfolds mostly in the devastated outer suburbs of Moscow) and so on. But its power is in the way it takes us into the smelling, scratching, snarling world of doghood, as experienced by a small boy who comes to think of himself as a dog but never completely loses his sense of difference.

It’s tremendously moving. There are some major shifts in the narrative, all of which I resisted crankily at first and each of which led me to unexpected places. If my heart has segments, then the book moved systematically through a number of them, and pulled hard at each in turn. Even when, quite a way in, the narrative leaves the dogs’ perspective for a time and actually names some of the story’s precedents, including some listed in my first paragraph, in a kind of metatextual play, the spell isn’t broken. Tightened, if anything.

If, as I do, you ‘accidentally’ skip to the end and read the last sentence, you may think you know how the story ends. Don’t read the second last sentence.

Now, back to packing up the house, carefully not stepping on the dog who is clearly very disturbed by the growing chaos.

Dogs on ice

Here’s a dog treat idea that deserves wide currency.

You do need a little equipment: a balloon (one balloon for each dog); some scraps of meat or peanut butter or other substance attractive to dog(s); water.

Chop the meat up fine and force it into the balloon. I used a kitchen funnel. I pushed the meat into the narrow part of the funnel using the handle of a bowl scraper, then kneaded it down the neck of the balloon. It wasn’t too hard.

Fill the balloon with water. It doesn’t need to be very full – I was happy with a diameter of about seven centimetres.

Tie the balloon off, and put it into the freezer for 24 hours or more.

Give to dog(s) when they are in need of entertainment, or just when the weather is unpleasantly hot.

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LOLdogs (not!)

Our dog Nessie has many virtues and at least as many vices. Here’s a seasonal story in which  the consequences of her vices, though vile enough by any reasonable measure,  are less vile than those of her virtues.

You could argue that the whole thing was the humans’ fault. On Christmas evening, the Art Student and I packed a basket of leftovers from lunch, including most of a roast chicken, and set off for dinner with my sister and her family who are in town for the holiday break and living just down the street. After a pleasant evening, in which the Art Student displayed her Auntie qualities to striking effect, and my sister’s leftovers, including spectacular poached salmon, won the day, we brought most of the chicken home with us. We went straight to bed, absentmindedly leaving the bag of chicken in the basket on the stairs.

Enter evil Nessie.

The next morning, Boxing Day, the chicken bag was on the kitchen floor, completely empty: no bones, no crumbs of stuffing, not even a smear of grease on the lino. We didn’t know which of the dogs was the culprit –  Oscar, the Honeymooners’ foxy Jack Russell, is staying with us while they’re in Thailand – but our dog-walks during the day made the criminal’s identity clear, as Oscar was his usual energetic and regular self Nessie was uninterested in chasing balls and failed to produce anything for our doggy-do bags.

That night when we humans went to bed, we shut doors as usual: the back door so the dogs couldn’t get out to bark at the possum, the front door in case of an unlikely intruder, our bedroom door, and the door that separates the front of the house, where we sleep, from the kitchen area, where the dogs sleep, because Oscar hasn’t quite accepted the principle of Separate Sleeping Quarters. The Art Student, usually a very light sleeper, took some anti-inflammatories for pain she’s been having in her hip. So there’s the setup: many closed doors, two deep sleepers (I don’t need drugs to make me stone deaf when asleep), and a dog with a dangerously overloaded digestive system.

I’ll spare you a description of the state of the kitchen floor the next morning. It was at least as retch-makingly noxious as you can imagine. That was the result of her vice –  and though the ghost of a smell still lingers, there was nothing that carpet foam, scrubbing brushes, newspaper, disinfectant, deodorant and the passage of time couldn’t fix. It was her virtue that caused the serious damage. Unlike A Small Dog That Shall Not Be Named, she recoils from the very idea of crapping or piddling indoors, and had tried desperately to make the back door open: from the evidence she knocked, scratched and bit, presumably in the hope that one of us would appear, godlike, as we normally do to the faintest of her knocks because the door is new and beautifully stained – at least it was. We didn’t hear. And the door is a mess. We didn’t have the heart to beat her severely or even yell at her, but our hearts bleed for the door. Behold just some of the damage:

A man a dog a blog: Rocky & Gawenda

Michael Gawenda, Rocky & Gawenda: The story of a man & his mutt (MUP 2009)

Rocky & Gawenda began life as a blog on the Crikey website. The transition from blog to book is a subject that niggles at the ambition bone of at least some of us bloggers and there’s much to be learned from examples like this.

Rocky & Gawenda is a no-frills conversion: a foreword by a friend and former colleague of the author is followed by the entries from the blog’s first five months – February to June 2009, to be precise – stripped of dates, comments and occasional time-sensitive bits and pieces. Then a postscript by another former colleague gives some back story. From a very quick comparison between book and blog, it seems that little has been changed in the posts themselves beyond a quick copy edit (the dog Rocky now yelps on the man Gawenda’s lap whereas on the blog he whelped, though the copy edit wasn’t all that thorough, as my very quick look showed me Rocky lying prone1 on his back more than once, ‘Giuseppe’ misspelled twice, and the blog’s image ‘Rocky pre–separation anxiety’ re-captioned ‘Post-separation anxiety Rocky’ on page 54). The book, then, is the blog repackaged with minimal fuss.

What is it like to read a blog in book form? A blog entry is a thing of the moment. It invites comment, elaboration, argument from readers. It may be passionate, incisive or profound, but it makes no claim to be the writer’s final words on a subject. There’s no overarching structure to a blog: frivolity can follow hard on the heels of passionate discourse; you can tell the same anecdote a number of times, expecting readers to have forgotten the previous tellings as surely as you have. These things feel completely natural when fed to you by RSS. Encountered in a book, especially with dates removed, they can be disorientating.

These considerations probably account for my rocky start with Rocky & Gawenda. It’s probably also true that the blogger takes a little time to hit his stride. But once Gawenda’s persona had gelled in my mind and I’d understood that the book is a captured blog – something like a mix of diary entries, short essays and memoirs –  the book was a delight.

Michael Gawenda is in the first years of retirement after a career in journalism that culminated in his being editor of the Melbourne Age. He hasn’t quite relinquished the mindset of the driven, dedicated journalist, but in his blog, and this book, he allows his mind and his typing hands to relax away from the disciplines of his trade and explore other ways of writing:

This ‘Rocky and Gawenda’ serial – for that’s how I have come to regard it – which has a beginning but, as far as I know, has no middle or end, is written with no readers in mind. After forty years in journalism, that is a relief and a liberation.

Every morning very early he sets out in his T-shirt and Essendon cap with his ‘mutt’ Rocky and walks on the beach and through the suburbs of St Kilda and Elwood. Rocky’s company allows him to live in the moment, to notice the sky, the sea, the weather, people, dogs. It also allows his mind to wander. A rumination on Kevin Rudd’s way of speaking is interrupted by Rocky chasing after some black swans. An argument about the limiting effects of identity politics is waylaid by a memory of using a heated hacksaw blade as a hair curler. A childhood reminiscence is told three times. We don’t mind. The joy of the book is in its enactment of a mind set free, a benign and fruitful version of retirement.

Michael Gawenda was born in a Displaced Persons’ camp in Austria after the Second World War and came to Australia when very young; he spent his childhood in the Jewish community of St Kilda and then in culturally diverse working-class Fitzroy, was mentored by a bundist friend of his father, aspired to a kind of Easy Rider creativity in his young adulthood, became a journalist and rose to the top of his profession, married and had two children with whom he regrets spending less time than he would wish. All of this I  have gleaned from the book – which incidentally includes a couple of affectionate blog posts from his son and daughter – so you have some small idea of the interesting and emotionally engaging ground that’s covered.

The book ends suddenly, for no apparent reason other than that the requisite number of pages had been filled. The blog, I checked, continued for another five months or so, then it too finished. The post for 17 September 2009, before proceeding to a story from a Displaced Persons’ camp,  intimated that the end of the blog was nigh, and went on:

The writing has taken me in a new and unexpected direction, where memory and imagination meet. I am not sure where this will go, this mixture of memory and imagination, where `facts’ and fictions are intertwined. The `house of facts’ as a friend described them, will remain, but within the house, my imagination will be let loose.

That sounds as if the blog/this book was a bridge. Gawenda intimates that he has wanted to write at some length about Melbourne’s postwar Jewish community. His sketches of those times – a misery-producing children’s camp, pickles and kosher sausages, argumentative old men – are perhaps the most engaging parts of this book. Perhaps that’s where the bridge has taken him.  I look forward to reading whatever lies on the far shore.


1 I have a theory that this misuse of ‘prone’ stems from Stokely Carmichael’s famous reflection on sexism in the Black Liberation movement. When asked what position women had in the SNCC, he reportedly said, ‘Prone,’ and the word was flipped over onto its back for a whole generation.


Puppies (Snapshot series, Hinkler Books 2008)

I couldn’t find a photo of this little book’s cover online, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s very cute. The publisher’s site gives its ‘interest age’ as 6–12 years. I can report that the interest extends well beyond that, though I suppose a notice saying ‘Interest Age: 6–12 years and the demented’ wouldn’t sell many books.

But this book has featured in many pleasant interchanges with Mollie in the nursing home. Yesterday morning, it was sitting in the middle of her table. She gestured towards it with fluttering fingers. Though it was pretty much the same gesture that she’d used towards the piece of buttered raisin bread the nurse had given her with a piece of kitchen tongs, and which she had no intention of putting anywhere near her mouth, I interpreted her to mean that she wanted to look at the book. I placed it right in front of her, closed. With some difficulty, she opened it, and said, in he fluttering voice, ‘That’s funny.’ I was sitting on her left, and had to stand and peer over the half-open cover to see the page she’d opened to. It was the end papers, plain green except where someone had printed her name in block letters. She touched her first name with an index finger and said, half questioning, half marvelling, ‘Mollie.’ And if that lovely moment wasn’t enough, when we reached page five or so, where there is a lot of text, she touched the last word on the page, and read it too, only sightly more tentatively, ‘Puppies.’

It may not have intellectual heft of her reading of twenty years ago, but it looks to me as if there’s still pleasure to be had in reading at her intellectual limit.

Pudding Lane

Kostas is one of the stars of Gillian Leahy’s exquisite little documentary Our Park. In the film, though not in the clips at the link, we see a little of his project of establishing a community garden along Whites Creek Lane. At one point, he says that his many plantings will stop dogs from slipping under the fence and into the canal – and is immediately given the lie by a shot of a dog doing exactly that. The laughter is good natured, but Kostas’ project comes off looking less than practical.

Eleven years later, the lane is transformed into a leafy garden, and Kostas presides over the Pudding Club, whose primary school student members spend a couple of hours each weekend watering, weeding, composting … and eating cakes cooked by Kostas. There are pomegranates, olives, stone fruit, birdbaths and dog watering holes. The plantings and edgings continue into the park to the north of the lane, and there are seedling gum trees planted across the canal. A recent application to have the lane declared a shared zone with a 10 km/h speed limit was rejected by Leichhardt Council, but by sheer hard work and personal charm Kostas has created something special.

Agitator and Regurgitator

Weeks ago we left Nessie alone in the house longer than she was happy about, and her good leather lead that had cost us $75 or so to buy and another $20 or so to repair when she’s bitten through it on a previous occasion, was reachable. We came home to find an awful lot of the lead had vanished. This time it was beyond repair, and we now have a cheaper and we hope less edible replacement. Yesterday – after 17 days in which I had marvelled at the efficiency of the canine digestive system as Nessie filled plastic bag after plastic bag with rich, unleathery fecal matter – we found on side path half a dozen inch-long pieces of leather in a shallow pool of digestive foam, back from a place where it’s too dark to read. The foam had dried off by the time I took this photo, for your edification:

But storing strips of leather somewhere inside them isn’t the only cute trick dogs are capable of. Nessie’s little friend Oscar has discovered our back yard pond and has had a marvellous time swimming round in it, churning up the sediment, totally disrupting the irises’ equilibrium, and possibly even scaring the living daylights out of our incredibly self-reliant fish. Here he is, turning what had been a pleasant pool into a wallow.

See! Dogs are so much more fun than cats.