Dog Songs, Russian Novelists, and Memoir

I have always revelled in a well-told story. Many of my especial childhood memories are of burrowing under a comforter while my father or mother, most often the former, read aloud. The best books were those featuring characters I understood. Sure and I enjoyed fairy tales and books with animals doing people-like things, but the best ones illustrated young girls and boys in my own time, exploring a world to which I could relate. Dragons, talking geese, and princesses in castles could only be so interesting. It was much easier to tuck into a realm that resembled my own. Settings were important. Good, well-rounded characters were vital.

My reading choices haven’t changed very much. I still prefer reality to imaginary, biography to novel. The best writers, for me, are those who are capable of making me feel. It doesn’t matter if the location is fourteenth century Spain or modern day Toronto, if the characters don’t have honest flaws and tangible exertion, I am lost. I don’t have to relate. I do have to understand. In this way, science fiction and fantasy don’t make it to my night stand very often. Dystopia, travelogues, and history do.

Reading can be an escape. It is also a chance to learn and to challenge myself. There is great value in struggle. It took me a year to finish Ulysses and I am afraid it will take me longer to finish The Sound and the Fury. But I will feel so much better for having made the accomplishment. Some people want to climb mountains or run marathons, I want to work my way to Proust.

However, as much as I gain from toiling through books thicker than my thigh, when I read for pleasure, I mostly read memoir. I like to connect with other people who have experienced things I never will. Memoir is a glimpse into another life, another way of thinking. The stories are authentic, told by real people who felt compelled to share them. The first memoir I read was Amy Tan’s Opposite of Fate. I picked it up because I had enjoyed several of her novels and I’d always wanted to know how closely her terrifically flawed characters resembled her own life. I wasn’t disappointed. Not only did the book help me enjoy Ms. Tan’s fictional work even more, but it introduced me to a genre that has provided me with much larger benefits than simple entertainment.

Memoir taught me that the best writers are those who make themselves vulnerable, who can show the reader, through the stories they reveal, what makes them cry.

Yesterday I picked up a book of poetry for the first time in many years. The poetry section in my personal library maxes out at three. I allow the works of Homer in this count. I assumed I didn’t like it. I don’t enjoy long descriptions of flowers or mountains or Grecian urns. I don’t want to waste the little time I have interpreting Milton when I could be snuggling with Zamyatin.

Spare me. Please.

Despite this lifelong horror of verse, when I found a volume entitled Dog Songs, I couldn’t resist. I guess it makes sense that the first poem I read in over a year has to do with canines – what else? It helped that Mary Oliver’s collection isn’t very long. Accompanying the poems are sunny sketches of the dogs she recollects. I don’t know if the pictures made all the difference, made the words more visible, however, once I began reading I couldn’t stop. Within too short a period I was finished and longing for more.

The poems didn’t feel like poems. They were written in poetic style and given the author’s impressive credentials, including a Pulitzer Prize, I am certain they are of brilliant poetic quality. To me, they read more like stories. Almost, like poetic memoir.

It is possible I have been wrong about poetry all this time. Though there are many poems that are just one long ramble about the beauty of the stars, I have been shown, by a fellow dog lover, that poetry can also tell intense personal stories. Bursts of real life in verse form. By the end, I felt I understood the author. I know she had a hound named Benjamin who ate field mice and she later formed a treasured bond with Percy of the curly white fur. Her grief was ripe when she shared his passing. Through her words, I gained a sense of personal struggles and drastic change. Though Mary Oliver has lead a life far different from mine, I related to her joy in dogs off-leash and her worries when her friends drifted far. I learned what made her cry.

I don’t see myself ever writing poetry, you can sigh in relief. I would have to spend years reading it to ever get up the nerve to try and, as we have learned, I still haven’t finished Faulkner. Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs has inspired me in other ways, reminded me there is more than one way to be vulnerable.

I hope after all these years I have given you an idea of who I am, other than just Shiva’s exhausted owner. Not that this is a terrible way to define myself. I do hope you have been able to relate in some way, that I have made myself open and that I have helped you do the same.

Because I am not sure how to close, I am going to end with a quote from Oliver’s “Percy Wakes Me” because I think it is apt. It is my goal to one day describe this blog in a similar way.

This is a poem about Percy.
This is a poem about more than Percy.
Think about it.

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3 Comments on Dog Songs, Russian Novelists, and Memoir

  1. Brooke
    February 17, 2014 at 9:21 am (2 months ago)

    Thanks for this review! I actually love poetry, and Mary Oliver, and dogs, so I am surprised I haven’t read it yet. It’s now on my short list!
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  2. Maggie
    February 17, 2014 at 10:21 am (2 months ago)

    I do love poetry, and I’m especially fond of Mary Oliver. I picked this book up on my trip in January but haven’t dug in yet. I’m bumping it to the top of my pile now that I’ve read your take on the book!
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  3. Sue
    February 17, 2014 at 10:44 am (2 months ago)

    I’ve never been “big” on poetry either, but I tend to enjoy reading just about anything related to canines…so, I’ll have to pick up this book. Thanks for your review — and for “opening yourself up” to us.

    Now, since you’ve mentioned that you enjoy history, allow me to suggest a book to you: “Traitor To His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt”. The author is HW Brands. I will warn you that the book is quite long (and thick). In fact, it’s the reason I bought my first Kindle — so I could read it without having my hands getting stiff trying to hold it open. But I frankly found it to be one of the best books about FDR that I’ve ever read. Maybe slightly prejudiced in FDR’s favor, but mostly impartial facts.
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