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Debut author Chloe Shaw traces her own emotional development through the roles dogs have played in her life. There was Easy, whom Shaw’s parents had before they had children. Then there was Agatha 1, the Christmas puppy who, days later, went to the veterinarian and never came home. Her replacement was Agatha 2, whose name hinted at the family’s tendency to plow forward through difficult times. As an only child, Shaw turned to her dogs for entertainment and companionship. She wanted to “be the dog,” to lose herself so deeply in connection with an animal that human problems and obligations fell away.

Shaw was exploring these tendencies in therapy by the time she met Booker, the dog who came along with Matt, the psychoanalyst whom Shaw would marry. Together the couple adopted Safari, who seemed the canine embodiment of Shaw’s anxieties. Booker taught Safari how to be a good dog, and both dogs bonded with the couple’s children.

After Booker’s death, Shaw insisted on adopting Otter. Shaw was the family member who clung to the idea of another dog, so she tried to assume all responsibility for Otter’s care. But raising Otter shows Shaw that she can’t be completely self-sufficient. Otter reminds her that she is human, not canine—and that her humanity is good. “When we open ourselves to the possibility of love,” she writes, “we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking; when we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking, we open ourselves to the possibility of being made whole again.” 

What Is a Dog? is a tender memoir that showcases the vulnerable self we often risk revealing only to our pets. The dogs in Shaw’s life show her how to love another being, yes—but that love also leads her deeper into the human experience, flaws, risks and all. Shaw’s sensitive recollection of a lifetime of anxiety and curiosity will invite readers to examine their own insecurities and to find acceptance in the process.

Chloe Shaw’s tender recollections of anxiety and curiosity will invite readers to accept their most vulnerable selves, which we often only reveal to our pets.

“It was pigeons that started it all, not dogs.” So begins Kate MacDougall’s charming coming-of-age memoir, London’s Number One Dog-Walking Agency. After knocking the heads off some ugly porcelain pigeons at her desk in the antiques department of an auction house, she decided to change careers—and, it must be said, her life. She’d recently had a conversation with a dog walker, so she chose that as her next job. Her mother was blunt: “This is a GHASTLY mistake.”

Still, MacDougall plunged in. Her first client was an impossibly energetic Jack Russell named Frank (a girl) who loved her special ball more than anything. It started fabulously but didn’t end well—a Rottweiler ate Frank’s ball—and with that first mishap, the young entrepreneur began to grasp that while dog walking sounded simple enough, there were challenges galore when it came to getting clients, keeping them happy and making enough money to live on.

As MacDougall figured out her new career, she realized that humans were often harder to handle, especially where their beloved “dog children” were concerned. One owner sent a stern email with the subject line “Mud.” It read, “Winston is NOT allowed in mud—as you know. I presume this was an awful accident?” Needless to say, the blissfully mud-rolling Winston had not been consulted about this rule.

Each chapter of this lively memoir features a dog (or two), some humans, adventures, laughter, tears and a running tally of how many dogs MacDougall has walked (beginning with one in 2006 and ending with 100 in 2014). There were some setbacks, including the 2008 recession. But there was love and growth, too, as she and her boyfriend married and acquired their own dog, Mabel.

If MacDougall is as skilled with dogs as she is with a pen, it’s no wonder her agency became number one. London’s Number One Dog-Walking Agency bounds along with the energy of a rambunctious pup and exudes the wisdom of a beloved canine with an old soul (you know the type). MacDougall’s writing sparkles with humor, joy and wit. And for dog lovers, of course, the best part is: It’s all about dogs.

If Kate MacDougall is as skilled with dogs as she is with a pen, it’s no wonder her dog-walking agency became number one.

“You see, Arthur is my dog,” I told the vet as she prodded yet another conspicuous lump, this time on my dog’s belly. Arthur has developed benign lipomas since he was 4, each of which is rigorously checked upon discovery. “I got him the day after I graduated from college, and my life was kind of a mess, and well . . . He’s just my dog. Does that make sense?”

The vet peered into Arthur’s eyes with her scope and then fed him another treat for being the excellent boy that he is. “Of course," she said. "Arthur has to live forever.”

“Yes, exactly,” I said. “I’m so glad you understand.”

If you’re a dog person like me, you will understand this exchange. Dogs are and have always been an irreplaceable part of humans' lives. Simon Garfield’s Dog’s Best Friend: The Story of an Unbreakable Bond explores this connection, beginning with the development of the dog-human hunting companion relationship and following the changes that have led us to today's world of designer dogs and designer dog accessories.

Though Garfield often questions the ethics of said changes, he returns throughout the book to his own dog, Ludo, admitting, “We would do almost anything to ensure his continued happiness.” Garfield uses his relationship with Ludo to explore a myriad of delightful doggy topics, from the queen’s corgis and their odd names to dogs who follow their owners' funeral processions. Full of quintessentially British humor, Dog’s Best Friend is a heartwarming read for anyone who wants to know more about why they love their dog.

Similarly, Kelly Conaboy’s The Particulars of Peter: Dance Lessons, DNA Tests, and Other Excuses to Hang Out With My Perfect Dog explores her personal story through her relationship with her dog, Peter. For writerly dog lovers, Conaboy’s book feels familiar. After all, so much of our lives are colored by how we care for our dogs; how could we possibly tell our stories without them?

Hilariously crass, Conaboy speaks aloud the thoughts of us all. Too in love with her dog and defensive of anything that might diminish his reputation in her eyes, she answers questions about Peter’s unknown age and lineage with “ageless, poet,” glorifying his humble beginnings as an abandoned shelter pup.

Both books end with the authors reflecting on their present states, engaged in the process of writing and simply being with their beloved pups. Interestingly (or perhaps not), that is exactly where I am now. Arthur, head on his pillow next to me; me, typing away. Despite knowing our obsession with our dogs is absurd, these moments convince us that no other way of being is possible. “We’re always impossibly happy when we’re together,” ends Garfield. And so we are.

These two books offer heartwarming, hilarious insight for anyone who wants to know more about why they love their dog so much.

Fans of felines will adore these four books, which offer fascinating new perspectives on cats and their indelible influence on our culture. Whether the giftee is a philosopher, artist, behaviorist, epistolist or some fabulous combination thereof, they’ll be thrilled with these edifying, heartfelt tributes to cats.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cat

Nia Gould’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cat: The Life and Times of Artistic Felines will be catnip for fans of cats, art, cat puns and expertly rendered illustrations in an impressive range of styles.

This visual feast of a book conjures up feline alter egos for 22 famous artists. For example: What if Frida Kahlo were a black cat with a white unibrow-esque marking, plus a penchant for putting flowers on her head? She’d be Frida Catlo, a specialist in “self-pawtraits.” And what if Pablo Picasso were a beret-wearing gray cat with an unusually shaped head? Why, he’d be Pablo Picatso, “one of art history’s most purr-found influences.”

Each section features a spot-on portrait of the cat artist and a well-researched biography detailing methods and influences, plus gorgeous cat-centric visual homages, from Roy Kittenstein’s dotty pop art to Mary Catsatt’s domesticity-influenced impressionism. Cat lovers and art aficionados will truly find A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cat (to borrow one of Gould’s words) “mesmeowerizing.”

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: If you think books about cats are great, you'll really love A Cat's Tale, which was allegedly written by a cat.

Cat vs. Cat

Pam Johnson-Bennett knows cats. The professional behaviorist has written multiple bestsellers (such as Think Like a Cat) and starred in an Animal Planet UK TV series called “Psycho Kitty.” Now, with her updated Cat vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat, she’s ready to help ensure that multicat homes are characterized more by napping and playing than by hissing and errant pooping.

Of course, cats can’t tell us what they’re thinking (as far as we know . . . ), so Johnson-Bennett says it’s up to humans to learn to see things through a cat’s eyes. She points out that, whereas humans view a home as a single territory, a cat sees it as “numerous territories on many different levels, geographic and psychological, and negotiating them is a central part of maintaining cat family harmony.”

Whether readers are bringing a new cat into an existing cat household or just want to learn more about cats’ behaviors, Cat vs. Cat has it covered. It’s impressively researched with lots of suggestions, strategies and support throughout.

Letters of Note: Cats

Shaun Usher’s popular Letters of Note website launched in 2009, and his first compilation was published in 2013. Now cat people will be happy to learn there’s a volume just for them: Letters of Note: Cats.

Usher asserts that letters are “humans’ most precious, enjoyable, and endangered form of communication.” The 30 collected here are entertaining and memorable, not least because they were penned by famous actors, scientists, writers and more.

It’s thrilling to discover that a cat named Máčak was central to Nikola Tesla’s fascination with electricity—and amusing to learn Ayn Rand sent a terse missive to the editor of Cat Fancy. (She noted, “I subscribed to Cat Fancy primarily for the sake of the pictures.”) Other letter writers include Jack Lemmon, Anne Frank and T.S. Eliot, and the letters range from sentimental to satirical, whimsical to a bit rude.

Letters of Note: Cats is a fascinating celebration of the timelessness of cat appreciation and a compelling argument for keeping letter writing alive. As Usher urges, “Rescue your last remaining pen from the cat, and write to someone.”

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Not a cat person? Check out these heartwarming reads about dogs instead.

Feline Philosophy

Whether snoozing in a sunbeam or frenziedly attacking a scratching post, cats live in the moment. And that’s why, John Gray explains in Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, “Cats have no need of philosophy. Obeying their nature, they are content with the life it gives them.”

But humans are quite the opposite, according to the retired professor and author of several books (notably 2018’s Seven Types of Atheism), because “the human animal never ceases striving to be something that it is not.”

Gray considers happiness, morality and egoism through the lens of philosophers including Decartes, Pascal, Montaigne and Spinoza. He also uses Patricia Highsmith’s short story “Ming’s Biggest Prey” as a jumping-off point for musings on affection. Again, cats have the upper hand (paw): “Cats do not love in order to divert themselves from loneliness, boredom, or despair. They love when the impulse takes them, and are in company they enjoy.”

It’s hard to deny the benefits of such an existence. As Gray asserts in Feline Philosophy, being open to what cats can teach us just might “lighten the load that comes with being human” via less catastrophizing and, one imagines, a lot more naps.

Fans of felines will adore these four books, which offer fascinating new perspectives on cats and their indelible influence on our culture.

As John Ruskin so insightfully wrote, “There is in every animal’s eye a dim image and a gleam of humanity.” Perhaps our fascination with animals lies in our awareness of a basic kinship and our realization of each animal’s unique ability to teach us something about ourselves.

For those who want to learn something more about their pets and possibly themselves this summer, we have sifted through the season's pet books and selected a few of the best. This collection offers a wide range of animal-related material; you'll find everything from practical pet care strategies to amusing cat autobiographies, but however light-hearted the approach, all these books share an underlying respect and love for the animals who look to us humans for their well-being.

An excellent reference book for serious feline fans or the newly initiated about to take on the responsibility of a kitten is The Humane Society of the United States Complete Guide to Cat Care by Wendy Christensen and the staff of the Humane Society. The comprehensive text covers all aspects of cat care, from the smallest details, like getting your cat's collar size correct, to larger issues such as proper nutrition, grooming and choosing the right veterinarian. Not surprisingly, this text advocates getting your pet from your local animal shelter not only will an animal's life be saved, but the authors hope that people who see first-hand the abundance of unwanted, innocent life sitting on death row will be more motivated to spay or neuter their animals helping to break the sad cycle of throw-away pets.

A chapter is devoted to stray (lost) and feral (never owned) cats, but for a more complete study, Living in Shadows: How to Help the Stray Cat in Your Life (Without Adding to the Problem) by Ann K. Fisher offers an analysis of this complicated problem and a step-by-step guide for tackling it. Fisher provides an invaluable service not only to the millions of homeless cats living in shadows, on the outside looking in, but also to the people willing to reach out to them.

If you're a puppy person or you want a gift for a new puppy parent, The Good Life: Your Dog's First Year by Mordecai Siegal and Matthew Uncle Matty Margolis is a wonderful month-by-month guide that follows a dog's development from birth to adulthood, ending with a chapter containing 10 lessons in training fundamentals. Siegal and Margolis are experts in the field with numerous other canine collaborations to their credit, and they write with an engaging, down-to-earth style. Like the books above, The Good Life contains photographs and will help the new puppy parent become a veritable Dr. Dolittle, with advice on everything from feeding to first aid.

For a true veterinarian's perspective on animal care, Real People Don't Own Monkeys: And Other Stories of Pets, Their People and the Vets Who See It All by J. Veronika Kiklevich D.V.M. with Steven N. Austad is an eye-opening collection of warmly humorous, though often poignant, stories of the animals (iguanas, turtles, pigs and pythons along with the traditional cats and dogs) Kiklevich has doctored. More than mere entertainment, these engaging tales also serve to illuminate the personalities of the human owners these pets are either blessed with or subjected to and the result is captivating, provocative and sometimes disturbing reading.


Linda Stankard was adopted years ago by a dog named Sweetie and lately by a cat who has just given her four grand-kitties. They all live with two fish who keep a tight rein on them.

As John Ruskin so insightfully wrote, “There is in every animal’s eye a dim image and a gleam of humanity.” Perhaps our fascination with animals lies in our awareness of a basic kinship and our realization of each animal’s unique ability to teach us something about ourselves.

Do you know someone who likes animals a lot more than they like people? We’ve rounded up a gaggle of delightful books that celebrate creatures great and small.

Award-winning naturalist and author Sy Montgomery has visited remote regions of the world to study some of nature’s most uncommon creatures. She looks back on what she’s learned from them about communication, sensitivity and kindness in How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, beautifully illustrated by Rebecca Green. In this funny, moving book, Montgomery recounts transformative episodes with beasts both domesticated and exotic. “Being with any animal is edifying,” she writes, “for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding.” From Clarabelle, a “pretty and elegant” tarantula, to the playful, 40-pound Pacific octopus Octavia, the animals in Montgomery’s book have unique dispositions that align them with humankind. Montgomery’s writing is rich and lyrical, her insights invaluable. And as all animal lovers know, “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

A touching tribute to the creatures we let into our hearts and homes, Love Can Be: A Literary Collection About Our Animals brings together contributions from a remarkable lineup of authors. Susan Orlean, Lalita Tademy, Rick Bass, Joyce Carol Oates, Alexander McCall Smith and Juan Felipe Herrera are among the 30 writers spotlighted in this excellent anthology. Standout selections include a moving essay by Delia Ephron about the bond between pets and humans; Dean Koontz’s remembrance of his golden retriever, Trixie; and an ingenious cat-inspired poem by Ursula K. Le Guin. Literature fans will love the photos of authors and their animal companions that accompany each piece. In keeping with the spirit of the season, proceeds from sales of the book will go to animal charities. This is a heartwarming, hopeful anthology.

In Puppy Styled: Japanese Dog Grooming: Before & After, Grace Chon celebrates dog grooming the Japanese way, with hand-scissoring techniques to create cuts that play up the personalities of canine clients. For this irresistible volume, Chon—an acclaimed pet photographer—snapped nearly 50 pups as they transitioned from scruffy to smart. She writes that Japanese dog grooming “has one objective: to make the dog as cute as possible!” Cuteness undoubtedly abounds in the book, along with fresh ideas for turning your frowzy mutt into a chic chien. Check out Rocco, a Yorkshire terrier whose bangs get lopped into an asymmetrical ’do, or Bowie, a bichon frise whose wayward tangles are trimmed to form a fluffy nimbus. From start to finish, Puppy Styled is crammed with tail-wagging glamour.


This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Do you know someone who likes animals a lot more than they like people? We’ve rounded up a gaggle of delightful books that celebrate creatures great and small.

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