Friday, March 17, 2017

HUGE!—Review of GIZELLE'S BUCKET LIST, Lauren Fern Watt

Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog

Lauren Fern Watt
$24.99 (our price $19.99)

     OK, get out the tissues. Memoirs of loving and losing a special companion are tear-inducing, of course, and Lauren Fern Watt’s tale of her English Mastiff’s rich but short life is right up there with Marley & Me in that regard. But there is a lot of laughter, too, and a great deal of empathy for this young woman’s foray into adulthood, with all of its awful pitfalls. She was fortunate to have an enormous companion by her side during those dicey days sliding from teens to twenties, and from school to the workplace.

     As a puppy, Gizelle (named after Princess Giselle in Enchanted) was obviously bound for greatness, with paws the size of baseball gloves, but just how large she grew was still awe inspiring. And like the Great Dane in The Ugly Dachshund, Gizelle seemed oblivious to her giant size:

She was our resident bulldozer, spilling coffee and knocking over frames with her tail. And if my sister and I were snuggled on the small two-person love seat in the living room watching a movie, Gizelle was blind to the fact there wasn’t space for her, too. She would always make room for herself, stealthily placing one paw up and then another paw, then a graceful launch of 160-something pounds of her and finally a dainty landing into our laps. . . . She wore a smile, her mouth open as she panted, as if she thought: They do not even know I am here.

     Lauren Watt was brought up in a suburb of Nashville, in a family that was constantly sidelined by her mother’s addiction to drugs and alcohol. Growing up with an addict kept Lauren on edge, never sure what to expect. But it was her mother’s love of dogs combined with her impulsive nature, even when sober, that resulted in Lauren finding Gizelle. With two dogs already in the household, Lauren chose to lie to her father about the sudden appearance of a robust puppy. She told him the puppy was a lab mix and just a foster, not a permanent addition. “Is it me, or is she growing kind of fast?” he asked, but accepted his daughter’s word. Of course, he discovers the truth, but by then he had witnessed the bond between his daughter and the rapidly growing pup, and after a mild scolding, agreed to help take care of Gizelle while Lauren was in college.

     Taking care of Lauren’s mother, however, proved too much for everyone. Rehab never seemed to hold for long. Briefly, the mother she loved would return and life would seem perfect. But before long, the addiction took hold. And returning home from college, Lauren again found her mother undone. It seemed to be a last straw for her. She packed up Gizelle and left Nashville, determined to find her way someplace grittier, livelier, and more cosmopolitan, and away from the constant tension of home. She moved to Manhattan.

     Just as Giselle, the princess in Enchanted, pranced through Central Park, so it seems fitting that her canine doppelganger should also romp through the City. But Gizelle the 180-pound muscle-bound creature, who startled pedestrians and drew repeatedly ridiculous comments (that’s a T-rex, not a dog!) was frightened of the city noises, and cowered every time she heard a horn or saw even something as innocuous as a balloon on the sidewalk. And the only apartment Lauren was able to find that could house a super-size dog and not cost a small fortune was right smack in Times Square. Thus, she nicknamed their new home Times Scare, and struggled to find her own footing while reassuring her intimidated dog that nothing would hurt her. (Managing the bathroom habits of a giant dog in a city was equally challenging and particularly humorous.) Gradually, both Lauren and Gizelle learned to love the City. New friends are made, good jobs are found. So long as Lauren ignores her slowly dissolving home in Tennessee, she can keep moving forward, a mastiff by her side. When Gizelle begins to limp, Lauren can no longer hold panic at bay.

     You know the fairy tale has to end, but it is heartening to read of the author’s personal growth as she devotes her life to making Gizelle’s diminishing days as good as they can be, writing the bucket list of things she feels Gizelle would enjoy: trips to New Hampshire and Maine to jump in leaves, walk in sand, eat ice cream, and watch the snow fall on the beach. Gizelle seems to love all of the activities Lauren plans, but most of all, Gizelle simply loves being with her human companion. It’s through Gizelle that Lauren herself learns about forgiveness and empathy.

     So yes, keep the tissue box handy, but as the items in Gizelle’s bucket list are ticked off, you will find yourself inspired and humbled by Lauren’s devotion and Gizelle’s courage. We all generally outlive our animal companions. If they manage to teach us something before they go, that is cause for celebration, not sorrow.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

To Forgive, Canine: review of ALWAYS BY MY SIDE, by Edward Grinnan

Life Lessons from Millie and All the Dogs I’ve Loved
Edward Grinnan
Hardcover, $24.99

The author of this beautifully written memoir is the editor-in-chief of Guideposts Publications, and thus his perspective of life is colored by his Christian faith. Not sharing that faith did not at all diminish my admiration and enjoyment of this book, because first and foremost, this is a book about dogs. Whether or not dogs are sent from a higher power, or are simply nature’s gift to us, their importance in our family dynamic is clear, and their ability to see beyond what we humans can see, smell, or hear, does seem miraculous given our comparably limited senses.

Edward Grinnan’s dog Millie is the central focus of his story, but he glides back to childhood and the dog who comforted him during his violent asthma attacks; later to the dog who brought his wife Julee to him; and to Sally, who forced him to see the crumpled old wino as a human being, needing comfort and acceptance. Other dogs prance in and out of his life, and he relives their stories for us with grace, wit and awe.

He writes,
If Sally had helped teach me to be a more compassionate human being, someone who was not so quick to judge and rationalize the sufferings of others, then what I was to learn from Millie was an amplification, on a level that touched the spiritual.

Millie, a white golden retriever, first came to the couple via Florida, flying into New York City in a small crate, and bounding into Edward and Julee’s life with that crazy loving energy only goldens seem to possess. (My only complaint is that Grinnan bought Millie from a breeder. Whether or not that breeder was part of a puppy mill is unknown, but I’m an advocate of adopting rather than buying dogs.) Millie’s entry into city life was difficult. She refused to walk on the pavement, preferring to take care of her bodily needs on newspaper in the apartment. She was terrified of horses, and came unglued at the sight of a one (there are quite a few around Manhattan). When Julee had a bad fall down their stairs and broke her collar bone, Millie lay on top of her, keeping her from going into shock. She was a clutter of conflicting impulses, but she was also insightful, compassionate, and intuitive.

Grinnan’s own life was likewise a bit of a clutter. He had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for years, and was only recently sober when he met Julee and her dog Rudy. Dogs became ever more crucial in his growth as a human being. They trained him in deeper, more profound ways, than he trained them. His career at Guideposts likewise offered him the inspiration of other dog lovers and their stories, a few of which he retells here. He leaves the reader with the comforting assurance that our relationships with our dogs are important and not trivial. Dogs are a vital part of our pursuit of happiness. And, he assures us, they do go to heaven. 


Monday, January 30, 2017

Outranked: review of SGT. RECKLESS: America's War Horse

Robin Hutton

$16.99 paper (our price $13.59)

Unlike Sergeant Stubby from World War I, or Simon, the only feline recipient of the Dickin Medal for bravery in World War II, or Chips, the German Shepherd who captured four prisoners in World War II—all of whom were given honorary titles and medals—Reckless was actually promoted to sergeant, and she had the stripes on her blanket to prove it. 

Originally a small mare of racing stock in Korea, Flame, as she was then known, was bought by U.S. Marine Lt. Eric Pedersen for the Marine division to carry the cumbersome loads of Recoilless (or Reckless, as they were nicknamed) rifles and ammunition. Her heartbroken Korean owner needed the money to buy a prosthetic leg for his sister, who lost hers to a landmine. 

Flame—renamed Reckless—had no previous experience with explosions, and needed to be trained to “take cover when there was artillery fire.” She trembled and perspired with fear the first few times she heard mortar attacks, but eventually she became bombproofed—literally—to the action around her. Upon command to take cover, Reckless would kneel down, then when the mortar was fired, she’d sprint to her bunker. As her “hoof camp” trainer explained: “All I had to yell was ‘Incoming! Incoming!’ and she’d go.” He eventually was able to just use hand signals.

But Reckless’s true worth to the Marines came at a pivotal battle, when, amidst a rain of incoming fire and deafening explosions, she repeatedly hauled the heavy Recoilless rifles and ammunition up steep inclines to her fellow soldiers during the so-called “Battle of the Nevada Cities,” saving many lives, and helping to secure the outpost. Reckless earned two Purple Hearts due to injuries she sustained during that battle. But what is particularly amazing is that she traversed the route over and over again by herself.  In a single day, she made fifty-one round trips to various gun sites, most of the time traveling solo. She knew her mission, and she was determined to fulfill it. The Marines depended on her, and she never disappointed them. As Marine demolitionist Harold Wadley recounts:

“The roar and crack of the 90 mm tank rounds . . . was numbing. . . . I looked through the flickering light at the hillside beyond and could hardly believe my eyes. In all that intense fire, in the middle of that chaos, the image of that small, struggling horse—putting everything she had into it, struggling up that ridge loaded with 75 mm rounds . . . —was unbelievable.”

Reckless was also a companion to her “herd,” her fellow Marines. She had the run of the camp, and was welcome inside tents, especially during cold weather, to join in conversation, snacks, and to sleep by a warm stove. She developed a taste—possibly an addiction—to Coca Cola, sweets, and alcohol, especially beer, which her friends gleefully shared. Amazingly, the unhealthy diet didn’t adversely affect her.

Anyone who has read Wendy Williams’s amazing book The Horse knows the insight and intelligence horses possess, and might not be as surprised as Reckless’s fellow Marines were at her cleverness and her intuition. Fortunately, the men appreciated her, loved her, and were determined that she not be left behind, as so many previous war animals have been. Reckless was moved to Camp Pendleton, and, thanks to the author of this biography, her memory continues to be honored. A beautiful bronze sculpture, depicting her carrying her load, was unveiled last fall in Camp Pendleton. Reckless was buried with full military honors at Camp Pendleton, along with her offspring.

Too often the sacrifices made by our military and the animals who accompany them are overlooked or under appreciated. Political savvy, tough talk, or an enormous bank account can deflect attention away from the true heroes among us. This book reminds us to honor and respect those who have given their lives, health, comfort and well-being for the safety of others, and to regard warily those who have chosen to accept the benefits without paying the costs.