October 10, 2019
(++++) PUTTING IT SIMPLY
Dogs Don’t Die—Dogs Stay. By Chris Shea. Andrews McMeel. $7.99.
Believe in Yourself and Do What You Love. By Kate James. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Dog lovers are, in a sense that non-dog-lovers will never understand, the sum of all their beloved canines. Although dogs are often abused, misused, maltreated and trained to be hostile and aggressive, these characteristics always flow from dog owners, never from the dogs themselves. And owners who mistreat dogs are never dog lovers. They are at least dog users, at most dog abusers. The vast majority of people who share their lives with dogs, however, exist with canines in a kind of symbiosis whose benefits flow equally in both directions. As a result, when a dog dies, a dog lover feels – correctly – that he or she has lost a part of himself or herself; and it can be harder to bear the loss of a beloved canine than to handle the loss of a human friend or even family member, not because humans are worth less to dog lovers but because dogs are worth more. Again, this is inexplicable to non-dog-lovers – but they are not the audience for Chris Shea’s tiny, elegant and moving Dogs Don’t Die—Dogs Stay. This is an ideal gift book for someone who has recently lost a beloved dog to death – and true dog lovers know this happens many times in a human lifespan, since a dog is old after 10 to 12 human years and some large breeds rarely live even a decade. It is the extreme simplicity of the book, both in words and in drawings, that is the key to the charm and heartfelt nature of what Shea expresses. Shea shows a “Dog Design and Creation Manual” resting on a cloud and says that God was the first to tell dogs, “Stay. Good dog.” This divine element can be taken literally by those so inclined and figuratively by everyone else. In fact, Shea balances the whole book between literal and figurative, showing one dog realistically about to bury a bone at “a sunny spot for digging,” then one in “a shady spot for resting” sitting quite unrealistically in a chair beneath a beach umbrella. What dogs want – and Shea is far from the first to make this simple statement – is “a person to love forever,” and Shea’s point is that “forever” extends beyond a dog’s earthly lifespan. Dogs, he writes, teach us “unconditional love, unconditional devotion, and loyalty that never ends,” and it is the loss of those things when a dog passes on that makes the loss so hard to bear. The sweet, gentle drawings that Shea offers to go with his simple, direct words enhance those words’ quality, and Dogs Don’t Die—Dogs Stay becomes almost unbearable to read (again, for a dog lover) when Shea talks about what happens “one day” when a beloved dog is gone. Gone for all time? Not really, this little book says, “because loyalty, companionship, and faithfulness last forever,” and a true dog lover does not forget them and is made a better person because of them – made, ultimately, into the sum of all the canines with which he or she has experienced life. Shea has a lovely little ending to this lovely little book, suggesting that “when they think we’re ready,” dogs that have passed on help us find another wonderful companion offering “unconditional love, unconditional devotion, and loyalty that never ends.” The idea is naïve, simplistic, even rather silly when looked at rationally – but dog lovers know that that is exactly how it feels when a new dog captures and captivates them after the passing of an old one. Shea evokes the feeling beautifully, and dog lovers will shed tears – cleansing tears – at experiencing it.
Simplicity of an entirely different sort, at an entirely different level, permeates Kate James’ (+++) self-help book, Believe in Yourself and Do What You Love. The title really encapsulates the book: if the title seems reasonable and attainable, you will find the book filled with explication (not necessarily explanation) of how to accomplish the dual goals; but if the title seems like just another in a long line of overly simplistic, feel-good admonitions with little contact with the real world, you will find the entire book lacking, since most of what it offers is more of the same. James runs a business called “Total Balance” and describes herself as a life coach and mindfulness teacher. Her entire book is predicated on the notion of being mindful of who you are and what you want, in order to take steps to get where you want to go. There are 50 very short admonitory chapters here. For example, the one titled “Be mindful” says, “When you create the headspace to step back and look at your life in a mindful way, you’ll often discover a different perspective and become better able to identify the things that matter.” The one called “Peak experiences” talks about being “rapturously in sync with the world and what you are doing.” The one titled “Look on the bright side” says, “Positive people are smarter, they do better in their careers, they make more money, have happier relationships, get depressed less often, and are healthier.” There is really nothing unusual or unfamiliar in James’ book, which is assertively upbeat and insists that readers should be that way, too. But the often rather flighty language does not mean that James is wholly out of touch with reality: she does make some specific recommendations. For example, to connect with work that you really want to do, she says to research the industry, learn how to network, and – if you are already in a job you like and want to get promoted and take on more responsibility – speak up more and take on extra responsibilities to prove you can handle a larger role. James’ other work-related notions are similarly straightforward. They include finding role models to imitate, creating a routine that works for you, and accepting that money alone will not make you happy: “It’s far better to focus on finding meaningful, creative work and creating a life that you love than it is to just go after the big bucks.” If comments like this seem well-thought-out and actionably useful, you will find quite a few of them in Believe in Yourself and Do What You Love. If they seem like surface-level observations or twice-told tales gleaned from innumerable other self-help and career-oriented books, you will find little that is useful in James’ writing. Yet her ideas, even when naïve and simplistic, are basically good ones. For instance, “Appreciate small pleasures and proactively intersperse them throughout your week,” she suggests at one point. She does not follow it up by suggesting her readers get a dog or other fill-life-with-small-pleasures pet – but that would certainly be one way to implement many of the notions found in relaxation-and-self-help books, including this one.