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A Small Furry Prayer

A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler (Bloomsbury; $25.00; 320 pages)

Animal lovers of each and every type will love A Small Furry Prayer.   I’m a cat person and yet this story got me to thinking about the joys of living with a dog.   Note that I deliberately did not use the phrase “owning a dog,” as Kotler makes clear that every canine retains a measure of independence.

“My home was now an environment where some level of danger and unpredictability – two of the defining characteristics of wildness – were part of the basic package.”

This tale of a dog rescuing fortyish couple starts in Los Angeles before moving to the comparative wilds of New Mexico.   They begin by serving as emergency foster parents to one dog, then two before winding up living in a dilapidated farm-house in Chimayo, New Mexico – with 20 dogs!   (They later lose count of the total when it exceeds 20.)  

Steven Kotler and his wife Joy (known to the locals as el angel de los perros) wind up being less foster parents than the providers of a wooly home for abandoned dogs.   Because six or so of the dogs are Chihuahuas their abode comes to be known as Rancho de Chihuahua.

The Kotlers don’t have a lot of money in 2008 but nevertheless they must purchase $500 worth of good quality dog food each week (sickly dogs require good nutrition) and spend their savings on expensive life-saving operations for their wards.   Kotler is sceptical that he’s going to get much payback from this situation other than having kept his commitment to following Joy’s number one rule in life:  “Love me, love my dogs.”

Eventually, of course, Kotler gets his reciprocation in the form of love and acceptance from the rescued dogs, some of whom had been feral and mistrusting of humans.   And there’s the instance in which one of the dogs saves the author’s life when a mountain climbing expedition goes bad.   The dogs, in a sense, demonstrate that love and affection is always paid back in full.

As a former newspaper and magazine writer, Kotler is used to doing extensive research and in this book he includes many fascinating summaries of research performed with animals.   Much of the research verifies the benefits – mental and physical – that dogs and other animals bring to our existence.   Kotler also makes a convincing case for the notion that the modern dog is just as smart as (but perhaps shrewder than) his wolf ancestors.

At the end of Prayer, the reader will likely come to accept the positive message that our lives on this planet are meant to be shared with furry creatures; creatures that are never owned but which reward us with their unique and special presence.   Part of the truth about what it really means to be human can be expressed in the phrase, “Love me, love my animals.”

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.   A Small Furry Prayer will be released by Bloomsbury USA on Tuesday, September 28, 2010.

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Angels on Earth

CC Theresa Brown

Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life and Everything in Between by Theresa Brown (HarperOne, $14.99, 224 pages)

“Death.   It casts a long shadow in this book, and in these stories.   Even when death is not present it hovers just around the corner, unbidden and unwanted, but waiting nonetheless.”

“People say, why wait?   But really they should say, don’t wait.   Listen when you can, tell the people in your life you love them…”

If doctors are the mortal gods of medicine, then nurses are its angels.   At least that’s the case put forth here by Theresa Brown, a former Tufts University Journalism professor turned Registered Nurse (R.N.).

It seems that Brown and a former close female friend were looking for meaning in their lives when they decided to go to nursing school.   Brown started at Penn but finished at Pitt.   In Critical Care, Brown pulls back the curtain on what she somewhat successfully labels the Science of Nursing.   My mother was an emergency room nurse, so much of what I read in Critical Care sounded familiar and true…  Good hearted nurses are worn down by tough-minded superiors.   These nurses rarely receive praise for medical successes but often are blamed for the failures.   And, they have to clean up stool because “doctors don’t do poop.”

Still, this seemed like a somewhat lightweight survey of a crucial field.   There are some specific problems with the telling.   Brown shows us her empathy in writing about patients like the all-too-young David, who is battling leukemia; and Irene, the Pittsburg television personality who does not realize that she’s dying until she hears her former co-workers talking about her on TV.   But as soon as we become engaged with their lives, Brown’s off describing other things – like a voluntary job change.

Brown also loses track of former patients (some of whom have likely died) and their families.   In this age of the Internet, it’s odd that she did not pursue some basic research to find out what happened to them.   Also, the book begins with multiple pages of acknowledgments which seems distracting before we get to the actual content.

A last flaw is that we do not get to know the author’s husband or daughter.   They remain on the edges of the stage.

What Brown does quite well is to convince the reader of the need to enjoy life (and other people) while good health lasts.   Today’s tiredness may be diagnosed as leukemia or some other energy-robbing disease tomorrow.

Critical Care lets you walk in the shoes of some very ill patients, both young and old.   Yet for a better overview of today’s world of medicine – as practiced on a daily basis – I recommend two books by Dr. Atul Gawande.   The most recent is Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (2008).   The contemporary classic is Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (2003).

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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