Affairs of the Heart

Dear Reader:

It’s a lovely, gloomy, rainy late November Saturday.  Not so great for running or walking dogs…  Excellent for tea and books.

#10 To the North by Elizabeth Bowen (1932, hard copy)

This is one of Bowen’s books that I had read in the past.  But, like most of the books I read I had zero memory of the plot or much of anything else, for that matter.  Hence, I blog!  Cecelia and Emmeline share a London flat in the 1930s – Cecelia is a widow with a little money and Emmeline has a travel business.

They are young – 20s to early 30s (at the most) and, thus, young men play a major role in their lives.  Cecelia encounters Markie, the seducer, on a train through Europe although Cecelia has Julian, the boyfriend.  The two flirt, but Cecelia is too wise and self-involved to be overtaken by an obvious cad like Markie.  Emmeline, on the other hand, is more fragile, less wise, and more vulnerable.  She falls under his spell all the while trying to suggest that she’s not really that taken…

The story is told with the delicate word pictures that Bowen uses to astutely paint human interactions, particularly, those of the heart when one person is just playing and the other is not.  Her portrayal is so deft.  You can’t read Bowen and follow along with half a mind – she requires a fairly close read to ensure that you are getting the plot.  So much of her dialogue and language is subtle and indirect.  Whole deeply emotional and important conversations take place “indirectly” where everything is said through nothing much.  Time and again, you see characters react with a great deal of anger, outrage, or sadness to….  well, it can be a bit hard to tell because they are reacting strongly to something that has been said very lightly and indirectly.  It reminds me of Jane Austen and the many period British tv shows and films I’ve seen where young men and women are hanging out in the drawing room, playing the piano forte and cards and verbally parrying and thrusting in ways that seem very subtle to the 21st Century ear.

Markie is portrayed as a complete cad.  As I read his character I realized that, if he existed today, he wouldn’t be that big of a deal.  Yet for that time and place and social slice, he was utterly unacceptable.  Because he was a serial seducer – portrayed as picking up a new girlfriend every few months, sleeping with them, maybe returning meanwhile to the old girlfriend for a bit, and so on.  In today’s world this type of man or woman would not be all that remarkable.  And many people go through such a period and then mature into more serious relationships.  But in this time and place on the edges of real “society” deflowering a “good” young woman of standing wrought her complete destruction (this is a bit dramatic, I’m told that a generation or two back in my family, everyone was pregnant when they married, whether they were fooling around because they were getting married or they got pregnant and then married – point being that premarital sex wasn’t invented in the 60’s and was frequently fairly easily remedied with it needed to be).  Although sex has been on the fringes of other books of Bowen’s, I don’t think she has been so “open” about it as here (and by open I mean you know sex has occurred even if the word is not spoken).

This was another book that I picked up and put down and had a hard time getting into.  Book Snob, one of the best book bloggers/reviewers out there counts this as her favorite Bowen book.  It wasn’t mine.  I enjoyed the hotel and some of her short stories more.  Perhaps this is because I didn’t give it the chance it is due – picking it up and putting it down over the course of months.  Perhaps this is because I’m beyond finding love stories deeply compelling (at least between humans, dog-human love stories obviously enchant me more) – at 50 I just think that there are so many more interesting topics out there.  But I did appreciate her gorgeous writing and fascinating characters.  She so completely captures insincere love.

87) In a Dog’s Heart: What Our Dogs Need, Want, and Deserve – and the Gifts We Can Expect in Return by Jennifer Arnold  #8** (kindle)

Jennifer Arnold runs Canine Assistants with her vet husband.  Canine Assistants trains service dogs.  This is Arnold’s second book – her first was Through a Dog’s Eyes which was made into a PBS show that you can watch for free here: Through a Dog’s Eyes.  I loved the book and the documentary (I think I talked about it in an earlier post).  It chronicles the process of training and matching up a set of people with their service dogs.  Watch with tissues in hand.

Arnold writes beautifully and powerfully.  And we share the same philosophy for dog ownership and care: dogs aren’t people – they don’t think or have language skills like people and it is only to their detriment if we anthropomorphize them rather than understanding them for who they are.  Yet the dog-human bond can be incredibly powerful and loving for both parties.  Dogs and humans have evolved together to the point where few dogs can be happy and healthy without humans.  And if we take on responsibility for a dog, we have taken on a major responsibility to care for and love a creature with a lot of needs and emotion.  As such, we have a responsibility to ensure that our dog has love, well-fed nutritious sensible food (sorry, but I’m not a fan of raw food, homeopathic dog stuff), great vet care, exercise, mental stimulation, socialization, and physical comfort.  This is an enormous commitment and we have high standards for care.

I love reading the writing of people who are dog professionals, who really know about effective, humane training and dog care.  A lot of this book is about giving your dog great care.  After reading 100+ dog-related books in the past four years, you’d think I wouldn’t be able to glean anything new.  But this is a fuller discussion of what dogs need to be happy than I’ve seen in other books and, like I said, when it comes to dog, sharing a philosophy is everything.

And then there’s the stories that I really love of people and their dogs, particularly service dogs.  There is just something that really gets me about training a wonderful dog to be highly skilled in working with a human who needs them for assistance.  As regular readers, you know I’m deeply touched by seeing dogs meet their full potential through some form of “work.”  This can be sheep herding or service dog assistance.  Arnold weaves a few of these stories into her narrative, but it is mostly about creating a wonderful, happy, and healthy life for our beloved dogs.

That said, the story that will always stay with me is of “Toothless Joe”, an emaciated, bedraggled old beagle found in her town scrounging around dumpsters.  Arnold brings him back to Canine Assistants where he gets care and love and begins to recover (Jennifer fairly frequently provides advice to shelters and helps out in such cases).  She writes of the difficulty finding a home for a dog with only a few teeth, a heart condition, and just three legs.  As she and her staff become increasingly concerned that no one is ever going to find a home for this dog – running a non-profit, it is hard to feed another dog-mouth and pay all the bills – one day an elderly man calls them for help finding a place where he can get a dog.  The man has just left the hospital and, newly widowed, his doctor recommends that he get a dog.  But he’s worried that it isn’t fair of him to take on a healthy dog when he himself is so sick.  It’s a great story of her staff talking with him and hearing how the staff said, “OK, we have a dog who might work for you, but he’s old…” (“That’s OK, I’m old too.”)  “And he only has a couple teeth.” (“Me too.”)  “He has a heart condition.” (“Me too.”)  “He only has three legs.” (“That’s OK, I only have one, between the two of us, we’ll have four…”)  So, Toothless Joe goes to live with the man for what is expected to be a few months (neither are expected to live much long than this).  And, you guessed it, both the beagle and the man go on to live five more happy years together, dying a week apart.  As my fairly new to me (acquired in January 2011), nearly 15 year old, leaky, deaf, and nearly blind beagle snortles next to me curled up in his little bed, I savor the message that even elderly, physically “challenged” rescue dogs can be a great joy, have a lot of love to give (Gilbert is deeply disgruntled when people or dogs we pass fail to greet him and he is a favorite of the many small children in my neighborhood), and a lot of quality time left.


So, yet another highly recommended book from Jennifer Arnold.

What I’m reading…

Yet another in my series of “my year(s) in China memoirs” 103) The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (library – kindle).  Susan moves with her husband and two young boys to Beijing.  And gets cancer (not yet, but she tells us this at the beginning).  I’m enjoying this book a great deal.  And#91  Still Life (a Quebecois mystery) by Louise Penny (recommended by Mary).  I’m trying not to jump around as much between books as it seems to be making it hard for me to engage a book fully and I fear that this is unfair to the author… and less satisfying to me.

Happy Reading!  Ruby


1 Comment


    1. To the North by Elizabeth Bowen | A Good Stopping Point

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