Sunday, January 05, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #5: Uncle Boris in the Yukon by Daniel Pinkwater

Daniel Pinkwater, as I've insisted here many times and will continue to do so, is not just one of the very best writers for teenagers to come out of the 20th century, but one of the finest writers period of his time, someone who regularly captured both the ordinary-ness and sublimity of life, and did it in fabulously entertaining novels. (Most recently Bushman Lives!, one of the best books of his career-- he's still going strong in his seventies.)

But, like so many other writers, he's never been content to do just the one thing he's best-known for. So he did commentaries for NPR for years, which turned into the excellent books of autobiographical essays Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights and Fish Whistle. And he ran a dog-training business in the '70s with his wife Jill -- and that turned into a book, Superpuppy, a bestseller in its day and still, I understand, influential in its field. That latter experience -- or, more generally, the fact of being a dog person and owner of many dogs over the years -- led to this book in 2001: Uncle Boris in the Yukon is subtitled "and Other Shaggy Dog Stories," and it's a collection of stories about Pinkwater's relationships with the dogs in his life, with a digression to begin about his uncle's career as a prospector and dog-musher in the far north (after Boris and his brothers escaped their early, pre-WWII life as Jewish gangsters in Warsaw -- Pinkwater gives hints of several incredibly colorful lives in the opening chapters).

Pinkwater has always written stories about odd, interesting, specific children, so it's no surprise to find out he was one himself, a semi-only child (he had older half-siblings, on both sides) who lived various places (Chicago, California) and even was sent to military school, mostly because his father was a successful businessman who wanted his son to grow up with the future leaders of America. Uncle Boris, though, isn't really about the young Pinkwater -- maybe we will still get that book, someday -- but about the dogs he knew and trained and loved.

So Pinkwater grows up, on about page fifty of this two-hundred page book, and most of the length is about the various large and somewhat wolflike friends he's had over the years. There's a lot of detail about the personalities of the dogs, and how they interacted with each other, including the obligatory funny stories about "when Dog X was new" and "how Dog Z dealt with Dog Q".

I'm not a dog person, myself -- heck, I'm not an animal person of any kind, and I'm not that thrilled about people, if you get right down to it -- but Pinkwater's stories are full of love and insight and deep knowledge of his subject: the interaction of dog and man. If you are a dog person, you should absolutely love this book, and I bet you've never heard of it. It's not that long, either, so it could be a nice little gift for your dog-loving friend, too.

And even if you're not a dog person, you very well might enjoy this book -- I certainly did, and it would be difficult to be less of a dog person than me.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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