Book bits

Three books about learning, a review of 'Shaggy Muses,' and readers' picks

Shaggy Muses

Author: Maureen Adams

I represent half of Maureen Adams's likely audience for Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton and Emily Brontë – the half interested in literary biography but not inspired to write dissertations. The rest of this book's natural audience is remote to me: I am not a dog person.

Adams is, however, and the grief she felt at losing hers brought her to this study. It also took her from teaching literature to a career in psychology – which may be the book's fatal flaw.

Adams might have simply told the stories of these women and their dogs; instead, she cannot resist diagnosing them. In terms so modern that they feel grafted on, Adams draws broad conclusions about childhood trauma, attachment disorders, and other difficulties she thinks these women faced. She sizes up Barrett Browning's early illness as a possible eating disorder and suggests that Brontë, who lost her mother as a toddler, spent her life searching for a surrogate.

Much more interesting are the charming details sprinkled through the book. When Flush, Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel was returned after a dog-napping, the poet articulated her happiness by turning his name into an adjective: "I am," she wrote, "so flushified." Neighbors afraid of Brontë's mastiff, Keeper, listened for "the dog's odd breathing, a wheezing whistle ... an injury from one of his fierce brawls with the local dogs." A single photograph tells all about Edith Wharton's relationship to her Chihuahuas: Wharton sits in an elegant jacket and hat, one dog perched on each shoulder, above the era's fashionable puffed sleeves.

What's missing as a result of the book's narrow focus is the rewarding complexity of these women's other relationships, as if those with their dogs were the most revealing.

Perhaps that's more true for Virginia Woolf, who laced her love letters with "a private language of animal names," but is it not possible that, rather than running through the English moors with her dog to "experience vicarious pleasure from Keeper's freedom," the notoriously misanthropic Emily Brontë simply preferred nature to strangers?

Adams does best what she does least: showing, not telling. In a book that implies one's only choice is between apathy toward animals or an unbalanced dependence on them, I am content to be like Charlotte Brontë, a secondary character in her sister's story here, who misspells dogs' names, forgets their sex, and refers to them individually with the callously indifferent pronoun "it." That, to me, feels more natural than a life forced into orbit around one's pet.

Then again, I'm not a dog person.

3 books about learning

When Dan Brown, a newly minted graduate of NYU's film school, applied for a job as a public teacher in the Bronx, he thought he'd gain an income and maybe a few great stories for his filmmaking. What he got instead was "a life-altering tilt-a-whirl ride, all of it more vivid and twisted than anything I could have concocted in fiction." Brown tells his story in The Great Expectations School – a compelling, scary, funny, touching look at urban education in the US.

"My journey into Chinese painting was unanticipated," writes author and educator Herbert Kohl. "It began with discovering that I was becoming an old man." Almost 70, Kohl decided he needed a new challenge and signed up for a class in Chinese landscape painting. Only later did he realize that the other students were all Chinese children, aged 7 and under. Painting Chinese is the story of what Kohl learns – about painting and himself.

Tyler Heights Elementary School was once a symbol for the ills of US public education. But as the nation engaged in education reform, the school's test scores rose and suddenly it was a model for success. In Tested, former Washington Post education writer Linda Perlstein goes behind the scenes to learn more about what went right – and what went wrong – in Tyler Heights.

Readers' picks

I am presently reading Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, The Crisis That Shocked the Nation by Elizabeth Jacoway. With the 50th-year commemoration coming up in September, this is a vital book to reveal many unreported facts in the case. – Mollie N. Williams, Morrilton, Ark.

America's Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar is a bit dense and at times hard to follow but rich with historical lore surrounding the founding of our Constitution. – Thomas Tom, San Francisco

The Nature of Jade by Deb Caletti is a wonderful tale of an "almost adult" teenager who is learning to find strength within herself. Hansa the elephant (who died June 8 at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo) is a prominent character in the story. The reader finds that there is much to learn about life from animal behavior. Loved it!– Margarette Bull, Kirkland, Wash.

Stalking the Divine by Kristin Ohlson is a book worth reading for anybody who has ever had religion, lost religion, or needed it – which covers just about all of us!– Lynda Newman, Aptos, Calif.

Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant has something to offend everyone, including me. The idea is that there is an ongoing "class war" in America, not the traditional rich versus poor, but between the educated and the uneducated. Count me among the educated snobs. – H. Scot Monaghan, Marietta, Ohio

I am currently enjoying The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell, a biography of the six daughters of Lord Redesdale. One had a crush on Hitler, one became a communist, one married an English Fascist, one became a bestselling novelist. – Kent MacKay Rollo, Glasgow, Scotland

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