Book report #24 (2022)

And a Dog Called Fig, by Helen Humpreys. Pub 2022

I have read (almost) everything fiction and non-fiction that Humphreys has written, and each book has been wonderful. Back in 2019, I read her Machine Without Horses, an interesting combination of novel and writer’s memoir, and I enjoyed the memoir part and noted that it could have been longer. Et voila – an entire book that is memoir of a writing life. Plus dogs!

Humphreys uses the framework and period of time where she has acquired a new puppy – Fig, a female Vizsla. The book follows the first few months of life with her new companion, and weaves in reflections on her life of writing, going back to her first novels through to the present. Interestingly, throughout she maintains an awareness of writing this book, so there is often a sense of being present that is unusual, almost like reading a diary as it is being written. The main thesis is that writers benefit from having dog companions, partly for maintaining balance and connection to the non-writing world and partly (or perhaps mostly) because a writing life is solitary and lonely. She includes several examples of other writers for whom dogs were omnipresent and important in their work and life.

Being a dog person myself (albeit not for a while) there was much about her perspective on the love, challenges, and joys of dog companionship that I could relate to. Her immediate experiences with the puppy and her reminiscences about dogs past and passed were very familiar, and typical of Humphreys she can put into vivid words what those times and experiences feel like. She also very deftly connects those feelings to the writing experience, providing ample anecdotal evidence for the benefits of dog walks and other distractions to enhancing the work of writing. I recognized a connection here to my own work and the guidance I give others: with or without a dog, all work benefits from regular breaks (see Pomodoro technique):

On structure (in a variation on Hericlitus): “Structure in a novel, and in life, is the perfect balance of order and chaos. The structure of a day could be the four dog walks undertaken at regular intervals throughout that day. But no walk will be the same at the next. Each one, even if it happens along the exact same route as the previous walk, will yield up a different combination of sightings and experiences.”

About dogs, on being present (in a variation on Seneca): “…their ability to be entirely inside a moment and then to switch easily, and without regret, into another moment…To a dog, there is no wrong direction. There is just this moment and these interesting smells and sights, and then this next moment with more fascinating experiences. A dog is constantly in process…”

Humphreys does an excellent job of blending the work and details of life with a puppy with the stories of the lives of other writers, with plenty of reflection of her own journey as a writer and her words of wisdom. As always, her writing is clear, lyrical where appropriate, well paced, and satisfying. Even the somewhat abrupt ending is good, making perfect sense (there’s only so much to say about puppy training).

“Happiness is a hard thing to describe, because even though the circumstances of various joys are different, the feeling is much the same same and there is something oddly banal in attempts to translate it into something that can be explained to others. But happiness, true happiness, is also fairly rare in life…” 

“It is easy to distrust what comes easily, to think that more effort is required to make something worthwhile…There is no shame in giving up what isn’t working. It is often a better solution than hammering away at something that isn’t going to be very good.”

I take away from these that happiness comes unbidden – not engineered but experienced, and often rarely recognized when it is happening, more often in retrospect. It is ephemeral, unique, personal, and sometimes defies description or rationale. Perhaps because of that, letting go of things that are not working, whether a piece of work or writing, a job, a relationship, a path in life, can sometimes be better than trying to force it to work or confirm to an ideal. After all, we each only have so much time – an amount that is always dwindling – and experience should teach us to make the most of the moments we have left, and to savour the happiness we have and have had.

Fate: I have a colleague who adores Vizslas, and so she might enjoy this book.

4 – a book published in 2021/2022
8 – a book by a female author
13 – a book set somewhere I’ve never been (mostly in Kingston, ON)
14 – a book with a name in the title
23 – a memoir
33 – a book by a Canadian author

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