(a book review by Mark R. Leeper)

I grew up with a dachshund who like most dachshunds proved to be nearly impossible to train. I think it was because he was a very bright but very strong-willed dog. Obedience was just not Sam's strong suit. I was politely asked not to bring Sam back to dog obedience class because he was such a distraction to the other dogs. Several months back I read about MARLEY & ME (ISBN-13 978-0-061-68720-4, ISBN-10 0-061-68720-0), a book by John Grogan about a dog who had many of the same behavior problems that mine did. There is a not lot in this book that any dog owner will not recognize.

John Grogan presents his life with a neurotic Labrador Retriever touching all the bases, and the book should have been more poignant than it was. Grogan does about as good a job as possible conveying his frustrations and his overarching love for his dog. But Grogan has a large problem that it would take a much better writer to overcome. It is the same problem that your friend has in getting you fascinated with his vacation photographs or in the lives of their children. If it is not your child or not your vacation or not your dog, it is very hard to get the same emotional involvement. Consider the hard time John and his wife had finding a name for the dog. Then thinking about the musician Bob Marley in the same wonderful instant both had the same idea to name their new dog Marley. It was great for the Grogans, and writer John hopes that the reader will be as overjoyed as he was. It is hard to find that name so wonderful. To me it was closer to "merely nice" than to "magical."

Marley has a great imagination when it comes to mischief he can cause. He tests nearly everything in the house to see if it is edible and comes up with frequent false positives like the head of a plastic toy soldier. Some of the stories have a ring of over- familiarity on first contact. There was the time that Marley swallowed Jenny Grogan's gift, a gold chain. For days John had to sift through Marley's oddly colored dog piles. The odd orange color came from Marley's habit of eating the mangoes that fall in the yard. Marley closes beaches, plays in feature films, but mostly just get into frequently disgusting mischief.

At times reading Grogan's anecdotes it is frustrating to be several steps ahead of the storyteller. Marley is terrified of the Florida thunderstorms--the most violent in the country. The terrified dog was known to dig holes in walls, shred books, and destroy furniture in his irrational panic at thunderstorms. So finally the Grogans decide to put Marley in a cage to restrain him when there is a thunderstorm. They buy the cage and leave him in it alone when the next thunderstorm comes. Now they feel safe that Marley is so confined. Okay, reader, you finish the story. Meanwhile, after years of the Grogans trying to convince Marley that thunderstorms are really not dangerous what do you think happens? I will never tell, but the odds are you do not need much of a hint.

The book is not just about Marley. Actually it is mostly about the Grogans love for each other their love for their dog, his love for them, and eventually their love for their children. It is also about Grogan worrying about his family as his neighborhood becomes unfriendly. After years of making fun of Boca Raton and its canonical resident "Bocahontas", he has to move there. A lot of this is about the problems of the Grogan family. But none is as powerful for the reader as Grogan expects it to be. Any adjective that might be applied to the book needs to be modified by the adverb "mildly." It is mildly funny at times and mildly pleasant in the happy moment mildly and touching in the sad moments. I guess in spite of the poop episode and a few similar it is mildly inoffensive.

John Grogan peppers the narrative with his impression of what Marley is thinking, but it is presented as fact. He assumes that because he loves the dog he all but completely understands the dog. I got that impression with dog and years later found out I was wrong. What I thought was a request for an affectionate scratch on his belly was actually just a pack sign of submission from the dog. He probably appreciated the scratch, but he was not requesting it.

This is a book with more than enough virtues to make it worth reading. It is readable, but I am not sure how it got to be a bestseller.

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper