Bookworm: Dog lessons and drug history

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog”

  • By Dave Barry
  • c. 2019, Simon & Schuster
  • $26, $35 Canada; 226 pages

Sit. Among the things you taught your new puppy, that was one of the first: plonk that little tail-end on the floor and gooooooood boy! After that, there was “down” and “stay” and “outside” and, as in the new book “Lessons from Lucy” by Dave Barry, your dog taught you, too.

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First, there were Earnest and Zippy, two dogs that weren’t the brightest pups in the litter, but Dave Barry – who’d had dogs almost all his life – loved them until, alas, he lost custody of them in a divorce.

"Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog" by Dave Barry.

When he married a second time, Barry wanted to adopt another dog, but he and his new wife had Sophie instead, a child who was an animal magnet. When Sophie became old enough to join her father in begging for a dog, Lucy entered the family.

Barry did a doggy-DNA test for Lucy once, learning that her Lab looks are lies: she’s a boxer-Dalmatian-chow-retriever mix. The point is that she’s a dog and at 11 years old, her days are numbered. So, Barry says, are his but as a 70-year-old human, his mortality bothers him more than Lucy’s does her. She, in fact, is pretty happy-go-lucky. Maybe there are lessons to be learned from that …

“Make New Friends” is the first one Barry shares, one that Lucy finds easy. Barry prefers the other half of that lesson: “And Keep the Ones You Have.”

The second lesson is good: “Don’t Stop Having Fun,” even when getting old “sucks.”

“Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog” author Dave Barry.

Dogs don’t have phones, so the third one’s simple: “Pay attention to the people you love. (Not later. Right now.)  Barry tries hard to practice the fourth lesson, “Let go of your anger, unless it’s something really important, which it almost never is.” The fifth refers to beauty, yours and others.’ The sixth lesson is about things; and the seventh lesson is a good reminder of what you learned from your parents, long ago.

And as for Barry, he offers an eighth lesson, but it doesn’t come from Lucy.

That one comes from his heart.

Here’s fair warning: the introduction to “Lessons from Lucy” may be a disappointment. It feels like the start of yet another Let-Me-Tell-You-About-My-Dog story, heavy on the “weewee” references.

Heavy sigh.

But then! Faster than a Border Collie at agility competition, everything turns! Author Dave Barry shares with readers a love letter for a dog, a frame for his hilarious thoughts, a missive that wonderfully cradles the delightful abundance of off-topic topics that make his books so much fun to read.  

And yet – there’s a difference here, one that’s really sweetly pronounced.

In “Lessons from Lucy,” Barry seems more introspective than in his other books, letting readers in on his regrets, biggest peeves, and missed opportunities. His humor pokes great fun, but it feels like it might be fragile, too, which gives it a sense of wistfulness.

Is that because of an old dog?  Or is it because of the book’s final chapter? You won’t know until you go fetch “Lessons from Lucy.” And then … sit.

“Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine”

  • By Thomas Hager
  • c.2019, Abrams Press 
  • $26, $33 Canada; 320 pages

A certain fictional British nanny was correct. A spoonful of sugar helps with the meds but in your case, you need a cup of it. Your illness is real, the pills are big, the shot is small, you’ll feel better when it’s done, and in “Ten Drugs” by Thomas Hager, you’ll find out how our cures affected more than just our health.

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To see it all laid out was a shock. On a recent trip to Great Britain, Thomas Hager saw an exhibit in which 14,000 pills – the lifetime prescription consumption of an average Brit – were displayed on one 46-foot-long table. More shocking, he says, is that Great Britain’s pill-taking “pales in comparison” to that of American consumers.

“Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine” by Thomas Hager.

We can’t live without our meds. Sometimes, we can’t live with them. But which ones changed the world?

First up, says Hager, is opium, with a history that literally circles the globe.

Once upon a time, it was a drug of choice: early Romans could openly buy opium-infused cakes on the streets, but even they knew the addictive properties of the drug. The British traded with opium, it was smuggled into China, even Thomas Jefferson used it. Without it, the invention of syringes might’ve been delayed but opium and its cousin, heroin, have caused mankind a lot of problems, even as they alleviated a lot of pain.

Lady Mary Montagu, a survivor of smallpox, was with her husband in Constantinople in the early 1700s when she noticed that Muslim women had unblemished skin, indicating that they hadn’t contracted smallpox. When she asked how, they showed her their very rudimentary method of smallpox prevention. Lady Montagu was so amazed that she used her own children to prove that their method worked.

"Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine" author Thomas Hager.

Sulfa drugs led to a Nobel Prize for a scientist who had to refuse it. The Pill has its roots literally in roots, and its most logical counterpart began as a heart disease medicine. And as for modern drugs, addiction rates just keep going up…

In his introduction, author Thomas Hager explains how he chose the ten drugs in this book: aspirin and penicillin, for example, are not here; inoculations are. Inclusion and omission, therefore, is quite subjective and perhaps somewhat argument-sparking, so keep that in mind as you read “Ten Drugs.”

The other thing to know here – the thing that makes this book so appealing – is that it’s not just about ten individual drugs. No, Hager unearthed his information for casual readers who aren’t necessarily in medical fields, so the book’s focus is much wider as he takes a time-traveling jaunt around the world to show how drugs have been embraced, evolved, and ejected.

Truly, in the best sense of the word, it’s a trip.

Readers who wonder how we got here, in the opioid crisis and in kerfuffles over the price of prescriptions, will appreciate that, as will folks who like unusual reads. If you’ve taken your medicines today, you’ll want a dose of this. Missing “Ten Drugs” may be a bitter pill to swallow. 

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.