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Bookworm: Grab a blanket, and chill with ‘Good Dogs’

‘A Most Beautiful Thing’ is the feel-goodest of feel-good books

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

"Good Dogs Don't Make It to the South Pole"

  • By Hans-Olav Thyvold, translated from the Norwegian by Marie Ostby
  • c. 2020, HarperVia
  • $26.99, $33.50 Canada; 307 pages

You can imagine the ice and snow that's coming. Remember it? The howling wind and sleet that stings your cheeks and there isn't enough clothing in the world to keep you warm? So, read "Good Dogs Don't Make It to the South Pole" by Hans-Olav Thyvold, and put away those thermals. Fur might do just as well.

"Good Dogs Don't Make It to the South Pole" author Hans-Olav Thyvold, translated from the Norwegian by Marie Ostby.

Today is the final day of Major Thorkildsen's life. Tassen knows it; better, perhaps, than the major himself. His dying is as if someone's shutting down a grand building, turning off lights one by one and when it's over, Tassen wonders what comes next.

No matter what, he'll always be grateful to the major for saving him from the humiliation of being "the wrong color" dog, forever rejected. Indeed, he remembers the day he became the major's pup; he's always been a one-man dog, which always worked out fine. Now that man will have to be Mrs. Thorkildsen.

Tassen is okay with that. He always liked Mrs. Thorkildsen; she was a librarian once and she loved to read. She also drank too much dragon water but Tassen could live with it. He was more worried about having to go with her in the car to bring home prey but as it turned out, the hunting grounds were not too far away to walk, and so they did.

It was on one of their walks that Mrs. Thorkildsen showed him the dogs. They'd been discussing those dogs – Greenland dogs, she'd called them – and when Tassen saw them and startled, she said they were stuffed with sawdust. They were the same dogs that had been to the South Pole with Roald Amundsen; he'd used them for pulling sleds and other things Tassen couldn't bear to think about.

"Good Dogs Don't Make It to the South Pole" by Hans-Olav Thyvold, translated from the Norwegian by Marie Ostby.

He'd have made a lousy Greenland dog, but Good Boys never had to worry about that. They only had to guard their people and their home and wait. Always wait ...

The first thing you need to know about "Good Dogs Don't Make It to the South Pole" is that you can leave the tissues behind. It's not that kind of a book.

Mostly. It's mostly not. Instead, what you'll find here is clever, times five. Author Hans-Olav Thyvold tells this entire tale from the viewpoint of an observantly droll, inadvertently-humorous dog, a breed of which readers are left to imagine. Thankfully, Tassen isn't precious or cloying and there's plenty of great dialogue from him, which is fun to figure out. It's a wonderful premise but with a surprise that disappoints ...

Thyvold spends a lot of time letting Mrs. Thorkildsen teach Tassen – and thereby teaching readers – about Amundsen's trek to the South Pole, and the dogs he took. It's interesting. It's also too much and could've been cut by a third.

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Advice: be prepared to skim a bit and you won't be sorry. Tassen is too wonderful to pass up and a "Wait – what?" ending will leave you stunned. Find "Good Dogs Don't Make It to the South Pole," grab a blanket, and chill.

"A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America's First All-Black High School Rowing Team" author Arshay Cooper

"A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America's First All-Black High School Rowing Team"

  • By Arshay Cooper
  • c. 2020, Flatiron Books
  • $27.99, $37.99 Canada; 229 pages

Either, or. The choice is yours: do you pick one thing, or take the other? Stay where you are, or reach for better? This or that, any way, you always have to decide: do you take either, or ... as in "A Most Beautiful Thing" by Arshay Cooper, do you take the oar?

Growing on Chicago's West Side, Arshay Cooper was used to seeing blood on the sidewalk. Gunshots were like lullabies and he hated it. His father was long gone, his mother was then too addicted to care for her children, and he "had a funeral" for her in his heart. Later, once his mother was clean and he started attending high school at Manley Career Academy, he became firm in his belief that his future was not on the streets. He knew gang-banging wasn't for him, so he mostly stayed home and watched Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and A Different World on TV, absorbing their lessons and wishing his life was more like that of the characters.

"A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America's First All-Black High School Rowing Team" by Arshay Cooper

And then he saw a boat.

It wasn't just any boat, though: it was long and sleek and Cooper quickly learned that it was used in a sport he'd never heard of. The white female coach said team members would be taught all they needed to know; the white man who'd put the program together said that there'd never been an all-Black high school rowing team, and he promised that anybody who stuck with the program would succeed in life. Though Cooper's schoolmates talked smack about it, and in part because of a girl, Cooper and his best friend signed up for "crew."

And everything clicked into place.

Rowing required discipline. It was exhausting, emotionally and physically. There were sacrifices. But when on the water, rowing, he says, "I don't hear gunshots or ambulance sirens. I don't see gang signs and I don't have fear ... I feel powerful."

Here's all you need to know: "A Most Beautiful Thing" lives up to its name.

It doesn't start out that way, though: in laying the ground for his tale, author Arshay Cooper writes about the realities of growing up in a Chicago neighborhood that he hints could have been any-inner-city-where, any-inner-city-time. This gives the story its muscle and allows readers to better picture the scenes and the struggles he and his young teammates withstood. You'll be happy to know that there isn't a shred of boasting or false pride in that.

Once you're that far into the book, then, you may notice that Cooper masterly makes you feel a part of the team. At that point, just go ahead, take their losses to heart. Be proud of the changes they've made. Think about the grace on race that Cooper offers. Grin like a fool at the triumphs, and laugh at their noncomformity.

It's perfectly okay to get teary-eyed at the epilogue, really.

This is the feel-goodest of feel-good books, and you should have it now. Reading "A Most Beautiful Thing" will leave you feeling merrily, merrily, merrily.

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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.