In Feed My Dear Dogs, Emma Richler returns to the life of the Weiss family, first introduced to readers in her debut–and much-celebrated–book, Sister Crazy, through a series of interconnected stories narrated by Jemima (Jem) Weiss.
The Weisses are a tight unit of seven: father Yaakov, a gruff sportswriter whose love for his children is manifest in his stern instructions and impromptu boxing lessons; mother Frances, a wise and gentle beauty adored by her family, almost to the point of obsession by her husband; Ben, the most heroic of the siblings, by virtue of birth-order and also for knowing the answer to all questions; Jude, Jem’s almost-twin, who is only fifteen months older than she and the most serious of the children, careful to point out the anti-Semitic leanings of Jem’s literary heroes; Jem, the narrator, who would prefer to never leave the comforting confines of her family; delicate yet hilarious Harriet, Jem’s only sister, who can sound like a little old lady or a sultry vixen, depending on what movie she’s quoting; and Gus, the frail little boy who completes the circle at the beginning of the book with his birth and arrival home from the hospital.
Feed My Dear Dogs beings with the family in London, where eight-year-old Jem and her sister attend a convent school to the consternation of most of the nuns, since not only are the Weiss children not Catholic, but, most perplexingly, they are half-Jewish. Not surprisingly, Jem prefers home to school. At home she is surrounded by the books she loves, (particularly Tintin and Le Morte d’Arthur) and the comforts only a big, happy family can provide.
Soon, however, the family departs for Canada –“Dad’s country,” as the children see it–where together they begin a new life, shuttling between a Montreal townhouse and a country home, and adapting to their new land –even creating the “Weiss on Ice” hockey team. No matter where the family is, each member is fiercely loyal to home. From the use of short notes: “Out. Back soon. – Jude” to a simple “I’ll be up in my room!” yelled down the stairs, to Yaakov’s frantic bellowing of “Frances!” through the house, the family keeps close tabs on its members, which also allows Jem to subconsciously control it: “. . . my universe still the Universe, a place I wander with a slight swagger.”
But the comfort and security of family can’t last forever, Jem learns in high school, as Jude plans an extensive travel itinerary for himself and Ben contemplates moving out on his own. Meanwhile, Jem’s burgeoning feminism pits her against her father and brothers while she battles with a burden of guilt over the near-drowning death of her youngest brother. Spiraling into a breakdown by the story’s tragically beautiful end, Jem discovers that families simply can not remain fixed, like the stars in the galaxies, unchanged forever.
Intermingled through the story of the Weiss family are Jem’s (and her siblings’) encyclopedic knowledge of history, literature, film, religion and language. Richler also interweaves the almost mythic life story of Frances, the family’s matriarch, into the book, and provides glimpses into Jem’s troubled mind through a series of present-day conversations with her therapist, all of which serve to create a fully drawn portrait of Jem, her mother and the bond between them and the family as a whole.
About the author
Emma Richler was born in England in 1961, the middle child of five. She attended a convent school in London until 1972, when the family relocated to Quebec, where her father, Mordecai Richler, and her mother, Florence Wood, were born.
In Montreal, she attended a French convent school and later studied French literature at the University of Toronto and the Université de Provence in Southern France. Unlike her four siblings – all of whom have careers in media–she trained in the theatre, studying at the Circle in the Square in New York. Richler was an accomplished actor for over a decade, working in Canada at the Young People’s Theatre in Toronto and at Stratford, and later in the UK, appearing in various plays and television and radio dramas.
In 1998 she decided to give up acting to turn her attention to writing full-time. With full support and encouragement from her father, she completed her first book, Sister Crazy, a collection of related short stories. Published in 2002, it garnered high praise, became a bestseller, and was recognized by literary-prize juries on both sides of the Atlantic.
Only three and a half weeks after finishing Sister Crazy, Richler began writing her first novel, Feed My Dear Dogs, which was published in 2005. Feed My Dear Dogs was a national bestseller and was described by many reviewers as one of the best books of the year.
Emma Richler lives in London, England, and is currently at work on her third book.
Excerpt: Feed My Dear Dogs (by (author) Emma Richler)
Jude always said a kid is supposed to get acclimatised to the great world and society and so on, and just as soon as he can bash around on his own two pins, but the feeling of dread and disquiet I experienced on leaving home in my earliest days was justified for me again and again on journeys out, beginning with the time Zachariah Levinthal bashed me on the head for no clear-cut reason with the wooden mallet he had borrowed from his mother’s kitchen. It did not hurt much, as I was wearing my Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat with both ear flaps tied up neatly in a bow on top, providing extra protection from onslaught, but I must say it struck me that Zach, who was nearly a whole year and a half older than me, same age as my brother Jude in fact, Zach was the one in need of a few pointers regarding recommended behaviour in the great world and society at large. Never mind. The way I saw it, he was just testing out his enthusiasm for tools and surfaces, and, possibly, exploring a passing fancy for a future in architecture or construction work, and in my household, enthusiasms were encouraged, which is why I regularly went to and fro with a handful of 54mm World War I and World War II soldiers in my pocket for recreation purposes, with no one to stop me, although I am a girl and expected, in some circles, to have more seemly pursuits. You have to allow for enthusiasms, you never know where they may lead, so I knew to keep my composure the day Zach hit me on the head with a meat pulveriser. No. Tenderiser. So there you are, that is what I mean, it depends on how you look at things, how bashing away at a piece of beefsteak with a wooden hammer can induce a quality of tenderness in meat is just as surprising, perhaps, as my not protesting the risk of brain damage I incurred at the age of eight or so, instead, forgiving Zach on account of his enthusiasms and general spirit of endeavour.
I think all stories are like this, about looking out for a way to be in life without messing up in the end, a way to be that feels like home, and if you bear this in mind, it’s easy to see some situations as OK which might strike you otherwise as downright odd, and that story about Francis of Assisi and the crow is just one example of many. At the latter end of his life, Francis befriends a crow who is fiercely devoted, sitting right next to Francis at mealtimes, and traipsing after him on visits to the sick and leprous, and following his coffin when he died, whereupon the crow lost heart and simply fell apart, refusing to eat and so on, until he died also. Now, if you nip along the street or go about the shopping with a crow at your heels, you are not likely to make friends in a hurry, because it is odd behaviour, and not recommended. Unless you are a saint, in which case it is OK. So that’s one thing. The other OK-not-OK thing in this story is how that crow did not choose to make life easy and fall in love with his or her own kind, another crow with whom that bird might have a bright future and bring up little crows and so on. No. For the crow, Francis was home, that’s all there is to it, it is OK.
This is also how it goes for le petit prince in the book of that name by M. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a story about a small boy in a single suit of fine princely haberdashery, living on an asteroid with a volcano, a baobab tree and a rose, and having nothing much to do but watch the sunset. In the scheme of things, it is not so odd that he falls in love with the rose, and leaves his tiny planet in a fit of lovesickness, taking advantage of a migration of wild birds for his journey, hanging on to them, as it shows in the watercolour, by way of special reins. The prince finally lands on Earth wherein he has a shady encounter with a snake who has murder in mind, albeit concealed in a promise to this small lovestruck and visionary boy, a promise of return, a single ticket home by way of the eternal worlds.
Upon landing, the prince asks, Where did I fall, what planet is this?
I remember everything.
Everything and nothing is strange. It depends how you look at it.
Zach, now, is something in law, Jude says, although I keep forgetting the details, because all I can think is how Zach found a place where everything ought to come out right, and where even hammers crash down upon suitable surfaces for the tenderising of felony and injustice, and I hope he is happy, I hope so, though I don’t know, as I do not go in for telephones and letters these days, not now I have fallen out with society and the great world, but still I have enthusiasms, ones I pursue in low-lit rooms, with my handful of soldiers here, entering my world in unlikely ways, it might seem, to strangers.
October 1935. Joseph Goebbels issues a decree forbidding the inscription of names of fallen Jewish soldiers on war memorials, men who fell for the sake of younger men who are now getting busy scratching out offensive Jewish names from tablets of stone with what you might call corrupt and frenzied enthusiasm.
Me, I turn away and weep.
Where did I fall, what planet is this?
I hear it, I see it, and I was not there, it’s a vision. I remember everything.
Under the influence of gravity, stars in orbit in an elliptical galaxy such as ours are always falling, always falling without colliding, and the greater the mass, the greater the attraction, and the faster a thing falls, the faster it moves in orbit, so the Moon, for one, is always falling towards Earth, but never hits it, and I like to think William Blake, b.1757, d.1827, would appreciate this, as he was very interested in fallen man, and for William, memory is merely part of time, an aspect of the fall, and the visionary worlds are the true regions of reminiscence, a realm wherein every man is uncrowned king for eternity and there is no need for memorials because, so he wrote, Man the Imagination liveth for Ever.
“Richler’s writing is superb: crisp and. . .surprisingly poetic, often infused with a sly humour.”
“Jem is a literary gem.”
“There is an abundance of energy in Feed My Dear Dogs, a vitality and an emotional depth. . . . Feed My Dear Dogs is an intense and interesting literary project.”
–Winnipeg Free Press
“As a novelist, Richler can write quite the blue streak while still controlling the strings.”
“The Weiss clan remains an engaging, individuated family–an art-loving, art-making, frequently funny and sporadically endangered crew; one that could inherit the mantle of Salinger's Glass family. . . . At her focused best, she commands my full attention and, to paraphrase that hauntingly hypnotized American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, my heart opens to her. . . . Richler is an antic riffer in the finest jazz tradition and, at book's end, she blows this long solo about Jesus Christ, Ernest Shackleton, her sister Harriet and herself that is a room rocker.”
–Gale Zoë Garnett, The Globe and Mail
“A book shot through with love.”
–Quill & Quire
“She seems to have developed a new type of fiction, one that hangs like a haunting and curiously complex piece of art in the reader’s mind. . . . There are passages that give you goosebumps and there’s some hilarious dialogue. . . . In the same way a photograph or a painting can grab you or disturb you or flood you with sorrow, Feed My Dear Dogs is affecting. You finish it feeling you must hang on to it, even though you don’t quite know why.”
–The Vancouver Sun
"This is a glorious hymn of praise to family. . . . Richler uses a charming and cunning conflation of mature and immature vocabulary to capture childhood confusion. . . . Time and again, Jem’s world view made me laugh out loud. For all Jem’s anxieties, this is a joyful book about a joyful family."
—The Independent (UK)
"Jem's voice is a great accomplishment: confiding, ingenuous, with a convincing thirst for answers and approval. From delight in the discovery of new words and family in-jokes, to her schoolgirl disdain for custom. . . . But beyond the vignettes of a perfect childhood there is a dark undertow as the flow of observational comedy slips from childish prattle to damaged stream of consciousness. . . . The narrative is saturated with images of absence and loss: Shackleton in the Antarctic; Jewish history; Branwell Brontë's painting of his sisters from which he erased himself; the disintegration of King Arthur's Round Table. . . . a profoundly moving elegy for lost youth that bristles with intelligence, verve and wit."
—Scotland on Sunday
“Emma Richler's complex and moving first novel centres around the extraordinary and talented Weiss family...The handling of allusion is deft and understated; the narrator's stream-of-consciousness voice endlessly flexible, by turns charmingly frank and mysteriously obscure...Emma Richler has written a masterpiece; a brilliant and moving novel that defies description.”
—Matthew Alexander, Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“Feed my Dear Dogs is a fierce and passionate summoning up of childhood...this is more than an extended feat of recall or an entertaining family portrait. The writing is flexible and confident. Brief lyrical passages, expressed in Jemima's hectic, heartfelt tones give the novel its meaning...There is a well controlled patterning of literary allusion designed to hide and reveal the undertow of sadness beneath the jaunty tone...Richler's long, brilliant autobiographical project can stand alone on its literary merits.”
—Lindsay Duguid, Sunday Times (UK)
“Not since Salinger has a writer explored the relationships between children and adults with such grace, tenderness and wistful amusement.”
“It’s a bittersweet family portrait, by turns witty and dark: one of those rare books you just don’t want to end.”
“Emma Richler’s writing has a personality all of its own. You return to it as you would to a favourite friend, for the warmth, the humour, the company. Her books achieve what only the best books can: they become companions.”
—Andrew Cowan, author of Pig