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Steven Kotler
A Small Furry Prayer
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

USA Trade Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-1-608-19002-7
Publication Date: 09-28-2010
311 pages, $24
Date Reviewed: 10-09-2010

Index:  Non-Fiction

"It was the season of nowhere to hide," writes Steven Kotler in 'A Small Furry Prayer.' But hiding is something that we do well. We're so immersed in the events of each day that it is hard to pull back and get an overview of who we are and how we feel. The immersive and reflective nature of reading, which seems to help us escape our lives, actually does the opposite. We read books to undo our familiarity with the things around us, and upon returning from a reading experience, we see them afresh and anew. Reading helps us unhide.

Steven Kotler has a peculiar talent for helping readers unhide. In 'West of Jesus,' he wrote of his own life — his discovery that he had Lyme disease and his pursuit of surfing as a spiritual and neurological cure — in a manner that engagingly took readers on an out-of-life experience, from which they could return refreshed and informed with new questions. But this was only the beginning of Kotler's autobiographical exploration of nothing less than the meaning of life. 'A Small Furry Prayer' starts, well, just west of Jesus, but ends up in New Mexico, where Kotler and his wife now run a dog rescue operation at Rancho de Chihuahua. Kotler still knows how to ask questions, big and small. This book answers only some of the questions, but offers readers the perspective to ask the same questions, and the language to answer them.

Kotler's second memoir offers all the charms of his first, in particular, what I'd call his "moron charm," that is, his willingness to plunge head-first into herculean tasks for which he is clearly ill-equipped. In 'A Small Furry Prayer,' Kotler moves into a tiny Los Feliz apartment with his wife-to-be and eight dogs. When the plummeting economy and real-estate market force them out, he makes a snap decision to buy a house in Chimayo, New Mexico, where he and his intended will run a dog-rescue operation. This does not prove to be as easy as it might sound.

Kotler's prose is always funny, and reading 'A Small Furry Prayer' is a pleasure even when what Kotler is describing sounds anything but pleasurable. Joy, his wife, has been immersed in dog rescue for years, and Kotler finds himself involved in a huge and fairly unknown underground movement of vets and ordinary folks who simply cannot let dogs die in pounds if they can make a difference. As they build out the ranch and build up their operation, Kotler explores the movement and its scientific and sociological implications, which are by virtue of Kotler's writerly skills, endlessly fascinating.

On one hand, we have the ground level tales imbued with Kotler's seemingly endless moron charm, as he confronts a donkey and even the DEA, since their chosen new home turns out to be the black tar heroin capital of the US. Kotler lurches in with the best of intentions and when he finds himself in a hot spot, he turns either to his trusted and fascinatingly fixated wife, Joy, or any one of a number of neighbors and friends who pitch in to help with the dogs.

And here we get to another bit of well-done characterization, as the animal characters in 'A Small Furry Prayer' are a big part of the draw. Kotler's creation of dogs in prose avoids the cute, bypasses the nature-boy crap, and goes straight for the heart and the soul of the creatures in his care. From Ahab, his half-husky, half-Rottweiler who ate his couch, to Farah, the Chihuahua who showed her concern when Kotler was sick and stopped eating for a couple of day by puking into his mouth while he snored on the couch, you'll meet a series of canine who are inevitably pure dog, but no less individual than any of the humans.

But Kotler is not satisfied as a writer with simply telling us what happened to him, as humorous and entertaining as it may be. He also examines the sociological context of the dog rescue movement, which is larger and quieter than you'd ever imagine. The numbers are astonishing, the people are riveting and the implications are heartening. There are a lot of people out there who have made it their choice to simply help dogs who might otherwise be killed. It's bigger than many churches and shares the central conceit of any religion worth the name, that is, compassion. These people are all about helping the helpless.

Investigating why this might be leads Kotler to his other true love, the latest and most breaking news from the world of modern neuroscience. So you'll get to hear about mirror neurons, and the latest theories of co-evolution between man and wolf. The case for us having learned cooperation from wolves, rather than the other way around, seems to be getting stronger. And in any event it makes for a great, thought-provoking stew when you combine it with Kotler's tales from Rancho de Chihuahua.

The upshot of what might seem to be a rather scattered combination of interests proves to be a coherent whole that it much larger than the sum of the parts. Kotler's book is funny and informative. He knows how to write himself as a character who takes the reader through the book without making us overly aware of his skill as a writer. Here's a book that charms, speaks to the heart, involves the mind, and challenges your intellect without overwhelming you. Sure you might shed a tear or two, now and again. Such is the state of our world that dog rescue is not always possible. Sometimes, you just have to do what you can do with what the world presents to you, follow your heart and try to find the smartest path on a moment-by-moment basis. And if a dog vomiting in your mouth proves to be, in the final analysis, a good thing, an indicator of connectedness, then perhaps your life answering the call of the wild is not the end, but only the beginning.

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