Cool, Calm & Contentious

Merrill Markoe. Villard, $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-345-51891-0

Though her last two novels were canine-centric, comedy writer Markoe (Nose Down, Eyes Up) primarily branches out to the human world in this witty, affecting collection of personal essays though her own pack of four dogs does make regular, usually brief, appearances throughout. In “Jimmy Explains His Wake-Up Technique,” flat-coated retriever Jimmy, Markoe’s surprisingly articulate canine, compares his kamikaze morning leap onto her bed as a “ballet.” But her most intimate essays recall her early years, as a high school student first in Florida and then outside San Francisco, in “When I Was Jack Kerouac,” and later as an art student trying her hardest to be rebellious in college at Berkeley in the ’60s, such as in “Virginity Entrepreneurs.” Humor—from a helpful list for everyday life in “How to Spot an Asshole” to her own take on the popular TV show The Dog Whisperer in “The Dog Prattler”—is interspersed with serious issues, from sexual assault to coping with a parent’s death. Several of her best pieces come from her experiences as a reporter on assignment, particularly in “Saturday Night with Hieronymus Bosch,” where she covered the Fetish Ball in L.A. (think latex and spanking), and “Roiling on a River,” about an all-women’s rafting trip (think healing circles). Markoe, the original head writer for Letterman, is acerbic without being corrosive, endearing yet never saccharine. (Nov.)