The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Micro-Reviews

Life has kept me from blogging, and I have close to 70 books I want to review. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. So I’m going to do some really fast little reviews, just a bit more than a thumbs up/thumbs down.

So here goes:

Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? by Henry Alford: A semi-serious, semi-flip guide to manners. Alford is funny sometimes, has a few good points, and illustrates why being an etiquette columnist is harder than it seems. No depictions of harm to animals, not that you would expect it in such a book. I recommend it, despite Alford not addressing the real “would it kill you to stop doing that?” behavior: bouncy legs. I need to  know how to stop people next to me from bouncing their restless legs. It’s grounds for murder, not that I’ve actually gone that far yet. Mostly, I fantasize reaching over and smacking the person on the leg as hard as I can. This is probably impolite. Henry? You need to answer this question.

The Red Thread by Ann Hood: A fictionalized version of Hood’s process of adopting a daughter from China. The author shows several families and individuals as they get ready to bring their new daughters home. It’s well-written, the characters are interesting, it’s a tad predictable, and I enjoyed it. No depictions of harm to animals. I recommend it.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton: Great fun! Walton, writing in the style of Jane Austen, presents us with a tale in which all the characters are dragons. And this is much better than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or that other one. The young female dragons are endearing, the older males are stuffy and pompous, there’s the inevitable smarmy clergyman aspiring to marry a dear young thing, there’s all sorts of standard tropes from the Victorian novel – and it is all charming, charming, charming. Read it, read it, read it!

Well, that kind of worked. I’ll do more of these soon. Once I get the backlog micro-reviewed, I can resume doing full reviews.

Advertisements

February 6, 2012 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, fantasy, humor, nonfiction, women's fiction | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Domestic Violets, by Matthew Norman

Despite some quibbles – Norman is a first-time novelist, so of course there will be a few – I absolutely loved this book. It had emotional depth, humor, some realistic portrayals of men, and a parent/adult-child tension that rang true in many ways. At the same time, the female characters weren’t fleshed out well enough, the emotionally-satisfying ending was not entirely plausible, and Norman has silly definitions of “middle-aged” and “old.” Those aren’t deal killers, though. It’s a good book, a strong first effort, and I trust Norman to do better with his women next time.

In the story, protagonist Tom Violet (an “old” 35 or 36) has a lovely wife, an adorable child, a cute dog, a prestigious job, and a wealthy father. But this is not as good as it seems. He and Anna are having any number of problems, chief among them being a complete failure to communicate when that’s what they need more than anything. He loves Allie, his daughter, who at times is his main reason for hanging in there with his family. The dog is neurotic, the job is soul-sucking, and the father, Curtis, is a famous author who just won the Pulitzer Prize, while Tom has struggled for years to put together a first novel worth showing to anyone. Add a “work crush” to all of this, and Tom’s life is a mess.

But it’s an entertaining mess, and Tom is endearing in his attempts to always do what’s right without selling out any further than he already has at the job. By staying true to himself, Tom begins to take steps to sort through everything, and that is the journey of the book.

Sounds simple. It is and it isn’t. Tom makes any number of mistakes, but his self-deprecating humor and honesty made me cheer him on. He is wickedly funny. So I’m recommending this book.

If you follow this blog because you’re an animal lover, rest assured that nothing bad happens to the dog.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, dogs, families, humor | , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

This lovely book reminds me of nothing so much as The Great Gatsby, both in writing style and the way it evokes an era. I had the usual quibbles, which I’ll mention below, but nothing that derailed the book, which I highly recommend.

The story, set in New York in 1938, concerns a year in the life of 25-year-old Katey, a secretary of unusual sophistication (one of my quibbles) and ambitions that she is just beginning to put into play. The action starts when she and her roommate Eve meet the rich and handsome Tinker Grey, falling in with his circle of friends and acquaintances. Despite a temporary setback into bleak, working-girl subsistence, Katey eventually ends up as part of an elite social set, while also finding previously unimagined career opportunities through a combination of her own bold moves and Tinker’s friends. This is no straightforward rags-to-riches tale, however, and the ending is anything but neat. What ultimately happens to Tinker, Eve, and Katey is largely unexpected and yet still the result of the choices each of them makes.

“The writing sparkles.” How many times have we read that cliche? Yet it’s true here. For example, here is a typical Towles paragraph:

On the steps of the Plaza stood the hotel’s officious captains dressed in long red coats with big brass buttons. Half a block away, the epauletted officers of the Essex House wore a sharply contrasting shade of blue. This would no doubt make things so much easier should the two hotels ever go to war.

I like a good plot as well as the next reader, but what makes a book for me is character. Despite my quibbles (like, how did a girl of her background learn to socialize so well with the wealthy and educated?), Katey was well-drawn and multi-dimensional — I wanted to know where she was going, what was going to happen to her, how she was going to confront the various barriers to happiness thrown in her way and, essentially, what she thought. As an introvert myself, I found it interesting that she discovered ways to isolate herself enough to recharge and regroup even when her circumstances made it quite difficult. And there was the atmosphere. Towles brought the late 1930s to life with vivid illustrations of New York’s night life, the various types of housing available to people from different incomes, the daily grind of Manhattan’s lower-rung white collar workers, and the impending war in Europe.

Based on the writing, the storytelling, and the characterizations, I highly recommend this book.

As for animals, there is a reference to duck hunting, but the friend who takes Katey out “shooting” has her shooting skeet. So there’s nothing for animal lovers to worry about here. Enjoy!

November 7, 2011 Posted by | Book Reviews, friendship, historical fiction, literature | , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Schine

This book was such fun to read! Cathleen Schine has written a number of books, and I don’t recall how I stumbled across this one, but I really liked it and plan to read more of her work. The New Yorkers fits well into the theme of this blog, since some of the characters are dogs.

In fact, there are many characters in this story about a small group of New Yorkers who live on the city’s Upper West Side, and one of the things I liked was that Schine spooled them out slowly enough and made them different enough that I was able to keep track of them easily. The dogs change their owners’ lives. For example, Jody is a middle-aged music teacher whose pit bull brings new joy to her life and opens her up to falling in love after a long drought. There’s also Everett, the aforementioned love interest, who is a nice but non-perfect guy; George, a young waiter who moves in with his sister Polly, who in turn adopts a puppy; Simon, a somewhat self-absorbed bureaucrat; Jamie, the gay restaurant owner who makes everyone feel at home, even the dogs; and Doris, the dog-hating but comical villain with political aspirations. These people each have their own stories, they keep bumping into each other, and their lives slowly improve or change, so by the end it seems that everyone, including Doris, is where they ought to be in their emotional lives, with a big boost from the dogs. It’s all very endearing, sweet, and normal, giving us a window on ordinary lives and reminding us of the joys therein.

As for the fate of the animals, well, there is some drama and some sadness, because not all of our pets live as long as we do. But there is nothing awful like abuse or neglect that would truly upset an animal lover.

So I am recommending this book – enjoy!

October 31, 2011 Posted by | animals, beach book, Book Reviews, dogs, food, friendship, humor, pets, Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

This book featured gallons of tea, buckets of tea, maybe even an overflowing river of tea. Maybe that was the problem – maybe the characters would have been more interesting had they been coffee drinkers. Or if Diana, the wimpy, non-practicing-witch protagonist, had worn something other than black leggings and baggy blue sweaters. And when did it become necessary for every story involving a witch to also include vampires? At least they’re not zombies. I can’t get into zombies at all.

Am I sounding cranky about this book? I actually liked it, for the most part, and just recently recommended it to a friend. It’s not great literature, but it’s good escapism, a classic beach book if you will. I’ll read the sequel. But LET’S JUST STOP WITH THE VAMPIRES ALREADY, OKAY??? I AM SICK AND TIRED OF VAMPIRES!!! I get it, they’re sexy and powerful and mysterious and all that. They’re also over-exposed, and I don’t mean in terms of sunlight. Plus, I like witch books. Can we have more witches without vampires? Please? Look at J. K. Rowling – she did quite well writing a series about witches and wizards, with only the briefest mention of vampires, probably just to shut up the questions about them. It can be done, in other words, and quite successfully.

So I liked A Discovery of Witches, even though it dragged in spots, especially in the middle, which needed to be cut deeply and ruthlessly by an editor with strong opinions about pacing. My favorite characters were Emily (Diana’s Aunt Sarah’s partner) and the Bishop family’s house, which does not talk but is more expressive than 3/4 of the characters who do. I also liked Sophie (the Luna Lovegood equivalent), who comes in very late and is very cute and perceptive. Diana Bishop, though? Eh. Vampire/love-interest Matthew Clairmont? Eh. Matt’s mom, Ysabeau? Eh. The one-dimensional villains? Eh. The ending, which is also the set-up for the next book? Excellent!

So what am I nattering about, anyway? Here’s the plot: Diana Bishop, professor at Yale and last in a long line of extraordinary witches, tries not to use witchcraft for reasons that don’t quite make sense but are eventually spelled out. While doing research at Oxford, she comes across a document that every “creature” – witch, vampire, daemon – seems to know about but her, and they all want it. Since she’s the only one who’s been able to call the document forth, they want her to try again, but she has sent it back to the stacks and there it remains. Only Matthew, Oxford professor and filthy rich vampire, seems to care more about Diana than about what she can do for him. They fall in love, which is expressly forbidden by some agreement made generations ago among the three types of creatures: they won’t date outside of their own kind, if you will. Violating the agreement pisses off both the witches and the vampires – not so much the daemons, who tend to be loose cannons – and unites them against Diana and Matthew. Diana drinks a lot of tea, acts like a wimp, sleeps constantly, fails to make the most basic decisions, and wears black leggings and baggy blue sweaters on most occasions. Eventually I wanted to throttle her, but then the book got interesting again, Diana started communing with ghosts, the mystery of her parents’ gruesome death became a factor, her inability to harness her extraordinary witchcraft powers was explained, and she and Matthew left Ysabeau’s deathly dull French mansion for Sarah and Emily’s delightfully opinionated house in New York. And then the book ended with a set-up for a sequel, which I plan to read despite all the damned vampires that will dilute the presence of my beloved witches.

Speaking of vampires, here’s a question: how did they manage to ride horses before the invention of the automobile? I’ve seen at least a couple of books in which they did, this being one of them. Some vampires fly, which would get around that question. But for those that don’t, how do they avoid chomping down on their live transportation when they go into a feeding frenzy? If the humans they care about are in danger, why aren’t their horses?

Anyway, no gruesome animal stuff happens in this book. Matthew has an entire stable of horses at Ysabeau’s place in France, and they’re fine.

October 24, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, death of a parent, families, fantasy, horses, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Tough as Nails, by Gail O’Sullivan Dwyer

I really enjoyed this short memoir, a personal history by one of the first women to attend West Point, more specifically as a member of the second class to admit women. Although a list of grievances might have been entertaining, as well as predictable, Dwyer does not take that direction. Instead, she gives a straightforward personal chronology, disguising the identities of the jerks she encountered. As she says up front in the Author’s Note: “If I didn’t have anything nice to say and it made the story what it was, then I changed the name. If you’re reading this and think you might be a character whose name was changed, maybe you should consider not doing things that aren’t nice.” It was at this point that I was sold on the book.

So there’s really no “male-bashing” to be found here, though Dwyer comes across as very forthright. She presents her experience as objectively as possible. Yet despite some tempering of the negativity, there is still a lot of spice and energy in her story.

Dwyer did not apply to West Point because she was a feminist or a girl from a die-hard military family who wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps. It was another male – her big brother, Paul – who generated her interest in the place when he attended. And although the entire O’Sullivan family seemed to think that gender-integration of the military academies was a bad idea, once it actually began, Paul encouraged Gail to apply.

In addition to some establishment and cadet resistance to women, Dwyer had another disadvantage going in: she was very small, maybe 5’2″ or so and 97 pounds sopping wet. She was smart, determined, personable, and a leader (even if she doesn’t completely admit it), but some of the difficult incidents she recounts seem to have more to do with being small than with being female. Yes, most women are shorter than most men. I’m not – I’m 5′ 9 1/2″ – and Dwyer ran into situations that clearly wouldn’t have been an issue for me. On the other hand, at 18 she was already tougher than most people of any size, so she bulled through carrying huge guns on field exercises and other challenges like a person twice her size.

Understandably, much of the story has to do with the first year, the plebe year, which is the most difficult on many levels, beyond what most of us experience in leaving home, living in a new environment, and studying college-level courses. However, Dwyer does cover her entire time at West Point in a nicely linear fashion, recounting challenges, friendships, and falling in love with the cadet who would eventually become her husband.

As for animals, which are the theme of this blog, there’s a soft-hearted cadet who violates rules by rescuing an injured bird, and a chicken is killed to show the cadets how to do it in the absence of a supermarket. Otherwise, there’s nothing of note in that area.

October 17, 2011 Posted by | autobiography, beach book, Book Reviews, memoir, nonfiction, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Marrowbone Marble Company, by Glenn Taylor

I had distinctly mixed feelings about this book, which started off strong but got twisted around itself with too many characters and a theme that was hammered at relentlessly. Glenn Taylor is brilliant writer, and there are moments of great literature in The Marrowbone Marble Company, but the story also has a great capacity to annoy.

In summary: Loyal Ledford is a thoughtful young man, orphaned in childhood, who works in a West Virginia glass factory. He goes off to WWII, is traumatized at Guadalcanal, returns to the glass factory, marries, and stops an excessive-drinking habit after befriending Don Staples, a likable and wise preacher. He also becomes friends with Mack Wells, a black man at the factory, which is noteworthy because inter-racial friendships were viewed with great suspicion at that time. After being told in a dream that he should make marbles, Loyal establishes a utopian community in which he does just that with the help of Mack, Don, and his wife, Rachel. And while good often triumphs over evil in this story, it’s usually a close call.

So … I once had a friend who published several books (and lost a lot of her friends once she suddenly expected us to behave like mindlessly approving fans). For a long time, I was one of her beta-readers, which led me to realize that authors often have an encyclopedic knowledge of their characters and are baffled when their readers don’t. But we don’t. We don’t retain all the myriad details assigned to each character, especially considering that a lot of that detail never makes it into the published book.

I don’t know that Glenn Taylor understands that. The Marrowbone Marble Company had way too many characters, mostly male, a large number of which weren’t memorable and didn’t have compelling individual story lines. The first characters – Loyal Ledford, Mack Wells, Rachel Ledford, the Bonecutter twins, and a few others – were well-drawn and multi-dimensional. Later characters not so much, as if they were plopped in to carry some small portion of the plot but otherwise weren’t real people. Characters should seem like real people. Most of these don’t.

The other issue I had with this book was that Taylor kept pounding and pounding on his themes. Yeah, I not only get it, I already knew it: racism is bad. It’s a worthy theme, but Taylor badly overplayed it, which is particulary frustrating when he’s a good enough writer to have handled it well. He should have stuck with a few key characters and taken us into the civil rights movement by showing us more depth in how these few individuals confronted the problems of racism in their daily lives. A single inter-racial romance would have much more impact than Taylor’s enormous cast did.

I can’t honestly give a recommendation for or against this book. If the story appeals to you, keep in mind that the writing is good and Taylor does know how to keep a reader’s attention. But it helps to have an e-reader, so that you can search for character names to find out who’s who. You’ll need that feature.

As for the animals in the book, there is are no well-developed animal characters, either. A few animals get into unpleasant situations, possibly including death, but they’re all so weakly portrayed that a super-sensitive reader would likely cringe and keep going.

October 10, 2011 Posted by | Book Reviews, families, friendship, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, by Ann Hood

Over time, friends grow apart. This happens more often than we’d like to think. The ideal, often promoted in the media, is the forever friendship dating back to childhood, college, the first job. The reality is, some friends remain close, some stay in touch, and some stop being friends. Children complicate things, especially as they get older. And that’s a basic summary of this moody novel by Ann Hood.

More specifically, the three friends are Elizabeth, Suzanne, and Claudia, and they meet and bond as young hippies in the late 1960s. Sixteen years later, one has lost her mind – and everything else – in the aftermath of a tragedy, another has become a corporate workaholic and control freak, and the third is fatally ill and watching her children rebel against her carefully honed lifestyle. Unfortunately, I never felt like I got to know any of these characters well. I thought Suzanne was the most understandable, probably because I know women who took her trajectory from smoking pot to seeking power. But people learn to deal with the type of catastrophe that Claudia experienced, and while it was the kind of thing that would send anyone into depression, she wasn’t drawn well enough to let the reader understand why she got so much worse over time. Nor was it clear what kind of interventions were or were not attempted. What about her friends? Family? Elizabeth was less of a blank, but she, too, seemed incomplete.

I’m not recommending for or against this book. It was well-written, and if your goal is to read beautiful writing, go for it. If you need character development and a plot line, think twice, however.

There were no animal characters.

October 3, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, families, friendship, Uncategorized, women's fiction | , | 1 Comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff

In the thick of war, there are a few legitimate war stories that nonetheless have a People magazine-ish aspect to them. Mitchell Zuckoff’s well-told tale of survival after a WWII plane crash in the New Guinea rainforest is one of them, almost entirely because one of the few survivors was a beautiful young woman member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). To make it even more interesting, while the area was referred to as “Shangri-La,” it was, in fact, populated by a fractious, constantly warring population of previously uncontacted native peoples who sometimes engaged in cannibalism.

Although this is a fascinating story that almost tells itself, I have to give Zuckoff a lot of credit – he clearly did tons of research, and yet the book does not read like a research project. Well-written, with quotes from many different sources – including some of the native people who interacted with the survivors – Lost in Shangri-La is a fascinating account of an incredible adventure.

After a large valley was discovered in central New Guinea, U.S. Army personnel stationed in Hollandia (now Jayapura) New Guinea took short recreational flights to view the valley and glimpse the Dani tribal people who populated it. There were any number of hazards involved in these joyrides, however. The valley was at altitude, and it was surrounded by steep mountain ranges in such a way that the pilots had to know what they were doing and give their full attention to the journey. For some reason, that didn’t happen the day that the gorgeous Margaret Hastings, Sgt. Kenneth Decker, Lt. John McCollom, 19 other passengers, and 2 crew members cruised over the valley. Instead, the aircraft crashed. McCollom crawled out of the wreckage largely unscathed, although his identical twin Robert, sitting in another part of the plane, did not. Hastings and Decker made it out on their own despite injuries. Three others who survived the initial disaster perished soon thereafter.

John McCollom helped Decker, suffering from a head injury and burns, and Hastings, with painful burns on her legs, struggle to a clearing where they would be visible to searchers flying overhead. Just as they were spotted, they also encountered some of the warlike Dani tribesmen. How they managed this encounter is one of the more interesting parts of the book. Let’s just say they survived. But with gangrene setting in, Hastings feared losing her legs, and Decker’s life was endangered. An unhappily idle collection of Filippino-American paratroopers, led by a young and ambitious C. Earl Walter, Jr., who’d spent much of his childhood in the Philippines, was given the opportunity to participate in the rescue.

Walter sent down medics “Doc” Bulatao and “Rammy” Ramirez to help with the survivors’ immediate needs. Although McCollom and Walter are largely the heroes of this story, Bulatao and Ramirez really were the people who kept it from being even more of a tragedy. Without them, it was entirely possible that McCollom would have been the only long-term survivor. Their lack of recognition frustrated Walter, and Zuckoff did a good job of portraying their extremely important role in the rescue.

Still, there was no clear way to get them out due to the lack of roads, the difficulties with helicopters at altitude, and other issues. Under orders to “think of something” while others “thought of something,” Walter and another 8 Filipino-American paratroopers leapt into the jungle to help stabilize the situation with the survivors, ensure their safety, and prepare a just-in-case landing strip for an aircraft. Decker and Hastings were now mobile but nowhere near capable of the estimated 150-mile trek out of the valley. Interactions with the Dani became more difficult over time, and when a means of evacuation – by glider – was decided upon, the Hollandia headquarters crew decided to spend several days testing it. In the mean time, Alexander Cann, a journalist and professional character, decided to best his fellow reporters and parachuted down to join the small group.

Eventually, there was a rescue. How well it went is something for you to read about. I can’t imagine anyone not liking this book, so I’m going to give it my strongest recommendation.

There really weren’t any animal characters to speak of. Pigs played a special role in Dani society – they were valued as quasi-pets, as sources of wealth, and as meat – but that’s about it. So there’s nothing in particular to discuss in that regard.

Enjoy!

September 18, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, historical fiction, nonfiction, travel, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Road to Jerusalem, by Jan Guillou

I had such a great time reading this book! It’s one of those novels that reminds you why it’s fun to be a bookworm.

And I have to start off by giving credit to the translator, Steven T. Murray. Guillou is Swedish, and so Murray gets credit for making the book read so smoothly in English, even if he did confuse (or leave confused) Odessa with Edessa. A translator can make or break a book, and Murray certainly did a great job with this one.

Oddly, none of The Road to Jerusalem takes place in Jerusalem. That’s because The Road to Jerusalem is the first book of a trilogy. And it is the Road TO Jerusalem. As in “en route.” This book takes place in Sweden, or pre-Sweden. Also, I have always maintained that books in a series should be able to stand alone and be read individually or even out of order. So few series live up to that standard, including this one, but this time I didn’t care.

So, what was so wonderful about this book that made me overlook the nitpicks? Lots! Never before have I been so drawn in to a character’s story as I was to that of Arn Magnusson — whose tale begins in the womb. Indeed, at first the story looks like it’s going to be the sage of Arn’s parents. But no. After his parents and older brother are introduced and turned into fully fleshed-out characters, Arn is born, becomes a charming child, falls off a building and almost dies, and gets sent off to a monastery because his parents vowed they’d give him to God if he survived. This sets the “God spared you for a purpose, Arn” theme that then permeates the rest of the book.

So how interesting can a boy in a monastery be, you may be asking? This is where much of the action takes place, and where Guillou builds the foundation for about 1/3 of this book and the two to follow. With sure, confident pacing, the author takes Arn on an exploration of his interests, guided, but not explicitly directed, by the French monks of the Cistercian order. Most prominent among these are Father Henri, prior of the monastery and Arn’s chief guardian and confessor; and Brother Guilbert de Beaune, smithy, weapons master and, in terms of his real role in the story, Man with a Mysterious Secret about His Past. Together with the rest of the brothers, they prepare Arn for a number of contingencies, while not steering him toward any specific future. Eventually, Arn leaves the monastery and returns to his family, where it becomes apparent that the French know a thing or three more than the proto-Swedes of Arn’s clan. Arn has a few adventures, falls in love, and … the book ends with the set-up for the sequel.

Character development is a strong point in this novel. For example, Arn is conflicted, humble, and naive, yet he knows that he has special gifts and talents, which the French monks honed to a fine point. Even the villains’ thought processes make sense, for the most part, as they are usually more ignorant than vile. 

Guillou doesn’t try anything avant-garde or trendy – all he does is tell a good story well. What more do readers want? I highly recommend this book.

There are animals throughout the book, with some named horses – and the mysterious Brother Guilbert is a kind of horse whisperer. Arn bonds with a couple of Brother G’s “special” horses, stallions named Shimal and Khamsiin. And the horses serve Arn well. While I don’t think they quite come up to the level of being characters, that may change in subsequent books. In any case, there’s not much here for animal lovers to worry or get excited about.

It’s a good book – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

September 8, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, historical fiction, horses, translation, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment