The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

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!

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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