The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

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.

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

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Dirty Secret, by Jessie Sholl

George Carlin had a routine about “stuff” that always made me laugh, but also pointed out the absurdity of excessive acquisition. Like, how much “stuff” do we actually need? Probably a lot less than we’ve got.

While that applies to most of us, there’s a subset of people who get carried away with their stuff. Compulsive hoarding, according to Wikipedia, involves not only excessive acquisition, but also failure to discard. On the “hoarder shows,” the hoarders will often declare an item to be useful, failing to recognize that while it might be useful to someone, somewhere, it’s not likely to be useful to the hoarder.

So what’s it like to be related to a hoarder? On the hour-long TV shows, we’ll often hear a few comments from the children of hoarders. But, as Jessie Sholl demonstrates in her compassionate and poignant book about her own mother’s hoarding, there is much, much more to it than the sound bites selected by the editors at the A&E and TLC channels.

Sholl’s mother, Helen, was badly abused as a child and, possibly as a result, comes across as being sort of “flat”. I feel like the autism spectrum is over-used these days, but there’s something not right in the way she perceives and reacts to things.  She teases Sholl mercilessly about snakes, which she fears terribly, for example. And she’s a hoarder. Fortunately, Sholl’s father and stepmother were good, supportive parents with a normal household.

Sholl and her husband manage to keep Helen’s “situation” with the hoarding and the odd behavior and judgment at a manageable length for a while. But then Helen comes down with cancer, and the nightmare of dealing with the incredible volume of junk in her house begins in earnest. Although she denies it, Helen has blown her retirement savings on boxes of goods she never even opens. And there are other problems with the house that I will leave for the reader to uncover.

Sholl’s memoir has been described as the first memoir by the child of a hoarder. I’d like to see another, because I imagine there are hoarders who present different problems than Helen’s. I thought Sholl was incredibly fair to her mother, giving her the benefit of the doubt until it became almost insane to do so. She writes well, without hyperbole or excessive emotion or editorializing. Therefore, I am recommending this book.

As for animals, there are a couple of sad scenes. Sholl tries to get past her mother-induced fear of snakes by raising one as a baby, but that doesn’t work. She learns that the dog that she and her husband adopted may have had a sad beginning. And her mother, with the usual “flat aspect,” doesn’t seem to have cared for the dog she once had, although that dog may have gone on to a better environment. The first two situations were a more upsetting than I’m describing, so I will call this book PARTLY SAFE for animal lovers.

February 15, 2011 Posted by | autobiography, Book Reviews, dogs, families, memoir, nonfiction | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Auto da Fay, by Fay Weldon

I am a big fan of Fay Weldon’s fiction, so when I read that she’d written a somewhat controversial memoir, I had two thoughts: “well, of course,” and “I’ll get it in paperback.” Instead, I read the book  on Kindle, but it is definitely the story of what I will term an “unorthodox” life.

I expected more about Weldon’s writing life, and bits and pieces pop up here and there. But with a childhood like hers, it’s no surprise that much of the book is focused on her early years in New Zealand. Weldon’s father, a physician, left the family — Weldon, her mother, and her sister, Jane — when Fay was fairly young. From that point on, they struggled financially, the respite for Fay and Jane being summers with their father. But that ended when he remarried and their mother came into an inheritance that she promptly squandered by relocating the family to England immediately after WWII, plunging them into poverty once more.

Never staying in the same place for long led to irregular schooling at many schools, but Weldon earned a scholarship to St. Andrew’s College back in a time when women didn’t do such a thing and professors sometimes refused to acknowledge them as students. Following this, she hopped around in her career before landing in copywriting, just as she hopped around in various beds before landing with Ron Weldon — her second husband of three.  She had four sons, the first out of wedlock, though she pretended to be abandoned or a widow, and three with Weldon, who refused to allow her to have a washing machine or typewriter in the house, both on the grounds that they were too noisy. (Like four young boys are not?)

And from all that experience, Fay Weldon wrote a bunch of intriguing and often darkly funny books. The memoir reveals where she acquired certain geographical familiarities or experiences. For example, her father would take Fay and her sister along on house calls at night, leaving them to sleep in the car — something the father of one of her protagonists also did. All in all, one gets the sense that Weldon’s cantankerous genius flows from her experiences. No wonder she disdains research for books — her life has obviated the need for that.

Here is a random representative quote, a new book review feature I’ll be including for books I read via Kindle:

Men may annoy women but by and large they are very good for them, as women are for men. 

I will say that the first part of the book was so depressing that I wasn’t sure I could continue. I’m glad I did, though, and I am recommending Auto da Fay to anyone who has read any of Fay Weldon’s fiction.

As for animals, there are a few mildly disturbing images, but nothing graphic, and no animal characters as such. Therefore, I am declaring this book SAFE for animal lovers.

January 6, 2011 Posted by | autobiography, Book Reviews, families, memoir, nonfiction | , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of My Life from Scratch, by Gesine Bullock-Prado

Gesine (Geh-see-neh) Bullock-Prado has an extreme version of the situation my mother once faced. Just after I graduated from high school, we went to a wedding. Afterwards, Mom was upset because everyone knew who she was related to, but not who she was on her own.  She set out to correct that situation, but the fact is that Gesine Bullock-Prado will always be Sandra Bullock’s sister, no matter what. Like my mom, she’s done her own thing, plus she’s written an enjoyable if slightly repetitive memoir about her own life. But Sandra Bullock is too big to expunge from a sister’s identity.

Gesine writes about her famous sister, but her focus is on her work and her mother. After completing law school and realizing that law firms basically suck as work environments, Gesine became Sandra’s bullshit screener, reading and pitching scripts for Sandra’s production company, among other things. Along the way, she met a lovely man, Ray, whom she married. And after about 10 years, she decided that Hollywood was hell and that her heart was in baking, which she’d done all along.

And which she loved, and which was her major connection with her beloved, late mother, and her mother’s family. Helga Bullock was German, so much of what Gesine learned to bake as a child was German pastry. That she has taken into her Vermont bakery, Gesine’s, which is a true labor of love. She details the daily, weekly, and monthly rhythms of her bakery.

This is a short book, with glorious and complicated recipes, as well as a bit too much repetition. But if you are a foodie, you’ll love this book. Gesine is a charming narrator, and I hope she does well with whatever she does with her life (the bakery takes quite a toll, evidently, so it may not last).

As for animals, this book is completely SAFE for animal lovers. Gesine has dogs, one of which had an eye problem. She has a particular affection for owls, which she connects with her mother. And she mentions riding horses. That’s it. Enjoy!

October 22, 2010 Posted by | autobiography, beach book, Book Reviews, death of a parent, families, food, memoir, recipes, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen

I loved this book. Rhoda Janzen’s warm, funny, and insightful chronicle of living with her parents while she recovered from both a divorce and a devastating car crash completely delighted me.

Oh, by the way, about the divorce? Janzen’s husband of 15 years ditched her for a guy named Bob, whom he met on Gay.com. This is a major plot point in the memoir, something that Janzen mentions about 200 times. I get the impression she’d have preferred being ditched for someone from Blondebimbos.com. But really, if she were going to be ditched, it should have been for someone on Mywifeistoosmartandfunnyforme.com.

(And now that I’ve written the above paragraph with those website names, my blog is going to be so spammed. Totally spammed. Fortunately, WordPress has a strong spam catcher. But still.)

So that’s the set-up. To recover from her physical and psychic wounds, Janzen, a 40-year-old college professor, takes leave and retreats to her parents’ home. Her parents happen to be Mennonites, however (think sorta kinda Amish but with electricity and cars), which is quite a change from the world she’s been living in. Right off the bat, Janzen’s mother suggests that she date her cousin, who is available and has the added attraction of owning a tractor. And while Janzen’s parents are awesome, her academic don’t quite fly in the Mennonite community, where educating girls is viewed as a waste.

Lovingly, with a light sense of humor combined with the cold eye of someone whose decision to leave has been reinforced, Janzen lets us into her family’s world. She also takes us into the guts of her destroyed marriage. She re-enters the dating world, even with Mennonite men! And at the end, she provides recipes from her family. They’re pretty heavy and high-fat for my tastes, but they’re from another culture.

I loved this book and give it my highest recommendation.

As for animals, there’s nothing to worry about here. Janzen had (maybe still has) a cat. And birds fly. Cows moo. That kind of thing. So this book is perfectly SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

October 2, 2010 Posted by | autobiography, beach book, Book Reviews, families, humor, memoir, nonfiction, recipes | , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Love Child, by Allegra Huston

This is a “poor little rich girl” memoir. But … wow! There’s a reason I tagged this review with “child neglect.” Allegra Huston, born into the family of legendary film director John Huston but not his biological child, had less stability in her life than your average house cat. And yet she writes so clearly and even lovingly of the people in her family that it makes me wonder where she learned to be so forgiving and understanding. She’s an amazing person, and her story is worth reading.

The foundation of Allegra’s problems was the early death of her mother, Ricki Soma Huston, who died in a car accident when Allegra was 4 years old. No one then stepped forward and stated that they would be responsible for the child until she was an adult. Or they may have said they’d be responsible, but they didn’t follow through. She was passed around as if she was a forgotten heirloom that no one could figure out where to store. I do have to give a pass to Anjelica Huston, who, as a sibling, shouldn’t have had to get involved. She was about 13 or 14 years older than Allegra and, as a young woman with a complicated modeling and acting career, had her own issues. And yet in the swirl of all this, she sporadically took care of her sister. Jack Nicholson, Anjelica’s on-and-off lover, seemed to understand the situation and apparently treated Allegra well. Ryan O’Neal, who comes across as an abusive, coked-up jackass, as well as Anjelica’s biggest mistake, is the biggest jerk in the entire memoir. A child should never have been exposed to him.

But … where was John Huston in all this? Hither and yon, evidently playing the Daddy role when it suited him and mostly being a slightly-better-than-adequate father to a child he knew wasn’t his. He also occasionally forgot about Allegra. In fact, her most stable home during childhood was with Celeste (Cici) Shane, one of John Huston’s ex-wives and the only person who seemed to “get it” — possibly because she had a child of her own.

And yet after being passed around like a foster child in a dysfunctional system, Allegra turned out to be a seemingly level-headed person who just spelled out what happened without passing judgment. While her childhood need for the stable home she lacked is palpable, she manages to withhold blame and just report the facts as she saw them. If she learned anything from the experience, it was to value her own strengths and move on from disappointment.

So of course I highly recommend this book by this uncommonly resilient woman. It’s entertaining while also providing a glimpse of human foibles.

As for animals mentioned in the book, John Huston liked dogs, Allegra’s brother Tony kept falcons for which Allegra had great compassion, the family kept horses the way rich people often do, there was a Siamese cat and a kitten who ran away, and her father had a few exotic pets. So this book is SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

August 17, 2010 Posted by | autobiography, beach book, Book Reviews, families, memoir | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Lobster Chronicles, by Linda Greenlaw

Linda Greenlaw was the wonderful swordboat captain in Sebastian Junger’s book, The Perfect Storm. I was in awe of her while reading that book. But I didn’t know what to expect when reading her own book.

The Lobster Chronicles follows her bestseller, The Hungry Ocean, and I think I should have read the latter instead of the former because Chronicles isn’t all that interesting. Greenlaw is hysterically funny in spots, but I didn’t feel much enthusiasm for the book. It is a light, domestic chronicle about life on an island, about the characters you meet there, and about the hardships of lobstering. And not much more. A little more, but not much. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I’m not recommending it even though it’s funny in spots.

As for animals, there are the usual passing references. And a crab pinches Greenlaw and she stomps on it, which is ugly. She’s not into dogs but feels sad when a friend’s dog dies. Her mother accidentally hits a dog while driving. A dog attacks another pet. And the lobsters don’t like being hauled onto Greenlaw’s boat. Etc. So I’m declaring this book PARTLY SAFE for animal lovers.

June 25, 2010 Posted by | animals, autobiography, beach book, Book Reviews, boring books, families, memoir, nonfiction | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Possessed, by Elif Batuman

Essentially, The Possessed is Elif Batuman’s memoir about being a graduate student in Russian literature at Stanford. There’s discussion of Russian literature, but really, this is a memoir about grad school. A good and funny and insightful memoir, but my very minor issue with it is that the book is not always described as such. I enjoyed it, and I’m recommending it, but I thought the subtitle (Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them) was misleading. So now you know.

Batuman is an engaging writer, and she’s very funny. Her story about attending a Tolstoy conference is worth the price of the book. At the same time, her description of Dostoevsky’s life and work makes me feel free of guilt for not having read his work. Yes, it’s important, and no, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. There are more worthy books than one can read in a lifetime, so thanks, Elif, for taking me off the hook on this particular author.

And who goes to Samarkand? Batuman spent a summer there trying to perfect her Russian. Samarkand isn’t in Russia, it’s in Uzbekistan, but Uzbek was easier for her since she was fluent in Turkish and it seemed to be a sort of bridge language between Turkish and Russian. Or something like that. Anyway, while Batuman is opinionated, for the most part she is non-judgmental about the people she encounters, and she describes them evenly, with understanding and a bit of humor. As I said above, I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

The purpose of this blog is to warn animal lovers about unpleasantness they might encounter in a given book. Batuman recounts some humorous moments involving animals. She also tells of a story by Isaac Babel in which a character kills a goose. Bird lovers (and you know who you are) might want to skip the passage beginning on page 30 and ending about 1/3 of the way down page 31, plus the last full paragraph at the bottom of page 63. Otherwise, there are just the standard mentions of pets found in most memoirs, plus a brief description of a zoo. So I am declaring this book MOSTLY SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

May 2, 2010 Posted by | autobiography, Book Reviews, literature, nonfiction, travel | , , , | 1 Comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman

The Post-It I stuck on the front of this book reads, “Put in bedroom for guests.”

And that about says it all. This is a charming book of art and musings, and if someone picks it up while visiting you but can’t finish it before they leave, they won’t feel a loss or race out to buy their own copy once they arrive home. I didn’t find it particularly profound or enlightening or entertaining, but it was definitely charming. Sometimes we need to be charmed.

It’s perfectly SAFE for animal lovers.

April 6, 2010 Posted by | autobiography, Book Reviews, random thoughts | , | 1 Comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Tenth Muse, by Judith Jones

One of my college history professors — a man — once said that too much of what passes for history is the history of wars. Being a wise and thoughtful man, he gave us novels and memoirs written during the timeframe we were studying. It’s his line of thinking that I carry over when tagging this memoir as “history.” If we look at American culture over the last 60 years, we have been going through an almost constant state of revolution in our attitudes towards food. If Julia Child was the Jefferson (or Karl Marx) of that revolution, Judith Jones was the Washington (or Lenin). Both made a huge and enduring impact on the way we cook, thereby having a huge economic impact on the restaurant business, grocery stores, agriculture, the import/export sector, publishing, and other elements of our world. Will they be included in traditional history books? No. And that’s an oversight, and a problem with the way we perceive history. So, with my little rant behind me, let’s move on to the book review of The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, which is Judith Jones’ autobiography.

I loved it, but I think that was inevitable. I already gave her recent cookbook, Cooking for One, a rave review. With the Tenth Muse, Jones, who turns 86 this year, begins by telling about her normal childhood in a home that served the bland pre-WWII  food that was typical of the American diet at that time. It was life in post-WWII Paris that liberated Jones. She threw herself into cooking, met the man who would become her husband, and came back to the U.S. desperately in need of a cookbook that didn’t yet exist — the cookbook that Julia Child was just starting to write. After fighting to get Mastering the Art of French Cooking published, Jones went on to shepherd through any number of now-famous cookbook authors, like Edna Lewis, Lidia Bastianach, Madhur Jaffrey, and many others.

Jones includes about 50 of her favorite recipes at the back of the book, but really, you read this for her engaging storytelling ability and her light and direct writing style. I strongly recommend this book.

As for animal lovers who don’t want to read about bad things happening to animals, this book is MOSTLY SAFE. If you are really squeamish at the merest mention of something bad happening to an animal, you won’t like this book. That seems to be typical of memoirs by food-oriented people, by the way. They always recount something a bit squicky. Towards the end of the book, Jones mentions in passing that she has always owned a dog, and she names several in the course of her story, but these pets aren’t really much of a presence in the book. And there’s the infamous beaver incident, which is noted but not shown. But overall, I think animal lovers should be able to read this excellent memoir for what it is. Enjoy!

March 4, 2010 Posted by | autobiography, beach book, biography, Book Reviews, dogs, food, history, nonfiction, pets, recipes | , , , | Leave a comment