The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

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.

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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 Bitter in the Mouth, by Monique Truong

It’s hard to review books with twists, because the twist limits the amount I can say about them. So … good book, engaging protagonist, interesting family dynamics, Truong can really write, and I recommend this book.

What I can tell you, more specifically: protagonist Linda recounts her childhood, with focus on her parents, her friend Kelly, and her great-uncle, “Baby” Harper. She provides a substantial amount of family history, and talks about her loss of innocence, her education, her career, her love life, and her estrangement from her mother. She also tries to explain her synesthesia.

I have mild synesthesia — numbers are, as Wikipedia puts it, “inherently colored,” and time has shape. But this is very subtle and in the background, and I seldom think about it. Linda, on the other hand, has lexical-gustatory synesthesia, in which words evoke tastes. And Linda’s synesthesia is so intense that it is a major distraction in her life, almost crippling. It’s interesting, but I also have to share some of the criticisms of the book, that Truong’s handling of dialogue in context of Linda’s “condition” makes it difficult to read. (We get it. You don’t need to beat us over the head with it by giving us the flavors associated with every word.)

I can’t reveal the twist, which comes about half-way through the book, though I began to suspect that “something was up” before then. All I can tell you is that it puts everything before that in a new context. I’m not sure how engaging the story would have been had we known everything up front, and I do feel like the book was missing a certain something that I can’t pinpoint. But I’m still recommending it. Bitter in the Mouth is definitely better than many of the other books on the market right now.

Representative quotes:

His mother was rarely home, though she didn’t have a job. Wade and I were both blind to what these midafternoon absences could mean.

In retrospect, the family realized that cat grooming was by far the most “normal” of the communities that this woman had thrown herself into.

As for animals, there are a few references to cats and cows, and that’s about it. So this novel is SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

January 26, 2011 Posted by | Book Reviews, death of a parent, families, food | , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Handling Sin, by Michael Malone

I want Mingo Sheffield to be a character in every book I read from here on out. I seriously loved him by the end of this book, even though I started off finding him annoying. Handling Sin is 671 pages long, but just about every page contained a laugh or a moment of joy, so it is definitely worth putting in the time to read it.

Mingo was not the protagonist, by the way. Raleigh Hayes, one of Mingo’s few friends, is. And Raleigh’s elderly father, who is in poor health on top of it all, runs off from the hospital with a young woman, leaving Raleigh with a long list of tasks he must complete if he ever wants to see any of his inheritance. Motivated more by concern for his evidently crazy father, Raleigh sets off on this mission, reluctantly taking Mingo along, and thereby stars in one of the most delightful books I have ever read.

The journey is wild. Raleigh has to deal with criminals of many different sorts, pregnant women and babies, stubborn people, eager people, gullible and naive people, angry people, the KKK, and his own crazy family. This includes Gates, his half brother and an adept liar, as well as his well-traveled aunt, Victoria Anna. Here are a couple of representative quotes:

Victoria sighed. “I stepped on a plate of deviled eggs last time I was here.”

“Oh, gollee, what a happy morning!” Mingo threw his arm back around Raleigh. “Look at everybody’s new clothes! Look at those daffodils!”

This is a funny, intricately plotted, happy, ramble of a book, and as long as it was, I was sad to see it end. I give it a very strong recommendation.

As for animals, there are some references to a few unpleasantries, including some farm animal butcherings, and a few funny moments. So I will say the book is MOSTLY SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

January 18, 2011 Posted by | Book Reviews, death of a parent, families, humor, travel | | 1 Comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Knit the Season, by Kate Jacobs

This was the first book I read on my Kindle, which was a Christmas present. And so, based on the book’s title and the season in which I downloaded it, I expected it to be Christmas-oriented. However, it touches on several winter holidays, and it is pivotal to Jacobs’ Friday Night Knitting Club series, in that it ties up everything and seems to be the last book of the series.

My problem with the book is that Jacobs seems to expect us to have an almost encyclopedic memory of the characters and events of the first two books of the series, and I don’t. There are little throw-away “refreshers” here and there, but they weren’t enough. This book, like many others in a series, could have used a small page with bare-bones character descriptions to jog readers’ memories. I was once close friends with a novelist who had a series going (she eventually became so self-absorbed that the friendship became completely focused on her, and then defunct for obvious reasons). And she expected people to remember every character from her previous books. But some of us read books out of order, and I strongly believe that each book in a series should function as a standalone. This is my one and only criticism of Knit the Season and as Jacobs as a writer — the Friday Night Knitting Club books have to be read in order to make sense, and it feels to me like she had 2 or 3 too many characters to keep track of over the course of those books.

So … Knit the Season (henceforth just “Knit”) returns to the Manhattan knitting store of Georgia Walker and Daughter. Georgia is long gone, and her daughter Dakota is a young woman of 20 or so, trying to juggle competing priorities: the business she inherited, her education and future career, and friends and family. At the same time, various other members of the Friday Night Knitting Club are going through their own changes, mostly involving love and career.

And that’s basically it. Either you read the first two books — in order — and care about these people and what happens to them, or you didn’t. I did, I enjoyed them, and despite thinking a couple of them were expendable, I did care about what happened to the characters. So if you’ve read the two previous books, I can strongly recommend Knit. If you haven’t, well, they’re engaging, light, warm, and fuzzy books aimed at women.

On reviewing the notes I made on my Kindle, however, I do grump that “people here lose massive amounts of sleep with no consequence.” I’m still recommending Knit, however.

As for animals, the relevant notes I made on my Kindle are as follows: 1. “nice kitty” and 2. “cat that nothing happens to.” So I think it’s safe to say that this book is SAFE for animal lovers.

January 12, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, death of a parent, families | , , | 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 Atlas of Unknowns, by Tania James

I read this book because the premise intrigued me: a young Indian girl with a chance to go to college in New York takes credit for her disabled sister’s artwork.

This isn’t the first time Anju has lied. She manages to con the gullible, but we all know that’s not going to last forever, especially once she lands in America and faces our culture of demanding proof. But Anju isn’t evil — she’s slightly deceitful, not a true villain. Her lies are almost mindless, though 100% selfish. Meanwhile, her sister, Linno, suffers from being a social outcast as a result of her injury. What’s another indignity? Yet when Anju vanishes, Linno and the girls’ father, Melvin, each strike out to find her in very different ways.

Melvin is heartbreaking, with an incredibly sad story that is parcelled out in tiny bits. And that is, to me, James’ greatest talent — pacing her action, spooling out her plots and subplots so that it all builds, with the villains becoming sympathetic because, finally, we feel like we know them and their motivation. I especially like books in which the antagonists are understandable, multi-dimensional people whose actions make sense for them, even if we readers are not meant to approve. Atlas of Unknowns is a beautiful, unusual, and intriguing book, and I strongly recommend it.

Animal lovers have nothing to worry about here. There are no animal characters, and aside from a reference to taxidermy and Melvin recalling an accident in which a puppy died, there isn’t anything to be sad about regarding animals. So this book is completely SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

July 24, 2010 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, death of a parent, families, travel | , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Knit Two, by Kate Jacobs

Kate Jacobs does not write “great literature,” but I don’t care. I sink into one of her novels and just absorb the cozy improbabilities, the too-good-to-be-true characters, and all the warm fuzzies that threaten to suffocate a serious reader. I love her books.

So of course I’m going to nitpick. Knit Two is the sequel to The Friday Night Knitting Club, which is apparently going to be a series because Jacobs already has another book out in hardcover. And how do we know that Knit Two is a sequel? Well, let’s see, it’s got most of the same characters, it is centered on the Walker and Daughter yarn store, and it keeps reminding us over and over and over again about the wonderfulness of Georgia Walker, the protagonist of the first book, who died. As in her non-Knitting Club book, Comfort Food, Jacobs wrote her main character as saintly, wise, and flawed only in ways that made her seem even more saintly and wise. In Knit Two, we get at least three reminders per page that the late, great Georgia was beyond perfect, and that five years after her death, everyone she ever met thinks of her constantly. Oh, please. Georgia Walker was in the book more than some of the live characters. But I loved Knit Two! I even did a pretty good job of keeping track of the friends and family that Georgia left behind. Conveniently for Jacobs, she’s got enough characters with enough issues that she can keep writing this series as long as she wants. And I’ll read every book she writes. But I wish she’d let the dead rest for a page or two. That’s all.

So, about the story … Georgia’s daughter, Dakota, is heir to Walker and Daughter and isn’t sure she wants it. Georgia’s elderly “fairy godmother” Anita is in love and battling family issues. Georgia’s sorta friend Catherine is trying to sort out life after divorce. Darwin has babies, Lucie has family issues, almost everyone has career issues, and KC rediscovers the joy of smoking. (KC got the short end of the stick this time.) They’re all pretty interesting, I didn’t think the characters’ dialogue was differentiated or individualized at all but I don’t care, and I enjoyed the hell out of this book. You may, too. It’s brain candy, like a box of designer truffles that you get on Christmas morning and devour way too quickly. I’m recommending it. May Georgia Walker rest in peace, and may Kate Jacobs continue to write.

As for animal lovers, there are zero animals in this book. I think this was also the case in Friday Night Knitting Club. So no animals, no problem — this book is completely SAFE for animal lovers.

December 11, 2009 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, death of a parent | , , | 1 Comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine

This brilliant book, written in the spiralling framework we know from 1001 Arabian Nights, combines the story of a modern-day Lebanese family with classic Middle Eastern stories about the Crusades, evil genies, and Arab tribes. It’s also long, and I think it’s rather complex for a book group discussion, but I loved it and can’t recommend it highly enough.

Osama, the narrator of the contemporary story, has returned to Beirut from his high-tech job in California in order to be present at the death of his father. As he tells us about his complex family, he returns again and again to stories told first by his grandfather, who was a storyteller by profession, also known as a hakawati.

There are many threads, weaving in and out like a ball of yarn after a cat attack, or a pot of spaghetti fallen to the floor. Among the most outstanding were those of Majnoun, Layl, and a coterie of imps; the slave prince Baybars and his allies Layla and Othman; and Osama’s own family. Alameddine thoroughly covers the diversity of the Arab world, in religion, attitude, accomplishment, history, and culture. Especially at this time when the prevailing tendency is to pigeonhole people into tight little niches, Alameddine proves again and again that such attempts are not only wrong but also, for an honest person, impossible.

Animal lovers will find hero animals as well as disturbing scenes. A lamb is slaughtered rather graphically, trained pigeons battled each other to the death at the direction of their human masters, the genius horse Al-Awwar becomes a general and warrior who leads his fellow equines and their human cargo to victory in battle after battle, and a range of lesser situations are scattered throughout the book. Birds in general don’t fare well in Alameddine’s tale, so I am going to declare this book UNSAFE FOR BIRD LOVERS (you know who you are!) but MOSTLY SAFE for animal lovers who can get past that.

September 7, 2009 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, death of a parent | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Story of Forgetting, by Stefan Merrill Block

This is another cranky book review, second in a series of three. I have several really great books lined up for review, but I thought I’d get the stinkers out of the way all at once, going from worst to so-so.

The Story of Forgetting isn’t actively bad, it’s just not very good. Once again, I am reminded of the importance of subplots and the role they play in adding dimension to stories with straightforward, predictable plots. “Forgetting” has a straightforward, predictable plot and one subplot. That is not enough to keep it interesting.

In fact, my main complaint about this book is that it’s not very interesting. It’s extremely well-written, but strong writing alone isn’t enough to carry a book. Here’s the plot: people who have a form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in their families may or may not be trying to find each other. It needs to be fleshed out beyond that, and it isn’t.

Yet this book sold well, and I’m sure there are many readers who think the story is moving, etc., etc. Fine. I got about 2/3 of the way through it and couldn’t stand it anymore. I skimmed the rest of the book to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I wasn’t.

I’m going to keep Block in mind, however. He’s young, and if the early success doesn’t go to his head and make him think he knows it all, he could be a very good writer some day. I just don’t think he’s there yet.

Also, he should do better research next time out. Yes, it’s apparent he studied Alzheimer’s disease like a true scholar. But there are some unintended bloopers in other areas. For example, a rather humble character who has a small farm confesses to killing a cow on his birthday, as if he’s going to have one steak, then eat lightly the rest of the year. That is unintentionally hilarious. I just Googled “how much meat comes from a heifer,” and the very first link that showed up indicates that a 1,200 pound heifer produces about 429 pounds of meat. That’s about 8 pounds a week, which is not “eating lightly” by any stretch of the imagination. It also requires butchering capacity and substantial cold storage. There were a few other inaccuracies that took my attention away from the story.

So I’m not recommending this book. It’s boring. If that doesn’t bother you and you just want to read beautiful writing, have at it.

As for animals, there’s a sad old horse named Iona who grows old and does what old horses do. But there’s nothing beyond that. So this book is SAFE for animal lovers.

August 1, 2009 Posted by | Book Reviews, death of a parent | , | Leave a comment

“Air Travel Is So Glamorous” — Vacation Prelude and Part One

Prelude

Some of you have heard my explanation about the genesis of this vacation, and you probably want to skip this paragraph because it’s the same thing I’ve always said. And that is: After my dad died last year, my mother — a burnt-out caretaker 13 years his junior — was talking to her priest, who said to “Pat, I want you to travel.” She replied, “I’m going to.” He then asked “Where are you going?” And she said “Wyoming — Yellowstone!” This is that trip.

We could not have done this trip without Dave, and we were fortunate that he wanted to join us. After much consultation, we agreed on a 3-part trip: short visit with relatives in Utah/Idaho, 2 days in Jackson WY and Grand Teton National Park, and Yellowstone National Park.

I carefully aligned our flights so that Dave and I were scheduled to arrive in Salt Lake City about 20 minutes before Mom, allowing us to meet her there. However, the morning we were to leave, as I was taking Eddie to the vet for boarding, I got an uneasy feeling that we had not made sufficient contingency plans. So I did something I rarely do — I called Mom while I was driving.

My car is manual transmission, aka stick shift. I need two hands to drive. There is no third hand available for the cell phone. So I called while sitting at what is normally a lengthy stop light.

“If something goes wrong, we’ll use Aunt Joyce as the switchboard,” I said.

“Why can’t I call you?” Mom asked.

“Because the voice mail on my cell phone doesn’t always work,” I said.

“Why?” Mom asked.

“Just trust me and don’t leave a message,” I said as the light turned and I had to make a left turn with a cellphone wedged between my ear and shoulder.

“But that’s not right,” Mom said.

HONK!!!! went the car behind me as I failed to put on my turn signal for the next sharp left I had to make.

“FUCK YOU!!” I yelled into the phone, meaning the driver, not Mom, which I had to explain once I was parked at the vet’s.

So we’re off to a good start already. I left my dubious Mom with instructions to call Aunt Joyce if there were a problem, and I said I would do the same.

Part One

Those carefully scheduled arrival times I mentioned above? They didn’t happen.

Dave and I were flying on Frontier, which is currently at the top of my list of Airlines I Don’t Hate Right Now. The day before, I did online check-in for the two of us because that’s the kind of thing I do.

Here is why online check-in is important: Say, hypothetically, you’ve booked a flight from Washington to Salt Lake City with a transfer to a connecting flight in Denver first. And say, hypothetically, that your flight to Denver is delayed 3 1/2 hours due to a mechanical problem. Under this hypothetical scenario, if you have checked in online, the airline may automatically rebook you on another connecting flight, maybe even on another airline, so that you do not have to stand in line with the teeming masses and figure this out at the airport. Which is what happened — we didn’t have to stand in line, because Frontier rebooked our second flight before we even arrived at the airport.

So thanks, Frontier Airlines and whoever came up with online check-in! Also, thanks for the two $50 vouchers, which are around here somewhere because I haven’t thrown out a single piece of paper since we left, although I will confess that I don’t actually know where the vouchers are. But I have them. Somewhere.

This begins a round of trying to contact Mom. As it will turn out, when we are on the ground, Mom will be in the air, and vice versa. All. Day. Long. So I call Aunt Joyce and tell her what’s happening. She wants to leave messages on my cell phone, however. I tell her no. Why is it that the 70-somethings don’t accept the notion of failed voice mail? Later that day, I spend the better part of an hour talking to my unhelpful carrier, and I still don’t have voice mail on my cell phone. This will be solved, but it wasn’t going to be solved while we were traveling.

Having nothing better to do, Dave and I go to the United counter, which is the airline that now has our second flight, from Denver to Salt Lake, and which is incredibly busy. The man who stands there directing people to his colleagues asks us what we want. Seat assignments, we tell him. He says his colleagues won’t be able to help. I look at them. They are under siege. But we decide to stick around and take our chances. Sure enough, when we do get to an agent, she gives us great seats in Economy Plus, for an extra charge. What do you get in Economy Plus? Nicer seats with extra leg room. I am 5′ 10″ and expecting to put in a 20+ hour day by time we land. Of course we’re going to pay the extra charge, which is only $39 each.

I then call Aunt Joyce, who volunteers to meet Mom at the airport since we won’t be there. It’s a 90-minute drive for her, but she and her husband will do that because otherwise my 76-year-old mother will be stranded.

Hours later, Mom calls my cell phone (and I have several voice messages from her and Joyce on my phone — too bad I can’t get at them) and actually reaches me.

“I’m in baggage claim, where are you?”

“Denver.”

“What?”

“Did you call Joyce?”

“No. Oh, wait, here she is.”

So that part works reasonably well. Dave and I then make reservations for a Hampton Inn near the Salt Lake City airport. Because our flight out of Denver is weathered in for a while, we arrive there just before 2 a.m. With the time change, this comes to a 22-hour day. We are not in the best shape at that point. The Hampton Inn is not all that easy to find, although the guy at the Hertz counter got us fairly close. But it is worth it. The clerk puts us in the quietest room he has open and, mercifully, we sleep. Sort of. If you don’t count Dave’s leg cramp in the middle of the night and my general inability to sleep from having been wired all day long. But eventually, we are something approximating rested, and get up in time for the free breakfast.

Hampton Inn gave us a great room, a better-than-decent free breakfast, and a few hours of sanity when we were desperate, all at a very reasonable price. Thanks, Hampton Inn!

Next up: Aunt Joyce, Sam, and the Idaho Cousins.

June 29, 2009 Posted by | death of a parent, random thoughts, travel, weather | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment