The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

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 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