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!

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

Does the Dog Die? Reviews of Two Books by Philippa Gregory: The Red Queen, and The White Queen

One reason I am a fan of Philippa Gregory is that she takes history and makes it accessible. I say this as someone who majored in history in college. Sure, I can find my way through a straight history book, and much of the nonfiction I read is exactly that: history. But authors who fictionalize history well often fill in the blanks for us with dialogue and what they imagine to be likely actions where the historical record contains gaps. Philippa Gregory is a master at this, and she also focuses on female figures who are considered secondary or tertiary by mainstream historians.

In “The White Queen” and “The Red Queen,” Gregory examines two significant women from the War of the Roses, in which England’s Lancaster and York houses of the Plantagenet family fought for 30 years in the mid-1400s. In The White Queen, Gregory writes from the point of view of the beautiful Elizabeth Woodville, the young widow who captured the heart of York’s King Edward IV. Woodville was also the mother of the two young princes whose disappearance from the Tower of London has perplexed historians for centuries. Gregory provides a plausible scenario to account for the boys.

Both women were ambitious but, as portrayed by Gregory, Margaret Beaufort was consumed by her ambitions. And, because she was not married to a king or in a direct line herself, her insistence that her son would become king of England seemed absurd at times. Gregory paints Beaufort as particularly serious and even grim, only satisfied once Henry VII was on the throne.

Gregory is a solid writer whose pacing sometimes gets bogged down in repetition or portrayal of worried characters. She’s also a damned fine storyteller, and the War of the Roses is a damned fine story. I recommend both of these books, with a slight preference for The White Queen.

Regarding animals, there wasn’t much. Gregory doesn’t go for that kind of thing as a rule. There is a brief pig slaughter description in The White Queen, and a bit of horses-in-battle stuff in The Red Queen. But I am declaring both books MOSTLY SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

January 31, 2011 Posted by | biography, Book Reviews, families, historical fiction, history, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss

I loved Molly Gloss’s subtle storytelling in The Hearts of Horses. Instead of a strong, driving plot, Gloss opts to show a defined period of time — protagonist Martha Lessen’s long winter of 1917, during which she “gentles” some horses in an eastern Oregon county. Gloss slowly reveals the surprisingly complex Martha to us, along with the people she meets and their horses.

The story is also a picture of a time when the West was changing, and right before transportation, agriculture, and American society as a whole transformed into today’s urban, transit-powered times. Ranching was still something for rough young men, but most of those had gone off to fight in World War I. When 19-year-old Martha shows up with her own three horses offering to train ranchers’ wilder horses to saddle, the overwhelmed men who’d stayed behind really had little choice other than to hire her.

Martha was what we think of as a “horse whisperer,” using a calm, steady, and gentle approach to help her equine charges adjust to what was expected of them. She was much more comfortable around horses than people, and as her past is revealed, it becomes clear why this is. Yet she herself is slowly gentled into feeling more comfortable around the new people she meets.

Gloss spools out her tale like a series of vignettes. One of the things I like is that even the villains have dimension, and when one or two of them get their come-uppance, it isn’t a black-and-white situation. Martha’s sort-of-but-not-completely surprise ending is sweet, though it also takes her back to a dark part of her personal history.

As for animals, this is a tough one, and it’s made me think I need another rating category. So here it is: NO GRAPHIC DEPICTIONS OF HARM TO ANIMALS. That may evolve a bit. The point is, regarding The Hearts of Horses, there are times when you read of something bad that happened to an animal — a horse is injured, a dog is kicked — and it doesn’t go any further than a few words. Because horses are a significant focus of this book, there are many such instances. But Gloss never shows us much of this. When a horse is injured while in Martha’s care, for example, you mostly see Martha tending to the injury and don’t get the really awful images that will disturb some readers. There is a lot of that kind of thing in this book. There’s also a lot of love and respect and care given to the various animals, again mostly horses. So I’m going to say that this book is MOSTLY SAFE for animal lovers. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, historical fiction, horses | | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

This is the second of David Ebershoff’s books I’ve read, and it is a classic example of why a reader shouldn’t give up on an author. For as much as I disliked The Danish Girl, I loved The 19th Wife. And I really did love this book a lot.

What changed? This time out, Ebershoff gave us a pair of compelling protagonists, for starters. The 19th Wife weaves a fictitious version of the true story of Ann Eliza Young — estranged wife of early Mormon prophet Brigham Young — with that of the wholly fictitious Jordon Scott, a young man tossed out of a 21st century polygamist cult in southern Utah. The entire story, which includes a few ancillary narrators, is interesting, but Jordan is the kind of endearing narrator you want to follow, just to make sure he’s going to be okay.

Jordan is tottering on the edge of stability — it’s in sight but not assured — when he learns that his mother, BeckyLyn, has been arrested and charged with the murder of his father. Although BeckyLyn followed the orders of the cult’s prophet and abandoned him on a highway when he was only 14, Jordan doesn’t believe her capable of murder. So he decides to find out what actually did happen, which means re-entering the world of the cult and grappling with the emotions he’s tamped down for the past 6 years.

But this is not a murder mystery. It’s not a coming of age novel. It’s not a historical novel. It’s not a book about LDS. It has elements of all of those, and I’d say it’s mostly about people finding themselves and discovering where they are most comfortable fitting into the world. But it’s more than that. It’s also about love and honesty and integrity and truth, with some greed and hypocrisy tossed in for contrast.

This is a long book because Ebershoff is inventive and has a lot to say. I think it’s brilliant, I was very happy when I was reading it, and I’ll recommend it to anyone and everyone. But I won’t try to wedge it into a category, because that would be wrong. Just read the damned book, okay? I say that despite a few quibbbles about the ease with which Jordan visits his former home. The book is excellent. Highest recommendation and all that.

As for animals, yes, there is a dog, and no, she does not die. Her name is Elektra, and she makes it all the way through the book without any problems. Ebershoff writes Elektra as a real animal character — she’s a dog, not a furry, wise human, and she behaves like a dog. Yet she doesn’t slink into the background and conveniently disappear, either. She needs water, food, affection, opportunities to pee, and interaction with others. Jordan has to find people to watch her when he can’t take her along on his adventures, and he’s careful not to leave her in a hot vehicle. We learn a lot about Jordan through Elektra, but she’s a multi-dimensional character all on her own. Ebershoff thought this through much more than most authors do.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few unpleasant animal images. But they’re very brief and mostly have to do with the Mormon history portion of the story. Another dog, Joey, eventually enters the story, and Ebershoff gives him the same treatment as Elektra. So this book is completely SAFE for animal lovers. Now, go get your hands on a copy and read it!

August 26, 2010 Posted by | animals, beach book, Book Reviews, dogs, historical fiction | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Toss of a Lemon, by Padma Viswanathan

I loved this book, but if you are into suspense and tend to read thrillers, it is not for you. The Toss of a Lemon is a much more subtle book than any thriller, and it is, essentially, the story of three generations of a Brahmin family in India. It is beautiful, gentle, intimate, and quietly epic.

The main character, Sivakami, is married as a child and has two children before becoming a widow at age 18. Sivakami’s daughter Thangam marries an unpredictable man who makes her terribly unhappy and gets her pregnant 10 times over the course of 25 years. Sivakami’s son, Varium, is an odd child and a difficult man who disdains his mother’s dedication to Brahmin customs. Among those customs is the punishment meted out to a widow: she is not allowed to touch or be touched by another human being while the sun is up.

Yet despite this and other strictures, Sivakami influences her family and others. Her closeted gay servant, Muchami, becomes her best friend and ally. She raises Thangam’s children for the most part, and despite the lack of assertion we often associate with the term, she functions as the family matriarch. The story takes us from the late 1800s through the end of the British Raj without a typical history’s focus on the political. Rather, Viswanathan emphasizes the changes in family life wrought by the upheaval.

I strongly recommend this book.

In terms of animals, there were no animal characters. There is an early, lively scene involving monkeys and a bird (which we’re hoping gets away), a taxidermy mishap involving Thangam’s inept husband, cows, dogs, and assorted other incidental animals in the background. So this book is SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

July 3, 2010 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, families, historical fiction | , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

This thoughtful book lives up to its tantalizing opening, in which a desperate Jewish child seeks help from a Greek geologist working at the archaeological site in Buskupin, Poland at the beginning of World War II. Thus begins the long journey of Jakob Beer, smuggled to Greece and hidden from the Nazis by Athos Roussos. Athos is more than just a man with a conscience, however — he is also a respected academic, so when Greece plunges into political turmoil at the end of the war, Athos secures a professorship in Toronto and takes Jakob along. At this point, 13-year-old Jakob realizes that he loves Athos, who has been his only family for almost 6 years. But Jakob remains haunted by what happened to his family while he hid, as taught by his mother, behind a wall as the Nazis invaded his home. He knows his father is dead and believes his mother is, as well. But what about his 15-year-old sister, Bella? The uncertainty about Bella haunts him for the rest of his life and is a prominent theme in Anne Michaels’ touching story.

The only difficulty I had with this book was one of style. Michaels is a poet, and while I appreciate beautiful writing, there were a few passages that struck me as a bit overdone. But this is a quibble. Jakob and Athos stayed on my mind for days after I finished the book, and I thought Michaels’ characterizations were exquisite. I strongly recommend this book.

As for animals, Jakob is very aware of them while he hides in the woods, as he visits the beach with Athos for a post-war remembrance, as the two seek shelter from a thunderstorm. Not much else happens that would make an impact on animal lovers, so I am declaring this book SAFE for people who worry about what happens to animal characters.

April 3, 2010 Posted by | Book Reviews, historical fiction | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Exiles, by Ron Hansen

Recently, the New York Times Book Review offered an essay on boring books, explaining why book reviewers seldom call books “boring.” That essay was a lot more interesting than Exiles, which is a very boring book.

Here’s where I explain why I read it: Ron Hansen has a strong reputation as a best-selling author, and the ostensible subject matter — the deaths of five German nuns in an 1875 shipwreck — sounded promising. I still think the sinking of the Deutschland would make for a good book. But someone else is going to have to take a crack at it, because Hansen’s book was boring.

Buried in Exiles are the seeds for a few fascinating short stories about life in the 1800s and what happens to German girls from poor families and the migration of European missionaries to the United States. Or maybe someone could structure another book around these ideas. They just need to read Exiles as a cautionary example of what not to do.

Where did Hansen go wrong? Well, there’s an epic poem about the Deutschland, written by a priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins. And at least half the book, maybe more, is about Hopkins, who wasn’t all that interesting himself, at least as portrayed by Hansen. I also didn’t like the fact that Hopkins’ seminary came across as roughly equivalent to a shabby but elite college for the rich.

I am not recommending it.

As for animal lovers, you have nothing to fear — there are no animal characters in this very boring book. It is therefore SAFE for animal lovers.

February 5, 2010 Posted by | Book Reviews, boring books, historical fiction | , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff

The Danish Girl is based on the true story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe and Gerda Gottlieb, two Denmark- and Paris-based artists from the 1910s and 1920s. David Ebershoff’s book is a fictionalized version of their lives, and changes a few of the facts. But he sticks with the general sense of what happened in their lives, which is a rich and entertaining story.

Einar and Greta (Gerda’s fictitious counterpart) are a young married couple living in Copenhagen. He is a successful artist; she is still searching for her creative identity. One day, Greta asks the rather slight Einar to model another woman’s shoes and hose for a picture. From that incident was born Lili. The Danish Girl is the fascinating story of how Einar slowly vanished, with Lili taking his place. The impact of this change on Einar’s marriage and art, and Greta’s courage and love in adapting to this unusual situation, are at the core of the story. Ultimately, Lili had sex reassignment surgery to better match her possibly hermaphroditic body to her identity as a woman — despite claims to the contrary a few decades later, this was the first such surgery ever attempted.

I am giving this book a mostly positive review, and I think most people are likely to enjoy it, but I do have one major misgiving: I did not like Einar/Lili. Sure, I admired the courage necessary to go through the difficult process of discovery. But beyond the story of gender identity and Einar’s struggle to become his true self as Lili, I found Lili, especially, to be weak, self-centered, and dull. She offers nothing. She even stops painting and takes a job selling gloves at a department store. Once Lili becomes Lili and not Einar, there is nothing interesting about her. She shows no interest in others except in terms of what they can do for her.

Greta is courageous and generous, but we learn little, if anything, about what motivates her, what drives her. Where Lili is boring aside from her drive to match her life to her sexual identity, Greta is mysterious, and not in a good way. I have to fault Ebershoff for not digging deep enough with her, and I have to wonder the extent to which he even tried to look at the situation through her eyes. It’s almost as if he sees her as less of a person than Einar/Lili, while I see her as a much stronger and more intriguing person. My feelings are a bit too tepid to give this book a recommendation.

As for animals, there is a Wegener family dog named Edvard IV who comes to no harm, although he ages. His mother and littermates did not fare so well, though that is mentioned only in passing. There is a Manx cat named Sophie, and Ebershoff makes both benign and unpleasant references to other animals. Because of the latter, I will declare this book MOSTLY SAFE for animal lovers.

January 14, 2010 Posted by | Book Reviews, dogs, families, historical fiction, pets | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment