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 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 Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

This very silly book is based on Jane Austen’s masterpiece, Sense and Sensibility. In fact, much of the text is from that very book, which Ben Winters has woven into his story. However, unlike its equally silly predecessor, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, SS&SM does not read like a Jane Austen novel with an overlay of creatures from a horror movie. Instead, it seems like a sea monster tale that incorporates some of Jane Austen’s book, but not all that much. I felt this was mostly Winters’ book. Still, despite the quibbles, I had a great time reading it, though I didn’t love it the way I did PP&Z.

SS&SM is much more violent — and much more inventive — than PP&Z. Winters also lays bare the “ditziness” of Austen’s era, as we would perceive it. The compulsions of society are taken to extreme: servants are as expendable as paper napkins, it’s unspeakably rude to change the subject even in the face of an attack by giant lobsters, etc., etc.

As an example of the changes, Austen’s original took place in a variety of locales, including London, which SS&SM has replaced with “Sub-Marine Station Beta.” And although it’s been a while since I’ve read Sense and Sensibility, I do not believe the youngest Dashwood, Margaret, filed her teeth down to points and ran off to join a strange cult. Nor do I recall that Lady Middleton had been kidnapped from a tropical island and was desperate to return. While the giant lobsters, giant octopi, swordfish, two-headed dragons, and other monsters are kind of fun, they have a much larger and more intrusive presence than PP&Z’s zombies, who are simply minor distractions from Austen’s tale of class, love, society, and manners.

Still, I’m going to recommend this book. Read it when you need a good giggle.

This blog exists in part to alert animal lovers to books that might disturb them. In this review, I am not counting the sea monsters. Some die, some don’t. Beyond them, there are references to butterflies, generic “rodents,” and other animals. Most prominent is an orangutan named Pierre, and he does not have the happiest ending. There is also a reference to fighting otters that I didn’t care for. But I’m going to declare this book SAFE for animal lovers nonetheless. Enjoy!

January 17, 2010 Posted by | animals, beach book, Book Reviews, humor, literature, satire | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

First up, I have two very strong objections to this book, a rewrite of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice into a rather juvenile goof.

Objection #1: Everyone knows Mr. Darcy is a werewolf. Come on, Seth. You screwed this up big time. If you were going to do this, you could have at least done it right. And now I’m to understand that someone else has written Sense and Sensibilities and Sea Monsters? No, no, no, a thousand times no! Here are the correct match-ups of Austen and monsters:

  • Pride and Prejudice and Werewolves
  • Emma and Zombies
  • Sense and Sensibility and Shapeshifters
  • Persuasion and Sea Monsters
  • Northanger Abbey and Vampires
  • Mansfield Park and Witches

Get it right, people!

Objection #2: Seth over-edited the beginning. Granted, Austen often starts slow, but in the early pages, Mr. Darcy makes these weird comments that make me think, “who is this guy, how did he get here, and why is he sitting around spouting random, out-of-context, rude remarks?” Fortunately, this is a temporary problem, and anyone familiar with Austen’s original story will be able to fill in the blanks. But still … the guy isn’t given his due as a werewolf, and then he’s also the weirdo in the corner who blathers autistically? Not right, Seth!

These two objections aside, this is a wonderful book. I loved it, I laughed at it, and I recommend it. Only a prig wouldn’t enjoy it. In fact, it was recommended by a woman I consider to be one of the most devoted and knowledgeable Jane Austen scholars not employed by a university. So buy it. Make Seth rich and further his career. The fact that he mucked up Darcy’s werewolfishness becomes a detail once you get into the story.

And as this blog exists for the purpose of warning people about books in which animals are harmed or neglected or otherwise meet bad ends, I have to get serious. There are lots of horses, and since they are often the key to people escaping the zombies, they are worried about and protected. That’s not to say there’s never horse on the menu in Zombieland, but it’s referenced, not shown. There are also deer, who are dear to the Bennet girls. They’re not harmed, either. So this book is SAFE for animal lovers.

And Darcy is a werewolf, dammit!

August 16, 2009 Posted by | animals, beach book, Book Reviews, humor, literature, satire | , , , , | 3 Comments

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of You Must Be This Happy to Enter, by Elizabeth Crane

This book is awesome! And great!

Actually, it’s “very good,” I’m just playing with the title of the first story in the book. Elizabeth’s Cranes surreal short stories deal with happiness, pain, and sincerity. Most of the characters are striving, constantly striving, to achieve some sort of emotional satisfaction. In fact, one of the most touching stories is about Betty, a zombie who tries to improve herself on a reality TV show in order to please her beloved husband, Ed. (Betty and Ed also have a dog, Boone, whom Betty tries not to eat.)

Crane asks and sort of answers a number of intriguing hypothetical questions, like: what would you do if you were perfectly happy and capable of limited time travel, while you also passionately loved an imprisoned man who was perfectly happy and delighted to stay in jail? What if your entire town became invisible except for people’s bodies? What if your baby turned into a fully-grown movie star overnight? How would you adapt and strive for happiness under those circumstances?

Crane also watches a fair amount of reality TV, or so I assume. In fact, I strongly suspect that she and I have similar tastes.

I found Crane’s book to be delightful, though, as with most short story collections, I needed to take a few breaks instead of reading it in a couple of sessions. And I’m blaming a few nights of weird dreams on Crane, definitely. But I do recommend it. And regardless of what might happen to the possibly imperiled Boone and what does happen in another story to a pit bull named Damien, I am declaring this book SAFE for animal lovers.

November 30, 2008 Posted by | Book Reviews, humor, literature, pets | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Second Honeymoon, by Joanna Trollope

This book was a disappointment in that it was merely brain candy. The only thing I got from it is that I don’t quite understand why Trollope is so popular. Fine, she writes well, but I didn’t care for her characters. This was the story of a family of self-absorbed and selfish individuals. After a while, I started wondering why I was supposed to care what they wanted – and they all wanted something, usually in the form of capitulation by other family members. How boring!

So let’s see what’s wrong with the Boyd family. Edie wants her adult children to each be about 20 years younger than they are and can’t deal with the fact that the baby of the family finally left home. Her husband, Russell, feels she should be shifting her attention back to him now. This actually makes sense, though it’s easier said than done, obviously, and Edie appears to have zero interest in Russell as anything other than a sperm donor and emergency-back-up parent to her children. Oldest child Matt wants his girlfriend, Ruth, to read his mind about his financial situation, since he won’t discuss it with her and stupidly breaks up with her over information he never shared. Middle child Rosa loses her job and wants some support from those around her, which makes sense except that she’s somewhat demanding, which is off-putting. And youngest child Ben wants to live with his girlfriend and no one else, but instead lives with her and her mother. Man up, Ben! There’s also a sad-sack adult orphan whom Edie sort of adopts, and his problem is that he isn’t even together enough to want anything.

Finally, there’s a cat, Arsie, who wants a warm place to nap. Arsie makes sense, which most of the people seem to recognize. And therefore this book is SAFE for animal lovers. But I don’t recommend it.

However, one interesting thing Trollope did after the acknowledgements was to recommend other books. Of those I’d already read, about half were good and half were bombs. I have subsequently read a few of the other books, and the 50/50 split remains. Their reviews are forthcoming.

November 26, 2008 Posted by | Book Reviews, literature | , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Accidental, by Ali Smith

This intriguing book took a while to pull me in, in part because Smith used four distinct narrators — and counting the prologue and final chapter, she used five — and began with the weakest one. But this story of how each member of a nuclear family responds to a stranger in their midst did eventually capture my imagination, to the point where I continued thinking about the several days after I finished reading it. (The back cover blurb referencing a “startling, wonderfully enigmatic conclusion” is quite accurate.)

In the story, a young woman named Amber enters the summer home of the Smart family: Eve, Michael, teenaged Magnus, and 12-year-old Astrid. Eve thinks Amber is yet another student Michael is messing around with on the side; Michael thinks she’s a business associate of Eve’s; Magnus thinks with his hormones; and Astrid is simply in over her head. What does Amber want, and why is she there? Why is she accepted so blindly by the Smarts? These and other questions may or may not be answered, but it’s an interesting journey regardless. As for the outcome, the ending almost made me reread the entire book. But I didn’t — not yet, at least. I do recommend the book, but please be patient at the beginning. It’s worth it, but you may spend a number of pages wondering about that.

As for animals, this book is SAFE for animal lovers. There is an unspecified dead thing that gets Astrid’s attention, some unpleasant facts about bees are revealed, and a few fleeting odds and ends, nothing more.

November 20, 2008 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, literature | , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Let’s get the snark out of the way: This is the best book about the plague I’ve ever read.

in fact, it’s an excellent book, I highly recommend it, and it will be among the books I suggest for my book group to read for next time. Based on real-life events in the remote English village of Eyam in 1665, Year of Wonders describes the fate of the villagers after they decide to isolate themselves in order to avoid spreading the disease to others. The protagonist, a housemaid named Anna, joins with Elinor, the wife of the town’s minister, in reconstructing the craft of two murdered herbalists in an attempt to determine how best to care for the sick while strengthening those who are well. As families disintegrate due to the deaths of loved ones, they increasingly find themselves making decisions that affect the entire community.

I liked the pacing, the writing style, and the characterizations. I also thought Brooks achieved a rare depth — this is a book that made me think, unlike some of the “brain candy” novels that just fill the time. Her research appears to have been thorough, yet she doesn’t smack you in the face with the notion that you’re reading a well-researched book. I hate it when authors fling little factoids at the reader to show off their work, and I imagine Brooks had many opportunities to do that, but she presented a balanced, well-integrated story. I did feel the ending was a bit rushed and somewhat fantastic compared to the rest of the story, yet it worked for me.

There is quite a bit of death in this book, and some violence against people. As for animals, there is a horse named Anteros who plays a significant role in the story. Anna takes over a dead person’s cow and helps a sheep deliver a lamb. Although the absence of cats and dogs were a factor in the overpopulation of the rats that spread of the plague, Brooks only mentions this in her afterword, which makes sense since there would have been no way for Anna to make that connection. I am declaring this book to be SAFE for animal lovers.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, history, literature | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery

A few weeks ago, I wrote about reading history books, noting that novels can help provide a more complete picture of history, beyond the standard account of politics and wars. The Teahouse Fire is a case in point.

I don’t feel this book worked as a novel. To be blunt, I found it boring. Nothing drove the story forward, to the point that I can’t identify a plot. “Passage of time” isn’t a plot, even when every 50 pages or so we’re reminded that the protagonist (Aurelia/Urako) misses a lover from her past. There is mild to moderate tension among certain characters, but even that is tepid most of the time. Other than that, a few things happen, but there’s no sense of movement. Character development was similar, in that I had a sense of who these people were, but there wasn’t much depth to most of them. I hate giving up on a book, but after about 200 pages I decided to scan the rest of this one.

However … in my entry on reading history, I recalled that one of my college history professors had his students read novels. What I didn’t say was that this was a professor of Japanese history. So as I set The Teahouse Fire aside, I had to ask myself if I would assign this book to a Japanese history class. More importantly, if I undertook a project to uncover novels that dealt with the Meiji Restoration, how many would I find that had been written in English, or translated?

A quick online search didn’t produce that many candidates. And although The Teahouse Fire didn’t work for me as a novel, I do think Avery did outstanding research. I especially like the way she showed her characters reacting to the tremendous political and cultural upheaval that came with the Meiji Restoration. Early in the book, Urako, the protagonist, attaches herself to a family whose business it is to teach the tea ceremony. (I took lessons in the tea ceremony, along with Japanese flower arranging, on the side during my sophomore year in college.) With the Meiji Restoration, this family business lost its purpose, only to generate new interest among the increasing numbers of Westerners allowed into the country. It’s highly unlikely this perspective would show up in a standard history text, so on that basis alone I would definitely assign The Teahouse Fire to a Japanese history class.

So the book works for me on one level, though probably not the way the author intended. As for animal issues, by time I started scanning, I had only encountered a few. There’s a spooked horse and some bunnies painted with vegetable dye to appear as if they’re calico, but nothing beyond that. So this book is SAFE for animal lovers.

October 16, 2008 Posted by | Book Reviews, history, literature | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

This novel was a sensation in Europe, making multiple bestseller lists and eliciting wild praise from reviewers in France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere. “Elegance” tells the story of a 54-year-old Paris concierge/intellectual, a precocious 12-year-old girl, and the Japanese gentleman who instantly sees through both of them, changing their lives forever. So how did the book go over in this American household? I’m giving it an A-, which is high praise coming from me. I do recommend it, although I’m not going to suggest it to my book group to read for the December meeting because I can imagine all too easily the conversation we’d have. It would go something like this:

Jen: I got about halfway through it. (She has a baby, which is a great reason not to finish a book for book group.)

Steph: I thought it bogged down in spots. But it had a cat on Prozac, just like Leonard!

Jenny: And like Smokey!

20 minute digression as we discuss our vets and what they have and haven’t done right with our pets.

Dana: I thought it was funny in spots and beautiful in others, but I really didn’t like the ending.

Me: I agree. There were several different ways to end the book, and I thought Barbery could have done something more ambiguous or nuanced.

Jenny: The portrayal of Paris seemed realistic based on my experience.

20 minute digression as we discuss international travel and a couple of recent vacations.

Steph: Paloma’s parents were nightmares, but she was a bit annoying herself.

Jen: The sister was pretty awful, too. Most of the characters were portrayed pretty favorably, though. Maybe I’ll finish reading it.

45 minute discussion of the election and the new administration.

Bottom line: we’ll hit the highlights quickly and not discuss the book much. This happens about half the time. I’m recommending the next batch of books, from which we’ll select the December book, and I’m trying to select candidates that will keep us engaged. I’m not confident we’d stay on-topic with this one.

So, to sum up: excellent book with an ending that isn’t as nuanced as I’d like, slow in spots, funny in spots, insightful, definitely worth reading. As for animals, since that’s the purpose of this blog, this book is entirely SAFE for animal lovers. The concierge’s cat, Leo, is mentioned quite a bit. The 12-year-old’s family has two cats as well, Constitution and Parliament. A cocker spaniel named Neptune bounds through a few times, as does whippet named Athena. Plus, there is a young vet med student, Olympe, who is among the more endearing minor characters. It’s too bad she isn’t real, because Steph is looking for a new vet and after the cat-on-Prozac discussion, I’m sure she’d want to take Leonard to Olympe’s practice.

October 8, 2008 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, cats, humor, literature, pets | , , , , , , | 1 Comment