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 Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

This well-told, engrossing history of the Dust Bowl years won the National Book Award, and rightly so. Author Timothy Egan gives us vivid characters, fast pacing, and intriguing plots and subplots — not easy to do when history is so often full of dull minutiae that must be conveyed for the story to make sense. But Egan even makes the struggles within the Federal bureaucracy sound exciting.

He starts by describing what the southern Great Plains were like before settlement. These vast grasslands sustained buffalo and the native peoples who hunted them for purpose, not sport. Then the bison were killed off by the white settlers, who moved in cattle and, eventually, wheat farms. What we had here was a fragile environment disrupted in the worst possible way, leading to Egan’s “worst hard time” with the dust storms. The needs of cattle differ from those of bison, and wheat doesn’t grow in the same way as prairie grass. Just as the Great Depression hit and wheat cultivation became a financial liability, a sustained drought began. The winds stirred up dust so bad that it engulfed entire towns for days, seeping into even the most meticulously sealed windows and doors. People died of “dust pneumonia” and suffered other ailments caused by the fine dirt particles that surrounded them. Meanwhile, tons of top soil disappeared every day. Despite new agricultural practices introduced to hold down the soil and conserve the land, the region is still less populated than it was almost 80 years ago.

All of this is seen through the eyes of those who lived it. White-gloved schoolteacher Hazel Lucas Shaw tried to make the best of it despite the dust creating tragedy in her life, former ranch-hand Bam White struggled to keep his head up while self-medicating with grain alchohol, bloviating hypocrite John McCarty used his media outlet to deny that government help was even needed (there’s one like him in every crisis, I guess), and innovative soil conservationist Hugh Bennett timed a Senate hearing to the arrival of an enormous dust cloud in Washington DC, hundreds of miles from its origin. These and other individuals make Egan’s history come alive.

Unfortunately, as the people suffered, so did the animals. Therefore, I have to declare this book UNSAFE for animal lovers who don’t want to read about animal suffering. There was a lot of it, from chickens to rabbits to cattle. No species was safe from the dust that permeated every aspect of life in the Dust Bowl on an almost daily basis for years on end.

Nonetheless, if you can handle that, I strongly recommend this book.

April 1, 2009 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, history | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments