The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Tough as Nails, by Gail O’Sullivan Dwyer

I really enjoyed this short memoir, a personal history by one of the first women to attend West Point, more specifically as a member of the second class to admit women. Although a list of grievances might have been entertaining, as well as predictable, Dwyer does not take that direction. Instead, she gives a straightforward personal chronology, disguising the identities of the jerks she encountered. As she says up front in the Author’s Note: “If I didn’t have anything nice to say and it made the story what it was, then I changed the name. If you’re reading this and think you might be a character whose name was changed, maybe you should consider not doing things that aren’t nice.” It was at this point that I was sold on the book.

So there’s really no “male-bashing” to be found here, though Dwyer comes across as very forthright. She presents her experience as objectively as possible. Yet despite some tempering of the negativity, there is still a lot of spice and energy in her story.

Dwyer did not apply to West Point because she was a feminist or a girl from a die-hard military family who wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps. It was another male – her big brother, Paul – who generated her interest in the place when he attended. And although the entire O’Sullivan family seemed to think that gender-integration of the military academies was a bad idea, once it actually began, Paul encouraged Gail to apply.

In addition to some establishment and cadet resistance to women, Dwyer had another disadvantage going in: she was very small, maybe 5’2″ or so and 97 pounds sopping wet. She was smart, determined, personable, and a leader (even if she doesn’t completely admit it), but some of the difficult incidents she recounts seem to have more to do with being small than with being female. Yes, most women are shorter than most men. I’m not – I’m 5′ 9 1/2″ – and Dwyer ran into situations that clearly wouldn’t have been an issue for me. On the other hand, at 18 she was already tougher than most people of any size, so she bulled through carrying huge guns on field exercises and other challenges like a person twice her size.

Understandably, much of the story has to do with the first year, the plebe year, which is the most difficult on many levels, beyond what most of us experience in leaving home, living in a new environment, and studying college-level courses. However, Dwyer does cover her entire time at West Point in a nicely linear fashion, recounting challenges, friendships, and falling in love with the cadet who would eventually become her husband.

As for animals, which are the theme of this blog, there’s a soft-hearted cadet who violates rules by rescuing an injured bird, and a chicken is killed to show the cadets how to do it in the absence of a supermarket. Otherwise, there’s nothing of note in that area.

October 17, 2011 Posted by | autobiography, beach book, Book Reviews, memoir, nonfiction, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Tenth Muse, by Judith Jones

One of my college history professors — a man — once said that too much of what passes for history is the history of wars. Being a wise and thoughtful man, he gave us novels and memoirs written during the timeframe we were studying. It’s his line of thinking that I carry over when tagging this memoir as “history.” If we look at American culture over the last 60 years, we have been going through an almost constant state of revolution in our attitudes towards food. If Julia Child was the Jefferson (or Karl Marx) of that revolution, Judith Jones was the Washington (or Lenin). Both made a huge and enduring impact on the way we cook, thereby having a huge economic impact on the restaurant business, grocery stores, agriculture, the import/export sector, publishing, and other elements of our world. Will they be included in traditional history books? No. And that’s an oversight, and a problem with the way we perceive history. So, with my little rant behind me, let’s move on to the book review of The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, which is Judith Jones’ autobiography.

I loved it, but I think that was inevitable. I already gave her recent cookbook, Cooking for One, a rave review. With the Tenth Muse, Jones, who turns 86 this year, begins by telling about her normal childhood in a home that served the bland pre-WWII  food that was typical of the American diet at that time. It was life in post-WWII Paris that liberated Jones. She threw herself into cooking, met the man who would become her husband, and came back to the U.S. desperately in need of a cookbook that didn’t yet exist — the cookbook that Julia Child was just starting to write. After fighting to get Mastering the Art of French Cooking published, Jones went on to shepherd through any number of now-famous cookbook authors, like Edna Lewis, Lidia Bastianach, Madhur Jaffrey, and many others.

Jones includes about 50 of her favorite recipes at the back of the book, but really, you read this for her engaging storytelling ability and her light and direct writing style. I strongly recommend this book.

As for animal lovers who don’t want to read about bad things happening to animals, this book is MOSTLY SAFE. If you are really squeamish at the merest mention of something bad happening to an animal, you won’t like this book. That seems to be typical of memoirs by food-oriented people, by the way. They always recount something a bit squicky. Towards the end of the book, Jones mentions in passing that she has always owned a dog, and she names several in the course of her story, but these pets aren’t really much of a presence in the book. And there’s the infamous beaver incident, which is noted but not shown. But overall, I think animal lovers should be able to read this excellent memoir for what it is. Enjoy!

March 4, 2010 Posted by | autobiography, beach book, biography, Book Reviews, dogs, food, history, nonfiction, pets, recipes | , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Widow Clicquot, by Tilar J. Mazzeo

I really enjoyed this short book on the life of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, the woman who, in the early 1800s, turned the Clicquot-Ponsardin winery from a small business to an international champagne powerhouse. As she explains several times throughout the book (we get it, really, we do), author Tilar Mazzeo had very little to work with in the way of a historical record. Barbe-Nicole put in 14-hour days at the business and didn’t have time to write letters or journal entries. So the fact that there is anything here at all is a testament to Mazzeo’s persistence and tenacity.

And in fact, the story is interesting and Mazzeo is a good writer. What more do you want? Barbe-Nicole faced one daunting challenge after another, to the point where you wonder why she didn’t just give up. And these barriers went beyond the fact that women were discouraged from entering business in the Napoleanic era. Everything from political forces to fragile glass to bad crops worked against her. Plus, there was the layabout son-in-law whom she doted on and who apparently thought he was a sure thing to inherit Barbe-Nicole’s empire. And still, she prevailed. As she wrote in a letter to her one surviving great-grandchild, “[Audacity] is a precious quality that has been very useful to me in the course of my long life. … I can be bolder than you realize.”

This is an excellent book, and I recommend it highly.

As for animals, they’re not a factor, so this book is SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

January 20, 2010 Posted by | Book Reviews, history, wine | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Bombay Anna, by Susan Morgan

This is the real story of the woman who inspired the musical “The King and I.” As Susan Morgan shows, if you believe the theatrical versions of her life, then everything you thought you knew about this woman was wrong.

For starters, Anna Leonowen was not born in England or Wales — she was born in India, of an Irish father and a mixed-race mother. Had she been born in, say, the 1970s, she’d probably be an attorney, college professor, or some other profession requiring great intelligence. But she lacked such opportunities in mid-1800s India. So, upon being widowed in her late 20s, Anna took her two children to Singapore, where she gave herself a new identity that matched her abilities. Part of that false identity included being British and, to keep from being discovered, she favored Americans in her social life. Soon after the move to Singapore, she was asked to serve as teacher to the children of the King of Siam, where she also occasionally consulted with the King on affairs of state. That was also where she became an anti-slavery activist, influencing the crown prince so much that he abolished slavery shortly after he became king a number of years later. Anna eventually moved on, first to the United States and then to Canada, where she wrote about her experiences in the Siamese court, gave lectures, taught, and helped raise her grandchildren.

It took me a bit longer than usual to read this book, but I thought it was well worth the effort. Morgan is a professor at Miami University, but her writing style is accessible and appropriate for a mainstream audience. Her research seemed thorough, and she informed the reader whenever she moved from fact to speculation. If the subject interests you at all, buy the book — in other words, I’m recommending it.

Since the purpose of this blog is to give a heads-up to animal lovers who are concerned about the fate of animal characters, I’ll address that now: this book is SAFE for animal lovers. There are no animal characters, and only a few fleeting references to animals. Enjoy!

January 2, 2010 Posted by | Book Reviews, history | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Breaking Trail, by Arlene Blum

Like Gertrude Bell, whose biography I reviewed recently, Arlene Blum is a super-accomplished woman. And they have a couple of things in common — neither ever married, and they were both ardent mountaineers, breaking stereotypes as they ticked off first ascents. But that is about where the resemblance ends. For example, Bell came from a warm, supportive family, whereas Blum … not so much. In fact, her family was wildly, insanely, doggedly, and even militantly unsupportive of just about everything she tried to do. Yes, as with all people who behave strangely there are explanations. But still, I’m surprised they ever let her cross the street. And she was so bright and ambitious. She really had to have a strong sense of self to get past all the negativity that surrounded her as a child.

Anyway, this autobiography is engrossing, extremely well-written, and presents a great picture of what women in the “breakthrough generation” went through in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, when Blum found the biochemistryPhD program at MIT to be inhospitable to women, she transferred to UC Berkeley, where she also met some of her future climbing partners.

And, at its heart, this is a book about mountain climbing. Blum was a leader on ascents of Annapurna I, Everest, and Denali. Some of her 30+ expeditions were all-female teams. The hostility of many male climbers has been written about before, but Blum even names names. Of course, she was also held to a higher standard than the men applied to themselves. If anything at all went wrong on one of her expeditions, it was held up as proof that women couldn’t handle mountaineering, while at the same time such incidents went unremarked upon when the teams were all male.

Blum definitely has a prickly side, though. With that childhood, I would expect nothing less. I’m just noting that it’s there, and that most people have never tossed a plateful of food into a man’s face. That was the only incident of its nature, but it was illustrative. Blum also seemed to have many 6-month to 4-year relationships with men, describing most of these as fizzling out. That’s too bad, because she seems like a nice person. But she’s clearly headstrong, and those aren’t the easiest people to live with.

Anyway, she’s an unusual woman who’s led an interesting life and wrote an excellent book about it. This comes with my recommendation.

As for animals, there’s not much. She adopted some kittens in grad school, observed animals in her travels, and tells a very brief, sad story about a chicken. So this book is SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

April 15, 2009 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, by Georgina Howell

I finished this book over a week ago and have delayed reviewing it for one reason: Gertrude Bell was such a complex and accomplished person that it’s hard to know what to say in a short review. In fact, my only complaint about Howell’s well-written and exciting biography of this astonishing woman is that she sped through some parts of Bell’s life that, for most people, would warrant a book in and of itself. Then again, would I have read a 700-page biography? Probably not. Howell did an admirable job of keeping the text down to 419 pages.

Let’s get one of the unpleasant aspects out of the way right now: Bell opposed women’s suffrage. With her stepmother, she had been active in lobbying for the rights of the working poor and saw firsthand the burdens many working class women suffered. Her clearly flawed rationale for opposing suffrage stemmed from two related issues. First, she thought there were more pressing problems related to women’s rights, and second, only a quarter of British men were eligible to vote and universal suffrage would swamp the system. As history has shown us, we can’t set priorities like that, and fortunately, Bell’s beliefs did not carry the day.

On to her extraordinary life! Bell was extremely close to her father, who encouraged her in everything she aspired to do. And Bell wanted to do a lot. For example, instead of following the usual course for a wealthy young woman and becoming a debutante, Bell read history at Oxford. However, with career options for educated women being close to non-existent back in the late 1800s, she returned home after acquiring her degree. As Howell makes clear, Bell had to chart her own course.

For a while, she helped her stepmother in working with the poor. She also traveled, as the rich did in those days, to visit family friends. It was during one of these trips that she took up mountain climbing in the Alps — more uncommon among her generation’s women than attending Oxford. During another trip, she discovered her first love, the Middle East. (Note that she also did fall in love with two men during her life, one unavailable to her due to class, the other due to the fact that he was already married.)

Bell had a facility for languages and became fluent in Arabic and several other languages with relatively little effort. She took up archaeology, learned the etiquette of dealing with tribal chiefs, and made some amazing journeys into territory that was unexplored by Europeans. As a result, when post-WWI international treaties led to the need to set political boundaries, Bell was included. She had to be — no one else knew as much, not even T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, who also participated in the discussions.

This doesn’t even touch the surface. If you like history at all, or if you enjoy a good biography, you must read this book. It is exceptional.

As for animal lovers, I don’t think there is anything in this book that would put off someone who can’t stand to read incidents of animal abuse and neglect. Lawrence shoves a camel to make it behave, and that was about it. Bell loved dogs and seemed to calm her camels — in fact, in two photos of the 1921 Cairo Conference participants, her camel was the only one that wasn’t waving its head and blurring the picture. So this book is SAFE for animal lovers.

April 4, 2009 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, history, travel | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment