Aug 31, 2007

Meme: Statistics

I just discovered Booking Through Thursdays and really liked the idea of sharing more information about myself and books. I don't think I'll participate always on thursdays, but I do want to try for once a week. Maybe on a day like today when I don't have much to say about a book, or on sundays when my husband is home and dominates computer use. Here's my first one:

There was a widely bruited-about statistic reported last week, stating that 1 in 4 Americans did not read a single book last year. Clearly, we don’t fall into that category, but . . . how many of our friends do? Do you have friends/family who read as much as you do? Or are you the only person you know who has a serious reading habit?

My husband definitely falls into this category. I am not sure if he read more than two books last year, but he does read countless magazines, newspapers and internet articles, does that make up for it? I, on the other hand, rarely read media other than books, so I think we balance each other out. My family reads quite a bit, and often recommends books to me, but I doubt they read nearly as much as I do.

Cat People

by Michael and Margaret Korda

I thought this was going to be a cute little book, and it's supposed to be hilariously funny and witty. Maybe it's just not my type of humor; I found it annoying unoriginal. I slogged through the first two chapters which were crammed with every little fact and tidbit of info on cats, hoping that once the story got to the individual cats it would get better. It didn't. The text was so peppered with repeated clich├ęs about cats (some of which I disagreed with) that I just couldn't read it. I quit on page 35.

Abandoned            163 pages, 2005

Aug 30, 2007

A Good Dog

by Jon Katz

Yes, another book about dogs, but quite unlike the others I have read. It felt rather deja-vu at first, like I was reading a book that was the flip side of another; like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is to Hamlet. I kept getting the feeling perhaps I had read this book before, and just forgotten? The people and events were awfully familiar. I'd read about an ill donkey, mentioned in passing, and then stop and skip back, feeling something was missing. I knew I'd read about that sick donkey before, but in great detail, not just one phrase. Finally after searching my lists I discovered that a month ago I did read two other books by Jon Katz, one about the very same dogs on Bedlam Farm in upstate New York. They embrace the same time frame, but whereas the first book, The Dogs of Bedlam Farm is about life on the farm, herding sheep and dealing with the antics of three border collies, this one swings the focus to one key dog: Orson.

Orson (originally named Devon) marked a major turning point in the author's life, leading him from a suburban house in New Jersey to an old rambling farm in rural Hebron, near Vermont. Rescued from a failed life as a show dog, Orson came full of trouble, a very confused and stressed animal. Jon Katz became determined to do everything he could to rehabilitate and heal Orson. In fact, he made a pact or covenant with the dog, that he would never give up on him. His efforts to fulfill that pact led them to Bedlam Farm. After discovering that Orson's life fulfillment (as a border collie) wasn't in sheep herding, Katz went to great lengths to try and fix the dog's problems, consulting a holistic vet and spiritual animal shaman as well as traditional vets and dog trainers. His trials in the life and psyche of Orson were also a passage of growth and discovery for himself.

At one point near the end, this book made me cry. Books rarely have that effect on me, and this one isn't very sentimental at all. Unlike many stories about dogs that anthropomorphize and wax maudlin, A Good Dog is very down-to-earth and sensible. Continually Katz refuses to see human attributes in his dogs, and views them within the limits of their animal nature. "Animals live in their own sphere," he says.
My dog Orson may not be able to experience a sense of wonder, but [he] can evoke it in me. That could be one of Orson's most meaningful gifts -- and yet another reason to see him and other dogs as animals, not humans. The more like us they seem, the less of a bridge to nature they are.
This is a wonderful, intriguing and insightful book. I love its honesty and frankness. I have to say, if I do add it to my personal library, The Dogs of Bedlam Farm will have to sit alongside it on the shelf. They are companion volumes in every way. I don't think one can exist completely without the other.

Rating: 4/5                        Published 2006, 224 pgs

Aug 29, 2007

The Power of One

by Bryce Courtenay

Before I opened The Power of One I'd never heard of the Boer War and knew little about apartheid. In the beginning of the book I didn't mind being in the dark a little, as it was easy to relate to the main character: a confused five-year-old facing racial persecution he could hardly understand. I was expecting it to become clearer as the novel progressed, but the historical background was never really explained. I had to look some things up to better understand the cultural context, since my grasp of South African history was so sketchy.

The story of Peekay is a coming of age bildungsroman (a new word for me). At five years old, when his mother suffers a nervous breakdown, he is sent to live in a boarding school dominated by Afrikaans children, or Boers. Born English and raised by an Zulu nanny, Peekay identifies with two groups of people that the Boers hate and despise. He undergoes horrific bullying from the other children (this book is not for the squeamish) and becomes focused on learning how to survive. When his mother recovers, Peekay takes a train ride home that changes the course of his life. He meets a railway boxing champion who instills in him an obsessive desire to become a boxer. Not only as a means of self defense, but also apparently as a means to self-esteem, Peekay is determined to become the next welterweight boxing champion of the world.

Through the rest of his maturation, he never abandons this goal, although it puzzles and frustrates many of his family, friends and acquaintances. Continually battling with loneliness and feelings of inner weakness, Peekay finds several mentors who become very influential in his life: a German music professor and naturalist, a schoolteacher, a local librarian and several different boxing coaches, one of whom is a black man he met in prison. Being quite intelligent and easily influential with people, Peekay finds himself being pushed by other people's motives. Some want him to become a polished scholar. His mother wants him to be a pianist. Even his best friend has ulterior motives. No one really understands his driving need to box, and to be the champion.

A largely unexplained detail in the book is the hero's name. At first he is only known by a derogatory name his tormentors assign; then for the rest of the book by the nickname he gives himself. I found it odd that none of the other characters ever address him by his original name, although at several points they question his personal chosen nickname: "Peekay." Perhaps this was intended as an underscore to the novel's message, that strength comes from within the individual, and thus we know the hero only in the manner he identifies and makes himself.

This is a powerful book that deals with issues of racism, oppression and prejudice. It is moving and profound. The characters are vividly depicted through riveting scenes and well-written dialog. The descriptions of boarding school, prison life, naturalist expeditions, literary correspondence and the world of boxing make it rich indeed. This is no light-weight reading! It does get a bit melodramatic at times, and the ending felt rather abrupt and unexpected. However, I just learned there's a sequel to this book called Tandia. In fact, originally it was written as one volume but then deemed too lengthy and split up into two books. The sequel's obscurity makes me concerned it suffers in comparison to the first, but I'm adding it on my list of books to read.

Rating: 5/5 ........ 518 pages, 1989

More opinions at: Black Sheep Books

Aug 28, 2007

The Clan of the Cave Bear

by Jean M. Auel

When as a teenager I first read this novel set in a Paleolithic ice age, I found it fascinating and enthralling. I couldn't put it down. I felt like I had plunged into another world, that I could see the prehistoric jungle about me, the vast flora and fauna, the great beasts and brutality. The premise hinges on the possibility that two early races briefly co-existed: Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man. Auel portrays Neaderthals as being short, swarthy, dull and sexist brutes, whereas the Cro-Magnon are tall, blonde, blue-eyed, intelligent and open-minded. The story is centered on the conflicts caused by their differences.

Basically, it goes like this: a young Cro-Magnon child named Ayla is orphaned during an earthquake. The same earthquake has displaced a tribe of Neanderthals, and they find her lying injured on the path in their search for a new home. Against the inclination of many clan members, who distrust anything different and "other" she is picked up by the medicine woman, who adopts her into the "Clan". As Ayla grows and matures, her differences become unmistakable. She is adroit at learning and besides absorbing all the expected survival skills, becomes an accomplished healer and medicine woman. She also learns to make weapons and hunt in defiance of Clan rules, which forbid such activities to women. She challenges the authority of all the powerful men in the clan, friends and foes alike, simply by being a woman who is smarter than they are. Eventually her defiance of the Clan's way of life reaches a crisis, and they must decide whether to allow her to remain with them (and take advantage of her skills) or throw her out and rid themselves of the threat she poses.

I loved reading Clan of the Cave Bear because of the rich descriptions. The wealth of detailed information on herbal lore, weapon making, cooking methods and other survival skills of primitive man blew me away. Apparently the author closely researched how prehistoric man may have lived and survived, even fashioning crude weapons herself and building an ice cave to live in. However, her depiction of the social structure and attributes of early man is based on modern social dynamics, feminist leanings and her own active imagination. It is probably not very realistic and has met with much criticism by anthropologists and historians.

Despite the controversy surrounding its authenticity, this book and its following saga of prehistoric novels collectively called the Earth's Children has met with much success. I attribute this to Auel's superb storytelling, not the nature of her facts. There are many strong themes present in The Clan of the Cave Bear. Survival, acceptance, and what it means to be true to yourself. More than anything else, it is a story about human nature, the dynamics of power, and the strength of courage and love in the face of betrayal.

Rating: 5/5 ........ Published 1980, 497 pgs

Read another review at:
Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops
Caroline Bookbinder

Aug 27, 2007

Bark If You Love Me

by Louise Bernikow

Bark if You Love Me is the story of a sophisticated New Yorker who adopts a dog, apparently on a whim. A journalist and lecturer on women's history, Louise had never owned a pooch before and was in fact was full of allergies and aversions to dogs. She was jogging in the park one day and came across a crowd around a police car, where an emaciated and injured boxer was sitting in the back seat. She took him home and slowly, unwittingly, began a conversion into "a dog person." Her new pet shifts Lousie's circle of friends and acquaintances to those who own or at least like dogs, and leads her to talk to many of the city's people she never would have paused to notice before. She becomes a frequenter of dog parks, dog-friendly shops and even a bar that hands out biscuits.

Although this story had lots of potential, I found myself becoming bored with it. Perhaps it was the banal sentimentality that kept cropping up between spots of humor. It is a decent book, but there's nothing outstanding about it. By the time I got to page 137 I was ready to quit reading. Just to know the ending (which disappointed me) I skimmed the last few chapters, read the last five pages, and felt I didn't miss much.

Abandoned                    206 pages, 2000

Aug 25, 2007

Nop's Trials

by Donald McCaig

Nop's Trials was not at all what I expected. For some reason I had an image in my head of a story centered on sheepdog trials, or maybe how the dogs are trained. While there are descriptions of the trials, that is only a small part of the book. Nop, Lewis Burkholder's newest and promising border collie, is stolen on Christmas day by a pair of rednecks who keep dogs for bear hunting and dogfights. He is then sold to an unscrupulous dog owner (Burkholder's enemy), and begins a long terrifying journey. He passes through many different people's hands, suffering abuse from most of them. Told in conjunction with his trials is the story of life back home on the farm: Burkholder's depression and anger at loosing his dog, difficulties working the farm without a dog to handle the cattle and sheep, friction between Burkholder, his wife, daughter and son-in-law, and almost in the background is the Stink Dog, once a champion border collie but now rendered crippled by an accident.

I found the story intriguing, but sometimes McCaig's spare, concise writing style left something to be desired. Most of the time the writing well reflected the attitude of the land and its people: hardscrabble, down to earth and to the point. There were moments though when I felt like there were gaps between events, or I was missing part of the picture. Then there is the dog's language. In this book the animals speak to each other, but are not understood by humans. They address each other formally ("thee" and "thou") but in very basic, cropped sentences and with a paucity of vocabulary. Nop doesn't even have a word for "many" to describe a whole flock of sheep on the ranch as opposed to the three or four individuals in trials, even though he well knows the difference. Incongruously, at one moment of ultimate suffering, Nop suddenly waxes nearly eloquent on the subject of dogs' history with mankind, sourcing an ancestral memory. It just didn't seem to fit. I felt like the author could have let the dogs talk a little more competently, without loosing their simplicity.

I did love the insights into how these dogs work and think. Border collies are not at all like other dogs, and Nop is a very strong character. Burkholder himself is also quite stubborn and tenacious, and the surprising methods he uses to pursue his lost dog make a good page-turner. However, the examples of almost every kind of cruelty and abuse a dog can suffer could make Nop's Trials very disturbing to some readers.

Rating: 3/5                  329 pages, 1984

Aug 24, 2007

The Good Good Pig

by Sy Montgomery

Christopher Hogwood was the smallest of the runts. But he was so endearingly cute and plucky that his owners couldn't bring themselves to kill him. (Remind anyone of Charlotte's Web?) So Sy Montgomery and her husband Howard adopted the little pink-and-black pig and took him home.

Unlike most pigs who are raised for their pork, Christopher Hogwood was granted life just for the sake of living. Montgomery wanted to see how long a pig could live, and did everything she could to keep him healthy and happy. A lifelong naturalist with a deep love and connection to animals, she found herself enjoying his company and tending to his every need and sensitivity. The pig returned the favor. In ways simple and surprising, he brought neighbors, local children and people from the community at large into her circle of friends.

If you want to know anything about pigs, or how they can be so appealing, The Good Good Pig is a great read. It is full of lore about pigs in art, hogs in history, wild swine in nature. Pigs and their place in different cultures around the world. Montgomery explores possibilities about why pork is forbidden to Jews and Muslims, yet other cultures seem to venerate the pig. Examples of their intelligence are abundant.

As well as pigs, a flock of hens with lots of spunk and good sense and a troubled border collie named Tess live between these pages. Together they and Christopher Hogwood make Sy Montgomery's home a little bit of animal heaven on earth.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 228 pages, 2006

More opinions at:
You GOTTA Read This

Aug 23, 2007

Marley and Me

Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog
by John Grogan

Columnist John Grogan and his new wife knew little about labrador retrievers when they acquired their first dog, Marley. Their entry into the world of dog ownership is full of challenges: flea control, obedience classes, dilemmas over neutering, and what do you do with a dog who eats everything: any kind of food item, sofa cushions, plastic toys, gold necklaces, etc. Marley crashes through screen doors, jumps out of car windows and wreaks havoc at the dog beach. His terror of thunder causes him to tear through drywall and rip up floors. In short, he is an incorrigible dog.

With a big heart. He throws himself into everything with all the enthusiasm he can muster, crashing "joyously through life with a gusto most often associated with natural disasters (p 279)" He is lovable, brave and silly. He comforts his family, protects them one moment and embarrasses them the next. I don't really think Marley is the "world's worst dog": he does things all dogs do, and is constantly forgiven his wild behavior, because of his endless benevolence and innocent doggy nature. When old age finally slows him down, there is no end of love extended to Marley.

Marley and Me is just as much about the ups and downs of a new couple as it is about a dog. The funny and poignant moments of family life with two small boys and a dog bring this book its laughter and tears. Marley will steal your heart with his hilarious antics, unflagging loyalty and selfless nature. A must read for animal lovers, especially dog owners. Grogan's fluid writing style, humorous asides and knack for turning a phrase make it a pleasure to read. I laughed out loud many times, and enjoyed this book immensely.

Rating: 4/5              Published 2005, 291 pgs

Read more reviews at:
Melody's Reading Corner
SMS Book Reviews
My Life by the Book

Sight Hound

by Pam Houston

An Irish wolfhound in motion is a beautiful creature of grace, speed and power. Missing a leg, it's just another big, hairy awkward dog. Or is it? This story by Pam Houston of a woman's struggle to save her cancer-ridden dog's life against all odds is inspiring and heart-wrenching. Not just because of the strong bond of love between Rae and her wolfhound Dante, the endless, painful treatments he suffers with patience, the strong rallying support of friends and family. But because this dog knows great dignity and wisdom, and is determined to pass on his steadfast confidence and hope to his human owner. He's not just a dog, he's a philosopher. His observations on life soar above the simplistic remarks of the other animals and the gossip of the people.

That myriad of voices is what I didn't like about this book. Rae, her ex-boyfriend, her fiance, her house-sitter and best friend, her therapist, her vet, the vet's tech, her cat, her other dog, and the wolfhound himself all have something to say. That's ten different points of view, which means you never get to know any of them well. Wait, I forgot two characters: the dog's pen-pal, and another friend of Rae's. So that brings us to twelve! It is so rambling. When I first opened the book I could hardly make out what it was about (except that I had read the flyleaf). It was like jumping into the middle of someone's train of thought, and they don't stop to explain what they're talking about. I would like how candid it feels, if it didn't happen every chapter.

I left Sight Hound feeling like I'd met a bunch of strangers at a party, heard all their stories and opinions about each other, but not come away with any dear friends. What it does accomplish is to show how the lives of twelve beings weave together in support of one grief-stricken dog owner. In spite of all the wandering the story does, it all comes back to Dante and centers on Rae's deep attachment to her dog.

Rating: 3/5                    Published 2005, 342 pages

Aug 20, 2007

Chicken Soup for the Cat & Dog Lover's Soul

by Jack Canfield, et al

This book will be enjoyed by any animal lover, especially those who have cherished pets. If you've never read any of the "Chicken Soup" books, it's a good one to start with. I liked it better than the other ones I read so far. These volumes are collections of short stories on a theme, gathered people across the United States. All are uplifting, inspiring tales and they are each true (although "Jim the Wonder Dog" really stretched my credulity). What touches me most about them is to know they all came from someone's life experience. I like to think they are the kinds of stories that more primitive cultures would have passed around by word of mouth, sitting in a close circle, listened to time and time again. Those storytelling voices cannot reach far enough to touch everyone's ears nowadays. But through the book they can reach out and touch all our hearts.

You will find in these pages stories of courage, loyalty, friendship and loss. Many of them are funny, some are sad and a few are quite thought-provoking. They all demonstrate how much our animal companions mean to us: as members of the family, working companions and faithful friends. They bring us many laughs, teach us profound lessons about life, and work wonders of healing. As quoted in the book,
"in order to keep a true perspective of one's importance, everyone should have a dog that will worship him and a cat that will ignore him." - Dereke Bruce.
Although (true to the title) most of the stories are about dogs and cats, the book also features several horses, some geese, two lovebirds and a garter snake, cockatiel, mallard, llama, pelican, African gray parrot, hamster, cow and toad. That was my favorite, the toad who was friends with a dog. This isn't great literature, but if you're looking for an easy read or a book to curl up with that will give you "warm fuzzies" it's a good pick.
"We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Yet, we still would live no other way."- Irving Townsend, p.320

Rating: 3/5                        Published 1999, 408 pgs

Aug 19, 2007

People of the Deer

by Farley Mowat

People of the Deer by Farley Mowat is a very sobering book. It chronicles the author's explorations into the Barrens of Northern Canada, where he studied caribou and lived with a group of isolated inland Eskimo, the Ihalmiut. Entirely dependent upon the caribou, these people were almost wiped out by starvation in the 1940s. Attempts by the Canadian government, missionaries and other groups to help them only intensified their demise. This was mainly because aid was given in the form of food and supplies that were entirely inappropriate for the needs of the Eskimo, was doled out in sporadic amounts and failed to arrive when it was most needed. Even after the author had lived among them for two years and published detailed reports about their plight, they were largely ignored and forgotten.

The first several chapters outlining how Mowat became interested in visiting the Barrenlands and his struggle to reach the remote area make rather dry reading. But once he is among the Ihalmiut and learns the rudiments of their language the book springs to life. Mowat's account of his efforts to assimilate himself into a different culture and earn the people's trust are impressive and amusing. There are several chapters on the beliefs, customs, legends and the history of the Ihalmiut; with comparisons to the costal Eskimos who live off the sea, and Native Americans who are their historical enemies. The Ihalmiut have a way of life that is very peaceable and communistic. It becomes clear through Mowat's experiences that communism is a necessity in such a harsh environment; without cooperation and complete altruism in times of need, the people would perish.

This is made quite clear when the full story of Kakumee, the only man all the Ihalmiut fear and call evil, is finally revealed. He is a shaman- a role in Eskimo society which is explained in depth. Because this one single man did not follow the Law but coveted what the "white man" had, he helped to instigate a chain of suffering that brought his whole people down.

After I finished reading this book I did a little online research to see what happened after Mowat left the Ihalmiut. I was shocked and dismayed to find that they are gone: all their people perished, save a very few lone survivors. I felt like I was holding a book full of ghosts. I felt sickened at the ignorance and callousness that allowed this to happen. To quote the author:

"To give a dying man a cup of water may be laudable; but to let that man die, when it is in our power to prevent it, is despicable. In effect we have been doling out cups of water to a dying pepole in the arctic..."

In spite of how sad I felt with I finished it, this book is a great read! The story of Mowat's daily life with these gentle people in the bleak and forbidding Arctic is sprinkled with humor and full of vitality. It is an utterly fascinating account. Definitely staying on my bookshelf.

Rating: 4/5                        Published 1952, 230 pages