Tuesday, August 8, 2017

New Review: THE RIGHT SIDE by Spencer Quinn

Spencer Quinn is the beloved author of the Chet and Bernie mystery series, starring a brilliant, if at times distracted, white-eared dog, who relays the confusing and annoying antics of the humans around him with openness and unintentional humor. Quinn’s gift for mind-melding with a dog in a way that is both believable and entertaining is not restricted just to animals, but to people as well, as this new novel proves.

The long, apparently never-ending struggle our troops are fighting in Afghanistan has created many heroes, and many broken minds and bodies. The Right Side presents us with a hero, in every sense of the word, and her struggle to fight the derailing of her mind after being nearly blown up during an operation in Afghanistan.

LeAnne Hogan awakes in Walter Reed Hospital with a blinding pain in her head and a blackness on her right side. Her right eye is gone, and there is shrapnel in her brain, but that last bit of info continually eludes her. The loss of her eye, however, is ever present and unforgettable. She had been an accomplished athlete (pole vaulting), before joining the military, where her strength, intelligence, and courage were leading her on a trajectory of success. Her personal life was blossoming with her new love. Life was complicated and intense, but LeAnne thrived. But now she looked upon her ruined face and diminishing strength with bitterness and despair. Here Quinn’s ability to become his protagonist, whether a dog or a woman, is startling and brilliant, but only as an afterthought. Reading, we become entangled in LeAnne’s shattered thoughts and are passengers on her journey, embedded like a civilians in a war zone.

LeAnne’s roommate at Walter Reed is a recalcitrant amputee named Marci. Their friendship is hardly warm and fuzzy, but becomes fiercely intense. With their battle-scarred minds, they manage to make each other laugh, and tiptoe into the depths of despair the injuries and traumas have sent them. Marci tells LeAnne of her first marriage to a kind-hearted man she should have stayed with, and her second to an abusive mistake, with whom she had a daughter. The eight-year-old Mia was living in Washington state with Marci’s mom. What will become of her daughter if something happens to her? she asks LeAnne. Something already has, LeAnne answers. They both laugh.

LeAnne clings to Marci, needing her friendship like a salve for her ravaged face. So when Marci unexpectedly dies, LeAnne’s weak grip on sanity loosens even more. She sneaks out of the hospital and begins a cross-country trip to Washington in search of Marci’s past life and her child, or maybe in search of her own past. Her memory is short-circuited, and her days drift by in mostly drunken oblivion.

It’s not until about three-quarters into the novel that the dog appears. She’s a stray, large and dark-eyed, mysterious and not particularly friendly, but she attaches herself to LeAnne and will not let go. LeAnne tries to find a home for her, but the dog, whom she eventually names Goody, will not release her hold. Strangely, Goody seems to know to walk on LeAnne’s right side to help guide and protect her. When LeAnne finds out that Marci’s daughter has gone missing, Goody becomes all the more important in the search for the little girl. 

LeAnne finds herself on a mission. She becomes obsessed with finding the little girl and with belatedly rectifying Marci's messy life, and perhaps figuring out her own future. 

Our concepts of right and wrong blend at times, with ethical and moral choices becoming less clear, especially in war: thus the ambiguous title of this fine novel. But as LeAnne finds her path, Goody knows which side to walk on. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Incredible Journey: review of A DOG'S WAY HOME, by W. Bruce Cameron


W. Bruce Cameron
$24.99 Hardcover (our price: $19.99)

In the footsteps of the classic stories of a dog finding his way back home, W. Bruce Cameron (author of A Dog’s Purpose, The Dog Master, and others) treads confidently, using the dog’s perspective and voice to carry us along. He also addresses the controversial dangerous dog laws that have resulted in far too many gentle dogs being put to death because of their resemblance to so-called dangerous breeds, most notably pit bulls. Likewise, he manages to insert gay marriage, care of mentally ill veterans, heroin addiction, and use of therapy dogs into this canine adventure tale.
If the human characters come off at times a bit two dimensional, such a perceived flaw can be easily erased by the depth of understanding for Bella, the heroine and narrator. Using first person (first canine?) as a device has pitfalls for most authors, but Cameron is quite a pro, given his spectacular achievement with A Dog’s Purpose. Of course, he’s not alone. Sewell, Terhune, and Cameron’s contemporary, Spencer Quinn, all produced stories with momentum and emotion while staying true to what we believe would be an animal’s thought processes.
Thus, in A DOG’S WAY HOME, when Bella hears certain words she recognizes, she responds as we’d expect. But of course, it would make it a boring book if she didn’t veer away at some point from the expected. And this tale is anything but boring.
The story begins when Lucas Ray, a young man living with his mother and struggling to find a purpose in life, discovers a puppy among a family of feral cats in an abandoned building. Lucas has been feeding the cats, and fighting the developers who were threatening to destroy the building and any unfortunate animals hiding there. The puppy’s own canine family had scattered, and she found solace with the mother cat and the kittens.
Lucas rescues the puppy, Bella, bringing her home to their apartment where pets are not allowed, in a city (Denver) where pit bulls are not allowed. (Whether or not Bella is actually a pit bull is never completely decided, but she apparently resembles one, and that’s good enough for the authorities.) Lucas teaches his puppy to do No Barks, and Go Home on command in case the dog catcher spots them out and about. It’s the Go Home command that is particularly important. Since he is afraid to leave her alone during the day, he takes her with him to the VA hospital where he works, and discovers that she is a wonderful comfort to the patients there suffering from emotional and mental disorders brought on by military service.
It is clear early on that Lucas and his puppy are doomed to be separated. As trouble heats up, Bella is sent to live in a foster home 400 miles away while Lucas and his mom, scramble to find a more friendly place to live and work.
Bella is distraught and confused, and when she hears anything about “home,” she is determined to do what Lucas taught her to do: Go Home. Her long, arduous journey back to Lucas is at times heart-breaking, frustrating, frightening, and occasionally funny. W. Bruce Cameron’s wit and obvious love of all things doggie shine brilliantly here. Bella’s story is compelling, and will make a fabulous summer read for dog lovers.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Fierce and Gentle Heroine: review of THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE: A War Story

Diane Ackerman
$15.95 (our price $12.76) paperback

I first read an essay by Diane Ackerman in The New Yorker in 1988 titled simply “Bats.” Her humor, empathy, research, and unique turn of phrase led me to find other works by her, all of which I’ve read with relish. Her work never disappoints, bringing a warmth and style that just cannot be imitated or duplicated. She has a scientist’s eye for detail and a poet’s ear for phrasing. Her descriptions of the German invasion of Poland in The Zookeeper’s Wife, are poignant and memorable, bringing the crumbling buildings and hollow-eyed inhabitants to vivid life. Each animal, each person, has his or her own story to be told, and their narratives are displayed in full color. The movie based on this book will, I hope, bring an even larger audience to Ackerman’s works.

Ackerman relied on Antonina Zabinski’s own writings as well as diaries and interviews of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, to tell the story of the Warsaw Zoo and its role as a haven for “Guests” who were escaping Nazi brutality. She addresses the important and controversial issue of the Nazi’s fascination with eugenics and their somewhat bizarre determination to preserve “pure” species of some animals. As in Elizabeth Letts’ The Perfect Horse, we witness both the horrific brutality of the regime and their strange protection of (at least some) animals.

Antonina and Jan Zabinski were ardent animal lovers, whose care for the most exotic as well as the more mundane of their creatures made the destruction of the zoo that much more heartbreaking. But rather than give up or escape with their young son, they chose to stay and risk their lives to save as many Jews as they could, hiding some in the empty cages, where secret passageways connected to the villa so that food could be smuggled in to them, and playing elaborate schemes to keep the Germans off track. Each Guest was given a new name, sometimes harking back to the zoo’s original purpose; thus an artist who particularly loved birds was renamed Starling. Sometimes the names were just intentionally Christian. The change of names was just one more dent in the Jewish identities, but was a necessary and at times life-saving practice. The animals, too, were all named. A hamster named Piotr (Peter), for instance, became the close companion to one guest, Maurycy Fraenkel, called Pawel (Paul). Such friendships brought some levity into a dark time:

“After supper each evening Maurycy turned Piotr loose on the table’s polished mesa, where the hamster skittered from plate to plate, whisking up crumbs until his fat cheeks dragged. Then Maurycy would gather him up in one hand and carry him back to his cage. .  .  . the pair became inseparable, and villa-mates began referring to Pawel and Piotr collectively as ‘the Hamsters.’”

Jan Zabinksi left each day to a job that provided adequate cover for him to extract more people from the Ghetto and to distribute food to the starving. Each day Antonina cared for the hiding Guests, her young son, and the few animals they managed to save. “[She] was a housewife,” Jan is quoted as saying. “[S]he wasn’t involved in politics or war and was timid, and yet despite that she played a major role in saving others and never once complained about the danger.” It was her intense understanding of animals, he believed, that gave her the strength to stand up to mortal danger. “[F]rom time to time she seemed to shed her own human traits and become a panther or a hyena. Then, able to adopt their fighting instinct, she arose as a fearless defender of her kind.”

In the course of the war, Antonina became pregnant and was bedridden, and yet still managed to protect those in her care. When her baby was born, her fierce protectiveness was all the more in evidence. She was gentle, soft-spoken, always questioning herself, and yet she never faltered, no matter how terrified, when standing up to the enemy.

The ever-present vigilance required to stay alive was exhausting. Most of those that did survive, did not live to a ripe old age. Four years of war scraped twenty years or more off their life spans. Consequently, we are seeing now the last of the witnesses leave us, and soon will have to rely on accounts such as this one to remember the mass psychosis of the Nazi era. Without knowing the history as intimately as possible, we will always face the possibility of another insane ideology taking root.

This account of true and honest heroism is uplifting and inspiring, but also a grim reminder of how the world can turn tipsy below our feet under the right—or wrong— circumstances. Can we afford to cater to leaders who are ignorant or dismissive of this history? Antonina Zabinski would most certainly shudder at the thought.