Wednesday, December 10, 2014
"I am Rose Howard and my first name has a homonym." Rose is in the fifth grade with high-functioning autism, living in upstate New York with her somber, often inebriated father. Her mother is gone, although Rose does not know where or why. She assumes her mother left because of her.
Rose's obsession with homonyms and prime numbers gives her days the structure she craves, but being the only student with an aide, and the only person who cares about rules (and who calls people out who break them!) her life is lonely and confusing. She understands that she is different, but doesn't understand why that angers her father or makes other children snicker and avoid her.
As a narrator of this captivating book, however, Rose is perfect. Ann Martin has captured the voice of autism through her, and it's a beautiful voice. We share Rose’s confusion, and fear and cringe a bit at her sudden outbursts of prime numbers that seems to help calm her. When classmates smirk, and her aide takes her out in the hallway to settle down, Rose’s intense efforts at self-control are admirable.
The little blond dog with seven white toes enters Rose’s life when her father finds the collarless dog in the middle of a rainstorm. He brings her home to Rose. Wes has been at the local bar, as he usually is, and is late. Rose has already prepared and eaten dinner, and is working on her homonym list when her father yells at her to come out and help. He is holding a rope, and at the other end is a very wet dog.
"You can pet her," said my father. "That's what normal people do with dogs."
Rose is concerned that the dogs owners are searching for her, but her father insists, “If they didn’t care enough to get her a collar, they don’t deserve her.”
“Is she a gift?” I wanted to know
“Yes, she’s a gift, Rose. She’s my gift to you.”
My father had not given me many gifts.
Rose names the dog Rain because she was found in the rain and because rain has two homonyms (reign and rein). The first night, Rain sleeps with Rose in her bed, and does so every night from then on. When Superstorm Hurricane Susan bears down on the region of New York and causes devastating damage, Rose and Rain shiver in bed together, listening to the trees crack and fall and the wind howl like a freight train. As the storm gradually winds down, Rose falls asleep at last, but discovers when she awakens that Rain is gone. Her father has let the dog outside, without her collar, into the still stormy morning. She calls for her for days, and struggles to understand why such a thing would happen, why he would let her out. She asks him repeatedly, and each question elicits more frustration, until Wes seems close to exploding. With the help of her Uncle Weldon, the one person who seems not only to understand but truly love Rose, she develops a plan to search area shelters for her missing dog.
Rose’s search coincides with her father’s rapid decline. He’s already demonstrated his instability and violence, and her wariness around him is heartbreaking in its almost creature-like innocence. Rain had given Rose companionship as well as protection. Without her, Rose is vulnerable and frightened. She relies on her discovery of new homonyms or prime numbers deciphered from people’s names to give her signs of hope. One positive outcome is her classmates’ overwhelming compassion for her loss. Each has suffered a loss as well from the storm, and seem to no longer find Rose’s behavior odd or comical.
The last half of the book is a rush towards finding Rain, but of course, the discovery holds so much more, and we are carried along in Rose’s torrent of dismay mixed with determination. You will not put the book down, and you will need tissues nearby.
Although the intended audience for Rain Reign is young, the story is ageless, and will find a wider readership, as with Because of Winn-Dixie, and other middle-reader titles. Age should not define what makes a book good. And the growing literary explosion of autism benefits from the story of Rose and her little dog.
In Falling from Horses, Bud Frazer, a young cowboy, leaves his home in Oregon to travel to Hollywood, escaping his parents’ loss of their ranch, Echol Creek, and the death of his little sister. The year is 1938, and Los Angeles is already sprawled across the basin, choking with traffic and people.
On the seemingly endless bus ride from Oregon, Bud becomes friends with a young woman who has her sights set on becoming a writer for movies. Lily Shaw is outspoken, though diminutive in size, and fiercely ambitious. The fact that women in Hollywood are not much known for anything other than acting or secretarial work or worse, does not dissuade her. She and Bud form an unusual bond, based on their shared love of movies, that proves to be a lifeline in the coming months and years.
Like Lily, Bud wants to break into movie making, in his case, as a stunt rider in westerns. His determination overrides his growing disillusionment. Hollywood, he learns, is brutal—to horses, to men, to women. But he is just nineteen when he arrives and he works on his strut and swagger, even as he struggles to find a place to sleep and enough money to eat. When he does get his big break, his very soul seems to be swallowed up by the need to push the limits.
The falseness of the movies clashes with the harsh reality of life behind the scenes. Hollywood is the land of broken dreams and in Bud’s case, broken spirits. “The stars over Echol ranch were always at their brightest in December, the cold winter nights bringing them out crystal clear, but here a brown haze—nobody called it smog in those days—had been hanging over the Hollywood Hills and the whole Los Angeles valley for the past few weeks, and I couldn’t see a damn thing above me except the blurred disk of the moon.”
Bud narrates the novel, and his voice will stay with you long after it is finished. He is a thoughtful, self-educated man, with an artist’s soul and a bronco rider’s ego. His simmering anger over the death of his sister and his increasing need for proving himself on ever more dangerous “gags” leads to further wrecks and desolation. He recognizes the looming danger, but it’s hard to give up the dream, and as he looks back from the perspective of a middle-aged man, he wonders how he could have held onto that dream for so long. The smell of fear, stale booze, and horse sweat seem to hang over Hollywood like the blanket of smog over LA.
Molly Gloss is a formidable writer. Her previous books, The Hearts of Horses, and The Jump-off Creek, cemented her reputation as a novelist. Falling from Horses will certainly become her next bestseller, and deservedly so.
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
The author of this quirky, funny, scholarly romp of a book came to dog ownership relatively late in her life (forties), and found her usual cynical, depressive nature to be altered by her French bulldog’s zesty love of life. By wondering if she loved this dog too much, she did what scholars do: she dove into researching the dog/human partnership throughout history and literature.
Arranged alphabetically by dog name, this is almost an encyclopedia of dog characters, chockfull of wonderful trivia and little-known tidbits. Each chapter brings us back around to the author’s own wonderful Grisby, skillfully fitting his little chubby body into the grand picture.
In the chapter on Lump, a dachshund owned by photojournalist David Douglas Duncan, we learn that the dog became enamored of Duncan’s friend Pablo Picasso, who, as Duncan noted, tended to “borrow” animals from friends much the same way he “borrowed” women. Lump jumped ship, so to speak, and for six years was a steadfast companion to the artist. But the chapter on Lump gradually morphs into the story of other famous dachshunds, and then into the connection between artists and dogs of all kinds. Here, Brottman leads us into a digression about dogs on university campuses, and thus back to her beloved Grisby. Her decision to live in Baltimore and teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art was based, in part, on the fact that Grisby was allowed to join her in her classroom. “I may not be a painter,” she says, “but like Picasso and Pierre Bonnard, I need a dog to hand at all times—and in my case, only Grisby will do.”
One of the most remarkable chapters concerned Robber, Richard Wagner’s Newfoundland whose loyalty was particularly amazing considering the absolute hell he had to endure as the Wagner “pet.” Due to financial instability, Richard and his wife Minna had to go on the lam, escaping first to Prussia, and then setting sail to London. To get to the coast, they had to travel by carriage, but Robber was too large to fit and spent most of the journey running alongside in blazing heat. Once at sea, Richard, Minna and Robber had to stay concealed belowdecks and all three suffered from horrendous seasickness. By the time they reached Paris, poor Robber had apparently had enough of the discomforts of travel, and fled. His loyalty had definitely reached its limits.
The chapter on Robber then dives into musical portraits of dogs or music inspired by dogs throughout history, and then smoothly transitions to Grisby sitting on the pedals of the author’s piano as she practices, and what this position represents in the hierarchy of dog/human relationships.
There was not one chapter that didn’t leave me smiling, laughing, or gasping in amazement. This book not only serves as a brief history of human culture (with dog), but as a tribute to one particularly inspiring bulldog. “I have to confess,” she writes, “I’m not a ‘dog person’ (whatever that means); I’m a Grisby person…. If Grisby and I meet another bulldog or bull terrier at the park or on the street, we’ll always stop for a moment… I’ll chat with the other dog’s owner, asking about the animal’s weight, age, and disposition. We’ll smile, nod, and pretend to admire, then walk away, both complacent, no doubt, in the knowledge that our own dog is unquestionably superior.”
Monday, December 1, 2014
Ignorance really can be blissful.
For people who care about animals, not knowing about laboratory testing or how their meat or milk is produced is easier than knowing and doing nothing. I for one can’t claim ignorance. As a child, I knew all about beagles in labs. My father was active with The Fund for Animals at the time and I helped pass out brochures that displayed photos of beagles hooked to cigarette machines that forced them to smoke the equivalent of several packs a day. I would be speechless with anger and sorrow as I read the descriptions, but I was just a kid and didn’t know what to do with that anger. These days, thanks to the Internet, I’ve been able to easily swap out household products with cruelty-free substitutes. But still, the experiments and superfluous testing goes on. It’s a matter of money, as most things are, and that’s a fight that may never be won.
As a teenager, I read The Ordeal of the Animals, and learned about the horrors of slaughterhouses and the advent of factory farms. Again I felt fury, but I believed that nothing I did would make a difference.
Recently, in my efforts to offer books that delve deeper into issues of animal welfare, I’ve again felt that gut-gnawing anger. The images stick in my mind and keep me awake; the utter stupidity and greed that drive people and governments (and the military) to such rampant annihilation of wildlife, maltreatment of domestic animals, and destruction of natural resources are unbearable at times. But in reading these books and sharing them with others, I feel I am helping in some small way to educate and enlighten, and eventually maybe put a dent in the machine of injustice.
When I picked up THE DOGS WERE RESCUED (And So Was I), the second memoir by Teresa Rhynes, author of THE DOG LIVED (And So Did I), I thought perhaps it would be a nice break from some of the heartbreaking books I had just finished. Instead, Rhynes writes of discovering the true nature of meat and dairy production in this country, and then about the cruel use of animals—especially beagles—in laboratories for testing of products. She confesses ignorance to all of these atrocities, and then once she knows, she can’t turn off the images. They rob her of sleep and peace of mind, and she becomes somewhat (by her own admission) unhinged. Her plant-based diet was originally chosen to combat the possible return of cancer, but then as her immersion in animal rights films and books continues, she can no longer tolerate eating an animal who has been tortured and slaughtered.
But changing her diet and tossing out household items that do not have the leaping bunny logo does not bring her consolation. She becomes almost frantic with guilt, remorse, and finally the fierce evangelism of the newly enlightened. Gradually, with a lot of help from her beagle family and her human companion, she reaches a place of peace.
Ryhnes quotes Mother Teresa: “We can do no great things, only small things—and with love.” Ultimately, we are not going to completely shut down factory farming or laboratory testing on animals, but by using our powers as intelligent, educated consumers, we can make a difference, even if it’s relatively a drop in the bucket. Every animal saved from torture is a victory. And for Teresa Rhynes, ever beagle rescued is cause for celebration.
One of the best parts of this compelling memoir is the list of what’s in her cupboards—a great selection of resources, books, films, etc., to help animal lovers make ethical choices in their lives.
For more information about rescuing beagles from labs, visit the Beagle Freedom Project (www.beaglefreedomproject.org)
Saturday, November 22, 2014
(Reviewed by Sophie)
I admit some anxiety when I was first shown Libby’s newest book, I Like Sticks. Just the word stick causes me to salivate and tremble with anticipation. I consider myself a stick connoisseur of sorts, picking out the perfect stick for the occasion; whether or not said stick is still attached to the tree, or so long that I whack my human’s legs as I race by, I know my sticks. So how could this strange-looking little dog write an entire book about sticks? I could do that. I could.
But since I didn’t and Libby did, I must admit that I Like Sticks is an inspiring book for sticklers like me. Libby does not discriminate in her choice of stick. Size matters not. And for her, sharing a stick is sublime fun. I prefer to keep my sticks to myself, but to each her own.
My favorite picture in this book is Libby sitting on the remains of a tree. She writes: “Can you guess how many sticks this tree produced? I can’t. I’m stumped.” I am too. I hadn’t realized that sticks came from stumps until reading this book. So Libby taught me something I didn’t know, and there’s not much I don’t know. Especially when it comes to sticks. Just saying.
If you like sticks, you’ll love this book. If you like dogs, you’ll love this book. But if you are a cat or prefer balls, you might as well go buy another book. (My cat Nellie cares nothing for sticks. Maybe she’d read a book about sleeping, because that is what she likes.)
Monday, November 3, 2014
Half way through her memoir SAVING BABY (co-written with Lawrence Lindner), Jo Anne Normile hits her tipping point when she recognizes the extent of the slaughter pipeline at the racetrack where her beloved horse Baby competed. Her anger and helplessness become nearly unbearable. It is that tipping point which leads her to work harder on behalf of the Thoroughbreds, and culminates in the creation of two huge rescue organizations. She is not tireless, but she does not give up. Her health and family are compromised by her devotion, but her determination is steadfast.
Being a witness to abuse and feeling helpless to stop it is torture. Jo Anne Normile does not actually witness any crime, since it is not a crime to send a horse to slaughter, even if the horse is only two-years old and basically sound. If the trainer can’t win with the horse, off he goes. Nor are some of the other myriad abuses she sees considered criminal. It’s the way the unregulated racing industry works: the horses are simply commodities, not pets, and are often not even considered to be living, breathing, loving creatures.
Baby, whose registered name was Reel Surprise, is born at the Normile’s barn as a favor to the owner who was recovering from a heart attack. In return, once the mare, Precocious Pat, was ready, Normile could breed her to Secretariat’s son, and keep that foal, fulfilling her bucket list-type wish to have a grandchild of Secretariat on her farm. But Pat’s owner’s health does not improve, and he asks that Baby stay with the Normile family, with one condition: they must race him.
Thus began Jo Anne’s entry into the strange, exciting, and ultimately disheartening world of Thoroughbred horse racing. The incidents of mistreatment she witnesses are hard enough to take, but she believes she must keep her mind on her own horse and not get in the middle of racetrack politics and questionable practices.
Fortunately for the race horses, that reticence ends, but only as a result of tragedy. Jo Anne is compelled to fight to save as many horses as possible in Baby’s name.
SAVING BABY is a much needed eye-opener about the realities of Thoroughbred racing and about being complicit in what can only be described as barbaric mistreatment of animals. And it will perhaps remind us all that standing by and minding our own business is not an option. Rescue work takes a huge toll on Normile’s health, family life, and finances. Still, she perseveres.
In THE RESCUE AT DEAD DOG BEACH, Stephan McGarva reaches his tipping point as he witnesses an act of such barbarity he can no longer contain the anger that has been periodically welling up within him.
His story begins when his wife receives a job offer in Puerto Rico. The couple had grown a bit weary of small town Rhode Island life, and jumped at this new adventure. McGarva, an extreme sports athlete and artist, had been feeling lonely since his dog Achate had died, and the small Rhode Island town just didn’t offer the kind of energy he was craving.
But his first outing in Puerto Rico, at Playa Lucia, to go kite surfing takes a horrible turn. Instead of finding a secluded, pristine beach, he is met with the sight of dogs (and one horse) who had been brutalized and left dead or near death along the sands and the perimeter of the jungle. He abandons his surfing plans that day, and instead begins what will become a soul-crushing routine of daily caring for the barely living dogs and burying the dead. Just as Jo Anne Normile fought for the horses as a tribute to Baby, Steve McGarva feels he owes it to Achate’s legend to help the unfortunate animals on the beach. His work gives him purpose, but it also overtakes his life. His marriage suffers, as does his health. But he forges ahead, unwilling to give up.
Within weeks, his pack grows to several dozen, and he finds a few compatriots who also try to ease the suffering of the satos or wild dogs. The dogs are not wild, but abandoned, abused, neglected. Why is a question no one seems to be able to answer, although in some cases, the poor economy where people are simply unable to afford the care of a pet, is to blame. Most of the dogs wear collars, often embedded into their flesh, and all long for affection as much as food and water.
As a consequence of caring for the pack, Stephen McGarva finds himself to be the target of violence. There are plenty of people, he’s told, who think nothing of murdering a stray dog or a stray American, and he is repeatedly cautioned to watch his back. The threats grow in intensity. “I never would have imagined,” he writes, “that animal rescue would become the most extreme sport of my life.” Sporting a machete for protection, he enters a battle that seems unwinnable.
This is not an easy story to read; the horrors he recounts will make animal lovers bristle with anger. But it needs to be told and to be read. What McGarva has accomplished is nothing short of miraculous. His courage and his determination are to be emulated. The emotional toll the experience took on him almost did him in, as with Normile, but like her, he found the inner strength to keep going. And for the satos of Playa Lucia and elsewhere in Puerto Rico, it’s a good thing he did.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
All of us, animals and humans alike, carry some baggage from earlier days, either in the form of trauma and abuse, or just simple regret. Some carry a freight-train amount; others just a fanny pack. What Simon the donkey carried was almost beyond comprehension. He started life with a good family of humans and horses and one other donkey. He grew up as a companion to a young boy who loved him. But the recession hit their farm hard and Simon’s owners were forced to sell off their family of animals.
Where Simon ended up was a living hell, and he sank into the muck of the poverty and neglect until he was barely alive. The farmer who allowed his slow suffering was so deep into his own depression he couldn’t bear to check to see if the donkey was still breathing. He had shut down, becoming almost soulless.
Fortunately, not everyone is willing to turn away from those in need. Simon was rescued, and found a new life with Jon Katz and his menagerie. But his rescue and recovery are just the tip of this book’s message. It is really about compassion—What is it? Who practices it? And who deserves it?
Mr. Katz is a bestselling author and a photographer, whose written and visual portraits of Bedlam Farm are widely known and admired. His blog is read by thousands, and is an example of how different the relationship is now between authors and their readers. He does not shy away from difficult topics, and is honest about his own participation in the “tooth and claw” aspect of the animal world.
There are contradictions in Mr. Katz’s premise and actions, but he also acknowledges his own stumbling journey as he ponders his reactions to animals in need against the kneejerk response of condemnation for animal abusers. Why are we not compassionate for the people who have obviously fallen so low as to treat their animals or children with such utter cruelty? he asks.
The question should be asked. When an animal is abused, the anger against the abuser is strong and righteous. Mr. Katz suggests that perhaps we need to step back and consider who is really in need of compassion. A little bit does go a long way, and could, in fact, prevent the kinds of situations Simon was in. Compassion for a loving, gentle donkey is easy; compassion for the hardened, despairing farmer is not. Both are badly needed. When Simon displayed his natural but less than adorable aggression toward an aged blind pony, the author’s outrage nearly usurped his love for the donkey:
“Ever since I adopted Simon, a rosy glow had surrounded my notions of animals. Rebirth and resurrection are powerful ideas, and I think animals make it possible to experience both time after time. And, of course, I was a hero. Everywhere I went, people thanked me for saving Simon, for taking him in, for giving the story of his rescue such a happy ending. And among animal people, happy endings are precious….
“But one thing more powerful than our love of animals is our love of self….”
He recognizes that Simon’s actions were completely predictable and understandable, and yet neither predicted nor understood. He swallowed his anger and apologized to the donkey: “How quickly my own convictions about mercy and compassion had collapsed in a fury because Simon had behaved like a donkey instead of a human being, instead of me.”
The other animals who benefit from Bedlam Farms also arrive with their own particular baggage. But Simon is the leader, both physically and psychically, at the farm. It is from him that the author ultimately defines compassion, and admits to and takes ownership of his own heavy burdens.
Friday, October 10, 2014
My father, Irving Townsend, wrote in the essay “A Continuity of Collies,” (Separate Lifetimes):
“Shakespeare divided a man’s life into seven parts, perhaps because he never owned a dog. My life, measured by the lives of collies, is better divided by five…. Two months ago the fourth part of my life came to an end with the loss of my thirteen-year-old companion…. I found a new collie to accompany me through the fifth part of my life, and although so far it is an uneven match, we will adjust, he and I.”
I suspect my father would have loved A Dog’s Purpose, and The Art of Racing in the Rain, although he may not have accepted the belief that a dog’s reason for being is to benefit humans. It’s hard to argue against such a concept, however, when I look into those muddy pools of trust, adoration, and expectancy in my dogs’ eyes. They do seem to believe that I am the center of their universe. Well, usually. A squirrel, treat, or the UPS truck will often trump that position.
In A Dog’s Purpose, Toby, a puppy in a family of feral dogs, tries to determine his place in the puzzling world around him. His mother chooses to remain wild, but he finds some possibility of comfort, of love even, with the rescuers who take him and his siblings in. But, comfort and love are not in the cards for Toby. It is in his next incarnation that both become central through his boy, Ethan. And caring for Ethan—protecting him, comforting him, loving him—is his purpose.
Or is it?
And that’s the question he continues to worry like a chew toy as he goes from old age to puppyhood again and again.
Aside from the appealing philosophy of the book, the storytelling is pure pleasure. W. Bruce Cameron knows how to keep the pace and rhythm of the story at a fine doggy trot, making this a hard book to put down. And it is a completely ageless tale, easily picked up by youngsters, who will glean their own understanding of the dog universe from it, and adults who have—like my father had—gone through several lifetimes of dogs, and long to believe each sad ending leads to a happy beginning.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
“Gestures are all I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature.” Having too large a tongue to speak as a human, and lacking thumbs, Enzo feels the unique pain of being aware of his shortcomings, as well as his potential.
Because, of course, Enzo is a dog, but he is a dog on his last round of life as a canine, and believes—or rather, knows for a fact—that his next life will be as a human. His observance of life around him, therefore, is particularly intense. He wants badly to understand human nature. As he studies the broad spectrum of interactions, he is in the position of an overseer: He recognizes evil, or at least, inequity, before his person, Denny, does. He smells the disease and the doom coming, and he does his best, through gestures, to warn or advise those he loves. When his gestures are misunderstood and misinterpreted, he suffers intense frustration, but continues to forge on.
It’s this premise of journeying from the animal world to the human that makes this novel so wonderful. As Enzo learns the intricacies of car racing from Denny, he longs to understand the art of living a good life, or being a good person. At times his animal nature intervenes, and he struggles to control it. What he doesn’t always recognize is that his nature is arguably more humane than human nature.
As he watches the mistreatment of his human family, he struggles to understand why people abuse one another. And he questions Denny’s reluctance to fight back. Enzo has no problem growling at the perpetrators of their troubles. Why won’t Denny growl as well? The reasons are complex, but he does gradually understand that perhaps people are not just good and bad, just as dogs are neither one nor the other. And that life is very much in our hands to screw up or enhance:
In racing, they say that your car goes where your eyes go. The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.
Your car goes where your eyes go. Simply another way of saying that which you manifest is before you.
I know it’s true; racing doesn’t lie.
There’s no spoiler in saying that Enzo is nearing the end of his life; he speaks of it in the first chapter. His anticipation of this transition and his certainty of the next stage are contagious, giving his reader more hope than sorrow. I found this to be an incredibly optimistic book, while at the same time, a solid warning to all of us to beware of spinning out of control.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
The right for dogs to have a place to romp in an urban setting is hotly contended. There are those who believe that unleashed dogs present a safety as well as a hygiene threat. Countering that are those who believe dogs deserve some semblance of freedom, even in the midst of city dwelling. Both sides are passionate and not a little unbalanced at times.
Matthew Gilbert entered the leashless world of dog parks with a new puppy, Toby, a new husband, Tom, and soon a new perception of society. He was introverted, preferring his time spent alone writing television reviews for the Boston Globe to actual contact with fellow creatures, human or otherwise. But Toby (and Tom) opened a door for him that eventually led to an appreciation and compassion for others.
In his memoir about Toby’s first year playing at Amory dog park in Boston, Mr. Gilbert laughs at his own initial discomfort: frantically searching for hand sanitizer after bagging Toby’s droppings; avoiding people who seemed too eager to bring him into their weird fold. He felt they were aliens with whom he was forced to mingle for the sake of his puppy, and to appease Tom. But gradually his love for Toby grew, and so did his understanding of these crazy dog people around him. He developed deep friendships, both with humans and dogs. He let himself off his own leash.
Toby and Matthew still visit the dog park, and I hope we will have a sequel someday to OFF THE LEASH, bringing us up to date with the latest happenings at Amory Park. It’s refreshing to read about an awakening that doesn’t involve tragedy or trauma. Matthew Gilbert and Toby have become ambassadors of sorts. We could use more of their kind.