Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Girl and Her Dog: review of RAIN REIGN

"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.

A Novel of Hollywood's Old West: FALLING FROM HORSES

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

A Dog for the Ages—review of The Great Grisby

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

A Memoir of Awakening: a review of THE DOGS WERE RESCUED (AND SO WAS I)

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 (