Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review of HOLY COW, by David Duchovny

This first novel by actor David Duchovny is, as would be expected, outside of the box. It is a fable, narrated by Elsie Q., a milk cow on a small farm in upstate New York.
As the tale begins, Elsie discovers the brutal truth about what happens to cows on farms, possibly her farm too, and worse, what likely happened to her mother, who had simply disappeared one day.  She also learns that in India, her kind is worshiped, and live out their lives in comfort and safety. So obviously, she must go to India. What could be better than being worshiped as a holy being? Accompanying her on this excursion is Jerry (Shalom) the pig, who believes going to Israel will save his life, and Tom the turkey who has determined the country named after him would obviously not be serving turkey as food. This bizarre trio manage to secure passports and tickets and board a plane to the Middle East.
Okay, so suspension of disbelief is obviously indispensable here, but that’s really not the point. This book is hysterically funny, and also satirically wise. On the surface Holy Cow presents a sort of “follow your dream” message; but not far beneath it is a condemnation of human animals for their cruelty and abuse of two- as well as four-footed creatures, and a plea for resolution to the conflicts exploding in the Middle East:
“The Israelis built this giant wall to keep Palestinian Arabs out of the disputed lands they were claiming for themselves. It reminded me of the fences back on the farm that were meant to keep us animals in our place. There is something in man that loves a wall, but what wall menders and fence builders do not get is that when they fence something out, they are also fencing themselves in.”
All of that is wrapped up in a healthy dose of silliness that does not diminish the seriousness of Duchovny's message. The primitive drawings complement the romping tale perfectly.
The first half of the book is written in the style of a screenplay because Elsie is pushing for movie rights to her book. She points out product placement and contemporary cultural references that her editor tells her will broaden her audience. It’s clear Duchovny had loads of fun poking at the publishing and entertainment industries while spinning his yarn. It is also clear that Elsie is one helluva cow, holy or not.
For more cow books, see Ask the Cow, by Rita Reynolds, and My Gentle Barn, by Ellie Laks.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A True Lone Wolf: review of A WOLF CALLED ROMEO

Houghton-Mifflin, 2014; $26

The author of this extraordinary true story is a gifted wildlife photographer and nature writer living in Alaska. Nick Janis seeks to tell the story of the black wolf with accuracy, equanimity, and forthrightness. But his love for the wild creature who befriended his dogs and those of other residents of Juneau, and even forged relationships with some humans, is as deep as the Alaskan winter snow.
The story began one afternoon when Janis was skiing on the frozen Mendenhall Lake and spotted the unmistakable tracks of a wolf. In the ensuing days, he finally met the enormous lone male wolf, whom his wife later nicknamed Romeo, and began the now legendary years of interaction between the wild and the so-called civilized.
As Janis notes, and as anyone who cares about wildlife understands, wolves have had the short end of humanities’ stick for centuries, being blamed for destruction they have not caused, and feared for violence they would not commit. The malignancy of wolf hatred has not abated. Even a vice-presidential contender bragged of her support of aerial wolf hunting, and Alaska in particular has defended the rights of hunters to eradicate competing predators, i.e., wolves and bears. Biologists overall have concluded that such intrusion will not have the desired effect, but that doesn’t stop the bloodlust.
So why, in the midst of an anti-wolf world, did this enormous fellow decide he wanted to make friends with domestic dogs and even a human or two? The theories abound, as does the controversy. Romeo becomes a local celebrity, inspiring crowds of onlookers, some of whom have questionable common sense and others even more suspect intentions. Every autumn that Romeo returns to the glacier, Janis worries that it will be his last. With so much attention focused on him, there is bound to be someone out there itching to bring him down.
One silver lining in Romeo’s tale is the group of friends who come together over his welfare and do their best to protect him. The bond that forms among the humans and between the wolf and the community is almost metaphysical in its intensity. There truly does seem to be something supernatural at times about Romeo. Janis observes him even walking on water: “At last the wolf stepped forward—not into the water, but onto it—and as I watched, he trotted across the lake, each step raising a silver-white plume and the spreading vee of a wake to mark his passing. At the far side, the wolf paused, a shadow among shadows, and merged into the night.”  Of course, the wolf was actually walking on two feet of ice beneath water from a recent thaw. But the image is unforgettable.
Although little is understood about Romeo’s behavior, it is possible that a black wolf hit by a car, pregnant with four puppies, may have been his mate or his mother, leaving him alone. His urge to have his own pack perhaps inspired his friendships with the domestic dogs. Sex didn’t seem to enter into it, since he was friendly with neutered females and males alike. Small dogs did pose a problem, however; he seemed to view them as possible prey, and was accused of killing a beagle. (Evidence never did prove him to be the culprit, but in a wolf’s world, he is considered guilty unless proven otherwise, sometimes even if proven otherwise.)
Because Romeo was thoroughly wild, without any food conditioning or previous captivity to explain his friendliness, his behavior was astounding, and offered a unique opportunity to view the wild culture he inhabited. His curiosity, empathy, and yearning to connect opened that door. Fortunately, we have people like Janis around to keep the door ajar. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Brazilian Odyssey: review of BLOOD-DRENCHED BEARD, by Daniel Galera

In some ways a murder mystery, in others an exploration of immortality, and further, the story of a man and a dog, this novel by the gifted young Brazilian writer is above all richly evocative.
The hero, unnamed, but referred to at times as Swimmer, Tom Hanks, and Gauderio (after his grandfather, to whom he bears an exact likeness) goes on an odyssey with his father’s dog, in search of the truth of his grandfather’s death. He’s a triathlete and expert swimmer, who finds solace and restoration in the ocean, but also terror.
The novel begins with his father’s declaration of imminent suicide, and his dying wish that his little dog Beta be euthanized after his death. He doesn’t want her to suffer his absence. He also tells his son about the murder of his own father apparently at the hands of the villagers of Garopaba, a quiet and beautiful beach town on the Atlantic coast of Brazil. The group murder is reminiscent of Agatha Christie, and strikes our hero as possibly fictional, and totally irresistible.
His father makes good on his suicide decision, but his son refuses to have Beta put down, instead taking the elderly dog with him on his search for the truth about his grandfather.
Due to a rare condition of facial amnesia, he is unable to remember people’s features, which leads to awkward moments at best, and violent reactions at worst. He finds that the quiet little beach town is anything but, and that residents’ claim of peaceful existence actually hides a dark history. As he asks questions about his grandfather, he’s met first with startled silence, then suggestions that he not delve any deeper, and eventually with threats. And as summer retreats, the ocean grows colder and grayer.
The novel is written in a rhythm not unlike the waves that crash just outside the narrator’s door. The ocean is a Greek chorus to the narrator’s journey. There are long stretches of calm rumination that change to sudden explosions. Beta becomes a dolphin-like swimmer, gaining strength and life after an accident had nearly crippled her. At that time, the ocean offers salvation. But when the dog is in jeopardy, the storm-churned waters become rabid, and murderous.
 Although this isn’t a dog book, per se, the character of Beta is as important as any of the people, and in some ways, more so. Beta’s is one face the narrator seems to actually recognize, and his devotion to her is what leads to the title of the book: an unforgettable moment of explicit violence and dark humor.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Love, Loss and Family: review of THE GOOD LUCK CAT, by Lissa Warren

A cat’s devotion is hard won but unbreakable, as anyone who has ever loved a cat will attest. True, they demonstrate their loyalty differently from dogs, but it is loyalty all the same. Each of the ten felines I have shared my home with over the last fifty years has had his or her own way of fitting into my life, as if each were the missing puzzle piece I’d been searching for.
The good luck cat of the title of this lovely and heartfelt memoir is Ting-Pei, a Korat, which in Thai means “good luck.” She is brought into the Warren household by Lissa and her mom to give Lissa’s retired dad a companion, one who would entertain him while the women were away at work. Ting turned out to be the perfect fit, and Lissa’s father adored the little cat. In fact, all three became Ting’s ardent admirers, protectors, and defenders. Ting could do no wrong, even when she did.
But good luck didn’t hold out quite as long as hoped. Lissa’s father became ill with heart disease, and eventually succumbed, leaving three grieving souls behind: his daughter, his wife, and his cat.
When Ting herself developed a heart condition at age fourteen, Lissa and her mother were determined at all costs to heal her. It was as if losing Ting would have been akin to losing her father all over again. Surgery ensues, and then the endless battle to protect stitches from a cat’s relentless tongue. Mother and daughter even buy onesies for babies and try to wrap Ting up to protect the incision:
“As for me, I’m not unaware that I’ve become a thirty-six-year-old single woman who lives with her mom and dresses her cat in baby clothes. But I don’t care. I’ve shimmied far enough up Maslow’s hierarchy that it doesn’t much matter what others think about me. All I want is for Ting to be well…..”
As Ting improves and moves happily into older age, Lissa finds herself undergoing tests and fighting down fears as she feels something amiss in her own body. Illness is bearing down on her, but it will not quash her optimism, which seems to be the gift of her late father, and one she cherishes and honors.
Warren writes with unapologetic zest about cats in general and her cat in particular. Her family is atypical in many ways, and she’s quite aware of that. But the intensity of their devotion to each other is enviable and really, these days, maybe extraordinary.
The good luck Ting has brought to the Warrens may not always seem evident, but it is there, part of the little grey ball of fur, seeking out the swath of sunlight on the carpet, and purring as if life depended on it. And maybe it does.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review: GOOD OLD DOG: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy, and Comfortable

By the Faculty of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University
Edited by Nicholas Dodman, with Lawrence Lindner
Geriatric is the term used for anyone—human or otherwise—who has reached the 75th percentile of his or her expected lifespan. So, that would apply to me and to my athletic blonde Lab mix Katrina. I’m 57, she’s 10. But, as this book points out emphatically, being labeled geriatric doesn’t mean we’re doddering or frail.  It’s not a disease or a prognosis implying imminent death. (Anyone who has visited my Facebook page knows that Katrina is my intrepid companion on three- to five-mile jogs taken four or five times a week; that she joins me snowshoeing when weather demands it; and that she dances. Beautifully. Our Sophie is also 10 years old, but being a smaller dog is likely going to enjoy a longer lifespan. She, however, is more of a coach potato. Nellie the cat is 12 and on the outer edges of geriatric.)
In Katrina’s case, there are many ways to lengthen and enhance her life, and that of other older dogs, through wellness and preventive care. The faculty of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University provide anecdotal examples of treating geriatric canines, and also explain the most common issues dogs of a certain age must face.  They begin with nutrition—certainly one of the most confusing aspects of dog care. Do we switch our dogs from their regular food to a “senior” food? What are the differences, if any? Are there actual dangers involved with some of the new trends in feeding? (The answer is yes, unfortunately.)
The book then discusses the five most common medical issues, one of which is dental. Katrina has never had terribly good dental health. She’s gone for a thorough cleaning, under anesthesia, but it looks like this is something we’ll have to plan on doing annually. Sophie, on the other hand, has perfect teeth and gums. There’s no real rhyme or reason, just individual physiology. But poor dental health can kill an otherwise healthy dog. Daily brushing is now part of our regimen. Diabetes, laryngeal paralysis, Cushing’s syndrome, and urinary incontinence are the other most common problems seen in older dogs.
The three leading causes of death in an older dog are cancer, heart disease, and kidney disease. The book delves deeply into all three, providing signs to look for, options for treatment, and prognoses. Obviously, the doctors cannot stress enough how important it is to catch any illness early and not shy away from potentially bad news. These days, so many illnesses are treatable, and the resulting additional months of quality life for your dog are certainly worthwhile. Just keep in mind dog years, not human years, and sometimes the decision to pursue treatment will make more sense.
Of course, a huge issue with all animal caretakers is expense. The cost of care is a heartbreaking hurdle in some cases, particularly when the care concerns a fourteen-year-old dog, rather than a ten-month-old pup and a protocol that could run into the thousands for a few extra months of life. Money shouldn’t always be the deciding factor in treatment, but let’s face it, it often is.  Good Old Dog discusses the financial aspects candidly and offers several options to alleviate the dilemma. One is pet insurance, which I will definitely be investigating, since all three members of my “staff” here are geriatric. It’s a no-brainer that in the next three or four years, one or all will undergo some sort of medical crisis. If you are in the same position, why not plan for it, instead of hoping that your loved one will simply succumb in her sleep when the time arrives? You know that’s not likely.
In the back of this helpful book is a list of resources for dog caregivers. Unfortunately, this book was published over four years ago, but I found that many of the resources are still relevant. I would just like to see more updated information on new treatments and nutritional breakthroughs.  
No matter the age of your dog, this book will be relevant to you—if not now, down the road. Please consider all options as outlined here before simply giving up on your friend and assuming his life has lost its value because he is unable to get around or has accidents on the carpet. Euthanasia is a blessing for dogs who have lost all interest in life and are plagued by pain, but these days, medical advances in treatment may allow postponing the end. Alternative choices for treatment are gaining momentum, too, and should not be discounted. Whatever the age or issue, you owe it to your friend to consider all possibilities. This book will be invaluable to you in helping make those decisions.