Thursday, July 22, 2010

It's All About the Dog Books

If you talk to me for at least 5 minutes, it is a fairly good bet that I have probably worked dogs into the conversation somehow.  I am always willing to share stories about my dog rescue adventures or regale you about the antics of one of our own literary named dogs:  Harry Potter, the Maltipoo banshee; Elizabeth Bennet, aka Lizzie the Psycho Dingo; Charlie Weasley, a Lhaso mix with OTD (obsessive toy disorder); Talia, our beautiful red and very loud Finnish Spitz, whose namesake is the heroine of Mercedes Lackey's Herald of Valdemar series; and Sheldon the frog eating Shih Tzu, who may have developed a complex because his name is not truly "literary" - my husband named him after his favorite TV character.  There are so many great books about dogs.  Incredible picture books, touching fiction for young people, and really wonderful books for us adult dog lovers.  I want to share some of my recent and cherished favorites with you. 


In one of my pre-library life incarnations, I was a student of animal behavior and I still really enjoy books that attempt to explain the mysterious workings of the animal mind.  I am always on a quest to find any information that will shed light on all those quirky things that the dogs in my life do.  Even though I am  "science geeky" all of these books are written for a nonscientific audience, and they are well written.  Both The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connections between Humans and Dogs, by Jon Franklin and The Modern Dog: A Joyful Exploration of How We Live with Dogs Today, by Stanley Coren explore the evolution of interactions  between dogs and humans since dogs became fully domesticated and humans began settled farming approximately 12,000-10,000 years ago.  Among the topics these books explore are how dog and human behavior have shaped and been shaped by each other - I find these books fascinating. 


Alexandra Horowitz has also written a wonderful and highly accessible book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs Think and Know, that has helped me find some of those answers.  It is a fascinating and conversational exploration of why dogs do what they do, see what they see, etc. from their point of view.  This book has great insight into how dogs see and react to the world and while reading it I would look at my dogs in fascination and I swear they were saying, "Well, duh - we have been telling you that for years!"  

Horowitz also discusses how we humans have become rampant consumers of almost anything that will make their dog's life better, perfect, more complete, etc. , at least according to those who are trying to sell us something for our pets.  Michael Shaffer's book, One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Food, explores this topic in greater depth and in a larger cultural context.  You won't look at that $20 toy at PetCo the same way again.  

One of my absolute favorite works of  dogcentric fiction is Sight Hound, by Pam Houston.  The book is told from various canine and human perspectives  but the most striking voice is that of Dante, the Irish Wolfhound that the story revolves around.  Houston wrote a marvelous chapter that absolutely devastated me, it reduced me to a sobbing puddle of tears in the middle of a restaurant. The chapter describes the feelings of utter despair and helplessness that Rae, Dante's human, feels as she waits for news of his fate.  This chapter captures, exactly  and perfectly, how I have felt as I also waited in a similar cold and barren veterinary ER at 3:12 am.  

I felt like Houston was describing my exact experiences of sitting on those uncomfortable  wooden benches.  I always feel like I am hunched over in the emotional  and physical agony as I wait to hear if my beloved pet would live or die even while I am still shaking from the adrenaline of flying at high speeds along the dark highway rushing to get Sadie, Max, or Rilla to the ER before it was too late.  Houston is a master at describing emotions so vividly that I can actually feel and almost see them.   On a lighter dog fiction note, I love the works of Rita Mae Brown, whose Mrs. Murphy mysteries feature the intrepid crime solving Corgi Tee Tucker; the books of former Late Night comedy writer Merrill Markoe; the wit and wisdom of Enzo from Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain; and the dry wit of Chet, the canine half of the mystery solving team in Spencer Quinn's books.   I can't forget about the frothy fun of Dogs and Goddesses, by Jennifer Crusie et al.  just pure good fun!
Nick Trout, a Boston veterinarian, has written two very appealing books, Tell Me Where It Hurts and Love is the Best Medicine.  Both books chronicle his observations about the strong emotional bond between dogs and their humans and allow the readers fascinating glimpses into Trout's work as a 21st century veterinarian. Even with all the technology, vets are still limited   If you know any animal loving teens, especially any aspiring vets, give them these two books to read. Actually, these books are great for pet loving readers of any age.


In the past year, several books have been published that tell the heartbreaking  stories of dogs rescued from horrific situations.  Two of these books, A Rare Breed of Love:  The True Story of Baby and the Mission She Inspired to Help Dogs Everywhere, by Jana Kohl and Saving Gracie: How One Dog Escaped the Shadowy World of American Puppy Mills, by Carol Bradley, are particularly timely as they focus on the horrors of puppy mills.  I have fostered dogs rescued from puppy mills.  I once had two small little Maltese foster boys, 5 and 7 lbs respectively, that did not know how to sleep lying down because they had spent their whole life in a crowded and filthy cage that had no place or room to lie down.  

These books, while sad, have uplifting and happy endings.  Saving Cinnamon:  The Amazing True Story of  a Missing Military Puppy and the Desperate Mission to Bring Her Home, by Christine Sullivan also has a happy ending and because of Cinnamon and other dogs like her, the successful rescue Operation Baghdad Pups was created.  Grab your tissues when you read these books but I urge you to read them!  The books are even better when you curl up to read them with your favorite fuzzy four-legged friend.  

 Happy Reading!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Summer Means Series Sequels

Ah, summer in Texas!  Those few short months between February and November are the perfect time to seek out a cool place read the newest entries in your long running favorite series and to find some great new, although somewhat lesser known, ones to enjoy.   

Each summer, Janet Evanovich publishes another chapter in the continuing adventures of Stephanie Plum, Joe, Ranger, Lulu, Grandma Mazur, Rex the Hamster, and all the rest of the gang in Trenton, New Jersey.  This year's entry is Sizzling Sixteen and while Evanovich says she will always write about Stephanie and her cohort, it is the last "numbered" book that she is under contract for, at the moment.  If you are a Evanovich fan, try one of these series -all of them have new installments:  the Riley Spartz series by Julie Kramer; the Izzy Spellman Mysteries by Lisa Lutz; and the Odelia Gray Mysteries by Sue Ann Jaffarian.

Thanks to Eric Van Lustbader, Jason Bourne continues his mysterious and dangerous existence in the latest installment of the Robert Ludlum originated series, The Bourne Objective.  If you like international intrigue  a la Bourne, may I suggest that you explore the two books in the Milo Weaver series by Olen Steinhauer, The Tourist (soon to be a movie with Johnny Depp) and The Nearest Exit.  Alan Furst also has another World War II spy thriller, The Spies of the Balkans, a fine follow-up to The Spies of Warsaw.  While the Magdalene Line series (The Expected One, The Book of Love, and The Poet Prince) by Kathleen McGown is not technically a spy series, as it is very similar to Dan Brown's Robert Langdon books, it is full of enough conspiracy, adventure, and over-the-top intrigue to make it a perfect summer read for any Ludlum/Van Lustbader fan. 

Looking for something a bit more romantic?  Nora Roberts has just published the third book in her Bride Quartet series, Savor the Moment, and Mary Balogh recently concluded her Huxtable Quintet series with the publication of A Secret Affair, another delightful romp through Regency England.  For all you vampire romance fans, the prolific Meg Cabot has published the first book, Insatiable, in a new series.  She describes this book as a "modern sequel to Dracula" although it is has a rather unconventional, at least as far as most Dracula related books I've seen, setting:  the set of a soap opera which just happens to be populated with all manner of supernatural denizens. It maybe an odd juxtaposition but  what a fun piece of "mind candy".  A sequel is expected early next summer. 
Two of my favorite Jennifer Crusie titles, Tell Me Lies and Crazy for You, have just been released in an easier to read trade paperback format.  Okay, they are not parts of a new series but I just love her books and I always take any opportunity to urge people to read them!

There are also some wonderful new books in both new and established mystery series.  Donna Leon (the Guido Brunetti series), Elizabeth Lowell (St. Kilda series), and Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley series) all have new entries in their long running series, respectively: A Question of Belief; Death Echo; and This Body of Death.  Two very well-received and award winning series, which published their first entries last year, have just published their second volumes.  Pray for Silence is the new book in Linda Castillo's intriguing and unusual Kate Burkholder series. Stefanie Pintoff has  also created a wonderfully flawed, haunted, and tortured all-too-human hero in her historical Simon Ziele series and A Curtain Falls is just as riveting as the first book In the Shadow of Gotham.  

Enjoy the next book in an old favorite, or discover a new series that draws you in and leaves you wanting more and hopefully that more will continue in the next installment! So, get series-ous with your reading this week (sorry, couldn't resist the horrifically bad pun).

Happy Reading,

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Happy 50th Birthday "To Kill a Mockingbird"

This week, my blog entry is not about some new books or authors I would like to introduce you to but it is some personal thoughts about one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird, which will "turn" 50 this coming Sunday. 

On July 11, 1960 Harper Lee published her only novel.  To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate bestseller and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. It was made into a movie, which I also love, in 1962, garnering Gregory Peck an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. However, it did not win Best Movie that year, something I'll never understand. While I love the grandeur and epic of Lawrence of Arabia, not to mention the young and gorgeous Peter O'Toole, To Kill a Mockingbird is a much better movie in my opinion and I think that Horton Foote's screenplay adaptation is one of the best translations of a book into a movie ever done.

I love this book and it had profound and lasting effect on me as a young person as it did many people.  Heck, it is even Oprah's favorite book.  To Kill a Mockingbird is on every list of best/favorite books that I have ever seen and Library Journal named it as the most influential work of fiction in the 20th Century. It is also famous (or notorious) for being one of the most challenged books of all times. I think that so many people love this book because it is so accessible - it's delightfully easy to read- and it contains humor. Unfortunately, humor is rare in the "great works" of literature - I think that William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, et al. would have vastly improved their work with just a little levity (as an aside, I love this quote by Nora Joyce to her husband James:  “Why don’t you write books people can read?"-she agrees with me!).  You can hardly beat the laugh-out-loud quality of the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird where the kids were aiming at Ms. Maudie with a BB gun as she bent over in the garden. I can just picture it so clearly...

I think another large part of its appeal is that at its heart, To Kill a Mockingbird is a bildungsroman, a fancy schmancy literary word for a coming-of-age novel. Everyone can relate to the painful process of growing up, seeing a sibling leaving you behind, and finding out that a parent is fallible. I related to this book on many other personal levels, I saw Scout as a kindred spirit (to steal a term of another of my favorite literary heroines, Anne Shirley) who had so many things in common with me. Scout and I both were from small southern, bigoted, and rural farming towns; had a parent who died when we were young; were both tomboys with BB guns; did not fit in at school; were voracious readers (I suspected and believed she was at any rate); and she had lots of women (Calpurnia, Miss Maudie, and Miss Rachel) to help her figure out the world in her mother's absence, I had men in my life (favorite and my Grandpa Miller-who also strongly reminded me of Atticus) to help fill the void left by my father's death.

Yes, To Kill a Mockingbird, covers deeper and more important issues of racism, prejudice, justice, and how difficult and lonely it can be when you do the right thing even when it is unpopular and against the majority but for me its lasting appeal is the personal resonance and connection I feel.   As I got older and reread the book, which I think I read for the first time during the summer between my 5th and 6th grades because my Uncle Mike let me read his books-we had no public library, I got different things from it.  As I matured and built up my own store of life experience,  I related to Scout's dawning realization and education about how cruel and unfair the real world can be at times with no logic or reason.  Scout, like all of us had to (or at least on our good days) experience moving from the childhood bubble of protection and fantasy, those wonderful years of magical thinking,  before we are forced into the  stark world of adult realism. Every year when I reread this book, I find something new in it.  It is like visiting an old friend who you haven't seen in such a long time.  You get to rediscover just how wonderful that she is all over again.

Nell Harper Lee, who is still alive and a famous recluse, has been the subject of much interest and speculation since she withdrew, with a few notable exceptions, from the public eye in 1965. There was a recent biography of her, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles Shields, and it is an interesting and very enjoyable read in terms of many of the details about the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird but it does not shed a strong light on Harper Lee herself.   It covers the last 40 or so years, 1965 on, in just a few pages and you could find that  information on  Wikipedia. I did enjoy it though beause it did flesh out and shine a light on a few more aspects of the autobiographical aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Last of all, in a July 2006 "letter to the editor" to O Magazine, Lee once again gave voice to her strong beliefs in the importance of reading, books, and libraries.  It makes me love her more for singling out libraries during  a period where they are seen as obsolete and as luxuries.  Let me share the my favorite part of that letter: "Now 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something I remember it." Amen, Harper Lee.

So, next Sunday I am going to curl up with To Kill a Mockingbird and reread a book I still love and appreciate, as it only gets better with age (or as I age?).  Once a year, I get the  chance to visit my much younger self  and to remember that feeling of absolute exhilaration when I discovered a book and characters that absolutely transported me and took me completely into their world.  I am also thankful that the long ago me had books such as this growing up but to escape to so that I could  begin to imagine a much wider world than my small and limited one inside a couple of counties in Southern Illinois.   Have you ever had that feeling after you read that all things are possible?

Happy Reading and Happy Birthday Scout, Jem, Atticus, Calpurnia, Dill, Boo Radley, Miss Maudie....