Sep 14, 2014

My Ántonia

by Willa Cather

This is the story of an immigrant family adjusting to life on the Nebraska prairie during the early 1900's. It's about one girl in particular, the oldest child of a Bohemian family. Told by their neighbor Jim, it details the family's early struggles and how things changed throughout the community as they grew into adulthood. The hard work on the farm, living with deprivation, struggling to learn new ways in a new country, missing the old land. I found the personalities of Ántonia's parents intriguing- one caustic and demanding of respect, the other gentle and longing for home. Jim describes Ántonia as a strong, curious, determined girl who worked hard. Later she moves into town to work in a rich family's home, but retains her love for the countryside. I won't tell you all what happens, but I did admire Ántonia, how she held staunch to her morals, how she made the best of a bad situation, how she was beloved by her children and esteemed by her close friends in the end. It was interesting to see the portrait Cather builds of a frontier town, and how the fortune of several characters didn't turn out as you might expect.

But in spite of all that, it was a book I just couldn't get into. Partly because I have been preoccupied of late, but also because the story felt distanced to me. Jim the narrator never really tells much about himself, he seems to be a bystander without much personality. And the story of Ántonia is told in a rather dry fashion- events reported, things described, but without much emotion (at least, it didn't come through to me). It's more the story of a town and of the wide landscapes, and I wasn't quite in the mood for that. In fact, the entire thing came across to me as a grown-up version of a Little House on the Prairie story. Which is not at all meant to be insulting- Wilder's books are very good!

This is one of those books I'd always meant to read, and it's a classic, so I feel kind of bad not appreciating it more. As if I'm missing something. I've heard it's one of her best novels so now I have misgivings to try any more Cather, which disappoints me as well. Maybe later down the road...

Rating: 3/5        290 pages, 1918

more opinions:
A Literary Odyssey
Book Snob
Reviews and Responses

Sep 6, 2014

The Second Chance Dog

by Jon Katz

This book surprised me a little. Yes, it's another one about the dogs on Bedlam Farm. This one focuses on a particular dog named Frieda, who belonged to a woman that became Katz' wife. It's a love story, a story of patience and acceptance and learning to remake one's life. Katz knew Maria for several years as a fellow artist and friend, before they both became divorced and he dared express his interest in her. They gradually explored their relationship and Katz knew he wanted to be closer to Maria, to spend the rest of his life with her. But her dog stood in the way. Frieda was fiercely protective of Maria and didn't want to let anyone near her, especially men. Katz worked tireless hours, patiently earning the dog's trust, teaching it some discipline, learning about its background and why Frieda was so fierce. Eventually things worked out, but it took him an entire year. He doesn't have exactly conventional views (at least, in modern circles) on dog training, so this was an interesting read in that regard.

I noted his observations on how casually many people take dogs into their lives, without spending the money or research on them. Amused by an incident where his dog Izzy helped break up a riot (a violent food-fight really) at a nursing home among alzheimer's patients. Insightful his description of helping Maria navigate the world of the internet, and how she responded to putting her artwork out for the world to see. Startling and clear, how he found inspiration from the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Sullivan, to reach through to Frieda and teach her to be calm and accepting. The dog ended up becoming as fiercely protective of Katz and his farm as he once was of only Maria (protecting the farm animals too, when first she saw them as prey), and being calmer in general around situations that used to cause excited outbursts. A remarkable story of what efffort one man went through to get through to this particular dog and her beloved human.

Rating: 3/5       267 pages, 2013

Sep 1, 2014

Soul of a Dog

by Jon Katz

In this book Katz muses on one particular idea: do animals have souls? He tells stories about the various animals on his farm, highlighting their individuality and possible self-awareness, their responsiveness to people, their motives. He surmises that some animals are just relating to people to get something out of them (his cow likes extra food) but that other animals- the dogs- are more attuned to our emotions and respond to need. Waffles around on this. Gets into spitituality more than I had expected. I'm no longer a religious person, so all the introspective back-and-forth about will dogs to to heaven? did not interest me and honestly I got tired of it. But I did like reading the portraits of the various species he lives alongside: the sassy goats, gentle donkeys, one hen who acts out of the ordinary; a cat who is friendly and loving to humans but ruthlessly hunts down smaller creatures (typical). There are, as usual, glimpses of his life- the struggles of running a farm, his friendship with a few particular neighbors, his visits with Izzy the border collie to a local hospice. Mostly it's about the animals. Reading several books in a row by Katz, some phrases and sentiments start to feel oft-repeated to me; the musings have taken a slightly different path but reflecting on the same bent so I feel like I'm reading nothing new and begin to get a distracted. A bit of space between them would improve the reading, I think.

I borrowed this one from the public library.

Rating: 3/5      184 pages, 2009

Aug 28, 2014

Dog Days

by Jon Katz

Another book about Katz and the dogs on his farm. He's published so many, I'm not sure if I'm reading them in order or missing one that came before this, so there might be a gap as the dogs move in and out of his life.

At the point when Dog Days was written, Katz lived on his farm in upstate New York with a border collie, two labrador retrievers, a flock of sheep, a few chickens, a barn cat, handful of donkeys and several other animals. Some come to live on the farm through the course of the book: a giant steer that is incredibly gentle, another border collie who needs rescuing, a surprise newcomer when one of his donkeys gives birth. Katz is careful about finding balance among the livestock and pets on his farm- he usually doesn't take on animals in need of rescue, but with Izzy gets into another border collie training project. Which is quite different from the prior experience he had with Orson. Both because this is a different dog, and Katz is in many ways a different person now. It's amusing to me that Katz was still viewed as an outsider by many in his farming community- because he didn't sell livestock for a living, and kept animals that were "useless" such as the donkeys. Yet his neighbors often called on him for help when they needed to find or corral wayward animals- his border collie Rose having excellent problem-solving skills in this regard. None of them had working dogs like her, it seems.

He also showed me how the labs could be so lovable. I admit when I read his previous book, his descriptions of the labrador retrievers bored me. The border collies were much more interesting characters. Yet here his labs come into their own, shining with their versatility and accepting personalities. He takes one along for physical therapy sessions and when the dog becomes very close to an elderly woman they continue to visit her for a while even when she no longer goes to the center. He notices that the other lab is a great dog and often gets left behind or goes unnoticed simply because she is so accepting of situations, but he wants to do better by her, so finds a situation where she can get the attention and exercise she needs, without taxing him more -having four dogs on the farm is more work than he can handle, it turns out. It's admirable to see someone who can admit when they've got enough, who can let a beloved pet go to a better home, and still keep the connection to them. I enjoyed this book, and want to read more by the author. He's provided plenty!

Rating: 3/5      273 pages, 2007

Aug 27, 2014

The Modern Dog

by Stanley Coren

This was a lot easier read than the last book. It covers some similar ground but is not so philosophical and doesn't delve so far into the past- instead its concern is more the present relationship that dogs have with humans. In a friendly, lighthearted manner, the book explores such topics as why dogs bond so closely to people, why so many dogs look like their owners, their significance in some religions, their canine behavior, their extraordinary sense of smell, their means of communication, the benefits of raising kids with a dog in the home and much much more. It's a nice combination of anecdotal evidence and scientific fact that makes for easy, interesting reading. Things like how bereft owners have tried to clone their dogs, how dog breeds evolved as hunting methods and equipment changed, how rabies probably led to the idea of vampires, the loyalty of dogs that travel long distances to find their owners again, and why cats and dogs often misread each other's body language. I liked the inclusion of many folkloric stories such as why dogs sniff each other's tails, and the origins of the Chinese "lion dog" - the pekingese- being a love affair between a lion and a marmot (sanctioned by the Buddha who changed the lion's size). One of the most interesting chapters was about how law enforcement and courts use dogs as witnesses- with their powers of identifying scents. The methods are different from what I expected, and convincing. Also eye-opening was a personal account the author shared about an incident where he bathed his dog in tomato juice in the yard to get rid of skunk smell, with local kids looking on. One of them took photos which later got posted online with false information- as being evidence of animal cruelty! Makes you realize how easily stories can get twisted and people end up misinformed. I looked up more facts on a lot of stuff from this book- just because I'm curious to know more- and found that in at least one case, the book isn't accurate. Makes me wonder about the rest, and realize you have to read it all with some skepticism in mind.

I borrowed this one from the public library

Rating: 3/5       274 pages, 2008

Aug 23, 2014

The Wolf in the Parlor

by Jon Franklin

Jon Franklin is a science reporter, and he explores in detail "the eternal connection between humans and dogs," dwelling mostly on speculations about the past, how our species evolved together, affected each other, became so dependent on one another. Posits that our predecessors may have been so successful and out-competed or survived where other early hominids didn't, precisely because they had dogs at their side. Examines how our very senses have come to compliment each other (man and dog), how man has shaped dog breeds to his need and whim,  how dogs' social behavior meshes with ours, and so on. Through the lens of anthropology, biological and evolutionary sciences, and the very everyday experience of adding a dog to his own family- a standard poodle named Charlie. I was just as surprised as Franklin to find how little we actually know about the history of dogs, considering how close we are to them- he claims it is a truly symbiotic relationship. I was alternately intrigued and bored with his meanderings- he often goes into other topics and when the writing got philosophical I lost focus. So this is one of those cases where you have to remember that my rating systems denotes a personal response to a book, and doesn't necessarily reflect on the quality of that book. I actually thought I wasn't going to finish this one- I was skipping a lot of stuff in the first hundred pages, but then either it got better, or I started to pay more attention. Gave me a lot to think about.

Rating: 2/5      283 pages, 2009

more opinons:
The Poodle (and dog) Blog
The Dog I've Always Wanted

Aug 22, 2014

The Bus Driver

by Todd H. Doodler

The day starts with one person on the bus: the driver. He picks up two girls talking on the phone, three firemen whose truck broke down, four boys dirty from playing etc.- each page a successive number up to ten. You see them all pile on until the seats are completely full- including eight dogs carrying fleas- which makes no one happy! Then we count down from ten to one again as people (and dogs) get off the bus- but your child can practice a little math, too. Sometimes two groups of people get off at the same stop- five basketball players get off at the stadium plus the four boys, who want to watch the game. Seven nurses and six doctors get off at the hospital together- even more counting to do! It's alsoeducational for little kids because it gets them thinking about where different people might want to go on the bus, and the purpose of their destination. The rhymes are a little awkward sometimes; I found myself rephrasing to make them smoother, and the illustrations are goofy but my kid doesn't care about that.

Rating: 3/5      20 pages, 2013

more opinions:
Journey of a Bookseller
Jean Little Library

Aug 20, 2014

Giant George

Life with the World's Biggest Dog
by Dave Nasser with Lynne Barrett-Lee

When the author and his wife started looking for a great dane puppy, they knew they wanted a big dog. But they had no idea how big George was going to get. It amused me that he was the runt of his litter, and ended up being the largest one! He tipped the scales at two hundred and forty-five pounds, standing four feet at the shoulder. He had to have his own queen-sized mattress to sleep on, and wouldn't fit in their regular car, only a truck. He liked to ride around in a golf cart. You would think living with such a large animal would be problematic, but aside from his huge appetite, and the inconvenience that his head easily reaches every countertop, the dog is actually mild-mannered and very gentle. He was very close to his family, in fact would get extremely anxious if left alone. It was touching to read how bonded George became with his owners, and how he helped them get through some tough times. When their veterinarian made comments that George was larger than any other dog he'd seen, they looked into it and friends suggested they try for the world record, since the dog currently holding the title had recently died. The part about how they had to apply for the Guinness World Record was interesting, and I was surprised to see how passionate some people got about this- other dog owners trying for the same record going so far as to contest his measurements, some said their were exploiting their pet and posted unkindly remarks about the dog online. Of course he became famous and the family tells about taking their dog to visit schools, veterinary conferences and other events. Many people travelled to see him- it was difficult to fly George anywhere as he didn't fit in any commercially-made pet crates! This was a fun read.

Rating: 3/5     255 pages, 2011

more opinions:
Shannon's Book Bag

Aug 19, 2014

The Pig Who Sang to the Moon

by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

This book makes a very strong case for turning vegan. In it, Masson looks closely at the emotional lives of common farm animals: the pig, cow, goat, sheep, chicken. Also ducks and geese. He presents evidence that these animals are quite sensitive, amiable and sociable creatures, which made them easy to domesticate in the first place. They make friends, often from other species. They get lonely, mourn the loss of their young or companions, show fear at approaching death. They display gratitude and trust towards those who treat them kindly. They like music.They can dream. One scientist, Masson informs me, says that even bees dream (about flowers). Yes, the book is full of anecdotes but there is also scientific evidence presented of how certain animals' brains have very similar functions to ours. Of course they can feel: emotions are more basic than logical thought (and so many animals display that, too). So, the point of it all is that these animals have the same basic needs and desires we have: to live comfortably, be with their companions, raise their offspring. Knowing that should influence how we treat them. I was aware before of the awful conditions pigs, chickens and cows are usually kept in, but did not know other things for example how goose down is stripped from living birds (kept in crowded conditions) so that they can grow more feathers and be stripped again. It is so painful for them they often go into shock, and after four or five "pluckings" they die. It seems to me that sheep are goats are not treated so badly as the others, but Masson points out that we still take their young away from them, cause them stress and pain and often misunderstand or ignore their needs. Not to mention eating lambs: Mary had a little lamb / Her father shot it dead / And now it goes to school with her / Between two chunks of bread.

A tough thing, to be the child of a farmer. But the book isn't all about animal distress! Much of it is intriguing accounts of how how animals feel, the depth of their emotional lives. Other things too, like the fact that in ancient Egypt pigs were not eaten but valued for their work in agriculture- they were used to thresh grain and to plant it, too. Goats show a sense of humor. They don't actually eat tin cans but will eat the paper labels off cans, or shirts off a clothesline! Wild ducks know which ponds on private land are safe during hunting season, and will flock there the day before the season opens. How do they know? Pigs' skin and organs are so similar to humans that scientists are studying how to use them in transplants. And more. Compelling book.

Rating: 4/5      277 pages, 2003

Note: if you have written about this book on your blog, do tell me know in the comments. For some reason google blog search fails me: I get pages upon pages of results from top-name booksellers, animal-rights websites (relevant, but not what I want) and media sources, not blogs. I looked through eight pages of results without finding one normal reader's blog. Why?