If you want to do some social research on the US of the latter half of the 20th century, read Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine. It is a first novel by Bebe Moore Campbell, published in 1992. All the major socio-political movements from the 1950s to 1990s are here, seen through the eyes of individuals living amidst the turmoil generated by idealism and socio-economic changes.
It can be emotionally hard to read but it’s well worth it. At the beginning, you meet unhappy poor people in rural Mississippi in the 1950s. Right off the bat, you see that there is going to be violence and misery. They are so unlikable that I almost stopped reading. I couldn’t get past them but my brother had told me this was a really good book so I kept going. He was right.
Ms. Campbell takes you into the black and white worlds of Mississippi and Chicago, of racism both personal and institutional, of poverty, of people who have dreams and those who have no hope. There are heroes and villains but there is no simple categorization of either/or. Just when you start feeling sympathy or respect for a main character, she or he will do something cruel or unthinkingly hurtful. When you decide that a character is unremittingly nasty, you will get a glimpse into his or her motivation that at least explains why or gives you reason to sympathize.
“Powerful,” “compelling,” “engaging,” “extraordinary” – the words in the cover blurbs describe the book perfectly. Also scares the hell out of you, makes you cry, and makes you think.
In the mood for a fluffy book, I wondered if Cynthia Baxter’s Who’s Kitten Who? might be a bit too fluffy based on the cover and title. Still, give it a try.
Amateur sleuth Jessica Popper is a veterinarian who runs a mobile clinic on Long Island. She lives with her fiancé and numerous animals. She has a habit of running into murder and mystery. In this book, it’s the murder of a community theatre writer. The backdrop is her home life and the visit of her future in-laws, whom she has not yet met, and their little dog Mitzi.
The actual mystery is good – some clues so you could feel like you were figuring it out but not enough to be too obvious. The pets and her interaction with them are well drawn and entertaining. Some LOL moments produced by her daily life with humans and animals. Fluffy? Yes. A good read? Yes.
The visit by the in-laws – good in that her fiancé’s mother is so god-awful that she gives you nightmares. The tension between Jessica, her fiancé and his parents and Mitzi is very good. It is realistic enough for any of us who have hideous memories of meeting “the fam” of a significant other. It is over the top enough to make us laugh and feel relief that nothing we experienced was ever quite this bad.
Where it fails, in my opinion, is that Jessica tolerates this abuse by fiancé and his parents and actually still wants to be involved with this inconsiderate jackass. I was relieved when I thought she had seen the light, smelled the coffee, woken up to her future with this dysfunctional pack of egotistical lunatics. When loose ends are being tied up after the mystery was solved, I fully expected her to say “I never want to lay eyes on you again, go live with your deranged mother and her deranged dog and spare every other woman’s emotional wellbeing.” What I read instead surprised me – indeed annoyed me.
Aside from that, I don’t like books where there’s no connection between title and content (excepting those with a series-based reason) and there isn’t here. I don’t like mystery protagonists who suddenly act stupid for the sake of moving the plot along, and that happens here at least once in a major way.
I should, I suppose, read another of the ‘Reigning Cats and Dogs‘ series to get a better sense of Jessica and the pillock she’s engaged to. Other than the points I mention, it’s a fun, well-written and engaging mystery with mostly likeable characters.
From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Sept. 8/11. Below are Amazon links to the first two Jessica Popper books. The right sidebar links are for Ms. Baxter’s second series featuring travel writer Mallory Marlowe.
(from 2011*) In the past week, I’ve been sent two Facebook requests to boycott the film Water for Elephants. ADI (Animal Defenders International) says that Have Trunk Will Travel, trainers of the elephants in the film, use abusive methods. This contradicts the trainers’ statement that they only use positive reinforcement.
I watched the 2005 video ADI provided, and I think I don’t know enough about elephants to know. I went to Sara Gruen’s website. She’s the author of the novel on which the movie is based. She is a supporter of animal welfare and several specific animal sanctuaries. While the author of the original material may not have much say over the movie production, having read her other novels, I couldn’t imagine Ms. Gruen not caring about the animal stars of a work in which she’s got a vested interest. But I still don’t know.
I don’t think the trainers did themselves a favour by saying they only use reward-based training methods. No way electric prods look like positive reinforcement. But used in conjunction with reward? Necessary for effectiveness and safety? I don’t know. I do know that they and bull hooks do not look nice. But the appearance of something shouldn’t be the sole criterion for judging it. Lots of things don’t look nice, but there may be valid reasons for their use. Also, anything can be an instrument of cruelty if used incorrectly or to deliberately inflict pain. A dog’s leash, a horse’s reins.
Two things this controversy made me think about:
1. Shock collars. Many trainers condemn their use, saying they’re just a lazy way to train a dog. Other trainers sell them to people (I got a salespitch on their virtues when talking to a trainer about my dog’s poop-eating habit.) I know a barky dog who can live happily in an apartment building because she wears an electrified “bark collar” when left alone. Without it, I don’t know what would happen. But the bottom line is, those collars administer shocks of varying intensity to dogs. And electric shock is not just used for retraining bad behaviour. “Invisible fencing” relies on a shock if the dog gets too close to the boundary. It’s selling like hotcakes.
2. When learning to ride, my teacher told me “kick him” when my horse would not move forward with just verbal clucks. I kicked a bit. “Harder” she yelled, “kick him like you mean it.” I couldn’t. I felt I was betraying our friendship by kicking him. She told me to watch the horses in the field and see what they do to each other. I did, and sure enough, I watched ‘my’ horse give his best friend a big old kick when he got too near the hay. There is no way I could ever kick as hard as he did. I learned to kick and he looked back at me like “ok, you’re learning horse language now!” I learned to use spurs, a riding crop and a longe whip. I try to keep my hands steady. Reins jerking ‘giddyup’ style does cause a horse pain. With me knowing proper use of equipment, we began riding as a team.
All methods of control and training can be abused and therefore cruel. All, aside from sheer brutality, can also be used correctly. Until I try handling an elephant, I won’t opine on how to do it.
*First posted on my St. Thomas Dog Blog May 12/11. Since then, I’ve read Water for Elephants and it is absolutely wonderful.
Eileen Key’s Dog Gone is about dogs disappearing from a boarding kennel. Cleaning lady Belle wants to help her friend, the kennel owner, keep her business alive so she enters the world of dogs and dog shows.
It’s a well-intentioned story about dog breeding and showing as well as dangers posed by a black market in purebred dogs. But I felt important issues about pets and show dogs and breeding were muddled in their presentation. Puppy mills, research labs and dogfighting fodder were mentioned as possible fates for stolen dogs. The value of microchipping was stressed, as was the fact that chips are not like a GPS that track the dog. You must have the dog in order to read the microchip.
My biggest problem was with the dog owners. All the dogs were from champion bloodlines. All were used for breeding and were beloved family pets. The expected revenue from the central dog’s puppies was the means for financing the college education of the dog owner’s daughter. Yick, I thought, are they concerned about losing their pet or an income source, one that they stress cost a huge amount to acquire? So visions of backyard breeders recouping the cost of an overpriced puppy danced through my head. The people who say “I paid $2000 for that dog, you know”, “I can sell those puppies on Kijiji for $800 each, you know”.
The owners enter their dogs in major AKC shows. But they all have just one or two dogs who are family pets. However, nice as that thought is, I’m not sure it’s realistic. The amount of money involved in dog shows is made clear by Key, both the outlay required to participate at the top level and the rewards for having a champion.
Ok, there are people in the hobby or business of dog shows and breeding that do not have large kennels. But they are pretty few and far between at the top championship levels. Living and breathing dog shows is what most reputable breeders do, and Key’s dog-owners don’t do that. So I wasn’t sure if I was being asked to care about pet owners who enjoy competing at dog shows or who see their purebred as a money-making machine.
Belle, our sleuthing heroine, is a self-confessed non-dog person. Ms Key does not mention any dog in her acknowledgements, which seems de rigueur in doggy books. But she thanks kennel owners and vets. I think they gave her a good crash course in dog shows and pet care.
There is a strong Christian message in the book. Rereading the publication details, I saw Barbour Publishing’s mission is to provide “inspirational products offering… biblical encouragement to the masses.” It fits in easily with Belle’s characterization as a Christian and pastor’s wife. It’s a good light read.
Dog on Itis the first in a mystery series by Spencer Quinn, aka Peter Abrahams. The protagonists are Chet (dog) and Bernie (human). Set in the US Southwest, the story is told by Chet. He is a K-9 police school flunk-out and Bernie barely scrapes by as a private detective. They work as an investigation team, but neither of them has a superior or supernatural method of communication with the other.
Chet understands human language, verbal and body, better than Bernie realizes. But Chet can’t always convey what he knows to him. Unlike Randolph, say, in the Bull Moose Dog Run series, he can’t read and doesn’t know how to use human language to communicate. He does dog type communication – barking, wagging tail, bristling neck hair, growling. Bernie can misinterpret these signals as Chet wanting a toy or Chet just barking for no good reason. And Chet sometimes misses the significance of something in the human realm so doesn’t indicate its importance to Bernie. I found myself thinking, “come on Chet, that’s important – bark! Tell Bernie!” And Chet would just think, “hmm, that kinda reminds me of something” and go back to licking himself.
The plot centres on a missing girl, so there are not a lot of doggy elements in the story itself. You meet a neighbour dog and his situation makes you think. And there’s a trip to an animal pound – also a lot to think about.
The jacket blurb says you don’t have to be a dog lover to enjoy the story. Being a dog lover, I really liked the insights into dog behaviour from a dog point of view. You get to know the people and dogs through Chet’s eyes. If you aren’t interested in dogs, I don’t know what it would be like reading a story from a dog’s perspective.
Chet and Bernie both can figure things out and are clever, but not overly so. I don’t know what goes through a dog’s mind, but Chet’s thoughts seem pretty believable. He comes across as a regular smart and galumphing type dog. So does Bernie. The book is a good who-dun-it, aside from the pleasure of reading something from a likeable dog’s point of view.
If you like dogs and mystery novels, or even just one or the other, have a look at J. F. Englert’s Bull Moose Dog Runseries. There are three so far; A Dog About Town (2007), A Dog Among Diplomats (2008) and A Dog At Sea (2009). The ‘sleuth’ who tells the story is Randolph, a middle-aged black Labrador Retriever.
A sucker for animal stories, I’ve read some of the other dog- and cat-perspective mystery series. I’ve liked them, found them kind of cute, kind of funny. One of the Midnight Louie books by Carole Nelson Douglas made me think about feral cat life and TNR (trap, neuter, release) from the cats’ point of view. Not as straightforwardly beneficial as people may think it to be. While I’ve enjoyed the animal-detective books I’ve read, I haven’t felt a pressing need to immediately get the next one.
Randolph, a literate Lab
As soon as I finished A Dog About Town, I went back to the library and took out the second, A Dog Among Diplomats. Now I want to read the third. I want to know what happens next. Randolph’s take on being an intelligent dog in a human world made me think about many dog behaviours, and people’s behaviour in relating to dogs. You learn a lot (Randolph is a very literate dog), you are given lots of little doggy asides to think about, and the mysteries at the heart of the books are interesting and well-presented.
As with all novels featuring non-human protagonists, disbelief has to be suspended. But it wasn’t a lot of work doing that with Randolph. This is despite him being able to read (a skill learned while being papertrained in puppyhood), and not just reading the cereal box. He reads Dante’s Inferno, Proust, Kierkegaard and, for light reading, Dickens. He teaches himself how to use the internet and succeeds in setting up a hotmail account for himself faster than I’ve ever been able to do. But these improbabilities do not get in the way – I found myself quickly accepting Randolph’s extraordinary skills and just got on with the story.
Dog park behaviour
Randolph’s observations on human-dog interaction are shrewd, even cringe-making sometimes when you recognize yourself. He also observes the child-dog relationship in a refreshing way, especially coming from a Lab, the perceived ‘kids’ dog’. Randolph takes you into his Manhattan – the streets, Central Park and the dog parks. He gives you the dog perspective on dog park politics of dogs and people. He notes the types of dog behaviours in meeting each other and even in their toilet habits. After you read his descriptions of dog habits, you find yourself watching dogs to see if they fit Randolph’s classification system. By and large, they do.
Englert is an astute observer of dogs and people, or he has been taught a lot by his own Lab. I’ve never been a big Lab person – they’re too boisterous and single-minded (usually involving a tennis ball) for me. But I look at them a bit differently now, after ‘meeting’ Randolph. He reminds me of Labs I have known and liked, nice old sensible ones. I also look at my dogs a bit differently, wondering if there’s more going on in their heads than what I have thought.
From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Apr. 24, 2010.
Newfoundland Mi'kmaq, family history, Coronation Street, etc.