Sunday, September 30, 2007

Merle's Door by Ted Kerasote [Review]

Title: Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog

Author: Ted Kerasote

Copyright: 2007 (Harcourt, Inc., Orlando, FL)

Length: 398 pages (including notes and index)

Genre: Non-fiction; Dogs, Human-Animal Relations

Summary: Kerasote was a 40-something bachelor with minimal obligations when he picks Merle up during a canoe trip with some buddies. Merle's Door is the story of how two creatures -- man and dog -- learn to adapt to one another's presence and play to one another's strengths. It isn't a story of how a man trained a dog or how having a particular dog changed a man's life. This is a loving story of two unique individuals, forming an emotional bond through mutual understanding. Kerasote conveys his sense of what Merle's thoughts were with a certain amount of anthropomorphizing but always with the awareness that a dog is a biological entity with an independent understanding of the world and his role in that world. It's critical in describing this book accurately to say that it is simply not a conventional pet story. Kerasote has far too much respect for Merle for him to diminish Merle's standing by using that term. They are two biological creatures sharing a space and while Kerasote may be the "alpha", he's not the "master".

Kerasote tells us Merle's story from their initial meeting until the day Merle dies. I don't intend that as a spoiler but, as someone who has always loved dogs, I cannot in good conscience avoid warning prospective readers that the book's ending is sad even as it closes with a celebration of a happy dog's life. Perhaps it is because Kerasote manages to convey so well how we interact with dogs, with ruffling of the fur around their necks or by scratching behind an ear or under a jowl, making their eyes close in delight. He conveys the language of dogs as they interact with us in return, using head butts, snorts and grins. There is plenty of solid scientific, veterinary, and naturalist information contained in the book as Kerasote expands his own knowledge of what Merle needs to thrive whether in a city or town or out in the forests of Wyoming. If you believe that there is little to be condemned as harshly as a bad dog owner, then you should will most likely love Merle's Door.

Extract: The author's web site provides an excerpt. But I'll include this bit as an additional idea of who the book's about:

Part of Merle's equanimity, I thought, might have been attributed to the fact that I'm a relatively calm person, and he was therefore reflecting my demeanor, just as so many domestic dogs reflect the personalities of their human companion. Part might also have been created by his having spent his puppyhood among Navajos, a dignified and reserved people. And part of his composure was most likely influenced by his hound genes, whic h he seemed to have inherited along with his Lab blood. A friend had shown me some photos of Redbone Coonhounds, and some of them could have been Merle's brother and sisters, aside from their pendulous ears.

There are pictures here, if you (like me) are curious as to just what breed he might be, but the text is the best picture of Merle.

Also Relevant: I did love this book; it reminded me of owning dogs and loving them. I hadn't expected to love it when I received it from Anna. I even admit to rolling my eyes when the initial description of it arrived in an email. But it is such a solid work, so lacking in the saccharine qualities that I usually associate with animal books. Kerasote has written a lovely and intelligent book in honor of his companion. I recommend this book heartily; read it, think about it and come away with a different idea of what amazing creatures dogs are and can be in relationships with humans.

P.S. I should have noted for those who are cat-lovers that there is a cat in this book as well, but as you might be aware, cats are reserved creatures and less likely to cooperate fully with a biographer. But Grey Cat is in the book.

Monday, September 24, 2007

From the Can-You-Possibly-Be-Serious File

It's possible that Americans have finally gone 'round the bend on snack foods (or maybe it's just our legislators), because the New York Times is featuring a story on the Cupcake Problem. When parents have to lobby to ensure the periodic appearance of cupcakes in the classroom...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

[Review] Faith in the Halls of Power by D. Michael Lindsay

Title: Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite

Author: D. Michael Lindsay

Copyright: 2007; Oxford University Press USA; ISBN 0195326660

Length: 352 pages (including approximately 100 pages of notes, bibliography and index)

Genre: Non-fiction; religious studies, sociology

Summary: This author spoke with more than 300 leaders in politics, business, academia, media and entertainment between 2003 and 2006. All were self-identified evangelicals, a category Lindsay defines as "someone who believes (1) the Bible is the supreme authority for religious belief and practice, (2) that he or she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and (3) that one should take a transforming activist approach to faith." His intent was to study the historical events and social forces that have facilitated the movement of evangelicals into prominent mainstream positions and roles during the past forty or fifty years. He focuses on four broad sectors reflective of modern life in America - politics, higher education, entertainment and business. How did evangelical influences come to wield any kind of power in this democracy, given the small percentage of adherents relative to that of the greater population of more casual believers?

Lindsay's essential answer is that evangelicals have chosen to actively apply themselves (through both their labor and their not inconsiderable resources) to the job of ensuring that their understanding of Christian behavior and values seed the future direction of American culture and government. In his view, the various groups have accomplished a tremendous amount in politics and education but have had far less impact on the media and entertainment industries. In the corporate environment, he notes that influential business executives seem to put more emphasis on leveraging their faith at levels that don't necessarily include local churches or parishes tending instead to focus on the parachurch. [Note: I had to look this word up; it refers to bodies that operate outside of and across denominational churches to accomplish specific goals. I gather the word tends to be used chiefly in evangelical circles.]

One of the great strengths of Lindsay's documentation is that he makes it clear that evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group. Whether talking about specific individuals or evangelical organizations, he makes clear that they are diverse and sometimes accomplish their goals by aligning with clearly different belief sectors, such as the Roman Catholic Church, when necessary to achieve an end. Such alliances don't always last, for obvious reasons, but the evangelicals have built social relationships and networks that foster the desired end result.

One might think that this would be a seriously dry book (not to say downright dull), but Dr. Lindsay,
a member of the faculty at Rice University, is actually quite readable despite the contrary view of the critic at The Economist. While I wouldn't go so far as to use the word "exciting" as the publisher's marketing blurbs do, I found the book to be an engrossing read. He maintains a relatively objective view, more carefully balanced than you find in most discussions of religious behavior. He's not dismissive of evangelical beliefs and behaviors, but he does note as necessary where some parties have tried and fallen short. Faith in the Halls of Power confirmed what I largely suspected from personal encounters with evangelical Christians, but deepened my knowledge on the actual thought processes and intentions of the evangelical movement. If you are curious about or have an interest in understanding this aspect of American society, you will find this book a useful one.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

That Wretched TBR Pile

My pile at present looks like this:

  1. Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the Elite - D. Michael Lindsay (Oxford University Press, USA (2007). Absolutely engrossing documentation of a three-year research project!
  2. The Ice House - Minette Walters. St. Martin's Paperbacks (1993). Must finish this re-read as I'm talking about it at the library on Thursday.
  3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert L. Stevenson. Vintage (1991). For the RIP challenge. I've finished it, just haven't written the review.
  4. Merle's Door: Lessons from a Free-Thinking Dog - Ted Kerasote. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., (2007). Loving this one. I'm a sucker for a good dog; I never seem to meet the criteria of cats although I am usually willing to feed them as necessary.
  5. Jane Austen in Hollywood - Linda Troost. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, (2001)
  6. The Country of Pointed Firs - Sarah Orne Jewett. As contained in Library of America, New York (1994). For the Outmoded Authors Challenge.
  7. Tipperary - Frank Delaney. Started it and then got distracted. Must do a review for LT!
So I am being constructive; I'm just not zipping along as quickly as I would like.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill [Review]

As part of the Readers Imbibing Peril Challenge (RIP II)

Title: The Woman in Black
Author: Susan Hill (author's official web site)
Copyright: 1983 (initial publication in the UK); first US edition 1986; David R. Godine, Publisher, Jaffrey, NH, ISBN 1-56792-189-2
Length: 138 pages
Genre: Fiction/Ghost Story

Summary: Arthur Kipps is a man touched by tragedy as we learn following his storming away in a temper from Victorian festivities, complete with ghost stories, on a snowy Christmas Eve. He is fully aware that stories of ghosts may be told in frivolous fashion, but that ghosts themselves -- real ghosts -- rarely manifest in such a mood. Ashamed of his bad behavior and wishing to explain himself and make it up to his wife, he begins to write the story of his own horrific experience following the death of Mrs. Drablow in the remote village of Crythin Gifford. A young attorney, he travels up North to represent his firm at her funeral and clear up outstanding legal affairs. The reader follows Kipps casually but is soon caught up in a fearful exploration of human despair and its consequence.

There are clear references to the works of her literary predecessors in this genre -- Montague Rhodes James classic short story, Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad is alluded to, as is Wilkie Collins' The Woman In White. What's particularly enjoyable is that these are only allusions; the story itself stands in its own right. Hill simply adds to the literary tradition of Wharton, James, and Collins.

The Woman in Black is a short and evocative tale, full of isolation and atmosphere. If not carefully controlled, one's reading experience may result in keeping wakeful company with Kipps in a dark silent house with many hours yet to go before dawn relieves the tension.

Extract: "I stopped as Mr. Jerome grabbed my wrist and held it in an agonisingly tight grip, and looking at his face, was certain that he was about to faint or collapse with some kind of seizure. I began looking wildly about me, in the deserted lane, wondering whatever I might do, where I could go, or call out, for help. The undertakers had left. Behind me were only a school of little children and a mortally sick young woman under great emotional and physical strain, beside me was a man in a state of near collapse. The only person I could conceivably reach was the clergyman somewhere in the recesses of his church, and if I were to go for him, I would have to leave Mr. Jerome alone."

Another sample from another paragraph just a page later: "It only took a few minutes at that pace to arrive back in the square, where the market was in full cry and we were at once plunged into the hubbub of vehicles, the shouting of voices, of auctioneers and stallholders and buyers, and all the bleating and braying, the honking and crowing and cackling and whinnying of dozens of farm animals. At the sight and sound of it all, I noticed that Mr. Jerome was looking better and when we reached the porch of the Gifford Arms, he seemed almost lively in a burst of relief."

Also Relevant: I am somewhat amazed that this Susan Hill's work has eluded my notice until now. I had never heard of her, until Elaine of Random Jottings posted about this book last year. Now, I see that I've been missing out on a wonderful writer. The real strength of The Woman in Black is Susan Hill's writing. After all, in this cynical age, what is it that can persuade us of the presence of a melancholy or malevolent ghost? We don't really believe in ghosts in any sensible, scientific way; but the words of Susan Hill are composed so as to draw up the fears of our primitive forebearers, the fears of childhood, that ultimate human fear of being alone and vulnerable to larger forces. Just as Elaine had warned me, the book is scary. It is artfully crafted and absolutely capable of raising the hair on the back of your neck.

For those of you with an interest in theatre and dramatic adaptations, the book was made into both a television production as well as adapted for the stage; it's been playing in the West End since 1989. (That is just shy of 20 years running, which is none too shabby.) I note however that there is a disclaimer on Hill's web site as to the legitimacy of used DVDs and video tapes of the television production that may be listed on ebay and Amazon.

The good news is that Susan Hill is relatively prolific. I believe that the first in the Simon Serrailler detective novels has become available here in the states. There are numerous works to be explored. The Woman in Black is quite as good as any of Edith Wharton's ghost stories.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America [Review]

Title: Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America

Author: Gail Pool

Copyright: 2007 (University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London; ISBN 978-0-82621727-1)

Length: 170 pages (including notes, bibliography, and index)

Genre: Non Fiction

Summary: Book reviews are, of course, a subject of dispute across many sectors of the reading and publishing communities; Pool accurately points out that even defining the nature of a book review is fairly slippery. Professionals clash with amateurs; readers clash with critics. Essentially, however, the author notes that book reviewing centers specifically around new books, recent publications. A review should have two major elements, an accurate description of what the book's text encompasses and an evaluation or assessment of how well the book succeeds. Assuming that the book review is intended for formal publication, there is a deadline to be met. The reviewer is hampered by the need to make a relatively quick assessment without necessarily having time to properly digest the book. The review may not be literary criticism, but it should be able to serve as a guide for potential readers, guiding them away from mediocrity while spotlighting the good and hopefully the excellent. In Pool's eyes, the review should be "an essay, however brief, an argument, bolstered by insights and observations" (see page 11 of the hardcover).

Of course the gap between theory and the practical is always greater than we like to admit. Gail Pool spends the bulk of her time in this slim volume, explaining the real drivers of and constraints on reviews and reviewing in the real-world publishing business and how that impacts on the the process. She covers the reviewing process without glossing over the ugly bits -- reviews where it is clear the reviewer did not, in fact, read the book in question or instances where the review criticizes the author, not for having written a bad book, but for having written a book that did not meet a reviewer's preferences. She even notes the ever-present hyperbole and cliched phrasing of book reviews ("luminous prose", "towering achievement", etc.). But neither is she a fan of the reviews and she makes no apologies for her disdain. Pool recognizes that writing a good book review requires time to read the book, time to consider the material and careful crafting of the final written assessment. (Pool is a professional reviewer which of course colors her argument but I don't think she's entirely self-serving in her thinking.)

Pool has ideas for improving book reviewing as a professional activity - more considered selection of what is to be reviewed, better pay for the activity and training for those who think they might want to pursue reviewing as a vocation. She recommends a greater dependence upon paid, regular columnists. She suggests that publication editors and reviewers should take more time to discuss why a particular book should be reviewed and how much space the review should be granted. Finally, she suggests that clear editorial policies regarding ethics and practice would be of service to those who review books and the readership they serve.

Also Relevant: I think every one who blogs about books would be well-served by reading this one book. This is an honest account of modern publishing operations. I understand that most casual readers don't care much about the business practices that fuel publishing. But publishing is a business, as inconvenient a truth as most readers and librarians find that to be. There are financial constraints, time constraints, and frequently constraints on the number of human beings involved in the physical process. That offends us (as consumers) because we're paying good money for the product and we feel justified in our expectations of what we should get from the transaction -- careful copy-editing, good editorial selection, etc.

None of Pool's recommendations for improving the quality of book reviews are faulty, but they are costly. Implementation of those corrective measures would add to the cost of books and magazines because her recommendations would slow down production and would involve more people (and, in American business, that means bearing the costs for employee health care). I consequently doubt the likelihood of her recommendations being implemented in our current business economy. But I loved that she wrote this book. The craft of publishing needs to improve and Pool's book points that up.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

On the Road, Hence a Quote

Reading is a pleasure of the mind, which means that it is a little like a sport; your eagerness and knowledge and quickness count for something. The fun of reading is not that something is told you, but that you stretch your mind. Your own imagination works along with the author's or even goes beyond his. Your experience, compared with his, yields the same or different conclusions, and your ideas develop as you understand him. -- Bennett Cerf

As quoted in The Reader's Quotation Book: A Literary Companion.
Edited by Steven Gilbar, Introduction by Doris Grumbach
1990, Pushcart Press, New York

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Pricing Models for Hardcover and Softcover

I don't know how familiar many of you are with the wonderful Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, but Sarah recently linked to a most interesting discussion over at LitKicks on the topic, "Does Literary Fiction Suffer From Dysfunctional Pricing?". As one might expect, the answer to that question largely depends upon who it is you are speaking with, but the conversation is a relevant one in an age that equates print with obsolescence. Note that one of the first respondents, a publisher, points out that *sales to libraries* are a primary target market for recouping costs on a book. The contributed responses are enlightening and worthwhile reading.

Just to underscore its interest and value, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind focuses on the mystery genre and the business of publishing in that genre. Sarah Weinman covers a lot of ground and her blog is a useful resource.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Short Stories, Speculative Fiction and Women's Rights

Some weeks past (July 29th) to be exact, SFP over on Pages Turned referenced an award-winning short story, What I Didn't See, written by Karen Joy Fowler. It had won a Nebula Award in 2003 (given out by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, hereinafter known as SFWA) and SFP was curious as to why a short story having to do with a hunting expedition in Africa in search of gorillas could qualify for a science fiction award. The story makes absolutely no reference to anything that might be called science fiction by any common definition of that genre. (Note: Members of SFWA have established the rules and vote for recipients of the Nebula; registered participants of the Worldcon vote on who deserves the Hugo awards.) In the comments, I made a suggestion that the rationale might have been that SFWA considers speculative fiction to be an eligible form of science fiction on the basis that speculative fiction captures certain realities of political and social structures by allowing them to be viewed through an unconventional lens. Science fiction isn't just about rockets and planetary investigations ; the genre uses a variety of devices to question human behavior by spotlighting and questioning our assumptions of what it means to be human.

Fortunately, a rather more perspicacious commenter noted that the correct reference point for creating a context around Fowler's story was James Tiptree, Jr.'s novelette, The Women Men Don't See. Tiptree's story has to do with a man wrestling with the challenge of a woman exercising choice in consciously rejecting his concept of woman and her place in the world, while Fowler's story (in my opinion) has to do with recognizing biological imperatives buried deep within and the impact of those imperatives on behavior and social structures. Thirty years after Tiptree's commentary on the inequity of power between men and women, Fowler joins the long conversation with her story, indirectly pointing out a cause for the imbalance as well as various other social structures where the imbalance has replicated itself (such as slavery). Taken together, the two stories do not paint a happy picture, but one accurately reflective of the turbulence in gender roles over the past thirty-five years.

SFWA, by my observation, is pretty much your average advocacy group. They are protective of their members' interests insofar as they can see them, but they are imperfect. For example, see this and Cory Doctorow's subsequent reaction (which includes the response from current SFWA president, Michael Capobianco, as well as sensible and occasionally confused feedback from the peanut gallery. Read the comments.). But in this instance, awarding Fowler a Nebula clearly indicates that the writers themselves understood the nature of her achievement.

They're both good stories. Go read them. Personally, I preferred Fowler's but I'm open to hearing the views of others.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Murder on the Ballarat Train [Review]

Title: Murder on the Ballarat Train

Author: Kerry Greenwood (official web site)

Copyright: 1991 (First U.S. Edition, 2006; Poisoned Pen Press, Scottsdale, AZ; ISBN 1-59058-241-1)

Genre: Mystery

Length: 151 pages

Summary: In the very first paragraph of the opening chapter, Phryne Fisher wakens in her berth on the train to Ballarat to find that someone has released chloroform into the First Class car. By the bottom of the first page, she's pulled her revolver out of her handbag and shot out the compartment window, thereby saving herself and her maid (this is 1928 or thereabouts) from certain death. She then proceeds to save the rest of the passengers in the car. By the close of the first chapter, she's even provided the police with their first clue as to the perpetrator's appearance. Good heavens, you ask, what happens in Chapter Two?

In this third in Kerry Greenwood's well established series, Phryne takes responsibility for two young women who have been harmed in the course of the train incident. One of the two has lost her mother as well as being burned by the inhalation of the gas. The second seems to have no memory of her name or destination. Phryne must determine how these cases are related, if they are, and commit those responsible to the care of the Australian constabulary for punishment. The only thing that equals Phryne's passion for sleek young men is her commitment to solving crime.


The breakfast room (which Phryne was sure would double as the dining room) was a large room with bay windows, now looking out onto miserable cows and battered scrub. Every leaf was hung with dew, as the early fog condensed and it was grey and chill, a suitable morning for the aftermath of a murder. However the chafing dishes were set out next to a tall coffee-pot and all the makings for tea, and a scent of toast and bacon was in the air. The room was decorated in pink and black, jazz colors, and tall cases of gum leaves lent the air an outback scent. It was modern and stylish without being so outre that it would be out of fashion in a year.

Or you can visit the official web site and watch the butler teach a young man how to mix cocktails. The afternoon tea isn't nearly as enticing...

Also Relevant: Phryne Fisher is amazing. She's well-dressed, intelligent, wealthy, a private investigator and bored with the ordinary. She's entirely self-sufficient, pithy in her expressions, and (apparently) trained in the martial arts. She fits in well with rowdy young men, yet young women trust her implicitly. She's James Bond in a cloche hat.

This is pure escapism. Greenwood's pacing doesn't allow you time to catch your breath. If she had, you'd immediately question many of the turns in the case. But fascinated by Phryne, the reader hasn't time to wonder at the ready confidences witnesses entrust to the detective. There is little psychological depth to the mystery nor is this a Golden Age puzzle mystery. Clues and suspects go whizzing past and one doesn't really mind because, after all, there's Phryne in the midst of it all. I suspect that the appeal of this series for most readers is Phryne's confidence in taking charge and making sure things work out the way she wants. As her own maid notes, "Like a play, this is, not like real life."

This is a very fast read in that it is only 150 pages in length. The entire series was described by one review site as "Not Quite Cozy" and this is entirely correct. While there's an adorable kitten present during the action, there is also, in fact, blatant sex. All light froth, I confess I may read another one or two of Phryne's adventures if I require distraction. There's a certain wit present that makes the foamy nature of the narrative a real pleasure.

Additional Links:

2003 Interview with Kerry Greenwood.
Another interview that covers some of the other works by Greenwood, including some young adult fiction, fantasy and science fiction.
An interview on her Australian publisher's site
2005 Write up of three other titles in the series