May was a strange month of reading for me, partially due to the selections I chose, but also because I was traveling for a week for a mini-vacation and conference, which cut into my reading time quite a bit. But I did manage a few books.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage – Ann Patchett. I have not read any of Patchett’s novels, but, based on her writing in these essays, I intend to. I had heard an interview with her promoting this book on NPR a couple of years ago and thought it sounded like something I’d like to check out. As a collection of essays, I liked some of them better than others, as you would expect. They were all well-written and interesting, but the ones that really spoke to me were those that had to do with her relationships, primarily those with her father, husband, grandmother, and dog. For the purposes of this review, I’m only going to focus on those selections that I was particularly fond of. For most of them, I’ve pulled a quote or two from the piece to help speak for it.
• The sacrament of divorce. This was a really thought-provoking essay describing her short first marriage, doomed pretty much from the start. Although divorce is pretty darned common now, I think there is still a bit of stigma to it. “Common” does not necessarily mean “good”. But Patchett makes a compelling case for accessible divorce as a good. In it, she reveals when it first dawned on her that the marriage would end in divorce – it was the week before the wedding and she and her fiancé were meeting with a priest for pre-wedding counseling, during which one of the questions asked was:
Was this a marriage that could only be dissolved by death?
That meant that if the marriage didn’t work, my only way out was to die. He was asking me to swear to my preference for death over divorce.
As the essay goes on, she talks about the community of divorced people, and the judgments cast by non-divorced people. One sentence in particular struck me and is applicable on a much broader societal scale when thinking about economic hardship, homelessness, mental illness, and, yes, divorce:
There can be something cruel about people who have had good fortune. They equate it with personal goodness.
She comes back to the idea of marriage being until death do us part at the end:
. . .if we fail at marriage, we are lucky we don’t have to fail with the force of our whole life. I would like there to be an eighth sacrament, the sacrament of divorce. Like Communion, it is a slim white wafer on the tongue. Like confession, it is forgiveness. Forgiveness is important not so much because we’ve done wrong as because we feel we need to be forgiven. Family, friends, God, whoever loves us forgives us, takes us in again. They are thrilled by our life, our possibilities, our second chances. They weep with gladness that we did not have to die.
• This dog’s life. This was the first of three essays to focus on Patchett’s dog, Rose, whose breed is eventually cast as Parking Lot Dog. Of course, I love this because all of our cats have been the equivalent, while Jonas is, in fact, also a literal Parking Lot Cat, having been found in a Walmart parking lot.
It’s a charming read about the close bond Patchett feels with Rose. It definitely brought a smile to my face as she described going through 10 weeks of obedience training during which Rose was not allowed on the furniture, but through negotiation and disagreement with the trainer, Patchett insisted that Rose could still sleep in the bed. Patchett passed the 10 weeks either sitting on the floor with Rose or lying in bed, then celebrated graduation by letting Rose get back on the couch.
Patchett also uses it to describe the interpretation by family, friends, and society that what she really wanted was a baby, despite her insistence and certainty to the contrary.
I imagine there are people out there who got a dog when what they wanted was a baby, but I wonder if there aren’t other people who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog.
• My road to Hell was paved. This enjoyable piece describes her trip out West in an RV. She had been hired to write a piece about the horrors of trying to see the country in these gas-guzzling beasts, but found it a much more enjoyable experience than she had anticipated. I’ve never had a desire to go RVing, but I admit her experience and at least the third of her Four Great RV Truths are persuasive.
First Great RV Truth:
Like ocean liners and oil tankers, RVs do not stop. While Karl grinds the pedal into the carpet, I scream at the dog, “Go! Go!” It looks like we shear a few hairs from its tail, but the dog escapes doom, and we, very nearly stopped now, are giddy. We did not kill a dog in the first five minutes of the trip.
Second Great RV Truth:
There’s a lot out there you just can’t see. This lesson is important even if you never plan to drive one yourself. Give all vehicles containing showers wide berth.
Third Great RV Truth:
Wherever you are, you are approximately 15 feet from bed. For all of my bone-deep distrust of motor homes, they do combine two of my favorite pastimes: compulsive driving and occasional napping.
Fourth Great RV Truth:
People who don’t like them have never been in one. I feel like I went out to report on the evils of crack and have come back with a butane torch and a pipe. I went undercover to expose a cult and have returned in saffron robes with my head shaved. I have fallen in love with my recreational vehicle.
• Tennessee. Patchett uses this essay to describe her home state of Tennessee and its relationship to its cities like Nashville and Memphis. Although she actually states that the following is not a metaphor, but a literal reference to the way the foliage can reclaim, or even never let go of, an area, I think there may be a bit of metaphor to it in the end.
While Memphis has changed and Nashville has changed and Knoxville has changed, the state of Tennessee has not changed. To understand this you have to back to that place where real estate prices out by the acre. . . The cities do push out, but down here the cities are islands surrounded by an ocean of country, and the country pushes back hard.
• On responsibility. Another essay that focuses on her dog, but also on her relationship with her aging grandmother, who lived well into her 90s, the final years spent in decline. Patchett moves back and forth between taking her dog to the vet for a skin infection and taking her grandmother to the emergency room, and then to the hospital for a leg infection, and her inability to explain the temporary nature of the situation to either in a way that they can understand or retain for more than a few minutes.
Is it wrong to tell a story about your grandmother and your dog in which their characters become interchangeable?
• The wall. There aren’t any specific passages I feel the need to quote from this piece, but it’s a very interesting discussion of L.A. police officers, particularly in the time just following the Rodney King riots, and description of the tests given to candidates applying for a position at the L.A. Police Academy. It also focuses more on Patchett’s relationship with her father. Just an all-around good read.
• Love sustained. A powerful essay about the long decline in her grandmother’s mental and physical health at the end of her life. Again, there aren’t any specific one-liners I can call out on this one. It’s just a very moving essay that would speak to anyone who has ever dealt with the long illness and decline of a loved one. Grab a hanky.
• Dog without end. I knew this was coming as soon as I saw the title lurking there a few chapters after Love Sustained. Fortunately, I was astute enough to know this was an essay I should read in the privacy of my home, rather than on the commuter bus, so I skipped ahead and finished the rest of the book, coming back to this one on the weekend. As Rose’s long life comes to an end, Patchett tells the full warts-and-all story of how she came to adopt Rose, even though she doesn’t come through it looking her best.
Sometimes love does not have the most honorable beginnings, and the endings, the endings will break you in half. It’s everything in between we live for.
Although her decline was shorter in human time than that of Patchett’s grandmother (1 plus year, rather than 5 plus years), this serves as a parallel to Patchett’s other long good-bye. During that last year, Patchett’s life revolved around efforts to sustain Rose’s health just as they had with her grandmother. Having been through my share of feline long good-byes, and particularly with a cat that had been with me for 19 years, the following sections really spoke to me. Grab another hanky.
I bought a photo album and I arranged the story of her life. What I hadn’t imagined was that it was the story of my life as well. If you flip through the pages you see us age together, always the two of us, Rose in my lap, Rose at my side, other people moving in and out of the frame over time while my hand forever rests on Rose.
I came to realize… that there was between me and every person I had ever loved some element of separation, and I had never seen it until now. There had been long periods spent apart from the different people I loved, due to nothing more than circumstances. There had been arguments and disappointments, for the most part small and easily reconciled, but over time people break apart, no matter how enormous the love they feel for one another is, and it is through the breaking and the reconciliation, the love and the doubting of love, the judgment and then the coming together again, that we find our own identity and define our relationships.
Except that I had never broken from Rose. I had never judged her or wanted her to be different, never wished myself free from her for a single day.
Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals – Temple Grandin. Temple Grandin is inspiring. She’s overcome her own challenges as an autistic person and is working to improve the lives of farm animals through her unique insights into how animal’s view and react to the world.
That said, the woman needs an editor, not to change her voice, but to clean up the work a bit. There were a great number of times when I would read a sentence, go two or three sentences further, then read the same sentence again, almost word for word. It wasn’t just a repetition of a point for emphasis, but literally the exact same sentence. A good editor could help clean the manuscript up a lot without doing any damage to the message or Temple’s unique way of giving it.
Honestly, the main title made me think the book was something it isn’t, something more about our relationships with animals and the ways they impact our humanity. It was much more focused on the subtitle, dealing with Grandin’s insights into the natural history of various animal species and the ways we can improve their lives, whether as pets in our homes, or as livestock in our food-producing farms. It was an interesting read, but it was an unexpected angle. I almost wonder if she had something else in mind with the title, but then decided to go another direction.
At any rate, there was a lot of interesting information and theory in the book, and it is a worthwhile read. The chapter on dogs was, I think, the best of the bunch, with a lot of insights I hadn’t heard before. Many of her suggestions are based on her discussion of a “new” (to me) theory that natural wolf packs aren’t made up with an alpha male and female at all. Instead, what were thought to be the alpha male and female before are actually the mother and father of the pack. The other pack members are children, both pups and grown, with sometimes an aunt thrown into the mix. Only the mother and father breed because the rest of the pack are siblings.
She contends that dogs, through their domestication, stop maturing earlier than their wolf ancestors do and are basically juvenile wolves their whole lives. In wolf pups, aggressive behaviors develop first so the pups can compete for food with their siblings, with more submissive behaviors developing later as a way to keep the older animals from getting into fights that become much more dangerous as they grow up.
Grandin points to studies that have shown that the more puppy-looking purebred dogs, like toy breeds and cocker spaniels, tend to have the early aggressive behaviors but fewer, if any, of the submissive behaviors. This can cause problems with the ability of the “forced packs” living in our homes to create dominance hierarchies, particularly if there are multiple puppy-like dogs in the household. She has found that “wolfier” dogs, like huskies and Alaskan Malamutes, have developed more of the submissive behaviors and do better in these forced packs.
Looking at dogs as perpetual teenagers, as well as taking into account the mother and father dynamic of a natural wolf pack, Grandin thinks that, rather than a human taking the role as an alpha dog, perhaps what is really going on is that humans are taking on the parent role.
I liked the way this chapter went into a lot of detail about the natural history of dogs with their roots in wolf packs, and kept making links between that legacy and the behavioral needs of domestic dogs today.
Maybe it’s partially because I am more familiar with cat behavior and natural history already, but the chapter on cats that followed didn’t seem as robust. There was a lot less of that linking back to wild ancestors, and lot more of a reliance on anecdotes of examples of cat behaviors and what might be going on. Perhaps it’s because cats are still so close to their wild relations that there is less of a need to make a backward connection. Or maybe it’s because, as Grandin admits, relatively little is known about the mental and emotional worlds of cats. But it felt much more minimal to me.
That’s certainly not to say that there wasn’t interesting content in it. Grandin goes into a fair amount of detail about the intensity of a cat’s seeking drive and how to use it to clicker train a cat in order to improve their mental stimulation. Jonas is a cat who I think could really benefit from such efforts, and this chapter made me think seriously about giving it a try. I will need to re-read that section of the book when I decide to start in earnest.
There were subsequent chapters on cows, horses, pigs, chickens, and zoo animals, all of which had the same strength of insight and weaknesses of repetition and inconsistent detail.
All in all, a worthwhile read for anyone seeking to better understand animals and how to make their lives fuller and more meaningful, but the writing is problematic and needs serious editing.
Wings of Fire – Jonathan Strahan. This is a collection of short stories about dragons, supposedly carefully selected to be only the best. Meh.
I chose this book because, as mentioned in the beginning, I was going to be traveling for a conference and I thought a collection of short stories would allow for more discrete reading opportunities as time allowed. I wound up putting this book down about halfway through because I found I just wasn’t enjoying many of the stories included. I may return to it in a while to read the others, but I needed a break. Of the 14 stories I read, I “liked” 6 of them, but in varying degrees. Not a great ratio, and reading two or three lackluster ones in a row put an end to it for me. There’s just so much else to read!
Some of the stories were just not my cup of tea, but there were also some that I was enjoying, but then they seemed to end way too abruptly, seemingly without the full story being told, and certainly with no resolution. Perhaps I just prefer the novel form to short stories, but I know I’ve read good short stories before that work as self-contained stand-alone entities.
The stories I read and liked, even if they seemed to end unfinished were:
• The Ice Dragon – George RR Martin. A promising start to the book, I did like this one. Based on the author, I should have expected that not everyone would come through it cleanly or intact, though.
• The Laily Worm – Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Ahh. A wicked stepmother tale!
• The Bully and the Beast – Orson Scott Card. An engaging read, but I found it a bit dissatisfying in the end.
• The Miracle Aquilina – Margo Lanagan. I was really enjoying this one, but it just ended without the main character having any kind of growth or resolution or anything. It could be so good, but there needs to be so much more.
• Orm the Beautiful – Elizabeth Bear. Just kind of a neat take on the nature of dragons in death.
• Weyr Search – Anne McCaffrey. The original 1967 short story that later became Dragonflight. Of course I liked this one. There were enough subtle differences that it was interesting to read the original, but I don’t know how much I would have noticed the differences if I hadn’t just re-read the full book.
Bill Bryson’s African Diary – Bill Bryson. It was the end of the month, and I wanted a quick read that I could finish within the confines of May. As a print book, this is only 50 pages long, so it definitely fit the bill. Bryson visited Kenya in 2002 at the invitation of CARE International, then wrote this brief piece about his visit with the royalties and profits going to the charity.
There are moments of hilarity as Bryson relates their actual travels in the country, including a single engine airplane and the notoriously dangerous Kenya Railways. His visits to slums and refugee camps are, obviously, not high humor and that is as it should be. Perhaps there wasn’t a better way for him to relate the stories of those he visited. Perhaps framing those moments with humor was the best that could be managed. But I found his tales of these visits to be almost bland recitations. There was too much daily diary and not enough journal to this book.
Still since he was traveling with people and with purpose, it was a far more enjoyable read than the last Bryson book I read, Notes from a Small Island.