Monday, January 19, 2009

Nose Down, Eyes Up

By Merrill Markoe

Dog lovers are a breed of their own and I am not afraid to admit I am one of them. Therefore, it is always great fun to find a cute book about a dog; thanks to Merrill Markoe, one more has been added to that list.

Gil is a man in his late-forties who has been through a divorce, has been cursed with a dysfunctional family and earns enough to stay alive by living in homes of the wealthy while he does odd-jobs and construction to the home. His girlfriend, Sara, of five years, "speaks" with animals and adds three dogs to the list of one that already lives with him. He loves all of them but his favorite is definitely Jimmy. Jimmy was a gift from his ex-wife and was the very best thing that ever came of the marriage.

Suddenly one day, Gil is able to understand Jimmy, as well as every other dog he meets. He is amazed at the intelligence dogs have and their ability to reason and manipulate situations. Together Gil and Jimmy start a blog written in Jimmy's voice, hoping to capitalize on it by selling t-shirts with Jimmy's image on the front. Around the same time, Jimmy starts asking about his birth mother, insisting he meet her. Before long, Jimmy is snubbing Gil in favor of his biological family. All the while, Gil is breaking up with his wacky animal-communicator girlfriend, living in his ex-wife's guest house, being blackmailed by a private investigator and dealing with his mother's pressure to "bond" more with his doper brother. It's only when tragedy strikes that Gil and Jimmy are brought back together, their relationship even stronger than before.

Merrill Markoe writes in a breezy, easy-to-read style with a flare for pointing out the humor in both human and animal antics. I found myself laughing at least every two or three pages, mostly because there is such truth in the absurd when it comes to how people and animals behave. A scene at the beginning of the book has Jimmy addressing a posse of dogs from around the neighborhood; this is the first time Gil has heard them speak and he is standing silently out of their sight.

"Can I ask a question?" said Dink. "I know you've covered this before, but... tell me one more time: Is it pee inside, poo inside, eat and play outside? And what about puke? Is that inside or outside?"

"Here's a mnemonic device. Everything starting with p is outside. P is for 'patio.' P is for 'pool,' P is for 'plants.' P is for 'poo' and 'pee.' And 'puke.'"

"Are you sure?" said Dink. That doesn't sound right. If we were supposed to poo outside, why does Gil collect it in a bag and bring it inside?"

"Because Gil collects shit. No one knows why or what he does with it," said Jimmy. "From what I have observed, I think he maintains a pretty extensive collection and that's why he--"

"No. That is wrong. I don't collect it, I'm cleaning up the yard," I interrupted, unable to keep quiet any longer. Jimmy looked up, seeing me for the first time.

"Gil! Gil! Gil!! Hi, Gil! Hey! How are you! How ya been?" he said, trying to cover up the entire incident by running over to me and jumping around. "Hey, everybody! Gil's here. Isn't it great to see him?"

They all began to circle me enthusiastically, some of them hurling themselves into the air. "Oh, boy! Gil! Gil! Gil! It's so good to see you!"

"You look amazing! Let me smell you. Hey! You had chicken for lunch, didn't you? You got any more on you? Can I have some? Where you been all day!"

"That's enough, you guys," I said. "And just for the record, after I collect the shit in that bag, I throw it out. It goes into the garbage."

"All that work to throw it out? That makes no sense," said Jimmy. "Why?"

"It stinks and attracts flies," I explained patiently.

"Yes, I'm aware of that," Jimmy said, confused. "But you still haven't told us why you throw it out."

"Nose Down, Eyes Up" is an amusing, fast-paced book that any dog owner would be glad to read. Its wit and banter lighten the load of daily life, much the same as actually having a dog's tummy to scratch. It will be fun to see what Merrill Markoe comes up with next.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Letter To My Daughter

By Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou has more wit and charm in her little finger than most people have in their entire body. More importantly, she is honest. In "Letter To My Daughter," she recounts stories from her life that let the reader know no one is perfect, but there is much importance in always trying to be your best self.

She explains why there is so much value in respecting others. She expounds why it is crucial to not make assumptions about others, using her own humorous anecdotes. One particularly funny memory she shares is about an actress from Senegal named Samia. Samia and her French husband invite Maya to a dinner party at their home. As all the guests are standing around the edges of a beautiful carpet in the center of the room, Maya thinks to herself that her opinion of Samia has been lowered, due to the fact she will not allow any of her guests to walk on this beautiful carpet. Maya, in an attempt to experiment, walks across the rug again and again, pretending to admire artwork on the walls. The other guests watch her with half-smiles on their faces, and she thinks to herself that the guests "might be encouraged to admit that rugs were to be walked on." Soon after though, two maids come and roll up the rug and remove it, only to put down another equally beautiful rug. Then they put dishes and silverware and glasses on the rug. It is then that Maya realizes she has been walking across the tablecloth! Maya concludes with, "In an unfamiliar culture, it is wise to offer no innovations, no suggestions, or lessons. The epitomy of sophistication is utter simplicity."

The only drawback to "Letter To My Daughter" is that it is not longer. I could have read ten times the amount of Maya Angelou's thoughts and stories and poetry. It is uplifting and heartening. Every woman who reads this book is sure to find at least one ray of sunshine.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Hour I First Believed

By Wally Lamb

A good book will take the reader to another time and place. If you are comfortable with that time and place being inside a cabinet in Columbine High School's library on the day of the shootings, Wally Lamb's "The Hour I First Believed" is a truly stunning read. While it is a very heavy story (I cannot emphasize just how heavy it is), it is also a book about hope and putting one foot in front of the other. It is a story about trying again and again no matter what the outcome.

"The Hour I First Believed" is a longer book; it is not a weekend read. However, it is an excellent book, both in the story development and the more subtle subtexts. The only problems I can see some readers having with it is a) the "f" word is used throughout, and b) a one-sided liberal political agenda suddenly pops up approximately two-thirds of the way through. These two factors may turn some people off.

The book opens with the main character, Caelum Quirk, picking a pizza up on a Friday night at the local pizza place. There are two young men working the shift and Caelum knows them from the school he teaches at: Columbine High School. The reader knows, of course, the havoc Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris will wreak on their classmates and teachers the following week. This makes for an intense beginning, waiting for them to show their truly demonic selves to the world. Their rampage will take place the following Tuesday.

As it turns out, Caelum's beloved aunt has a stroke that weekend, so he is called to the east coast to tend to her in the hospital. He leaves his wife Maureen behind, as she is a school nurse at Columbine and can't really take the time off. While Caelum is in Connecticut, his aunt passes away. He is devastated by the loss and is going through the motions of arranging her funeral when he learns of the shooting at Columbine. His only thought is he needs to return to his wife, though he has been unable to reach her, thereby not knowing if she is even alive.

He arrives in Littleton and starts searching for her. Finally, he finds her at another school where all the survivors were evacuated to, and he takes her home. Instantly, he realizes she is a different person. The trauma she suffered while hiding in the cabinet in the library is brought to life by Wally Lamb's attention to details. As the reader, you truly feel like you were there in the library, scared beyond all belief.

"The Hour I First Believed" is an incredible account of what happened that day at Columbine. It is also a commendable tribute to those who perished, those who were victimized and those who had loved ones involved in any capacity. More than that, it is a book about moving beyond the horrors of life. It is about cultivating a new life and becoming your best person.

To move on, Caelum and Maureen move back to Connecticut, to the farmhouse left to him by his aunt. It has been handed down through several generations of Quirks, and Caelum is not thrilled at the prospect of spending his days there. No matter how he and Maureen try to move past the terrible ordeal Maureen has been through, they are still broken people, each moving through life in different ways. The sadness of the story does not end at Columbine. There are many sad days for them to struggle through, though the reader is always hoping for the best for Caelum and Maureen.

Wally Lamb's storytelling abilities are amazing. His writing style is so easy to follow; his characters are very easy to relate to; and in the end, the reader will feel as though they were the characters in the book and have survived the horrible ordeals only to finally be uplifted.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


By Anita Shreve

I am an Anita Shreve fan.

That being said, this book was far below par for Anita Shreve. I was sadly disappointed that I was unable to enjoy it more.

"Testimony" is about some students at Avery, a boarding school in Vermont, who make a tape of one girl engaged in various sex acts with three upper-classmen. Because of one decision made by two people, everyone's life results in a domino affect.

My biggest complaint with the book was that the author wrote each chapter (each varying greatly in length) from a different person's persepective. While this was bad enough, it could be possible to make it work if she hadn't then written each of those characters from a different point-of-view. When a book changes by chapter from first-person to third-person to second-person, it takes too long for the reader to get back into that character's frame of mind. While I have always admired the fact that Anita Shreve loves to employ new or different technniques, I cannot give her credit for this story, except to say that once again she had attempted to break the mold.

The first chapter is written about Mike Bordwin, the headmaster at the boarding school. Using third-person, it in itself grabs the reader's attention, giving a false sense of secuity in this being the beginning of a good book:

It was a small cassette, not much bigger than the palm of his hand, and when Mike thought about the terrible license and risk exhibited on the tape, as well as its resultant destructive power, it was as though the two-by-three plastic package had been radioactive. Which it may as well have been since it produced something very like radiation sickness throughout the school, reducing the value of an Avery education, destroying at least two marriages that he knew of, ruining the futures of three students, and, most horrifying of all, resulting in a death.

Chapter two is written from Ellen's perspective (one of the mom's of one of the students on the sex scandal tape), but from the second-person point-of-view. I felt like I was reading my daughters' "If You Give A Mouse a Cookie" book.

You wait for the call in the night. You've waited for years. You've imagined the voice at the other end, officious and male, always male. You hear the words, but you can't form the sentences. It's bad luck to form the sentences, so you skip to the moment when you're standing by the phone and you've already heard the news and you wonder: How will I behave?

Will you scream? It seems unlikely. You are not a screamer. You can't remember the last time you screamed out loud. Will you collapse then, knees buckling, holding onto the wall as you go down? Or will you, as you suspect, simply freeze, the paralysis immediate and absolute, likely to last for hours, because to move is to have to make a life after the phone call, and you can't possibly imagine how you will do that.

The third chapter is written from another character's perspective but is back to being told from a third-person point-of-view.

The fourth chapter is written from yet another character's perspective, this time in first-person. Sienna is the girl at the center of the sex-tape scandal; the reader knows immediately that she was not completely innocent in what happened:

I'm like, if anyone touches me, I'm going to kill them. I have no money left. Do you have a dollar? I need... There's nothing in here. Just a bunch of dimes and nickels. I changed my name. I thought it up myself. My name used to be something else, but I like Sienna better. I was traumatized. I had to be in therapy for ages. You can put your life behind you and get a new start. I haven't thought about what happened in Vermont in, like, I don't know. I was the victim. I think someday I'll write a book about it.

As I said before, I have enjoyed most all of Anita Shreve's books. Unfortunately, "Testimony" misses its mark.