Doggie in the Window, by Rory Kress***

TheDoggieintheWindowThank you to Net Galley and Sourcebooks for the review copy, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review. This book is for sale now.

Kress provides a great deal of salient information in this pet store expose; she’s done her research, and explains the ways in which laws fail to protect pets sold for profit, and she has some strong proposals of her own.

I expected to appreciate this book more than I did. I am a volunteer for Seattle Beagle Rescue; I write this review with Beagle Bailey, the fourteen-year-old rescue dog I am caring for in his golden years, flopped on my foot. I am also a fool that once, many years ago, purchased a cocker spaniel from a pet store. (As far as I know, nobody in Washington State actually puts puppies in a display window anymore, but sometimes they broker a purebred adoption.) That dog was gorgeous, but she was a mean little shit, and we had to adopt her out to an older couple that didn’t have children. At the time I figured it was a matter of bad breeding practices, but after reading Kress’s book, I have to wonder what was done to that pup when she was tiny.

The information here is solid, but the writing style didn’t work for me. You can only read so much wall-to-wall horror without wanting to put the book down; I get it already, don’t beat me! In addition, there’s a personal thread about the struggle she and her spouse went through trying for a (human) baby, and while I suppose that might have worked, somehow it didn’t. Instead of feeling confidential, it felt both disjointed and like an overshare.

Once I had begun reading, I realized that although I didn’t know all the low down, dirty details, I have known for decades that nobody should buy a dog from a puppy mill or a pet store, which is more or less the same thing, and it’s widely known. For many readers, this isn’t new information. Most people that go that route do it not because it’s a smart or ethical thing to do, but because it’s easy. When I made that error back in the ‘90s when I bought the cocker, it was known to most people, and to me, that this is an unwise way to get a dog, but I was already badly overbooked time-wise. A solid breeder is often hours away, and sometimes not even in the same state you reside in. And although there’s a lot of bandwagon talk about the benefit of adopting shelter animals, I had failed at this not once, not twice, but five times.

In four cases I had brought animals home that had contracted fatal diseases prior to their shelter vaccinations; the illnesses were dormant, and the shelters weren’t to blame, but when you hold a dying kitty in the veterinarian’s office that many times, you rethink shelter adoptions. And then there was the wild card puppy that turned out to be a German Shepherd and Coon Hound mix. She was one of cutest puppies you’ll ever see, and very healthy, but I can’t deal with a large dog; couldn’t control her, and she kept accidentally hurting the babies. Again, I had to search for a more appropriate home and was lucky to find a great family for her, but it was wrenching. My husband sat down and cried when that family drove away with our dog.

So I am leery of the promise of shelter adoptions; purebred rescues are great, but to get the very best dog for your needs, a solid, reputable breeder is the way to go. None of these variables appears here that I saw; I did abandon the book halfway through, so it’s possible it came up, but this didn’t appear to be the trajectory.

Those that want to know all the details, whether for personal knowledge or as animal rights activists, may want this book, but if you are looking for a sometimes sad but enjoyable read, something that balances out the joys of responsible dog ownership with the cautionary information about disreputable sources, this isn’t it.

My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg****

MyOwnWordsThis one is a crushing disappointment. I seldom buy books anymore, but I was so pumped about this collection that I went all out and got a hard copy, expecting to love it enough to keep it in my home library forever. Sadly, this isn’t what I expected.

Obviously, no U.S. Supreme Court justice is going to have enough time to sit down and write his or her memoirs, let alone an octogenarian justice, but I had hoped to find a collection of her meaty and sometimes even audacious opinions, particularly her dissents. Instead, this slender volume is packed with filler. There are two co-authors whose names are written on the cover in miniscule print, and it is they that write sometimes windy introductions to just about everything;  to make matters worse, they don’t tell us anything you cannot find in other biographies written about this feminist luminary.

And what of Ginsburg’s writing? I didn’t buy the book to see the precocious things she wrote as a child, as an adolescent, or in college. I just want to read her court opinions. That’s it. And that’s not what I got.

I can’t give anything that bears Ginsburg’s name a rating below four stars, but seriously, if your discretionary income forces you to buy books strategically, either skip this one or get it used. Surely at some point something more scholarly will be released, and then I’ll wish I still had the dollars that I spent here.

Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

prairiethe_Are the classic “Little House” books memoir or historical fiction, and were they written by Laura or by her daughter? If you’re confused, you’re not alone. In this epic, absorbing biography of her great-grandmother, Fraser tells us. Between her congenial narrative and careful, detailed documentation, this author has created a masterpiece. Lucky me, I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers. This book is now for sale.

Laura’s early life was considerably harder than the sepia-toned, heartwarming stories with which she recounts it. Little children could not stand to hear the grueling poverty and crushing losses her family sustained.

 

“Her autobiographical novels were not only fictionalized but brilliantly edited, in a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation. As unpublished manuscripts, letters, and documents have come to light, we have begun to apprehend the scope of her life, a story that needs to be told, in its historical context, as she lived it. That tale is different from the one she wrote. It is an adult story of poverty, struggle, and reinvention—a great American drama in three acts…Showing American children how to be poor without shame, she herself grew rich.”

Wilder was a legend unto herself, a fierce, strong woman that could survive anything, anything, and everything. Her story recounts not only personal hardships, but the wide sweeping history that she lived through, from the Westward movement and Manifest Destiny to the suffrage movement, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression, as well as the elephant in the room: Indian removal and genocide.

The book, some 600-plus pages, recounts not only Wilder’s story, but that of her daughter, Rose Ingalls Wilder, who was, frankly, a real piece of work. Their lives were so intensely intertwined that to do this any other way would render Wilder’s story incomplete.  And I appreciate the scholarly objectivity with which Fraser treats her subject; it’s not without warmth, but she is clearly not manipulating facts, as some authors do when writing about famous relatives. PrairieFires

And although I previously named a different title as the go-to biography of 2017, I have to recognize that Fraser’s book is a contender.  Highly recommended.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Coming Up

Celebrations here in the family domicile have momentarily distracted me, but that all ends tomorrow. Before I commence partying with family tonight, I thought I’d show you the books you can expect to see reviewed here over the weekend. Some are memorable and others not-so-much, but I am surprised by which are which. Wait for it:

Michael Collins, by Tim Pat Coogan****

MichaelCollinsTo date, this is the single best volume that’s been written about Collins, and it’s a meal. I purchased this title on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon when I was there to visit family a few years ago. Although the length of the book is listed as 480 pages in paperback, the reader needs to come prepared. The type is tiny and dense, and it took me a long time to wade through it. If it were formatted using more standard guidelines, it would be a great deal longer.

As I write this review I am halfway through Coogan’s epic history of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), and the style in which he writes is consistent in both books. Coogan tells us everything that is historically important, and he also tells us everything else he finds out, with no apparent filtering. His writing is half Irish history, half family Bible in the sense that if someone was briefly or peripherally involved with Collins, their proud relatives can probably find that person and his or her historical role somewhere in these pages. His shoe size is here, and the names of every girl he flirted with. For a man that lived so briefly, he left a large shadow, and the author was plainly unwilling to let even the tiniest bit of research go to waste, relevant or no.

I am somewhat surprised that Collins doesn’t rate more favorably with the author, given that his name is the one most associated with the creation of an independent Ireland. But Coogan does due diligence in establishing the brutality of the British occupiers, who killed indiscriminately with the use of terror. At one point, soldiers opened fire on a school yard where little children were at play; these royal ambassadors were the original school shooters, killing six little ones for being Catholic. In the protests that followed, women and girls knelt before British tanks and said their rosaries for those that had been killed for their Fenian identities.

The Irish freedom struggle took place at a time when the whole world was on fire. The Russian Revolution was unfurling with breathtaking speed; at the same time, there was no established Marxist revolution to look to for guidance, and Irish freedom fighters had no single idea of what political ideology should shape the struggle. Most of the revolutionaries were barely old enough to shave, and a lot of errors were made because of this lack of clear vision. The results were often tragic.

There’s an interesting discussion of whether Irishmen should become German allies during World War I. There is a strong resistance to becoming shills for the British, and so the question, then, is whether to remain neutral, or take the side of Britain’s enemy in the hope of receiving reciprocal assistance. In the end, nobody was organized enough, in this era of little technology, to come up with a cohesive plan, so the point was a moot one.

Should you read this biography? I think it depends upon how much time you have, and how strong your interest level is. One consideration might be to purchase it as a reference volume and flip through it to tease out the most relevant information, but be forewarned: sifting through the minutiae is not an easy enterprise. For researchers, the photos alone might be of interest, since they constitute primary documents.

Recommended for those with strong basic knowledge of Irish history that want to flesh out the details, and for those building a reference library.

Killers of the Flower Moon**

killersoftheflowermoon I received this book free from Net Galley, courtesy of Doubleday, in exchange for an honest review. It looked like a fascinating read, but I am disturbed by the sources chosen, which sent up all sorts of red flags right from the get-go and before I had even focused on the references themselves, a due diligence that has to be done before any nonfiction work can be recommended. Once I examined the references, I concluded that so many of them are so questionable that nobody, including the writer, can demonstrate anything beyond the premise of the book itself to be true. The killings happened; that’s about it.

I am perplexed, because this kind of error is the sort I’d expect from a novice, perhaps a zealous but careless graduate student bent on self-publication come hell or high water. Grann, however, is an established journalist who’s written for solid mainstream publications. He’s published successful novels. This is his first nonfiction book, and I am surprised that it went to press without his own eyes or those of his publisher finding the glaring problems here.

Early in the text a fact is documented with a block quote from one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, a series of YA novels loosely based on the author’s experiences during the Westward Movement, as Euro-Americans pushed the frontier back and took possession of Native territory. Many years ago, an interviewer challenged Wilder on a scene in one of her books, one in which a man recounts having been surrounded, chased, and threatened by wolves. The interviewer pointed out that wolves don’t do that, and Wilder tartly responded that she wasn’t aware that she had been supposed to be writing history or biology, but rather stories she had made up for little children to read. Her only nonfiction is a memoir she wrote later in life, which was not as widely seen.

This historical fiction, then, is Grann’s source material, and the fact that he chooses to give it a block quote also makes me wonder…if this is his good reference, what do the others look like?

A great many other sources are newspapers from what was then Western territory, newspapers from Oklahoma and elsewhere during the early 1800s. This is suspect material. There were no laws against printing inaccurate material, and journalists from this period often printed lies, sons of lies, and interviews based on lies, because there was absolutely no risk of penalty for doing so. To use sources like these, the very least a writer should do is find legitimate sources that agree with the questionable sources and cite both. This doesn’t happen here.

I have no idea why a good house like Doubleday would release this book, or why the writer didn’t use credible sources. Maybe he couldn’t find anything else, but that’s speculation, and I’ve just explained why nonfiction should not be based on guess work, on fiction based loosely on fact, or on unreliable sources, so I won’t take this line any further lest I be guilty of the same.

I was going to close by recommending that the reader just looking for a good story and not concerned about the research might like the book, but then I am confronted by the other unfortunate aspect of this story: I was pushing myself through it. I wasn’t spellbound, but as long as I believed there might be new information to be learned, I was ready to force myself to read this book, tedious though it is. With a DRC, I generally figure that once I’ve signed on, I have to make good on my promise. I wasn’t reading because I was absorbed; once I got a sense of the narrative I was reading out of duty, and out of the hope that at some point this thing would pick up steam. My hope was derailed by the bad source material.

Not this time.

Best of 2016: Nonfiction

I didn’t have to think twice about this one. This category includes any nonfiction published for the first time this year except for biographies and memoirs, which have their own category on this site. If you haven’t read this one, you should. It’s not only important, but oddly fascinating.

To Kill and Kill Again, by John Coston****

The Terrifying True Story of Montana’s Baby-Faced Serial Sex Murderer

tokillandkillagain

They say you should do what you’re good at, and unfortunately, Wayne Nance was good at killing people. He enjoyed his work. This is the true story of the man dubbed “The Missoula Mauler”, who killed primarily based on opportunity, high in the rugged Rocky Mountains between 1974 and 1986. Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Media, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review. The digital version of this true crime story was released October 18, and so you can buy yourself a horrifying Halloween present today. But turn all the lights on before you dive in. Lock your doors, and check your windows. If you have a basement, secure that as well. This isn’t a thing you want to read while you’re home alone at night.

I don’t read much true crime, because it’s dark stuff. To be honest, I wouldn’t have read this one, but an Open Road rep contacted me by email regarding another title I had read, and she was having a Monday moment; consequently, she asked me to review this title rather than the one I had read, and I figured I’d been invited to read it. I don’t turn down an invitation unless I know for sure I won’t like the book, so really, I read this one mostly due to a misunderstanding. By the time it was cleared up, I had downloaded it and was 20% of the way in, and I wanted to see how it came out.

The interesting thing about Nance is that he doesn’t seem to fit the serial killer stereotype. He was a quirky guy, true. But nobody said he kept to himself, or that he was quiet. He was sociable, and he was considerate, an apparently thoughtful young man that would run an errand, drop something off at your house while you were working, bring you your lunch…of course, there was always a chance he’d either forget to return your house keys or make a copy to keep, but that couldn’t hurt you if you didn’t know about it, right?

Well, actually it could. Sometimes it did.

I recently reviewed Open Road’s Fire Lover, a true crime story in which the killer seems drop-dead obvious. That isn’t the case here. At one point Nance came up as a suspect, but he had an alibi. I think when a person lives in a small Montana town and terrible things happen, it’s comforting to assume that the horrific, violent things that have been in the local news are done by an outsider, someone passing through. Maybe it’s a trucker that drives through from time to time, or some other outlier. Nobody wants to think it’s someone they work with, that they see every day.

I have to tell you, this story is not just scary, but it’s also tragic. There are children involved. The book’s blurb says there are photos, but these are not grisly photos of dead people; nevertheless, I found my stomach turning over a time or two. It’s dark, dark business, and you alone know whether you want to read something like this. The satisfying thing is that he is caught, and so other people didn’t die that undoubtedly would have. But as for me, I don’t want to read any more true-serial-killer tales for a good long while, if at all.

That said, Coston has to wade through a lot of data to tell this story, and he does so without getting bogged down in minutiae while setting an appropriate tone and pacing the story expertly. He tells us about the victims so that their own stories will not get lost while we learn the ugly deeds of Wayne Nance.

For fans of true crime that have strong stomachs, this may be the story for you. One thing’s for sure: all your own troubles will look smaller when you are done here.

Being a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz****

beingadogHorowitz is the author of Inside of a Dog, and here she follows it up with an examination of the sensory experiences a dog encounters, primarily that of smell.  I received my DRC courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. And though I’ve never been a science maven, Horowitz’s unbridled enthusiasm for dogs had me at hello. It’s a book bound to engage any dog lover.

So, do you have a dog?

I’ve had a dog nearly all of my 58 years, with a brief interim here and there.  I’ve never been dogless long, though; either a dog has found me, or I’ve gone looking for one. And so I was glad of the opportunity to read more about what makes my dog—right now it’s Ox, the oversized beagle puppy—work. I’d read a fair amount about dogs, particularly beagles, my favorite breed, and I thought I was well schooled, but I learned a great deal from Horowitz that I hadn’t known before, or in one main instance, in a way I had known intellectually, but not in my gut.

Almost every dog lover has heard at some point that a dog tends to be governed by its smell, and that this is its dominant sense. But until Horowitz took it apart for me and gave me the details, I didn’t grasp the implications. For example, when we throw the ball, the dog pauses before running after it, right? And with our last little dog, my husband and I would note that he wasn’t really looking in the right place, and we concluded that he was as dumb as a box of rocks. We’d yell; we’d point to it. And eventually, after he had sniffed its perimeter, he’d hone in on the ball and bring it back. And this book explains why that is exactly the correct way to do the job, if one is a hound (or other dog) rather than a human.

Sight is so important to us humans; next comes hearing. If we are in a carnival’s haunted house, and if the first room is sightless and soundless, what do we do? Do we sniff? Of course not! We fling out our arms in front of us or to the sides, partly to find out where things are, and partly to protect ourselves from slamming our face into a hard surface. And now when I consider Ox’s sense of scent, after which is hearing, I realize that by the time he has to look at something, he’s probably gained most of the information he needs already. Why would we fling our hands out in an ungainly manner if we can see and hear? And so indeed, why would my beagle do a visual scan if he can find what he wants through the use of sniffed air currents and hearing? After all, he always brings the toy back to us.

Chapters that engaged me less contained miniature chemistry and physics lessons, never my favorite, and some had longer passages having to do with human olfactory sense than I really wanted to read. I confess after the first few times the author moved from dogs’ senses back to those of humans I skimmed until we were back to the dogs.

There was so much here I hadn’t seen. For example, where does one find the best material for search and rescue dogs, or arson, bomb, drug, cadaver dogs, and so forth? I’ll give you a hint: I was crushed to find out that my beloved hound dogs aren’t necessarily the favorites here.  But it sure is interesting!

Once I had read this book, I felt that I knew my dog a lot better, and this new information solved many of Ox’s previously puzzling habits. To learn more, check out Horowitz’s new release, which became available to the public yesterday.

Because although I don’t know whether a dog is man’s best friend…I know he’s mine.