Posts from March 2013

March 22nd, 2013

New Yorker Joys in the Penny Press!

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Last week’s New Yorker started off with a letter, written by Jane Scholz, that I’ll quote in full:

 

As is the case with the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, the tragic death of any young person is an incredibly sad event, wharever the cause. I object, however, to the effort of some of the people featured in [Larissa] MacFarquhar’s piece to turn Swartz into a hero for facing government prosecution after hacking the JSTOR archive. Swartz was apparently familiar with laws protecting proprietary-information-management systems, so he should not have been surprised by the severity of the prosecution’s response to his crime. It is a crime, and not a victimless one. I am a retired journalist; during my working years, my salary depended, and today my pension relies, on people paying for copyrighted content. In recent years, as the business that supports journalism has declined, thousand of journalists have lost pay, benefits, and, ultimately, their jobs. Some people may consider illegally downloading content from the “1942 edition of the Journal of Botany” to be benign, but downloading periodicals such as the New York Times – or The New Yorker, for that matter – without paying for them would harm the people who worked for those publications in the past and who write for them today. I find it ironic that Swartz made several million dollars selling the rights to his own copyrighted programming to Conde Nast. Swartz’s is a sad story, but it’s not a heroic one.

And toward the end of the issue, there’s a great piece by Giles Harvey that I wish I could quote in full. It’s about the flourishing sub-genre of the failure memoir:

A growing batch of memoirs by literary screw-ups and also-rans suggests that mistakes – the bigger and more luridly described the better – might be a portal to the success, or, at the very least, the solvency, that eluded their authors the first time around. The formula is simple: when all else fails, write about your failure.

Harvey skewers a long list of such annoying books, and it’s low-key glorious to watch (the article’s only misstep occurs when Harvey bizarrely calls it “a conspicuously male genre” even though a whopping 90 percent of all failure-memoirs to hit big money have been written by women).

new yorkerBut even Harvey’s article isn’t the highlight of this issue (if you’re searching for it on your newsstand, look for a cover the color of urine-soaked manilla with a small child’s drawing of some kind of giant corseted high heeled shoe in the center). No, the highlight comes from what is always, for me, the least likely source: a piece of writing about dog ownership. Ordinarily, I stand by my hard-won rule that nobody on the planet should be allowed to write about dogs except me, but this piece, “A Box of Puppies” by Lena Dunham, is so good I’ll gladly make an exception.

In it, she tells us all about her childhood yearning for a dog – a yearning thwarted first by her angry parents and then later in her life by her boyfriend. When she finally does adopt a mutt named Lamby from a shelter, he starts to develop a problem right away: he’s sound-sensitive, setting up an eerie wailing when something he hears upsets him. Dunham never even considers dumping the dog back at the shelter, and her essay’s soaringly great conclusion is likewise worth quoting in full:

At 5:07 a.m., I crawl to the end of the bed to meet him. I ruffle his ears, whisper, “It’s O.K., I’m here. I’ve been waiting for you for so long. Before I even knew about you, I was waiting for you. When you were born, I was only twenty-five years old. I had a boyfriend I didn’t love, but I told him that I did and he made me a pencil case, so I didn’t even know I needed you. But I needed you.” Lamby is growling, but more softly now. He still doesn’t like the scene downstairs, the coughing and the woman’s frustrated, tired caretaker rising to check on her.

“And the rest of the months I waited for you, and now here you are.”

Once, in a friend’s office, I saw a childhood picture of her husband on which he’d drawn a thought bubble saying, “I can’t wait to meet you, it’s going to take a long time, and there will be a lot of trouble along the way, but this is how it must be.” It struck me as impossibly romantic, the nicest thing you could say to someone, really. “I’m not going anywhere,” I tell Lamby.

He wakes up only one more time in the night, with a single bark that trails into silence.

I kiss his little mouth, his ears that smell like corn chips and old water. “Sh-h-h …I love you. I love you. I love you so much.” There is no one to call for help. We don’t need any help. He is mine, and I am old enough to have him. We are all adults here.

 

March 14th, 2013

Striking a balance in the Penny Press!

magazines in a bunch

It’s almost never a clean sweep in my weekly Penny Press – almost always, I’ve got to suffer through annoying garbage in order to enjoy the fine stuff (especially since I tend to read everything in every issue – sometimes on my first go-through I’ll skip around, but then the ol’ Irish Guilt kicks in and I go back to pick up the stragglers). This week was no exception, as two cases-in-point make clear.

In the New Yorker (the March 18th issue, the one with the cover drawn by a small child, showing a bunch of smudgy, stick-figure dogs playing in a park with a giant stack of pancakes in the background – very enterprising of the magazine to give a toddler such high-profile work; I’d say it boded well for that toddler’s future, except the cover makes it clear the child has no actual drawing talent … probably somebody’s niece …), for instance, I was treated to a stronger-than-average piece by Jill Lepore on torture in American history that has a lancingly insightful aside about the prisoners being held at “Camp X-Ray” in Cuba:

They weren’t called criminals, because criminals have to be charged with a crime. They weren’t called prisoners, because prisoners of war have rights. They were “unlawful combatants,” who were being “detained” in what the President called “a new kind of war,” although, really, it was very old.

new yorkerjpgAnd I got to enjoy the intelligent writing – if not the subject – of Margaret Talbot’s “About a Boy,” about a sixteen-year-old girl in Connecticut who’s already had several surgeries (with her parents’ full consent) to change her body’s gender to male. The article is yet another inadvertent example of the fact that an entire generation of parents is wholesale skipping the parenting part in favor of trying to win some kind of toleration-derby. I read it, appalled, until I got to pretty much the sole voice of reason in the whole piece, that of Alice Dreger, a bioethicist:

“These are not trivial medical interventions. You’re taking away fertility, in most cases. And how do you really know who you are before you’re sexual? No child, with gender dysmorphia or not, should have to decide who they are that early in life … I don’t mean to offend people who are truly transgender, but maybe a kid expresses a sense of being the opposite gender because cultural signals say girls don’t shoot arrows, or play rough, or wear boxers, or whatever. I’m concerned that we’re creating feedback loops in an attempt to be sympathetic. There was a child at my son’s preschool who, at the age of three, believed he was a train. Not that he liked trains – he was a train. None of us said, ‘Yes, you’re a train.’ We’d play along, but it was clear we were humoring him. After a couple of years, he decided that what he wanted to be was an engineer.”

The subject might sadden and infuriate me, but the article Talbot put together about that subject was first-rate reading material, something I’ll clip and save.

But there’s a price to be paid for such enjoyment, and in this issue – as in more than a few previous issues – it took the form of a pompous, tedious movie column by David Denby, this time reviewing “Oz the Great and Powerful” and “Jack the Giant Slayer” in a double bill that should have been fascinating.

You know it won’t be fascinating by Denby’s very first sentence: “Wicked witches and yellow bricks and Munchkins are back, but do we really need them?” And as if that weren’t a full enough abrogation of a movie reviewer’s core qualification, there’s the follow-up sentence: “Isn’t blessed memory ever enough?”

This is the whining credo of somebody who shouldn’t be going to the theater even for private recreation, much less to review his findings for an audience as large as the New Yorker‘s. When a movie critic starts bleating “Do we really need more movies? Can’t we just remember the ones we’ve already seen?” (which Denby’s been doing for virtually his entire career), he signals his own irrelevance. And things are only made worse by the fact that in this case the fix was so obviously in long before Denby set foot in theater: he takes these two movies – as near-identical in scope, tone, special effects, and execution as two movies can be – and pronounces diametrically opposite verdicts – “Oz the Great and Powerful” stinks, whereas “Jack the Giant Slayer” is wonderful (among other things, it apparently “honors a child’s desire for forts”). Denby at no point contemplates what his reaction to “Jack the Giant Slayer” might have been if Judy Garland had starred in “Jack and the Beanstalk” back in 1939 – but then, he doesn’t have to, does he?

Likewise over in the latest issue of Men’s Journal (the one with pea-brainedmen's journaljpg slavering attention whore Gordon Ramsay on the cover): on the one hand, Stephen Rodrick turns in a great, atmospheric profile of shark-advocate and all-around great teacher Rachel Graham, an article that, again, deserves clipping out and saving. But on the other hand, two writers, Maria Fontoura and Kevin Gray, give us one of those unbelievably annoying little features that turn up semi-regularly in ‘lad mags': features that treat dogs as just another gnarly fashion accessory young guys need help buying. This one is called “The Right Dog For You” and features a kind of flow-chart designed to help overmoneyed yuppies and hipsters pick the pet that best fits their lifestyle – “all more original than your standard Labrador retriever.”

It’s maddening, of course. Not only are dogs living, feeling fellow-beings who don’t have to have a “key function” in order to be worthwhile, but of the nine purebred breeds actually named in the piece – Newfoundlands, Manchester Terriers, Chinooks, Australian Shepherds, standard poodles, German Shorthaired Pointers, Entelbucher Mountain Dogs, Shiba Inus, and beagles – how many are ‘beginner’ breeds, the kind some young testosterone-pump reading Men’s Journal could buy and take home without any problems, ready to hit the hiking trails? None. Zero. All nine of those breeds – unlike those boring old Labs – are most emphatically not for casual owners; all nine require vast amounts of solo focus and specialized understanding. And if they don’t get it – especially as high-demand puppies – they’re miserable, and they make their new owners miserable as well. And we all know what happens to dogs who make their self-absorbed twentysomething owners miserable.

In a totally just world, Fontoura and Gray would have to feed and shelter every single dog bought and then abandoned because of their article, and it’s frustrating that they can use some small pulpit to urge callow idiots to go out and buy Entelbucher Mountain Dogs, for the love of Mike.

But then, such frustrations are part of the standard exchange in the Penny Press. I can always hope for better next week, or even later this week.

December 19th, 2012

Best Books of 2012 – Nature!

The news of the world has never shown a grimmer picture of the war on Nature than we saw in 2012 (compensated only slightly by Nature’s increasing proclivity to make war on us), but the superheated, winterless, waterless blight hasn’t been reflected in the beauty of nature-related books hitting stores. Here are the 10 best from 2012:

naturalhistories

10. Natural Histories from the American Museum of Natural History Library – Certainly the most visually arresting nature volume of the season, this oversized slipcased item is a treasure-house of archival-quality reproductions from the holdings of the American Museum’s Research Museum, featuring long, loving passages on dozens of rare 19th Century works of natural history and dozens of separate prints suitable for framing. It’s a celebration perfectly in keeping with the puissant nerdiness of the American Museum.

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9. The Sounding of the Whale by D. Graham Burnett

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8. Of Moose and Men by Jerry Haigh

the-forest-unseen-march-2012

7. The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell

the great animal orchestra

6. The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause – The sheer unending variety of the animal kingdom is most fascinatingly expressed in the sounds it makes, and that inadvertent orchestra is “bio-acoustician” Krause’s subject in all its glory. The book’s lively narrative is accompanied by a disc that will change forever the way you encounter the natural world – a world of excited, passionate whoops, calls, songs, and plain old conversation, ten billion of a day.

the complete dinosaur

5. The Complete Dinosaur (2nd edition) edited by James O. Farlow and M. K. Brett-Surman

the black rhinos of namibia

4. The Black Rhinos of Namibia by Rick Bass

spillover

3. Spillover by David Quammen

comet's tale

2. Comet’s Tale by Steven Wolf – Wolf was a go-getting lawyer when two things radically chanted his life: he was stricken with a crippling spinal disease, and he adopted a retired racing greyhound named Comet, whose sweet nature he gradually freed from trauma and on whom he gradually came to depend for both physical and moral support. It’s a familiar dog-saved-me setup, but it’s beautifully done.

last walk

1. The Last Walk by Jessica Pierce - The best nature book this year (and also the best dog book) is immeasurably also the saddest: Pierce writes about the aspect of dog-ownership most dog people don’t want to think about – the end, when the light dims in the eyes and the muscles get stiff or give out and old joints can’t become warm enough. I’ve live through that last, most heartbreaking stage more times than I can count (except that like all dog-owners, I have counted), and I’ve never seen it more intelligently, more searchingly explored than Pierce does in these pages. This great little book is not a happy reading experience – but for dog-people, it’ll be a massively cathartic one.

June 18th, 2012

Man’s Best Gear in the Penny Press!

One of the annoying parts of reading all the lad-mags I do is that they believe they need to pander in order to pay their bills. I don’t think it’s true – I think the, um, slightly older segment of their demographic spread would keep them in business even if all the brainless twenty-something business drones drifted away. But the magazines themselves certainly believe it: they routinely barnacle their content with grabs for the attention of people they’d go out of their way to avoid at a party (or on a hiking trail). Specifically, the much-coveted ‘male, 18-25′ bandwidth.

The problem is, males 18-25 are epically stupid creatures, most of them. They want to figure out a way to be, the kind of person they want to be – but not for any higher reasons of self-discovery, but mainly just to get all that ‘way to be’ shit out of the way so they can spend the rest of their lives amassing money and screwing their wives and mistresses. So the most convenient way to sell them ways to be is to do it in packages: not choices but lifestyles. Most ‘lad mags’ spend an annoying amount of their time trying to sell a lifestyle to that one moron demographic.

It’s a lifestyle in which you might read a couple of  books a year (any more would be suspect), but you’ll need to be told which ones they should be (and they must be written by writers who box semi-professionally, which kind of limits the field). A lifestyle in which you’ll need tips on the best cigars to buy but somehow won’t get addicted. A lifestyle in which insights into the female mind exclusively take the form of sex-tips. You’ll be told which back-countries to hike, which CDs to bring along, and which sunglasses to wear. That male, 18-25 demographic finds it all very comforting (even though, at the movies, those same coveted viewers don’t hesitate to boo the zombies and Imperial storm-troopers they are willingly becoming), and the rest of us put up with it in exchange for the usually first-rate contents found elsewhere in these issues.

The problem, for me, comes when something that’s actually important gets lumped into one of ‘lifestyle’ diktats. Take, for instance, the latest Outside magazine. It has an absolutely great article by Bob Friel on an unsolved string of murders and disappearances along a lonely stretch of highway in British Columbia – but it also has an extremely annoying feature by Josh Dean on “The Ultimate Outdoor Companion” … i.e. the dog.

But not just any dog: the trail-dog, the mountaineering dog, the running, hiking, and whitewater-rafting dog. There’s a full-page spread showing all the latest gear you can get for your gnarly, outdoor-companion dog, and the spread couldn’t make it any clearer that the dog is itself is just another purchase, as vulnerable to the fads around the office water cooler as anything else. As if to underscore the point, the feature lists a few breeds that are touted as the most ‘adventure-ready’ breeds these males, 18-25 can buy. Leaving aside the fact that almost any young dog of almost any breed is going to have five to ten times the speed, strength, and most of all stamina of even the most athletic human (and ‘adventure-ready’? I don’t even need to pontificate on that one – have any of you ever met a young dog of any kind who wasn’t ‘adventure-ready’ at all times?), some of the breeds on this list – standard poodle, Siberian husky, even (God help us) Australian Shepherd – are extremely wilful, extremely complex specialized breeds. They aren’t ‘beginner’ dogs. An 18-25 year-old brainless man, getting one for what is very likely his first solo-ownership dog, is 100 percent certainly going to be dropping such an animal off at the local high-kill dog pound within a year. And it’s all so wasteful, so completely unnecessary. I’ve covered a lot of terrain in my life with a lot of ‘outdoor companions,’ and I’m telling you true: any happy year-old mutt can handle any outdoor activity you can throw at it – and requires not one single item of all that shiny ‘gear.’ Dogs were running tirelessly over all terrains 60 million years before the first human said ‘dude.’

But the feature has an even darker aspect, one it shares with anything pitched for a ‘lifestyle': mainly, that there’s no such thing as a lifestyle. There’s just stuff people do, and the times and ways they do it. So you buy an (God help us) Australian Shepherd because Outside tells you they’re “good companions for dynamic, fast-paced activities” like hiking, running, skiing, kayaking, and “especially mountain biking.” This is insane (try running with an Ausralian Shepherd and get back to me), but OK – except what does your dog do for the 99.2 percent of your life when you’re not doing any of those things? The rest of your new gear doesn’t mind, because it’s inanimate. But if you buy a living, breathing being – a complex creature with emotions, imagination, and personality (and one who ages ten times faster than you do – what happens when Champ can’t kayak anymore? You throw him overboard and keep paddling?) – purely for a niche-activity (and stop kidding yourself: that’s exactly what it is), you’re perpetrating a cruelty you certainly wouldn’t want done to you (your girlfriend loves your back-rubs, fine – but imagine if that was the only thing she was interested in you doing, or let you do, for the rest of your life). And whenever a ‘lad mag’ like Outside runs a feature like this, they’re abetting that cruelty.

So you love running and hiking and camping? Great. Trust me: go to your local dog pound, pick out the first two young dogs you see. Feed them, love them, and let them love you. Presto: the ultimate companion, outdoor or in.

 

February 22nd, 2012

Superdogs in the Penny Press!

Once you hold your nose and get past Bruce McCall’s predictable, boring cover for the 27 Feb New Yorker, you have a genuine treat waiting for you inside: a great article called “Beware of the Dogs” by somebody writing under the pseudonym of “Burkhard Bilger” (in anticipation of the tsunami of innuendo I’m sure is coming, I should state for the record that I am not, in fact, “Burkhard Bilger”), all about the dogs (and trainers) of the New York City canine units. The author, whoever he is, does a great job – this is one of those sui generis pieces that could only really look natural in the New Yorker, one of those pieces that makes me glad all over again that there is such a thing as the New Yorker.

“Burkhard Bilger” shadows some NYC canine crime units and visits their training facilities, meeting the men (good-natured and well-adjusted, the lot of them) who do the training and the entirely superior beings who submit to being trained:

A good dog is a natural super-soldier: strong yet acrobatic, fierce yet obedient. It can leap higher than most men, and run twice as fast. Its eyes are equipped for night vision, its ears for supersonic hearing, its mouth for subduing the most fractious prey. But its true glory is its nose. In the nineteen-seventies, researchers found that dogs could detect even a few particles per million of a substance; in the nineties, more subtle instruments lowered the threshold to particles per billion; the most recent tests have brought it down to particles per trillion.

The image of police dogs took something of a collateral hit when the country saw photos of U.S. military dogs being used to terrify illegally detained foreign prisoners, and the NYC cops “Burkhard Bilger” interviews often have to stage fake drugs-in-the-crowd incidents in order to keep their dogs sharp (actual drugs-in-the-crowd incidents being yet another on the long list of things the city’s current mayor has effectively outlawed). But these men and their dogs have seen plenty of real action, and everybody our author talks to concurs: dogs make a big difference:

“One canine team can do the work of ten or fifteen guys in a gang situation,” Lieutenant John Pappas, head of the squad, told me. “It’s ‘Fuck you! I’m not going anywhere.’ But when you throw in some jaws and paws – holy shit! It changes the landscape.” In 2010, one station on the Lexington Avenue line was hit by twenty felonies in a matter of months. Once a canine unit was sent in, the number dropped to zero. “It’s like pulling up in an M1 Abrams battle tank,” Pappas said.

Given the incredible statistics operating in New York, I supposed I should count my blessings Boston hasn’t likewise increased its use of police dogs in the subways; such dogs invariably stop what they’re doing, come straight over to me, and go all rubbery with face-smooching joy – which causes all their human handles to pop the safeties on their revolvers and demand to see every last used book in my shoulder bag. Sigh. Reading about such an encounter is a lot more enjoyable than trying to talk yourself out of one.

July 17th, 2011

Dog Days at the White House!

Our book today is Traphes Bryant’s heart-warming memoir of being dogkeeper to five U.S. Presidents; he wrote Dog Days at the White House in 1975 with help from Frances Leighton, and the book instantly merited a position of honor in the crowded ranks of oddball White House memoirs (there are far, far more of these than the uninitiated might suspect, and a staggeringly high percentage of them are actually worth reading). Bryant was something of a general handyman around the White House, helpful with everything from press conferences to electrical work (and one of those soft-spoken, reassuringly calming presences that are gratefully welcomed in pretty much any high-tension workplace – if he’d had no skills at all, instead of the wide variety he possessed, all those administrations would still have found reasons to keep him around), but gradually – and somewhat to his surprise – he came to be the person in charge of the vast and shifting menagerie that was the presidential dog-show.

It was no small task (it never is – if the kennel-keeper for the Tudors had taken it into his head to write a memoir, his account of the never-ending chaos of the job would have read very similar to Bryant’s). As video technology advanced, as the White House grew closer and closer to the press that covered it, presidents learned the huge public relations potential of having a dog, being seen playing with a dog, or even being seen in a dog’s company – the idea being that if a dog likes the president, he can’t be all bad. It’s an idea with more than a little superstition in it, but nevertheless: Bryant’s account makes it clear that Richard Nixon’s dogs weren’t particularly fond of him. Nor was Bryant, though he tries to be diplomatic about it:

The second king in residence [after King Timahoe, the President’s dog] was the President himself, who acquired the nickname of King Richard for the regal way he swept in and out of the White House in his limousine and the grand way he did just about everything. The way he lived. The way he treated his staff. The way he wanted to be treated. The way he seemed to be trying to build an empire by hand-picking men and training them at the White House and then sending them out to take over some government agency.

Such notes are struck often in these pages; Bryant is alive to the possible significance of his furry charges, noting, for instance, that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy asked Bryant to bring his dog into the Oval Office for a little nerve-calming attention. Our author at least entertains the thought that he’s helping history get shaped:

Who can say how much White House dogs have influenced American history? How many Presidents have helped keep a balanced perspective on life, and thus make better decisions? How often have they made it easier for a President to win friends for the country, influence royalty, or win an election? I’d say a lot.

Naturally, he adores Jackie Kennedy, and most of his Kennedy-era stories revolve around her. He makes sure to tell us that one of his funniest (and most frequently repeated – it’s only in this book once, but it was a dinner party staple for decades) JFK stories gave Jackie Kennedy one of the heartiest laughs she ever got in the White House:

There was always something funny happening around the White House in the Kennedy days – even cases of mistaken identity seemed hilarious. One day President Kennedy walked through the Bouquet Room on his way to the pool. He said, “Hi, Charlie, how are you?” Charles Pecora, Mrs. Paul Mellon’s head gardener, who was helping Jacqueline, was in the Bouquet Room. He said, “Fine, Mr. President.” I could see he was amazed at the President’s friendliness and at the fact that the President knew his name. The President was a little startled too. He was speaking to Charlie the dog, who was lying down in his path. He had never set eyes on the visiting gardener before.

But the real star of Dog Days at the White House is President Lyndon Johnson. He takes up the majority of the book’s space, and it’s clear he won Bryant’s heart in a way no other president did, despite the fact that his priorities often confused Bryant:

3/29/66 The South West Gate was open for the presidential cars to exit for the reception given him at the Indian embassy by Her Excellency Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India. Everyone was waiting impatiently. The President came out of his office and leisurely petted the dogs on his way to his car. I guess Presidents get pretty jaded. If Indira Gandhi were giving a party for me I wouldn’t be standing around petting dogs.

(This also displays the curiously charming innocence Bryant managed to maintain through all his years in the White House; there are two very good political reasons why LBJ would have kept Indira Gandhi waiting while he petted his dogs, and the reader likes Bryant all the more for the fact that he never even suspects what they are).

More than the charm of the man, though, is the doggishness of him: as Bryant writes in one of his photo captions, “There is no way to describe how much dogs loved Lyndon Baines Johnson” – and during Johnson’s time in the Oval Office, that love extended into one of the oddest and most intense areas of human-dog interaction that anybody can visit: while Bryant was White House kennel keeper, Johnson fell in love with a beagle.

All other dogs have their charms (even basset hounds), and affection is the keystone of all those charms – but as anyone who’s ever experienced it will attest, there’s something peculiarly affecting about the special bond that can develop between one beagle and one master, and that happened to Johnson while he was President: he acquired two little beagles (in his characteristically laconic way, he called them Him and Her), and together they became the sunlight of his days (Bryant’s diary is filled with entries where the President called him up at the last minute to inform him that he’d be taking the dogs on some trip or other – and there are many, many sheepish requests for the kennel keeper’s permission to let Him and Her sleep in the residence overnight). You can see this with blinding clarity in what I think is one of the single best portraits of the pure joy of dogs: that great, iconic shot of LBJ greeting his beagles outside the Oval Office, where for one glorious instant, all three of them are so happy they’re utterly oblivious to the rest of the world:

It was Him who made that special inroad to the President’s heart – Bryant never saw LBJ more upset than he was the day Him died, and although many other dogs were to follow and be treasured, none of them filled that vacancy.

And speaking of filling vacancies: I’m not 100 percent certain the White House ever officially filled Bryant’s position once he retired (back fifty years ago, the White House could be oddly provincial and absent-minded about such things). If so, I hope that lucky person is keeping a diary.

January 11th, 2011

The Order of Wolves!

Our book today is Richard Fiennes’ wonderfully informative 1976 volume The Order of Wolves, a kind of follow-up to his equally-authoritative 1968 book The Natural History of Dogs, which I read with keen interest while surrounded by sleeping dogs. Even though I currently only have two dogs, it’s still easy to feel surrounded when one of them is an, um, rubenesque basset hound, and so it was that I read The Order of Wolves also surrounded by sleeping dogs.

Fiennes covers every aspect of wolves in the world, from the emergence of their most distant ancestor the creodonts, somewhere around 60 million years ago (the creodonts also gave rise to a whole slew of other furry critters, from raccoons and bears to … echh … cats) to their establishment in roughly the form we know them today, around 30 million years ago, from their hunting methods to the methods used to hunt them, from their interactions with other members of their species (Fiennes stops short of calling this a culture, but then, most people do) to the vast literature of their interaction with mankind. He admits that few other animals have such a rich history of false impressions (when it comes to humans) than the wolf, and his book calmly and methodically sets out to correct that.

The task necessarily requires a certain amount of big-picture thinking, and Fiennes tries to make this as painless as possible:

At the border of any habitat favourable to a particular life form, there is always a ‘tension zone’ where different habitats merge. These form the outer limits, where the ‘ecotypes’ change, but there is inevitably some overlap where the species from the one habitat compete with those from the other… In such areas, species tend to change their ways of life to compete with the demands of the shifting habitat boundaries. Wolves are so resilient, and can survive on such a wide variety of foods, that when their way of life has been threatened they adapt themselves to altered conditions with an unusual degree of success. At the end of the Ice Age wolves survived in forested and mountainous areas in the face of persecution by man. The forests replaced the tundra with such great rapidity – a matter of a few hundred years – that no other large predator emerged to challenge his dominance.

The slight but appreciable tone of advocacy you might detect in that passage runs through the whole of this book. In Fiennes view, wolves have always been far more sinned against than sinning when it comes to their dealings with man. This may not seem so revelatory a stance in 2011, but forty years ago Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men and Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf had barely begun the work of changing the public’s mind. Fiction is always stronger, and well into the 1980s the wolf was still being portrayed in novels as a harbinger of destruction. If even ten percent of the millions of people who read Anne Rice’s rip-snorting The Vampire Lestat (in which young, headstrong, and still-living Lestat fights off a ravening wolf-pack in one of the book’s arresting opening scenes), you can see the size of the job conservationists had in front of them.

At many points throughout his book, Fiennes takes pains to point out that the wolf is not what its press releases would have wary hikers believe:

What we have learned for certain is what the wolf is not: he is not a voracious, ravening predator, who roams the plains and snowscapes in great packs, licking blood-stained lips, tearing down every living thing he can get hold of, and devouring innocent travellers.

Quite coincidentally, Fiennes’ book is yet another of those oversized heavily illustrated hardcovers I seem to be mentioning quite often so far this year. There are fascinating black-and-white and color photos on every page – shots of wolves moving through the snowy forests and tundra that are their new favorite hunting-grounds, shots of wolves playing (something they crucially do not only in puppyhood but all through their lives – I’ve seen adult wolves in the wild play dog-stupid games for an hour at a stretch), and shots of all the wide array of facial and body posture expressions that underscore the main characteristic wolves share in common with humans: they are inveterate and consummate communicators with each other – it’s one of the key secrets of their success as a species, and it couldn’t be achieved without considerable intelligence:

The brain of the wolf is small by human standards, but nevertheless, if it is compared to the brains of herbivorous animals, it will be seen that the cerebral hemispheres are prolonged at the back so as to cover most of the cerebellum. Wolves are undoubtedly extremely intelligent, and this is probably correlated with the large cerebrum.

The Order of Wolves tries its best to take us inside the world of its subject – not an easy thing to do when that subject orients itself to the world utilizing enormously different primary senses from those of humans. We are so familiar with the fact of these animals’ existence that we tend to forget the gap between their senses and our own (the same thing is true in spades about dogs, the full range of whose senses would flat-out astonish even most of the humans who live with them every day). Wolves share with dogs a millennia-old propensity to encourage that forgetting – they require comparatively very little conditioning to become entirely friendly with humans, and that friendliness is always based on accommodation. No cat has ever accommodated a human owner in the history of the world, so it’s easier for cats to retain an aura of the mysterious. Dogs – and wolves – are every bit as strange and different from the humans who for good or ill define their existence, but since they’re happy to fawn and goof around, the strangeness isn’t stressed.

Fiennes revels in it; to him, the magnificent other-ness of wolves is their quintessential charm. Even when he’s describing the mechanics of their hunting techniques, he’s an obviously avid fan:

Prey animals are followed against the wind, not because the scent carries better but because they are heard better. This may, at first, surprise us from our knowledge of our own hunting dogs, one group of which hunts by sight (in the greyhound group), the other hunting by scent like foxhounds. Yet, fancy a dog lying by the fireside apparently asleep. Suddenly he stirs and cocks his ears. The family has head nothing, but the faithful dog has heard the sounds of his master’s car. More, he has distinguished that one care from all the other traffic on the road. So with wolves …

Despite passages like this one, the ultimate message you take from The Order of Wolves is how different they are from their dog cousins. These are the dogs who didn’t come in from the cold, who refused to be changed by human fire and will. Fiennes knows his subject backwards and forwards, and he’s too much the scientist to indulge in more than the occasional touch of poetic insight. But nevertheless, he clearly shares the same opinion that so many wolf-experts can’t help but have: that in trading their wildness for security, does somehow debased their common heritage with wolves.

No matter where you stand on such an opinion, it seems pretty clear that some are more debased than others …

June 26th, 2010

A Room of One’s Own!

Ah,  the two faces of home!

Now,  let the posting resume!

March 17th, 2010

The Red Hourglass!

Our book today is Gordon Grice’s mesmerizing 1998 thriller The Red Hourglass: The Lives of Predators. This is electrifying, horrifying stuff – Grice takes a close look at the predatory tactics and the encounter-lore of a few common predators in the natural world: spiders, snakes, mantids, and, interestingly, pigs and dogs. We get brief, intense natural histories of the black widow, the tarantula, the rattlesnake, and – in this great book’s most indelible chapter, the brown recluse spider. And like all the best strong, impressive writing, it has unintended side-effects: after you finish The Red Hourglass, you won’t pay an anxiety-free visit to your basement, patio, or attic – to say nothing of the great outdoors – for about a year. And this effect is evergreen: reread the book after many months, and you’ll still be out for another full year.

Part of the secret to this dark magic is the fact that Grice picks omnipresent creatures as his subjects, rather than, say, the great white shark or the grizzly bear. He picks animals you often don’t have to make any special effort to meet (especially if you live in the American West and Southwest). In fact, reading his book you’re reminded of that old saw of natural history books, that no matter where you’re doing your reading, you’re probably not more than five feet from a spider of one variety or another. In the grip of The Red Hourglass, you’ll become certain all of those watching spiders are venomous.

He studies the black widow spider as a passionate amateur who’s caught and kept several throughout his life and never been bitten. He recounts in fearful detail the agonies healthy adults tend to experience upon being bitten, and you can tell he revels in the fact that genuine mysteries lurk in the exact method of that agony:

The venom contains a neurotoxin that accounts for the pain and the system-wide effects like roller-coaster blood pressure. But this chemical explanation only opens the door to deeper mysteries. A dose of the venom contains only a few molecules of the neurotoxin, which has a high molecular weight – in fact, the molecules are large enough to be seen under an ordinary microscope. How do these few molecules manage to affect the entire body of an animal weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds? No one has explained the specific mechanism. It seems to involve a neural cascade, a series of reactions initiated by the toxin, but with the toxin not directly involved in any but the first steps of the process. The toxin somehow flips a switch that activates a self-torture mechanism.

There’s the same grisly, respectful fascination in the chapter on rattlesnakes – he points out what anybody who’s spent any time in out west will confirm: each rattler’s personality is different. Some will go out of their way to avoid even indirect proximity with humans, while others will seek out a confrontation. Some are meek, others flagrantly aggressive (although Grice keeps his focus pretty much squarely on the United States, this same dichotomy is true of the cobras of India – except for the part about any of them being meek). And all are potentially harmful, even the young:

Rattlesnakes are born venomous. They can already hunt for themselves. My father once reached into a patch of grass and was struck on the fingernail by a baby rattlesnake. The nail eventually blackened and fell off. He suffered no other effects. Some people claim young rattlesnakes are more toxic than adults. Possibly the explanation for this paradox is that young rattlesnakes show less restraint in using up their supplies of venom when biting defensively. A certain medical student, assuming the young harmless, handled one. He showed off for friends, telling them how ironic it is that such an emblem of fear could be handled freely. That’s the way most people get bitten: an urge to handle fire. These days the young doctor has nine fingers.

The curveball of The Red Hourglass is its inclusion of pigs and dogs, two species most people might not at first classify as predators. The chapter on pigs does scarce justice to their gentle intelligence, but to be fair, Grice spends most of its pages talking about wild boars. And the chapter on dogs … well, it has some interesting personal recollections about sharing a town with a large pack of feral dogs, but as for the rest-let’s just say Man’s Best Friend continues to be one of natural history’s most persistent mysteries (which is another way of saying what we’ve said many times before here at Stevereads: dog-writing done by people who aren’t me tends to have lots of problems). My biggest chuckle is always the part where Grice interviews a man in Special Forces training who talks to him about facing a canine guard dog in mano-a-pawo combat:

Your big dogs go for the throat. I’m talking Doberman, German shepherd, most of the ones used as attack dogs. You put your arm up to protect your throat. You let him bite your arm, but you fall back with his momentum. As you fall, you put your other forearm just behind his head. As your back hits the ground, you’re bringing your knees and feet up to push him up over your head. Basically you’re giving him a monkey flip, and you’re holding your arms rigid. His mouth is hooked onto one arm, the other’s behind his neck, and as he flips his momentum snaps his spine. One dead dog. Not hard to do, but you have to sacrifice your arm. You’re okay if you’re wearing a thick jacket. If not, your arm gets pretty torn up. You could bleed to death.

Hee. See? I’m chuckling again. So the thing you learn in Special Forces training is that when you’re attacked by a large guard dog (the elasticity of whose neck muscles and tendons is roughly four times that of a human), the first thing you should do is lay down on your back and expose your abdomen and genitals. Why, that’s downright sensible! You know, sometimes I think the much-vaunted ‘Special Forces training’ we civilians hear so much about consists entirely of learning how to bullshit on epic levels. I’m 100 percent certain no Special Forces op ever used this preposterous ‘let me wrestle with you before you disembowel me’ tactic, but I’m equally certain the guy Grice interviewed told it all to him with a straight face and an earnest voice. That’s expert training for you.

Grice accurately reports that dogs are second only to humans as killers of humans – their sheer ubiquity makes virtually every human around them careless, so the fatalities are much higher than those of black widows or tarantulas or rattlesnakes. And fatalities aren’t really even the main issue in the book’s most grotesque and striking chapter, on the humble brown recluse spider. The brown recluse is exactly the kind of crack-and-crevice-dwelling creature you could almost certainly find in your room right there at home, if you were foolish enough to go looking. It’s a shy, retiring creature, but its venom contains an even bigger mystery than the extreme toxicity of the black widow’s bite. The bite of the brown recluse doesn’t poison flesh: it kills it. And the toxins involved somehow prevent the body’s natural systems from cleaning the wound – with the result that bite victims often have an open, suppurating gap of dead flesh to deal with for the rest of their lives, from a bite so tiny nobody ever remembers getting bitten. Grice finishes his gruesome, hypnotic book with his account of this animal and its bizarre defense:

The flesh affected by a recluse’s necrosis never heals. Somehow, the venom turns off the immune system and the body’s capacity for repairing itself in that patch of flesh. The victim can only hope the dead area stays small. But sometimes it doesn’t.

Despite its disturbing subject matter, The Red Hourglass is a book you should most definitely read. Grice is a master prose stylist with a perfect ear for the pace of drama. Just be prepared, once you’re done with the book, to live in a less comfortable world for about a year.

January 29th, 2010

Yearning to Herd Sheep in the Penny Press!

Boy, it’s been quite a week in the good old Penny Press, hasn’t it? My reporting has been so consistent certain less steadfast members of the Silent Majority have expressed concern that I’ve given up on boring old books altogether. I assure you, that’s not the case – I still have plenty of tedium to unload on you all (including our next installment of Penguins on Parade), but I still read lots of periodicals, and this is still where I talk about what I read (swankier OLM-sponsored digs notwithstanding), so bear with me.

And besides, how could I of all people ignore the cover story of the 1 February issue of New York? “A Dog Is Not a Human Being, Right?” blares the cover, but the adorable little critter whose portrait (yet more stunning work by Jill Greenberg, the greatest portrait artist of our age) accompanies those words seems mighty uncomfortable with all the attention.

That critter is lucky not to be able to read, because the article in question, written by John Homans (and I’m accused of using flimsy aliases!), is very often very damn annoying – and as some of you will recall, I consider the ‘annoying’ bar set pretty damn high when it comes to anybody but myself talking about dogs.

I realize Homans can’t be held accountable for the stuff the copy editors attach to his piece, so the article’s subtitle, “Dogs are increasingly rootless souls, country bumpkins in city apartments. But is a vegan pup still an animal?” can’t be held against him, but the actual text of his piece isn’t all that much better.

The problem, as always, is one of focus. Homans’ shifts all over the map. At one point he’s making withering observations about the insane world of high price-tag dog-pampering, and at other points he’s talking about how all dogs are somehow mystically attuned to life in ‘the country’ and are only making compromises by enduring suburb, city, or apartment life:

The apartment is a far from perfect place for the dog. Still, they’re camp followers of our microtribes, the only beings that fully understand the customs. And unlike children, they’ll never reject them.

He’s not sure how to describe the hazy area dogs occupy in human (in his view, this always equates with “American Northeast Caucasian,” which gets a little irritating in its own right), even though that very area is the ostensible subject of his article. So at one point he says “The dog is an honorary human,” and at another he insists “Treating your dog as a person is nothing more or less than an aesthetic error.” Part of the problem stems from a doggie-fact of which Homans seems entirely unaware. See if you can spot it:

As the relationship [between humans and dogs] developed, specific canine qualities – the dog’s gaze, its unending adolescence, its uncanny responsiveness to human clues – evolved … What was created was not, precisely, a human child, but it certainly was able to push some of the same buttons.

Yes, those of you who know anything at all about dogs will have seen it immediately: our modern dogs didn’t evolve any of those qualities Homans is going on about. Those qualities – and plenty of others, intended and otherwise – were eugenically implanted into dogs by humans, who have controlled canine breeding lines (with varying degrees of intentionality, of course) for thousands of years. Dogs have been made to be childlike; they’ve been shaped to gaze upon humans with undivided attention. Once you learn this (or recall it), most of Homans’ talk about dogs yearning to get out to the country and herd things becomes just exactly the same kind of blather that usually irritates me when anybody other than myself talks about dogs. But that’s not what irritates me the most about Homans’ piece, oh no! That would be one single line, the seeming answer to the question on the issue’s cover:

No one believes, in his conscious mind, that the dog is a person.

In an article that takes pains to describe the vast strides various animal rights groups have made over the decades, such a sentence is almost vile, and it instantly begs the question: what is a person? It’s Homans’ persistent conflating of ‘human’ and ‘person’ that rubs salt in a very old wound. And Homans just won’t let up:

The dog’s innocence amplifies empathy, because there’s no ethical static, no human otherness to contend with. It’s less complicated to love a pet than a person.

This, to put it mildly, is just so much sheep-dip. As some of you will know, I’ve had many, many dogs. Some were angels of affability, perfectly happy just to lap up all the ease and comfort I could give them. Others were earnest little misses, always over-eager to please everyone. I’ve had gregarious dogs and the occasional tangled, haunted introvert. I’ve had happy-go-lucky dogs and those who were more remote (including one – my favorite, the best friend I’ve ever had – who behaved like a king and treated everybody but me – canine or human – with sometimes very visible disdain). I’ve had dog who were better at logical solutions to problems than I am, and I’ve had dogs who were (you should pardon the expression) barking insane.

I can tell you two things they all had in common:

First, they were all ‘persons’ – in that they were themselves and nobody else, every bit as individual as any humans I’ve known.

And second, they were all complicated to love. Loving anything living is complicated, and even the dogs who make it simple with their personalities make it more complex with one other canine trait (one humans almost never have to deal with amongst themselves), which Homans gets around to at the close of his essay:

In a footnote to one of his poems about the deaths of his dogs, John Updike wrote, “Sometimes it seems the whole purpose of pets is to bring death into the house,” a sensationally cruel observation because there’s truth in it. The dog’s mortality is never far from an owner’s mind – it’s the central flaw in this best-friend business. No one is ready for their dog to go. And the dog doesn’t know where it’s going – the dog joke turned into a tragedy.

It’s confusing that Homans could be so clear on this point and yet make that preposterous ‘the dog is not a person’ stance. He gets love, individuality, devotion, variety, humor, and now grief – and still he says the being who evoke all those things are somehow less than his fellow humans, even if those fellow humans don’t evoke them. All dog-owners know this contradiction for the shortsighted silliness it is … but Homans is a dog-owner (that’s his gorgeous dog at the top), and yet he appears not to see it. I’m hoping he sees it just fine and is merely stirring the soup to make an article chat-worthy. And considering how scatterbrained that article is, I’m really hoping he entirely cleans it up if he ever decides to expand it into a book. We don’t need any more dumbass dog-books out there – especially since we’re already dealing with a flood-tide of dumbass dog- articles.