Saturday, March 27, 2010

Book Review ~ The Dog by the Cradle

Erika Ritter's non-fiction tome The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships is Book 11 in my goal to read and review 13 Canadian books about dogs for the Great Canadian Book Challenge. It is one of the most difficult books I've ever read. The topic is a tough one to chew on, and Ritter's style leaves much to be desired. In the first chapter, she set my teeth on edge by making fun of Dr. Temple Grandin's beliefs and autistic behaviours. It set the wrong note for the entire book.

Central to the book, and the basis of the title, is the story about Guinefort, a greyhound in medieval France, who was killed by his master for a crime he didn't commit. Ritter comes back to this story repeatedly - introducing it multiple times in most chapters. By the end of the first chapter, I was annoyed; by the end of the book, I was gnashing my teeth as I reread the basic premise of the story for the umpteenth time. Ritter goes off topic repeatedly - not surprisingly, given how many times she goes back to the old Guinefort tale. Frequently, I lost my place, not understanding how I had arrived at the point I was reading. The book has a lot of promise, especially since it is clear that Ritter's research was exhaustive. With a strong editorial hand guiding her, Ritter could have produced something much more powerful. However, she has missed the mark.

My bottom line: If the topic really interests you, try checking it out of the library. That way you don't have to feel guilty if you can't finish it.

The light is at the end of the tunnel for the Challenge, whew. Two Stanleys to go to meet my goal of 13: Stanley Coren's The Modern Dog and Linda Bailey's and Bill Slavin's Stanley picture books.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Book Review ~ Lonesome

When I joined John Mutford's Great Canadian Book Challenge last summer, I pledged to read and review 13 Canadian books about dogs over the course of a year. John himself made some book suggestions, but it's always a pleasure when I just stumble across a suitable book. I found Chris Czajkowski's Lonesome: Memoirs of a Wilderness Dog at a used bookstore. Serendipitously - or not - I was on a trip to a specific pet store, and decided on a whim to pop into the used bookstore next door. I had never heard of Czajkowski before.

Czajkowski has lived in the B.C. wilderness for more than 2 decades and has published other books about her experiences. Lonesome is unique because it's creative non-fiction, a memoir told from a dog's point of view. The dog in question is Lonesome herself, named after B.C.'s Lonesome Lake. Lonesome the dog is smart and polite; and I'm not sure if it's that persona that inspired Czajkowski's narrative voice or if Czajkowski always writes like this, but I often felt like I was reading a 19th-century tome. Some of the writing is a little formal, interspersed with words like "perforce;" and the descriptions tend towards the flowery.

Flowery, however, is not the way Czajkowski treats Lonesome. When I was growing up on a farm (30ish years ago), attitudes towards dogs were much like the ones Czajkowski has. Granted, Lonesome is a working dog in a harsh climate, and Czajkowski has few luxuries herself. I have to give Czajkowski props for admitting her own flaws, such as being quick to anger; but I question whether it is "tmi" to share that she smacked Lonesome so hard that the dog flew off the table the first (and last) time she tried to help herself to Czajkowski's food. Like Jack London's Call of the Wild, I really wouldn't recommend this for younger readers.

The book offers a unique perspective on living in B.C.'s interior - the harsh climates, the beautiful but punishing landscapes, the frequent meetings with wildlife, and the isolation. Lonesome has a beautiful voice; Czajkowski has done a bang-up job of portraying a dog's point of view. All in all, a worthy read; and one that should appeal to several different types of readers.

This is my tenth (yay!) book for the Challenge. Just three to go; and I'm saving Linda Bailey's and Bill Slavin's Stanley's Party and Stanley's Wild Ride for the home stretch.