Cesar’s Way by Cesar Millan

I debated whether to read this book – as I’ve mentioned before, I give myself various outs, including for textbooks, religious material, sci-fi books with metallic covers and romance novels.  So I could find an exception for “how-to” books for things I don’t do, like own a dog.  But I grew up with a dog and have two cats, so I figured I’m enough of an animal person to find something interesting in it.

(Total digression – I studied abroad in Russia one summer and, after a few weeks, was a bit bored of the dozen other folks in my program, so I set a goal of seeing as many museums as possible and finding at least one interesting thing in each, like the truck rearview mirror a Soviet scientist used to remove his own inflamed appendix at the South Pole, found in a jam-packed display case at the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic.  So I have a taste for the accumulation of random knowledge.)

I knew a little about Cesar Millan from viewing his program at the gym while on the treadmill years ago, but other than being unsure about whether his high collar method is painful to dogs, hadn’t given him much thought.  It turns out that he’s actually a pretty controversial figure, and his book does point out areas in which folks disagree with him.  For starters, his background is pretty much entirely “practical” – he’s not a vet and his ideas about dog behavior come from watching dogs on his grandfather’s farm in Mexico.  To validate his point of view, he spends a lot of the first section of the book (which is fairly slim and quite repetitive and padded with photos and New Yorker cartoons) discussing his childhood in Mexico, the birth of his dog trainer dream and his early years forming his business with the help of a well-connected limo company owner.  Through the limo guy, Millan got a job training Will and Jada Smith’s dogs, and they helped him turn himself from a guy with a van to a guy with a business.

Millan’s basic idea is that dogs are dogs first, members of their breed second and individuals last, so they need certain basic dog things to be well-adjusted.  He believes these include lots of walking every day and clear dominance structures.  Apparently the dominance thing is a flashpoint for a lot of folks, and I can see how it makes people uncomfortable to assert dominance over a companion animal.  On the other hand, enforcing some rules seems like a good idea for everyone, and in that context, I thought Millan’s ideas made sense.  I think, given dogs’ desire to please, healthy boundary-setting can channel that energy (as the owner of two cats, I frequently wish they were a little people-pleasing . . .).  Speaking of energy,. Millan has some annoyingly New Age ways of talking about “energy” that I found distracting, but could accept most of by mentally reframing as body language and the like.

Finally, Millan intersperses vignettes of dogs he has trained (actually, he says he’s really in the business of training humans) to illustrate common problems.  This part was mostly very sweet and a few touching cases made me tear up on the subway.  There is also a least one extremely graphic description of an attack by two pit bulls that killed a woman, which was a bit gratuitous, but if it convinces more people to learn to control their dogs, I’ll deal.

Ultimately, the book was a good introduction to Millan’s background and philosophy and probably could help the average dog owner understand how to relate to his dog better, but before using the high choke collar, I think review of Millan’s critics would be in order.

The Women by T.C. Boyle

At first, I thought this book might relate to the movie The Women, but it turns out it only came out in December 2009.  Boyle also wrote The Tortilla Curtain and The Road to Wellville (which I read ages ago), so he obviously enjoys recreating a historical milieu, as he does here, examining the women in the life of Frank Llyod Wright.

This book was timely for me, having seen the Wright retrospective at the Guggenheim recently and gotten educated on the fires at Taliesin, as well as the mistresses / wives.  The story itself is compelling, if not terribly unusual – a gifted man and his unconventional relationships – but it was marred for me by Boyle’s  choice of a layered narrative.  The historical novel has strengths in permitting Boyle to recreate conversations, but his choice to add a Japanese-born narrator, presumably to add an outsider’s view of American society at the time, bogs the story down in sideplots the reader has no reason to care about.

Maybe I’m just crotchety lately, but I’m not interested in some of the formal exercises in narrative structure I’ve been reading lately.  The subject of this novel didn’t need the formalities to make it interesting, so they’re just a reminder of how much may not have a basis in the historical record.  If I want a display of literary virtuousity, I’ll finally get around to reading the first person plural narrative “And Then We Came to the End” by Josh Ferris (I actually do want to read this, especially because I used to work with Ferris’ wife and my Writer has served his time in a number of ad agencies).

Next up is Cesar Millan’s “Cesar’s Way” . . . Of course, while I’m waiting for it to show up from the library, folks on the subway seem to be on a reading binge of all sorts of great stuff.

The Defector by Daniel Silva

If Watchmen was an important book that didn’t quite entertain, The Defector is a wholly unimportant book that’s fairly entertaining.

Part of a series starring an Israeli secret agent / art restorer, The Defector concerns a Russian defector (the titular character) the agent smuggled out of Russia and used to undermine a major Russian mafia figure.  The defector has disappeared from the streets of London and the Israeli is summoned from the Italian villa where’s he’s restoring a painting for the Pope.

The Defector is the perfect airplane novel (less suited for the episodic nature of subway reading) – moving quickly and with some superficial emotional involvement (I hate the woman/child-in-peril trope and this book includes pregnant-woman-in-peril).  The novel also feels reasonably “realistic” – not that I know anything about the CIA, MI6 or Mossad – but spends a decent amount of time on the “how” of creating covers and safe houses, which I found interesting.

So, not great literature, but fun.  Next up – The Women by T.C. Boyle.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I’ve held off on posting a review of Watchmen because I’d been hoping to see the movie first, which is available on HBO On Demand right now, but the Writer wants to see it too and our schedules have prevented us from finding the couple hours necessary.

The main reason I want to see the movie is to see how they handled some pretty unlikable characters – The Comedian is a US army shill who tried to rape a fellow hero, Rorschach has the morality of Scott Roeder – able to justify vicious crimes by his uncompromising sense of morality, Doctor Manhattan has all but lost his humanity.  I appreciated the sensitivity with which Silk Spectre’s affair with Nite Owl II was handled – while not middle-aged myself, I enjoy seeing a love story between adults who have pasts.  I’m not sure if I was supposed to see Nite Owl as slightly pathetic – he really did look owlish, and not particularly heroic, in costume.

The other element that would seem difficult to translate to the screen is the layering, not only of each character’s arcs and flashbacks to earlier days of glory, as well as faux documents interleaved into the books, but also the framing and commentary provided by the pirate comic books being read by a young man sitting at a news stall.  It’s occasionally a bit too on the nose, using “voiceover” in the pirate story to comment quite directly on the moral quandaries facing would-be heroes.

Ultimately, I am glad I read Watchmen, but I’m not sure I was entertained by it.  The lack of sympathetic characters, the unrelenting negativity (it’s a Cold War work, focusing on Russians, the bomb, the economy, gang violence) – I enjoyed looking for all the literary allusions (the Gordian Knot lock company and so on) and was repaid with them being significant to the plot, but I really just wanted a happy ending.

The Passive-Aggressive Conductor

We’ve all had him and today on the N, he was especially peevish.  From 34th Street to 14th – five times, and from 14th to Canal – 9 times, we heard: “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not hold car doors open while the train is in the station.”  And then one rendition of “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not block the doors while the train is in the station.”  I guess someone at 34th held a door for the 4,000th time and the conductor just cracked.  Luckily, fourteen or fifteen repetitions was enough, and we continued on to Atlantic in peace.

The Collector by John Fowles

Frederick Clegg is a shy and awkward man raised by aunts, a collector of butterflies and a forefather of Buffalo Bill (of Silence of the Lambs) and countless other twisted men whose heads novelists put us inside.  Frederick’s interest in young Miranda is harmless until he wins a major lottery prize and decides to collect this beautiful specimen.  His justifications are almost sympathetic – he knows she would never notice him otherwise.  Frederick’s fantasy is not primarily sexual either, his greatest fantasy is that Miranda will come to love him.  However, as Miranda repeatedly attempts escape, he comes to despair of this scenario and instead forces her to pose for salacious photos.  Just as their conflict is building to a head, however, the narrative re-starts, now through the lens of the diary Miranda keeps during her captivity.

Fowles masterfully manipulates his readers – even as you know how this scenario must turn out, you are lulled by the descriptions of Miranda’s attempts to civilize Frederick (who tells her his name is Ferdinand, but whom she calls Caliban).  She believes that if she can find some kernel of fellow feeling in him, she can convince him to let her go.  This is not merely a conflict between a deeply damaged man and a smart young woman; Fowles makes quite clear it’s also a conflict between bourgeois middle-class desires to control, and thus deaden, the world and idealism, hope and most of all art.  The novel was published in 1963, and certainly reflects conflicts of that era, but I kept thinking it was from the 1920s, mostly because the blatant class consciousness was so alien to me.  While belief in the transcendant power of art feels a little dated now, the psychology of The Collector holds up well, and in eschewing the  stomach-churning acts of The Silence of the Lambs, permits a sickening degree of identification with and understanding of Frederick.

What’s Next?

Over the holidays, reading Byron in Love confirmed that I shouldn’t pick my own books.  It was highly recommended in a review I can’t find now.  All the ones Google pulls up confirm my assessment that it’s deeply unbalanced, providing way too little of Byron’s literary merits or even the non-sexual components of his relationships to flesh out the catalog of sexual perversity.

Santa, on the other hand, enabled me in my favorite rut, stuffing Edvard Radzinsky’s The Rasputin File in my stocking.  Odd reading on a Belizean beach, but deeply satisfying and it provides an intriguing reinterpretation of Rasputin’s murder.  The only thing I would have added would be more photos and reproductions of contemporary photos and news stories, since the contemporary publicity of Rasputin’s exploits was a significant factor in undermining the Russian people’s faith in their rulers and helped open them to the idea of Communist revolution.

Yesterday, I finished The Collector on the way to work, but everyone on the N Train was on a Blackberry or PSP, so it wasn’t until the ride home I was able to find a new book.  The first person I sat next to was a woman about my age with a huge book spread open on her knees.  I sighed a bit, since the long ones slow down my posting schedule, but a glance at the top of the page showed it to be Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth!  Saved, I turned to The New Yorker (highly recommend last week’s review of a book arguing van Gogh didn’t cut off his own ear) and forgot to look for a new book until I’d switched to the R in Brooklyn, where a scruffy guy had a bright yellow book in hand.  It turned out to be The Watchmen graphic novel, with the bleeding smiley cover obviating the need to see the title.  The Writer happens to own the original printing of the comics in book form (as well as the original comics, but I wouldn’t dream of touching those), so for once, no need to wait on the NYPL.