Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

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 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.

Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor and Really Bad Weather

So this book was billed, by no less than Augusten Burroughs, as a laugh-til-your-stomach-hurts novel, and the tweedy fellow I spotted with it was laughing out loud.  But I never once laughed reading this book.

Sure, the characters were amusingly larger than life, but I felt the core conflict, between fraternal twin sisters and the coolly cruel man who marries one while in love with the other, had too much emotional weight for the ridiculous situations to be funny rather than poignant.  The novel, with its twins, one a nymphomaniac, the other secularly celibate, reminded me of Half-Life, by Shelley Jackson*, which I really loved.  Half-Life is narrated by one of a pair of conjoined twins, in a world in which such pairings are increasingly common due to nuclear fallout, and the desire to be separated and finally live alone.  The narrator of National Book Award Winner has a similarly love-hate relationship with her twin, who completes her and yet imprisons her in their yin-yang dynamic.

An enjoyable read, but it doesn’t live up to its billing (though it does have really bad weather, so maybe a good pick for the next big snow).  My next Subway Book Club pick, The Collector, is waiting for me at the library when I return from my holiday vacation.  In the meantime, I’ll do a little personally selected reading, starting with Byron in Love: A Short, Daring Life.

*You may recognize her name from her Skin project, in which she enlisted 2095 volunteers to each have a word from her short story tattooed on his/her body without knowing what the whole story was in advance.

Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America by Jonathan Gould

Can’t Buy Me Love, like Brothers (about the Kennedys) was a chance for me to catch up with the cultural touchstones of my parents’ generation.  I grew up listening to the Beatles and aware of Beatlemania in a general sense, but appreciated this chance to learn more.

Gould takes an interesting tack in examining the Beatles phenomenon – combining a decently thorough biography of each Beatle with detailed descriptions of their music.  This was my first significant exposure to music criticism and the vocabulary was occasionally beyond me.  Because I have the One album on my iPod, I was able to listen to the songs while reading their descriptions and learned a bit.  For example, I had never noticed the double-tracking of the vocals on many songs, and I am used to listening to them as Greatest Hits, divorced from their original context, so I learned a lot about the structure of each album.

The biographical material, however, was probably excessive.  For one, Ringo didn’t do much interesting musically or otherwise and he throws off the attempt to balance all four Beatles;  George takes quite awhile to establish himself as a musician, so coverage of him is also weak until he starts writing songs and learning the sitar.  As the group started falling apart in 1968 and 1969, 500 pages in, I just ran out of interest.  I knew enough about each’s post-Beatles performing life that I felt I knew how the story was going to end.  A die-hard Beatles fan would probably know most of this already and for a newcomer to Beatles writing, it was a bit too much.

Flawed Dogs: The Novel: The Shocking Raid on Westminster by Berkeley Breathed

This was an odd book.  When I first saw it on the R Train, just after finishing A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I only saw the bright blue of the cover in the hands of the twenty-something guy next to me.  My first thought was that it was one of those “thug-life” novels that gets advertised on the subway,  but after I saw the man flip past a full-page illustration, I realized it was something I might be willing to read.

It turns out Flawed Dogs is from the Young Readers imprint at Penguin and is based on a 2003 Berkeley Breathed cartoon collection.  Since the book came out only in September of this year, I will not spoil anything about the ending, but I was deeply disturbed by the first two chapters and I think they’re fair game.

The opening chapter: the dog shown on the cover, with 3 legs and a ladle replacing the fourth, is carried into a dog-fighting arena.  He smells blood and immediately understands what is happening.  Placed in the ring with a slavering pit bull, he lays down to die.  At this point, I think my jaw was hanging open; I could not believe this was a children’s book.

The second chapter flashes back to the dog’s memories of being owned by an orphan girl (who names him Sam the Lion) and sets up his antagonism with a prize poodle in the home of the girl’s uncle.  Much general silliness also goes on, involving mischevious dogs and society matrons.  At this point, I began to feel this might make a PG-rated Disney movie, like Lilo & Stitch, which dealt with misfit animals and orphans but toned down the emotional intensity a bit with charming visuals.  Flawed Dogs doesn’t have enough illustrations to break me out of the mental pictures the text creates, especially as the owner of two rescue cats.  I definitely do not recommend this book to sensitive types and those under 10, but if you can maintain a bit of emotional distance, it might be a fun caper in the end.