Chasing a Tale

Book report: A Dog’s Journey: Another Novel for Humans by W. Bruce Cameron, 2012

Bruce Cameron’s novels make me scream.

I read novels, not as many as I would like, maybe one and a half a month. Literary novels — the popular ones far more than ones from small publishers, I’m afraid — and the occasional mass-market-but-sophisticated thriller (John le Carre) or mystery (Michael Connelly) are the ones keep my attention. This is important, because I read silently. I’m an old boy by now so of course I don’t move my lips.

It’s probably abnormal at any point to shout at a book in the way my wife claims that I do watching cable television “news.” At the cinema I laugh and sometimes choke back sobs — in the dark I tend to be both sentimental and gullible — but I like to think that I refrain from giving movie characters advice. Even as I wish they could hear me.

Yet once again I have startled my wife and surprised myself by exclaiming in full throat when W. Bruce Cameron’s canine charmer finds itself in harm’s way.

“Oh no” was my favorite shout. Chasing along in second was “That bitch,” which is not cursing in a book where a dog — rather a dog’s spirit — is the first-person narrator.

Bo, the dog of President Barack Obama, amuses Burmese Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi
President Barack Obama and Burmese Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi pet Bo, the Obama family dog, in the Oval Office on 19 September 2012. With Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and an aide.
Pete Souza / The White House

Wait, it’s not first person in this case. It cannot be first dog, either, because that is Bo Obama. Regardless, I don’t shout the b-word about a canine but a certain human in the course of A Dog’s Journey, the sequel to the popular A Dog’s Purpose.

I did not intend to become so emotionally involved in this book. I thought I would be more objective having enjoyed every morsel of A Dog’s Purpose. But I did dive through A Dog’s Journey like a bowl of kibble. Oh I regret calling that character that noun, given what eventually happens with her. A little. That of course is one measure of Cameron’s talent, making lousy people sympathetic, three-dimensional.

The protagonist once again is a dog, rather the essence of a dog who lives a doggy life that in the best circumstances isn’t very long (in human years) and in the worst, brutally short. As before, this dog gets reincarnated, and we readers travel through its lives (“it” because the pup’s sex changes at birth, along with breed and location).

The same essence, let’s call it Toby, the first puppy we meet in A Dog’s Purpose, gets a series of human masters through both books. The people soon enough are linked. Toby has a variety of tasks, well, purposes along the way, aiding the good people.

The recitation should stop there, partly to not give away plot but to emphasize these adventures are not as a child might understand them but adults. The cheery book jacket may indicate a youth volume, but it’s for grown-ups. Still, children would appreciate the novel.

Cameron uses his reincarnation device not just to tell the story of CJ, the sole human hero in the sequel A Dog’s Journey, but to show human drama from a unique perspective, about 5-15 inches from the ground, depending on which incarnation we’re at in the course of the book.

I can’t explain why this series made me shout. I keep my emotions in check with a Michael Chabon or a Jennifer Egan. And I can’t put Cameron at their level of storytelling. He is likely capable of it, but that’s not his intent in these two books, not complexity and ambiguity and commentary on contemporary Western culture like these folks. Cameron drives straight toward love and whatever its opposite might be.

It’s not hate, he indicates. Antipathy? Disgust? Scorn? “Dis-love” might often approach fear as a word. When people in his books dis-love dogs enough to hurt them, or maybe not rescue them, it’s not hate. It’s complex.

And the contrast between the two is something to yell about.

Cameron, who has spent most of his writing career as a successful humor columnist, keeps the reader’s attention, builds and sustains suspense, drops in true surprises that fit the narrative, and creates characters about whom the reader cares deeply. Deeply enough to scream at or scream over. And occasionally makes the reader tear up.

A Dog’s Journey stands on its own but I recommend reading A Dog’s Purpose first. You will never look at your dog — or in my home dogs as well as cats — the same. All the same, I look forward to Cameron’s next novel and hope he moves on to a human protagonist. He needs to develop, and I don’t think he can take or should the dog motif further, except perhaps in a screenplay adaption. That I’d love to see.

Besides, I don’t think I can take the heartache of following Toby through a third set of breeds, adventures, and ignorant or cruel humans along one side and fallible yet loving humans on the other.

Fourth and Goal

Completing the book list of 2011 shouldn’t be taxing. Its first entry after all took in the first three quarters. So where are we? Or to quote independent Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate James Stockdale (it IS a presidential year, after all), in a televised debate’s opening statement: “Who am I? Why am I here?” (which in context was a smart opening gambit, but misconstrued by pundits and comics).

With that, apologies for this being the Ides of March 2012. I had the draft, just hadn’t uploaded it. At the end of this month I should have my book report for this year’s first quarter. Or let it ride; we’ll see.

2011, Mid-September On

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte, a humor novel but it got boring somehow, did not finish. In the following months I kept seeing Lipsyte’s name so I got the book from the library again. Same opinion. Brick is tough on comic novels, and wimpy protagonists have gotten way too popular.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King, collection of four “long stories.” I usually stick with lesser King, but there I was on Page 38 into the first novella, “1922,” and it was just a dysfunctional family taken to a bloody extreme. I wasn’t engrossed, just grossed.

House of Holes by Nicholas Baker. If there’s literary porn and magic realism then this must be literary magic porn. It is clever, and it should be ashamed of itself, but it’s not. Oh, it’s sexual, not erotic.

October 2011

Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity edited by Michael Lewis, book on CD. A collection of articles about U.S. economic disasters since the 1980s. It was like listening to All Things Considered’s greatest hits. But the collection came out in mid-2008, thus kind-of before the current recession. Yes our Good Depression has old roots, explained here, but it’s more argument than fact.

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. WTF about rock musician secondary characters? Continue reading

Making Book

Here it is September, and not only that but mid-September, and I have not posted my periodic list of books absorbed.

This will be the second year I have attempted a complete list of books. Some I read, some I hear, as CD sets in the car while commuting.

January 2011

Memento Mori, by Murial Spark. Although recommended on MaudNewton.com, it never grabbed my interest. Didn’t finish.

The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner. Book on CD. National Book Award, 1976. Solid novel. Sad. The tangents aren’t tangents, it all ties together. First person with no wavering, though of course the narrator is wavering — it’s his uncertain life, while he leads it. Set in the early ’70s, mostly a flashback to 1956, three months in Copenhagen, for him to heal from a heart attack and both he and his wife to begin to heal from the drowning of their young adult son.

Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre. Book on CD. Do le Carre’s recent books all start out the same way? Well-drawn person who turns out to be a secondary character? Still, I enjoy his political thrillers. He found he didn’t need a Cold War setting, after all.

Literary Life: A Second Memoir, by Larry McMurtry. Short, oddly entertaining and it shouldn’t be. It’s pretty obvious McMurtry shot this volumne out to fulfill a contract. It’s not careless, but put much out there. Still, if you want to spend a couple of hours watching a great writer’s mind working, here it is.

February 2011

The Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Book on CD. Narrated by the author. Gladwell has made my my white list, he can voice audio books just fine. I’ve not let go of his 10,000-hour theory of success go in the months since. It is a valuable concept The book is broader than that — who and what are the outliers among us. Gladwell goes for the why, and it makes sense.

The Illumination, by Kevin Brockmeier. Don’t tell me it’s not fantasy in the Stephen King mode. But character driven more than plot driven, the latter being King’s mode. Little Rock references are used in one of the cities the novel is set in, but the city is not identified. A creepy small novel, with an ending not very satisfying — maybe that was on purpose. Continue reading

Walk It Off

Book Report

Bad Dad by Dave Lieber

175 pages, cloth, Yankee Cowboy Publishing, 2011

What an unusual little book. Fort Worth Star-Telegram metro columnist Dave Lieber includes newspaper columns here, but it’s not a collection. (Dave’s is a watchdog, or consumer activist, column emphasizing solving suburban hassles.)

By the title, it might sound like long-form journalism exploring child abuse. Sort-of, but it’s shy of universal discussions of law, social tolerances, and psychology.

Dave reveals details of his family, his own childhood and even his nascent criminal record, yet it’s not quite a memoir.

Why “Dave” and not the author, or “Lieber”? Because Dave is a friend of perhaps a dozen years. I’ve met Karen and their son Austin (the hero of the book) any number of times. The three separately and as a family (Karen has other children, as well) are remarkable.

So I was prepared to read the book and like it, as I’ve read about all of Dave’s other books. But Bad Dad has a surprising bite to it, like a salsa whose heat you think you taste but then it hits you later.

The book is effective for the directions the author doesn’t go. I still don’t know if it was a mistake for Dave not to summarize the law and the current state of psychological and sociological research. Actually, he does hit this cultural background but very brief. Summarizing for a book project gives a journalist license to bleed words into page after page.

This book asks, when does modern American middle-class child-rearing turn into abuse?

Here’s Dave and Austin’s base story: A few years ago, when Austin was 11, he grew stubborn while the two were at a McDonald’s just a few blocks from their home. Dave managed his temper, then managed it a bit more by telling the preteen to walk home. He drove off. So both could cool down.

Some police officers
Continue reading

4th Quarter, No Overtime, Soon Overdue

A final book list will close the 2010 year of Brick. After years of not starting then false starts, I resolved last January to keep a list of books on the home computer. It’s a vanity project — well, both the list and Brick are — but it’s been instructive: What do I like to read? The evidence is a bit different than what I’d guess. Included are audio books and books I did not finish.

After the survey of the last two months, I’ll give my favorites of the year. I have no trophies to send the winning authors, which works out as I don’t have their addresses.

November 2010

Our Tragic Universe, by Scarlett Thomas. A novel spotted in one of The New Yorker’s mini-reviews. I gave up on this in October, then checked it out this month. Its value comes from characters discussing literary versus genre fiction. I regret finishing it for its faux postmodern ending, a fade-out like a pop song. I’ve railed against wimpy protagonists, often the product of uncertain (read wimpy) authors. Here’s a wimpy woman instead of wimpy guy. The novel finds a place to end, and sits down.

Rhino Ranch, by Larry McMurtry, Book on CD. This novel, I learned later, got mediocre reviews. I disagree. Here is a confident storyteller, leading us deftly through his Texas town and many of his familiar Last Picture Show characters grown old. Duane Moore, the protagonist, I suppose is a wimp, because he has no purpose, no goal. But because his author does, all is forgiven. Will Duane come out of his funk? McMurtry’s surety, with gentle humor, prevents any complaints. I loved this book.

On Whitman, by C.K. Williams, a little book that just might clue me in on what the big deal is about Walt. I ended up not finishing it. I guess it’s hard to stomach literary criticism, even when clearly written and concise.

December 2010

V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. Graphic novel. Protesters, rallying for the release of WikiLeaks Julian Assange, wore stylized masks of British antihero Guy Fawkes that came from this book. Read four chapters, but blurry ink on cheap paper (comic book stock, frankly) made it impossible. Maybe I’ll rent the movie.

Memento Mori, by Murial Spark. Maud Newton recommended this as the best of Dame Spark. I just renewed it and will finish and discuss it in the New Year.

Nemesis, by Philip Roth. Book on CD. Like Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America, a historical novel that hints at 21st century issues. It’s about polio sweeping the country during the summer of 1944. Roth, like McMurtry, is such a practised storyteller you just follow along. The young phys ed teacher Bucky Cantor is another directionless protagonist, and while Roth led me to feel sympathy for his tragedy, the author also kept me at a distance. The Plot Against America is such a fine novel it should be required for high school students.

My favorite books of 2010

No. 1. Common As Air: Continue reading

Third Quarter II, Into the Fourth

The Brick book list with sketchy reviews, continued.

Book List through October 2010

September 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan. Book on CD. The novel by the polished McEwan got mixed reviews but I liked it. It’s a successful comic novel whose hero is brilliant but a buffoon, who wages a cynical war against global warming. The audiobook concludes with a brief author’s interview, which indicated the ending pointed to a bright, comic future, and not sad and short-lived as I took it to be.

October 2010

Who Owns the Sky?: Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism by Peter Barnes. Didn’t finish. I might agree with most of it but it’s a book-length polemic, and I lost patience.

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart. In paper, after trying an audio version a few months ago, I found I still didn’t like it. Hollow, sniveling characters.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson. Book on CD. Last of the trilogy. A newspaper story more than ever, as Blomqvist’s lover Erica now is editor-in-chief of a venerable, sleepy daily. Due to its popularity I had to return it to the library, after reserving it again; it’ll be winter before I get it back. Sure the trilogy’s conclusion wraps up loose ends, but it maintains the cleverness, the heart, and at its root the outrage against crimes against women.

Nox by Anne Carson. An elegy for a brother whom the longtime poet barely knew. In a box is one continuous card-stock page, folded accordion style, with nearly all pages appearing to be a scrapbook, printed/photographed realistically from the original collage. Clever and heartbreaking. Like any book of poetry — though this is more memoir than verse — it can be read in an hour or slowly pondered for a week.

Invisible by Paul Auster. Didn’t finish. Auster is quaint and subtly fun but I’m on strike against non-purposeful passive protagonists. Here is another one.

Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson. Book on CD. To date, I’m halfway through. A solid biography, no fluff. There’s almost more history than biography, but perhaps that’s necessary. I certainly need a refresher on the American and French revolutions.

The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman. Kalman was on the Colbert Report promoting her newest, And the Pursuit of Happiness, but the library only had this (and a lot of her children’s books). The two adult titles look to be similar. They comprise illustrated ruminations, heavy on the ruminations though there’s paintings and a few photos on nearly every page. Very quick to read and you don’t want a week with it.

Our Tragic Universe, by Scarlett Thomas. I checked this out based on a mini-review in ┬áThe New Yorker. I’m a quarter of the way through. She’s good. As the magazine notes, Thomas’s asides about writing and storytelling are about as vital as her parody of a chick-lit plot.