Monday, January 24, 2011

Oogy, by Larry Levin

There was a time in my life, about two years ago, when every time I left the house I saw a loose dog. A bear-like chocolate lab lumbered down the cement divider on 86th Street. An Irish Setter crouched near the fence of my kids' school. A tiny Pappilon veered across Grandview. What could I do, leave those poor animals to fend for themselves on the street? Got to be that at dismissal, when I picked up my kids in car line, they weren't at all surprised when they opened the door of the minivan to find a strange dog nudging his nose out through the crack to greet them. At that point the drill was almost routine: a crazy-slow drive through neighborhoods, searching for addresses and clues. The kids loved it and always jockeyed to snuggle up to the lost dog in the way-back of the van.
It was ludicrous how many lost dogs crossed my path. At its apex it wasn't unusual for me to find four dogs a month, sometimes as many as two in a single week. When I left the house to run errands my new refrain upon returning was guess what kind of dog I saved this time?
There's something about a lost creature's lack of guile that makes it feel rather heroic to return it to safety. Two years ago, when I was closing in on having helped return almost twenty dogs to their owners, the whole shebang felt, well...epic. It felt like there was something cosmic at play. I had the impulse to write it all down.
It didn't take many drafts for me to realize a truism I still stick by: the world does not need another dog story! I'll admit it: I cried when Marley died, but how many times can a story of a dog's unwavering love rescuing a lost soul/marriage/child stay fresh? And so it was with curiosity and slight trepidation that I picked up "Oogy," Larry Levin's story about the puppy who had been used as a bait dog and found near death, only to be adopted and nursed back to health by his family.
The plot may sound trite and cliche -- and that's because it is! If there's a compelling story in "Oogy," just waiting to be teased out, I couldn't find it. From beginning to end, Levin tells a sweet, yet completely predictable and hackneyed story about the trials and tribulations of raising Oogy, a puppy who survived the trauma of his mauling but was left with major deformities. There were the predictable lessons about short-sighted people who were frightened by Oogy's asymmetrical face, who prejudged him as dangerous. There were the tales of how loyal Oogy became, how the people at the vet clinic were heroes, and how Oogy taught Levin and his family how to love unconditionally. I found Levin's language heavy-handed and cliched. And, to add insult to injury, Levin saw fit to includes explanations of ridiculously common situations in his book, such as describing the ins and outs of learning to fasten car seats for his infants, and the reason behind the need for standard dog paraphernalia. Filler. Boring.
Although I'm sure I would have fallen in love with Oogy the dog, I didn't care for "Oogy" the book one bit.
But I'm not done bashing animal-themed books yet. Next up: David Sedaris goes rodent in "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Half a Life, by Darin Strauss

I can't imagine anyone makes it through life trauma free. It seems to me it's an inevitable part of being human. But although it may be common to undergo trauma, it's not at all common to read an account that fully captures the details and texture of both the experience and its aftermath. Until now.

In "Half a Life," Darin Strauss tells his story with details so intimate and true I felt as if I was right there with him, living the moment when, while behind the wheel, one of his high school classmates veered her bicycle in front of his car. I saw the girl hit Darin's windshield. I felt his detached stun as he learned that, shortly after, she died. I felt the confusion, the numbing, as Darin pulled away from the self he was before the accident and moved to a new self, one who watched this scenario with a second-guessing remove.

"Half a Life" is a remarkable and beautiful book, down to its trappings: a dustcover that extends only halfway up the length of the book, illustrated with a crack in a windshield, a single diagonal fissure that divides the surface into two jagged halves. Within those pages Darin Strauss tells his story with a captivating precision that shines the light on the commonality of the experience of trauma. By holding a magnifying glass to his experience, Strauss broadens his story, moving it from the realm of the personal into the universal, thereby providing a vehicle of self-discovery for us all.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Fly Away Home, by Jennifer Weiner

My family spent New Year's Eve at my mother-in-law's. Also present: my brother-in-law and his family -- in for the weekend from Connecticut -- and the widower and kids of my sister-in-law (she passed away two-years ago). Three families, all packed into one house. It was a classic setup, had all the elements of a juicy novel: a family (who has the potential to push our buttons and introduce conflict more than our own family?); a house (it kept us close to one another, forcing us to interact); and a holiday (what good's a holiday if not to serve as a vehicle for expectations just waiting to be dashed.)

This is the bread and butter of what I like to call "easy-reading," a broad category which includes genres like chick-lit. One of my favorite "easy-reading" authors is Jonathan Tropper, who used these exact devices in "This is Where I Leave You," using the shiva of the patriarch of a family to conveniently entrap his descendants in a house for 7 days. In "Fly Away Home" Jennifer Weiner places Silvie, the disgraced wife of a politician, in a New England cottage where her daughters, boyfriend and estranged husband all swoop in for Thanksgiving dinner. Weiner, like Tropper, is a master at character and plot. I won't give away what transpires with Sylvie and her family, suffice it to say that Weiner has given us a fun, satisfying story.

Like a juicy novel New Year's Eve at my mother-in-law's didn't disappoint. There were the usual small plot points: me, my mother and sister-in-law wearing concerned expressions, sitting around the kitchen table late at night, rehashing the lurid details of the misfortune of other family members (Can you spell schadenfreude?); the tussles among our kids; the stuffing of our faces with the local pizza. The climax of the visit came during our afternoon walk. It was then, with my mother-in-law and all our kids still lazing around the house, that my sister-in-law's widower dropped the bomb -- he was engaged. I was stunned, but not surprised. Joy and sadness washed over me all at once. But there was more. Turns out the engagement news was spreading fast and my mother-in-law, still at the house, had to be told soon so she wouldn't hear through the gossip line. For complicated reasons my former brother-in-law couldn't do this, so I became the designated bearer of the news. (I won't tell you how horrible I felt the moment I told my mother-in-law the news and saw gray cast over her face) Ugh. And there was more. We were invited to stop by our former brother-in-law's house that evening to meet his intended. This turned out to be a 45-minute affair that, despite our best intentions, probably came across more like an inquisition than a friendly introduction.

Just like the Thanksgiving scene in Jennifer Weiner's new book, "Fly Away Home," our New Year's Eve visit was freighted with drama. It's just a lot more fun when you don't have to live it yourself.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Half Empty, by David Rakoff

One afternoon during my recent trip to St. Louis I had the pleasure of interviewing my second cousin, once removed, Irene, as part of my research into my family tree. I had been searching for someone with old family photos and, like a prospector whose luck turned, with Irene I struck a deep vein of gold. Irene had a personal treasure trove of photos -- some close to 100-years-old. Even more astounding than her visual record of our family's history, though, were Irene's stories. She had the standard headlines that come with family histories, of course: abandoned spouses, suicides, babies that died and the cousins who were "not quite right in the head." She remembered the landmark events, but what made Irene's memories so rich was that she remembered the in between: the small, everyday, non-happenings that give life its texture. That's the funny thing about researching a family tree; it's not unlike looking at an intricately patterned fabric: the weave may be so dizzyingly complex that the fleck of gold threads may not glint unless held up to just the right light.

When held up to this light the stuff of real life is so thick -- chock full of hilarious missteps, drama, intrigue and conflict of all kinds -- that I sometimes wonder why any writer needs to fabricate a story. Fiction is the sexy sister of nonfiction, but real life is just as dazzling.

In David Rakoff's first book of essays, "Don't Get Too Comfortable," he riffs on becoming an American citizen (he was born in Canada), the ridiculousness of American politics and the pre-bust economy. In "Half Empty," Rakoff's third offering, he aims his bat at a wide range of topics, using his erudite prose and dry sense of humor to hold a magnifyng glass to optimism, the Mormons and Hollwood's Walk of Fame and his anxious childhood. Rakoff's essays about the unsexiness of a pornography convention, and the lack of substance behind the supposedly substantial "Dream House" display at Disneyland show his keen eye. These seemingly banal topics become compelling under Rakoff's telling because he's astute enough to go beyond the obvious -- these are no diatribes -- to show us what we've never noticed. But Rakoff really shines when he delves into the personal -- his writing about the special love he and his fellow (non-observant) Jews have for bacon had me laughing out loud. And, strategically placed at the end, the jaw-dropping honesty with which he tells us about his gruesome battle with cancer left me stunned.

I'm still transcribing Irene's anecdotes. She was so unflinchingly honest -- some of her stories have details so intimate they still can't be told using the family members' names. There was the dignified older auntie who confided to child-Irene that her pious and reserved husband was especially attentive to her sexual needs! There was the older cousin who fought with her daughter only to retreat to the bed of an older aunt and uncle -- with them in it! Irene was generous and trusting enough to let me borrow her photos overnight so I could scan them and add them to our online family tree. But if you look at the fading sepia photos closely something much more valuable is revealed: stories so funny and tragic they glimmer.