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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Comfort Books

The sheep shuffled themselves into a tighter pack in the field beyond. Her feet skidded on ice, scuffed on stones; trees stood bare against the starry sky, the pale shape of an owl swept overhead. She climbed up as high as the drovers’ road; she stopped there, on the crossroads, on the edge of everything she had ever known. The hillside stood wide and empty, and it seemed that there was nothing but the stars and nightbirds.
 -      Jo Baker, Longbourn

As autumn slips from bright warmth to colder, chillier days, days growing ever shorter, bookmarked by dark mornings and darker evenings, instinct prompts me to turn to the joys of reading again books I have enjoyed in the past. Taking down a well-loved book to read it again is like settling in for a good long visit with a beloved old friend: in the comfort of familiarity, there is space and leisure to discover what one has never seen before and to rediscover forgotten delights.

An inveterate re-reader of Jane Austen all my adult life, when I discovered Jo Baker’s re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of a maid in the household, I shelved Longbourn alongside the Austen original, anticipating re-readings of both.
Sarah took her orders, and went to gather up the needful equipment: her blacklead, vinegar, the jar of cold tea leaves, her rags and broom; at times like this, you just gritted your teeth and got on with it. She carried her basket upstairs, and, with Polly, got down on her knees to roll up the Turkey-carpet up. She swept out and blackleaded the grate, and then between them she and Polly dragged the carpet down the stairs.
Sarah is literate and borrows books from Mr. Bennett’s library, as well as from Elizabeth Bennett, but her life experiences have been narrowly circumscribed. She has not traveled far from home. Her little world has been bounded by the immediate countryside around Longbourn House and the village of Meryton. Also, her life is one of hard labor rather than moneyed leisure.

Jo Baker’s story lacks the sharp wit of Jane Austen’s. Well, of course! Clever, saucy Eliza Bennett is Austen’s central character, while Baker’s novel takes unworldly Sarah’s point of view – Sarah, who never so much as appeared by name in Pride and Prejudice. But while I will always love Elizabeth’s impetuosity and strong feelings, her prejudices and sharp tongue, as well as the loving heart she bears for family and friends, I am touched by hard-working Sarah’s ability to see beneath the social surfaces of those in all classes of life. Rather than take Mr. Collins as a complete fool, for example, as do Mr. Bennett and his daughters, Sarah sees the young man’s clueless awkwardness, and she pities him. Were Sarah to be cast as maid in the home of Emma Woodhouse, we feel sure she would understand the feelings motivating Mrs. Elton's behavior and pity her, also, rather than dismiss her from sympathetic consideration.

Pride and Prejudice at its inception began as a simple epistolary novel and grew from there, and even in its final published version the content of letters holds much of plot and character development. In Longbourn, not so. Entrusted with Elizabeth’s letters to mail, Sarah turns them over curiously in her hands on the way to the post office,
...lifting them to smell them, tracing the seals with a rough fingertip. They flitted wherever they liked, these letters. They darted back and forth across the countryside like birds.
Not like Sarah, who, when finally given the chance to travel to London, must ride outside on the carriage luggage rack.

She has dreamed of travel, though, this servant girl with rough, chapped and chilblained, work-hardened hands, and she is intrigued by James, the new addition to Longbourn’s servants, in part because she senses that he has seen faraway places. It’s true, James has been far from home, but there are places he has seen that he would like to see again, differently.
He sat on his bed, still in shirtsleeves, with a blanket over his shoulders, and a book of Scottish maps on his lap. This way of rendering the hard facts of landscape was new to him: the little upward flicks of the pen for mountainsides, the tiny clustered trees for woodland, the blue patches of lochs. He wanted maps of other places, he wanted maps of places he had been, he wanted to follow routes across terrain that his feet had trodden.
Will his life from now on be as narrowly bounded as Sarah’s always has been? As was the case with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Sarah and James begin their acquaintance with misunderstandings and irritability that we feel sure will turn in time to love. What we cannot anticipate in early chapters, however, is the number and depth of secrets that will be revealed in the novel’s rich course.

It is as much a matter of literary convention as of imagination, I’m sure, but Baker quite outdoes Austen when it comes to describing her characters’ world, whether indoors or out. In the kitchen we see the era's methods and materials of cooking and cleaning; outdoors there is livestock and fowl -- horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, domestic gallinies and hand-raised wild pheasant. Baker's descriptions provide details and nuances that transport a reader over two hundred years into the past and into a vanished English countryside.
She rubbed the mist from the window and looked out. Low sun now, after all the rain. The light was golden: it caught on the damp flagstones and made them brilliant.

Or this passage with Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, outdoors for a change:
She climbed a stile, and sank down in the lee of a hedge. There was wood sorrel growing on the bank, and harebells, and there were cowslips nodding in the meadow grass at her feet, and a young cow ambled over, head swinging low, considering her with a bulging eye. It blinked its long lashes, and licked its nose with a rasping sticky tongue.
Among the comforts of re-reading is that even bad weather can be appreciated in the pages of a book. Our own northern Michigan skies of late have been filled with dark scudding clouds, the sky “heavy and low,” bringing a “strange dusk” to mornings and afternoons, but indoors we have cheery firesides and electric lamplight and books in which to lose ourselves, shutting out the chill fall dark with pages of lively, vivid fiction. Leelanau County is bracing and wild as October draws to a close. It's beautiful. But the fireside has its own attractions, and as I scrub out my own egg pan and wipe down the stove, I think of Sarah performing her chores at Longbourn, and I look forward happily to joining her again this evening.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

To Every Thing, There Is a Season

Looking up Nagonaba from marina

The shift from Saturday’s heavy traffic, in Leelanau County and all around Grand Traverse Bay (my sources report), to empty parking spaces all up and down the streets of Northport comes accompanied by a change in the weather. Balmy, light-filled, summer-like fall mornings have given way to leaden skies, blustery winds, and whitecaps on the water. Zip the liner into your trench coat. Go outside. Test the temperature. Go back inside and look for a vest to wear under the coat. Even knitted cap and mittens are not amiss. But the color goes on, and I saw a shaggy mane this morning by the side of the road. Autumn is not over. This shift is not as sudden as it seems, either: it’s been in the works for a while, caterpillars and birds on the move and plants making and scattering seeds.

Black walnuts on the ground

If last weekend was peak color, how quiet will the bookstore be this week? When I couldn’t get Sarah an appointment with her regular groomer on Monday, I threw caution to the winds and set up a session on Tuesday morning, and while Sarah was being made prettier than she already was, David and I took in Jean Larsen’s show at the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City. Yes, I had three days off in a row – Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday! And look at the improvement in Sarah’s appearance! Can you say “criminally cute”?


Inspiration struck on Monday, thanks to clouds that kept interfering with the sun, discouraging me from committing to projects in the yard, and instead of digging up the garden I did a major overhaul upstairs, from clean sheets on the bed to moving furniture. The old mission desk (missing center drawer) on the upstairs landing had never done anything there but collect junk. I never had used that corner as a writing studio, a fond dream when we first moved into the farmhouse. So now the desk is in the back bedroom upstairs, looking out over the meadow in the direction of the sunrise, and it’s set up as a permanent drawing station, inaugurated with a session that very afternoon. I tried it out this morning for an hour, too, and it was dandy, even before sunrise.

Flowing lines, object contours, contrast of light and shade – so wonderfully wordless! No, I certainly have not given up reading! What I have done in the last few days, however, is to shift over to books that focus on nature, re-reading Tom Brown, Jr.’s The Tracker (one of my old favorites, and I have his book The Vision close at hand to read next) and an equally inspiring book I discovered more recently, Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape, by Robert Hart.
The essence of life should be continuous creativity: in working out creative and comprehensive solutions to one’s problems, one rises above them. They become smaller, less tormentingly insistent, until, perhaps, in time, one realizes they have just faded away.

Are problems tormenting you? Wouldn’t you welcome a meditation practice or a book that let those problems fade into the background, even if only temporarily? Forgive me for repeating myself – I’ve recommended the title before – but Frederick Franck’s The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation combines both approaches. If you never pick up a pencil, simply holding this book and turning the pages slowly as you take in the author’s words and drawings is a calming meditation.
I draw a leaf . . . Still it is moving. Still the birds are on the wing. Still I can hear the silent falling of the snow . . . Some of the grasses are long, others are short . . .

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. The noisy campaigns will not last forever.

P.S. Another good idea is music, so if you are free on the evening of November 3, come get a ticket from me for Tristan Eckerson's live performance in Suttons Bay. I also have a few of his CDs left, "Leelanau Night," his original compositions on solo piano.

Saturday, October 22, 2016


De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland
by Judy Juanita
Paper, 227pp, $19.95

In Virgin Soul, a novel set in the 1960s, the protagonist shared many of the author’s own experiences in terms of family, education, participation in the Black Party Party, and social activism in general. But a novel, even as it draws on an author’s own background, is fiction. De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland is something different. This time we met Judy Juanita directly, face to face.

The essays in this book span the time period from the late Sixties to the present and include stories from Juanita’s life, her hopes and dreams, her strong opinions, and her unstoppable determination. There is honesty and humor here, along with bits of polemic, making for a complex mix that deserves to be read through more than once. Here are the first lines of Juanita’s introduction:
I’m a woman. POW! Black. BAM! Outspoken. STOMP! Don’t fit in. OUCH!
That tells a reader right from the get-go that no punches will be pulled in what follows, and no punches are pulled.

Juanita begins, easily enough, by recounting her growing-up years in East Oakland, a safe, friendly, middle-class neighborhood of unlocked houses inhabited by Portuguese immigrants, Mexicans, Mormons, and two black families, of which hers was the second on the block. (Her family was first on the block, however, to visit Disneyland.) Her parents were both readers, and her childhood world was a quite ordinary one of household chores, TV (all white faces, though, in those days), comic books, music, hide-and-seek, and backyard camping sleepovers, with occasional family expeditions to San Francisco. Despite the little heartbreaks that come to most young people in time, these memories read like a fairly idyllic American childhood, although as a child she took her family and neighborhood completely for granted, as fortunate children usually do.
I would not realize how fully, peculiarly and tightly loved I was until I left California – the state and the state of mind.
Growing up, of course, is only the beginning. There followed heady days of student radicalism and Juanita’s membership in the Black Panther Party. She served as editor-in-chief of their newspaper when Eldridge Cleaver went to jail.
My friends and I dropped out and worked in the BPP full time. We eventually returned to campus too, armed, not only with actual weapons, but with a new consciousness about education, service, the poor, the police and the military, oppression, and civil and human rights.

Along the way, Juanita had begun to write poetry, and when she quit a New Jersey job in straight journalism, she says, “I came to poetry when I was out on a limb.” She joined a group of others poetry writers and soon found herself reading in public and having work published. “Through contemplating my navel,” as she puts it with self-deprecating sarcasm, she won a fellowship and then, over a period of six years, enjoyed a series of short-term funded gigs teaching writing in New Jersey public schools. It was a stop-gap solution. But the inclusion of some of her poetry enriches this book of essays and helps us follow her development as a writer.

For a time, Juanita took on a job offered by a friend, cleaning condos, although her initial response to the friend’s offer had been,
Moi? A black woman with degrees, fellowships, travels abroad, a library of dictionaries within my library – a cleaning woman?
At one point she quit and took a temporary office job (for one-third the pay), but after four days she went back to cleaning, “where nobody called me Bertha, Beulah or Bessie,” and began to see her life and her strength more clearly than she ever had before.

Juanita’s evolution as a writer is an important theme developed in these essays. Through the years she pursued poetry, drama, and fiction, and when her agent asked why the humor he found in her conversation wasn’t evident in the novel she was writing, she decided to try for “funny” by attempting stand-up comedy. Approaching her comedy club gigs with the same strong work ethic she brought to writing classes, she learned what worked and how, but most importantly she learned about herself and the place of humor in her life and her writing. I’m not going to put a spoiler in here, though, to tell you what she learned! It’s in the essay, “Putting the Funny in the Novel.”

Blackness is another important theme. “The Gun as Ultimate Performance Poem” is guaranteed to stop readers in their tracks. Juanita had liked guns, she tells us, but “The Gun” is something else. Another no-holds-barred essay, “Report from The Front, i.e. Berkeley, CA,” makes clear the great racial divide all-too-alive, recounted in a series of maddening incidents.

The last ‘essay’ in the book stretches the meaning of the term pretty far, but by then I found myself going right along with it, in spite of the subject matter (Ghosts? Really?), thanks to the author’s dramatic skill in telling her story.

As I said in the beginning of my earlier review of the novel, Judy Juanita and I are of the same era. We both came from middle-class backgrounds, were both spelling champions -- and also suffered social trauma that same sixth-grade year. Inevitably, our paths diverged, as Illinois has never been California, and white and black Americans live in two different countries, anyway, in a lot of ways.

Personal essays, however, by writers of any era in any country, can invite readers into a writer’s life as effectively as autobiography or memoir. Temporarily inhabiting other lives is part of the magic of reading. That magic also, one hopes, can build bridges of understanding between people whose experiences of the world have been dissimilar.

Having read this book, I now want to read Judy Juanita’s plays, and I also want to read Carolyn Rodgers and Ishmael Reed. Multiple doorways beckon.

Another thing. I’m thinking of my own grandmother, my mother’s mother, in a slightly different way. Wasn’t she a de facto feminist, too? I feel strongly that she was, and I thank you, Judy Juanita, for coming up with this term. I hope you don’t object to my applying it to a dead white woman. Believe me, if you’d known my grandmother's life, you would agree that she deserved the title!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Their World and Mine – Light Years Apart

With the exception of the man who wanted to haggle with me over price a few days back (I posted about the incident on Facebook but don’t want to dwell on it any further), my recent bookstore conversations have been happy ones, for the most part, pleasurable for me and for my customers.

One local man who buys used paperback books by the bagload and brings them back after reading for trade credit, then buying “new” (used) books for a 50% discount, came in for one of his regular visits, and when he brought his stack of books to the counter for purchase, his face was wreathed in smiles. “This is so much fun!” he said. “I love buying books this way!” I thanked him for his appreciation. What a great way for both of us to start the morning! 

Without the press of summer heat or crowds, there is more time to visit with customers, taking note of books they select and talking about what they and I have been reading. We give each other ideas. We share experiences. And it’s been very pleasant, day after day, especially in this politically trying season. I feel as if my bookstore is an oasis for many people. Actually, people often tell me that it is.

So when another late middle-aged couple strolled in on Wednesday afternoon, I anticipated another pleasant encounter. I asked what they were particularly interested in, so I could make sure they found subject matter they might otherwise miss. “Oh, bookstores, libraries,” the woman responded airily, and I inferred from her answer that they didn’t want help and would be happier exploring by themselves, but that’s always fine with me. I often feel the same way in bookstores.

But then the woman stopped to explain that she and her husband were “downsizing,” and next, right away, she demanded in an almost accusatory voice, “Do you have any idea how hard it is to get rid of books?!”

The question took my breath away! I was (for a change) speechless.

Given their circumstances and feelings, why would they come into a bookstore at all? And why would the woman be compelled to share with me a sentiment so obviously opposed to my way of life and my way of making a living?

Selling books has always been more of a challenge than selling beer or burgers, but I have managed to keep my head above water as a bookseller for nearly a quarter of a century. That is to say, I sell books. On occasion, I do an inventory purge, and then I donate boxes of books to charitable resale organizations. Sometimes, either impulsively or after thoughtful consideration, I give books away.

But getting rid of books? That is a concept I do not understand.

Termites, now. Having to get rid of termites, I can see, would be a serious problem. Working to get rid of mold – there’s another terrible problem people sometimes have in their houses. Less drastically, in certain seasons, some of us fret about getting rid of fruit flies or mice. But books?

Never do I “get rid of” books! I help books find homes, either first-time homes or new homes. The difference is one between something no one would want, e.g., termites, and something of value.

I said none of this to the downsizing couple but simply urged them, as they walked out the door again, to enjoy the day. I’ve learned over the years that not everything that goes through my mind needs to come out my mouth. Wasted breath is wasted energy, anyway, and at my age I no longer have energy to waste.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Is Riding a Bicycle Like Riding a Bicycle?

Are there things you just don’t forget how to do, if once you’ve learned them? David thinks playing the violin is “like riding a bicycle,” in that anyone who ever played the violin can pick it right up again after years of not practicing. Oh, no! I told him that playing the violin is not like that at all! Even singing isn’t like that. The voice is an instrument, too, and not practicing has consequences. Really.

For most of my life, I only dreamed of being able to draw, but then I read Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards, and became convinced that even I could learn to draw with a teacher using these methods. At last Elizabeth Abeel offered a drawing class in Traverse City in the evening, when I could get there to take it, and so, three years ago, my lessons and practice began.

Three years ago. I kept at it through July 2014 but subsequently lost my discipline, only picking up a pencil or pen a few times during our following Arizona winter.

I’ve missed those sessions with paper and pen or pencil. Photography, another blessedly wordless activity, offers moments of relief from mental chatter, but drawing is more like yoga than it is like (amateur) photography in that regard, centering one’s focus and slowing subjective time. Really, taking time out of consciousness altogether.

It will take time, however, for me to work back into the wonderful discipline of losing myself in drawing. That’s okay. I fully intend to get back to doing it again on a regular basis – and making that decision, simply anticipating drawing, brought joy to my heart. Waking up Saturday morning, before opening my eyes, I was already seeing lines on paper – branches, leaves, facial features – simple lines growing organically into living forms. What a simply luscious way to wake up! A little later, then, driving along familiar country roads, I began seeing again as I had when morning drawing meditation was a regular part of my life. Seeing more, seeing with joy!

My hand is rusty, though. My mind still wants to jump around, and so do my eyes. What I need to do is go back to those first lessons with Betsy, drawing vase-faces and copying drawings upside-down. The purpose of those exercises is to turn off the part of the brain that has names for objects and wants to take a short-cut by producing a prototype. Oh, no you don't! We want that naming brain to shut up and let the eye and hand follow contours wordlessly.

This is going to be good medicine. I feel it already. Don't you feel the need for a break from talk-talk-talk this season, too?

...I venture to say that learning to draw always seems to help and never to harm. My students’ most frequent comment after learning to draw is “Life seems much richer now that I am seeing more.” That may be reason enough to learn to draw.
 - Betty Edwards, Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence

Thursday, October 13, 2016

My Minimalist Phase

When I went away to graduate school in my late 30s, it was the first time in my life I’d ever lived alone. Since my income was limited to a small monthly teaching assistantship check, it was not entirely by choice that my apartment furnishings were sparse, but I did find that I appreciated the look – and the simplicity of keeping things clean! The pictures today are from my second graduate student apartment, upstairs in an big old Victorian house in Champaign, Illinois. Basically, I had three generous-sized rooms -- kitchen, living room, and bedroom -- with a small, windowless bathroom. The discerning eye will spot many Michigan touches, although one thing missing in this group of photographs is a picture of my desk, the same desk on which I type this post today, in my own bookstore. But you see the back of that chair at the edge of the picture above? That chair goes to the desk that looked out the window down to the street and the city park beyond.

Please note that, minimal though my furnishings were, I found room for art. The fireplace in the bedroom could not be used for its original purpose, but for me it was another kind of art -- architectural interest, and a mantel to hold beautiful objects.

A wonderfully large, light-filled kitchen, formerly a sleeping porch, offered plenty of room for company, thanks to furniture that didn't weigh much and was easy to move.

And when the holidays came, I had no trouble finding room for a Christmas tree.

Books? Really, need you ask? I have always been a book person, I was then a graduate student in philosophy, and one among many attractions of the apartment to me were built-in bookcases.

Oh, yes, wherever I have lived, there has always been room for books, and I cannot imagine that ever changing.

Today's post is dedicated to faithful reader, friend and neighbor, Joanne! Best wishes for tomorrow morning, dear!

P.S. 10/14: Here is that desk in current nonminimalist phase:

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Book Review: TWO DAYS GONE

Two Days Gone
by Randall Silvis
Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, January 2017
Paperback, 384pp, $15.99

The information on the back cover and the first inside page of my ARC categorize Two Days Gone as mystery, but while the story falls into that genre for many reasons, it’s as much a psychological suspense novel or thriller as it is a whodunit. Maybe more so.

Here’s the setup: The wife and two children of a successful fiction writer and college professor, an apparently loving husband and father, have been murdered by having their throats slit, and a third child, the baby, was stabbed to death. Now the writer-professor, Thomas Huston, has gone missing, making him the most logical suspect. Huston, who had lost his own parents to violence, wrote novels with dark undercurrents. Had writing been the only thing keeping a lid on hidden vengeful fantasies? Did Huston finally snap? But why would he kill his own family?

Author Randall Silvis gives us two points of view, that of runaway Huston, eluding police by imagining himself a character in a novel-in-progress, and that of Sergeant Ryan DeMarco, investigator in charge of the manhunt and murder investigation. Early on, we learn that the two men know each other and were probably, before Huston’s dark family tragedy, in the early stages of a friendship important to them both, each sensing in the other a sadness that work could never wholly overcome.

Like Huston, DeMarco too had known tragedy. His young son, his only child, had died in a traffic accident, and his marriage subsequently fell apart, also, as his wife plunged into a shadow life of sexual encounters with strangers. Huston dealt with insomnia by taking walks and drives in the middle of the night, while DeMarco dosed his with Jack Daniels and television. Insomnia was routine for both men. Now there is even less sleep for either one, as Thomas is on the run, desperate, and DeMarco resolved to find the fugitive suspect and bring him in.

Most people who knew him, including DeMarco, have a hard time imagining Huston capable of the crime. If not Huston, though, who could the murderer be? A jealous colleague? Someone from the shady clubs Huston was visiting as research for his new novel? Perhaps his notes for that new novel hold clues?

Huston’s preoccupation with Edgar Allan Poe and Vladimir Nabokov play into his own fiction and thus into the novel in which Huston is a fictional character. How much of Huston is in his books? (How much of Silvis is in Huston? Or DeMarco?) Questions like this, asked by DeMarco and answered thoughtfully by one of Huston’s graduate students, Nathan Briessen, give Two Days Gone another level of complexity and interest for readers who are also writers, as well as complicating the investigation for the chief investigator.

We never know where the next chapter of this taut, suspenseful novel will take us. And what feels like a final chord keeps not being – until, of course, at last it is. I did not stay up all night to read the last page, but I confess I got up early the next morning to finish the gripping story. It is very, very well told.

And now I’m curious about Silvis’s two earlier books, both with Poe themes....

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What’s Best For Dogs

Margo was more certain about the dog than she was about the house, which sounded like a fairy tale. Maybe she felt as much certainty about Nightmare as Luanne felt when she packed her bags and finally left Murrayville to make a new life. Maybe it was what Joanna felt when she swore at her wedding to honor and obey her husband, to forsake all others. Maybe when Smoke headed down that hill toward the river to drown he was as certain as Margo was about this dog.
 - Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River
Quite a while ago I read about half of a very interesting book on dog health and then managed to mislay the book for several weeks. Other reading intervened, as did some travel to other counties in Michigan. Then one day something slid off my desk, and in retrieving it I found once again my copy of Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, by Ted Kerasote, author of Merle’s Door.

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs
by Ted Kerasote
Mariner Books, paperback, 452pp with index

As all dog-lovers are only too aware, the heartbreak of loving a dog is that their lives, in general, are much shorter than ours. This is hardly new information, but the author of Pukka’s Promise, looking into every aspect of canine longevity and the causes that hold it back and reporting primary researchers’ findings, writes that the situation is worse than we thought. Life span information generally given for specific breeds is often overly optimistic. Official life spans quoted to the public generally exceed actual averages achieved.

Dr. Kelly M. Cassidy of the Conner Vertebrate Museum at Washing State University is an important source, and Kerasote gives several examples of her findings.
Take German Shepherds. If you do an Internet search for “German Shepherd life span,” you will find many hits that push the average life span of the breed to thirteen years. But the breeder surveys that Cassidy averaged show a life span of a little under ten years. - Ted Kerasote, Pukka’s Promise
[All subsequent quotes will be from the Kerasote book.]

So, 13 years or only 10 at the outside for German Shepherds? How about American Cocker Spaniels: 12-15 years or closer to 10.7? Boston Terriers: 13-15 or more like 11? Whatever the truth and whatever the reason for any specific breed average, should dogs in the United States live longer than they do? And what can any dog owner do to extend, healthily, a beloved pet’s life?

These are Kerasote’s general concerns. His specific, personal concern, not surprisingly, is to ensure a long, healthy life for his next dog, having lost his beloved Merle at the age of 14. The new dog turns out to be Pukka, a Labrador Retriever puppy Kerasote locates in Minnesota. Looking for, finding, and bonding with Pukka is a whole story in itself, woven into a fascinating trail of factual information on general dog health.

A general chapter on animal life spans (“The Clocks of Danger”) sets the stage for later chapters, and an early chapter on breeding is instructive but not terribly surprising for anyone who has glimpsed the world of purebred dogs. Those German Shepherds in the quote above, averaging lives of under a decade, are not the German Shepherds of your grandfather’s generation. The “makeover” of the breed, beginning in the 1950s, drastically lowered the hindquarters, producing dogs with
...chronic balance problems, lower rear legs that actually touch the ground [legs, not feet, please note, are touching the ground], and an increased incidence of osteoarthritis, often caused by hip displasia....
The show standard for Pekingese and Pug dogs also underwent serious changes over time. The faces of Pugs and Pekingese were bred to become flatter and flatter, deforming the canine snout and giving rise to breathing and overheating problems. And yet the breed clubs recommend surgery to correct the problems, rather than admitting the fault to be in breed standards.

Here I will not resist a brief personal digression. When we found our mixed-breed Sarah at the Cherryland Humane Society in Traverse City, I turned to the Internet to read about Border Collies and Australian Shepherds and was incensed by one site in particular, one where anyone could pose a question, and the “best” answer was determined by responding “votes.” Someone had written in for advice on buying an Aussie-Border hybrid, and the answer voted “best” advised that no one should ever buy a hybrid puppy, because it was an indication of either careless or irresponsible breeding (or both) and would encourage puppy mills. As if purebred puppies never come out of puppy mills? As if purebred breeders would not logically outnumber professional breeders of hybrid pups? Take a look at the prices! On what fantasy planet is this Internet public living?

In Pukka’s Promise, the American Kennel Club comes in for particularly sharp criticism, and you might guess, given our Sarah’s background, that I read the following paragraph with heightened interest:
In 1991 and 1994 the AKC recognized the Australian Shepherd and then the Border Collie as official show breeds, over the objections of both breed clubs [my emphasis added]. Members of these parent clubs repeatedly told AKC leaders that Aussies and Border Collies had no need for a show-ring standard since they were herding dogs whose most salient quality was performance, not appearance [my emphasis]. Their wishes were ignored, and the AKC went so far as to pressure breeders to get its way, telling them that their dogs would be barred from competing in AKC performance events if they continued to resist the creation of a show-ring standard. The reason behind these strong-arm tactics was money—the AKC makes about half its revenues from registrations.
That’s the bad news, but there is some good news to be found in the story of the United Kennel Club, founded in 1898 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. From its inception, the UKC has emphasized fitness over looks and recently began gaining registration while AKC registrations declined, due to a 2012 announcement that the UKC was revising all breed standards in accordance with optimum dog health. Healthy dogs! Kalamazoo! That news made me cheer on two counts!

So yes, the health of purebred dogs in the last half-century or more has had a lot to do with less-than-optimal breed standards and with breeding dogs too closely within genetic lines of inheritance, but breeding, though important, is only one factor to be considered in a dog’s health and life span.

Kerasote looks deeply into the matter of diet, both quantity and quality. In one study of Labrador Retrievers, dogs were divided into two groups, with “one member of each pair ... fed 75 percent of what its sibling was given.” After fourteen years, when all the dogs in the study had died, the “dogs who ate their fill” had had a median life span of 11.2 years, the dogs on the restricted diet 13 years. The "full-diet" eaters had also developed osteoarthritis at a much higher rate: in the hips, 52 percent, as compared with 13 percent of the dogs on the restricted diet; in shoulders and elbows, a 77 percent (full diet) to 10 percent (restricted diet) difference. Overeating is bad for dogs. They are more likely to get sicker and die younger. Surprised?

What a dog should eat is another and much more complicated story. The story of corn as animal feed in the U.S., of course, is not limited to dogs. Once again, it’s a question of following the money: promotion of corn-based commercial dog food, company give-aways to veterinary schools, very limited scientific “research” conducted by commercial concerns and limited to results favorable to their market shares. More objective research points to low-carbohydrate diets as more healthy for dogs. Not only carbs but preservatives, artificial coloring, and pesticide residue are issues to consider. Raw food? What kind, and from what source? How about fresh, leafy green vegetables? The author's presentation is as long on detail as my hints here are sketchy.

One might be forgiven for assuming that regular vaccinations and neutering would have no effect one way or another on a dog’s health or how long the dog lives, but Kerasote does not make that easy assumption. (He questions everything.) Purdue University and Banfield Pet Hospital staff, looking at medical records of 1.2 million dogs, discovered a rash of adverse reactions to vaccinations, with smaller dogs and neutered dogs showing higher incidences of problems.

But who wants to take the greater risk of rabies or distemper?

Kerasote tracked down a 1959 paper by Dr. James Baker, director of Cornell University’s Veterinary Virus Research Institute:
Baker observed that about one-third of all pupples who had been vaccinated and achieved immunity subsequently lost that immunity within twelve months. Their immunity was determined by a blood test that measured antibodies and was called a “titer.”
Baker went on to suggest that “two procedures are possible to help prevent disease.” The first was to titer dogs every year so as “to check their level of immunity.” Those who had lost their immunity could be revaccinated. “Or,” as Baker went on to write, “an alternate procedure would be to vaccinate all dogs annually.”
Baker’s final recommendation was the second of the two alternatives he had put forth, with the result that, as Kerasote puts it, “the principle of annual vaccination became enshrined,” despite the fact that distemper vaccines generally provide immunity for 9 to 15 years, parvovirus vaccine for seven years, and rabies vaccine for seven years. [In this regard, Leelanau County dogs are better off than dogs in municipalities requiring annual vaccinations: every three years satisfies the county licensing requirement.]

Spayed and neutered dogs not only have a greater risk of adverse reactions to vaccines but may also be at greater risk for obesity and certain kinds of cancer. Vasectomies and tubal ligations would accomplish the same goal, i.e., population control, so why are these procedures so rare? Well, veterinary medicine is medicine, and medicine is a conservative field, and this seems to be the best answer available.

The author visited dog breeders and veterinarians, animal hospitals, animal cancer centers, animal shelters, and plants that recycle animal carcasses. What you have read in this post barely scratches the surface of what you will find in Ted Kerasote’s book. Every dog owner and every person considering becoming a dog owner should read Pukka’s Promise from cover to cover. Also, many issues of dog health pertain to human health, and these facts will leap out at every reader.

Finally, in recommending it, I can tell you that this book ends happily. You’ll like that, too!