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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

“What Have You Read Lately?”

Back in 2009 I started keeping a list of books I’d read. I did not assign myself reading and generally picked up books at random, as I still do (except for reading circle choices). My only rule was that I had to read the entire book: if I didn’t finish it, it couldn’t go on the list. Now my old lists are a bit like old diaries, because I remember in glancing at the titles where I was (at home, away for the winter, on vacation in the U.P.) and what was happening in my life when I read a particular book. I didn’t start the lists to remember my life, however, but simply to remember the titles and authors of books I’d read. 

(It was too embarrassing — not only as a reader, but as a bookseller — to be forever fumbling around when asked what I had recently read and enjoyed. The other morning, for instance, without my current list, it took me a minute or two to come up with the name Colum McCann and then another five or ten minutes to recall the title Let the Great World Spin — and that’s a book that knocked my socks off!)

Today’s post, rather than being an in-depth review of one particular book, will go back over the last few books in this year’s random reading, giving a bit more detail than you’ll find in the bare list. Think of it as today’s smorgasbord. I’ll go back as far as Grandfather Stories, by Samuel Hopkins Adams, because that’s a book I haven’t written anything about yet on this blog and come forward to the last book finished on Tuesday morning. 

I started reading Grandfather Stories because it promised stories about the old Erie Canal, and as someone who grew up not far from the old Illinois-Michigan canal and had to cross serious bridges over the Chicago Sanitary Canal to get from home to downtown or high school, I’ve always taken an interest in canals and their history. I come from a railroad family and have always loved riding trains, but I’m sure the leisurely pace of canal boat or river boat travel would have suited me to a T. 

Adams recounts stories heard at his grandfather’s knee in the late 1880s, but the grandfather’s stories themselves date to an even earlier time in the nineteenth century, back before the Civil War to the construction and first days of the Erie Canal. He had other stories besides that had little or nothing to do with “Clinton’s Ditch.” I loved the ingenious ways the grandchildren learned to prime the pump to get their grandfather’s story-telling started. And many of the stories were a timely reminder that truly nothing is new under the sun. For instance, back in the early days of American organized sports — the first local baseball teams or a sculling race on the river — there was no end of gambling and cheating and rigging and fixing and thieving. Also, a big sporting event — perhaps between two champions who had agreed ahead of time which way to throw the match and split the difference — would bring crowds of spectators to town, straining accommodations and raising prices for those grumbling locals who would make no money from the inconvenience.

Reading Grandfather Stories was such a delightful escape from the 21st century that as soon as I finished it I passed it along to a friend recovering from surgery.

Each taking several parts (except for the star of the performance), we read Saint Joan aloud when our reading circle met the first Wednesday of November. Reading an entire work aloud, even a drama without long, descriptive paragraphs, took much more time than we usually spend discussing a novel (say, 2-3 hours), and it was almost midnight when I got home, but we all agreed it had been a worthwhile and pleasurable evening.

Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes let me slip back to France for a couple of evenings, a trip I always enjoy making. It was also the source of inspiration for a Thanksgiving plan that will depart wildly from tradition, but I’ll save that story (tease!) until after the holiday.

The Search Warrant, by Patrick Modiano, was also set in Paris but was hardly escape reading. Titled Dora Bruder in the original (before translation), this is the story of the author’s attempt to fill in details of the all-too-brief life of one young Jewish girl, daughter of poor immigrants, in occupied France, and the book is a literary monument to this life that would otherwise have vanished without a trace. Sobering reading, that was.

My experiences with Cora Sandel’s trilogy I’ve already described in part so will not go into further here. 

Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder, is rather a paradox, short and sweet while managing to be deep at the same time. I recommend it. The price is so modest that you can buy it, read it in an evening, and pass it along to a friend the next day. 

Joanne Harris’s Coastliners was a change of pace for me, a light interlude. It’s a novel with plenty of twists and surprises in the plot, the story set on a small island off the coast of France. I couldn’t help wondering why the author didn’t title it Islanders and still think that would have been the better title. Besides the story, though, I couldn’t help looking for parallels between the French Island and Leelanau County. 

While Leelanau County coastal villages are no longer dependent on fishing, they are still quite dependent on tourism, as were the two villages on the French island. Rivalry between the two fictional island villages is depicted as much more serious and hostile than that we here feel between high school sports teams, but there was also the familiar tale (as seems to be true many places in the world) of friction between “insiders” and “outsiders,” the debated question of who should be considered “inside,” and agonizing questions over environmental protection and preservation and economic and commercial development, everything woven into an entertaining story.

Then came River of Sand, by James Still. What a lovely, lovely book! Set in the Appalachian hills where the author grew up, this novel of a poor family moving back and forth between starvation farming and insecure coal mining is one you might expect to be depressing, but somehow, despite the poverty and hardships, it was not at all. For one thing, Still’s descriptions of the natural surroundings are detailed and beautiful, and I felt I could see and hear the life of the hills and streams he was exploring. Also, the enduring closeness of the family and its individuals gave warmth to the bleakest episodes. 
The flat fruit of the locust fell, lying like curved blades in the grass. August ripened the sedge clumps. Father began to come home from the mines in middle afternoon, no longer trudging the creek road at the edge of dark with a carbide lamp burning on his cap. He came now before the guineas settled to roost in the black birch. We watched the elder thicket at the hill turn and plunged down to meet him as he came into sight. The heifer ran after us. - James Still, River of Sand
Also, Still lived and wrote decades before today’s dismal opioid addiction epidemic. His people lived and died without electricity and usually without medical care, but were their lives worse for that?

More modern in tone was the Canadian novel Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis. Once a reader accepts the impossible premise, that of Greek gods granting human intelligence to an assortment of dogs in a veterinary clinic, the rest of the story feels quite realistic. It offers nothing saccharine, nothing cute. If you want cuddly puppy stories, look elsewhere. My philosopher friends will appreciate the wager the gods have made, which turns on the question of whether another species besides humans, granted human intelligence, would be more or less miserable than humans, and they will smile over the gods’ agreement as to what will constitute the final decision.

It was Monday morning when I came to the last page of Fifteen Dogs, and that evening found me glued to the stories in Horses Never Lie, by Mark Rashid, a horse training book different from any other I’ve read. A good book on horse training is something I can never resist, and this one more than lived up to to the words in a foreword by someone who had interviewed the author:
This is not a book for skimming. You’ll want to keep it on your nightstand, savor every word, and dream sweet, horsey dreams. Who knows? You may wake up a better horseman, and a better person. - Rick Lamb

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the book. On the second page, the author writes about a Sunday afternoon drive in the family car when he was just a kid, when out there in the country appeared a ranch with horses in the pasture.
All my short life I had loved horses. I’m not even sure why. After all, I had never actually been around real horses. …I have no good explanation as to why I was smitten by them. But like so many other boys and girls my age, I just was. - Mark Rashid, Horses Never Lie
I stopped reading aloud to exclaim to David, “That’s how it is!” And really, isn’t it mysterious? Why would a little girl lisping her first words, as I was, be transported by joy at the sight of what she named “fersies”? Or, I should say, “Fersies!” My parents finally had to threaten not to point out horses to me if I couldn’t keep from screaming when I saw them!

But back to the book….

In so many current books on training either dogs or horses, the basic assumption underlying all else is that the owner or rider must be the alpha, the dog or horse submissive. In observing herds of horses interacting, however, Rashid noticed that the alpha horse, the one humans usually assume is the herd leader, was not always the horse the others followed. While the alpha maintained his or her position by intimidation (the alpha in a herd, it may surprise you to know, may be a mare), others in the herd tended to stay away from this bully figure. The alpha horse bossed the others around, but they looked elsewhere for true leadership.

The horse Rashid came to call a “passive” leader — the term, he admits is confusing, but he had to invent something to call this horse, since there was nothing about the role in horse training literature — was calm and dependable rather than bullying and intimidating. This horse was chosen by the herd rather than violently imposing leadership on the others. The word “passive,” as Rashid uses it, has to do with how the horse comes into a leadership position, i.e., not by seeking dominance over the herd but by the herd deciding it would be the horse to follow. This is the leader chosen by the herd, the one they trust and follow.

In this book, Mark Rashid lays out his own method of training in a series of stories, telling of horses and riders and trainers he has known, problems presented, and solutions found. He does not preach new techniques. He simply offers, for those who desire and choose to be in partnership with horses, advice about how to listen and pay attention and give the horse a chance to “have his say” so the horse has an opportunity, rather than being forced to submit, to choose the rider as leader. His method, he acknowledges, may not be for everyone. He believes “it comes down to the type of relationship you’re looking for with your horse.”

(What kind of relationship do you want with your dog? Sarah is pretty well behaved, but I’ve always given her a degree of latitude, too, recognizing that she “has a mind of her own.” I reasoned that herding breeds, while trained to commands, often have to make decisions of their own, and so Sarah, with her Aussie-border collie background, was only being herself when she took a moment to think about what I asked her to do. I don’t see her as needing a whole lot of bossing around. She is my constant companion, and we’re both comfortable with that. We’re attuned to one another.)

So I got up early on Tuesday, eager to read further in Horses Never Lie, and as I reached the final page and gathered myself together to go out into the world, to stop at the bank and post office and library, to get out into the sunshine so Sarah could have another run before our long bookstore day, I felt happier than I had felt facing the world for many days. The world isn’t all something that begs to be escaped, which the morning news sometimes makes me feel and I was happy to feel eager again to go out into it. 

After all, there are horses in the world, and there are dogs, and there are good friends and neighbors and strangers and acquaintances who might become friends if we can only stop fighting one another for dominance. And if we can stop that infernal struggle to “come out on top” in situation after situation, hold still and listen to each other — not just to the words but to all the cues in the situation — maybe there is hope yet for our species. The “passive leader” horse Mark Rashid describes is not a pushover for the alpha, by any means!

So why should our human predicament be hopeless? If we can learn to communicate with (not just to) horses and dogs, who don’t even share our language, let alone our value systems, why can we not learn to communicate with each other?

P.S. 11/17: Continuation of thoughts on Rashid's work and related topics on one of my other blogs -- here.


Deborah said...

The title of the book Horses Never Lie as well as the front cover draw me in!

Cheri Walton said...

When I volunteered at the horse shelter I remember Mark Rashid coming and giving a workshop there. We were taught to be gentle and calm, respectful of the horse. Before that our boss had espoused the idea that we must "make ourselves big" in order to handle problem horses. I had been taught otherwise, but didn't argue. Nevertheless I became the one to handle the difficult residents. I remember one of the volunteers laughing as she described "little 5 foot tall Cheri" haltering and leading a big black aggressive gelding from his stall out to the paddock. No one else dared go near him. I'm bragging, but my point is that after Mark Rashid's workshop I had my moment of triumph. Luckily the owner of the place was amenable to trying new things and everyone learned a new philosophy. Everyone was happy...especially the horses. He was a kind, patient, wonderful guy.

P. J. Grath said...

Cheri, I LOVE your comment! An unsolicited endorsement of this lovely way of partnering with horses! Thank you so much!!! Now I also have to say that I am green with envy, too.

Dawn said...

Positive reinforcement is the way I trained Katie. And yes, she does make decisions all on her own as to whether to do as I ask. So I try not to ask much. We both get along better that way.

All the books sound interesting.