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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Not the Albert I Recognize: From Writer to Character

Camus, My Take: PART I

Recently, I was introduced to an Albert Camus I could not recognize, and the presentation shocked and dismayed me. Consequently, as much in self-defense as to defend the Camus I remembered, I began to re-reading some of his work. I began with his famous novel, that most frequently encountered by readers coming to him for the first time, The Stranger, and went from there to political essays on rebellion, revolution, and art in The Rebel. I am concerned that some readers of The Stranger have been led to mistake Mersault for Camus himself. The mistake troubles me deeply.

Fictional Characters in General

There have always been novelists who draw their characters pretty directly from life, changing little more than the names (“to protect the innocent”), and it has long been recognized that the protagonist of many a first novel is but a thinly veiled, somewhat exaggerated version of the author. Since writers of fiction are creating their own versions of reality, why would they not use themselves as a first model and present themselves according to their daydreams?

But not all fictional characters can be clearly traced back to the author’s life and personality. More often, every character in a novel has something in common with the author and also similarities to other people the author, intimately known or distantly encountered, perhaps in a history book, a psychology text, or a newspaper article. Wherever the features and habits originally appeared, specific original personalities are born in the writing of fiction.

The Character of Mersault and the Style of The Stranger

The Stranger is a “study in alienation.” ‘Stranger’ in French is also the word for ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ or ‘alien.’ The narrator and main character, Mersault, is alienated from himself and his society. He is without self-awareness (a stranger to himself) and thus without emotions.

Mersault’s response to the world in which he finds himself can be summed up in an exclamation current in the U.S. today: “Whatever!” Marie wants to get married? Whatever! Raymond wants to think they are friends? Whatever! The French phrase is Ca m’est egal. That is, Mersault does not care one way or the other. If Marie had no interest in marriage or Raymond disinclined to be friends, Mersault would think nothing lost. Either way, it’s the same to him. Makes him no never mind.

The style of the narration reflects the character’s detached presentation of events. Sentences are short statements of fact, devoid of affective content. Mersault is telling his own story to us, as it transpires.

Is too much is made of the opening sentences? “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” After all, Mersault is giving us a day-to-day report, and the telegram notifying him of his mother’s passing did not give the day, telling him only when the funeral was to take place. Very soon, however, our suspicions aroused by the opening lines are confirmed, the bare-facts statements having foreshadowed what we encounter in what follows: Mersault feels nothing in response to his mother’s death. The weeping of a woman at the wake, his mother’s close friend, annoys him. When an old man from the home joins the funeral procession the next day, a man he is told used to go out walking with his mother, who was then teased about having a “fiancĂ©,” he makes no attempt to speak to the old man. He has no questions about his mother’s last days and no sympathy for the friends she has left behind, those who – unlike him -- grieve her loss.

Along with a lack of emotions, then, Mersault has an almost complete lack of curiosity. And as he says much later of himself, “I never had a real imagination.” No imagination, no curiosity, no feelings – no empathy. That is the character of Mersault before his conviction for murder.

Mersault is an outsider when first we meet him, but he is not yet a rebel. The rebel is one who says both no and yes – no when he feels his rights have been infringed and yes to the value of life in himself – and then, necessarily, logically, to that value in other human beings. The first step is awareness of absurdity, the second awareness of the value of life in oneself.

Only in prison, when he begins at last to feel unfairly treated, harassed about God by the priest who will not accept his unbelief, does Mersault begin to come to an awareness of himself, to an understanding of his mother’s late-life attachments, and to his own attachment to life. At the beginning of the novel, he is imprisoned, held in solitary, completely alienated; by the last page, he has begun to recognize himself as a member of the human race. But the first, dawning awareness of the rebel – in this case, the Meursault who says no to the priest and yes to the value of his own life – partakes of much remaining confusion. It is a long way from that beginning to a full existential awareness of solidarity with all other human beings.

In logical terms,

Mersault ≠ Camus

To identify one with the other is to miss both the writer and the character.

The Character and Style of Camus

Although Camus, like Mersault, was an atheist and believed strongly that meaning was not given, ready-made, with life, in most other ways the author could not have been more unlike his character. Anyone who has read of his boyhood in Algeria knows him to have been a joyous, active, and inquisitive boy, and anyone reading his later essays recognizes his passion and concern for humanity.

Camus engaged not only with literature but, often painfully, with the divisive politics of postwar France and the searing questions of his time. One cannot imagine Camus the man shrugging and saying, “Nothing matters.” Had he been as alienated from himself and from life as Mersault, he would never have taken the public positions he did against France’s treatment of Algeria, the land of his birth and youth, and the Algerian people.

In his essays, moreover, where he wrote in his own voice rather than the voice of a fictional character, there is nothing half-hearted, no verbal shrugging, no choppy, robot-like reportage. Instead we find crystalline thought, logically developed, and convictions – for him, conclusions -- that ring with passion.

Absurdism and Existentialism
Awareness of the absurd, when we first claim to deduce a rule of behavior from it, makes murder seem a matter of indifference, to say the least, and hence possible. If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance. There is no pro or con: the murderer is neither right or wrong. We are free to stoke the crematory fires or to devote ourselves to the care of lepers. Evil and virtue are mere chance or caprice.
Yes, these are words written by Camus. They occur in his introduction to the essays comprised in The Rebel, and it is something like the statement in the paragraph quoted that I encountered in the strange, faux Camus recently introduced to me. Attention, mes amis! Note that ‘seem’ in the first sentence! Remember that we are reading an introduction! And then keep reading, carefully, because awareness of life’s absurdity is the first step, not the conclusion of Camus’s argument!

To illuminate the question of murder, he harks back to the question of suicide that troubled earlier generations of nonbelievers. “To say that life is absurd, the conscience must be alive.” Only a living human being can recognize life as absurd. The act of suicide, then, would undercut the very basis necessary for the act. Thus, affirmation of suicide is contradictory, logically impossible. As to murder --
How is it possible, without making remarkable concessions to one’s desire for comfort, to preserve exclusively for oneself the benefits of such a process of reasoning? From the moment that life is recognized as good, it becomes good for all men. Murder cannot be made coherent when suicide is not considered coherent. A mind imbued with the idea of the absurd will undoubtedly accept fatalistic murder; but it would never accept calculated murder. In terms of the encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe, murder and suicide are one and the same thing, and must be accepted or rejected together.
To accept murder and suicide, to be indifferent to life, is the mark of nihilism, absolute negation. Mass murder and mass suicide illustrate absolute negation. “There are no half-measures about nihilism.”  On the other hand,
Absurdist reasoning cannot defend the continued existence of its spokesman and, simultaneously, accept the sacrifice of others’ lives. [Rejection of suicide must entail rejection of murder.] The moment that we recognize the impossibility of absolute negation—and merely to be alive is to recognize this—the very first thing that cannot be denied is the right of others to live.
Conclusion: Life matters. All life matters. To live is to breathe is to choose is to choose life. For Camus, beginning with an awareness of life’s absurdity did not permit one to abandon logic, and logic led right back to life as a value, an inalienable right. It is by choosing that each of us must create our own life’s meaning.

The rebel is one who says both no and yes. The character of Meursault, by the end of the book, has taken the second step, the step away from nihilism, by recognizing the value of his own life. Whether or not, given enough time, he would pursue the logic of “absurdist reasoning” to Camus’s conclusion of a right to live held by all human beings, we cannot know.

Are we taken aback by the phrase “absurdist reasoning”? Does it strike us as a contradiction in terms? It is not, please note, absurd reasoning, not reasoning to absurdity but from one’s awareness of life’s absurdity to recognition of our own freedom and responsibility.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

“Sir and Madam, What Are Your Intentions?”

  • Show dog breeders aiming for the mysterious quality called “attitude” that takes ribbons in the ring are not trying to raise the level of aggression in the puppies they produce.
  • Patients who indiscriminately demand antibiotics and physicians who overprescribe to please those patients do not have as their purpose the accelerated evolution of potentially death-dealing bacteria.
  • Families releasing bouquets of colorful balloons into the air do not intend to litter beaches and kill birds and wildlife.
  • Neither do judges and juries sending young people to prison do so in order to provide graduate courses in criminality.
But everything is a double-edged sword, and we can never entirely separate the good we intend from the undesired negative consequences of our actions. Do or don’t. Do this or do that. Either way, there’s no free lunch. The question is the quality of the lunch, the benefits derived from it, and the cost to be paid, not only at lunchtime by those choosing the meal but by everyone else for years to come.

No one is ever surprised that independent booksellers and publishers (clinging to always-precarious marginal livelihoods) have little good to say about the online behemoth dominating book sales. Internet book purchases had risen gradually over the years and then seemingly evened out -- maybe, we thought, leaving a margin of survivability for the rest of us – and then came the shopping season that wasn’t. It came out of nowhere, a fatal tsunami of absence – empty streets, empty sidealks, empty stores. And bookstores were not the only retail stores hit. So it is hardly surprising that we in storefront retail don’t love the behemoth who threatens our self-interest so drastically. 

The figures about loss of jobs surprise no one, either: that news has been around for a long time now, as has the wisdom that a dollar spent in a local community tends to go around there many times, whereas the one sent elsewhere rarely comes back. But if it isn’t your store or your job, why shouldn’t you save as much money as possible with the greatest convenience to yourself? Maybe you don't identify all that closely with the community in which you live. Anyway, should bookstore owners expect to be subsidized by the public, just so they can go on living in their precious, rarified little literary worlds?

Grow up, softies! Re-invent yourselves!

Come on, admit it. Haven’t you sometimes wanted to say something like that to the bookseller in your neighborhood, the one insisting that he or she is your “local bookseller,” whether or not you ever cross the store threshold? Local, schmocal, yokel, right?

Well, now some interesting new figures are coming to light, having to do with much more than local stores and jobs disappearing. We are learning that there is also a much larger volume of waste material generated by in the packing and shipping of online purchases.

Surprised? And that's not all.

Another negative consequence most people don’t think about an increased number of trucks on the nation’s highway – and what those trucks are carrying and implications for the trucking industry, transportation legislation, and highway safety. One of my downstate blogging friends lost her father to a highway accident caused by a trucker who fell asleep at the wheel. She works with a group called the Truck Safety Coalition, and here is her take in her own words:
The [New York Times] article expresses some of our concerns over truck safety: "One recent study explored the environmental effect of Internet shopping in Newark, Del., and found that a rise in e-commerce in recent years by local residents corresponded to more trucks on the road and an increase in greenhouse emissions." One of many problems created by consumers needing instant gratification is that there ARE more trucks on the road...and these trucks are often carrying lots of smaller boxes (v.s. shipping to a store many of one thing) so now truck companies want larger trucks (because they are full using the typical sized trailers, but not at the max weight yet.). So...we are fighting more trucks, and the requests for bigger trucks.
 – Dawn King, blogger, in a comment to the New York Times link posted on Facebook
The original Times article focused on growing mountains of shipping containers and packing materials, but my friend’s concern is hardly less serious, I’m sure you will agree.

Recap: Because online shoppers expect and demand the fastest delivery possible of their purchases, greater numbers of smaller packages are in transit, translating to mean containers and more packing materials – in short, more waste generated. At the same time, paradoxically, trucks delivering all these little packages are not carrying their maximum weight, resulting in more trucks on the roads, plus pressure on and from the trucking industry to allow bigger trucks than the law currently permits.

Taken together, increased waste and decreased safety are powerful arguments for supporting local bookstores and other retail establishments where you live – not only for the sake of store owners and employees, but for the sake of the world we will leave to our children and grandchildren. This information needs to reach a wider audience, because I know that book people care about the broader social and natural world. And the fact that the information supports my own personal life choices doesn't make me sad, either. I need not blush for owning a bookshop. Not that I ever did.

Psst! Feel free to spread the word!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Place of Place: “Do I Stay, or Do I Go?”

regionalism. Emphasis on regional locale and characteristics in art or literature. Regionalism was a significant movement in Canadian literature early in the 20th century. Other national literatures also had periods in which regionalism was emphasized. 

Midwestern Regionalism. American literary movement of the late 19th century that is characterized by the realistic depiction of Midwestern small-town and rural life. The movement was an early stage in the development of American realistic writing.
- Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature, 1995

[Don’t ask me why the EOL capitalizes Midwestern Regionalism and not regionalism. I have no idea.]

In the last couple of decades, the term sense of place has become ubiquitous in American discourse; whether the topic is fiction or the visual arts, sense of place is often highlighted and extolled. It is a sensibility that has come to pass over and against an earlier aesthetic, in which historical period dictated what was considered important or beautiful. And yet, oddly, while sense of place has become a dominant theme, the label “regional” tends to limit the audience for arts or books. Why this disconnect? Given the definitions above, situating regionalism in the historical past, the view from the critic’s chair is clearer.

But where does that leave us? The sense of place aesthetic is at odds with postmodern criticisms that locates regionalism in the been-there, done-that category. We live in a “global” world, we’re told. Is our fascination with sense of place, then, nothing more than nostalgia?

I’m not setting out today to advocate for or against regionalism but to explore what this sense of place discourse means to us, as Americans, and what place place holds in our individual life stories. What is the place of place in your consciousness or mine? In the arc of our personal narratives?

Re-reading some of Jim Harrison’s essays from over two decades ago, I am struck not only by the way he responds to various places – to Leelanau County, the U.P., New York, France, Montana, and Arizona – but also by a general question he poses as it relates to food, a question that could also, easily, relate to geography – or anything else: Is it more desirable to climb a hundred mountains in a lifetime or to climb one mountain a hundred times? Being a man, Jim naturally sees a parallel in the question of marriage vs. the life of a libertine. Surely he has also thought about the parallel question of where one makes a home, where one spends one’s life, given that his own life has been lived in multiple places but also, in each of those places, on terms of intimate knowledge of each place.

As I reflect on that, already I am seeing “100 mountains” or “one mountain 100 times,” even as an analogy, to be a false dilemma. I’m seeing a wide and fertile middle ground. But I don’t want to assume it from the outset and have not yet explored far enough to have made a case for its existence.

For many writers, one particular part of the world or of their native country remains home for all their lives, whether they remain in that place or leave it and never return, and all of their important writing lives there, in that place where it is at home. For Sarah Orne Jewett, “the country of the pointed firs,” rural New England seacoast whose name she gave to her most important writing, was that place. For Ernest Gaines, home is Louisiana, the part where country people live. Eudora Welty’s world was Mississippi. Ivan Bunin’s fiction is set in the Russia of his childhood. We associate so many writers with New York City that the list would take more room than I want to give to it – but for some reason, fiction set in New York and infused with its streets and sights and smells and patterns of speech is not considered provincial. Why not? Surely the locale and characteristics of the city are vital to many New York stories. Well, I’ve always wondered but don’t want to follow that side road today.

One of my favorite writers who has chosen to climb the same mountain over and over is Wendell Berry. His poetry and essays and fiction are unimaginable apart from his life as a Kentucky farmer, and in choosing that life he also advocates for it.
And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.
Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky's Red River Gorge
This past week I read a book that came to my attention because the author is from Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I lived for many years. In fact, before my years in Leelanau County accumulated, I had lived longer in Kalamazoo than anywhere else, from South Dakota to Illinois to Michigan and beyond. So, not surprisingly, here is the passage that struck me on Thursday evening:
Evolutionary cul-de-sac. That was how I thought of the streets of Kalamazoo. There were a lot of good things about Kalamazoo, and even some great things, like my family. But I’d already lived 19 years of my life there, which was too long to spend in any one place. And when I went to the grocery store or to work, I ran into people who’d known me since I was a kid, and most of them still applied their old knowledge of me. Even though everything was different now, it was hard to escape the powerful orbit of history, the inertia of the past. 

-               Joelle Renstrom, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature

Wendell Berry finds a meaningful life only in returning and staying in the country where he grew up, the country of his family history, whereas Joelle Renstrom’s return, initially necessitated by her father’s fatal illness, becomes problematic after his death. As she puts it, “I needed to continue evolving.” She sees staying in Kalamazoo as the end of her personal growth.

This is where I need to address the question of my own life, if only because my life is the reason the question arises for me at all.

Wendell Berry has his answer: his part of rural Kentucky is his place in the world. He belongs there, his life and work and art inseparable from the place. Joelle Renstrom’s answer, insofar as she has formulated it at this stage of her life, seems to be that each place she lives has a certain expiration date. Vancouver was home for a while, and then its time was over. She had a New York era. She came back to Kalamazoo but needed to move on.

I have a dream life akin to Wendell Berry’s, but my actual life has been much more like that of Joelle Renstrom. There were 17 adult years for me in Kalamazoo (I arrived at age 22), and there have now been 24 years in Leelanau County, but I grew up in neither place, and no earlier generation of my family called either place home. And what to say of two years in Cincinnati? Repeated returns to Paris, France? Or winters on Florida’s Gulf Coast, or, more recently, last winter in the high desert of southeast Arizona? Is northern Michigan less important to my life because I have loved other places? Is loving more than one place some kind of disloyalty? And if I say no, have I begged the question from the start, doing nothing other than try to justify my own life?

Some ways of life have little to do with the place in which they are conducted. Someone can move to a strange city and spend all day at work or (if a student) in classroom and library, go home after a few beers, and collapse in an apartment. I knew people who lived like that in graduate school, but it was not my way. On foot, on public transportation, in a borrowed car, I ranged as far afield as possible – other parts of town, public parks, surrounding countryside, and beyond. Those habits had been strengthened by a month alone in Paris the preceding spring, but even in Kalamazoo, my long-time home previous to graduate school, I never tired of exploring. Back in Michigan now for a long time now, out in the woods with my dog is one of my favorite places to be, but the truth is that many roads continue to becon.

Here I go back to Jim Harrison. No one who knows Jim or his work could deny that he has always had both a very active life of the mind and an insatiable appetite for the outdoors. When Jim lived in Michigan, he was connected to Michigan, engaged with it, eager learn all he could about it by intimate acquaintance. Later he approached Arizona and Montana the same way. He would probably be the first to admit he will never know the mountains or the desert as does someone who has lived an entire lifetime in mountains or desert and nowhere else. But as for those multiple places, truly being, as fully as possible, where he was when he was there – that has been his way of life.

Down on the Illinois prairie, post-Cincinnati, my yearning for the woods and waters of Michigan practically made me ill with longing. “In the abstract, then, you could be happy living in Wisconsin,” someone told me. In the abstract? Home is not an abstract question! Place is not abstract space! Nothing against Wisconsin, you understand, but my overflowing treasure chest of northern memories is full of time in Michigan.

On the other hand (and back and forth I swing!), my love of place is not singular but is, rather, a love of places. There must be, as I mused earlier, a middle ground between commitment to one place and promiscuous serial residences without attachment. A place can be a beloved lifetime friend without being a spouse. It cannot be disloyalty to love more than one place, can it?

What of Renstrom’s question of personal growth or evolution?

Here too I must insist upon more than one answer and say the answer will vary from one person to another. Born in South Dakota, which I only recall from a family vacation there years later, I could not wait to leave Joliet, Illinois, at the age of 18 and could never imagine living there again, yet my youngest sister has made a very full and rich and satisfying life and career without ever leaving the town in which she was born. The third sister has a life history of cities: New York, New Orleans, Chicago. “San Francisco,” she told me once when there on a business trip, “is your kind of place!” But I’ve never seen California.

In Leelanau County and its small villages, clear labels are given to differentiate “natives,” “locals,” “summer people,” and “tourists.” Those who move here from somewhere else are questioned closely about where they grew up and just how many years they have been here (or, for summer people, “coming up here”). It would be hard to find someone here who doesn’t love this place, but who is entitled to claim it as home? Home, here in the county, often seems a vigorously contested category.

Some people live entire lifetimes in one place. Others return later to childhood homes. Still others lead ex-patriate lives until they die, perhaps in one place, perhaps in a series of places. But how can anyone think the quality of a life is determined by the number of places one lives?

-- Serendipity has come to my rescue once again! Searching back through pages of The Raw and the Cooked, looking for the essay in which Harrison put forth the mountain/mountains dilemma, I happened on this:
The wilderness does not make you forget your normal life so much as it removes the distractions for proper remembering. -               “Just Before Dark,” 1991

It’s worth taking time to read that sentence more than once and to think about it for a while. It took me several readings to think about the part played by the difference of the urban world and the natural world in the place or places we choose to call home.

One of the most jarring things about returning to a city or town where one grew up or lived long ago – for me, Joliet, Lansing, or Cincinnati would be examples -- is the disorientation brought about by changes in the landscape. An old city hall is gone, along with the old movie theatre and bowling alley. An entire neighborhood was demolished for a freeway. One’s memories have been erased from the material world. And it’s no better out in the suburbs, where subdivisions and malls have replaced farms. What has become of one’s old landmarks? They are all gone. And so, while the city is full of ghosts from your past, many of them waft about unanchored. All these changes, along with busy traffic, distract from “proper remembering.”

True, deeply rural landscapes change, too, of course, but usually not so abruptly, and even where there is abrupt change it somehow feels different. You drive an old logging trail in the U.P. and see where forest fire swept through the year before, a fire you heard about on the news. Now you see miles of charred trees. It’s shocking, yes, but somehow it makes sense in a way that miles and miles of big new houses where you used to build tree forts with childhood playmates can never make sense.

Climbing one mountain over and over, whether for years (as Wendell Berry has done) or only for a matter of weeks (as I did on each visit to Paris or as David and I did every day we drove from our high desert ghost town to the little cow town 14 miles away), if one is living in a place and paying attention to it, brings the realization that it is never the same mountain two days in a row. You cannot step into the same river twice? Neither can you visit any natural setting more than once, because the woods, the lakeshore, mountains and desert, the playa – all are different every day. And because they are, they compel attention and at the same time leave room for “proper remembering” of one’s “normal life.” In the wild, we are able to look at our own life as another part of nature, rather than seeing it – no, feeling it -- as the center of the universe.

This post is far too long. I doubt I have held a single reader through every paragraph from the long-ago beginning to the (blessedly) now-approaching end.

I cannot see either staying forever or forever moving on as contrary and exclusive possibilities for personal growth. We can surely stay and stagnate, but it is closing down or failing to move forward, not staying, that determines stagnation. Just so, I’m sure that moving on can be either embrace of adventure or flight from self, thus growth or the inhibition of growth. Or, in both cases, I suspect (staying or moving), something in between. Periods of growth and periods of stasis. Life’s rhythms.

“Oh, the places you’ll see!” promised Dr. Seuss. We will none of us see them all. What counts, I do believe, is not flitting from one to another and vying to have the longest list but being as completely as possible in whatever place you find yourself in, at least long enough to know if it can be home for you or if you need to move on.

No one else can make the decision for you. And you yourself will make it over and over again, as long as you live.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs: The Complete Medical and Integrative Guide to Treating Pain
by Michael Petty, D.V.M.
NY: Norton, 2016
Hardcover, $24.95

Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs is NOT a do-it-yourself book. The author states very clearly – and more than once – that no book, even his own, is a substitute for having a dog examined and treated by a qualified veterinarian. What he offers is an informative survey of various causes of pain in dogs, treatment options professionally available, and special care owners can provide. Primarily, the author is concerned that dog owners realize: (1) that dogs do feel pain (he thinks they may feel it more than we do, and he explains why); (2) that there are usually ways that pain can be relieved; and (3), that pain treatment does not have to lead to bankruptcy.

Just as the paternalistic model of medicine has been rejected, Dr. Petty rejects paternalistic veterinary care. He believes owners can and should be informed – about causes of pain, possible treatment, and expected outcomes – in order to be partners with veterinarians in decision-making for their companion animals.

Each reader of this book will be struck by different facts not previously encountered elsewhere. One that hit me between the eyes was the reference to a 1997 Lancet article on a study of infant response to pain subsequent to neonatal circumcision. It was long believed that any pain during circumcision was minimal and brief – over, done with, not registered as memory. A 1995 study showed something very different. One group of neonates was circumcised with local anesthetic, a second group without anesthetic. At their four-month and six-month vaccinations, it was found that babies circumcised without anesthetic had an increase in pain response compared to the group circumcised with the local anesthetic cream. The name for this effect is hyperalgesia: untreated pain can be responsible for physiological changes that intensify subsequent pain. Naturally, Dr. Petty’s concern is what this finding means for treating pain in dogs, but the finding itself is fascinating and would seem to have important broad consequences.

The chapter order in the book is logical, and illustrations are helpful in clarifying text. For example, in the chapter on acute pain, illustrations show how to make an emergency muzzle (to avoid being bitten by an injured dog trying to protect itself) and how to pick up an injured dog. In the following chapter on chronic pain, we are shown (from the side) the typical stance of a pain-free dog, followed by a contrasting image of a dog suffering from hip dysplasia. The first dog stands with front feet directly under shoulders, the second with front feet farther back to ease pressure on weak hips. The difference is obvious once it is pointed out.

I particularly appreciated Dr. Petty’s discussion of acupuncture, both the general explanation of how it works (briefly, by enhancing natural pain-inhibitory signaling, but Chapter 9 gives a longer, more detailed explanation) and the author’s clear statement, “I can’t think of a single type of pain that won’t respond, at least in part, to acupuncture.” Possibly skeptical readers should know that the type of acupuncture the author advocates and practices is based on modern Western medicine-based research and has nothing “mystical” about it.

In sections on various other therapies, including botanical remedies, the author gives his own best assessment, based always on serious research rather than product claims or anecdotes from convinced customers. There is even a chapter frankly titled “Pain Relief Therapies Best Avoided,” in which the doctor pulls no punches.

Whether he is providing pharmaceutical or physiological explanations, recommending stretching exercises, or advising on the choice of dog bed or socks, Dr. Petty’s voice as it comes through his writing is authoritative caring, and conversational. As a reader and dog owner, you trust him. And then he makes you laugh. Cookie stretches! Those are great! (You have to read the book to find out.) He also includes helpful appendices, endnotes, and – hallelujah! – an index.

There was one analogy in Chapter 6 that I had some trouble getting my brain around at first. The author compares the pain pathway -- from nerve endings to the spinal cord and eventually to the brain – to a commuter returning home at the end of the day. My problem with the analogy was that it is, presumably, desirable that the commuter reach home, whereas relieving pain requires not allowing pain signals to reach the brain but instead blocking them from that natural destination. Re-reading made the point clear, but it would have been clearer from the beginning if the person in transit in the analogy had been someone the reader wanted to prevent from reaching his destination – say a terrorist or other criminal.

Also in the same section there is passing reference to “agonist action on receptors.” Readers with background in medicine, philosophy, or classics will not pause in perplexity over “agonist,” but other readers may, and a parenthetical definition would be helpful at that point.

But overall, and all in all, Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs is highly readable and informative. I learned a lot and recommend the book highly. I know that as our Sarah ages, I'll be using some of the knowledge I gained from the good doctor.

Now here’s the surprise I’ve been saving all along: Dog Ears Books will probably have the honor of hosting Dr. Petty this summer in Northport! Maybe (depending on his book tour schedule) on Dog Parade day! I’ll put a notice on the blog as soon as we fix on a date, but contact me any time to order the book now (to read and bring with you to his event for signing) or to reserve a signed copy for purchase on the day of the event.

P.S. 5/25: Dr. Petty will be at Dog Ears Books on the day of the dog parade, Saturday, August 13, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. He will give a short presentation and take questions from the audience before signing books for customers. We're excited!!!

So start now making notes of what you want to ask he doctor. This will be a very special opportunity – and a memorable one, I’m sure -- for Dog Ears Books customers.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Another Wild Spirit

Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain
by Martha Sherrill
NY: Penguin, 2008

What did I expect when the title Dog Man caught my eye? Some yeti-like legend of northern Michigan? Perhaps at first glance, but when I picked up the book that expectation had to be quickly discarded. The dog man of the title was an Akita breeder in the snow country of Japan.

So, a tale of dogs set in the North -- much more appealing....

At home I began reading and found the book once again exceeding expectations, taking me not only far from home but back in time and to a part of Japan that was itself far behind the times in Tokyo and other large cities. Dog Man is as much about the man’s wife, Kitako, and their life together as it is about Morie and his dogs. The couple marry in 1940 in a Shinto ceremony held at the grand former residence of General Maresuke Nogi and his wife, 

held as paragons of virtue for killing themselves on the evening of Emperor Meiji's funeral.

Immediately after the wedding, Morie and Kitako, a 20-year-old city girl raised all her life in comfortable circumstances (she is college-educated with a teaching degree), set off on a 22-hour train ride to the north where Morie was raised. Kitako feels out of place in the midst of Morie’s big, noisy family (he is the youngest boy in a family of five boys and five girls) but is even more confused by the snow country itself and its primitive isolation, far from the nightclubs of Tokyo.
...”Where do we go tonight?” she’d asked Morie, who looked at her with an expression she didn’t understand. It was so cold—still winter, with snow everywhere, as though spring was hesitant to arrive in such a serious place. And so dark—no streetlights or city lights, nothing but black sky and looking black mountains.
To Kitako’s dismay, Morie turned down a job in Tokyo, choosing instead an assignment in distant Manchuria, then a new colony of imperial Japan. Had Morie been happy there, Kitako would have had to endure life in Manchuria much longer, but neither of them was immune to the resentment of the local population.
The Japanese expansion into Manchuria had been particularly violent and the Manchurians, beleaguered and beaten down, carried a strong, lingering resentment of their conquerors, who were now immigrating in great numbers into their towns and cities. Kitako was shocked by the way her countrymen behaved in Manchuria, treating the Chinese like lesser beings, “as if they weren’t really human,” she says. And when she went to the market, she felt self-conscious, suspecting that she was hated by the local vendors simply for being Japanese, and for having money....
Their first child is born in Manchuria, but after only two years Morie and Kitako, still without dogs, return to Japan, where Morie will be in charge of building and running a power plant in snow country, not far from his family home.

The place name “Pearl Harbor” does not come into this story, but the war does. Due to circumstances, Kitako must make the long, difficult return trip to Japan alone with her baby. Resettled at last in snow country, a place of hardship and poverty, she finds the dialect hard to understand. A young mother, she has no friends or family in the cold winter world. And life in the north, never luxurious or easy, is made more challenging by war and rationing. No electricity, no gas, no hot water – a woodstove for cooking (all kindling and firewood to be gathered in the woods behind the house) and kerosene lamps for light. But when the firebombing of Tokyo begins, Morie brings members of Kitako’s family to the north to live with them, and Kitako sells her wedding kimono for enough money to buy three days’ worth of rice.

But into these dark, hard times of struggle comes Morie’s first dog.
Nobody talked about the thing in the woodshed—the creature that was now eating six pounds of food a day—or said anything directly to Morie about his dog. Morie never raised the subject either. He fed it quietly, walked it quietly [in the dark of morning and dark of evening], and tried to keep it out of sight. Actually, he wasn’t sure if his in-laws even knew about it. But they knew. They all knew. And they were speechless with disgust. You weren’t supposed to feed dogs when people were starving. You weren’t supposed to give dogs rice when your family got only potatoes.
It went beyond that: possession of dogs was illegal at that time in Japan. But Morie, who had never had a dog in his life, was seized by a “sense of mission.” He made discreet but careful investigations and estimated that only sixteen Akitas, so long the pride of the snow country, had survived the years of extreme hardship and prohibition against dogs. The breed was close to extinction. His mission, as he saw it, was to save the breed and return it to its former glory.

Who can say what inspired his love for these dogs? Something in them called to something in him.

After the war, life became easier and more pleasant. Morie applied his engineering inventiveness to the growing family’s wilderness home, bringing hot water into their lives. Their traditional Japanese soaking tub with hot water was available to all guests and neighbors. The hospitality of the house became legendary, and Kitako learned from local women how to prepare regional dishes life was no longer lonely. Her life was no longer lonely.

As for Morie, a Mitsubishi supervisor, who earns his salary by electrifying rural Japan, his passion, more and more, is dogs. Akitas. Acquiring dogs and puppies, learning about them, breeding and raising and showing and talking about Akitas with other dog owners and breeders. Had his character been different, Morie’s obsession might have become, as it did for so many others in Japan at this time, all about increasing his personal wealth and prestige.

But Morie made a decision early on: he would never sell a dog. He gave dogs away, he traded a puppy for stud service, and he loaned dogs--sometimes for the dog’s lifetime. But he would not sell a puppy or a dog, nor would he let one go to a stranger.

Each chapter in Dog Man has for a focus one particular dog. Anyone whose life has been blessed by dogs will understand the reason: the succession of dogs marks epochs in the owner’s life. There was Manchuria, without dogs. There were the war years, bringing the first dog. And so on. The author understands and builds on this way of marking time so that Morie’s engineering career, his wife’s life at home, their growing family, additions and expansions to the family home – an entire way of life in the faraway snow country at that time in rural Japan – are all, beautifully and naturally, revealed and integrated into the story. The early illustrations in the book show only dogs, later ones a few people, but the houses and forests and mountains of the snow country life we must (and do) imagine from the author’s richly detailed descriptions.

One of my favorite individuals in the story is Uesugi, the matagi, or migratory hunter-forager and “forest inspector” in a tradition older than samurai. Uesugi becomes a regular visitor to Morie and Kitako’s home in Kamaguchi, where Morie’s work had taken them in that period of their lives.
Uesugi came by quite often that autumn, until the deep winter snows in December drove him away, farther south. He traveled all the way to Osaka then, on foot, in his tabi and snowshoes, migrating from snowy forest to snowy forest, sleeping in abandoned bear caves and beside fallen trees. His clothing grew heavier and more eccentric: fox pelts around his neck, wool scarves wrapping his head, a wide-brimmed hat with rabbit fur earflaps. He carried a shotgun inside his coat, a knife at his waist, and a fishing hook and line curled in a pocket. And in the fabric pouches that he slung over his shoulder, he kept dry rice, miso, toasted green tea, shavings of ginseng, and chunks of kumanoi—the dried gall bladder of a Moon Bear.
Only Uesugi can still find wild ginseng in the forests. Uesugi has the best kumanoi to slice sparingly into green tea. And other than visits to the various mothers of his children, the only house he sleeps in that of Morie and Kitako. Although Uesugi is practically a wild man, Kitako feels a connection to him from the first, and he recognizes both husband and wife as kindred spirits from the start.

Morie himself, a native of snow country, becomes more at home in the wilderness every year, with Uesugi as his mentor. Although largely responsible for the region’s modernization, as time goes by Morie values more and more the wildness of the country that is becoming increasingly difficult to find.
...He’d be gone for days sometimes. He slept in snow dens and built fires in caves. He pole-vaulted across creeks and ponds with tree branches. He studied the differences between poisonous wild mushrooms and the edible varieties.... He tracked rabbits and deer and learned to catch fish using the maggots inside the bark of a beech tree for bait. 
Everybody else had gotten faster and busier. Morie had gotten slower and more single-minded. And while modern life seemed more complicated but more convenient, Morie had gravitated to the essential and the difficult. He craved the natural world, the mysteries of its woods and groves and meadows, the primal focus of the hunt, and the company of dogs. 
His life was changing as much as anybody’s had, but seemed to have gone in the reverse direction.
His life altered by dogs and the matagi, Morie becomes more and more himself with the passing years.

At the book’s beginning, we found Morie and Kitako rising in the dark, at 2:15 a.m. on a morning in late May to “open the mountain,” an old religious tradition now become part of popular culture. They have gotten up earlier on this festival day every year, because Morie likes to be first at the snow line, and this year Kitako, his 83-year-old wife, will be with him, along with Shiro, a 13-year-old Akita.

I write this post before reaching the end of the book. If Morie is still alive today, in 2016, he would be 100 years old. Not impossible.

Eventually, I will reach the last page and close the book, and sometime later I’ll search online to see if I can find anything about Morie and Kitako after 2008. But for now I am content, in the dark of my own northern winter morning, to be sharing one couple’s unfolding life with dogs in the wilderness of the legendary Japanese snow country. I am in no hurry to come to the end of their fascinating story.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


Previous and current collections

Criminals: Love Stories
by Valerie Trueblood
Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2016
Paper, $16.95

Valerie Trueblood’s writing has called elegant, and the word is apt, but her stories also possess a decidedly feral quality. Found earlier in her nonlinear novel, Seven Loves (2007), as well as in her previous collection of short stories, Search Party (2013), wildness comes to the fore in this new volume, Criminals: Love Stories.

In this new book, within the most ordinary family or inside a quiet older woman’s heart or deep in the past of a gentle and generous young man run subterranean currents of violence. But if we are surprised, we should not be (except for the specifics of each story given us by Trueblood’s imagination and craft), for there is real life in these fictions. Here, as in the best of novels and short stories, reality -- the ambiguity of surfaces and the hiddenness of truth -- is the source of the writing’s power.

The collection’s stories range in length from two to 37 pages. In some, action unfolds chronologically for the most part, while in others readers are quickly transported from present to past, where lengthy flashbacks set the stage to explain the present to which we eventually, if briefly, return. In all the stories, as whenever we meet someone who is at first a stranger, it is only gradually, one puzzle piece at a time, that we can form -- and then correct and re-form, sometimes repeatedly -- a picture of who these people might be.

In “Skylab,” set in Malaysia, an American doctor’s wife finds herself doubting her old family legend that she, the only daughter, was protected by a magic spell. In the Koran study group where she meets with other foreign women, she notes the moment “when the planned topic would wilt of its own accord like a parachute that had made it to earth,” and at her own cocktail party she wonders why there are so many people she can’t stand in her life now. In the story's present, Skylab is falling to earth. Where will it land? On the innocent or the guilty? And which is she, and how did she come to land in this strange place?

Another young married woman, Shannon, in “Kisses,” puts together a business plan and persuades the bank to loan money to her and her husband, a veteran of the fighting in Afghanistan. She had to see the loan officer by herself.
Garth looked good to the bank. The military, the jobs in high school. Knowing how to lay sod and bed stone looked good, she could tell, despite the fact that the man behind the desk spent the whole time studying her, up and down.
She remembers the way her husband had been in high school.
A boy born to kiss finds that out the way you might realize you can draw, or do math. His ways come naturally to him.
What became of that boy, now so silent and removed, perhaps a container of potential violence? Can he even be trusted with a dog?

I rationed my reading of this book to one story per morning, not wanting to rush from one to the next, losing sight of each in the one that followed, but instead giving myself the luxury of a longer experience -- and also giving each story its due consideration. So it was Sunday when I reached “Sleepover,” perfect for that long, quiet morning.

The story “Sleepover,” the longest in the book, felt the most like a film or a stage play. Like others in the collection, it employs flashbacks, but there is a large cast of characters in the present, onstage, as it were, and things keep happening, one thing after another, the situation continually in flux. Yet the action never becomes comic or even hectic. The author is in control through every line.

Here is the setup: A grandmother recovering from heart surgery has come to visit her daughter and granddaughter. The granddaughter celebrates her 14th birthday, and the following night, after her mother leaves town on business, she has a slumber party with four girlfriends, chaperoned by her visiting grandmother and the Cambodian housekeeper. A teenage boy breaches the home security with the help of the granddaughter, but later the expensive system is tripped, bringing onto the scene the bodyguard of one of the girls, followed by two city policemen. Who is in danger and from whom? Assaults come from both expected and unexpected quarters, and new evidence casts a changing light on all present. (Cham, the housekeeper, has her own horrific background, as does the uninvited boy.) Time, meanwhile, folds upon itself, bringing past and present together.

(No spoilers! You have to read it yourself. I think it is the necessarily careful pace of the grandmother, who must guard her still-recovering heart, that serves to contain the action, but I'll need to re-read the story again to test my hypothesis.)

One of the most surprising pieces in the book declines to be called a story at all. In “Novel of Rose,” the author gives a sketch of what we would learn about a set of characters if a novel were to be written about them. Four pages, inconclusive – and yet leaving haunting images in its wake.

Trueblood’s accomplishments in Criminals: Love Stories will not surprise readers of her previous books. They, like I, will have been eager for new stories from this gifted writer, and now the new stories are here. What a glorious gift in bleak midwinter!