Thursday, May 26, 2011

Brute Strength

Brute Strength (Holly Winter Dog Mystery)
Brute Strength by Susan Conant

In the first three pages of Susan Conant's new mystery, Brute Strength, we are introduced to five dogs (three of them Malamutes) and one cat.  If that seems to be lot, get used to it -- it's going to be that kind of book.  Not long after, at a dinner party, there are no less than ten (human) characters present, most of whom we've never met, or only briefly, before.  And as we learn about them Conant is also setting up the book's various plots and subplots, foreshadowing trouble to come, and slipping us clues.  It's a lot to take in and it's a tribute to Conant's skill that she handles it so smoothly.  It works, like everything else in this book, because the narrator, Holly Winter, is likable and funny and interesting.  We sense right away that it's not the plot that we're here for, it's Holly.

For instance, after witnessing an argument between her upstairs neighbor, Rita, and Rita's boyfriend -- both psychologists -- Holly reflects on the difference between their view of the world and hers:

Rita, for whom psychotherapy is a religious vocation ... believes in the power of her chosen form of prayer.  For once, I refrained from saying anything about dog worship, the Sacred Animal, God's woofing, furry proof of celestial design and thus of boundless, bounding, leaping, panting love in this otherwise bleak universe ....

And just like that, if you're anything like me, we know we are in the hands of a kindred spirit.  For Holly Winter, nothing comes before her dogs.  Which is as it should be.

A little later, Holly meets a new neighbor who is wearing the well known "Dog is my co-pilot" sweatshirt.  

I owned the t-shirt version, which I'd ordered from Bark, a publication accurately self-described as "the modern dog culture magazine".  Because I was afraid that the co-pilot slogan would give offense, I was selective about where I wore the t-shirt.  The precaution was ridiculous in that anyone offended by the sentiment would be even more offended by me, unless, of course, I took the time to explain the genuineness of my reverence for all creatures great, hairy and woofy , but the time required would have been days or possibly even weeks, and besides, the average person who hates your t-shirt isn't going to be interested in listening anyway.  There's a lot of religious intolerance in the world, isn't there?

I've been a casual fan of Susan Conant's Dog Lover Mysteries for many years.  I haven't read them all, and I haven't read them in strictly chronological order, but I've enjoyed every one that I've read.  And I also don't remember much about the murder mystery plot in any of them.  There are certain mysteries that we read for plot -- for the cleverness of the killing and the brilliance of the deduction -- and there are some that we read for action and suspense.  Then there are mysteries that we read because the mystery is really an excuse to hang out with someone we like.  These are my favorite kind.  I also don't remember much about the plots of Robert B. Parker, Virginia Lanier, or even John D. MacDonald.  What I remember are the characters and their world.

When it comes to the mystery, Brute Strength may be the most casual who-done-it I've ever read.  Holly is so concerned with her daily life, her dogs, her family and various sub-plots that she doesn't even realize there's a mystery going on until very late in the book.  I found it amusing that we, as readers, understand that victims are piling up long before the characters do.  

But none of that matters.  What is delightful here is Holly's steady stream of observations about life, literature, her friends and neighbors, Cambridge, and of course dogs, dogs, dogs.  Holly is a columnist for Dog's World magazine, and the book often has more the feel of a first rate columnist than of a mystery.  I may be a little prejudice since we have so much in common -- she's a dog writer who trains malamutes for obedience competition (a task sure to bring snickers from anyone familiar with the breed) and she's currently researching an article on recent studies in canine cognition.

I wonder if she reads my blog?

Susan Conant has been doing this kind of thing for a long time, and she's good at it.  Brute Strength has the comfortable feel of a well loved, often played with dog toy.  The low key suspense is generated by what we know that the main characters do not -- there's a killer nearby who's already struck twice and who has increasing reason to be worried about Holly.  The final confrontation packs an unexpected emotional punch and Holly is able (as a writer should) to tie several of the story's themes together.  

But I'll leave the final verdict to Holly's beloved Malamutes, who (if they could read) would be sure to throw back their heads and give an enthusiastic  "Woo-woo-woo!  This one is fun."  

If you enjoy Books and Beasts, you might also enjoy our sister blog, Birdland West, which focuses on birds and wildlife around West Seattle, in Washington State.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Two Dogs In Search of a Master


With all the exciting new technologies at the movies these days -- CGI and 3D being the most obvious -- I think it might be time to revise my personal list of "Books I'd Love to See Made into Movies".  No one in Hollywood is beating down my door for recommendations, but it seems like a cool way to kick off the Summer Season, so in the next week or so I'll share some of  my selections -- why I love the book, and why I think it could be a great a movie.  Today, my number one choice:

The Plague Dogs: A Novel
The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

Everyone knows Watership Down, a great book which was made into a movie years ago -- and could be remade today, beautifully I think.  But the Richard Adams novel I love -- one of the books that has had a tremendous influence on me -- is The Plague Dogs.  It is the story of Snitter and Rowf, who escape from a medical research facility where they have been involved in horrifying experiments, and flee into the wilderness seeking freedom.  Rowf has never known anything but the labs, but Snitter was once the beloved companion of a "true master".  Early in the book, while they are still in the labs, they talk about humans and masters:

"A dog stands firm," said Rowf sharply.  "A dog never refuses whatever a man requires of him.  That's what a dog's for ...As dogs we're born to suffering.  It's a bad world for animals -- "

"Rowf, you owe them nothing -- nothing -- they're not masters ... Rowf, we're going to escape!  Both of us, through that door -- "

"There might be something worse through that door," said Rowf ....

"Think of the whitecoats, Rowf -- what you told me -- peering down into the tank and watching you.  They aren't masters, believe me;  I've had a master -- I know.  If we could only get out of here we might find a master -- who can tell? -- a proper pack leader.  Isn't it worth a try?"

Snitter has his own tragic past.  He is convinced that he killed his beloved Master, and after that his owner's family sold him off for medical research.  That guilt -- plus the effects of the experimentation he went through in the labs -- weighs heavily on Snitter's mind.  He struggles at times for sanity.  

But the two dogs do escape, and with the help of a fox, they learn to survive in the wild.  Meanwhile, the human world is up in arms.  The owners of the laboratory play up the threat of contamination, and a young reporter eager for a big story labels the two canine friends "plague dogs".  Soon all sorts of people -- some friendly and sympathetic, some definitely not -- are searching for Snitter and Rowf.

The Plague Dogs is an exciting, suspenseful adventure story that will hold any reader's interest.  But it is also much deeper.  The book sits astride a curious divide -- between "realistic" novels about animals and the great fantasy tradition of talking animal books (of which Watership Down is one of the best).  Snitter and Rowf are fully realized characters, who think and communicate with each other eloquently (as does their friend the Fox).  Yet from the human's point of view the behavior and condition of the animals is starkly realistic. Miraculously, this seam never shows.  In the world of the book (as perhaps, in our world) the realities seem to fit.    Adams has taken the conventions of the talking animal story and used them to create a novel that is part adventure story, part passionate broadside against the abuse of animals and the blindness of humans.

But it is finally Rowf and Snitter who hold us.  Maybe the two greatest canine characters in all of English literature.  Richly imagined beings -- scarred but noble -- with complete inner lives who also never fail to convince us of their dog-ness.  Adam's gift in rendering two such heart wrenching heroes makes this book great.  Their peril -- and through their eyes and hearts the peril of the entire animal world in the face of man's blindness -- drive us along through a terrifying, exciting, heart breaking and ultimately triumphant book. 

(One of the thought experiments I like to use when thinking about animal characters is:  If the descendants of these animals some day become literate, and can look back on our portrayal of them, how will they feel about it?  I think most dogs would love Rowf and Snitter as much as I do.)

The Incredible Journey
The Incredible Journey
The Plague Dogs, because of the way it combines all the threads of animal writing , is the heir not only of Watership Down (a heroic fantasy in animal guise), but of The Wind in the Willows, The Incredible  Journey, and the "realistic" dog stories of the mid-twentieth century (Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, Lassie Come-Home, etc.) -- and, more indirectly, the tradition of "social issue" novels that goes back through Sinclair Lewis to Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Richard Adams has never really received the place he deserves in modern literature.  And The Plague Dogs is his greatest work.

The Plague Dogs
Animated Movie Version
The Plague Dogs was made as an animated movie in 2004 (originally released in the UK and in a heavily edited version in the US -- see it here and here), but I think its high time it gets the full feature film treatment.  Done right -- by a Director who would flinch from neither sentiment nor horror -- The Plague Dogs could also be the best animal movie ever.  I would be there on opening night to see it.


And for anyone who loves Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, Richard Adams is also the author of several other very interesting books.  Notably: Shardik, a fantasy about the great hunter Kelderek who pursues the nearly divine Great Bear Shardik  "across the length and breadth of a fabled world"; Maia, a more human focused (and wonderfully exotic) epic fantasy, set in the same universe (apparently) as Shardik; and especially for Books and Beast readers, Traveler, a delightful retelling of the life of Robert E. Lee from the perspective of his faithful horse.  I encourage everyone to search these books out.



If you enjoy Books and Beasts, you might also enjoy our sister blog, Birdland West, which focuses on birds and wildlife around West Seattle, in Washington State.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Tears For Elephants

A few years ago the animal advocacy group I volunteer for was organizing pickets of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, which comes annually to Everett Washington.  They don't come to Seattle anymore.  Some people attribute this to protests, although the circus claims that its only because the Event Center in Everett is a more economical venue.  I was very conflicted when I first heard about the protests.  I remember my father taking me to the circus as a kid and being totally captivated by the magic of the big show.  (I've always had a weakness for spectacle).  But I know that Ringling Brothers has a long history of being cited for problems with its animal handling, and that the very issue of keeping elephants in captivity -- much less training them to do circus acts -- is problematic. 

I decided that I wanted to investigate for myself.

The first person I talked to was the PR director for our organization.  She once worked for PETA and was now involved in coordinating the circus protests.  She gave me a lot of background information on Ringling Brothers, including an undercover video taken of training in the circus (which I've never been able to watch more than a couple of minutes of).  But I was still conflicted -- there was still a little kid in me who didn't want to give up the dream of the circus (and who loves having the chance to see elephants in person, whether it be in circuses or zoos).  So I contacted the local PR people for Ringling Brothers and managed to wrangle a press pass to talk to people inside the show.  I went up on the first night that they were open, and  was treated very well.  Ringling Brothers goes to great lengths to make local press feel comfortable.  (A large part of the press section of their website is devoted to issues about animal welfare, litigation and stressing their role in elephant conservation).  I was given a trainer to show me around, take me backstage and see the elephants waiting for the show.  They seemed to be at ease even with all the excitement around them.  The trainer talked about her love for the animals -- which seemed genuine -- and how she had given up a previous career to train for this one -- "run away and join the circus" she joked.  She reminded me P.T. Barnum (known as a reliable source)  said the two pillars on which the circus rests are clowns and elephants, and that following that mandate the  company had established the world famous Clown College as well as a Center for Elephant Conservation -- a 200 acre facility in Florida devoted to "conservation, breeding and understanding".  (You can see Ringling Brothers' description of the facility here.)  She told me that she had never seen animals mistreated, and that his particular unit of the circus, which she had been with for a long time, had never had an animal death since she had been working there.    It was a very impressive presentation.

And it was mostly untrue.

It turns out that this very same unit had a big cat die on their previous stop, under what the papers described as "suspicious" circumstances.  And that this unit, and Ringling Brothers as a whole, had an unusually high rate of animal attrition as well as a checkered record with Federal inspectors.  They were also involved in court cases and litigation, which they usually managed to keep tied up in the court for many years.

So much for the magic of the Circus.

I thought about that experience though, when I heard that they were going to make a movie out of Sarah Gruen's book Water For Elephants.  I love the book -- which deals openly with the subject of animal abuse -- and was excited about the idea of it being a movie.  But I was also disturbed.  As a rule, I'm really uncomfortable with the use of exotic wild animals in entertainment.  It promotes their being kept in captivity and creates a whole constellation of problems.  A few years ago I refused to see the movie Speed Racer (which the Geek in me really wanted to see) because of reports from the Humane Society that the chimpanzee used in the film had been struck and beaten on the set.  Using Great Apes in entertainment is a practice that I oppose, so even the directors' choice to use a real chimpanzee was upsetting.

What I hoped, when I first heard about Water for Elephants, was that they would do something really innovative, like creating CGI elephants (and other animals) instead of using real ones.  With today's technology it could be done convincingly and could be used to add to the dark and romantic atmosphere of the story. That's not what they decided to do.

Once again, I was prepared to put my misgivings aside.  I have a great respect for Sara Gruen and I know that she is passionately devoted to animals and their welfare.  (There's a wonderful picture of her on her website playing with Thai, the elephant "star" of the movie.)  When the movie came out I looked up the reviews from the American Humane Society, which monitors the use of animals in films and television.  They gave the film a rating of "Outstanding" and certified it as "No animals were harmed".  So I told myself I should just stop worrying and enjoy the movie.

Now, reports are surfacing about the company that trained Thai, the elephant in the movie.  KTLA in Los Angeles -- as well as other sources around the country -- are reporting on undercover video released by Animal Defenders International.  (You can see the KTLA report here.)  The organization which trained Thai is called "Have Trunk Will Travel", and according to its website it is a privately funded organization that uses the proceeds from giving elephant shows, rides and providing elephants for movies to "care for elephants and provide for their future".   The video shows elephants -- including baby elephants and including Thai -- being hit with a "bull hook", a long, sharp pointed "tool" which is used on elephants (and which, ironically, is shown disapprovingly in Gruen's book) as well as with electrical shocks.  

The bottom line is that there simply is no way for these animals to be kept, humanely, in captivity.  And there is no way they learned such unnatural behaviors as standing on their heads without questionable training techniques.  The public needs to know this.  We need to know when we support these activities, when we go see movies that use exotic wild animal like elephants or Great Apes, we are supporting a tradition that is rooted in cruelty and suffering.  

The Humane Society does a great job of monitoring the treatment of animals on movie sets.  But perhaps it needs to go much further.  Perhaps they need to monitor and certify trainers, and refuse to give their designation to movies that don't used certified trainers.  Perhaps, they need to simply accept that some animals cannot be humanely used for entertainment, and that giving a "No Animals Were Harmed" designation to any film which uses these animals is unacceptable.  With today's technology, it is doubly unnecessary. 
I, for one, will not go see movies, or live performances, with elephants or Great Apes in them again.  No matter how much I want to believe in the "magic", the reality is too sad.
I'm done.

Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People
If you are interested in learning more about the horrendous history of exotic animals in entertainment, a good book to star with is Visions of Caliban, by Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall.  This book is about chimpanzees, not elephants, but the sections on the use of apes in movies is must reading.  It reveals the heartbreaking fate of many animals, including the orangutan who "starred" with Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way But Loose.  Animal lovers should definitely read it.