The Stud Book looks at breeders from all angles

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending an author event like no other.

Monica Drake, author of The Stud Book, was joined by her Portland writer buddies Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain for a night of flashing devil horns, glow-in-the-dark beach balls, and R-rated bedtime stories.

That's me in red and blue, dead center. Photo: Bellingham Herald.

That’s me, dead center, in red and blue. Photo: Bellingham Herald.

Everyone in attendance went home with a signed copy of The Stud Book, which I read over the weekend.

The book jacket had me at “Sarah studies animal behavior at the zoo.”

The Stud Book is a brilliantly written and totally engrossing exploration of breeding, mostly among a group of female friends in Portland, interspersed with fascinating details about animal husbandry.

Dark and absurdist in tone, the things that happen to these characters feel like they could really happen. I love it when an author really goes there. Even scenes I found off-putting (like Georgie’s husband at the bar while she struggles at home with a newborn) paid off in the end.

Generally, I’m weary of books that bounce between narratives about multiple characters. When you like some characters more than others, it’s frustrating to leave them behind for a less interesting storyline. In this book, I got wrapped up in all the characters, eager to see what would happen next.

As a rule, I like novels to have more resolution to their resolution than The Stud Book does. However, I will forgive Drake for this open-endedness because the book was so thought-provoking, I don’t mind filling in the blanks with what I think will happen next.

So smartly written. I look forward to reading more from Drake.

Hey! Free Books!

book box

The idea behind World Book Night is to get books in the hands of people who don’t read much, or at all, or who don’t have the resources to buy books.

When I applied to be a World Book Night giver, I requested books that are appropriate for young people, because frankly, I consider all youth to be at-risk youth. I was delighted to be chosen to give away Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.

I made prior arrangements to give half of my books to a youth program whose members “love to read,” but don’t necessarily have access to new books. The second half, I really wanted to share with kids who didn’t consider themselves readers. I drove down a street block usually crowded with juvenile delinquents. I’m not being bigoted here; I know for a fact that the regulars on these street corners have served time. Sadly, I didn’t see any of them at 6 pm on this Tuesday evening, so I headed for the skate park.

The House on Mango Street is appropriate for both genders, of course, but because the main character is a young girl, I approached three pierced skater girls.

“Do you want a free book?”

Skater Girl 1 shook her head. Why would anyone turn down a free book?

“It’s not religious or anything,” I offered, waving the brightly colored paperback in her face.

She shook her head again. I said, “You really have no interest in reading this book? It’s really good.”

Skater Girl 2 said somewhat snottily, “I don’t think this is the place to try to sell books.”

Exactly why I chose it. “I’m not selling them. They’re free.”

With an “Oh, in that case” shrug, Skater Girls 2 and 3 took books, and I guess peer pressure got the better of Skater Girl 1, because she took one too.

Jackpot, I thought, wondering whether I’d find the books later, lying at the bottom of the ramp with skateboard tracks across their covers. How can I avoid being like the cop who bought that homeless guy a pair of boots only to find the homeless guy barefoot again the next day?

I crossed the skate park, on my way to another group that included young women when a Skater Dude saw my cardboard box. “Is that ice cream?”

“No, it’s better. Free books!”

I gave copies to him and two other nearby dudes and overheard one say, “Since when do you read books?”

Yes, I was definitely in the right place.

Catching up on Possession

Because this is first and foremost a dog blog.

Because this is first and foremost a dog blog.

If you know anything about me, you know that I get my work done on time. Well ahead of time for the most part. So it is with great shame that I admit a failure to meet my first deadline in my first read-along: A.S. Byatt’s Possession. In my defense, I’ve read it before, and had a terrible headache on Sunday and Monday. Also on Monday, I fell down and banged my knee badly enough that I took narcotic pain medication and watched 12 Monkeys when I got home, instead of reading Possession. The knee feels much better now, thanks for asking.

I read Possession when I was a senior in college, taking a British literature class and recovering from mono. I remember reading it while lying on my bed at my mom’s house and loving it. I loved it enough that not only do I still have my copy, but I also knew exactly where it was on my shelves.

When I cracked it open, I was amused to discover notes scrawled in the margins by 21-year-old me. I felt rather like Roland, discovering letters from Randolph Ash tucked away in one of his old books. My favorite so far is the notation “Incestuous Menage a Trois” jotted after the “Glass Coffin” story. Took me a few minutes to read my own writing. Thought “menage” said “marriage.” Wonder if Roland and Maud had any trouble reading Ash and LaMotte’s handwriting.

I did not remember Possession being hard to get into, but when I discovered the existence of this read-along, I also discovered people who have tried to read it and given up. As far as I’ve gotten this time around, I understand the difficulty. Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness hits it on the head when she points out that Roland is a weak character to get things going. As soon as he meets Maud, I’m immediately more engaged.

Byatt’s major achievement here is writing between styles. She’s created letters and works meant to be written by fictional poets during the Victorian era, while the bulk of the narrative concerns scholars in the modern age. I remember being awed by how skillfully she brought those facets together. But I confess, I don’t really “get” poetry, least of all Victorian poetry.

To sum up, not only am I surprised I had a little trouble getting into it this time, I’m surprised I didn’t have a lot of trouble getting into it last time.

I will press on, see if I can catch up by Monday.

The Chronology of The Chronology of Water

When I file this under Books Like Mine, I don’t really mean that my dog memoir would sit on the shelf next to this memoir about sexual abuse, promiscuity, and substance use. They’re both memoirs. I guess that’s all they have in common.

Mine is straightforwardly linear. We get a dog. We love the dog. Dog bites someone. We work with trainers. Dog dies. (As I said in one of my sessions at Hedgebrook, “Sorry, that’s a terrible elevator pitch.” I can do better, but this isn’t about me.) Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water is less chronological. Like water, as Bruce Lee might say.


Gratuitous picture of Isis frolicking … in water.

Hers is a stunningly beautiful book.

Yuknavitch’s writing style is nothing like mine. Her book reads like stream of consciousness. If the prologue hadn’t told me that she was in a writing group with Chuck Palahniuk and Cheryl Strayed, I might have guessed this book was printed as it came out of her head, with no revisions. Not to say that she needs an editor, but that her lyrical writing reads as effortless.

This is a self-aware memoir; she writes lines like, “But that’s not what I want to tell you about. I want to tell you about this instead.” She bounces around in chronology, but at no point do you get confused and wonder where you are. She mentions a second husband, and you don’t say, “Wait, who’s this second husband? Has she mentioned him before?” You know that she will give you all the information you need when you need it. I wonder how she decided how to order the chapters. When to tell us what.

Implicit in the narrative is the idea that having been sexually abused by her father as a young girl, Yuknavitch became a sexually aggressive young woman and experimented heavily with drugs. But she’s clear that hers is not a story of addiction. (Although I know from watching Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Sex Rehab that frequently promiscuity is a result of having been abused as a child.)

Yuknavitch doesn’t give a lot of specifics about the abuse, although she does depict her consensual sex acts in shocking, vivid detail. She doesn’t overly reflect on what it all means. She just tells the story for us to make of it what we will. I appreciate that.

Hedgebrook, where (almost) everyone pronounces my name right on the first try

My writer buddy Pam tipped me off about today’s salon at Hedgebrook. She also drove, which allowed me to indulge freely in the wine at the the poorly described “wine and cheese” reception, which included hummus, deviled eggs, and veggies, plus the wine and at least six kinds of cheese.

People, I can’t overstate the importance of having writer buddies.

That's me in the bottom picture, reading from Bark and Lunge

That’s me in the lower picture, reading from Bark and Lunge

Hedgebrook may well be the best kept secret for women writers in the greater Puget Sound area. On the one hand, I want to sing its praises to make it a less well-kept secret, but on the other, I don’t need any more competition for the residency. A thousand people applied last year for 40 spots. I might have better luck getting published and then getting invited to teach at a Salon, because the teachers get to spend a few nights in one of the hand-crafted cottages with loft sleeping areas, stained glass windows, pottery sinks, and surrounded by evergreens. (Also, maybe by then they’ll have a cottage that allows dogs… then again, it’s just as well. I don’t think Mia could climb the ladder to the bedroom.)

Because my primary genre at this moment is memoir, I signed up for the morning session with Erica Bauermeister, Turning Life into Memoir. In two hours, we worked through several prompts to inspire memoirists at all stages, which gave me fresh perspective I can use as I revise Bark and Lunge. Erica defined good memoirs as being “generous.” Don’t just talk about yourself, but share what you learned. Or at least be really funny. Erica also spoke a lot about working with her own writing group, which made me feel really good about the bond I’ve formed with my own.

Between workshops, we were treated to a sumptuous lunch of mixed greens with blue cheese, pomegranate seeds, and pecans, and choice of soup:  ginger sweet potato coconut curry or beef chili for the carnivores. Followed by an assortment of cookies and brownies, of which I ate too many. (Please don’t tell Bob Harper on me!)

Incidentally, whenever I fill out an evaluation form for anything that asks how they can improve whatever it is, I always write “snacks.” No need for that here.

Naturally the title, Good Metaphors Are Like Puppy Photos on Facebook (Easy to Like), initially attracted me to Laurie Frankel‘s afternoon workshop, and I followed that instinct because me write pretty someday. I knew I was in the right place when Laurie started the discussion with a slide of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, explaining how impressionist paintings themselves are metaphors. We had a lively time coming up with unique descriptions of rain, the taste of beef gristle, and how an old geezer might describe a headphone-wearing, videogame-playing kid.

My main takeaway from the session was the idea that metaphors don’t necessarily have to make something more “visible” to the reader. Sometimes they take you away from the literal meaning, but bring you closer to what the author is trying to express. Favorite example, and not just for the obvious reason: “The rain caressed her, licked her, like a mama dog cleaning her pups.” Laurie pointed out that the metaphor is a lie. That’s not really what the rain is doing. What the metaphor conveys is how the character feels about the rain. As a writer who struggles sometimes to write straight-up what my characters feel, I ought to explore this type of metaphor.

Revved up and inspired, I trotted down to the longhouse for the aforementioned wine reception. Pam and I both signed up to read from our memoirs at the open mic, something that would have terrified me a year ago. I planned to introduce my piece, an excerpt from the second-to-last chapter of Bark and Lunge, by saying that I was looking for critique buddies (fresh eyes), but I didn’t even have to do that, because they passed around a list where people could put their contact info and exactly that sort of request.

Afterward, a few people told me they could relate to my piece, and that they’d like to read the rest. And I was enormously proud of Pam, whose Sperm Runs went over huge.

All in all, a fantastic, energizing day!

Self-imposed required reading

I’ve signed up for the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat in March, and have added a bunch of books to my to-read list in anticipation. Cheryl Strayed is the keynote speaker, and I’ve had her memoir, Wild, on my Nook since before my trip to Russia. (I keep wanting to call it “Strayed.”) I haven’t started reading it, because I thought it was more appropriate to read books about Russia while I was in Russia. So I read Moscow Mule and I started Ken Follett’s Winter of the World, which is about World War II.

Kremlin wall art

I’m still reading Winter of the World. In my defense, it’s 700-plus pages (on the Nook, apparently it’s 960 pages in hardcover.) But the truth is, if I were enjoying it more, I’d have finished it by now. Every time I curl up with my Nook, I ask myself why I’m bothering to finish this book. Why not move on to another book already loaded into my device?

Winter of the World is the second part of a trilogy. After I read part one, Fall of Giants, I wrote:

I was never much of a history student. If my textbooks had as much sex in them as Follett injects into his characters in Europe during World War I, I might have felt differently.

He puts the war and its lead-up in perspective, from the points of view of Brits, Germans, Americans and Russians. Perhaps the latter half gets more bogged down in the technicalities of the war, and that’s why I lost momentum, but it’s still a very exciting book with an intriguing cast of characters.

I’m looking forward to part 2, to see what happens to these characters during the second world war.

And that’s the only reason I’m toughing it out. Because I do want to know what happens to the characters, even as Follett’s writing style has begun to get on my nerves. I’d have to take another look at Fall of Giants, or even The Pillars of the Earth to be sure, but I suspect that this book suffered because he was in a rush to get it out a year after the first part.

There are no graceful turns of phrase, and most of the war stuff is pretty pedantic. Maybe I’m just too familiar with the politics of WWII. Nazis vs. Communists. The atrocities committed on both sides. I know exactly what’s going to happen when disabled children are sent to a hospital in Bavaria for “special treatment.” Or when an American soldier gets stationed in Oahu.

Excellent writing and fascinating characters should be able to transcend that, but I don’t think this book has either. Some critics of Pillars of the Earth accused Follett of poorly developed female characters. So to speak, because all the women were described by the size of their bosoms. That didn’t bother me in Pillars, but I’m keenly aware and annoyed by it now.

Star-crossed lovers are separated and come back together with very little drama and uninspired sex. “I’ve always loved you.” “I love you too!” “Now take off your pants!”

And yet, I carry on. Should I bother? Am I going to feel obligated to read part three about the Cold War?

What do you think, readers? What are some of the books you struggled to finish? Which have you abandoned, and how do you know when it’s time to give up?

Another aggressive dog memoir

When pitching a memoir, authors are advised to name competitive titles. Easy enough to do with a dog memoir; there are so many. I thought Smiley Bird was unique because it’s a love letter to an aggressive dog.

Until recently, the most similar memoir I had read was Part Wild: One Woman’s Journey with a Creature Caught Between the Worlds of Wolves and Dogs, but that was about a wolf-dog, so not entirely the same situation.

In my last post, I spoiled the ending of A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life.

Like Isis, Orson had behavior problems that author Jon Katz spent years trying to rehabilitate. Fairly early on in this memoir, he writes:

Sometimes — when is a fine and debatable point — you just have to accept and love the dog you have, even if he’s not necessarily the dog you want him to be.

Essentially, that’s the takeaway from my memoir. We should have accepted that Isis was not a dog you could take anywhere. If I had known we’d only have her for four and a half years, I would have spent more time snuggling and less time trying to desensitize her to bicycles.

But of course, I didn’t know that, and I relate to Katz’s desperation:

I was nearly weeping with frustration, torn by my growing love for this dog and my growing realization that communicating with, understanding, training, and controlling him was, so far, beyond me, and was leading both of us toward trouble.

Fortunately, in my story, I finally do get help communicating with and understanding Isis. But not before (spoiler alert) she bites someone. Had I missed the warning signs? Like Katz, I struggled to interpret her earliest transgressions:

There is a big difference between nipping and biting, but it’s a distinction that’s often (understandably) meaningless to the recipient.

Yes! As the owner/trainer, we try so hard to understand why our precious pets would do such a thing. They aren’t vicious dogs; they’re loving and sweet, to us anyway. If I could just understand why she did these things, I could make sure she doesn’t do them again.

I’ve said before if there’s one thing to be grateful about regarding Isis’s untimely death, it’s that Rob and I didn’t have to make any difficult decisions. I know Katz didn’t take his decision to euthanize Orson lightly, and it’s a shame there’s been some internet blowback from people who think he didn’t try hard enough to find another solution. I myself thought, “He lived on a farm, surely he could have found a way to keep Orson.” But in reading the book, I understand Katz’s choice.

Interestingly, The Story of Orson doesn’t end there. We’re introduced to a Labrador named Pearl who helps Katz move on, much like Mia did for us.

My other dogs could not replace Orson, nor fill the void he left, yet in a curious way his departure had given me the life with dogs I’d always dreamed of. Be careful what you wish for.

I know exactly what he means. Mia is a completely reliable dog I can take anywhere, and now I have two dogs who are besties, like I always wanted. I just thought one of them would be Isis.

Mia and Leo, best friends forever.

Wherever I go, there I am

I’m experiencing some travel paralysis. After we got back from Hawaii, I fantasized about visiting beachy places in Mexico, but that didn’t speak to Rob. Last week, he ruled out the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica. Apparently, all Spanish-speaking places are out. Brazil, on the other hand, is OK,  because they speak Portuguese there.

Rob’s actually thinking more along the lines of Russia.

Russia! Totally up my alley. I should be booking hotels and checking train schedules right about now. But I can’t get past the $3,000+ airfare to get us both there. Or anywhere in Europe.

I’d rather just drive someplace with the dogs and go camping. Since I’m so outdoorsy and all.

Meanwhile, I’m having an off-day writing the ol’ Memoir. This morning, I had to fill out a form about Leo’s behavior for a special class to nip his leash reactivity in the bud. If we can even call it that. I’m not 100 percent convinced, but the class will be good for him either way. What wasn’t so good for me was having to describe how he’s been acting out. And oh yeah, he bit Mia that one time.

All too reminiscent of all the rehashing I’ve been doing about everything Isis ever did wrong. I’ve reached the point in her life where I spent a year clicking and treating her for not barking at things. And trying to remain calm when she did bark at things. My days were filled with small victories and lots of disappointments. Every second that I wasn’t training her, I felt guilty that I wasn’t training her. I can’t drive by the university park-and-ride without thinking, “I should take Isis there later to work on her training.”

So I don’t feel like writing. And I don’t feel like planning a trip.

Guess you could say I’m not myself today.

More misadventures of the Leo Bug

Tonight I will be reading an excerpt from Smiley Bird: A memoir of Isis, which begins with “Isis was like those children who misbehave in school because they’re TOO smart.”

What’s Leo’s excuse?

A month ago, I was so proud of my boy for how well he was doing in daycare and school. He was still a little unfocused, but I thought that would improve with the new class.

Not so much. He’s been suspended from daycare until he matures a little and gains impulse control.

He hasn’t been listening to his teachers and he bugs other dogs who don’t want to play with him, even grabbing their collars, which is a serious no-no.

I thought Leo was behaving very gentlemanly in this photo from daycare.

Two weeks ago, I would have been surprised to learn that he was behaving badly at daycare (again), except during our past two Fun and Focus classes, he became very overstimulated and lashed out at the other dogs. I hoped it was just an on-leash problem (he’s on-leash in class, off-leash at daycare), but after receiving this latest information, it’s clear he can’t go back to daycare for a while.

I’m disappointed and discouraged. I feel like a failure. It stings all the more because I’ve been writing this memoir about Isis. I thought we were past this. How did I miss the signs?

Maybe I just overlooked them. For one, I noted in my post a month ago that he countersurfs and pulls stuff off the counter. That’s a lack of impulse control, and a sign he doesn’t listen to me when I tell him to leave it.

Last week, before all this came to light, Leo did a fantastic impersonation of Isis outside Village Books. We had taken Leo and Mia to the park, then ordered food from the cafe downstairs, planning to lay out a towel and eat on the grass. Rob strode off to pick up the food. I stood beside the car, holding both dogs’ leashes and was rummaging around for the water dish when Leo trotted away onto the lawn. His leash had detached from his harness!

Leaving the car door open, I took Mia up to the lawn and called Leo’s name. He ignored me, running up to two tiny children, not even as tall as Leo’s front legs. The children’s eyes and mouths widened, and I called out the phrase that all stupid dog owners say when they’ve lost control of their dogs, “He’s friendly!”

Leo trotted around for a few more minutes, getting close enough to frolic with Mia, but not close enough for me to grab him. Finally, he wandered over to the patio dining area and said hello to a dog that was sitting with his people. I asked the woman with the dog to grab Leo’s collar for me, which she did. No harm done. He didn’t snarl or bark at anyone, or run into traffic, or make anyone cry.

But he blatantly disregarded me. Totally consistent with a dog lacking impulse control who doesn’t listen. So I was humiliated just the same. The familiar shame reading like a page from my memoir about Isis.

Leo on his first day of daycare a year ago, wearing a leash because he wouldn’t come when called. Sigh. Guess I can’t pretend I didn’t see the signs.

Last night, he was more destructive than usual, but for once, I understood why. Whenever we give him a bone, he races around the house looking for a place to bury it. Hilarious, but totally logical, because when he tries to eat something in plain sight, he winds up dropping it at Mia’s feet and she won’t give it back. He’s been known to tuck a bone underneath my pillow. Thoughtful guy.

So yesterday, he discovered the knotted end of an old rawhide and began his prepare-to-bury frenzy. I turned my attention to dishwashing for five minutes, then found him on the bed, surrounded by chunks of foam.

What the hell? Had he torn apart a couch cushion and brought it in here?

Nope, he had been so overzealous in his burying efforts that he dug a hole in our memory foam mattress cover! Fortunately, the part he destroyed is above where our heads go, so we can sleep around the damage.

Oh, my sweet Leo, what are we going to do with you?

Work on your impulse control, that I know for sure.

Working Title

One of the assignments in my memoir class was to write a eulogy for someone in our story. The person didn’t have to be dead, but my main character happens to be, so it made sense to eulogize Isis. A classmate said he found my Eulogy for Isis very touching and he hoped I would use it somehow in my book. Originally, I thought my book would start with the day Isis died, but after my classmate’s comment, I decided the actual eulogy would make a nice prologue. And since the whole book really is a tribute to her life, Eulogy for Isis seemed a fitting title.

My teacher thought Elegy for Isis was better, which sounds fine, but I don’t like the way the word Elegy looks as much as I like Eulogy. Also, there exists a book called Elegy for Iris (about Iris Murdoch). I thought Eulogy for Isis was a clever play on Elegy for Iris, if anyone gets the reference. But Elegy for Isis may be to on-the-nose.

My mother thinks either choice would be too much of a spoiler, but as I’ve said, I want my readers to be prepared for the inevitable. Which is why I’d open the book with a eulogy. But she has a point. Eulogy is kind of downer. My mom thinks I should call it something that invokes the sweetness and joy of Isis’ life.

Smiley Bird.

That would be a good title. That was our favorite nickname for her. Except then people would think it’s about a bird. My mom said, “Well, there would be a dog on the cover.”

True. I imagine this being the cover shot:

See how she looks like a bird? And she’s smiling?

I had wanted her name to be in the title, but I didn’t want it to be possessive, because Isis’ leads to all sorts of apostrophic confusion and pronunciation challenges.

Fortunately, I don’t have to decide right now. I have to finish the book first.