Sunday, December 1, 2013

Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Millan

If you know me personally or have read a few of my blog posts in the past, then you may know about my pitbull/staffordshire terrier mix named Onyx.  Her and I teamed up in February, and, for the most part, it has been a match made in heaven. Though our personalities are compatible, I struggled with my role as alpha female and often lost my cool in the face of any insubordination on her part.

In order to give me a better understanding of how to approach dog behavioural issues, I bit the bullet and read Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Millan.  For all those unfamiliar with his methods, the basic gist is that a dog owner must look within to find the root causes of dog misbehaviour.  Rather than a trainer taking a dog out of its environment and "fixing" it, Millan encourages owners to analyze what they are doing wrong in their daily interactions, or the energy that they are projecting while handling their dogs.  For me, the biggest problem I deal with, is the fact that my dog will not come when I call her in the yard. When this occurs, I vacillate from being frantic to frustrated which only serves to make her more indifferent to my commands.  In addition to this, she had a tendency to become overprotective of me in the yard, to the point where any passerby would encounter a barking Onyx who would run back and forth guarding her territory.  

I must confess that Onyx still ignores me while we are in the yard, unless I happen to be holding a favourite toy.  The territorial behaviour has gone by the wayside and I think that some of the techniques that I learned from Cesar Millan have helped quite a bit.  He presents step by step instructions about how to approach everyday situations that dog owners face and gives easy to follow examples.  Right away I changed my pre-walk ritual so that the walk is a calm time and I am in control of the leash.  In the past, my dog used her strength to walk me, track prey and sniff constantly while walking in front of me the whole time.  She will now walk behind or beside me throughout the walk and accepts corrections when she starts tracking animals, or stops too often to sniff.  With these changes, which have not taken long to implement, my morning walk is now more of a zen experience and even my partner has noticed the difference in Onyx's behaviour. 

For those even contemplating dog ownership, I think it is important to assess whether or not a constant commitment to self assessment and behaviour modification is for them. Some people are just not able to look at what energy they are projecting to their animals, but for everyone else, Millan's techniques are a good place to start.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

After The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay, I needed to read something a little lighter in subject matter and stumbled across The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.  It is the story of two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, who are hired guns for a mysterious man called The Commodore. As such, they are given the task of hunting down a man named Herman Kermit Warm, who allegedly stole something from The Commodore.  In order to find this man, they are to rendezvous with an associate named Mr. Morris in San Francisco. 

Without giving away the action or revealing the plot, let's just say that things do not go as planned and the two brothers run into unforeseen obstacles. There also exists tension between Eli and Charlie, as Charlie is motivated to pursue more work for The Commodore and harbours ambitions of one day becoming a boss himself.  Eli, however, sees the work as a means to an end, and would like nothing more than to settle down and become a shopkeeper.  The brothers' story is told in the same framework as epic tales like The Odyssey and also has a bit of a Quentin Tarantino quality to it, with its unapologetic violence and dark sense of humour. There are many comic moments scattered throughout the story and they make light of what could be very dramatic showdowns.  DeWitt also refrains from adding a lot of unnecessary historical details which take the focus away from the story, and are ultimately forgotten by the reader.

I think that there are so many works of fiction which are focused on dark subject matter that it is refreshing to find a well-written book that features humour so prominently. Sometimes I believe that authors run out of creative ways to tell a story and instead wish to engage their audience by writing plots of unrelenting tragedy.  The Sisters Brothers shows how a well-crafted comedic novel can garner critical acclaim while providing a unique reading experience.      

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

I had a break-in in my house late last year, and the thief (among other things) stole all of my customer membership cards and my library card.  I recently replaced my library card and got a little carried away with borrowing books, as I tend to do when I haven't graced the stacks in a long time.

One of the books that I borrowed was The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay, a much anticipated work following the success of her previous novel, The Birth House. For those not familiar with The Birth House, it is a work revolving around a midwife who is practising in a small Nova Scotia town around the time where more clinical obstetrics are being introduced. This clash between the modern and the more traditional, holistic approach is the main storyline of The Birth House. Normally I wouldn't have even mentioned the author's prior work, but in this case I made an exception, due to the fact that gynaecological medicine features prominently in The Virgin Cure as well. It is set in 1870's New York where the protagonist, Moth, is a twelve year old girl who considers prostitution to be an inevitable consequence of the poverty that she faces. 

When Moth is recruited by a madam, she comes in contact with a physician called Dr. Sadie who provides confirmation of virginity to pimps and madams and treats the women of the sex industry who have fallen prey to disease.  Dr. Sadie makes many attempts to dissuade Moth from going down the same path as many of her patients and offers a number of times to rescue her, but Moth is steadfast in her desire to become a prostitute. Moth views selling her body as the only way for her to gain true independence and material wealth and is naive about the physical and psychological effects this decision may have on her. I felt put off by Moth stubbornness and unwillingness to accept Dr. Sadie's perfectly decent offers to provide her with a home, education and safety from a cruel industry. As I was reading The Virgin Cure, it became increasingly difficult for me to relate to any of the characters, though the storyline was compelling. 

I would like to take a moment to discuss the ending of the book, while doing my best not to spoil it.  During Canada Reads 2013, Charlotte Gray made a very valid point about how when she is a judge for literary awards, she likes to analyse the ending of a book, because there is often a feeling that a writer is just trying to wrap things up and is at a loss as to how to go about it.  Ever since I heard her say it, Charlotte Gray's opinion on epilogues has stuck in my brain and changed the way that I view novels as they draw to an end. It's like those television shows that try to convey drama by having characters give each other meaningful looks to the soundtrack of a OneRepublic song. I believe that The Virgin Cure suffers from this problem in a way that really clouds my opinion of the quality of the novel overall.  Maybe it is just a preference that I have for novels that end suddenly without a tidy bow summarizing what happens to all of the key characters.  

Though Ami McKay is a talented writer, The Virgin Cure is not the work that best highlights her skills, but I look forward to seeing what she will produce in future.            

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies

I was in a rut where I would start a book, read about 50 pages, and then lose interest.  If there is something that is more deserving of my preoccupation, a book that fails to capture and hold my attention tends to be a casualty.  After a couple of these books, I went with a sure thing, Hilary Mantel's novel Bring
Up the BodiesThe reason why I was so confident that I could finish this book without the stumbling blocks that I have faced in the recent past, is the subject matter of the book and the intriguing point of view of a familiar narrator.  Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to the Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall, and takes place in Henry the Eighth's reign through the eyes of his Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell.  Wolf Hall features the rise of Anne Boleyn and Henry's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, and Bring Up the Bodies focuses on Henry's growing affection for Jane Seymour and the ultimate fall of Anne Boleyn. 

I enjoyed the narration of Thomas Cromwell in the first book and this second novel did not disappoint. Firstly, I am of the belief that there are way too many novels set in the Tudor era which feature a female narrator. The market is crawling with them due to the success of authors like Philippa Gregory, and I am a little sick of hearing from the women who surrounded Henry. Cromwell is in a more fascinating position as the most powerful bureaucrat in the country and right-hand man to Henry during some tumultuous years. His most intriguing quality is that though he is an influential figure, his humble beginnings as the son of a blacksmith often cause him to be both the ultimate insider and total outsider at Court. Whenever an issue arises for the king, Cromwell employs intelligence, cunning and thuggery, and simply gets the job done.  This approach, particularly from someone of low origins, causes Cromwell to have more enemies among the courtiers and there is a sense throughout the novel that Cromwell is aware of the riskiness of the path that he is walking, and has a feeling that one day, he too will be the subject of the king's wrath. Thomas Cromwell is a bit of an unlikely hero, based on the fact that he has remained neglected by historians, but Mantel seems to view their oversight in her favour as an author of fiction.

One of my favourite lines in the book comes in the Author's Note where Mantel discusses her challenges with regard to the story cutting out of certain characters and the role of Jane Rochford. Aside from those points, she asks the reader to view her novel as "a proposal" of how the events unfolded. I like this approach, because I think it is the right way to think about historical fiction, where authors use varying degrees of fictionalization when it comes to political figures and events.  Tudor England, with its constant drama, has provided a lot of fodder for novels, and it is a subject matter that I keep coming back to out of a morbid fascination. I know that the story of Thomas Cromwell is not over and I look forward to another stellar sequel, and will confess that Bring Up the Bodies has been hanging around on my nightstand even though I finished the book over a week ago.  The characters have stayed with me in a way that they rarely do, and the book that I am currently reading has suffered the neglect of a good book hangover.         

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Do You Know Any Soccer Moms?

I was listening to the CBC Radio program "Q" the other day, when an interview with Libby Copeland, a journalist from, caught my attention. Her article titled "Baby, You Can't Drive My Car" examines how the auto industry continues to market to and design cars for male drivers when women now account for 50% of all drivers.  

The statistic makes complete sense when one considers the percentage of women in the workforce, and the amount of people who have migrated to suburbia where a vehicle becomes even more important. Women who do choose to stay home with their children as stay at home mothers often have their own vehicles so that they can keep up with the more hectic modern lifestyle.  It also alleviates that feeling of being trapped at home, dependent on the schedule of their significant other.  I don't think that these observations are groundbreaking, but seemed to have escaped the notice of car companies who continue to ignore women from both the design and the advertising perspective. Copeland points out that there is one segment of the female population which does receive a great deal of attention in marketing campaigns, and that is the soccer mother. 

I paused for a moment and tried to think about it, and I, as a woman in her late twenties, don't actually know of anyone in my circle of friends, acquaintances and co-workers that I would put in that category. Society has changed, with more single women, women waiting longer to have children, and shrinking family sizes; and I don't believe that this image is relevant any more. Do women want cars with spacious interiors? Yes, but it is more for camping, shopping at Costco and leg room for road trips, rather than schlepping a gaggle of squirming children around town.  

Another aspect of buying a vehicle that women often complain about is the experience of going to the dealerships and negotiating a price.  A few years ago, we purchased our Toyota Matrix and I remember the experience as being thoroughly unpleasant for everyone involved.  I think that regardless of your gender, very few people actually enjoy the process of purchasing a vehicle and the auto industry needs to reform this aspect most of all. Though women do their research and are often the person charged with balancing the chequebook every month, they feel patronized by sales staff who seem more interested in pointing out bells and whistles. Heated leather seats were a feature that a salesman tried to sell me on. I felt like I had to be overly assertive (bitchy) to simply get basic questions about gas mileage and resale value answered. The amateur theatre at the Ford dealership was particularly noteworthy, with both of us walking out in disgust at their pressure tactics. 

I won't go into any more detail, but would recommend reading Libby Copeland's article in full as it goes into the safety implications of an industry that designs for male bodies.  I think that women are in the position to demand safer vehicles, smarter marketing and an overall recognition of the changing dynamics of our society. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

New Addition

I haven't been blogging very much in the past couple of months, a fact which was recently pointed out to me by my better half.  With the changes at work and a recent addition to our little family, there has not been much time for reading books or writing about them.  A month ago we adopted a rescue dog and our change in lifestyle and her adaptation to our household took up a lot of spare time.  

For some time, I had been lobbying to get a dog, much to the chagrin of my significant other. I insisted that if we adopted a dog, I only wanted a dog from a local rescue organization. Onyx, our two year-old Staffordshire Terrier, came to live with us about a month ago on a trial basis. We don't really know all that much about her past, just that she was found as a stray in Los Angeles and picked up by animal control before being rescued by a California organization. Before we had chosen Onyx, I went through a number of websites for animal shelters in California, looking for the perfect pooch, and the amount of pitbulls and chihuahuas were staggering.  Onyx's foster mother said that one in every six pitbulls in California ends up in a shelter at some point in their lives, and chihuahuas have simply been overly bred.  

We were both happy with Onyx and decided to see if she would be a good fit for us as a couple.  Along the way, moments of frustration and tears transpired in a way that I was definitely not prepared for, as Onyx dealt with terrible separation anxiety and I felt guilty for putting her through it.  She also fears a particular type of dog and this stems from the fact that she has been attacked twice in the last few months.  We live in a city where people will often walk their dogs off-leash if given the opportunity and there are dog owners who should not be taking advantage of lax leash laws.  Due to her fear of dogs with that puppy-like bouncy energy, we are cautious and walk our dog with a mesh muzzle.  Though this is a preventative measure and Onyx is a sweetheart 99% of the time, you would not believe the wide berth that other dog owners give us when they see what to the naked eye appears like a small pitbull wearing a muzzle.  

Whatever the stigma is, I am happy to have her and will work on correcting some of her more troubling behaviours.  And I have to cut this blog entry short, because someone needs a belly rub! 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

I cannot quite remember what compelled me to buy The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton at the booksale and why I recently began reading it.  I think that I thought that I might be a good story without the mental challenge of some of the books that I have been  reading recently. An escape, and a mystery with enough substance to keep me interested.

I must admit that I underestimated how good this book is.  With the fuss and bother of the Christmas season, I was not able to read as much as I would like, and yet I made time to read it every night.  The reason why I stayed with it, getting through about 20 pages a night, is because the plot is so riveting. In the beginning of the book, a young girl is found on a busy dock in Australia, alone and unwilling to tell anyone her name.  This girl grows into a woman, who is driven to discover her identity and how she ended up in Australia that fateful day.  The mystery takes both Nell, the girl found on the dock, and her granddaughter Cassandra on a quest which leads them both to the Cornish coast of England, with a lot of unanswered questions.

The narrative is structured interestingly, with the investigations of Nell, Cassandra and the secrets of the mysterious authoress, Eliza Makepeace, being presented in parallel.  It is a intergenerational story in which a lot of characters each have their own axes to grind (for want of a better term).  Right up until the last pages of the story, one is still putting the pieces together and I was riveted in a way that I have not been for quite some time.  Doing everything I can to avoid chores and gardening, I made a concerted effort to carve out time to finish this book, and I was rewarded when all of the questions I had were answered.  At every turn there were scandalous discoveries, which kept me intrigued and thinking about the book throughout my regular work day, and each revelation is revealed tantalizingly slowly.  

I am going to wrap up this blog entry, more in the interest of not revealing any more of this plot than I absolutely have to.  Needless to say, I highly recommend that anyone looking for a compelling mystery pick up The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.