Monthly Archives: January 2016

“Fifteen Dogs” by Andre Alexis

Fifteen-DogsGreek gods Apollo and Hermes are enjoying an end-of-day drink at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in Toronto when the subject of humans comes up (what else would they talk about?).  Apollo claims that, if you were to give animals human intelligence and language, they would be unhappy.  But, Hermes disagrees.  A wager is made for one year of servitude.  They happen to be near a veterinary clinic with 15 dogs, and they bestow them with human language and intelligence. Only one of the fifteen has to die happy for Hermes to win the wager.

The dogs gradually begin to have unnatural thoughts.  Rosie the German Shepherd becomes melancholy when she realizes she doesn’t know where all the pups she had birthed are.  Atticus, a Neapolitan mastiff, is having his normal dream about chasing rabbits and squirrels.  But, when he bites down on his prey’s neck, he realizes that the creature must feel pain – it awakens him.   With their new intelligence, they are able to figure out how to open the gates and escape the clinic.  Three dogs are too scared to leave, but the dozen others head to the lake shore.

The first few days are consumed with vying for hierarchical order.  It used to be simply based on power and strength.  Now they can question conclusions.  They begin to realize their ability to be introspective, to problem solve, and as their language develops, the ability to communicate abstract ideas.

Not all are pleased with their new abilities.  Atticus, the deemed leader, says, “We must learn to be dogs again”.  Those that don’t forgo their new ways will be killed.  Two of the dogs escape: Majnoun, a black poodle and Prince, a mutt.

The story follows Majnoun, who is taken in by a couple, Nira and Miguel.  He becomes particularly close to Nira and develops the ability to understand and eventually speak English.

Prince revels in his new-found talents and becomes a poet.  Throughout the book, we see evidence of Prince’s creations.  They are a special kind of poem – a “poem for a dog.”  That is, in each poem the name of a dog will be audible – to the listener or the dog – if the poem is said aloud, though the name is not legible.  The example is a poem for a dog named “Flush.”  Buried in the lines of the poem are the words “rough, luscious,” and, between those two words, the dog can hear his name “Flush.”  There are fifteen poems in the book – each containing the audible name of a dog.

You will need to read the book to see who eventually wins the wager – no spoiler here.  The real insight of this novel is not what it says about dogs, but what it says about being human.  It is difficult to turn off our language and intelligence that is always running in the background – plotting, scheming, assessing, complaining, worrying, regretting – we fail to see and appreciate the present moment and thereby sacrifice happiness.  Dogs are always in the present moment and that is probably why we want them around – as a refuge from the clattering in our mind.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 1.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, February 1 for a discussion of “Fifteen Dogs” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets the first Monday monthly all year long.  20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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“2015 The Best American Essays” by Ariel Levy

The Best American Essays – 2015 edition – edited by Ariel Levy

bestamericanessayAccording to the series editor, Robert Atwan, “The Best American Essays features a selection of the year’s outstanding essays, essays of literary achievement that show an awareness of craft and forcefulness of thought.”  Now in its 30th year, this popular series starts with hundreds of essays gathered annually from a wide assortment of national and regional publications.  These essays are then screened, and about one hundred are turned over to a distinguished guest editor (this year Ariel Levy, a staff writer at The New Yorker), who may add a few personal discoveries and who makes the final selections.  This year, the volume contains 22 essays covering a wide range of topics.

One big topic is aging.  In Roger Angell’s essay “This Old Man” from The New Yorker, underlying all his complaining is a current that mixes humor, sadness, cantankerousness, and wisdom.  He’s 93.  His essay starts: “Check me out.  The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the KGB…. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee.  Arthritis.”

We get a glimpse of his “oceanic force and mystery” of loss – he has outlived most of his friends, family, and contemporaries, including a daughter (who took her own life) and also his wife of 48 years.  The amazing thing about getting old, Angell tells us, is that the “accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but sill stubbornly gleaming.”

In Marc Jacobson’s essay “65” from New York, he gives us a view of aging of the following generation – that of the baby boomers.  There is no denying being old at 65, he writes: “Throughout my life, there has always been a number that sounded old.  When I was sixteen, it was twenty-seven; at twenty-nine, it was forty-two; at thirty-eight, it was fifty-two.  At sixty-five, however, it was sixty-five.  After all, sixty-five is a longtime bullet-point mile marker along the Interstate of American Life, the product of uncounted hours of congressional backroom dealing and insurance-company probability charts.”

His epiphany is that “ear hair and all, I remain resolutely myself.  I am the same me from my baby pictures, the same me who got laid for the first time in the bushes behind the high school field in Queens, the same me who drove a taxi through Harlem during the Frank Lucas days, the same me my children recognize as their father, the same me I was yesterday, except only more so by virtue of surviving yet another spin of the earth upon its axis.”

This year’s writers include Justin Cronin, Anthony Doerr, David Sedaris, Zadie Smith, Malcom Gladwell, and others.  They have crafted a wide range of pieces, covering topics like leaving an abusive marriage, losing your sanity to Fitbit, the difference between thugs of the early 20th century compared to thugs of today.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, January 4.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, January 4 for a discussion of “2015 Best American Essays” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets the first Monday monthly all year long.  20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

 

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