Between the Lines Book Club: Our Next Series!

between the lines book club logoHello everyone! Watch this space on Fridays for Between the Lines Book Club. This is where we discuss one book a month in the comments. On the fourth Saturday of every month those of us in or near Sacramento, California meet at Arden Dimick Library to discuss the books. Arden Dimick is located at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, 95864.

All gatherings are at 10:30 AM. Coffee and pastries are provided.

Here’s the line up!

July 25: Orfeo, by Richard Powers

August 22: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sept 26, The Third Plate, by Dan Barber

Oct 24: Among Others, by Jo Walton

Nov 21: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

See you soon!

Friday Book Club is on Summer Vacation

SWT-Book-ClubsOur book club is taking a break in August, but it will return in September, proudly bearing the name:  “Between the Lines”.  This book club is both online and offline – comments are welcome here on the blog, and if you are in the Sacramento, California area you can come to an in-person meeting at the Arden-Dimick Library.  Here’s the schedule:

September 28:  The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

October 26:  The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

November 16:  The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

All meetings are at 2PM in the Community Room of Arden-Dimick Library, which is located at 891 Watt Ave, Sacramento, CA 95864.  See you in September!

 

Friday Book Club: Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome to our July Book club – every week in July we’ll be discussing Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin. This online book club goes hand in hand with an in-person book club that meets monthly at Arden Dimick Library.  In May, June, and July we read books that had to do with animals, in keeping with the “Paws to Read” Summer Reading Program at Sacramento Public Library.  Our previous books were The Call of the Wild, by Jack London, and  The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

Join us in person on Sunday, July 13, 2014!  We will be at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento at 2PM for the Arden Dimick Book Club.  

Temple Grandin is a women with autism who has become famous for her work in making slaughterhouses more humane.  As she became well-known for being able to figure out was bothering animals (often a very small thing, as when she describes a herd of cattle being spooked by a white plastic water bottle on a dark brown dirt floor) she became asked to consult in many areas of the animal food industry as well as zoos.  Temple has an interesting attitude towards her work.  She loves animals but has no problem with them being used for food.  what she objects to is their being made to endure fear, anxiety, or pain.  “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right.  We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death.  We owe the animals respect”.

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin suggests that her success with animals is directly tied to her autism, because both animals and people with autism tend to focus on detail.  When Temple is asked to visit a facility and explain why the pigs won’t move through a chute, she gets down on all fours in the chute and tries to perceive what the pig would notice.  In this example it was sparkles of light reflecting off the wet floor that was scaring the pigs, a problem that wwas solved by adjusting the lighting.  She’s able to hone in on small details that most people take for granted as we incorporate the detail into a bigger picture.  “Autism made school and social life hard, but it made animals easy”.

Temple Grandin has gone from being unable to speak (until the age of four) to being a renewed expert on animal behavior and rights for people with autism.  Many of her books focus on animals but several focus more exclusively on her experiences with autism, including Thinking in Pictures:  My Life With AutismThe Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Aspergers; and The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum.  She has a PhD in Animal Science.

Temple Grandin has become not only an animal welfare advocate but powerful advocate for people with autism.  while she recognizes that some forms of autism are terribly debilitating, she is adamant that we should not ignore the fact that autism can confer some advantages:

“In an ideal world the scientist should find a method to prevent the most severe forms of autism but allow the milder forms to survive. After all, the really social people did not invent the first stone spear. It was probably invented by an Aspie who chipped away at rocks while the other people socialized around the campfire. Without autism traits we might still be living in caves.”

― Temple GrandinThinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism

If you want to learn about Temple Grandin’s life, you can turn to the biopic from HBO which starred Claire Danes: Temple Grandin.  Here’s a trailer:

 

 

 

Friday Book Club: The Art of Racing in the Rain vs To Kill A Mockingbird

SWT-Book-ClubsThere are so many things to love about The Art of Racing in the Rain.  This book is wildly popular for a reason – it’s expert at eliciting emotional response.  I love the racing stuff.  I love the philosophy, though I find it somewhat simplistic (which, since it’s being understood by a dog, actually makes sense).  I love the dog, because you’d have to be completely devoid of heart not to love the dog.  There’s just one thing that sends me into such a rage that I practically froth at the mouth and it’s this:

WTF is going on with the subplot about statutory rape?  Why am I the only person on the entire Internet who finds this entire subplot to be contrived, stereotypical in the worst way, offensive, and wildly improbable?  For the initiated, the subplot goes like this:

Denny, our hero, is falsely accused of statutory rape by his in-law’s teenage relative.  Enzo, the dog, is the only witness and Enzo knows that really that brazen hussy threw herself at Denny, who nobly turned her down and drove her home.  The in-laws want custody of Denny’s daughter and conveniently the teenager presses charges for statutory rape.  During the entire ensuing legal battle the in-laws have the kid.

There are all kinds of problems with this storyline, the biggest of which is that it takes a very real problem and makes it into the old “Teenage hussy” cliché.  That cliché was tired and ugly when it was used in To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s even older and uglier here.  Let’s compare how To Kill a Mockingbird made it work while Art of Racing does not.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Mayella, the young woman who accuses Tom Robinson of rape, is an ugly character, but she is at least a character.  She has some background and some personality and a motive.  Her accusation has consequences that affect her adversely – it’s understood that this is serious business, even if she didn’t understand what she was getting into at first.  It’s explained why, even though she knows these consequences will befall her (not to mention Tom, of course, the victim of her accusation), it’s still worth it to her to make the accusation.  She’s a horrible, horrible person – but she’s a person, one Atticus even has some sympathy for even as he utterly destroys her on the witness stand.

Everything in To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the point of view of the child named Scout, who has an advantage over Enzo in that she can get into the courtroom.  Still, most of what Scout knows about Mayella doesn’t come from the courtroom – it comes from adults explaining things to her or talking in her presence.  Enzo, the narrator of Art of Racing, can’t get into the courtroom, nor is he present when the in-laws talk to Annika.  But he is around the in-laws after the case begins, and of course he’s around Denny often.  So there’s no mechanistic reason why Enzo couldn’t know more about Annika – for instance, the in-laws could discuss how they made her testify, or Denny could speculate about her personality and motives.  Enzo is also around Annika quite a bit before the evening on which Annika attempts to seduce Denny occurs, so Annika could have talked to Enzo then and given the reader a better sense of who she is, even if the topic had nothing to do with Denny.

But alas, Annika has no personality at all except that of a completely one-dimensional seductress.  It’s implied that the in-laws somehow convince her into making the accusation, but we never see how.  And while I’m willing to believe that sometimes people make false accusations, the idea that this is an easy and painless thing to pull off is a lie.  Annike can look forward to being backed up by her family, because they are making her do this in the first place, but in real life often the victim’s family doesn’t believe them or blames them.  Some of Annika’s friends might support her, some might envy her, but many people at school will vilify her as a whore.  She can expect to have her life scrutinized in court right down to the exact length of her skirts and the number of buttons on her shirt.  She’s not in for an easy time.

The author, Garth Stein, has taken a real problem and treated it irresponsibly, and that has two consequences:

1.  It’s a harmful  thing to do to the hundreds of victims who struggle to be believed but are told they must have really wanted it, and probably deserved it, and are probably lying anyway.

2. It’s sloppy writing.  My personal gender politics aside, having a one-dimensional character in a book diminishes the book.  One reason that To Kill a Mockingbird is such a classic that it refuses to take that path.  Not all the characters are nice people, or even remotely decent people, but they are characters.  We might loathe Mayella with every fiber of our beings, but we have some sense of why she is who she is, and some sense of her as a human being.  Annika, in The Art of racing in the Rain, is a caricature.

If you are interested in some stories that deal more realistically with sexual assault, here’s a short list, feel free to add to it in the comments:

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

She’s Come Undone: by Thomas Lamb

Jailbait:  The Politics of of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States, by Carolyn E. Cocca

Yes Means Yes:  Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valent1

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

 

 

Friday Book Club: “The Revenant”, by Billy Collins, and The Art of Racing

SWT-Book-ClubsGarth Stein credits several things for giving him the idea to write “The Art of Racing in the Rain”.  Here’s how he describes the process (from his website, garthstein.com):

Q: Where did the idea for the book come from?

The first seed for this book was planted in my mind about ten years ago. I was no longer working in documentary films, but a friend asked me to consult on the U.S. distribution of a film he knew about from Mongolia, called “State of Dogs.” I took a look at the film and the press material they had on it. I didn’t end up getting involved with the film, but the idea really stuck with me. In Mongolia, there is a belief that the next incarnation for a dog is as a man. I thought this was a cool concept and I tucked it away thinking I might some day do something with it.

Then, in 2004, I saw Billy Collins speak at Seattle Arts and Lectures. He’s a great poet and a terrific reader. He read a poem, The Revenant, which is told from the point of view of a recently euthanized dog as he addresses his former master from heaven. The poem begins, “I am the dog you put to sleep…come back to tell you one simple thing: I never liked you–not one bit.” I loved this poem. When Billy Collins finished reading, I knew I had to write a story from the point of view of a dog. And my dog would know the truth: that in his next incarnation, he would return to earth as a man.

So I had the character and the goal, but I still needed the framework of a story. A close friend of mine, who is a semi-professional race car driver but who supplements his racing by working behind the counter at an upscale automotive repair shop, was going through some personal difficulties. His plight wasn’t Denny’s, but it gave me some ideas about what happens to families when one member suddenly passes away. I developed a story that would really put my main character, Denny, through his paces, and then it was all there for me.

Q: What inspired you to tell the story from a dog’s point of view?

Using a dog as a narrator has limitations and it has advantages. The limitations are that a dog cannot speak. A dog has no thumbs. A dog can’t communicate his thoughts except with gestures. Dogs are not allowed certain places. The advantages are that a dog has special access: people will say things in front of dogs because it is assumed that a dog doesn’t understand. Dogs are allowed to witness certain things because they aren’t people and have no judgment.

I was able to work with this idea a lot in terms of giving the reader a unique viewpoint into the action of the book. Enzo goes off with Zoë, and while Denny, her father, doesn’t know what happens, we see through Enzo’s eyes and so we do know. In that sense, it was a lot of fun playing with this “fly on the wall” point of view. Especially since the “fly” in our case, is Enzo, who has very keen powers of observation.

This link takes you to a TED talk of poet Billy Collins reading two of his poems about dogs:  “The Dog on his Master” and “The Revenant”.  You can follow the link (who also leads to print versions of the poems) or watch the reading below.  Enjoy!

If you are in the Sacramento, California Area, don’t forget to visit our in-person book club on Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 2PM at the Arden Dimick Library.  In the meantime, comments are welcome below!  What did you think of The Art of Racing in the Rain?

Friday Book Club: The Art of Racing in the Rain

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome to June’s Book Club!  This club meets here every Friday and in person at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, California on June 22, 2014.  We meet at 2PM in the Community Room and we welcome comments here as well as in person on June 22!

This month’s selection is The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.  The book is told from a dog’s point of view.  Enzo (the dog) is an old dog who looks forward to reincarnating as a man after his death.  Meanwhile Enzo supports his beloved owner, Denny, through a death in the family and a horrible custody battle for Denny’s daughter.  Denny is a race car driver, and Enzo formulates a philosophy of life from hearing Denny talk about the art of driving.

Garth Stein has an extensive website which include a bio, facts, and merchandise, among other things.  There’s even a music video of “Enzo’s Song”, by Martin Odstrcil:

This book has hit a nerve in audiences and it inspires passionate engagement.  A look at fan comments tells us that this book speaks to people in very personal ways.  I may be the only person on earth who didn’t like it – and even my reaction was one of raw emotional response instead of intellectual detachment, so clearly it did affect me powerfully (more on my problems with the book in later weeks).  If you’ve read it, did you like it?  Did you feel a sense of emotional connection to the story?  What does this book mean to you?

Friday Book Club: Jack London and Science Fiction

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome to Friday Book Club!  This month we’ve been reading The Call of the Wild by Jack London.

Jack London is most famous for stories of adventure and for social commentary.  But he was also a science fiction writer.  In fact, the first paycheck he ever received as a writer was for his story “A Thousand Deaths”, about a mad scientist who kills and resurrects his son, which was published by The Black Cat in 1899.  He wrote fifteen short stories that contain some science fiction or speculative fiction element.

In “The Red One”, a scientist discovers a tribe of people who worship a giant red sphere that seems to come from outer space.  n “A Relic from the Pliocene”, a man in the northern wilds discovers a real-life wooly mammoth”The Shadow and the Flash” is about brother who are bitter rivals, and who race each other to develop a means of invisibility.  “The Unparrelled Invasion” is about germ warfare.  In most of his stores, the peril is human in origin, with mad scientists and unstoppable weapons abounding.  There were apocalyptic scenarios, dystopias and utopias.

London’s science fiction short stories have been collected under the title The Science Fiction of Jack London.