Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Great Gatsby

The real joy of rereading a book is getting to experience it in a different way; generally, you already know what happens, so instead of concentrating solely on the plot, you're free to notice other things. For me, in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, it was the other way around. The first time I read the novel I was so struck by the language and the imagery Fitzgerald conjured up that several months later my memory of the plot was hazy at best. Although Fitzgerald's prose didn't dull with time, by my second reading I could give myself over more to the characters because I already knew what to expect from the language.

It a strange way, The Great Gatsby is a love story both on the surface and at its core, but less so in all the layers between the two. Fitzgerald sets up levels of emotion and depth of feeling, and in between them he slots all the other details of day to day life. It's a curious thing, really, because conventional wisdom says not to waste time explaining how characters get, physically, from one place to another. But Fitzgerald's characters always seem to be in motion; they walk across lawns, drive places, take the train, walk up steps, etc. And instead of being dull, all their movement heightens the story, making it about real people instead of just archetypes of the upper class in the roaring '20s.

The story goes like this: Nick Carraway, who comes from money in the mid-West, moves east to try out the bond business. He fought in the war and is well educated, but finds himself restless. So, he moves to Long Island (living on West Egg) and works in New York. As luck would have it, the little house he rents is next to an imposing mansion, which happens to belong to a mysterious man named Jay Gatsby. Gatsby throws wild, sprawling parties, but despite the debauchery, remains aloof. Most of the people who attend have never really met him and there are many, many rumours about who he is and what he's done. On East Egg, directly across the sound, live Nick's second-cousin Daisy and her husband Tom, with whom Nick went to school. Tom, who is seems has a history of philandering, has a mistress who he meets up with in New York. There are other characters as well – Jordan Baker, Nick's sort-of love interest and a friend of Daisy's, for example – who are necessary to the plot, but who don't capture your attention the same way. 

As I mentioned, this is a novel about love (as well as excess, the trappings of wealth, deceit, etc.), and mostly about the love of one man. Gatsby is in love with Daisy. They had an affair years ago, before she was married, and he never got over it. Neither, it ought to be said, did she; although, she managed to move her life along, nonetheless. Gatsby's fantasy is that he will be able to whisk Daisy away from Tom (and, I assume, her daughter) so that they can live the life he always dreamed of. It's a beautiful fantasy and really makes Gatsby the saddest character in the story, because you just know that things won't work out for him the way he's planned.

But Gatsby's love is quite straightforward compared with Tom's. Tom is not a character you warm up to, which almost seems intentional on his part (as if he wouldn't let Fitzgerald write him any other way). And yet, for all his distain and disinterest and fooling around, when his life with Daisy is threatened he seems genuinely wounded. True, Tom is jealous of possessions (his wife, no doubt, falls into this category at least some of the time), but when it comes down to it, he sees Daisy as more than a status piece and his hurt at hearing her say she never loved him surprises him as much as it does us. Then, of course, there's his mistress, Myrtle. There is nothing rich or status-enhancing about her (her husband runs the local gas station), but Tom dotes on her and has a life with her that suggests the attraction is more than physical. 

The plot is incredibly intricate, and just like in real life, certain things couldn't happen without what happened four steps back. But Fitzgerald's foreshadowing is very subtle, and although you know a story about this kind of lifestyle can't have a happy ending (that would just be too boring), the ending you get is quite unforeseeable until you're there, at which point you're stuck – like Nick – watching with shocked eyes and uncomfortable posture.

But the plot all winds together and comes back to the same themes. Love, is certainly one of them, but perhaps the most important element of The Great Gatsby is beauty. Fitzgerald's prose is beautiful, and he uses it to invoke a kind of unexpected beauty – the kind that hides the mundane. The settings are beautiful, the clothing is beautiful, the cars are beautiful. And, at the beginning at least, it seems the characters are all beautiful too. But as their safe, lovely little world erodes, the beautiful characters become less entrancing. There's nothing obvious about it; Fitzgerald certainly doesn't come out and comment on it, but you can tell that their formerly pristine edges are wearing away in places, that there are scuff marks and the like.

It's that decline in beauty that allows the shocking end to the story. In this world, beautiful people are untouchable, except by love, and for anything truly horrible to happen they must be exposed as regular. Their money doesn't insulate them, but their beauty does, until it can't any more. Because of its beauty, The Great Gatsby is more than a love story and a tragedy, it is a story about people. And strangely, for all the light and beauty and love, it's and a rather dark portrayal of humanity.

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
First published in 1925 (cover image from 1995 Scribner edition)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Man Booker Long-List Announced

The long-list for the Man Booker Prize was announced yesterday. The prize is given out an full-length novel written in English by an author of the Commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe. There are two Canadians on the long-list this year: Lisa Moore, for her novel February (Random House - Chatto & Windus) and Emma Donoghue, for her novel Room (Pan MacMillan - Picador).

The other long-listed novels are:
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Faber and Faber)
The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore (Penguin - Fig Tree)
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (Grove Atlantic - Atlantic Books)
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen (Bloomsbury)
The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Headline Publishing Group - Headline Review)
C by Tom McCarthy (Random House - Jonathan Cape)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Hodder & Stoughton - Sceptre)
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (Penguin - Hamish Hamilton)
Trespass by Rose Tremain (Random House - Chatto & Windus)
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (Grove Atlantic - Tuskar Rock)
The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner (Random House - Jonathan Cape)
The list was kerned from 138 novels published between Oct. 1, 2009 and Sept. 30, 2010. The short-list will be announced on Sept. 7 and the winner (who will receive £50,000 – or $80,000) will be announced Oct. 12. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The lost art of serial publishing

Back in the day (the Victorian day, for the most part), serial publishing was the way to get new, big novels to the public. Newspapers and magazines would pay authors a chapter at a time, and publish  stories over the course of months. As publishing systems go, it was a good one; the newspaper was benefited from regular, repeat readers who wanted to know what was going to happen, and the authors benefited from regular paycheques that kept them from starving while they toiled away on their novel. They also benefited (or suffered) from up-to-the-minute reader reaction.

It has been quite a while since stories were published this way. In part, that's because the publishing industry became more efficient and also because newspapers stopped setting aside space for such "leisure " material. 

This month, though, the National Post's literary blog The Afterword went old school and started printing (well, posting anyway) Toronto author Joey Comeau's latest novel chapter by chapter

One Bloody Thing After Another launched in May and chronicles the more sensitive side of the zombie story. That may sound like a paradox, but what Comeau does is ask a simple question: what would you do if your mom because a zombie? Rather than simple presenting a gore-filled horror novel, Comeau brings a kind of psychological depth to the zombie story, and winds it around a coming-of-age tale filled with first loves and a very, very complicated mother-daughter relationship.

The beauty of the serial-style publishing is that it forces you to read slowly and consider what exactly is going on and why a novel is broken up the way it is. In a Victorian literature course I took in my undergrad, we were made to read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins - a mystery novel that set up many of the tropes you see in Sherlock Holmes - the way it was originally published, a few chapters at a time. 

As the suspense built and cliffhangers were set up I realized how much skill went into crafting each section so that they would be both entertaining and engrossing on their own and fit properly into the larger whole. Comeau's novel may not have been written to fit those parameters originally, but it's always fun to read something presented in a different way, especially if it leaves you wanting more at every turn.

Image shown the cover of One Bloody Thing After Another, published by ECW Press in 2010.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Vive la Révolution?

I have been avoided writing about the e-book and e-readers because I'm not really sure what to say about them. I mean, they're out there, so there's that. People use them, there's that too. Otherwise, the debate about whether or not they're a good thing depends on where you stand. For literacy advocated they're great because people who might not otherwise have picked up a big book are reading again. For publishers the waters a little murkier. For traditional booksellers, e-books don't fit into their business plan, so either they don't worry about them or they worry about them a lot.

Personally, I think the e-reader could be a great thing for newspaper subscribers, but I'm a fan of turning the pages of books and magazines (and, it should be said, newspapers too) and I know I'm not alone in that. I also like having books around, and not worrying that their battery will die when I'm in the middle of a suspenseful part, or that spilling tea on them will mean they stop working. Call me old-fashioned.

On Monday, the New York Times reported that Amazon's e-book sales for the last three months outnumbered their sales of hardcover books (the declined to say where their sales of paperbacks fall in relation to e-books, but it's assumed that they are still their highest sellers). The thing is, I think this is a good thing.

Just this week I was saying that independent bookstores would be better off if we stopped buying discounted books at big chains and shopped at smaller establishments. Well, maybe that time is coming. If Amazon and its ilk find more success selling e-books to their customers (who, of course, have already purchased some sort of e-reader) and leave the discounted books alone, so much the better. It makes total sense to me that e-books are on online commodity, a reality that nicely compliments the more personal nature of going out to browse a local bookstore. 

I'm not saying we should divide in to camps – Luddites vs. the tech-savvy – I'm just saying that the "everything in its place" axiom works in the context of the emerging e-book business. I'm not worried about the physical book becoming obsolete (I mean, we're witnessing the renewed vogue of vinyl records in the age of the mp3 for heaven's sake), and I am all for people experiencing literature in the way that suits them: paperback, hardback, e-book or audiobook. Markets will spring up to serve all these desires, and in the long run that may help save our local bookstores.

Image courtesy of Online Universities Weblog.

Announcement: Flipping Through

So, I started a Tumblr. I'm not sure I really needed to add to my blogging workload (not that I feel like it's "work," exactly), but more and more often I've been coming across interesting literary tidbits that I either don't have enough time to cover in any sort of length, or find interesting to read but not that exciting to write about. 

Books Under Skin didn't feel like the place to just start posting random links (I think of this as a long-form blog), so I started Flipping Through as a sort of short-form sister-site. It's still literary in focus, but there's less commentary. I've added a link to it in the side panel and will be updating it regularly, since there seems to be no shortage of little bits and pieces to read and mull over.

This site won't change, although I may do a little cross-posting if something really good comes up. Basically, this is a more-bang-for-your-buck sort of deal. I hope you like it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Requiem for a Wren

Nevil Shute has a certain way of constructing his stories (or, at least many of them). I don't want to call it a formula, because it doesn't come across as mechanically formulaic, but, just as most of Shute's novels are about the war most of them feature a narrator/side character in the present, a section of reminiscing about the war and then a return to the story's present, in which the consequences of the memories unfold. Shute used that structure in A Town Like Alice and he uses it again, to very different effect, in Requiem for a Wren.

It should also be said that Shute is a bit of a romantic. And in Requiem for a Wren he serves up two love stories: one that is beautiful and complete, though short-lived, and another which is enduring and unrequited. Those stories, about two brothers in love with the same woman (although not in a jealous, competitive way) overlay the larger story about WWII and its often undocumented affects on the psyche.

So, the story goes like this. Alan Duncan, an Australian who fought in the air force during the war and lost both his feet in a crash, only to subsequently become a lawyer, returns home to his family's sheep ranch. (Shute is as much a fan of Australian vistas as I am, it would seem). Alan hasn't been home for a long time, so he's surprised that his father is a little down when he picks him up at the airport. It turns out that his parents' housekeeper – and English woman named Jessie Proctor – of whom is mother was especially fond, just committed suicide.

As it turns out, the suicide is quite recent and the body is still in the house. Alan, quite curious about the whole thing – especially because she didn't leave much in way of explanation – goes searching for her personal papers, which he feels certain she must have cached somewhere in little suitcase the suicide attempt failed. Well, he finds them. But they are not what he expects.

Jessie Proctor is really Janet Prentice, his dead brother's fiancee, who he has been searching for. He discovers this, not by looking at the body, but by reading the diaries and letters she left in the case. The documents chronicle Janet's time during the war and her relationship with Bill, Alan's brother. In England, Janet fought as a Royal Navy Wren – a female gunner who shot at enemy aircraft. She was quite accomplished at her job, which was good for England but left her with a horrible guilt she felt the need to atone for. After the war, after Bill died, Janet set off to find Alan. She travelled to Australia, where instead of finding him she found his ailing mother. Janet decided a life of service to her dead fiancee's parents would perhaps help her repay her debt, so she changed her name and stayed on at the ranch.

Without going into all the details, I will just say that the picture Shute paints of female service during the war is a really interesting one. There aren't a lot of mainstream portrayals of what it was like to fight as a woman (especially written by a man) and Shute brings a lot more to the realities of Janet's service than an endless swirl of suitors and parties. Make no mistake, Janet and her Wrens were fighters and, Shute seems to say, there is nothing particularly glamourous about that life, despite the fact that she managed to fit in a little romance.

As I said above, Shute's narrative style follows a bit of a pattern. But, by layering his story he draws you in to one part, then throw you backwards into another one (which ups the stakes in the first one) and then pull you back to the present with a new understanding and let the story unfold. It's almost sneaky, except that he's pretty open about what he's doing. That's what I like about Shute's writing. I mean, yes, it's a little old fashioned and of a certain style, but he makes you really care about his characters and what happens to them: He allows you to understand them – to see them for who and what they are – and let's you judge them as you wish. Not a lot of authors are that brave.

Requiem for a Wren is ultimately a rather sad story, but it is also full of sunny moments and small victories. By the end, you are left rather like Alan is, in love with Janet, unable to have her, but glad you got to know her so well anyway.

Requiem for a Wren
by Nevil Shute
First published in 1955 (cover image shown from Vintage Classics edition)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Woe is the independent bookstore?

Click image to enlarge.

Reporting on the impending closure of every local bookstore we've ever heard of seems to be a news trend that won't die. Yes, some of these magical places do close and it's devastating. I've written about it before and I am a huge supporter of local, independent bookstores and booksellers. That said, I hate the articles that come out when a bookstore is in trouble. Just like the wonderfully satiric comic above, the problem with professing outrage only when a store is on the verge of closing is that it doesn't help it pay the bills after the outcry dies down.

Last month, the wonderful Toronto institution This Ain't the Rosedale Library found itself in trouble. The little Kensington Market shop was having trouble paying its back-rent (accrued because of the recession – to my mind, a perfectly reasonable explanation). I mention this simply because the issue of bookstores closing is often equated with foundering sales, but it's often more complicated than that (which is nicely pointed out in this well-written, though oddly titled article from Saurday's Globe and Mail: Will the last bookstore please turn out the lights?)

Nevertheless, when TATRL was in trouble, book bloggers and magazines came out in support. It was awesome. People were outraged. But then, when the store didn't close, the furor died down and people assumed everything was right with the world again. Well, it's that kind of complacency that leads to these problems. There are some good ideas out there though, which is extremely heartening.

What we need to do is figure out a way to make sure these community institutions stay alive and viable. Buying our books there is certainly part of it, but it's not really enough. Buying books doesn't keep rent from going up. Neither does it keep big chain bookstores from moving in and offering fancy discounts. (Note: I am all for getting people to read, so generally I don't worry too much about discounted books, just like I don't worry too much about used bookstores undermining publishers and authors, but for a few extra dollars, supporting an independent bookstore is much better for your community.)

This is getting a little ranty. But it's mostly meant to be positive because deep down, people care about bookstores, they're just not sure how to show it on an everyday basis – most people don't buy books like they buy milk, after all. The good thing, though, is that people do buy books, lots and lots of them. So our favourite little bookstores might have to adapt a little to maneuver the rising cost of rent, but if we help them out by word-of-mouth publicity and attending special events, they should be alright in the long run.

Image shown from A Softer World by Joey Comeau and Emily Horne.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Short stories, as I've said before (it's worth repeating though), often need to be read as part of a collection. I'm not saying they can't be read alone, published in a magazine or in an anthology, but that sometimes you don't realize their brilliance when you only get a little taste of the author and then move on. If, for example, you read only one story from Everything That Rises Must Converge and no others, you most likely wouldn't think anything of Flannery O'Connor's  style. Not to say that she wasn't an excellent writer, but her particular style probably wouldn't stand out as being that different than many excellent writers.

After reading two or even three stories you might start to think that she was unnecessarily morbid – shocking you for no good reason, but as you continue to read through her collection of short fiction and notice the pattern that emerges, it becomes like a game. This isn't a spoiler, but in order to understand O'Connor you need to know that she kills off her characters. That is to say, in almost every story, someone will die. Not that her stories are about death, exactly; rather, where James Joyce's genius was in writing beautiful but grey-tinted stories that often culminated in an epiphany, O'Connor's is in writing fairly ordinary stories that somehow still manage to kill someone.

That's where the game comes in: as you read through her stories, you find yourself wondering who she'll off in this one. Usually, you will be wrong. And when you're right, you'll be wrong about the method. O'Connor is a tricky one to figure out and her sense of humour is often her characters' downfall.

There are a lot of other things going on in Everything That Rises, though. O'Connor is from the Southern U.S. and she wrote this in the 50s. The politics, racial tensions and societal concerns are overlaid with more classic issues of mortality and aging, body image, parent-child relationships and how to deal with the heat. O'Connor's descriptions of the body are also a notable part of her style; she writes honestly about the very physical side of being human, about how skin feels and the way sweat moves and the shapes your body parts make when covered by clothing.

O'Connor isn't shy and her descriptions of life are just as potent and almost-shocking as her refusal to turn away from death. In a lot of ways, her stories seem like scenes from old movies, which were often much more honest than the airbrushed versions of glamour we have now. An laced through everything is O'Connor's ever-present grin, because whatever else is going on in the story, you know O'Connor enjoyed working out the details so she could shock a smile onto your face.

Everything That Rises Must Converge
by Flannery O'Connor
First published in 1956 (cover image shown from FSG Adult edition)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

World Cup of Reading

The World Cup ended three days ago, and my hangover was much less severe than I was expecting (although I miss the excuse to go out for near-daily coffees). But, there's something about packing that much emotion and focus into four weeks of sport that doesn't allow you to just walk away. So when I stumbled upon Words Without Border' Around the World in 32 (or so) Books I realized how badly I needed a little bridge like that to bring me from World Cup reality back to everyday.

Then, I started wondering how well my reading reflects the international scope of the world's game, and the result, I'm afraid to say, is woefully. So far this year, I have read books by authors from Canada, the U.S., England, Australia and Poland. I'm not sure it really gives me any extra points that one of these books was actually about soccer. Looking over last year's list I can add Japan and Iran to the tally. On Books Under Skin, I have recommended books by authors from Canada, the U.S., Australia, England, France, Belgium and Iran.

I must say, until I did a survey I had no idea how narrowly I was reading. I mean, I read widely in terms of genre, topic, style, length, etc., but when it comes to the nationalities of the authors I'm reading, there isn't much depth. Obviously, you could only ever read books from Canada, the U.S. and England and never run out of material, but that isn't the point. Other countries and cultures have a lot to offer in terms of style, perspective and wordplay. Some books I can read in their original language (well, French books anyway), but the art of translation is interesting in and of itself, and reading a book translated from another language adds an extra layer to the story.

So, in World Cup spirit, I am going to try and spend the next four years reading more widely, in the hopes of making my own bracket of books when the time comes. But, four years is a while away yet, so in the meantime I'll work on reading for the Euros, which will be in Poland and the Ukraine in two years.

Soccer and reading may not have any obvious correlation other than, of course, the importance of goals.

Image used a photo of the FIFA World Cup

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Summer Sisters

I came to Judy Bloom late, relatively speaking. I didn't read Summer Sisters till I was 19, and it remains the only Bloom book I've read. I'm not sure why or how that happened, but I'm really glad I listened when my best friend insisted I read it.

Coming-of-age stories are a pretty classic summertime trope. When you're growing up, summer isn't like real life, which means all sort of things can happen. In Summer Sisters this is especially true, because the two main characters, Vix and Caitlin, spend their summers in Martha's Vineyard, hundreds of miles away from their homes in Santa Fe. Caitlin's dad has a summer home on the Vineyard and she's gone there every summer she can remember. When the story begins, just before the summer the girls are 12, Vix has never been farther away from home than her parents could drive, which was never very far. Caitlin, a new girl at school and impossibly popular, chooses Vix to be her summer sister, to come to the Vineyard for two months, all expenses paid. Yes, that little plot point seems a bit improbable, but in the context of the story, and Caitlin's old-money family, it makes sense that she would be allowed to bring a friend away for the summer.

There are a lot of coming-of-age cliches that impossible to get away from simply because their cliche status comes from their universality. Rather than try and steer her novel away from those touchstones of growing up, Bloom nods to them as she's goes by and then handles them with such grave and searing honesty that you wonder a bit how she could know you so well.

Summer Sisters starts when the girls are about 12 and continues until they are 30 or so. It's set mostly in the summers, although as Vix gets older and goes to university we're treated to more of her life. With 18 years to deal with, Bloom has a lot of space for character development. She deals with their increasing maturity, their first jobs, how their interactions with the boys in the house change, how they deal with graduation. But, to my mind, Bloom's crowning achievement is how she handles their increasing sexuality and their relationships (describing the friendship between Caitlin and Vix is the sort of thing university papers are for, so I will leave it to you to read the book and see for yourself).

A lot of books seems to skip right over all the sexual confusion of the 12-15 year old girl. Instead, Bloom dives right in. She talks about masturbation, about the girls' desire for breasts, about their desire for their periods to come and how they're simultaneously fascinated and confused by their new bodies. Reading the early sections of this book brings me right back to that point in my life with such vividness I have to take a minute to catch my breath. And although Bloom is never graphic, neither does she shy away from describing Vix's sex life, or the fact that her long-time, monogamous relationship isn't quite what she thinks it is.

Maybe that's what I like best (or appreciate most) about Bloom's writing: at every step she resists moralizing. It's so easy to throw little lessons in to YA literature and assume the reader won't pick up on it in a conscious way, but Bloom doesn't do that. She tells a story, which is both delightful and heartbreaking, without telling you which characters are good and which are bad; or who you should emulate and who you should avoid. In Bloom's world, everyone is flawed, and that's why they're interesting. And although I see myself in the story, it doesn't represent me, because Bloom doesn't want it to.

Summer Sisters
by Judy Bloom
First published in 1998 (cover image shown from Dell edition)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be

It's Canada Day, so I would be remiss if I didn't take the opportunity to recommend some Can Lit. There are lots of great options, but few contemporary (or, relatively contemporary) Canadian authors have captured Canada's many personalities, landscapes and humour like Farley Mowat. In The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, Mowat chronicles his childhood – spread through Saskatoon, Toronto and small-town Ontario, with travels to the Pacific coast – and the many adventures he had with his dog Mutt.

Mowat, known best for his writings about the natural world, is hilarious when he writes about himself. I remember reading The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be as a kid and just laughing away; when I reread it this week the same thing happened. I couldn’t help myself. Mowat is so good at the set-up that you chuckle in anticipation of the jokes, catching the wry introspective side of them that children miss.

The memoir begins with the Mowat family’s move to Saskatoon in the middle of the Depression dustbowl. Mowat’s father Angus is a librarian and, upon arriving in the prairie city, is determined to be a bird hunter. Naturally, this means they need a bird dog to take hunting. After Angus enthusiastically pursues some very expensive dogs, Mowat’s mother takes matters into her own hands and buys a puppy for four cents from a boy trying to sell baby geese for ten cents apiece. Now that the family has a dog – much to little Farley’s delight – there’s no need for an expensive fancy one.

Mutt doesn’t take to hunting right away, but when he figures out his role he goes at it with gusto, to the point that he becomes famous for his retrieving. In fact, Mutt is singularly gifted at picking up new skills. Not only does he become an excellent hunting dog, but he trains himself to walk along the tops of the neighbourhood fences; learns how to climb up and down ladders; and manages to become an accomplished tree-climber (although tree-descending proves a skill he can’t quite master).

Although most of the anecdotal chapters revolve around Mutt, the details Mowat weaves into the story about the time period and the various places he lives introduces a narrative thread into what might otherwise be a collection of bedtime stories. Mowat is growing up with Mutt and his changing interests – almost always involving animals and natural history in some way – suggest the passage of time without being obvious about it.

Probably my favourite part of The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, though, is Mowat’s portraits of his parents. They come across as being both very much of the time period and also unwittingly eccentric. It’s certainly not every family that adopts two great horned owls and then allows them to have the run of the house; nor who would let their young son be in possession of formaldehyde (for dissections, of course).

Mowat must have had an interesting time looking back at his parents and analyzing them from a character perspective when he wrote his memoir. There aren’t a lot of personal details, but it does seem clear that the three of them got along very well, and were all fiercely loyal to Mutt.

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be is a quick read, and the chapters are self-contained enough to be read one at a time, whenever you have a spare half hour or so. This makes it a great summer read (because even in the summer it can be hard to find hours of successive reading time), but also a book that can carry you through a year, or a road trip. Much like the many Canadian cliches, Mowat's memoir doesn't demand anything of you, but will have you laughing at his improbably memories if you give it a chance.

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be
by Farley Mowat
First published in 1957 (cover image shown from Bantam Books edition)
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