Sunday, January 31, 2016

Nop's Trials

By Donald McCaig

Nop is a border collie. He is a working dog, helping his owner with herding sheep on the farm. Lewis, Nop's owner, also entered Nop in sheep dog trial, which is a contest for sheep-herding dogs. Nop won the last local trial which angered one of the contestants. This man, Doug, when he was drunk, said he would pay anyone who took care of Nop $500. Two men who heard him believed him and snatched Nop one night when the dog was running loose.
But Nop is a very valuable dog. His owner was offered $5000 for Nop, which he declined. When the thieves discover this, they panic and sell the dog to a man who works for the rodeo. This man puts Nop in the rodeo with a monkey riding him and they herd calves for the amusement of the crowds.
Doug sees Nop on TV and buys him from the rodeo man, intending to breed Nop to his prize-winning bitch, also a border collie. But he becomes worried when the police and Nop's owner come looking for Nop and he gives Nop to two thugs to dispose of.
One of the thugs has a soft heart for dogs and just dumps him in the city where he is briefly adopted by a bag lady. She doesn't have him long, though, because the shelter where she wants to live doesn't allow pets. Nop is then destined for an animal shelter.
The custodian who was instructed to take Nop to the shelter instead sells him to a lab that uses animals to test drugs. Nop's future looks very bleak, indeed, and his faith in humans will be tested to the maximum.

This was an OK book. It was a very depressing read, as Nop goes from one bad situation to another, as Nop encounters one bad person after the other. The only one who treats kindly, other than his owner, Lewis, is the bag lady. But she only has him for a few days.
However, it works out in the end. I don't know if wading through all the cruelty is worth it though.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Empire of the Ants

By Bernard Werber

A man gets stung to death by wasps and, in his will, his nephew inherits his apartment. The apartment has a cellar but there is a sign on the cellar door to never go into the cellar. But then the family dog gets in and the man goes in search of the dog.
He is gone for hours and finally returns with the body of the dog, which killed by the rats inhabiting the cellar. His wife and son are upset, the son because of the loss of his pet and the wife because of living above a cellar full of rats.
The man puts a new door on the cellar and then returns to it. He never comes back. The wife calls the police, they go into the cellar and vanish. The wife goes into the cellar and vanishes. The son goes to an orphanage but runs away, and, of course, goes into the cellar and vanishes. Once more the police go into the cellar and vanish, as before.
Meanwhile, in the nearby woods, a colony of russet ants are coping with the usual ant crises of their own: invader ants, mysterious deaths of fellow ants, political intrigue, gathering supplies and food, and just being ants.

This was kind of a strange book. The whole "people disappearing in the cellar thing" turns out to be something rather stupid and unbelievable and it brings about the ending of the story and really has very little to do with the ant story other than the stupid plot twist at the end. I think the book would have been just fine without the human part of the story.
The story of the ants was, compared to the drama in the cellar, more interesting and more believable, if somewhat fantastic. These ants do things that no ant has ever done, like using beetles as aircraft. But that is just part of the fantasy and actually more believable than the cellar story.
But the book was not originally written in English, I assume it was written in French since that is its locale. It was translated by Margaret Rocques and maybe it lost something in the translation.
It was an OK read.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Ghost Light

By Frank Rich

Frank Rich's memoir of growing up in Washington DC in the 1950s and 60s.

Frank's parents divorced when he and his younger sister were quite young. The children didn't handle the divorce well, especially Frank, who was beset by night terrors and sleeplessness.
Not too long after the divorce was finalized, Frank's mother started dating the man who would become her two children's step-father, Joel. It wasn't apparent right away, but Joel was abusive. Not only to his own kids but later on, after the marriage, to Frank, his sister and even his mother.
But Frank had an escape from the torments of home: the theater. At a young age, he developed a passion for theater plays. He spent as much time as he could at the National Theater in DC, and, when opportunity presented, at the mecca of American theater, Broadway in New York City. In fact, that was about the only good thing about Joel, their shared passion for theatrical productions. Joel paid for many trips to NYC for his new family. And, since he had connections to the theater business, could often get his family in to view plays that were already sold out.
The book follows Frank through to his going off to college, about the girls he loved, the show folk he became friends with and his puzzlement over his mother's acquiescence to Joel's brutality. Towards the end, he decides that the benefits that Joel brought to the family outweighed, in his mother's eyes, the negativity.

Before I read this book, I had no idea who Frank Rich was or why I decided to get the book. I still don't know much about him except that he had a rough childhood and loved theater. I enjoyed the book but found the last part a bit slow, a bit of a slog to get through. Although it is always fun and comforting to read about someone else's miserable childhood.

On a side note, I was totally puzzled by this section, where Frank is talking about his bar mitzvah:

"It was a relief when the rabbi decided to perform a radical circumcision on my Haftorah portion because, he said, 'It's not the kind of thing our congregation should be exposed to before lunch.' I wasn't quite sure what he meant until one of my more knowing religious-school classmates looked over the unexpurgate version and cried out: 'Hey, they've given you a rape!'" [Italics are mine.]

I looked up bar mitzvah and rape and all I got was just rape, the assault. I don't what he means here and he doesn't explain the term.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


By David Storey

This is the story of Colin Saville. Colin is the second son of his parents. His older brother died shortly before he was born. This brother was a talented artist even at a very young age. His parents had high hopes for him.
Colin is a bright lad, egged on especially by his father. The father is a coal miner and wants his children to have a better, less arduous life. So he pushes Colin to do well in school, even though he himself is very poorly educated. Colin's feelings about this are not part of the discussion, either with the parents or with the reader.
Colin succeeds in passing his exams and graduates to another school. At this point, I must admit I know nothing about how England structures its school system. I gather, from the book, that how well you did on your exams dictates what school you will be attending. Colin is now attending a better school and maintains his grades and eventually qualifies to attend college or university. Here, again, I don't understand the distinction between college and university in the British system. I'm guessing university is considered a better education than college, at least that is what the novel seems to indicate. Colin chooses to attend college and become a teacher.
At this point, and for the first time in the story, the reader is finally included in Colin's desires. Up until that point, he has been a bit of a cypher, with no hints given about how he feels about his life, his parents, his younger brothers, his dreams, his future. We are told, a couple times, that he writes poetry but not what he is thinking. He gets involved with a girl only to lose her to a rich friend. This grieves him, as he was pretty sure they would eventually marry. At last, Colin seems to have some actual feelings about something.
Colin goes on to be a teacher, and, at this point in the story he turns into a real stinker. He bullies his younger brothers, he argues with his parents, he starts dating a married woman, he gets into arguments with his boss and gets fired. He has an off again, on again relationship with the woman and eventually he leaves it all behind for a new life abroad. What happens after that we are not told.

Colin as a kid is a zero and Colin as an adult is a jerk. For some reason, he feels no obligation to anyone and seems to believe that he has the only true answers to the big questions. This transformation from quiet, obedient child to major pill seemed hard to understand to me. Towards the end of the book, I was kind of hoping the married woman's husband would show up and shoot him.
This was a hard book to like. Like I said before, Colin's interior life his hidden from the reader until the end when he turns out to be a prick. I usually don't care for a book if I don't care for the main character and I really didn't care for Colin at the end.
However, as a look at life in the 1930s to early 1950s for a working class family in northern England, it was very interesting. Too bad all the characters are rather repulsive and disagreeable, especially Colin the jerk.
I see that it won the Booker prize, which seems to usually pick books featuring repulsive and unpleasant characters. If I had know that beforehand, I probably wouldn't have bothered to read it.
For another review, see