About this blog...

Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about life, the natural world and writing.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Book review: Man in the Woods

Bear with me, mystery fans and animal people, as we take a walk on the literary side. Scott Spencer's Man in the Woods (HarperCollins, 2010) is a novel about a crime, and a dog is an important character, providing both the inciting incident and the denouement. Those characteristics qualify it for this blog. (Thank you to Sandra Parshall, author of the Rachel Goddard series, for recommending it.)

Spencer is a heavyweight, author of the wrenching Endless Love (don't hold the infamous movie against it), A Ship Made of Paper, and other well-received novels. His online biographies are cryptic, but reveal that he has taught writing at Columbia University and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, among other venues.

And write he can. Paul is a carpenter committed to an authentic, honest life. He finds a man abusing a dog at an isolated park. Their interchange escalates to a fist fight, and Paul's punch to his throat kills the other man. Abruptly a murderer, Paul takes the dog and flees for home.

"The brown dog sitting next to him, whom Paul has already named Shep, is salivating anxiously and shedding fur at a prodigious rate. The dog is clearly falling apart, but he is trying to keep his dignity. He is like a minor character in a Mafia movie who knows he is being taken for a ride from which he is never going to return, but who has for so long subscribed to the code that ordains his very undoing that it is beneath him, or beyond him, to protest."

We watch as Paul struggles to move past his new knowledge of himself, aided by his beautiful lover Kate, a successful author of a Christian book. Her young daughter, Paul's best friend, and Kate herself find their lives slowly distorted by his blood sin. Spencer uses multiple points of view to show police searching the cul de sacs of the victim's life, led and misled by patient sleuthing and by information discovered by chance, as well as the perspectives of a few who knew the victim.

Paul and Kate are concerned parents, successful in their work, generous to their friends and relatives, thoughtful and kind. Does that matter? Does right living offer a pass on murder? Spencer engages us in the aftermath of crime, exploring the implications that conventional crime fiction usually eschews.

I have but one quibble about this fine book. In a vivid, sad scene, Shep discovers a snake in the house. It's a large but harmless rat snake. Kate is terrified. Paul, who loves the woods and engages in the natural world with joy, feels he has no choice but to kill it and does so, with reluctance. The dead snake is tossed into the bushes and doesn't come up again in the story. What have we here? A heavy-handed metaphor about Eden? Spencer is surely too subtle for that. A second proof that Paul comes up short on problem solving and turns to violence? My reading of Paul is that he would have the wit to pin the snake, grab it behind the head, and toss it outside alive. Perhaps that is the point--he didn't take less lethal action. But he acted like a city person and not the woodsman we are led to believe he is. (If you are snake-averse, skip pages 143-147, but don't skip the book.)

The cliche "complex, fully-rounded characters" is where Spencer begins. Read The Man in The Woods for the wonderful people, for their terrible dilemma, and for the gorgeous language.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Murphy's Diary

8:30 AM Wake up. Hear people moving around. Go back to sleep.

9:00 AM Hear kibble hit food bowl. Think hard. Worth it? Need to pee. No rush.

9:15 AM Crawl out from bed under armchair. Inspect food bowl. Plain kibble? Walk away. Garnished with bits of cheese rind or a dab of gravy? Eat food to reward people. At least they’re trying.

9:20 AM Accept petting and scratching.

9:25 AM First squirrel patrol. Potty time. Raining again.

9:30 AM Time for walk. Nudge woman with nose.

9:31-10:06 AM Nudge. Nudge. Nudge. Takes patience and persistence. It's for her own good.

10:07 AM OMG! Woman is putting on shoes! OMG! OMG!

10:10 AM WTF? Woman is turning on computer. Stare at her with deep disappointment. Bad woman, bad bad. Nudge her with nose. Nudge again. Put front paws on her knees to demonstrate urgency.

10:25 AM OMG! Woman is putting on jacket! Woman has plastic bag! Woman has THE BALL!

10:27 AM Phone rings. Woman answers. Show woman extent of despair by racing in tight circles.

10:35 AM Woman FINALLY hangs up phone. Walks to hall closet! Takes out THE LEASH!

10:36 AM Begin Happy Dance. Leap and frolic. Chew on leash. Yip and prance. Race about. Woman says, “Sit! Stay! Hold still, dammit!” Continue Happy Dance.

10:40 AM Pause. Leash is ON.

10:41-11:30 AM Exercise the woman: walking for her lower body, throwing ball for upper body. Exhausting to keep retrieving ball, but necessary for her health. As usual, she quits too soon. Come home.

11:32 AM Nap. Life is good.

It's hard work to be a responsible dog.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Book review: Tigerland by Eric Dinerstein

Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations, by Eric Dinerstein, makes me want to get myself born again and relive my life as a field biologist. Ah, to spend my days tracking tigers, observing bats, pulling off leeches... I missed my calling.

Dinerstein is Vice President for Science at World Wildlife Fund, US. That's a big, relatively well-funded, well-respected conservation organization active in many countries. Which results in some real limits on Dinerstein's candor, alas, about fellow conservationists. And he shows a great deal about his work, but reveals nothing about his personal life.

Within these limitations, this is a fun and fascinating read about the inner workings of conservation research in many parts of the world. Tigers, bats, snow leopards... He writes about forgotten places such as New Caledonia and the heart-breaking task of protecting its rare plants. Each chapter is a personal experience of a different place.

In addition to making me wish to start my professional life over, Tigerland inspires me to reach for my checkbook. He really makes the case that the people out there in the heat, the dirt, and the endless meetings trying to save the natural world from humanity deserve our support.

Conservation is sloooow work.

Monday, January 3, 2011

MS Word for Authors: Cut & Paste

Here is a tiny tip that might improve your new year a tad. We authors have reason now and again to copy text from a web page, such as to keep a Word file of all our online reviews. One way to do this is simply to highlight the desired text and use the key commands or menu to Copy. Go to your MS Word document, e.g., "My Reviews," and use the key command or menu to Paste. Done!

But the formatting is goofed up. It doesn't look like the usual Normal style text--the font, font size, and other formatting is weird. You need to highlight the text (again) and assign Normal style to it and generally fuss with it.

As an alternative, don't use the standard Paste command. Instead, find the little Paste menu (Vista) or look under File (Windows XP). Select Paste Special. Then choose Unformatted Text. The website text lands in Word without the HTML formatting. Word has no idea what to do with it except to assign it Normal style. Which is what you wanted anyway.

Paste Special is not what you want if you need the graphics on the web page. Use Paste Special/Unformatted Text if all you want is the words.

Experiment with a web page, using both paste methods. Sometimes you will want Paste, sometimes Paste Special will work better.

I'm normal AND I'm special and I'll peck your eyes out if you don't watch it.