Monthly Archives: May 2012

Summer reading aspirations … and inspirations

The Little Shadows, by Marina Endicott

The cottage dock is beckoning. When I wander down to it for a lazy afternoon of refreshing beverages, relaxing and reading, I aim to have some of these books in my tote bag. These are all titles that have been calling to me from the tbr pile for some time:

  • Tell It to the Trees, by Anita Rau Badami
  • The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey
  • The Little Shadows, by Marina Endicott
  • Canada, by Richard Ford
  • Killdeer, by Phil Hall  ✔
  • Monoceros, by Suzette Mayr
  • How to Read the Air, by Dinaw Mengestu
  • Magnified World, by Grace O’Connell
  • The Juliet Stories, by Carrie Snyder  ✔
  • Night Street, by Kristel Thornell  ✔

These ones aren’t dock books, but ones I want to enjoy on my porch in Toronto … and with a TTC pass nearby so I can leap up, inspired, to go exploring:

  • Stroll, Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto, by Shawn Micallef
  • Seen Reading, by Julie Wilson  ✔

Of course, it’s all subject to change, whim, fancy and recommendations from my erudite and persuasive book friends. What are your summer reading aspirations … and inspirations?

(As I read them, I’m ticking them off my list …   ✔)

Believing Cedric, by Mark Lavorato

Believing Cedric, by Mark Lavorato

Writer Mark Lavorato sets several daunting challenges for himself with the ambitious Being Cedric. His title character Cedric Johnson, middle-aged insurance broker, variously estranged from family, friends and former associates, isn’t particularly sympathetic – which is fine and true to life and all, but then perhaps something else might be needed to draw readers in. There are other characters with which one can establish some interest or understanding, but none of those characters are involved and sustained throughout the story.

Then there’s the matter of Cedric’s rather unique problem: the readers is to believe he is having physical flashbacks to key moments in his past, going back as far as childhood. He can’t change the outcome of those events, but he can view and assess them in the moment with full knowledge of their impact and the presumed wisdom of age. Can this problem come to attain some symbolic heft, transcend gimmickry to achieve something more profound? Early on this strange journey, the reader might be piqued but not entirely certain.

So, Lavorato’s writerly dilemmas in turn create some considerable challenges for his readers. Those challenges freight the book with vaguely discordant notes well into the first several segments, each consisting of a few stanzas of poetry and two prose pieces set in different time frames. However, readers who persevere with this somewhat cumbersome structure and at times thorny novel/linked short stories hybrid will be rewarded with the book’s surprising emotional payoff.

Is it a spoiler of sorts to suggest that with each successive chapter or segment, it becomes increasingly likely that while he’s the title character, Cedric isn’t the protagonist? It’s an interpretation that does help to remove the distraction of Cedric and his predicament and get to the heart of some more interesting character studies, such as his third-grade teacher, a former landlady, a disgruntled ex-business partner, an emergency room physician and most poignantly, his estranged daughter. Those character studies, while uneven, offer some absorbing and satisfying moments in this book.

While they’re meant to be part of the connective tissue of the book, the poetry sequences in each chapter suffer from unwieldy structure and phrasing in places, not really deepening our understanding of the related prose sections. Interestingly, the most stirring poetry in the book isn’t in these sequences, but in a discussion about human connection and poetry towards the end of the book, which includes this soaring evocation:

“Poetry is being deaf to the extravagant choir that is behind you, below you, above you. But singing anyway. It is the collective and soundless cacophony of our solitary melodies, which is humming, even now, ringing in our ears with its almost perfect silence.”

Perhaps that’s the clue. Whether intentional or not, the awkward poetry sequences end up being a lovely illustration of what a spiritual panacea writing poetry can be. Writing poetry seems to have been comforting and clarifying for at least one of the characters brushed by Cedric in his earthly and unearthly travels. By the same token, whether intentional or not, the at best glancing connections from chapter to chapter are a form of mourning for connections lost or never really made. It makes it worth forging to the end of this uneven but intriguing and at times touching book.

Thank you to Brindle & Glass and the author for providing a review copy of Believing Cedric, by Mark Lavorato.

Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz

Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz

In learning to slow down to better appreciate my dogs’ perception of our shared world, Alexandra Horowitz has also taught me to slow down for my own benefit. It’s no longer too cold, I’m no longer too tired, I’m no longer in a roaring hurry to get home to watch the “At Issue” panel (and probably raise my blood pressure anyhow), if my dogs need to take measure of the world through their own gauges, via some good, long, ruminative sniffs.

In its absorbing and entertaining examination of the unique human-canine bond, Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog charmingly balances the scholarly and scientific with the personal and whimsical. This is one of my favourite explorations of how dogs and people can so effectively, happily and affectionately co-exist.

Human and animal cognition expert Horowitz spells out in down to earth fashion a practical and enlightening approach to optimally and respectfully sharing our lives with another species. Her science/technical examination of differences between wild and domesticated species and their perceptions of their lives and the lives of those with whom they share their existence is accessible without feeling oversimplified or condescending. She couples it with a sweet, wistful personal recounting of the dogs in her life, which serves to illustrate and underpin the scientific themes without ever feeling forced or cloying.

Horowitz tackles concepts that are certainly thought provoking for dog owners and lovers, but I’m guessing (because I can’t be other than a dog lover) are also instructive to other animal lovers or others just interested in our relationship to the species with whom our paths cross. Most elucidating is the discussion about umwelt as distinct from the dangers of anthromorphizing, where we attribute human characteristics and reactions to animal behaviour, and allow that interpretation to inform how we train, interact with and attempt to understand our pets. Umwelt, on the other hand, accounts for different creatures with different physiology, sensibilities, experiences and more processing and reacting to the same environment in very divergent ways.

Umwelt is an important concept in The Tiger, the acclaimed non-fiction bestseller by John Vaillant. Vaillant uses the concept to pointedly avoid characterizing the behaviours of the tiger in the story as having human motivations, such as the urge for revenge, and weaves that appreciation of different interpretations of the same world and circumstances into a compelling tale and environmental paean.

Horowitz dials down the application of umwelt to the small, the domestic, the practical, but still with a profundity surprisingly comparable to Vaillant’s.

The parcel of scientific facts we have collected allows us to take an informed imaginative leap inside of a dog – to see what it is like to be a dog; what the world is like from a dog’s point of view.

We have already seen that it is smelly; that it is well peopled with people. On further consideration, we can add: it is close to the ground; it is lickable. It either fits in the mouth or it doesn’t. It is in the moment. It is full of details, fleeting, and fast. It is written all over their faces. It is probably nothing like what it is like to be us.

Horowitz literally illustrates how warmly approachable Inside of a Dog is. While making notes of scientific observations of dog behaviour, she was often inclined to doodle and the results depicted her subjects. She incorporates many of those whimsical line drawings throughout the book, forging a heartwarming connection with every reader and fellow dog lover.

Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz

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