April 2008

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Animal Stories

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling had a wonderful anthology of trickster tales, The Coyote Road, come out last year with stories from many great authors including Holly Black, Charles de Lint, Kelly Link and Ellen Klages. While several of the tales have animal characters it is the Nebula Award nominated novelette, “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North America After the Change” by Kij Johnson that really blew me away. Johnson takes a relatively simple idea -- that animals have gained the ability to speak -- and takes readers into an emotionally charged arena that is wholly unexpected and exhilarating. Once I realized the hook for this story, I thought it might be funny in a wry or maybe even sophisticated sort of way, but I didn’t think that Johnson would be able to touch my heart so deeply.

I don’t want to get overly maudlin, but Johnson addresses the brave new world in which intelligent dogs communicate with humans in such a serious manner that it gave me a deep reason to pause. (And clearly I wasn’t the only one.) Through the human protagonist, Linna, we meet several stray dogs who are hiding in the local park. Johnson dismisses other animals early on, making it clear this story was about dogs. She also threw the gauntlet down as to how it was going to go with “They could all talk a little, and they could frame their thoughts well enough to talk. Cattle, horses, goats, llamas; rats too. Pigs. Minks. And dogs and cats. And we found that, really, we prefer our slaves mute.”

Linna brings the dogs in North Park food and they tell her stories. The stories are intense and personal, and in all of them it is clear that humans are the villains. The really troubling part is that the humans act like humans do; just one showing of Animal Cops Houston proves Johnson is right on the mark. Linna wants to help the dogs but finds that humans don’t know what to do with them and mostly can’t stand to have them around. She calls the local Humane Society but they are “packed to the rafters.” The problem is, “they tell these stories.” No one, including their former owners, can bear to hear the stories. Johnson speaks directly to the reader at that point, asking why we fear dogs just because they speak. “It is not always fear we run from,” she writes. “Sometimes it is shame.”

Over time Linna becomes closer to the dogs at North Park and more concerned for their safety. When the police arrive at a nearby park to collect the strays there, she learns that the shame they inspire is driving people to do horrible things. The steps from shame to fear to belligerent action are small indeed and because they are now providing constant verbal examples of how poorly humans treat those who are dependent on us the dogs have just got to go. Some shame, Johnson makes clear, apparently can not be lived with.

“The Evolution of Trickster Stories” is a perfect story for classes on the modern short story; it conveys an amazing amount of powerful emotion in such few words and in a truly uncanny way. It’s easy to make you cry over a dead puppy story but to disturb readers this profoundly with talking dogs is really impressive. Johnson has done something majestic here, and kudos to Datlow and Windling for recognizing it.

With the coming-of-age drama Lizard Love, author Wendy Townsend takes a not so unusual story about a tomboy confronting her emerging womanly figure -- and everyone else’s reaction to it -- and adds a subplot about the care and feeding of reptiles that will take the reader by surprise. Grace’s honest interest and affection for these animals is so unusual in YA fiction (let alone a novel aimed at teen girls) that it has continued to stay with me. She grows up loving frogs, bonds with an iguana and saves a snake from death. This girl is some kind of awesome and her struggles and successes are downright inspiring to read.

Grace loves life in her grandparents’ rural home and suffers a broken heart when she and her mother move to New York City. She doesn’t try hard to fit in, rather using her art to flaunt her reptile passion and doggedly sorting out a way to simply survive this new life. It gets a lot better when she stumbles upon the pet shop Fang & Claw, run by the very reptile friendly Walter and his father. Grace has finally found her “people,” and she adopts an iguana.

What I found really interesting about Lizard Love was that while it is very much Grace’s story, every single supporting character is an equally interesting read. Grace’s mother is no typical blow-off parent and Walter’s father weighs in as a decent caring adult as well. Grace’s close friend in the city, Cathy, is a typical teen with a very cute boyfriend who wants Grace to have a cute guy as well. Although she’s not interested in the dating scene, Townsend doesn’t use this to drive a wedge between the girls -- they hang in there because they value their friendship in spite of the differences. Cathy does not like reptiles all that much (nor does Grace like her dog) but they do like each other and the very mature way they weather a few conflicts gives me hope for more kind-hearted (and realistic) portrayals of teenage girl relationships in fiction.

The biggest payoff in the book though is between Grace and Walter. They like reptiles and their parents and they somehow luck into discovering each other. In a lot of ways Walter saves Grace as he shows her that the life she has right in front of her, in the city, is a good life to have. He’s a nice guy and she’s a nice girl and their friendship is artfully celebrated here by the author. Lizard Love is one of those books that I worry might be overlooked if readers are not careful -- seek it out, and share it with the thoughtful teenage girls in your life.

In Laika, his very detailed graphic novel of the first living creature to orbit the earth, Nick Abadzis has written a touching story that is devastating in both its historical accuracy and emotional punch. He starts in a surprising way, with “Kudryavka,” who was found as a stray and became part of the Russian space program. Abadzis reinvents those unknown early years in the dog’s life and the effect is that long before the renamed Laika is placed in her capsule, readers care deeply about this dog. Because of this early section, comparisons to such animal classics as Shiloh, The Incredible Journey and dare I say it, Old Yeller, are spot on. But Abadzis’s book is about far more than a loveable dog; it is about why this dog was sent into space and what that mission meant to so many different people.

Abadzis has a lot of space to work with in Laika and he uses it to flesh out the personalities of all those who took part in the dog’s life. Most significantly he explores the motivations of the Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev, a man who spent time imprisoned in a Siberian gulag under Stalin and had a great deal to prove on the Sputnik project. Korolev is just the man who makes the decisions, however. It is Yelena Dubrovsky, the technician who dealt directly with all the space dogs and Oleg Georgivitch Gazenko, one of the leading scientists in the program who later expressed regret for Laika’s fatal trip who are really the focus of the story. (While Korolev and Gazenko were real, Dubrovsky was not.) Each of them comes to bond with the newly named “Laika” and feel varying degrees of compassion towards her and the other space dogs. At first everyone in the program falls back on a dedication to country and communism as excuses for the difficult decisions involving the animals. It is when the Sputnik II launch is fast-tracked however, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the USSR, that several face crises of conscious. The new timeline leaves no room to design a way for Laika to return to earth; a political gesture thus dooms her to death.

To provide an added dimension to their relationship, Abadzis has Dubrovsky imagine the dogs are talking to her. At one point she pets Albina and Kozyavka, who have just returned from a successful suborbital launch. As she absently asks them what it is like in space, Albina “responds” asking Dubrovsky to “let me out” and “let me go.” These interactions are all the more powerful due to the illustrations which show the dogs looking at her with the trust she has engendered and show the handler clearly wavering in her resolve. Dubrovsky reminds the dog (and herself) of duty and repeats to all of them that she will take care of them. This of course turns out to be the greatest lie of all; the dogs would have done better to never trust their handlers and instead do everything they could to escape. No one was looking out for their best interests, and ultimately, no one ever truly would.

I knew what was going to happen in Laika, but Abadzis still makes it impossible to not feel deeply for this little dog and the people who care about her. Laika died in Sputnik II, just as everyone involved in the project knew would happen. The surprise is that she died so quickly and suffered so much. The Soviets kept the truth about her death a secret for decades but in 2002 revealed that she did not survive past seven hours in the flight. In that time the biometric readings revealed that she suffered a great deal from heat and other trauma. It was a hard end to a life that had been spent doing what others wanted and particularly bitter as it only happened to further illusory political goals and not science. Her story is an amazing one, on many levels, and the treatment it has received in this book is absolutely stellar.

With Dingo Charles de Lint provides another adventure in the growing urban fairy tale canon that has been his domain for so long. This YA novella deviates a bit from his usual animal stories, however, as he does not include the coyote or raven figures his readers are familiar with. From the title it is clear that the protagonist, Miguel, will be dealing with members of the Canidae family. The surprise comes fairly early on as he learns that one particular dog is not at all what it seems, and that another is far more dangerous than his ordinary world would allow. That’s when de Lint’s classic challenge to his characters is presented and Miguel, and some sudden new friends, must stand up in ways normal life would not demand of them.

But that’s the pleasure of reading Charles de Lint; his stories are never about what the rest of us are used to but the lessons you learn from them are the kind that you need in real life everyday.

The book’s protagonist, Miguel, is being raised by his widowed father. He runs a used comics and music store, which should make him some kind of distracted hippie but instead he is a solid, dependable former biker who loved Miguel’s mother to distraction and is now quietly committed to taking care of their son. He’s a great parent and figures prominently in the plot which is always a nice surprise in a YA title.

The story takes off when Miguel meets Lainey, a new girl in town, and her dog Em. Soon he is having some seriously bizarre dreams and struggling to cope with Lainey’s wildly shifting moods. Things get even more complicated when the local bully, Johnny, reveals that he had a relationship with Lainey as well until she shut him down. Miguel can’t figure out how in the world one girl could be attracted to both of them and at the same time he’s worried about Lainey and her controlling stepfather. Her life makes no sense to him and so Miguel pushes for the truth and Lainey resolves to reveal her secrets -- to both of the boys. That’s when the adventure takes off and all those wicked dreams get a whole lot scarier.

Everything de Lint does well is present in Dingo and the teenage girl cover notwithstanding, it should have broad appeal for both male and female readers. Miguel and Johnny in particular are very engaging characters and the way they clash on nearly every plot point keeps you guessing. The dingo story itself is unusual and along with the accompanying Australian folklore it gives the book a unique niche in the urban fantasy genre; I’ve read a lot but this is the first time dogs have acted quite this way. (In other words, this is not your standard werewolf story, thank goodness.) The spin at the climax is a particularly creative one, and shows again how practiced de Lint is at writing what you least expect. You’ve got mystery, romance and dogs -- both good and bad -- in Dingo; it’s a winning combination that should continue the author’s string of teen fans.

Finally, in her poetry collection, A Crossing of Zebras: Animal Packs in Poetry, Marjorie Maddox addresses fourteen different collective nouns used to describe the animal kingdom. From a “rumba of rattlesnakes” to a “crash of rhinos” she has a lot of fun with this concept while also showing how some of these words came into our oral and written tradition. Consider a “pounce of alley cats”:

A pounce of alley cats, a city wall --
Ferocious felines waiting for a brawl

Maddox shows a sharp sense of humor throughout, as when she writes quite literally about a “band of coyotes” and refers to music legends Guthrie, Joplin, Mitchell and Hendrix, or when she points out the “crash of rhinos” bumping their way down a playground slide. Artist Philip Huber’s glorious colorful illustrations fill the opposite page and illuminate the interesting language lesson that Maddox is giving.

There is an excellent note at the conclusion of Zebras explaining how some of the collective nouns came to be: “school of fish” is based on a simple misuse of language and “charm of butterflies” was voted in by the North America Butterfly Association. Maddox also provides a list of web sites and other books on the subject, including James Lipton’s marvelous An Exaltation of Larks which I can’t recommend enough.

As always you can find me at my site, chasingray.com, for more thoughts on good books. And don’t miss my review elsewhere in this issue of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel, an excellent book for teens and adults.

Cool Read: Timothy Decker’s Run Far, Run Fast is a singularly unique book. I hesitate to refer to it as a picture book (in fact Booksense recently listed it, along with Decker’s first book The Letter Home, as a graphic novel) but it does look like one -- or like one as much as Shaun Tan’s The Arrival does. Decker tackles subjects that are suited for the older readers, however -- this time a young girl in the 14th century fleeing the ravages of a deadly “pestilence.” There are few easy answers in Decker’s book (echoing the heavy topics of war and nonviolence he explored in Letter), and humanity is not shown to be as caring and generous as we might collectively claim to be. The most gripping spread in the book -- when the girl’s family is literally locked into their home as neighbors advance with torches -- is horrifying in its simplicity. The needs of the many suggest that these apparently sickened few must be killed to stop the disease. But as the girl runs for her life at the urging of her mother the message is clear -- when the need of the many demand the death of neighbors then really, what horrifying kind of new world order are we saving ourselves for?

In the pages that follow her escape, Decker shows the far spread of the plague and the devastation it has wrought, both in the landscape and among the confused survivors. Eventually the girl meets the narrator who provides her with a promise of help. She returns home on a final mission to determine what happened to her family and then runs again, this time to the promised safe house. The story ends thoughtfully with the hope of waking the next day to “discover what the world wishes to show us…”

Decker is an extraordinarily thoughtful writer and I don’t say that lightly. He wants you to think when you read his books. His spare black and white drawings do not detract from the text, but rather they provide the perfect quiet complement to his unsettling but forthright stories. This is an author who does more than breathe life into history; he dares us to see all of its complexities in an uncompromisingly direct manner. It should be remembered that the girl is not running from the pestilence, but from her neighbors, from people shown to be kind and caring in the opening pages. The message here, although not surprising to 21st century readers, is quite powerful in Run Far, Run Fast, and the author deserves a great deal of praise for sharing it in such an original manner. Well done.