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The Martian

Author: Andy Weir

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2012

I read it: June 2015

martian

This review was originally published on Levi & Laura.

Space is a big deal in pop culture these days, so it’s no surprise that Andy Weir’s hit novel The Martian got good word-of-mouth and a quick movie treatment. It’s the story of an astronaut who accidentally gets left behind on the red planet when his mission goes bust, and the DIY science needed to keep him alive. If you’ve read it as well, chime in on the discussion!

Levi: After hearing a couple recommendations from friends, I think another reason I put my name on the hold list for this book at the library was knowing I’d like to have an opinion on the book before the movie came out. I got partway into it, and then you needed a new book to read too and I just kind of handed it to you one night. What was it like jumping right in? Did you expect any particular sort of story?

Laura: Just like when I saw the movie 127 Hours, I went into this book completely unaware of the plot. I even refused to read the back cover. Good choice! It’s one of those stories that instantly draws the reader in from the first chapter. The fact that the plot seems like an incredibly realistic scenario that could happen in this century made it easy to connect with Mark, and Weir certainly spared no details when it came to the science behind Mark’s plans for survival. Were you surprised when the narrative suddenly switched to the NASA employees back on Earth?

Levi: I think that was a welcome and crucial switch. The beginning of the book is fast and new and enjoyable. Then a little ways in my eyes started to glaze over because regardless of the situation, I knew that Mark Watney would figure out a way to scientifically overcome whatever obstacle it was. I mean, he’s not going to die on page 50, right? So I wondered what else there could be. The main narration is through typed journal logs, and he obviously can’t have another character beside him (unless he goes insane, but this is not a weird paranoia tale like the movie Moon). So when it jumped back to Earth, that was a breath of fresh air and renewed my interest, especially the hardworking and hopeful Venkat Kapoor.

Laura: The characters back on Earth were pretty fun too. Speaking of back on Earth—it was an interesting choice to not mention much about Mark’s personal life back home. There were a couple of brief mentions of his mom and dad, but no love interests or friends that he talks about. I suppose it’s possible that he had devoted his entire life to becoming an astronaut. Still, his ability to remain calm and focused on the tasks at hand for several months without any contact with another human being is the most unrealistic part of this book. I would have liked to see him go slightly insane and put a wig on his computer or make a potato head family to talk to.  What do you think kept him levelheaded in all that time alone on Mars?

Levi: Where was his Wilson?! I thought that over and over. It became particularly troublesome when he finally makes contact with NASA, and he says something along the lines of up until that point he was the loneliest man on the planet. Now there’s a joke in there, because Mark’s a funny guy and of course he’s the only one on the planet, but still, we got precious little of his emotional struggles. The only way I could rationalize it was that he was using his log/journal to talk his way through the myriad survival problems he faced, which is a good use of his time. But then again, he is knowingly funny and rebellious in both his personal entries and his conversations with NASA, so why stop there? Why not lay your heart out? Journal space seems to be the one thing he had in abundance, so I was confused about the lack of true loneliness from this guy. Also: everything he describes made me claustrophobic.

Laura: Good point. It’s not as though his journal entries were solely scientific or personal, more like a blend that he knew or hoped would someday be found and read by his crew mates. I can see how his journal was his only true companion, but I have a hard time believing that would be enough. Throughout the entire book I found myself flipping back and forth between thinking he’ll survive and thinking that he would turn a turn for the worse and the journal entries would get more emotional. His enduring spirit reminded me of Christopher McCandless’s solo journey through the Alaskan wilderness. I think that’s why I had decided Mark would find a terrible fate before a rescue operation could take place.

Levi: That’s a cool comparison. I agree that some sort of emotional plunge would have made the middle of the book better, and I kept holding out for it. Instead it stayed in pure science mode. This is the hardest of “hard” sci-fi you can get, and it’s an impressive feat to be sure. I suppose if you were to ask, what’s the most realistic way to tell about someone who is stranded on Mars, then this might be it. But sometimes it feels more like an elaborate thought experiment with the goal of just explaining the creative scientific solutions. But if you were to ask, what’s the best story someone could possibly tell about a person on Mars, then is this it? I hesitate to say yes. Anyway, I did enjoy how the ending made me fret for his life in an urgent way, and you have to get to the very last pages to see what happens.

Laura: I have a feeling Ridley Scott will do a better job of appealing to our emotional sides than Andy Weir, who is a self-proclaimed nerd. Speaking of the movie—have you seen the trailer yet? I bet you’re itching to press play now that we’ve gotten our thoughts down on paper the blog!

Levi: I’ve managed to delay my viewing, but give me a few minutes and I’ll get to it…

Laura: First thought: the casting is pretty good. Jeff Daniels at NASA and Jessica Chastain as Commander Lewis? Couldn’t be a better fit. Damon’s cool too. Didn’t we just see him alone on a planet in Interstellar?

Levi: Looks like they gave him a wife and kid! I admit I got the shivers. Wow, that cast is stacked. Okay, so my Damon thoughts are generally, do we really need a good-looking A-lister in the central role? Can’t we take a risk on a nerdy, weird-looking dude who has to earn the audience’s empathy? Matt Damon comes with built-in charm and loveableness. It’s too easy. More specifically: you’re right about the Interstellar thing. He was the big “secret” cast member who was revealed to be an astronaut… alone… struggling to find a way off a planet. Why does Damon get to have all the space fun? Eh, whatever. I’m more concerned about the tone of the movie. The instantly catchy “science the shit out of this” line is delivered against a huge booming score instead of a fun jaunty ditty that it deserves. The movie might just sap the humor out of everything.

ANYWAY. I’ll still go see the film, and it was a fun, unique book to read. Final question: would you ever try space travel (potential violent death aside)?

Laura: Hells to the no. Kudos to those who are willing to shoot off to space in a rocket going a bajillion miles per hour then spend weeks or months floating around eating freeze-dried “food” for nutrition and getting all atrophied up in their muscles. Or whatever they do. There would be some things that would be pretty cool to try in zero gravity, and the view can’t be beat, but I would just miss you and I-man too much. Thanks, but no thanks!

Levi: There you have it, folks. Sometimes exploration is best left to the experts…like novelists and filmmakers. You can go to Mars and still sleep in your own bed.

Music corner: There are quite a few cool songs about space, and some were even mentioned in the book (David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” of course). But there were a couple very recent tunes I had in mind while reading this: “On the Way” by Built to Spill and “Red Planet” by Alvvays. Groove ’em.

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2015 in Novels

 

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Saga, Volume Four

Author: Brian K. Vaughan

Artist: Fiona Staples

Type: Fiction, comic

Collects issues: 19-24

Published: 2014

I read it: May 2015

saga4

While retaining its grandiosity, this volume brings the story closer to what it has worked to be from the beginning: a domestic tale. It’s still set against a backdrop of political upheaval, but the core arc features Marko as a stay-at-home dad (with a couple family nannies) and Alana working a crap job as an entertainer to put food on the table.

“From the moment it’s formed, a family is almost always under attack.” This is one of baby Hazel’s observations, alluding to the dangers of a woman at the park who befriends Marko, and equally applicable to Alana’s budding drug problem. Hazel’s narrations edge a bit closer to the fourth wall with each volume, offering wide ideas like:

Characters are supposed to have ‘arcs,’ where they grow and evolve over the course of the story.

In the real world, people never change that much.

Grownups, anyway.

This is accurate for the current story, in which Alana remains gratingly reactionary (she’s the type of person I’d never want to hang out with in real life, but it makes her believable if nothing else) and Marko is mopey and selfish. The volume benefits from limiting the number of new characters (including one new baby whose page one entrance you can’t miss), and with all the important characters established the table is pretty well set for the everyone to interact in interesting ways. The Saga continues.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2015 in Comics

 

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Oryx and Crake

Author: Margaret Atwood

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: MaddAddam (#1)

Published: 2003

I read it: May 2015

oryx

Snowman opens his eyes, shuts them, opens them, keeps them open. He’s had a terrible night. He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.

The past and the present are a constant torture for Snowman, as in both Abominable (because of his mythological status to his not-quite-human neighbors) and a melting figure (as he wastes away trying to survive in a forest near a beach). When he’s not working to find food and avoid wolvogs and pigoons, he’s reminiscing about Oryx whispering in his ear. This was when he was Jimmy, though it wasn’t that long ago. Oryx was a person with a rocky past, a strange dream somehow turned into reality for Jimmy. And Crake was the closest thing to his best friend, an ambitious genius who simultaneously helped end society and start a new one.

There’s a lot going on in Oryx and Crake, not all of it comfortable to read about, but Atwood pulls it off by keeping things personal. The twin narratives of present-Snowman and past-Jimmy are equally peculiar in their connections to a world we know but yet is noticeably different. Jimmy’s time is a not-too-distant future from our own in which the lucky and educated live in isolated research communities. His home is within the compound of OrganInc, one of many companies that does genetic research. (Atwood’s creation of mashed-up words and catchphrases can be piercing or silly, but “OrganInc” is one of the great ones. It calls to mind the obvious “organic,” but also “organ” as in the growth or transplants of body parts.) Jimmy struggles to understand his distant and fighting parents, and his mom becomes a liability to his closely monitored existence. In high school, he meets the clever Crake, though they waste most of their time getting consumed by various internet distractions, interspersed with playing strategic two-player games that mimic broad cultural patterns, sort of like role-playing versions of Risk.

Snowman, on the other hand, is almost a separate being entirely. He’s the only human left after some huge catastrophe decimated most of Earth, or at least his portion of it. His task is to loosely oversee the Crakers, relatively simple humanoid beings who have a peaceful colony on the beach. Why are they named after Crake? Why do they worship both him and Oryx? These are the overarching questions that the dual timelines work toward, and they are fully answered by the end of the book. The big ideas are about the collapse and rebirth of a society, and the devastating yet creative hand humans have in genetic technologies. Someone once quipped that humans are just one generation away from returning to the stone age. That is, because most of our progress is taught and learned and recorded, but not possible to really internalize, if something were to blow it all up tomorrow we’d have to start from scratch (ijndustrially, scientifically, philosophically) and might not be able to get back to where we are now. Frightening stuff.

The book grips with its intellectual muscle, but it’s not a perfect story. Jimmy is sometimes too traditional a moody protagonist, which works in his high school chapters and on into some college, but the whole thing wears a bit by the end. I found it hard to care about his string of failed relationships and his adult ennui. It’s realistic, I suppose, but totally kills the momentum. Crake is intriguing, but struggles to break out of the loner genius trappings. The whole story of Oryx is dark and challenging, and I found myself wanting to both read on and turn away in disgust. I’m not sure yet what I really think of the decision to give her that sort of past.

Atwood is a highly linguistic writer, in that she can never turn away from the idea of words themselves and what they mean to us. This results in plenty of little treats, such as the aforementioned “OrganInc” or a facility called “Paradice” which uses a single letter to swing the meaning toward chance and risk. She can’t resist opportunities like this:

The prospect of his future life stretched before him like a sentence; not a prison sentence, but a long-winded sentence with a lot of unnecessary subordinate clauses, as he was soon in the habit of quipping during Happy Hour.

Atwood channels her own language play into a self-awareness that her too-smart characters use as defense mechanisms.

All told, I think I enjoyed this book because I knew that it was the first installment in a trilogy. I kept wondering if it would have worked as a novel on its own and I think…maybe? But the thematic vistas are too wide to be contained here, and there must be more characters who have a hand in this world. Will Snowman even be involved in the next book? Will we learn more about Oryx and Crake or do we already have enough to go on? As one of the passages in the last few pages goes: “Can a single ant be said to be alive, in any meaningful sense of the word, or does it only have relevance in terms of its anthill?” It remains to be seen if the anthill can be rebuilt, and whether it will even be constructed by “ants” at all.

I like not knowing what is to come.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2015 in Novels

 

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The Lost World

Author: Michael Crichton

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1995

I read it: May 2015 (re-read)

lost world

The story goes that Michael Crichton was persuaded to write a sequel to Jurassic Park right on the heels of the first movie’s success. Was this a good idea? Well…

Let’s start with the biggest hurdle: Ian Malcolm as the protagonist. Presumed dead after the events of the first book, he’s mostly healed with a limp to show for his leg wound. I suppose I can get past the revival, which this write-up by The A.V. Club ingeniously summarizes with: “It seems that when millions of dollars are at stake, then truly, life finds a way.” But I wonder why it’s necessary to have Malcolm return at all. Is it just to be able to structure the book based on his “configurations,” exactly like the first book’s “iterations”? This only serves to make the disasters of the story a foregone conclusion. Once again, Malcolm warns against the humans’ abilities to survive, and once again everything goes to hell.

Further similarities make this sequel feel all too much like a retread. There are two kids who stow themselves away and end up on the island (Site B). They are bright but overlooked by the adults, and one of them is good with computers. Where have we seen this before? As for the adults, Sarah Harding is a pretty solid female character and Levine is memorable as the whiny genius intellectual who has to be shaken into reality when things go bad. Other than that, the other male characters all blur and seem to matter little. This is evidenced by at least two deaths occurring that the survivors don’t seem to give proper gravity toward. I find it hard to believe that even the selfish Levine would continue to collect data after someone is torn to pieces in front of him.

The dinosaurs are nifty and Crichton writes some crunchy death scenes. The pachycephalosaurs get some good page space while they demolish one of the vehicles. The focus on the animals taking care of their young is a big plot point, and the mystery is how the small island can support a lot of predation. (Malcolm and others find clever ways to hypothesize, but the poetic waxing by the end is overdone.) The broad plot points hew too closely to the first book here too, because the T-rexes and the raptors fill up a lot of the story. The trailer scene with the baby T-rex is quite good though, and the parent dinosaurs trying to push the trailer over the cliff is exciting.

How does the book compare to the movie? While The Lost World movie falls pretty short of Jurassic Park, it improves on the book in most ways that matter. In the movie, Malcolm has a believable motivation for being forced onto the island: he wants to rescue his girlfriend, Sarah. They are somewhat dating in the book, but Malcolm actually goes to the island to save Levine, even though Levine is a complete ass who voluntarily put himself in harm’s way—it’s hard to buy that Malcolm wants to save him. It’s also cool that  in the movie, Kelly is Malcolm’s daughter. The movie handles the baby T-rex and trailer scene really well, but tanks hard with that terrible ending sequence.

But we come back to the issue that the book and movie both share, and that is Ian Malcolm at center stage. It just doesn’t work well. He’s a better secondary character, and he can’t hold together either the book or the movie. In the book, the same thing happens to him as in Jurassic Park. And I mean the same thing: he hurts his leg and lays around while others administer morphine and plot to save the group. Malcolm gets to rant semi-coherently about big ideas that mostly don’t stand up to scrutiny. The stakes are the same as well: a few unimportant characters will probably die, the most evil of them will certainly die, and the important ones definitely won’t die. For some reason, characters are always passing out and then coming to a few chapters later. That’s the limit of the suspense.

Although: there’s that one scene of Sarah and Kelly on a motorcycle chasing a raptor. Sarah’s driving while instructing Kelly how to shoot a paralyzing dart at the fleeing animal while they are doing 70 or so. How’s that for passing the Bechdel test? The visual is excellent, and if all Jurassic World can conjure is Andy Dwyer riding a motorcycle, then someone has wasted an opportunity to use the best moment from this entire book. There aren’t a whole lot of memorable ones.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2015 in Novels

 

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Jurassic Park

Author: Michael Crichton

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1990

I read it: April 2015 (re-read)

jurassic

This review was originally published on The Stake.

Somewhere near Costa Rica, a helicopter cuts through the mists of Isla Nublar. A group of scientists has been summoned by an eccentric billionaire who wants them to tour his unique destination. It’s part zoo, part amusement park, and all wonder. But when the main attractions turn out to be prehistoric beasts, the visitors get more than they bargained for…

You know the rest of the story. This is a book review, but it’s impossible to discuss Jurassic Park the book (1990) outside the lens of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movie (1993). The movie is just too iconic, too damn good, to set to the side. It’s like The Wizard of Oz of its time: so dazzling that you forget there ever was a book as source material.

But what must it have been like to read the book upon publication, a few years before it hit the silver screen? (If anyone out there had this experience, please fill me in.) It’s possible that Michael Crichton singlehandedly put the awe of dinosaurs back into the public consciousness. He drew heavily from research happening up through the eighties, and made an obvious effort to reframe dinosaurs as more than the slow lumbering reptiles we knew from children’s book illustrations.

Today, we instantly know when Brontosaurus is reinstated as a proper genus, but decades ago I’d imagine that outside of academia only National Geographic subscribers might be clued in to current dinosaur models. I picture a general populace having stagnated on what dinosaurs could do—what they even were—and then BAM, Jurassic Park brings everyone up to speed in a dizzying rush.

So in the book, what can the dinos do? All the stuff you see on screen: run, jump, think, attack in coordination, not have to stand in swamps to support their weight. There are other oddities that may be scientifically questionable, such as the “he can’t see us if we don’t move” concept, which isn’t isolated to the T-rex but applies to all the dinosaurs due to their “amphibian visual cortex.” Some dinosaurs change colors like chameleons. Many have forked tongues like modern reptiles (indeed the creatures are often referred to as “reptiles” in the text, which could be a reflection of how the humans perceive the them). Crichton’s geneticist Henry Wu sums it up nicely:

The dinosaurs were as variable as mammals are today. Some dinos are tame and cute, and some are mean and nasty. Some of them see well, and some of them don’t. Some of them are stupid, and some of them are very, very intelligent.

What dinosaurs are, and especially what these particular recreated dinosaurs are, is something the book has room to explore a bit deeper than the movie. The first thing that jumps out is an answer to the huge question, why would anyone create carnivores in the first place? Why not just stick with the (relatively) safe herbivores? Because until the eggs were hatched in the lab, the scientists usually did not know which species they were getting. It was a guessing game, and Wu gets a lot of page space to explain how it’s all an ongoing experiment, with more refinements needed. These dinosaurs are patented versions, with upgrades being worked on in the next batch. That’s a tidy enough explanation for me.

There’s a broader point too, one that calls into question the entire plot of the upcoming Jurassic World movie. The trailers seem to play upon modern fears around genetically modified organisms, as if creating a “new” species is somehow much stupider than creating a Tyrannosaurus rex. (Well, it’s still stupid because it’s a carnivorous predator.) But as pointed out in the original novel, all the dinosaurs are lab creations, with the necessary tweaks and supplements that the process entails. John Hammond, who concocted the whole scheme, desperately wants to see them as the real thing, but Wu and others argue that this is clearly false. The frog DNA filling in the gaps in the sequence is just one example. Foreseeing some of the dangers, Wu actually wanted to create slower and more docile animals that would be considerably different than their ancient predecessors, yet Hammond would have none of it. Are the dinosaurs “real”? The question remains open.

Generally, the 1993 movie hews quite closely to the book’s events. Almost all the memorable scenes are in the book in some form, with the exception of the suspenseful moment on the electrified fence which was added. Then there are the nuggets that made their way into the movie sequels. The book has the little girl getting bit by a compy on the beach, as well as the T-rex peeking through a waterfall, which both ended up in The Lost World. A pterosaur attack and handling dinosaur eggs were reimagined for Jurassic Park III.

Michael Crichton had a hand in the original movie’s screenplay, and the scriptwriters made all the right story choices. They dismissed the book’s ongoing plotline about stray dinosaurs being stowaways on a ship headed for the mainland, which never seems important to the reader. And the book’s closing sequences are some of the least plausible, with Alan Grant and others choosing to put themselves back in harm’s way. It’s written as if Crichton wanted one last chance to drive home the bird migration concept by showcasing it with a pack of raptors, but the film’s graceful cut to soaring pelicans is more effective.

The characters in the book are recognizable from their movie counterparts, with small variations. Grant is pragmatic and computer-averse, but he does like kids. Ellie is fully capable, but is Grant’s student instead of romantic partner. Tim and Lex are in on the action, though their ages are reversed. Harding the vet, Arnold the control room boss, and Nedry the sloppy nerd are fleshed out little more than their job descriptions demand. Other cutouts include Muldoon the whiskey-chugging big game hunter and Gennaro the fussy, oblivious lawyer. Apart from the setup chapters, the movie only cuts out one character, Ed Regis, whose role just gets mashed into Gennaro’s.

Really, the book is the Hammond vs. Malcolm show. Both are starkly more obnoxious than their movie versions. John Hammond is an unbending idealist to the very end, refusing to see reason even after the bloodbath. He simultaneously pines for the look on children’s faces when they visit his future attraction while actively disliking his own grandchildren who are trying to avoid getting eaten by his creations. Ian Malcolm is the know-it-all, “rock star” mathematician (it’s science fiction, folks) who doubles as a quasi-environmentalist. The broad chapter divides are structured around Malcolm’s chaos theory, and it’s clear early on that he is right about the oncoming disaster. By the time he pontificates during his morphine high, perfectly willing to deliver speeches while the group is still in crisis, you’re ready to chuck the book aside even if you mostly agree with him. Yes, our hubris will be our undoing. No, we don’t always stop to think things through. Good to go.

But this book was never about the humans. Introducing Velociraptor to our culture has to be Michael Crichton’s crowning achievement. He built his plot around this fascinating species, which prove to be even more terrifying than the T-rex (the opening description of which has the creature waving its small arms in frustration, and who is eventually brought down by tranquilizers, poor guy). The raptors breed like crazy in the books—at least 37 are recorded by the park’s computers—and do all sorts of creative damage until getting outsmarted by Alan Grant. The movie launched the swift predators into household name status, and now it’s hard to imagine a pop culture world sans raptors. So much the better.

To get down to it: is the book worth a read? Yes, because it’s quick and has a bunch of awesome stuff about dinosaurs. It’s good, not great. Crichton writes swiftly and economically, with a penchant for using italics and exclamation points so you don’t accidentally miss the exciting parts. He has two primary interests: offering up intellectual candy about the possibilities and dangers of science, and showing off the dinos themselves. There’s a lot of action, so it was primed for the movie treatment. The film not only elevated the best dinosaur scenes, but had a rock solid cast who injected personality in all the right ways. It’s a modern classic.

Yet the book deserves high honors for being the thing that caused Jurassic Park the movie to exist. Seldom comes a time when science fact and fiction lean so closely together and then explode into the public consciousness by way of pop culture. Thanks to Crichton’s novel and the subsequent film, dinosaurs were made cool again, and that attitude has yet to deflate. I expect to find myself in a theater seat soon, eyes glued to the screen for the next dino adventure.

Music corner: The movie has inspired a few notable tunes, such as the primary track (not to mention cover art) to Weird Al’s Alapalooza, one of my first great cassette tape loves. But the moving score of the original film has been most notably covered in this stunning tribute, which happens to be my favorite YouTube clip of all time.

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2015 in Novels

 

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Shutter, Volume One: Wanderlost

Author: Joe Keatinge

Artist: Leila del Duca

Type: Fiction, comic

Collects issues: 1-6

Published: 2014

I read it: May 2015

shutter1

There’s no getting around it: Shutter is a lot like Saga. On some future version of Earth that might as well be another planet for all the strange creatures involved, a woman gets thrown into an unwitting adventure. She’s chased across multiple issues by a number of assassins with mysterious motives. There’s a lot of action, emotion, weird violence, and family issues. There’s even a creative feline sidekick: this time it’s Alarm Cat instead of Lying Cat.

There are differences, of course. Kate Kristopher is a (supposed) only child whose father was a great adventurer but died on a mission with her ten years back. She never wants to talk about her mother. She doesn’t have kids, and her life is kind of ho-hum because it’s pretty normal. Everything gets shaken up within a few pages, and then we’re off to the races. Kate has action hero skills but doesn’t really use her camera much. She does carry it around a bit, so I guess that’s why it’s called Shutter.

This type of storytelling is like Adventure Time for adults (well, plenty of adults like that show, me included, but you know what I mean). That is to say, the world is filled with any type of talking creature you can imagine, and anything can happen at any time. It makes for a fun and disorienting read. At first I thought this style was specific to Saga, but now I’m wondering if it’s just a pattern in modern comics. We shall see. I’ll probably continue to read both titles whenever the library gets around to acquiring the next volumes.

 
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Posted by on May 29, 2015 in Comics

 

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What the Dog Knows

Author: Cat Warren

Type: Non-fiction, single subject, memoir

Full title: What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs

Published: 2013

I read it: April 2015

dog

“For him, human death is a big game.”

This is the way Cat Warren introduces how her German Shepherd, Solo, views his work. (That’s him on the book cover.) It’s mostly play. After trudging through a swamp for hours looking for a body, Solo gets rewarded with a tug toy and the praise of his master. He’s a body-recovery dog, also known as “body dog” or “cadaver dog.” For Warren, training a cadaver dog was not in the plan. But after she got Solo, the only of his litter, she found this path because this big rambunctious dog needed something to do. A purpose.

Though the subtitle suggests a more general analysis of all working dogs, the book is about Warren’s personal journey with Solo through the cadaver work world. She notes humorously:

I know cadaver dogs are an esoteric branch off the working-dog tree, as well as an acquired taste. If someone turns up her nose, I change the subject to politics.

To be clear, cadaver dogs train for the specific purpose of finding dead bodies. Ideally they are distinct from dogs searching for lost people who are most likely alive, though city budgets often force K9 units to train their dogs for a variety of tasks. The book does a great job of showing how the life of a working dog handler is almost fully consumed by the work, and how the dogs are similar to or different from regular pets:

It’s critical that a working dog be able to lead, to independently decide where and how to search, instead of timidly looking to the handler for cues. It is the inverse of a relationship that most trainers suggest we have with our household pets.

This hobby/profession is a powerful mix of art and science. Warren describes other animals that research organizations have tried to train for “scent work” but none are all around as effective as the dog. This probably has a lot to do with the tight co-evolution of dogs and humans, which caused dogs to have the one thing that helps most: that eager need to please. A trained dog wants a happy handler. Warren has no disillusions about what a dog can and can’t do. She goes to lengths to emphasize that a dog’s nose is not perfect and people shouldn’t expect the body to be found every time. But they are pretty great tools for the job at hand:

Good dogs seem to move through a kind of complex decision tree on difficult searches: “This, not that,” “Up, not down,” and “That thing doesn’t belong here, but it’s not the thing I’m looking for.” Although dogs aren’t perfect, they adapt to a variety of search conditions.

Trained as a journalist, Warren keeps a skeptical mind and weighs all the research she can find as she takes this journey with Solo. A lot of it is spotty, and a lot just plain wrong. (I love her jabs at Animal Planet when they claimed the bloodhound has a nose “up to a million times more sensitive than that of humans.” She responds: “I’m not making this up. Animal Planet is.”) She does uncover a lot of other factoids from better research, always up to revision of course. One is the statistic that “a sniffing dog breathes in between 140 to 200 times a minute, compared to a dog out for a stroll, breathing at thirty times a minute.” Regardless of how much the dogs enjoy their task, she makes sure to illustrate the “work” in “working dogs.”

So a woman named Cat wrote the book on cadaver dogs. It’s a pretty fascinating little slice of modern life. But this is also just as much a memoir about a woman and her dog, not unlike the different but also wonderful Pack of Two. Warren weaves together the internal and the external in a graceful blend that is real without being sappy. The university professor comes out through a bunch of little epigraphs in front of chapters and sections, and the reader gets to know Solo as much as anyone can know a dog without meeting them in real life. People interested in just dogs or just forensics would find this a satisfying read. It makes you want to get outside, but be careful. You never know what your pup might uncover when they bound down into a weed-covered ditch.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2015 in Memoir, Non-fiction single subject

 

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