August 25, 2014
Elizabeth is Missing
By Emma Healey
This poignant debut novel is equal parts whodunit and a meditation on memory. It is told from the perspective of an 82 year-old woman suffering from increasingly severe dementia. This narrator, Maud, is living on her own at the beginning of the novel, but a “carer” comes frequently to assist her. She relies on handwritten notes to remember things, but still constantly repeats herself to her daughter and makes cup after cup of tea without drinking it. Many of the things she repeats seem senseless at the time, such as asking where the best place to plant summer squash is, but reveal their startling origins in the end.
The plot of the novel jumps back and forth in time from the present to Maud’s childhood in war-torn England, and to the disappearance of her older sister, Sukey. This tragic event defines her life in many ways, something she may not fully realize until 70 years later, when she finds herself still investigating. In the present, she is also concerned for an elderly friend, Elizabeth, who she hasn’t heard from in some time. She becomes relentless in her search for Elizabeth, despite her inability to always remember why she is looking for her, or who she is. She goes to her house several times, even sneaking inside once, and also finds out how to contact her son, who she suspects. In her parallel world of memories, she is still looking for her sister, trying to investigate from the disadvantage of childhood. She looks for clues everywhere she goes, collecting ticket stubs and pieces of broken shells in the dirt, and using her naiveté as a screen through which to interview everyone around.
The characters of the town, their ways of coping with the war, and the town's extreme rationing lend a fascinating historical element to this already rich story.
I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in nontraditional mysteries or psychology. The texture of Maud’s confusing world is terrifying at times, as a possible eventuality for ourselves or our loved ones, but it also has a lyricism to it that reminds us of the magic of everyday routines. Once you start reading, you won’t be able to put this down.
August 12, 2014
Inside of a Dog
By Alexandra Horowitz
“Few celebrate a dog who jumps at people as they approach--but start with the premise that it is we who keep ourselves (and our faces) unbearably far away, and we can come to a mutual understanding.”
Ever since I adopted my dog, Zoe, back in March, I’ve been spending an increasing amount of time in the 636.7 section of our non-fiction stacks. For those uninitiated into the cloistered society of Dewey, that’s the dog book section. Zoe, like all dogs, is partly a mystery. What is she thinking behind those knowing eyes? Does she have thoughts like we do, or is her cognition more of a disarray of olfactory and visual impressions? Can Zoe sense my emotions? Anyone who’s lived with and loved dogs knows that they inspire devotion and fascination in their human companions. Although it’s impossible to learn the truth of a dog’s internal life straight from the source, Alexandra Horowitz gives us her best guess at what it’s like inside of a dog.
Horowitz begins by establishing her credentials. She’s an ethologist, a studier of animal behavior, specializing in canine cognition. More importantly she is a dog person. She peppers this edifying book with personal anecdotes of her beloved dog, Pumpernickel (“Pump”). These stories form the heart of the book. Once we’ve read about the mechanics of a dog’s nose, including the boggling vomeronasal organ (read mega-nose), we then read about the snuffling nose-nudges that Pump used to wake her sleepy human each morning. The book is packed with fascinating illuminations of the dog’s inner life and explains some common befuddling dog behaviors including why they kick and scratch the ground after urinating and what those playful downward-facing-dog poses are all about. Most notably, Horowitz gives readers a glimpse at the dog’s umwelt, “their subjective or ‘self-world.’”
The author also provides her best advice for dog owners: allow your dogs to be dogs. They don’t need to be washed everyday nor should they. Smell is the most important aspect of a dog’s sensory world and it makes up a huge part of their self-identity. They’re dogs…they’re going to bark and sniff butts and do all those doggy things that seem baffling to us (but hopefully not so baffling once you’ve read this book). This is a must read for all dog lovers.
August 4, 2014
Watercolor for the Serious Beginner
By Mary Whyte
Watercolor for the Serious Beginner is an excellent instructional introduction to this artistic medium. The author is an accomplished and well known painter, especially in South Carolina where she resides, working mostly in watercolor. Educated at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, she has published books of her paintings, instructional DVDs, and given numerous workshops.
This particular book is concise and focused. The chapters are divided into materials, fundamentals, starting, still life, landscape, and figures and portraits. Each section gives pointers on techniques and examples of paintings employing those techniques – both her works and those of other painters. The book contains ample demonstrations which a student can follow. She is admittedly influenced by the work of Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, two watercolorists certainly at the top of that game. The WPL has Whyte’s Working South : Paintings and Sketches in its own collection. This is an excellent mirror of her skills and philosophy as an artist.
Whether a serious beginner or an experienced watercolorist this book will have something inspirational for you. The other artists she uses as examples might lead to new discoveries and as she points out, “To create a work of art that is refreshing, imaginative, original, and even surprising, you must reach from within. This is not always as easy as it may sound, since it requires you to know yourself well and identify what truly moves you.”