All My Puny Sorrows
By Miriam Toews
Miriam Toews’s tragicomic novel of sisterhood, inherited suffering, and death is somehow irresistibly readable. The novel is the story of two sisters, Yolandi and Elfrieda, “enemies who love each other.” Yolandi narrates the book with humor, desperation and self-deprecation. She describes herself as a “social failure” with two children by different fathers and a faltering literary career. In contrast, her sister seems to have it all: a sensational career as a classical pianist, a loving husband and beautiful home. But Elfrieda desperately wants to end her life and Yolandi is determined to keep her alive. Yolandi’s struggle with this conflict is the heart of the book.
Much of Toews’s novel deals with the realities of caring for a loved one with mental illness. Particularly poignant is Yolandi’s battle with hospital staff to ensure that her sister will not be released. She begs the psych ward nurses not to let her sister go for fear that she will again attempt suicide. Yolandi switches between describing the mundane details of family crisis and speculating philosophically on the virtue of keeping alive a sister who wishes to die.
Despite the melancholy subject matter that Toews grapples with her novel is at times funny and refreshing. I particularly adored the mother who is addicted to playing online Scrabble and who confronts the suffering of her life with audacious sass. All My Puny Sorrows is intellectually rewarding and a tiny bit fulfilling on a spiritual level. You may even find it uplifting. After all, life goes on. As Yolandi says, “even if I didn’t wholeheartedly believe in the existence of God it felt good to close your eyes and make a mental list of all the things you were grateful for.”
April 6, 2015
The Other End of the Leash By Patricia McConnell
“The scientist in me is perfectly comfortable with the animal lover in me, and we are both happy to celebrate together the miracle of our relationship with dogs.”
In The Other End of the Leash, author Patricia McConnell explores canine and primate behavior to illuminate the ways that humans and dogs interact. McConnell, an applied animal behaviorist and dog trainer, combines science with love and compassion, informing the reader while also connecting to us as dog lovers.
The central premise of this book is that in order to be better dog owners we not only have to understand what our dogs are trying to say to us, but what we are saying to our dogs with our voices and bodies. A powerful example of how humans and dogs interpret actions differently is the hug. Most dog owners adore wrapping their arms around their furry companion. But for canines this kind of display can be about dominance. Many dogs will “benevolently put up with it” but there are others who won’t tolerate being hugged, especially when they’re already agitated. McConnell argues that our love of dogs and our primate tendencies sometimes work against us despite our best intentions. Strangers will often approach a dog/owner pair and attempt to greet the dog by looking them directly in the eyes, looming forward and extending a hand over the dog’s head. For a shy, nervous dog this can be a terrifying experience. McConnell explains that if we greet dogs the way they do each other--avoiding eye contact, approaching from the side, and petting their chest or chin instead of the top of their head--we’ll have more successful interactions.
McConnell also provides practical tips for training our dogs. Her advice is based not on traditional dog training methods but on meaningful communication with canines. Many owners attempt to teach their dogs using verbal commands while ignoring the messages that we send with our body language. By using verbal and physical communication together McConnell argues that our dogs will be less baffled and therefore happier and better behaved.
The author’s humor and storytelling ability bring to life an otherwise dry subject. I would highly recommend this title, in addition to Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog, as an introduction to canine cognition and training for all dog owners.--Chelsea