Sunday, October 13, 2013

Dog On It

Spencer Quinn's series of detective stories narrated by the dog Chet gives new meaning to the expression, "It's a dog's life." What makes these novels so addictive, aside from just the wit and entertainment provided, is the chance to see life from a dog's point of view. And, as Chet would say, "Life is good." He doesn't have to worry about the finances of the Little Detective Agency being in a mess (his human partner, Bernie, doesn't seem to worry much, either). Such worries as he does have evaporate as soon as a treat or a scent or a pat on the head intervenes. It's nice to put yourself in his paws, so to speak.

In this book, the first of the series, Bernie and Chet have to find a missing teenage girl whose parents are divorced. The plot has some of the same elements as The Sound and the Furry, with Chet at some point being separated from Bernie and at another point playing a key role in rescuing him.

In both cases of separation, Quinn reminds you how vulnerable dogs are in a human world. It is not really that hard to restrain them and once restrained, they are limited in how they can react. Then, if they do manage to escape and rejoin their human master -- as Chet presumably always succeeds in doing -- they can't tell you anything about it.

The climax in both books comes when Chet gets a chance to spring, literally, into action. This of course, as we know from Rin Tin Tin, is where dogs come into their own. Their speed, their strength, their single-mindedness is what makes them such formidable partners. Teeth help, too.

All that said, I will try to take a break from the series, partly to keep from finishing them off too quickly and partly to keep that endearing freshness. I did read the little squib e-short story, "A Cat Was Involved," which fills in the back story of how Chet and Bernie met. However, it was a half-baked effort to cash in on the series popularity and the story actually worked better when it was suggestive, rather than have all the details filled in.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

God's Crucible

This nonfiction book by David Levering Lewis is subtitled "Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215," so it illuminates what we treated only briefly in school as the Dark Ages. Lewis's dense narrative is authoritative and comprehensive, and I found what I read of it intriguing and enlightening.

However, it is a dry and essentially academic book so my sessions usually ended with me falling asleep in the chair and I was only able to read "in" it. Some of our book club members were much more thorough. They generally concluded it is indeed interesting to see that period of Europe from the "other" side, but found Lewis a bit too glowing in his descriptions of Islam's contributions and a bit too negative about Europe.

When one of our members read a passage about how Europe might have been happier if Charles Martel had lost at Poitiers, given the years of feudalism that lay ahead in Europe, my question was whether now in the 21st century one would be happier in Europe or Saudi Arabia. In both cases, there has been an organic evolution from the 8th century. Nor was the intervening period in Europe without its accomplishments.

I can't say whether this book explains where Islam went wrong, but no one in the group mentioned any explanations. In discussing how much further advanced the Muslims were in the arts and sciences than Western Europe in this period, I made the point that everyone was more advanced -- the Byzantines, the Alexandrians, and the Persians whose defeat opened up the Middle East for the Islamic jihad. There is no indication that something intrinsic about Islam lends itself to creativity and innovation in the social sciences -- rather the opposite.

The book launched us into a discussion about the influence of religion in general. Why are the major religions that still dominate globally all so old? Does religion really drive events or do political leaders use religion to bind and motivate their followers? We agreed that religion as a touchstone of ethical values and as community were probably as important as belief in the supernatural in perpetuating these old and often reactionary institutions.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Sound and the Furry

I'm hooked. Hokey as the books may sound, Spencer Quinn's Bernie and Chet series, narrated by the canine member of the partnership, Chet the Jet, has captivated me.

It's not only Quinn's rendering of the doggy viewpoint, which is something of a tour de force, it is the Carl Hiassen-level humor he employs in narrating his simple mysteries. I use the plural, even though I've only read the one, the latest, because I'm confident the same mastery is maintained throughout the series.

It is of course a sleight of hand to have a dog narrate a story using vocabulary much more sophisticated than what he professes to not understand in the dialogue. But like any good illusionist, Quinn distracts you from this conundrum with his portrayal of Chet living in the moment, losing his thread of "thought," getting distracted by anything remotely resembling food. There is Chet's total lack of self-awareness, so that even as he's narrating the story he becomes aware of his instinctive actions -- barking, growling, snatching a chicken wing, carrying a straw hat away with him -- only when Bernie calls him on it.

Anyone who has spent time with a dog, interacted with a dog, or who just likes animals can't help but appreciate the consistency with which Quinn portrays the simple joie de vivre of the narrator. Whatever depredations the human characters engage in, the reader feels upbeat because Chet feels upbeat.

Bernie Little is not that much different than your typical PI -- flawed, undisciplined, broke -- but seen through the prism of Chet's narration, his heroic side comes to the fore. Not that he's any more heroic than the rest of us, but he is a hero in Chet's eyes, and it's contagious.

The plot itself is not half-bad. You scarcely notice, immersed as you are in Chet's being in the moment, that the plot is moving along, clues are being uncovered, red herrings identified, villains chased down and clients rescued. In this case, Bernie and Chet go to Louisiana bayou country to find a missing person and unravel a mystery involving a ton of stolen shrimp and birds dying of petroleum immersion.

Bernie's choice of vehicle -- a well-used Porsche -- is a plus because it reminds me of my brief ownership of a well-used Porsche. There is little description of Chet in this book -- perhaps there is more detail in the earlier books -- beyond the fact that he weighs 100 pounds-plus. So I have taken to imagining him as a shaggy German shepherd mutt. Once, when he sees Bernie and himself in a mirror, Chet is amazed, saying it looked like Bernie with a tough-looking member of the nation within (Chet's expression for the parallel dog population), realizing only belatedly that it's -- ME.

So I've already downloaded the first book of the series, Dog on It, and will work my way forward. I'm hoping I'll be able to ration them and not just binge-read the whole series.

Spencer Quinn is a pen name for Peter Abrahams, who has written numerous thrillers and young adult books under his own name. Stephen King is a fan and listed four of his novels in his book recommendations in On Writing. So now I've downloaded Lights Out as well.