The Dogs of March

SPOILER WARNING!!

As far back as I can remember, my parents owned a book called The Dogs of March (Ernest Hebert). When I was a kid, it fascinated me because the word “dogs” was in the title, but there was no picture of a dog on the cover, just a bleak winter landscape. The font was too tiny for me to read, and there were no pictures, so I put the book down and went back to Berenstain Bears or Henry and Mudge.

Fast forward 20-something years later, and I’ve moved out of my parents’ house. I’m unpacking books at the apartment, and there’s The Dogs of March, sitting inexplicably in my book pile. I guess I must have grabbed it without thinking. Likewise, without thinking, I put it on my bookshelf and didn’t think of it until I picked it up again pretty recently and thought, “Well, it might be time to finally read this.”

I’m glad I waited as long as I did to read it. If I had read it when I was a kid and somehow gotten to the end, it would have given me nightmares. That’s not to say it was a bad book. Absolutely the opposite. I would say that The Dogs of March was one of the better books I have read in the past few years, and now I understand why my parents kept it around.

The novel chronicles the life of Howard Elman, a poor, mostly illiterate everyman from rural New Hampshire. He’s got four daughters who pay him no mind, a son who’s gone to college and thinks he’s an intellectual, and a wife who is fascinated by the Roman Catholic religion. Howard has recently lost his job, and the rich lady who’s just moved in next door wants to buy his house and his land, on which he’s parked a bunch of old, rusty cars that he shoots at with his gun when he’s bored.

To be honest, there’s not much of a plot. The book is more of a slow-burning literary novel, and the “dogs of March” is a metaphor. Apparently, in the woods of New Hampshire in the winter, the neighborhood dogs run deer and get uncharacteristically vicious as they roam in a pack away from their owners. At some parts of the book, Howard is the dogs, and at other parts, he’s the deer.

The Dogs of March had its depressing moments. Actually, it was the literary equivalent of the most depressing song in the known universe: Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” I swear, every time I hear that song while driving in my own car, I get so blinded by tears that I feel like smashing into a bridge abutment. But the book did make me consider the futility of some things in life. You can work hard and meet all the “adult” milestones but still be missing a lot, and life will go on around you after you’ve passed on.

The book ended nicely, perhaps a little too nicely for something that started out so dreary. I learned that it is actually the first in a series, but I’m not sure whether I want to read the others. Even so, I enjoyed The Dogs of March; the author managed to blend the funny parts of life with the realism and the notion that we’re all just human after all.

A North Carolina Fairy Tale

SPOILER ALERT! I’m going to tell you the ending, so don’t read this post if you want to read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.

First off, this book is supposed to be really, really good. It was on the New York Times bestseller list and was recommended to me by pretty much everyone, including Reese Witherspoon. Usually, I don’t put much stock in what celebrities say or do, but my mother-in-law let me borrow the book, so it’s not like I had to pay for it or even check it out of the library. Plus, it’s a book, and I like books, so I read it.

Initially, I enjoyed the book. It’s about a girl (Kya, short for Catherine) living in the North Carolina marsh during the 1950s and 60s. She is abandoned by her parents and siblings and has to learn to survive on her own. She gets involved with two men over the years, Tate (the good guy) and Chase (the bad guy). Tate teaches her how to read, and using her newfound knowledge, she proceeds to become a bestselling author of nonfiction books about the marsh and its wildlife. Chase is there for her after Tate leaves, and he becomes her best friend, but he is never faithful to her and leaves her upon getting engaged to a girl from town. The conflict in the book arises when Chase is found dead, and Kya ends up as the main suspect and goes on trial for his murder.

This book doesn’t seem to know what genre it wants to be in when it grows up. Is it a murder mystery? A literary novel? A romance? Historical fiction? It has hints of all four. The author does a wonderful job describing the setting and bringing the characters to life. The pacing of the story isn’t too fast or too slow, and the timeline alternates between Kya’s life in the past (1950s and 60s) and Chase’s body being found (in the early 1970s).

I never thought of Kya as an unreliable narrator, probably because the story was told in third person, but I feel as though the author fooled me into liking her and sympathizing with her when the ending proved that she was not likable or sympathetic. You see, it turned out that she did in fact kill Chase. We only find this out in the last page or so of the book, so there’s not much time to rethink everything before the book ends, but there is enough time to feel cheated. I rooted for this character all the way through, and it turns out she’s not the fairy-tale princess in the marsh that we all thought she was???

Most of it, I suspect, was because of the author’s seeming prejudice against men. Threaded through the book were observations of how, in nature, the female ends up killing the male and the male is only looking to reproduce. The larger males with the deeper voices get the females, and lesser males use other, more deceitful tactics. So human males are little more than animals. Chase wasn’t a terrible person; he had some vices, and he came to mess with Kya when he was drunk and almost took advantage of her, but I don’t think it was a reason to kill him. I think the author was trying to relay the fact that Kya was very in tune with nature, and she simply defended herself as a female animal would do in nature. OK, I get it… but that doesn’t make me like the book.

If you like strong settings and are a bit of a feminist, you will like this one, but if you want a more realistic plot, look elsewhere.

What Is Love? What Is Happiness?

SPOILER ALERT!

What is love? (Baby don’t hurt me…) What is happiness? What is the point of marriage? These are a few of the questions that Douglas Kennedy’s novel Five Days attempts to answer.

This was a random pick off the general fiction shelves at the library. I knew nothing about the author, although I did a tiny bit of research, and found out he is an atheist, which explains much of the book’s philosophy. He is also a pretty good author and has written quite a few novels, as evidenced by positive reviews on Amazon and similar sites.

In Five Days, Laura, our main character, is a radiologist trapped in a dead-end marriage. Her two children are nearly grown and out of the house. She’s starting to let the more morbid aspects of her job affect her. Her husband has recently lost his job and is depressed because of that, making the lives of everyone around him miserable. So she is happy for the chance to go to a work-related conference in Boston. At said conference, she runs into a man named Richard, who she realizes is in fact the love of her life, and her entire life up until this point has been a series of wasted opportunities due to her own lack of self-esteem. She has always sold herself short.

The plot seems mundane, I know, but it immediately grabbed me because I like “real-life” style books. It took place over the course of, obviously, five days, but through flashbacks and long stories told by Laura and Richard, it delved deeply into the characters’ pasts and explained why they made the choices they made and how they became the people they are.

This book really made me think about whether Laura was justified in cheating on her husband. I could not justify it in my head, at least, from my own perspective. From the author’s perspective, yes, anything is justified if it fits within the character’s moral code and if it will bring about happiness. But is happiness the supreme goal of life? I’ve always thought that one of the purposes of life is to help others and attempt to make their lives easier or better, which does not always equate to happiness, as making others’ lives easier or better can hinder your own happiness. “Happiness” is ephemeral and doesn’t last. “Happiness” can also become a selfish concept, if the main goal is to make and keep yourself “happy” at the expense of others.

Is love the supreme goal of life? From my perspective, yes, but only the love of God. The love of humans attempts to come close but will fail every time. From the author’s perspective, yes, but only a love that validates, not “tough love” that can challenge.

Do people “deserve” to be happy? This was another concept that I struggled with throughout the book. Laura never felt as though she deserved happiness because of guilt and poor choices from her past, so I suppose she felt justified in her affair with Richard. I have the opportunity for happiness, and I deserve it, so let’s go for it, even if it means tearing apart my marriage and family!

What I’ve learned over my relatively few years of life is that, ultimately, only you are responsible for your own happiness. If you rely on others to make you happy, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of sadness. In a way, this clashes with my other philosophy about helping others; to some degree, you’re making yourself responsible for others’ happiness. However, I don’t believe that one should help others for that reason. It should be done for God, to attempt to see others in the way that he would see them.

Was it Laura’s fault that she never came to terms with her past until everything reached a boiling point (i.e., she met Richard)? Yes, unfortunately. She never quite managed to find happiness or contentment where she was, so she suffered in relative silence for years. This is never good, and it’s something else I’ve learned in my life, although it’s been hard to put it into practice: Talk to someone. Do not let things fester, because even if you don’t believe you will, you will absolutely reach your breaking point and you will crack. And destruction of some sort will happen. In Laura’s case, it was the destruction of her marriage. I felt so sorry for her poor husband, who had been laid off from his job, then had to deal with his wife’s behavior as well, all in the name of what she believed she was owed because she kept her past and its tragic events bottled inside.

As for the marriage aspects of the book, it seemed like the author didn’t hold marriage in very high regard. If you’re unhappy, and you feel as though you have a good enough reason, why not leave? Why not cheat? People enter marriage for a variety of reasons, and they are definitely not the same after 10 years of marriage as they are after 2 years of marriage. People sometimes grow apart, things happen, unforeseen events wreak havoc on what would have been a long-lasting marriage. That is the natural order of things.

But giving up on marriage, in my opinion, should only be done when every single other option has been exhausted or if the situation is abusive or dangerous (to the other spouse and/or the kids). Laura’s husband might not have been her perfect intellectual match (that was an annoying thing about the book: the characters were supposed to be so intellectual), but he was a decent man who did his best to provide for his family. His only error was marrying Laura while knowing that he would never measure up to the man she had loved before him. Her error was lingering in the past and keeping so many secrets of said past from her husband. I think they could have worked on the marriage, rather than Laura leaving after not even bothering to talk things through.

From the author’s atheistic perspective, there’s not much point to marriage except that it’s another tool to make those inside of it happy. If it fails to do that, it can be dissolved without any real guilt or negative emotions, just a cold, chilly law proceeding and signatures on paper. Now my new life can begin! I can be who I was meant to be! I can be happy and get what I deserve! Ugh. So by the time I finished the book, I was depressed. Leaving her husband won’t make Laura happy, as long as she lives with her memories of the past and her regrets about not starting a new relationship with Richard. Situations and people with whom she surrounds herself may change, but she is essentially still the same person, and she should work on fixing herself and coming to terms with her past. It’s no longer taboo to go to a therapist. It’s a great option. (Laura does do this in the book, but the therapist only validates her and doesn’t challenge her much.)

Sorry for the long post, but that book was definitely one of the more thought-provoking ones I’ve read so far this year. I could have written a lot more, but I’ll either save your eyes or write a new post. 🙂