Roommates and Raw Diets: Easily Amused by Karen McQuestion and Michael Schaffer’s One Nation Under Dog

Dear Reader:

Ahhhh, a few days of warmer, sunny weather!  Lots of folks out hiking with dogs tonight and last night – Gus and Zoe made new friends and got to see some old ones.

498) Easily Amused by Karen McQuestion, 2010 (kindle)

Last year Amazon put Karen’s kindle books A Scattered Life and Easily Amused on special and I bought both.  She is one of those new kindle-only author success stories who self-published her books through Amazon and went on to become famous, bestselling, and have a book optioned for film (A Scattered Life).

In Easily Amused, Lola is a young magazine editor (of a parenting magazine with just three people on staff) living in a recently inherited house left to her by a great aunt, quite a surprise since they weren’t close.  Her best friend, Piper, grew up with her and is a new mother.  Her other best friend, Hubert, also grew up with Lola and Piper.  He lands at Lola’s house after a break-up with the nasty piece of work that was his latest girlfriend.  Hubert, the quintessential nice guy, has had a thing for Lola since they were kids.

Mindy, Lola’s sister, is getting married shortly and is caught up in the drama of wedding planning.  Mindy’s had a running competition with Lola throughout their lives and their interactions are based in Mindy’s rapid fire put-downs and aggression (such as rescheduling her wedding to coincide with Lola’s 30th birthday).  Enter Ryan, the hunky, but mysterious neighbor, who on his first date with Lola is accosted by a former girlfriend accusing him of being a fraud.  Nonetheless, Piper and Lola hatch a plan to have Lola and Ryan go to the wedding together and announce their fake engagement.

OK, so I’ve given you some early tidbits – here’s a quiz, can you predict the remainder of the plot?  Yes, you can.  I did.  This is the sort of story where Mindy’s being skinny and beautiful while Lola is a few pounds overweight and somewhat less stunning (probably “ugly” in a movie star way) is central to the storyline.  Every character is utterly one dimensional and it is a dimension that you’ve seen before many times.

Some of the blame may rest with this “self-publishing” idea – perhaps an editor would have pushed her to add some depth.  But some of it rests with this simply not being my kind of book.

I enjoyed A Scattered Life – it will never be my favorite novel, but it had a much less predictable story and more interesting characters.  But not Easily Amused, although it does seem to have the plot line of 75% of the rom-coms out there, so maybe we’ll be able to see it at our local cineplex soon.  On the other hand, the book was mildly engaging and I did finish it (I can almost hear Christy laughing about yet another of my book-jacket blurb-ready reviews).

This comes back to my experience with kindle deals – Amazon puts up lots of current books as freebies or $3-4 sales.  While I’ve found a few good nonfiction books and classic novels in their monthly $3.99 sales (they put up 100 books for a month) by and large, I’ve found their freebies and deep sales not worth it.  The freebies are generally junky and just clutter up my kindle and the sale books are usually not particularly thoughtful or interesting.  If you have a kindle, I suggest sticking with known entities, unless you enjoy really light reading.

499) One Nation Under Dog: America’s Love Affair with our Dogs by Michael Schaffer, 2009 (hard copy)

I’ve mentioned before that I’m prepping a new undergraduate class on Animals and Society.  I bought this book as a possible reading assignment for students.

Schaffer is a journalist who has worked for many top newspapers and magazines.  He set out on a quest to understand Americans’ relationships to their dogs – particularly, the more extreme behaviors we are currently exhibiting, such as buying rooms in high-end dog “hotels,” feeding our pets raw diets, and paying for $13,000 surgeries for elderly companions.

He is also the proud owner of a Saint Bernard to whom he is very attached.  His book is grounded in solid reporting, although it isn’t dry, he traveled around the country experiencing different versions of dog training, visiting vet schools, and interviewing dog-related business owners and service providers and obviously did a lot of good research.

One Nation Under Dog chronicles the shift in American attitudes over the past generation from dog owners who let dogs run free or tied them up in the backyard and limited their health care to periodic rabies and distemper shots to today’s “guardians” who spend an average of $2000 per year on their dogs and, in increasing numbers sleep with their dogs; purchase “educational” dog toys; buy organic or raw foods; pay $1000s to trainers, vets, and dog walkers; and refer to themselves as their dog’s “mommy,” or presumably with a bit less frequency, “daddy.”  I plead “guilty” to 1, 2, and 4.

This is an evenhanded book.  Michael doesn’t set out to demonize anyone and he frequently provides some explanation for phenomena that may seem strange to readers, such as dog fighting and $100,000 a year dog walkers.  I learned about aspects of human relationships to dogs that were new to me (for instance, bereavement groups for people who’ve lost a dog and dog hotels with video cameras so owners can watch their dog while on vacation).  I felt that he covered nearly every aspect of humans and dogs today that he should have, including the dog training culture wars.

Zoe, the coquette.

Anyone who has taught university undergraduates knows it can be really challenging to find assigned readings that work well.  I teach at a competitive, “second-tier” school, with very good students attracted because of the rigor of  the programs that have historically dominated our school.  In my undergraduate courses, I’m usually teaching students without a great deal of background in the subject area.  That adds an additional challenge.

The books I use need to be readable and reasonably engaging and clear and, of course, they need to cover the material I want to cover.  In this case, society’s relationship to animals – especially the economic, political, religious, educational, and familial aspects as well as their symbolism, values, and norms.  This book covers nearly all of those aspects well and it is readable and engaging – I plan to use it.  But even if you don’t take my class, but you’re interested in animals and dogs, I do recommend it.  It describes many aspects of social changes in our relationships to dogs (and cats, to a lesser degree) well and in an interesting and engaging manner.

Your daily spot of color

Happy Reading! Ruby

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