Friday, May 22, 2020

THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND


Review of THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND by METTE IVIE HARRISON
(first in THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND series)

As a dog fanatic, I’m a sucker for books that feature dogs at all, especially at the core of the story. THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND reads like a fresh fairy tale, striking that wonderful balance between nostalgic, familiar elements and unique, innovative twists.

This story is difficult to describe without revealing too much; I wouldn’t want to deny anyone the chance to read how this tale unfolds for herself. Let me say that the characters really made this novel exceptional for me. Everyone feels layered and believable, rather than typical, simple fairy tale tropes. The prince is likeable but tortured with self-doubt and the princess standoffish and odd but all the more compelling for it.

They live in a world with animal magic, but – fearful of its power – people now hunt down and kill anyone believed to possess it. Prince George’s stomach turns at enforcing such laws, for both personal and moral reasons, but he doesn’t know how one changes the minds of an entire kingdom. Meanwhile, Princess Beatrice’s moods could be explained by the sad fact that her father treats her like a useless disappointment – but there’s still more to her mystery.

Harrison deftly interweaves several plot threads, in ways you might not expect. This book frequently intrigued, surprised, and moved me, earning a fond place in my heart as a favorite, a beautiful modern classic.

Friday, May 15, 2020

THE GENE


Review of THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY by SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE

This author is already well-known for his bestseller THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES, which—coming highly recommended—is on my to-read radar but hasn’t made the cut off the too-many-books-too-little-time list. However, when a friend I was visiting bought Mukherjee’s more recent book and I expressed interest, she dared me to read it in the less than 48 hours remaining in my stay. At 495 small-print pages, it was a tight squeeze, but I finished it!

Of course, it helped that THE GENE is an engrossing, well-written book. The difficulty with nonfiction can be making material that is normally very interest-specific more universally appealing. Mukherjee exemplifies the best of this art, crafting a story of “the gene” that reads like an epic tale. He begins around Aristotle’s conviction that not all traits come from the male. From there we explore: Mendel, Darwin, eugenics, and more – on into the modern era’s current research and technology. He even makes the material more personal by sharing about his family’s genetic history with schizophrenia.

At times we veer away from the science into the politics behind the research: government and societal influence, relationship dynamics between scientists, various bias. This all helps develop a complex, layered portrait of both the science and the history behind “the gene.”

It was probably more noticeable because I read this book in two days, but Mukherjee does repeat some information along the way. It’s always spaced far apart, so I assume it’s intended as refreshers and likely especially helpful for the more probable scenario where someone makes their way slowly through this book one chapter a week or so.

I haven’t yet read the popular THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES, but after finishing THE GENE, I understand Mukherjee’s appeal as a writer. He’s a veritable storyteller of history.   

Friday, May 8, 2020

TRAINING YOUR DOG THE HUMANE WAY


Review of TRAINING YOUR DOG THE HUMANE WAY by ALANA STEVENSON

Years back, I worked as a dog trainer and I’ve also raised three Guide Dogs for the Blind. So I approach the topic of dog training with a lot of prior experience and insight, but it’s been a while. I recently adopted an adorable Corgi puppy, so I’ve been reading numerous books on dog training to brush up on good habits and see what’s new in the field.

Well, there is something new and I love it. Since I worked as a trainer, the field has shifted dramatically away from dominance theory (as behavioral science research is disproving a lot of old conceptions about alphas, submission, packs, etc.) and towards positive training methods. The latter has always been my preference, so it’s validating to see it gaining more research-backed support.  

Stevenson provides great general guidelines regarding how dogs learn. As one example, dogs give their situational context more weight than most owners realize. What that means is: if you always take your dog to the guest room to train him – well, he might think those commands are only relevant in that room, and that’s why he ignores you when you ask him to “sit” on a walk. You also must be careful exactly when and what you praise; sometimes the dog thinks you’re rewarding something different than what you intend. Here’s a funny example from my Guide Dog days: a puppy happened to cough at the same time he finally sat on command for the first time. His raisers highly praised him for sitting on command, but the dog assumed it was the whole sequence that earned such an enthusiastic reaction and, from then on, he always coughed when he sat.

Stevenson also discusses the importance of repetition. Dog intelligence varies greatly by breed as well as the individual dog, but often it does take a dog more times to grasp a concept than her owners think it should. And learning can be a two steps forward, one step back process. Just because your dog finally does something the correct way doesn’t mean she now entirely understands it and will always do it correctly from now on. I cannot emphasize enough the value of patience when training dogs.

The breakdown of the different types of training – shaping, luring, active, passive – is especially helpful for those new to dog training. Understanding different methods will help you decide which will be best for different commands and circumstances, as well as build your general understanding regarding how dogs learn.

I also really like that this book includes photos. I’m very pleased that Stevenson discusses dog body language in her book. It’s important in training, but often misunderstood by anyone who hasn’t specifically studied it. And the photos are immensely useful is actually visualizing what she’s describing.  

To make the book extra user friendly, there’s a handy summary of the main points at the end of each chapter. As any pet owner (or parent, for that matter) can tell you: 1. Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t obvious, or there isn’t one right thing, and 2. Sometimes even when you know the right thing, it’s not the instinctive thing so in the moment you do what you “know” is wrong. Stevenson’s quick bullet lists help any newbie or experienced trainer keep the most important training points at the forefront of their mind.

My single criticism is of Stevenson’s discussion of how dog’s view property. She claims that dogs don’t understand your wallet, for example, is yours. Agree. She says dogs often believe that whomever has an item – and sometimes that’s them! – “owns” it, for right now at least. Agree. Then she adds that you will never see a dog take something another dog is using. Um…strongly disagree. And now really confused how a trainer who has spent so much time around dogs has never seen that happen. Dogs take things from each other alllllll the time.

I mention this partly because it’s my only point of disagreement with this book, but also partly as a cautionary reminder. It’s easy to project human psychology onto dogs. I believe that’s what we did with old-school dominance theory. While I align much more strongly with positive training methods, that doesn’t mean we don’t still sometimes misinterpret dog behavior to suit our modern views. If you want to view dogs as more cooperative, it might be easy to selectively overlook that sometimes they, too – especially puppies – can be mischievous punks who wander up to a playmate and snatch away a toy mid-chew.

As an experienced trainer, I didn’t find any information in this book that was new to me, but it was a fantastic, well-organized, and insightful refresher, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with zero to little base knowledge on this topic.   

Friday, April 24, 2020

KORGI: SPROUTING WINGS


Review of KORGI: SPROUTING WINGS by CHRISTIAN SLADE
(first book in the KORGI series)

When I announced that I intended to adopt a Corgi puppy, one of my friends promptly showed me this delightful series of graphic novels. With an evocative storyline, appealing characters, and beautiful illustrations, these books are for all ages.

The concept – various fey living in companionship with extraordinary corgis – is adorable, the magic mysterious and distinct, and the plot moving. Altogether the book overflows with an endearing childlike imagination.

The story unfolds with few words, through superb illustrations. I’m including a simple one here that doesn’t spoil anything, but some frames are far more emotionally powerful. And, of course, all the more striking in full color. At the back of the book you’ll find descriptions of each character that provide more context and clarification for anyone craving as much.

SPROUTING WINGS is a short story with a lot of deeper, more epic subtext that ushers one’s imagination into a greater, magical world. I earnestly recommend this book to Corgi fans, fantasy fiction addicts, graphic novel enthusiasts, and most children. I cannot wait to read on!


Friday, April 17, 2020

MINDFULNESS


Review of MINDFULNESS: AN EIGHT-WEEK PLAN FOR FINDING PEACE IN A FRANTIC WORLD by MARK WILLIAMS and DANNY PENMAN

As someone who has struggled with stress and anxiety my whole life, mindfulness feels like my savior. I’m not a religious person, but upon discovering mindfulness I nevertheless felt I had discovered my spiritual side. The philosophies teach balance as well as compassion towards both yourself and others. I tend to frame my self-worth in terms of productivity and am always looking ahead to the next goal, making me someone who could benefit greatly from a more mindful mindset.

Endorsement aside, the more I read about mindfulness the more I think there’s an undercurrent of elitism. When books or teachers simply push the relaxation aspect, I can’t help wondering about people who really cannot afford any break: the single parent working three jobs, the full-time student juggling work to pay for their education, anyone growing up in complete poverty. Mindfulness is an incredible asset but not something we’re likely to crave until we have more basic essentials, such as food and safety and general financial stability.

That said, I particularly liked this book, because the authors do address how overworked, crazy busy people can realistically incorporate mindfulness practices in their lives. Take meditation as an example. A lot of us have a very narrow idea of meditation. The stereotypical image is that of an experienced monk living in seclusion and possessing an almost magical ability to entirely free her mind. We think that if we cannot clear half an hour from our day to retreat to a quiet place, sit crossed legged on the ground, close our eyes, and do nothing, well, we can’t meditate. These authors make the wonderful point that you can’t really do meditation wrong. If you’re trying and “failing,” research shows that your mental health still benefits greatly from the regular attempts. “The spirit in which you do something is often as important as the act itself.” People who try meditation already convinced that it’s dumb and won’t work for them usually find they’re right; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. People more open to the experience, if still skeptical, often feel hesitant at first about whether they’re “doing it correctly” but start to find the effort extremely beneficial as they move past that typical insecurity. Also let’s do away with the all-or-nothing thinking; a minute-long meditation once a week is still better than nothing. And position doesn’t matter nearly as much as effort. Lying down’s not particularly recommended since a lot of people might just fall asleep, but sitting in a chair or even standing are perfectly valid choices for meditating. So is keeping your eyes open. The point is to find what works for you. I especially adore the authors’ suggestion of reclaiming “wasted” time. Take standing in line, for example. Your average overworked person might still stop regularly at a coffee shop and wait in line for their energy fix. Or maybe stand around in a break room waiting for the coffee to brew. Either way, take those moments of boredom and frustration and turn them into an opportunity for meditation. It’s not about doing it perfectly; it’s about making an effort.

Disclaimer: I didn’t do their recommended meditation exercises, because I’m already pretty familiar with meditation and have even done several of these specific exercises before. Personally, I aim to meditate for five minutes every day. It’s enough to be a challenge for someone with such an overactive mind but to also leave me feeling more relaxed and unburdened. It’s also something I can realistically fit into a busy day. If I have more time, I sit on the ground and close my eyes, but on more frantic days I still attempt to spend five minutes somewhere, even while waiting in line, focusing on my breathing and/or clearing my mind. I would, of course, recommend the exercises for anyone new to meditation. There are lots of ways to meditate—clear your mind, repeat a mantra, focus on a physical object or a mental image, listen to guided audio meditations—and you’ll want to find which methods appeal most to you. I prefer repeating a mantra. While I still find entirely clearing my mind too hard, fixating on one helpful mantra for five minutes really helps me narrow my focus back to the present moment.

There are so many meditation exercises in this book that one might wonder at its worth to me if I didn’t do them. Practices like meditation gain power through repetition, so I’m mostly trying to keep myself exposed to mindfulness concepts until hopefully my brain starts to shift from primarily anxious to primarily calm. The very first time I read a mindfulness book, I felt like it changed my life only to find a week later that I had forgotten most of what I learned. As any therapist will tell you, changing how you think is no easy feat. If you’ve been a worrier for decades, no single book can change that permanently after one read. Continual, repeated exposure is the best way to make lessons, especially psychological lessons, stick longer-term.

I’ve already stretched out this review rambling about meditation, but let me pull out one other concept I really liked from this book: that we all need some sense of completion. Feeling trapped is one of the leading causes of depression and often happens from that “hamster wheel” sense: that we’re busting ourselves in a repetitive, exhausting routine…for what? People are more prone to this gnawing sense of pointlessness when they don’t focus on the present, when they’re always either looking ahead or behind. Finishing a task doesn’t really feel like finishing anything if you’re already thinking about the next one or even the next dozen after that. Instead only think about the current task and then allow yourself a moment of pride when it’s completed before moving onto something else. If you’re happy, enjoy it without worrying how long it’ll last. If you’re sad, don’t fight the bad feeling; negative emotions are a natural part of life and make our positive ones all the more meaningful.

Objectively, I understand why many people roll their eyes at mindfulness talk. It sounds corny and even cult-ish if you haven’t connected with the concepts personally. But I have. It’s no exaggeration to say that mindfulness has changed my life. It’s no magic pill—like anything worthwhile, it takes effort—but I’d highly recommend that anyone who values introspection and life-long personal growth read more about mindfulness. This particular book is a great starter for those new to the concepts but also a good refresher for those working to internalize mindful philosophies longer-term.

Friday, April 10, 2020

OH MY DOG


Review of OH MY DOG: HOW TO CHOOSE, TRAIN, GROOM, NURTURE, FEED, AND CARE FOR YOUR NEW BEST FRIEND by BETH OSTROSKY STERN, with KRISTINA GRISH

I don’t want children; I want dogs. I want a pack. And I’m planning to adopt my first pack member soon. I’m an experienced dog trainer, but it’s been several years since I worked in that field, so I’m brushing up as I always do: by reading, specifically numerous guides on raising and training dogs.

Stern’s hefty book is thorough, to say the least. She covers every aspect of dog care that you can imagine and probably plenty that hadn’t occurred to you. A lot of it’s in the long subtitle: everything from grooming to feeding and lots in between. She goes in depth on each topic. The section on nutrition will help readers decode seemingly arbitrary marking adjectives like “ultra premium” versus “super premium.” The section on grooming gives clear specifics regarding supplies and technique. The section on bonding lists some common human impulses and why they may not always be appreciated by our dogs.

While I would recommend this book, especially to those completely new to dog ownership, that recommendation comes with two caveats. First, the content is clearly geared towards the wealthy. If Stern makes owning a dog sound impossibly expensive, don’t despair; a lot of what she pushes as essential is really optional. You don’t need a whole hired team of specialists to raise a dog and you don’t need to buy every pricey “pet-must-have” product on the market. While advice from professionals is very important and you should always consider what’s best for your pet, you can easily train and groom your dog yourself. Above all, what your dog most needs from you is attention, in the form of both love and care.

Second, I found the book a little alarmist and I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone with anxiety issues. Stern spends far more time discussing unlikely scenarios than the likely ones. For example, she focuses more on emergencies—from rare health issues to car accidents to natural disasters—than on basic training. I believe this is because Stern’s primary training advice is to hire a professional trainer. So, while I would still recommend this book as in-depth situational care and emergency guide, I would suggest reading further materials on training, which I consider one of the most essential aspects of owning a dog.

While I would recommend OH MY DOG as a starting book for first time dog owners—ideally paired with more detailed training guides—this thick book is a thorough reference for both basic aspects of dog care as well as worst-case-scenario planning.

Friday, April 3, 2020

AVENGED


Review of AVENGED by AMY TINTERA
(second in the RUINED trilogy)

Don’t read this review if you don’t want any spoilers for the first book in this trilogy, RUINED

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The conclusion of RUINED left a complicated, intriguing setup for the this book. All Em wanted was to rescue her sister Olivia and she finally accomplished that. While Olivia’s taste for cruel vengeance does give Em misgivings, most readers will likely be even more alert than our heroine to the possibility for tragic disaster. Though Olivia has always had a vicious streak, Cas has opened Em’s eyes to how power can be abused, all too easily. Now, to boot, Olivia has good reason for craving revenge. It’s clear Em can expect a struggle keeping her powerful sister in line.

Em and Cas went their separate ways at the end of the last book, each turning their full attention to repairing their fractured countries. Cas’s power-hungry cousin Jovita clearly aspires to oust him from his leadership role, and his well-known romance with Em, a perceived enemy to their country, gives Jovita a perfect opportunity for discrediting him. Meanwhile, Em and Olivia no longer have a castle and many of their people, the feared Ruined, have already been murdered, but they intend to rebuild. Of course, Olivia wants more than that; she wants revenge and she wants to remind everyone why Ruined like herself should be feared, respected, and above all obeyed. Em softens Olivia’s cruelty, but Olivia increasingly resents her sister’s pleas for mercy, compassion, and compromise.

Though fate tore Em and Cas apart, Tintera manages to unite and divide them repeatedly in this second book. While the likelihood of their crossing paths requires either significant suspension of disbelief or faith in concepts like fate, I happily went along with anything that seemed a little contrived; the characters and their relationships make the story well worth the reader’s cooperation.

In AVENGED, Tintera spins a vibrant, complex tale of war, intrigue, and alliances. Even when the author hand feels heavy, the pay-off is worth it in the form of a compelling and satisfying story. I look forward to seeing how Tintera concludes this trilogy.