Monthly Archives: December 2011

Rin Tin Tin, by Susan Orlean

For me, one of the marks of a truly great writer, fiction or non-fiction, is their ability to make me care passionately about a subject I didn’t think I cared about at all before picking up the book. Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin illustrates this more vividly than any book I’ve read this year.

Yes, I’m a dog person, but I’ve never been interested in German shepherds, or famous movie/TV dogs (if I were, I probably would have opted to read a book about Lassie, because at least I like collies), or the era of silent film. In fact, I had only the vaguest sense that Rin Tin Tin was  a German shepherd who appeared in movies and TV — unlike Susan Orlean, I didn’t grow up watching Rin Tin Tin on TV. Until this book coincided time-wise with the release of the movie Tintin, I used to get Tintin and Rin Tin Tin mixed up in my head, knowing that one was a dog and one wasn’t, but not really being more aware than that.

I did know, however, that Susan Orlean is the kind of writer who can make you fascinated with her subjects, and picking up the book to glance through it convinced me I had to give it a try. As a result, I had a fantastic time learning about the life story of the original Rin Tin Tin, a German shepherd dog found on a World War One battlefield and brought back to the US by a soldier named Lee Duncan. Rinty (as he was often called), trained by Duncan, went on to become a star of silent movies. Later, after his death, Rin Tin Tin’s name and iconic image continued in a series of other dogs, some directly descended from him. Rin Tin Tin reached his widest audience in the 1950s with the children’s television show bearing his name.

There’s so much more to this story than that thumbnail sketch can capture — information about silent movies, early television, dog breeding, the use of dogs in wartime, the changing role of dogs in American life over the twentieth century, the passionate obsessions of people like Lee Duncan, who was determined to make his dog famous, and Bert Leonard, who was determined to keep Rin Tin Tin on television and film. Along the way Orlean admits that by researching and writing about people who were obsessed with Rin Tin Tin, she has in fact become one of those people herself. Since she is a dog owner and dog lover, I was very surprised that the book didn’t with her getting a German Shepherd pup from the Rin Tin Tin line for herself. But perhaps she’ll further her contribution to the Rinty legacy in another way: a recurring theme throughout the book is how badly both Duncan and Leonard wanted to see a feature film made about the real Rin Tin Tin and his story. That movie never got made despite numerous attempts, but now that Orlean, who’s already had one nonfiction book turned into a sucessful movie (The Orchid Thief/Adaptation) has written a best-seller about him … who knows?

No question, if there was a movie, I’d go see it. Because Susan Orlean has now made me fascinated with Rin Tin Tin. And that, boys and girls, is what good writing does.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- general

The Virgin Cure, by Ami McKay

The Virgin Cure is another gripping, well-researched glimpse into the past lives of women by the author of The Birth House. This time McKay’s subject matter is the lives of street children, particularly young girls forced into prostitution, in late nineteenth-century New York. The story centres around Moth, a twelve-year old girl who leaves her tenement-dwelling, indigent mother to go into service, but eventually finds herself homeless and penniless. Prostitution appears to be her only option, but Moth is “lucky” enough to fall in with a brothel owner who specializes in training young girls to lose their virginity to well-heeled, carefully selected gentlemen.

Even in this supposedly sheltered environment, though, Moth is not beyond the reach of cruelty. The one person who truly wants to help her is Dr. Sadie, a young female physician who specializes in treating women and girls who have fallen through the cracks of society. Based on interviews I’ve read, it seems Ami McKay’s interest in the story was originally piqued by finding out about one of her ancestors who was a medical doctor in that very time and place — an unusual career path for a woman of that time. Though she originally thought of writing the story from Dr. Sadie’s point of view, it was Moth’s voice that came to the forefront as she tried to write the novel. I was interested to find out this background, because I actually found the young doctor the more interesting character, and wanted to know more about her — perhaps because hers was a perspective I’d never read about before.

That was one criticism I had of this novel; the other was that it seemed to end too quickly, and more happily for Moth than I thought was strictly believable. Even so, it was an engrossing read and a very well-done portrait of life in a particular place and time. It transported me, which is exactly what the best historical fiction ought to do.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

11/22/63, by Stephen King

As I’ve explained over on my blog, I like Stephen King’s writing but dislike a lot of his subject matter (particularly the horror), so I haven’t really read a lot of his books. But when I realized his latest novel was about time-travel — a story about an average guy in today’s world who discovers a portal to the year 1958, and decides to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy — well, I couldn’t wait to read it. I love time-travel, and this novel is, hands-down, the best thing about time-travel I’ve ever read.

The time travel device here is never explained, and who really cares? But the way it works is pretty straightforward — the portal always takes you to a particular day in September 1958, and every time you go through the portal, every change to history that you made on your last visit is erased and history goes back to the way it was. Jake, the main character, takes up a dying friend’s challenge to go back and prevent an event that many Americans see as a watershed moment without which their history might have been much better — the Kennedy assassination of 1963. Before doing that, Jake has another challenge — he wants to prevent another, more private act of violence, and positively affect the life of one of his former students.

He has to do this twice, because after the first time, of course, he has to pop back to 2011 and see if it worked. And it did — sort of. Things didn’t turn out exactly as Jake hoped, but he figures he can fix that on his next trip to the past, when he goes back for a much longer visit. Five years, in fact — long enough to prevent the assassination. Also long enough to get used to living in the late 50s and early 60s — for the most part. He finds many things that he loves about the past — the cars, the music, the prices — but even after several years there is still jarred by the casual racism and sexism (and still misses his cellphone at crucial moments).

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Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- general, Fiction -- historical

Pirate King, by Laurie R. King

This latest adventure of the aging (but still brilliant and surprisingly agile) Sherlock Holmes and his young wife Mary Russell finds Russell on an undercover assignment aboard a pirate ship. Well, it’s actually a ship owned by an eccentric film crew, in the process of making a silent movie based ever so loosely on The Pirates of Penzance. Russell is supposed to be investigating suspicious criminal activity that seems to follow this film company around, but when the director’s relentlessly quest for authenticity leads him to accidentally hire real pirates as actors, the original mystery takes a backseat to adventure. Holmes shows up, of course, and he and Russell combine their skills to solve the problem — solving the original mystery almost as an afterthought.

The plot’s a little flimsy here but that doesn’t really matter — this story is all about setting, with wonderful details about the silent-film era, and about character, as are all the Holmes/Russell novels. As I found the last two novels in this series (The Language of Bees and God of the Hive) a little dark, it was nice to have what was essentially a fun romp with lots of humour, and an adventure that never once left me doubting our hero and heroine would come through successfully.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- mystery