Review of “The Dog Stars” by Peter Heller

Reviving a blog is always a bit of a challenge: does consistency in theme or style really matter if the blog hasn’t been used in years?  I’ve decided that the most important factor is having something worth sharing, whether or not it fits with the blog’s history, and the first work of fiction I’ve read in years is something I’ve been thinking about ever since I read the last page.

Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars was a “hot” title, coming in to our library system with patron requests already piling up.  I can honestly say I do not know this author, and so do not know if it was the author or the topic of the book that created the demand.  The title was intriguing to me because I wondered if there might be some aspect of astronomy to the story.  Short answer: not enough.

This is a story about living in a post-Apocalyptic Earth, not so much with the fashionable zombie motif, but certainly with the “every man for himself” mentality we all expect civilization to devolve into once some cataclysm strikes.  In this book, it is brought on by a pandemic — a flu — and our narrator is a mostly-intact survivor of this scourge.

The brain damage resulting from an extended fever of 105 is the explanation for the narrator’s disjointedly fragmented sentences and, presumably, for the author’s complete failure to obey traditional rules of punctuation.  Stylish as that might be, I found it to be my second-greatest disappointment with the book.  The author knows who has spoken which line, but the reader does not, so the “he said” or “she said” notes can really help a great deal in watching a story develop.  I hated that I had to stop and re-read dialogue passages to get a clear sense of who (might have) said what.  It interrupts the story, and I feel that is never a good thing.

In a book such as The Dog Stars, the author has to create a new reality in which the story will take place.  The reader needs to be put there and kept there, in that new reality, in order to have the experience.  If the writing makes the reader stumble and re-read for clarity, that means the reader has been tossed out of the story, back into his or her own reality.  I would prefer that my fiction be presented well enough to engross me, to put me into the new world and let me stay there with the characters and see what transpires.  Punctuation, properly employed, can allow that to happen.  And while breaking the rules can help to create an effect — in this case, perhaps, to show us the narrator’s disjointed thinking — the fragmented sentences and tangential directions achieved that well enough.  Proper punctuation would have been a kindness to the readers that allowed us to stay in the story, stay with the character.

That said, the dystopia Heller created was not the best I’ve encountered.  In some ways, it was a pale shadow of Pat Frank’s 1959 novel Alas, Babylon: we encountered pockets of near-normalcy, adjusted to the dangerous new times in both books.  However, Frank gave us many examples of how the survivors reacted to the new reality, how they learned to cope, and how they dealt with those who could not.  Heller had a lot of the solutions already figured out, told us how it was, and expected us to be fine with that.  Perhaps this suited some readers, but I’ve been a science fiction fan for decades, and my favorite authors have respected my curiosity about the survival aspects — the science and engineering tidbits — that help to bring me into the new world.  Anyone who has read Robert Silverberg’s expansion on Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, David Brin’s The Postman, the aforementioned Alas, Babylon, or even Rober C. O”Brien’s Z is for Zachariah — a YA book! — will be disappointed with Heller’s weak effort here.

There were stars, yes, and there was a dog.   For all the role this dog, Jasper, had, I’d say this could have been the last-ever episode of Lassie.  “Gee, I really liked Jasper and how he’d growl and warn me about threats even though he was stone-deaf and really no help at all but I made doggy treats out of the people we killed and that made him happy so I was sad when he died.”  There you have it, as if it were quoted from the book — which it wasn’t, but the punctuation was about right.

Would I recommend The Dog Stars?  No.  Perhaps Peter Heller has better books out there, so I will try to read something else he’s written before I decide he’s just not an author I can enjoy, but this book would not make me a fan of his.  However, it is worth noting that, although I did not like the story, it still left me thinking about it, if only in terms of how I might have written it myself.  And, any book that gets the reader thinking can’t be all bad.


Sailboat Racing on Oneida Lake

Over the August 29-30 weekend the Oneida Lake Sailing Club held its Commodore’s Cup series of races, open to all members who had participated in a minimum of three other races this summer, spinnakers allowed.  The plan was for three races on Saturday and two on Sunday.  The day began with a Captains’ meeting at 9am Saturday, after which the folks who would supervise the races on the Committee Boat headed out to set out marker buoys (also called pins.)  At the start of each race a printed description of the course was displayed on a white board on their transom while this same information was announced over the radio.  Due to confusion over the instructions, the race was discarded, which meant we actually had four races that day.

This was our first time as participants in a sailing race on our own boat.  Kevin, an accomplished sailor, had been crewing on other boats for weeknight races all summer.  I, on the other hand, don’t know how to swim and am accustomed to leisurely weekend cruises on our Cal 25.  Guess whose big idea it was to enter the Commodore’s Cup?  Yeah!  We knew at the outset we didn’t have a butterfly’s chance in a tornado at winning, but there was so much we could learn from the experience!  Racing would force us to develop an efficient sailing team, choreograph an effective pas de deux — and bless us with an impressive collection of bruises.

Saturday was overcast with winds coming out of the east, which minimized the waves.  Winds that speed from the west would have given us 4-foot waves to contend with – conditions we had on Sunday, in fact, but that’s getting ahead of things.

To prepare for the race, we lightened the boat, removing tools and anchors, stowed everything else securely, and then went out to observe weather conditions on the lake.  Friends coming in from an early sail warned us of changeable winds with powerful gusts, which meant we’d have to choose wisely on how to set the sails.

We’d only flown our spinnaker once; it’s a complicated maneuver that truly requires an experienced team, so we vetoed that option immediately.  This left us with the three jibs to choose from: storm (smallest), genoa (largest) or #2 yankee.  Racing against the spinnakers other boats would be using made use of a larger jib tempting, but presented the risk of over-powering the boat in high winds.  Over-powering means the boat could misbehave in a variety of ways that I won’t go into, but most of them are embarrassing and soggy.  My vote was for the smallest (storm) jib, but Kevin opted for the yankee and that’s what we hoisted — for about two minutes.  Not to say “I told you so” but one of the least pleasant tasks is changing a head sail in high wind, and that was what Kevin wound up doing; the storm jib was right for the wind conditions, for beginners like us.  For extra caution, we decided to put a reef in the main sail: this is a way of shortening the main sail, making it smaller in a way that it could be opened up if needed.

Racing started at 10am, with a 5-minute warning horn, then a signal for everyone to begin a countdown. We had a little countdown kitchen timer attached to the bulkhead and as soon as it went off we were underway. For sailboat races, the idea is to cross the starting line of the race under full sail, so we tack back and forth to catch the wind until we know the race has begun, at which point we blast across the starting line.  How do we draw a line on the lake?  It’s the perceived “line” between the Committee Boat and one of the marker buoys they set out.

Knowing how competitive the event could be, Kevin kept us on the race course but carefully away from the thick of things; it’s all too easy, and occasionally disastrous, for boats to collide.  Nevertheless, as the races progressed the fleet compacted into a tight crowd, especially as we rounded the pins.. making for some unforgettable moments.

When a boat flies the spinnaker, it can be the same as flooring the accelerator on a Ferrari and this weekend’s wind was the equivalent of jet fuel.  Once the spinnakers were out, the fleet took off like cheetahs and we wallowed in their wakes — with our minimal sails, we had none of their speed — which is why an observer described me as having “eyes the size of dinner plates” when I looked behind us and saw nothing but a big yellow spinnaker.

We’d come around a pin just in front of a larger boat with a 5-man crew, and they had their spinnaker flying within seconds of the turn, so only the man on the bow could see us.  Kevin had been getting set for a tack when he heard my shriek and yelled to the other boat, but they didn’t respond.  We wound up doing an unintentional jibe, with the boom swinging wildly from starboard to port – I instinctively grabbed at the main sheet to slow it down and got thrown across the deck, but that move bought Kevin time to regain control.  For a few minutes afterward, all was quiet on our boat: I was expecting Kevin to yell at me for doing something stupid, but he was fearful that I’d gotten hurt.  I was fine, he was relieved, and we sailed on.

During the third race, we were the closest boat preparing to round a pin – which gave us the right-of-way – but that boat with the yellow spinnaker was rounding the same pin outside of us and giving us little room for the turn.  The captain of that boat yelled over to Kevin that we could round the pin together but that Kevin would have to haul in the boom immediately after that so they could get on the upwind course and fly their spinnaker.

The problem was, this maneuver had Kevin facing aft, working the main sheet and traveler, holding the tiller with his legs.  From where I sat, I could see the impending collision: our boat was sailing straight while theirs turned to port: toward us! I didn’t dare stand up, Kevin was busy, so the only choice was a Jackie Chan side kick to the tiller and a little prayer that Kevin didn’t lose his balance.  It worked and we lived to sail another race — the last one of the day.

Out of four races on Saturday, we didn’t come in last on one of them, which we considered an awesome achievement.  The race series continued on Sunday, but weather conditions were even more severe, with winds out of the west and gusts up to 27mph from a storm front that was producing waterspouts out on Lake Ontario.  Kevin and I went out to the point to watch the whitecaps raging across the lake, and although we were game to give it a shot with the same minimal sail arrangement, that never happened.  Kevin was asked to fill in for a missing crewman on one of the larger boats, I was allowed to come along for the ride, and we thus had the good luck to be aboard the boat that took the Commodore’s Cup this year.

Lowen & Navarro: What Kind of World Do You Want?

There are times when someone says something so powerful, something so important, and says it in such a way that hearing it becomes equally as important; this is one of those times.

Lowen & Navarro are musicians I met years ago at the NERFA folk music conference. I remember Eric Lowen as a very tall, powerful man who walked with a cane. We went down a hallway together on one of those hectic evenings and I remember him asking me about what I do. I told him I wasn’t a “real musician” as he was, because I don’t write songs, don’t record them, don’t do all those things we associate with professional musicians. I remember he looked down at me with those kindly eyes and laughed. “None of those things make me real and you not,” he said, “It’s only that we do things differently.” For the rest of the walk, I felt as tall as Eric.

I hadn’t seen him since then, and now I know why: ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And, what does Eric do with his music now? He sings it better than ever, and raises his voice with those of others afflicted with ALS, to raise money for the research into finding a cure.

Please watch Lowen & Navarro’s video – each viewing generates a donation. This is folk music at its most powerful.  Sing along.

Sit! Stay!

The “Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks” educational program is almost at an end, and the time has come to review what we’ve learned — assuming we have learned anything — and how easy it was to do so, which is why I qualify the concept of what we’ve learned.

I’ve been using the Internet for communication for 10 years now. Anything before 1998 was cautious exploration of the Internet through friends in the school district where we used to live. When personal computers first became available, I resisted wholeheartedly: all I could imagine was allowing Big Brother into our homes, surrendering our privacy and plugging ourselves into a grid from which no escape was possible. I still feel that way, sometimes, but when I discovered email, and thus found a way to communicate with friends scattered across the country without the expense of phone bills, I embraced the computer eagerly. Now, I even own a personal computer I do not share with the rest of the family, so the addiction, the invasion of the body snatchers, is complete. One of them, one of them..

Getting Started, Using a blog, the educational video [Activities 1-3]. For the past two years, I’ve had an account at what began as a writer’s site but has devolved rapidly into a social networking site. Before that, I had started a MySpace account through which I helped promote musician friends, and also managed to keep in touch with a distant niece. A bunch of us codgers started MySpace accounts as a way to storm the Youth Castle with traditional music; I had the spirit to join the charge, but not the courage to post videos or audio files, so the MySpace account is more of a relic than anything else. I moved on to Gather and started “conversing” with the writers there. Soon enough, I was writing stories of my own, and my toy hedgehogs became site celebrities. By the time Gather became too commercially oriented, with too many redesign upgrades that left content impossible to find, I was already working on this WordPress Blog.

As a result, many of the Activities of the Old Dogs/New Tricks program were more review sessions than new challenges. I loved the explanations that were given, as they put techniques into context and helped me to realize how much I have taught myself over the past decade, and over the past two years in particular. I also was able to use Activities to enhance what I’d learned.

Digital photos [Activities 4-6]. Thanks to artists on Gather, I found myself eager to learn use of a digital camera and purchased one I found on sale at Wegmans. It’s been just a little over a year now, and my camera has become a constant companion. I have used it to help myself learn tree identification, for example: rather than keeping my book with me, or ripping samples of fruits, leaves, buds, and bark off the poor trees, I’ve taken photos of these things and then referred to my books. I downloaded Picasa when I got the camera and wanted to share my photos, so for Activities 4, 5, and 6, I compared this program and its tools to those available through Picnik and Flickr. I prefer using the system I have in place, ultimately, because the photos are either on my computer or they are where I placed them at Gather or on my WP blog. Adding the extra stop at Flickr was simply leaving my images in an extra location and seemed unnecessary.

Generators [Activity 7]. I explored the tip of the Generator Blog’s vast iceberg of generators and eventually came to the conclusion that, while I loved the creativity, I would rapidly grow weary of a repeating message or “clever” little gizmo. it was more fun to play with the various generators on that site, and leave them there.

Placemarkers [Activities 9 & 10]. I understand, now, the concept behind — especially now that so many Gather friends have moved away to create their own blogs. They don’t write for the satisfaction of the exercise, they write with a desire to be read. If I assist them by increasing their visibility in some way, in the vast flood of info search engines turn up, I’m doing them a real favor. Alas, I’m not that good a friend. I am more the selfish sort, preferring to read what they write for my own enjoyment, and that’s why I set up a Bloglines account with which to track their writings. The great news is that now I know when they post something new; the disappointing news is that several of them “flag” their articles so that children do not stumble across idioms their parents might not want to translate. As such, I see the titles, but not the whole articles. C’est la vie.

Sight and Sound! [Activities 11-14]. Once again, I was ahead of the curve for much of this, since my kids and husband often call me over to see a new YouTube or Glumbert video, and many of my talented friends have audio files available through their websites. I learned how to embed a video here on Tangled Strings — yahoo! — and figured out what to say about them. The podcasts from NPR turn out to be wonderful ways to keep up with their programs and special features, so that was a boon Going to Microsoft’s site to get clip art required letting that organization reach inside the guts of my computer and see if I am honest and worthy enough to merit browsing their clip art. I’m legal, but I resent the inspection, which assumes I am not, so I aborted that stop and found another site, and then another… and I still haven’t figured out how to be certain the image is free and usable.  So, I’m reduced to this:


It’s been a wonderful exercise in learning, in deepening my understanding, and in pushing myself to complete assignments. This old dog learned some new tricks, and developed a better appreciation for the old tricks as well.

Fiddling with Books at Walton’s Library

100_5686.jpgHope and I drove out to the William B. Ogden Library in Walton, NY, to present our Fiddling with Books program. I remember how this room looked just after the 2006 floods ravaged the community, with a loss of 12,000 books in this very room. What a change! Not a hint of the flood damage remains, save for the absence of books on this level. Instead, this is a bright, cheery community room for meetings or programs like this one.


We always start our program with When Uncle Took the Fiddle by Libba Moore Grey.  I pretend to be a tired, sleepy farmhand while Hope plays a bit of Brahms’ Lullabye. Once Uncle takes the fiddle off the shelf, though, we kick off Miss MacLeod’s Reel, also known as Uncle Joe (with lyrics including “Did you ever go to meetin’ Uncle Joe? Uncle Joe?”)

After that, we discuss the dangers of claiming someone can out-fiddle the Devil himself, as happens in Phyllis Root’s Rosie’s Fiddle. We play the soundtrack of the fiddle contest with Growling Old Man, Grumbling Old Woman with a quick switch to Devil’s Dream for the grand finale. Listening to those fiddle tunes, you don’t need to read the book to figure out who wins.


One of our favorite books in the program is Moose Music by Sue Porter — the cover illustration alone is hilarious. Moose comes across an old fiddle mired in muck — never a good sign — and decides to play some songs… a bit of a trick with hooves, and the results are what you might expect. The teeth-rattling, ear-splitting “moose music” drives off everyone within earshot, but when his equally-talented true love comes to sing along with his playing, it is enough to set off volcanoes. We like to accompany this book with a goofy version of Flop-Eared Mule, complete with out-of-tune banjo.

We love to include the audience as much as possible, and among the sing-along opportunities is our presentation of Anne Isaacs’s original tall tale Swamp Angel — which actually includes a tiny image of a fiddler amongst the illustrations by Paul O. Zelinski! We pair this book up with the rowdy Old Joe Clark.


We try to vary the fiddle tunes, so that we have presented musical forms — waltzes, reels, and jigs — as well as a good representation of various traditions. Here, we feature Budge Wilson’s A Fiddle for Angus as we present a French-Canadien selection: Saint Anne’s Reel — complete with clogging! Budge included the beautiful Song for the Mira in her book, a love song to a river, and we are working on an arrangement of the song to include in the program, per Ms Wilson’s request.

We always end the program with Alys Burgard’s Flying Feet, the story of the time a tiny Irish village seeks a dance teacher. When two excellent dancers both arrive to apply for the job, the only solution is a dance competition, right? Right! We have learned that if we stand up for this tune, everyone does, and we all dance to Irish Washerwoman.


After the program, we always take a few minutes to discuss the instruments with the kids.


In the world as we know it, the one vanishing commodity we cannot replace is time.  We can watch it, we can measure it, and we surely waste it.   I am doing so, now, as the clock ticks and another day draws to an end with nothing accomplished or gained.

At dawn, the day was full of potential and opportunity. By noon, it was full of second thoughts and exchanges of nonsense, and only after that was solid news  of any sort received.  If all time is now, then I have been sitting here running through my emotional repertoire the way a gambler shuffles a deck in anticipation of a game.

It is always time, then, to begin something that will rescue this one day from joining all the others in the wastebasket of life.  The first step, clearly, is to  shut off this damned computer and move on to greater things.  Meanwhile, if you are reading this after I post it, I have wasted your time instead of mine.