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Strange Angels
Jonis Agee
416 pp.


I'm a Virginia boy, so you'd think Jonis Agee's Strange Angels would be right up my alley because it's set in horse country, wouldn't you? But wait. This particular horse country is the sandhills of Nebraska, not Charlottesville or Middleburg, Virginia. Now, I'm not saying this novel isn't my cup of Earl Grey, mind you, but for a Virginian, culture shock sets in early.

One of the book's first scenes describes a pair of cowboys trying to coax a truck carrying two horses out of a mudhole. Did Senator John Warner get his start this way? Toto, were not in the Old Dominion anymore. We're in the small town of Babylon, Nebraska, and almost before we've had time to dismount at Clark's Bar for a cold one, we're hip-deep in the brawls, money machinations and romantic dust-ups of the Bennett family.

The Bennetts--comprising two brawling brothers and a wild-colt sister whose fondness for bad boys stretches back even longer than her legs--are the kind of people who find solace in hard work, accept people at face value, do not stand on ceremony and--get this--do not give two hells and damn who your daddy was!

Can you imagine this crew at a Homecoming tailgate party at Hampden-Sydney? You can see the brothers taking long pulls of JD, snapping hard glances at the Scotch-swilling alumni in their blazers and khaki pants. They look ready to punch the first freshman who looks the wrong way at their sister Kya, who herself looks ready to seduce the nearest white-jacketed busboy or bad boy, she doesn't care which it is. (Although in this novel, unlike in Virginia, the nearest bad boy is a horse thief, not a lawyer.)

In this novel's world, sweat and dirt are not only valued but also considered sexy. In one scene, Cody, one of the brawling brothers, is taking a good hard look at the love of his life, Latta Jaboy. Latta is a lotta woman, a rancher herself who can castrate bulls as quick as any cowboy. This is demonstrated in a terrific cattle-branding scene that puts you right there: "Their heads pounded with the noise, their noses and eyes and mouths filled with dust and stink until everyone squinted against it, and spit continuously to get rid of the taste and grit."

Anyway, getting back to Latta, here is Cody looking at her:


She wasn't beautiful by any movie standards: she was too short and not petite enough, but she had a rugged handsomeness and strength like in pictures of old-time frontier women. He liked the dirt she felt comfortable wearing. He liked her short muscular legs. He closed his eyes and remembered the times they made love, the surprising power of those thighs that squeezed him as if he were a horse being made to obey. And he had.


Stand back, cowboys; I feel a rebel yell coming on! Friends, I think we've found common ground here. Let me have a pull from that bottle, Cody.

The plot involves things like a horse theft and whether Arthur Bennett (the other half of the feuding brothers) can disinherit Cody, who is illegitimate (or is he?). But never mind about the plot. Read this book for the wonderful scenes.

Chapter 10, in particular, I love. Cody has discovered that his sister Kya is holed up in Room Twenty of the Oasis Motel with Burch Winants, a local ne'er-do-well. Cody, who won't stand for this, barges in, and the first thing he sees is his sister, lying naked on the bed as coolly as you please. He prepares to thrash Winants within an inch, as they used to say back in Richmond, but he is interrupted by the timely, or not so timely, arrival of the sheriff. Cody hustles his sister into his pickup and they ride off into the starry night. He lets her out for a potty break and she runs off and dives into a stock tank. I gather a stock tank is something they water cattle with, but never mind about that--the point is, its full of fresh water. Cody jumps in after her. They paddle around awhile, cooling off, looking at stars. When they get out, Agee writes, "Cody shook his boots out to dislodge any snakes."

People, this is living. Tell Pat Kluge I won't make the reception in Albemarle, thank you. I've got a date in the stock tank with Cody's sister.

--Arthur Alexander Parker

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The Truth About Dogs: An Inquiry into the Ancestry, Social Conventions, Mental Habits, and Moral Fiber of Canis familiaris
Stephen Budiansky
263 pp.



While Stephen Budiansky is a self-professed dog lover, he's no sentimental pushover when it comes to sizing up dogs' roles in human life today--or in the distant past. As he points out in his meticulously researched, strongly argued new book, The Truth About Dogs, wolves (from which dogs evolved) and humans have shared an ecological niche for 500,000 years, and "out of more than 4,000 species of mammals and 10,000 species of birds that have inhabited the earth for the last 100,000 years, only about a dozen have ever entered into a domestic relationship with man." The dog is one of them, of course. But while the popular view (the "Standard Myth," as Budiansky calls it) has early man domesticating proto-dogs for their value as guardians and hunters, Budiansky has a decidedly less rose-tinted theory: "These were animals that chose to hang around humans, and in so doing to isolate themselves from their wild counterparts, by their own volition. They were not hirelings, or slaves, or even invited guests; they were party crashers who just wouldn't leave." Indeed, Budiansky argues (quite persuasively) that modern dogs are whoppingly successful social parasites, manipulating their 'masters' by turns with feigned illnesses, whimpering, soulful puppy-dog eyes, and aggressive gestures intended to put humans in their proper place.

Budiansky readily acknowledges his own sap-status, confessing that he carried a sixty-five-pound collie up to his bedroom every night and back downstairs the next morning "as a result of a sequence of events that I cannot fully reconstruct, much less comprehend....This went on for months. I had no choice in the matter." But, he argues, we could form better relationships with dogs if we understood more clearly (and respected) how decidedly undemocratic and downright different a dog's dream world is, compared to our own. (To quell aggression in a multi-dog household, for example, Budiansky suggests the owner favor the 'bullying' dog whenever possible to re-affirm the canine hierarchy.) If we can simply stop anthropomorphizing dog behavior into decidedly human categories (loyalty, compassion, guilt, etc.), we'll all get along better, it seems.

The Truth About Dogs is a an intoxicating mix of well-researched animal facts and a well-argued polemic against a number of set beliefs that we take for granted (like the notion that monkeys are truly smarter than dogs), and it's valuable for both students of animal behavior and dog owners looking to understand their own pooches a little better. (Bottom line: think of them as wolf puppies whose personalities are determined by which snippet of wolf behavior patterns their genes emphasize.) Budiansky's relentlessly unsentimental positions might ruffle a few dog lover's Kibbles, but let me offer a little friendly advice: if you're banking on your intensely loyal, altruistic dog to call 911 after you slip into a diabetic coma, you might want to watch your blood sugar levels, just in case Budiansky's right.

--Woody Arbunkle

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When We Were Orphans
Kazuo Ishiguro
Alfred A. Knopf
338 pp.



When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel in five years, has a traditional voice and pace (appropriate for a book set in the 1930s), but it is decidedly contemporary in its interest in the veracity of memory and the foundations of identity. Christopher Banks, the novel's methodically precise narrator, is a famous detective in England, but he is obsessed with his parents' disappearance years ago in Shanghai's International Settlement. His mother had been an outspoken opponent of the opium trade, and the kidnapping (his father is the first to disappear) may have been tied to that. But no one knows for sure, despite an extensive police investigation. Naturally, Christopher becomes obsessed, and he and his best friend, a Japanese boy who lives next door, play fantasy-driven games in which they heroically rescue the missing father and punish the kidnappers ruthlessly. Later, as a successful detective in London, Christopher still obsesses on his parents' disappearance, to the exclusion of almost anything else. (He is unmarried, has no children and ruminates on his increasingly muddled memories and his childhood quest to be more "English" in order to please his parents.)

The chapters dealing with Christopher's childhood are perhaps Ishiguro's most compelling and sustained work in the novel. The sections dealing with his adult life in the first half of the book tend to be overwhelmed by the childhood material, and the concluding sections are devoted to Christopher's decidedly more linear search for his parents in Shanghai. The effect, in the end, is a novel that doesn't seem to have much room for examining its protagonist as an adult.

Perhaps most troubling, Christopher isn't particularly believable as a detective. In the final sections where Christopher must coerce the police into assisting him (despite the distractions of the Sino-Japanese War), the text often reads like his childhood fantasy of being a detective, with Sherlock Holmes (more Basil Rathbone than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, really) as a role model. (Christopher even carries a magnifying glass, which was never required equipment for Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, much less real-life detectives of the 1930s.)

On a symbolic level, it might be appropriate for Christopher to remain childlike. After all, his orphaned childhood has so crippled him that he's never fully grown up, never accepted the fact that a parent's disappearance can't be undone by a child's fantasy-fueled gesture. But Christopher as an adult must be an equally believable character, and I'm not sure he measures up--certainly not to the level Ishiguro achieved with Christopher as a child. There are several suggestions that Ishiguro wants us to consider Christopher an unreliable narrator, but the scope of his unreliability remains unknown.

Still, patient readers looking for emotionally riveting prose should be pleasantly rewarded for their patience here: for all its quirks and methodical pace, When We Were Orphans manages to pull off many scenes of unforgettable emotion, and Ishiguro's exploration of memory and identity are often profound.

--Charlie Onion

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Norwegian Wood
Haruki Murakami
Vintage International
296 pp.



Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood appears, at first glance, to be a straightforward love story: a teenaged boy falls in love with his best friend's girlfriend and, after the best friend's suicide, the boy fails to save the girlfriend from her own debilitating mental problems. When it first appeared in Japan in 1987, Norwegian Wood's apparent simplicity disappointed some Murakami fans. As Murakami is quoted as saying in the Translator's Note to the new English edition (the first to be released outside Japan), "Many of my readers thought that Norwegian Wood was a retreat for me, a betrayal of what my works had stood for until then. For me personally, however, it was just the opposite: it was an adventure, a challenge. I had never written this kind of straight, simple story, and I wanted to test myself." It is, in fact, a solid, touchingly sentimental effort, but while its storyline is simple, it's decidedly more complicated in its interest in a handful of humanist themes.

Perhaps Norwegian Wood's most appealing element is its narrator and hero, Toru Watanabe. He's a college student living in a private dormitory complex with "fishy" right-wing connections, and he finds himself reading old literary classics in a time when political issues--left and right--are preeminent. Like The Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield, Toru is, by his own definition, "just an ordinary guy" who is driven outside the social norm by his heart-felt sincerity and his ability to see the falsity the "normal" world heralds as success, and his voice even sounds subtly Holden-like at times. The novel opens in 1968, and Toru's college is hit with strikes and student protesters who take over classes and pass out handbills directing students to "Crush the Imperial-Educational-Industrial Complex." "I had no problem with what they were saying," Toru tells us, "but the writing was lame."

Norwegian Wood is filled with literary references, and The Catcher in the Rye isn't the only classic novel that plays a large role in Toru's story. When he visits Naoko (the dead friend's girlfriend) at a sanitarium in the mountains, for instance, Toru naturally takes along a copy of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and finds, as Hans Castorp does, that the sanitarium's quiet isolation is dangerously appealing. And Toru's fatally doomed love for Naoko clearly echoes Jay Gatsby's love for Daisy in The Great Gatsby (to which Toru refers frequently). In each of those novels, the protagonists struggle, in their own ways, to define happiness and determine whether playing an active role in 'normal' society is actually a help or a hindrance in achieving it, and Toru himself struggles to find that perfect place in which to live happily. At its deepest level, Norwegian Wood becomes a meditation on death (appropriate for a novel with more than its fair share of suicides) and its place in healthy living.

Norwegian Wood is a supremely controlled, masterly effort, and its English-language appearance (belated as it is) adds immensely to Murakami's body of work.

--Charlie Onion

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