Apr 27, 2010

The Worst That Horse-y Fiction Has to Offer - Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen

In honor of Sara Gruen giving a lecture tonight in Syracuse, I decided to finally write up my book review of her debut novel, Riding Lessons.  I warn anyone who loved Like Water for Elephants to just probably stop reading now and just know that I positively hated this book.

Seriously.  I have heard that Like Water for Elephants is a good book.  Even my mother loved it, which says a lot actually if you knew my mother.  The thing is that I couldn't be bothered to pick it up and find out for myself.  And all because Riding Lessons is such a painful, excruciating mess of a book to get through.  I get really worked up about this book and its follow-up because when I came across it in the bookstore, I was SO EXCITED!  I love to discover new horsey-themed books.  And I can overlook a lot of flaws just to get my dose of horse fiction.

Not in this case.  There are so many cliches!  Annemarie Zimmer is the next great Olympic rider whose dreams are shattered when her beloved horse falls, killing himself and injuring her severely.  Of course she never rides again.  The story picks up decades later when she returns home to the family farm -- her husband divorcing her, her petulant daughter hating her....CAN I JUST SAY THAT I UNDERSTAND WHY?!  She is quite possibly the least sympathetic character even written.  She is stupid, selfish and has poor judgment.  In general, I just had no interest in knowing anything more about her and I frankly couldn't care less about what little plot development there was.  It was a case of her not being capable of taking care of the farm, not being able to care for her daughter, rescuing a horse that....wait for it....turns out to be the brother of her beloved horse who got killed, and it goes on and on in that vein, if you can believe it.  The dialogue is terrible, the characters are unsympathetic and you couldn't pack in more cliches if you tried.  Of course, the requisite happy ending is tacked on, but by the time you get there you're just honestly shocked that you didn't quit reading.  The only thing I can say in my defense is:  horses.  Otherwise I would not have gotten through the material.  And that really isn't a good enough excuse.  All the writing concerning horses is unrealistic and just annoying.  Not even worth reading for a dose of horsiness.

Busy Mom from Ohio, a commenter on Amazon, sums up my feelings perfectly:
"...I would be really upset if I had bought this book ... it was a painful novel to read and I just finished it an hour ago. I cannot express my shock that Gruen, who wrote one of the best novels I've read in some time wrote this book.

But this book is a big disappointment. If you love to read about horses and all that, you will be disappointed. This book is about a train wreck of a woman named Annemarie. Annemarie is one of the worst characters ever in the literature world as she is selfish, self-centered, self-pitying and rude. She comes home because she lost her job and her husband wanted to divorce her and plus, she wanted to help her parents since her father was diagnosed with ASL. She ends up driving the family's business into the ground, alienates her daughter even more and instead of resolving her differences with her father who was dying, she just hides in the stables and moan about how hard her life was ever since her accident. This is perhaps the weakest character I have ever come across and I do not say this lightly. She has a horrible meltdown throughout this book and it was very painful to read (I skimmed through a lot of it). Frankly, she comes across as a very spoiled, very privileged selfish brat.

Needless to say that this book is a major disappointment and even though it predictably ends well, the ending doesn't salvage a sour taste that this book has left me with."

And don't even get me started on the sequel.  Maybe tomorrow.

Edited to add:  Here's a really specific example of how the writing concerning horses is completely unrealistic.  On page 43-44, when she arrives back to her family home, checking out the horse business she's supposed to be taking over, the French classical dressage trainer is teaching a student and his horse.  He has a double bridle on, but is clearly (based on his difficulty executing the movements asked of him) not an educated grand prix horse.  But even if he were, it is ridiculous to think any random horse capable of doing what is described next, no matter if freaking Nuno Olivera were on board, "The man and horse are moving in sybaritic union now, floating effortlessly through one maneuver after another: a full canter pirouette followed by a canter half pass with lead change, and then impossibly - brilliantly - a capriole.  The horse leaps into the air and hangs there, seemingly suspended.  At the apex of his flight, his hind legs shoot out behind him."

I'm not even going to try to explain why that passage is utter poppycock.  Any competent rider knows exactly what I'm talking about.  Which makes me really question why this book exists...if her audience were horselovers, then what the hell is she doing writing about a capriole on page 44?  Yeah, like that'll establish credibility.  And if this is for just random people and the horse stuff is just peripheral, then why bother even having all the horsiness?  It just lures people like me in and bugs the shit out of us.

Apr 20, 2010

The Sins Of Our Fathers

Call me crazy, but I cannot figure out the mess that has turned out to be the disqualification of McLain Ward's horse Sapphire from the World Cup show jumping finals in Geneva, Switzerland.  Fran Jurga is doing a fabulous job over at the Jurga Report in gatherng explanations as to what hypersensitivity is, how it is tested and the FEI's protocol in dealing with these situations.  Her latest post is a video of an FEI vet defining hypersensitivity and its potential causes (all of which can be quite innocent -- or at least induced without intent to harm).  I'm reposting it here:

I still can't really make heads or tails out of the situation.  I get that McLain Ward is furious and confused by the disqualification, but I guess I can't see a reason for the outrage / appeals to the FEI that are being lodged.  Maybe I'm naive, but it seems that the FEI acted appropriately and consistently with its policies, and I don't believe they have an agenda against any rider. 

If you're really fascinated by this story, you ought to take a look at this article by the New York Times.  I never realized that McLain Ward's father was the infamous criminal who arranged to have 4 horses killed in an insurance scam.  That was incredibly shocking to me, but it's clear it has had at least a psychological effect on McLain Ward.  He's been trying to keep his nose clean, so to speak, for years, but you can tell he has a bit of a complex about the industry being out to get him for the sins of the father.  Can't blame him, but you wonder how much of his outrage at the disqualification stems from this distrust at the industry's governing bodies.  I can't say I wouldn't be thinking the same thing.  Must be hard to have a career in horses and have that skeleton follow you around.  I don't think I could do it personally.   

Apr 13, 2010

How to Get a Horse to Jump -- NOT!

If it isn't clear to you that this is cruel and excessive punishment, then you should probably stop reading my blog now.  Michael Morrissey is way out of line on this and someone (judge, please?) should have instantly disqualified him.  You can't ride at that level and expect to get away with shit like this.  Someone needs a real dose of gratitude and humility. 

Sylvia Bishop, Racehorse Trainer

Everyone needs to read this article from the December 1961 Ebony on Sylvia Bishop, who was quite possibly the first black woman to be licensed as a racehorse trainer.  It's a great read and I love that she emphasizes kindness and gentleness in the horses' training.  So brilliant -- I had never heard of her before and I think it could make for an interesting biography. 

The Prix Caprilli Tests

I never knew about the Prix Caprilli tests before.  They make perfect sense and really ought to be offered at far more shows around the country, both jumping and dressage.  For those who have never heard of these tests, they are like a dressage test with low crossrails included.  The judging is based on the dressage system (with a mark for each movement) and you get overall marks + coefficients for gaits, submission and impulsion.  Obviously they take into account the fact that the frame will be less collected for a jumping horse, but a general impression of accepting the bit and roundness is expected. 

How wonderful.  I really wish elements of dressage were better incorporated into more disciplines, especially when showing.  To me dressage is not the ends, but the means via which we improve the general movement and well-being of all horses throughout all disciplines.  I guess what I mean is that I wish I could see more all-around horses being shown today.

Apr 12, 2010

Blue Ribbon Series -- When What You Wish For Isn't What You Really Wanted

As longtime readers of this blog may know, I have the greatest love for horse-themed fiction, especially of the young adult variety.  In fact, I have a massive collection of it.  So, it may come as no great surprise that I am a bit of a conoisseur of even the cheesy 80s series of horse books that encompass the Saddle Club series, the Thoroughbred series, the Linda Craig series (which was really mainly a redesign and reissue of the original 60s era books), etc...

In keeping with my contrary ways of liking only things that no one else appears to have discovered, I present the horse-crazy series that I cherished above all other series.  At least when only comparing amongst its peers in the 80s/90s.  If you have never had the occasion to read the Blue Ribbon series, then you really should.  If you look hard enough you can still get your hands on the 5 books that managed to be published before it was clear that no one else was reading these books and the series was abruptly canceled.  They are fairly rare, but over the years I have managed to locate two copies of the entire series.  Yes, two copies -- I somehow forgot that I tracked down the first set and bought the second set before that realization sunk in.

I'm presenting you with the second entry into the brief series because I recently read it during my brief toe-dip into the tumultuous waters that are purchasing a horse.  And ridiculous as it may sound, it kinda soothed my soul.

So what sets this series apart from the others?  It's a bit hard to explain, really.  In some ways it fits all of the cliches.  Three girls whose love of riding forms the basis of a deep friendship?  Check.  One girl -- Dara -- is filthy rich with a gorgeous horse.  She is beautiful and boys trip over themselves to be near her.  Oh, and don't forget, she and her horse make an unstoppable team who win nearly all the blue ribbons.  BUT!  She's new to town and her wealth and status can make her seem snobby.  Will she manage to overcome her haughty demeanor and show the town that she's just one of the girls?!

Kate is more of the tomboy-ish one of the trio.  Her mother runs the local boarding/training operation, where all the girls board their horses and/or ride.  Kate is high energy and talkative.  She is supposedly the most talented of the three, but she just needs the right horse to take her to...gasp!...the Olympics.  BUT!   She still retains too much love for her steady-Eddie horse who just doesn't have the talent to take her all the way.  Will she finally come to terms with the fact that her horse is holding her back?!  Will her competitive side finally show her the way to stardom?!

And finally, there's Jesse.  Her character arc makes up the requisite sad story of the books.  Her mother died recently and the family relies on her to do alot of the cooking, cleaning and taking care of her siblings (are you feeling really bad for her yet?).  They don't have a lot of money and she can't afford to own her own horse.  She previously leased a mare at the farm until the owner decided to breed her and Jesse is left horseless yet again.  Will Jesse ever feel like part of the horsey gang?  Will she ever have a bit of luck?

Hey, I think I missed my calling.  I should be writing back-cover blurbs for young adult books.  Anyway, it's plain as day that this hits many of the typical teen horse book criteria.  However, there are some things that pretty significantly set this series apart from the rest:
  • Boyfriends do not occupy an enormous amount of text.  They're there and the girls all have boyfriend troubles, but they do not take up all of the girls' time.  And the girls do not fight over the same guys.  These are two major things for me.  I always wondered how people could be such good riding when they were spending all their time fighting and chasing boys.  Most significantly they were not riding!  Ugh, I hate that.
  • The girls do 3-day eventing, which means they do jumping and dressage.  And dressage is not made out to be some super tedious means via which they can do the more exciting jumping bits. 
  • Obviously the author knows horses and riding.  S/he (for the life of me I cannot figure out if it was a man or woman who wrote these books -- Chris St. John is like the most vanilla of names) describes things mainly accurately and uses the proper terminology (there is even a glossary in the back for those of the non-horse-obsessed ilk).  No one performs miracles on horseback.  There are no riders suddenly mounting a half-crazy horse and taming it.  People get frustrated.  They fall.  They don't win.  It's like it's breaking every rule of the genre right there.
There are other things as well, but those are the major items I keep coming back to every time I pick up these books.  And the gist of this particular book in the series kinda drives all of that home for me.  Essentially the story revolves around Kate.  Her beloved horse is really holding her career back and her trainer is trying, very gently, to nudge her towards that understanding.  His brilliant idea is to sort of trick her into exercising and showing the horse for him until he finds the right buyer for it (wink Kate wink).  Ah!  But the plan backfires when Kate protests that she doesn't have the time for another horse, but her horseless friend Jesse would LOVE the opportunity.  And so, reluctantly on the part of Jesse, Kate's trainer, and virtually everyone else, Jesse ends up riding this hot powerhouse of a horse.  I can recap every point, but what you mainly need to know is that this ultra-talented horse is the opportunity of a lifetime for a girl like Jesse.  He is brilliant and Jesse and he win all of their shows.  However, the entire time she is riding the horse, Jesse is basically in cold sweats and panics.  There are equal parts of enjoyment and nervous breakdowns when she realizes just how overmounted she is on him.  And when she finally realizes that she would rather not ride than ride that particular horse anymore, she speaks up and explains her feelings.  In the end she understands that sometimes the best horse is not the most brilliant, most talented horse.  Winning is not the end-all and be-all.  Sometimes you just want the flawed horse with whom you share a deep connection.

Besides breaking the rules of the genre, it's just a lovely message.  And one I needed to hear after turning down the purchase of a horse of a lifetime.  I could have bought a horse that would propel me into the primetime, but I chose not to for a myriad of reasons.  Mainly I just didn't feel like it was the right horse at the right time.  Yet, I kicked myself day after day for not taking the opportunity to prove my talent to the world.  And silly as it may seem, this book made me realize that you have to choose the path that makes you happiest.  And happy does not always equal accolades and glory.    

Apr 8, 2010

In Defense of PETA

So, I am aware that this post may not garner me many new friends.  PETA is an extremely polarizing organization, one that seems to either engender irrational hatred or profound allegiance.  I find I fall somewhere in the middle and though PETA would likely denounce a great deal of what I do (horseback riding) and what I think (I eat meat, though only meat from small, local farms), I would like to think that there is common ground between my beliefs and theirs. 

The thing that really bothers me, and what has moved me to write this post, is that the majority of animal lovers that I have met throughout my life are staunchly opposed even to the existence of the organization.  And that really, really bothers me.  I find it supremely unfair to denounce PETA as a terrorist organization which acts out of ignorance.  The fact is that the members of PETA are very clear in their beliefs and they are not without merit.  Their purpose is to act as animal rights advocates, believing that humankind does not have the right to use animals for any purpose whatsoever. And that is a perfectly fair standpoint.  I challenge anyone to read Peter Singer's book, Animal Liberation, and not come away with at least the slightest notion that maybe we are all wrong about the present state of the world and that animals are entitled to the full range of rights that humans have.  His arguments are very calmly and solidly laid out.  AND THEY MAKE COMPLETE SENSE.  PETA has done nothing more than take his arguments and hard-sell it worldwide. 

Look, I made choices at some point of my life which have completely negated any ability for me to be a card-carrying member of the group.  My riding is exploitation.  Probably the way I entice my cat to perform tricks for friends is exploitation.  And, perhaps most importantly, the fact that I eat meat is the worst kind of exploitation.  I realize all of that and I honestly can't fully disagree with them.  Part of me thinks they may be right, but I can't give up the riding and in my heart I believe that riding is a relationship, not subjugation.

So, in short:  PETA would hate me, but I don't hate PETA.  That's the thing that I don't get:  how you can love animals and completely denigrate this group.  They are merciless, brutal.  They will bombard you with images that most humans should not have the stomach to view.  They take absurd, overwrought actions (remember the human breast milk ice cream campaign?) and are not remotely bothered by exploiting beautiful, naked women in pursuit of their goals.  But in the end, they are the only group with the balls to publicly challenge deep, long-held beliefs about the conditions and welfare of animals.  Shock tactics work precisely because they scorn politeness and manners, because they touch on taboo subjects.  More than ever, animals need advocates.  For every blood spattered, fur-wearing celebrity picture, there are hundreds and thousands more pictures of starving and abandoned animals.  People would rather focus on the shocking and obnoxious aspects of PETA without acknowledging the message behind it.  You can't tell me that those tactics don't offer some good, if only by challenging us not to accept the status quo just, you know, because...  Advocacy shouldn't have to always be polite and mannered.  Sometimes you just can't get a point across any other way than by startling them.  Humans will always be more inclined to fret over human rights.  It's only natural.  Animals will always appear to be afterthoughts.  And that's why PETA is so important -- to jar you into changing that train of thought.