The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

the dog stars

   Nightly news just not providing enough despair for you?  Need more Ebola/bird flu/AIDS/mysterious illness fear?  How about Putin, ISIS, Al-Kaeda?  What about global warming and the melting of the polar ice cap and the extinction of animals or the prevalence of killer bees?  Just not scary enough to put you to bed with really great nightmares?  I have a solution:  Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic love song to a lost planet,  The Dog Stars.

    In daeandwrite’s normal posts, there are quotes from the novelists themselves and references to what other media outlets have said about the work.  In this one, I am not going to do that.  The Dog Stars was one of those books that kept popping up on my Amazon recommended reading list, and Goodreads recommendations, and on the shelf at the Morris Book Shop, but I avoided it, sensing that post-apolyptic was not my particular genre.  However, when novelist Will Lavender recommended it during a workshop, calling it a beautifully written book, I thought I would finally take the hint and read The Dog Stars.  Dogs I love.  Stars too.  How bad could it be?


   Heller, a contributing editor at Outside magazine, Men’s Journal and National Geographic Adventure, has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in both fiction and poetry.  I find these facts from his author bio in the book particularly interesting, because I’m fairly sure the publications listed do follow the AP Style Book and use punctuation.  Like periods.  Commas.  Quotation marks.  Heller gives a nod to punctuation occasionally, but it is as bleak as the world in which Hig, the narrator and protagonist of The Dog Stars, finds himself.

Nothing.  Nothing the whole way.  Roads empty.  Blessedly.  Usually are.  Had there been wanderers it would have fucked up everything, delayed our hunt.  Then I would have swooped, cut the engine, played the tape.  I have four songs on the CD rigged to the amp and the speakers:  they are titled

Turn Back North or Die

Turn Back South or Die

Turn Back East or Die

Turn Back West or Die

The words are easy to remember:  just the title over and over.  Followed by the exhortative:  We know you are here.  You will become dog food like many before you.

Bangley made me add that.

   There are passages of beautiful prose, descriptions of nature, fishing, hunting that sing with rapture and glory.  And there is death.  The flu that wiped out most of humanity, followed by “the blood” sickness that took most of the rest, then murder, destruction, self-protection, or looting.

The canopies of cottonwoods still shaded the river parks, some of the oldest and biggest fighting the drought just half dead, still clothed with leaves on one side.  And fire.  Not a corner of the city untouched.  As if it had been fire not flu that had swept death through the town.  The care, every one it seemed, scorched.  Where they were parked in the side streets in their rows, in mall parking lots, out on the highways, where they lay in such a chaos, such absence of patters some giant might have thrown them like pick up sticks.  Whole neighborhoods were burned to the ground.  Others looked as if torched just to melting and left to cool the way a pastry chef glazes a brûlée.  . . . And if there were skeletal trees there were human bones.  I saw them.  Not true skeletons as the connective tissue was gone, but the bones of the dead were everywhere gathered into heaps by some predator and scattered by scavengers.

     My book club members, with perhaps one or two exceptions, would not like this book.  It is so bleak, so realistically depressing.  And yet, such a critical warning bell of what we are wreaking on our own habitat.  The flu that kills The Dog Stars’ humanity is engineered.  The global warming that we mostly ignore has destroyed all the fish and many different mammals.  There are no elephants anymore in The Dog Stars.  No trout.  And very little humanity.  Read it advisedly.


   Heller thoughtfully provides a couple of lovely menus for a book club sprinkled through the despair of the novel.  The first is a meal Hig cooks for himself and his “partner,” Bangley, over an outdoor fire.

New potatoes fried in oil


Dandelion salad with basil

And near the end, Hig enjoys a meal of fresh, creek-cooled milk and shepherd’s pie with butter.  “Well salted.  Ground beef.”

The beverages Hig and Bangley drink are water with an occasional treat of a Coke or a Dr. Pepper from an overturned tractor trailer.

MUSICdog stars

   Heller also gives a full round-up of music from “before,” and Hig’s “after” listening.


“Whiskeytown to Topley to Sinead.  We loved the Dixie Chicks, who wouldn’t.  Amazing Rhythm Aces.  Open Road, Sweet Sunny South, Reel Time Travelers, the scrappy fine bluegrass and old timer groups . . . Brad Lee Folk singing Hard Times.”

Those memories are too much for Hig after, so after he listens to blues.  “I can salve with Lightning and Cotton, BB and Clapton and Stevie Ray.  I can blast Son Seals singing Dear Son until the coyotes in the creek raise up a sympathetic sky ripping interpretation of the harmonica solo.  Piercing howls and yelps.  Sounds like it’s killing them and also like they love it.  Which when you get right down to it is the blues.”


Hig:   Aaron Eckhart

Bangley:  Robert Duvall.  Definitely.

Pops:  Tommy Lee Jones

Cima:  Olivia Wilde

   I won’t end with Happy Reading, because this really isn’t.  But it is a warning bell.

lassie  Lassie, my favorite dog star


Making Art, Waging War: The Stockholm Octavo


Emil Larsson has a problem. He needs a wife or he will lose his job as a sekretaire in 18th Century Stockholm; a job that has brought him a good income, legitimate and illegitimately taking bribes from the ships he inspects at night in the harbor of “The Town,” Gamla Stan.  To help him find an answer to this most pressing romantic problem, despite the upheaval of revolution in France that is spreading its message toward Sweden, he turns to his friend Mrs. Sparrow and her unique brand of fortune-telling:  The Octavo.

“I have come to believe that we are ruled by numbers, Mr. Larsson.  I believe that God is no father, but an infinite cipher and that is best expressed in the eight.  Eight is the ancient symbol of eternity.  Resting it is the sign that mathematicians call the lemniscate.  Raised upright it is man, destined to fall into infinity again.  There is a mathematical expression of this philosophy called the Divine Geometry.”

Emil begins his search for the eight who make up his Octavo, encountering a cross-dressing calligrapher, a French fan-making emigre, a runaway bride, and most fascinatingly, the Uzanne, a widowed baroness, fan collector, instructor of maidenly “arts” and defender of the aristocracy.  The Uzanne uses every means within the realm, and some that are not of an earthly nature, to enforce her dogmatic will.  Her favorite tool in waging her own war is a mysterious and beautiful fan called “Cassiopeia.” Oh, and magic.


It the book sounds like an intriguing 18th Century mash-up of The DaVinci Code and The Witches of Eastwick, that’s what I thought too.  It is not.  Amid all the interesting references to card reading, the revolution in Europe, the mysteries of the Divine Eight, how to use a fan to cause men to pass out-do your bidding-fall madly in love in an instant, etc., I found the novel lost momentum about halfway through and became rather a chore to finish.  The elements of fascination were there, and I definitely would like to read more about fans.  But ultimately, Emil was not a protagonist that garnered my sympathy.  He was too foolish and easily swayed to root for him in his quest.  Mrs. Sparrow went AWOL for much of the novel.  And no other central character in Karen Engelmann’s novel proved particularly sympathetic

The much more interesting conflict, and one less focused, in this book:  against the backdrop of revolution and class warfare … and ultimately war, Emil’s friend calligrapher Fredrik Lind, the French fan-maker Christian Norden, and the Uzanne herself, attempt to preserve art in the face of war.  In The Stockholm Octavo, the artists are conquered by the magicians and warriors at least temporarily.

The Monuments Men explores a based-on-real-life story of another eight men tasked with saving art in a time of war.  George Clooney, who wrote the script with his buddy Grant Heslov, gives himself a wonderful monologue that is at the very crux of art and war.

“While we must and will win this war, we should also remember the high price that will be paid if the very foundation of modern society is destroyed.  They tells us no one cares about art.  But they’re wrong.  It is the exact reason that we’re fighting, for culture, for a way of life.  We are at a point in this war where that is the most dangerous to the greatest historical achievements known to man.  You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still find a way back.   But if you destroy their history, destroy their achievements, then it’s as if they never existed.  That’s what Hitler wants.  That is exactly what we’re fighting for.”

The Monuments Men save art in the lap of war.  The Uzanne plans to use art to make war.  Why wage war if not to save art?  Perhaps the answer is written only in the night sky.Cassiopeia

If you decide to choose “The Stockholm Octavo,” for your book club, I offer a delightful recipe from my grandmother’s recipe box, written in her own hand.  It’s a meatball soup, chosen by me due to the Swedish meatball refrain that has run continuously through my mind.  I would serve this with wine, lots of wine in the book, and make sugar cookies in the shape of fans for dessert.  A lovely soundtrack for your evening would be George Winston’s Winter into Spring c.d. (1982).  Of course, if you want to be tongue-in-cheek and/or prior to discussion, ABBA would be fun!

Meatball Soup

Cover several beef bones with 3 quarts water, bring to boil, simmer 4 hours.  Strain, chill and skim off fat.  Add to broth, 1/2 cup diced carrots, 1/2 cup thin sliced onions, 1/2 cut fine cut celery, 1/2 cup sized white turnips, 1 package frozen corn and 1/2 can of tomatoes, 4 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1/4 teaspoon basil.

For meatballs:  1 pound ground been, 4 slices stale bread (soak in water and squeeze dry), 1 egg (slightly beaten) 1 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, 3/4 teaspoon thyme.  Make 3 dozen tiny meatballs and add to soup.  Simmer about 30 minutes.