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Book Club Meets: 'Truth, Cruelty & the American Way'



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Seth Bate on Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals

The God of Animals

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Update: Aryn Kyle takes your questions on the BPP.

Welcome to the online meeting of the BPP Book Club. We want to hear what you think of our latest selection, Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals, so lay it on us in the comments.

Next week, we'll use what we hear from you when we sit down to interview Kyle on the air.

A couple of days ago, we chatted about the book with listener and reader Seth Bate, the Kansas guy who dared to buy a book by a woman about horses, about some thoughts that he first sent over in an e-mail message titled "Truth, Cruelty and the American Way."

Want to join us for our next selection? Sign up for BPP Book Club alerts.



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I consider myself to be an avid and open-minded reader, but probably wouldn't have picked up a title about a young girl and horses, but I thought I would give it a try since The BPP selected it for the book club.

I grew up with friends who raised and showed horses and was taken back to hot summer days hanging out in the horse barn watching the preparations to show these magnificent animals. Little did I know how much really went in to preparing these horses for the show ring? It is indeed a "show."

I really felt that Kyle created an excellent juxtaposition of the illusion of the horse show and the illusion that surrounded so much of Alice's life. Kyle revealed the layers of artifice that created the image of the horses in the show ring and the artifice that made up the lives of the characters: Sheila's parent's marriage, Nona and Jerry's marriage, Joe and Marian's marriage, Alice's friendship with Polly and with Mr. Delmar, Marian's appearances downstairs when Ruby and Jack visit, Joe and Patty Jo's relationship and the Catfish themselves and the list goes on. I was particularly moved by the complicated relationship between Alice and her father. Joe was extremely conflicted by his troubled relationship with Nona and Marian and was desperately trying to preserve his relationship with Alice while at the same time threatening to drive her away.

Kyle revealed a great deal about each of the characters as the novel progressed, but she didn't neatly tie-up the characters or their storylines. This made the reading of this even more compelling. I hoped with each page, I would know why Nona ran off with Jerry and why Marian couldn't stay downstairs. Kyle hinted at these things, but never laid them out completely. I appreciated that.

I was particularly moved during Alice's phone conversation with Mr. Delmar when she says, "It just seems like there should be someone, something out there that cares about then, cares that they existed, that they suffered or didn't." "Something out there ought to be watching over them." Alice is seeking The God of Animals.

Sent by Doug Northup | 8:03 AM | 5-2-2008

Alice's father said it best, when Alice "explained" her mother to Mrs. Altman ("You're a wicked lying fiend, Alice Winston," he said. But he smiled when he said it."), yet the deception of Alice's words belies the truth of her actions. The lie that she made Polly's lantern for her mother becomes the truth of the explanation she gives her father ("She wanted something. That was all I had."). The pattern of lies giving way to truth are vividly expressed in Alice's "borrowed" relationship to Mr. Delmar, in her unexpected, inexplicable success in the reigning competition and finally in Patty Jo's "tragic" flaw.

This deception also seems to be an integral part of all the relationships doomed to failure that populate this novel, from that of Sheila and Cap, to Patty Jo and Alice's father; from Alice's parents to Alice and Mr. Delmar.
Finally, the lies and fantasies go together, supporting each other, to make her a credible narrator.
One question I would have for the author is this: The underlying threat of Mr Delmar never materializes. What made her decide not to pursue to plotline of Mr. Delmar as pedophile? (I am grateful she did not, for the record.)
Favorite lines:
Shiela Altman "rode like a sack of doorknobs"
"My father patted my head and I stood perfectly still, the only animal in the whole pasture that didn't flinch under his touch."
I'm intrigued by this passage, when Mr. Delmar says "... dreams are sort of an opportunity..."
"Oh," I said. Opportunity was a good thing, a chance, a promise - the gift of drowning every night and never being dead."
Congrats again, Sarah, on the selection!

Sent by Kymm in Barcelona | 9:10 AM | 5-2-2008

Confession time: I started the book and thoroughly enjoyed it, but had to set it aside. I spent many years in the equestrian world and, of course, introduced my daughter to it when she was just 5.

She was a good rider and loved the horses. She also loved showing (English). Mostly, she liked being around the barn with the horses, like the main character.

She grew up and, unfortunately, she and I became estranged (Long story.) So, reading this wonderful book presented images that brought back some great memories that are still a little hard to process.

The book is well written. The author knows horses, but better still, she knows people. Alice is a well drawn character.

Great choice ... I may even read it fully sometime.

Sent by David Hollis, Hamilton, NY | 9:35 AM | 5-2-2008

To follow up on thoughts about truth and cruelty:

The page that really struck me, that I went back and reread, was when Alice goes to Mr. Delmar's house, when she's afraid he will leave town without seeing her. First he tells her: You're not in love with me. That's never what this was. And Alice thinks: The truth comes out. Nothing was as I thought it was.

Then when Alice tells Mr. Delmar that her dad is a school bus driver, even though she doesn't say anything else, she has this internal moment of feeling the truth all around her, and there's this wonderful line: "Any more, and I would have drowned in it." Not lost on us is that this is a book that starts by talking about a girl who drowned.

On another topic, at the beginning of the book, I was very interested in what happened to Polly, and I sort of expected that answer to come out. It helped make the beginning of the book foreboding and kept me reading. By the end of the book, I really didn't think about it anymore, and I think that's the way communities are after some local tragedy happens. But now that I'm rethinking it, what does Aryn Kyle think happened to the girl?

Sent by Seth in Kansas | 10:03 AM | 5-2-2008

I would ask Ms. Kyle why she eliminated grace so completely from the story. I would ask her why the "God of the Animals" had to be cold and dark. The human and animal characters had bleak lives and in the end there was no sense of hope. Patty Jo gives a large some of money to Alice. Could Alice have done something with the money besides travel? Could she have done something that would have said, Life may be bad, but I will struggle to make it better. Why couldn't the "God of the Animals", in the end, be gracious and offer a flicker of hope.

Sent by Deana | 10:39 AM | 5-2-2008

@Seth I agree it is odd that we never find out what happened to Polly. But in that way, you're right, it is like real life. The collective consciousness of the tragedy gradually erodes the "truth" of the actual events.

It kind of goes with what Doug Northrup said about how Kyle doesn't tie things up in neat packages. But I would be interested in hearing the author's answer to the Polly question.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 10:41 AM | 5-2-2008

My take away from this novel was the destructive force of narcissism. Not the staring in the mirror sort, but self-involvement to the point where the considerations of others are immaterial. We see it in all three generations of the family. The grandfather who drops into their live unannounced, rearranging things to suit himself, and then leaving just as abruptly. He caused some good by helping with the barn and fixing the air conditioner and some ill by bribing the horses with sugar, but it was all for his convenience. Never was the impression given that any of this was done for love. The father is the same way, but seems more extreme because we know him better. He is indifferent to his wife's depression because she doesn't matter to him any more. When another opportunity for romance comes along he pursues it as if he were a single man. The fact that he does it in front of his daughter is more evidence of his narcissism. Alice's needs are not his concern. Indeed it is Joe's girlfriend who notices Alice is outgrowing her clothes.

The horses are where most of these character's flaws are expressed. Others have talked about cruelty, and I agree, but the perpetrators do not show remorse so I am wondering if it is cruelty in their eyes. The grandfather maimed Ace, but his reaction to it is never mentioned. The pattern is repeated when Joe kills King. Most significantly this is shown in the pattern of torture visited upon Darling. Joe treats animals as a means to an end. His financial windfall. His grandiosity. What the animals have to go through to achieve his ends are not Joe's concern. He is The God of Animals, but a jealous and cruel God straight out of the Old Testament.

Sadly the behavior is passed down to the third generation. Nona leaves to find her happiness and returns when that doesn't work out. She doesn't ask about either. The needs and concerns of others are not a factor in her decision making. At the last Alice shows that she too has absorbed the lesson. "You drive a school bus." "You can't pay the bills." When Alice's needs aren't met she lashes out without concern about the fall-out. At first I thought it was remarkable how little this family talked about important things: the mother's depression, Nona's departure and return, Polly's death, and Joe's affair. Later I realized this was just a symptom of their more fundamental problem.

I have to say, while I grew to dislike the characters one by one, I enjoyed reading the book. The writing was fluid and descriptive, but not overly ornamented. The characters were well fleshed out and quite believable. The only part I found lacking was the description of the first time Alice rode Darling. I couldn't tell whether it was an outstanding performance or a dreadful one. I got the message from the text that followed. Then again maybe we weren't supposed to know because Alice herself didn't know?

Sent by Dave Wiley | 11:10 AM | 5-2-2008

I want to talk about the dad. I'll make it simple--is he a good guy or a bad guy? He seems to be a bad father, but every time I decide I dislike him, something happens that reminds me of everything he has to bear essentially alone.

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 12:01 PM | 5-2-2008

I love this book. Excellent selection. I recognize these people even though I've never been near a ranch. Typically, each sister thinks the other has the better deal-each has a different view of the family. Question: Why can Sheila forgive Alice? Has Alice been a real friend to her? Or is it easy to forgive when you have always had a loving mother? Alice lies to Delmar - pretends she's been Polly's friend and that she has Sheila's parents. Has Sheila been "trying on" Alice life too - grubbing around the barns? Interesting that Mr. Delmar is the one to show Alice that no one is a complete waste of time. I like all the pairings - Elvis's twin, of course, and Alice and Nona, Alice and Polly, Alice and Sheila, Alice and Janice. Great details too - like the baby wig on the infant pageant contestants and Alice's wearing her own too small clothes and Nona's too big ones at the same time.

Sent by Jacqueline | 12:07 PM | 5-2-2008

@Tricia -- I'm still 70 pages from the end, but I keep waiting for the dad to do something really, really bad. And he doesn't. Is the writer toying with us or giving us a richer portrait? I haven't made up my mind yet.

Sent by Laura Conaway, NPR | 12:16 PM | 5-2-2008

He's going to do something bad. But it's not going to define him as bad.

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 12:26 PM | 5-2-2008

I'll go out on a limb here and defend Joe(the dad). He is not a bad man. He's a flawed man and he's doing the best he can, with the help of some delusional artifice, to provide for his family and just keep his sanity while his wife dies physically and spiritually.

On a totally different note - I want to know what you all think about the role of water in the book. We've got the actual drowning of Polly, the metaphorical drowning of Alice, the drought, the scene of Alice and Joe in the pool...any other profound water references?

keep the comments and questions coming!

Sent by rachel | 12:33 PM | 5-2-2008

Trish: I think the dad after all the years dealing with his wife and the horses around him and just become numb. I don't think he really understands how his actions effect those around his, Alice most of all. The fact that he has no idea or care that his wife is watching him and everything going on shows how little he is aware of the world around him. His life is really only about the horses he surrounds him self with. Not the people who are there.

Sent by Joshua | 12:41 PM | 5-2-2008

Some general comments on the book.

I would of liked to see the Polly line come full circle and have Dad tell Alice about being the one to pull Polly out of the water.

Growing up in a state where horses and ranches are part of life, I had friends in rodeo and horse shows. I knew they sacrificed for it, because the loved it. I never thought about the day to day work that they put in to be the best they can be. Kyle did a wonderful job showing how that day to day stuff wears on a family when it is their life.

I did feel the end of the book could have been a bit tighter. I found myself questioning what happened to her parents. We know they sold the farm land and things like that, but Alice's mother was not even mentioned really in the last chapter. After reading such a wonderful book the rest of the way, I found myself really disappointed with the ending.

That said it was still a great choice for the book club to read and I can't wait to see what the next book will be.

Sent by Joshua | 12:49 PM | 5-2-2008

@Joshua It's amazing, isn't it, how many times you finish a book and the thing that doesn't work is the ending. I think the ending is one of the hardest things for a writer of fiction to pull off. Happy or sad? Tidy or unresolved? It's incredibly hard to strike that balance. It's as if, when the words start coming to an end, the magic of the narrative begins to dissipate, and we realize it's all been an illusion.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 12:59 PM | 5-2-2008

@Laura Conaway: I'm still 70 pages from the end, but I keep waiting for the dad to do something really, really bad. And he doesn't.

Joe's treatment of his wife's mental illness I find the cruelest thing in the book. It's not as sudden as some other acts in the novel, and it is not premeditated, but it is constant. Imagine what it would take to ignore that level suffering on a daily basis. This defines his character for me.

Sent by Dave Wiley | 2:19 PM | 5-2-2008

I thoght it was a wonderful book. I thought she did an amzing job and letting us know how the other characters must have perceived Alice, without Alice being aware of her affect on other people. I loved her relationship with her father and sister as well.
I felt much more emotionally attached to the people and their attachedment to the animals without completely being moved by the "God of Animals" theme.

Sent by Sarah Maher | 2:36 PM | 5-2-2008

Water theme - The fact that Joe is paid to give one of the boarders horses filtered, bottled water - but doesn't - is another way to show "things are not what they seem".
Anyone else see this a movie?
I could picture the bored housewives drinking from their papercups so vividly.

Sent by Melanie Dion | 3:39 PM | 5-2-2008

I loved this book and am so interested in the varied reactions to the characters. I didn't see any of them as bad or cruel - just overwhelmed, sad and lonely. Joe, it seems, is fighting a battle he can never win. His wife's illness is just one of many insurmountable problems he's ill-equipped to handle. I thought this was a beautiful book. Excellent choice!

Sent by Carol in Colorado | 6:18 PM | 5-2-2008

Rachel, adding to the water motif:
We have Alice's made up story to her teacher about her mom in a boat, and the little Chinese babies drowned in buckets. We have Alice dream - her sister's bed rocks like a raft. We even have Delmar's name - means from the sea. Water suggests religious imagery -baptism and redemption. Alice is drowned - immersed - born again - "Maybe, when she could not save my father, she{Patty Jo} could at least believe that she'd saved me." Joe, cruel and unaware as he seems to be with Alice, is all about sacrificing and saving the way of life, as he saves the Old Men. It's possible to find possible allusions to religion if you care to - Polly Cain - the Pope twins, maybe even Janice's wings. It is interesting to see that what "breaks' Darling - the death of King -scion of Eclipse - is similar to the death of Marian's cat Ham (more religious stuff since Ham was one of Noah's sons, I believe).

Sent by Jacqueline | 6:53 PM | 5-2-2008

I loved the book. I found myself increasingly uncomfortable over Alice's tightening wardrobe. Each page, then each chapter I waited for someone to notice and give her some relief. Not the grandparents, not the Altmans, not the boarders. Not until she suddenly became valuable to her father as a means to bring in clients was she given relief. Is this a metaphor for the decline of fortunes at the barn after Nona's departure?

Sent by Susan | 8:54 PM | 5-2-2008

What about the relationship between mother and daughter: Marion and Alice? Marion rejects Alice from the beginning of their relationship, leaving Nona to take care of her. I don't imagine Joe, the father, took much notice of her when she was a baby because, as someone already pointed out, he didn't even notice (or care) that she outgrew her clothes or know that she had a relationship with a male teacher.

Alice's complete isolation and alienation were very real to me. Her feelings as narrator echoed my own feelings of alienation as a pre-teen. The language Alice chooses to describe her life is stark. I felt often that she standing outside her own life as she narrated, not participating. Kyle's description in the first chapter of the mother handing baby Alice off to Nona, then going upstairs to her room and never coming back down is completely chilling in its lack of emotion: "She didn't make much of a fuss. She didn't call for extra blankets, crushed ice or quiet. She just stayed in bed with the curtains drawn and watched television without the sound. It was easy to forget she was there."

I did enjoy this book. I thought the writing was good, especially in describing the reactions of the characters to one another and the reactions of the horses to each other and to the humans "controlling" them. I would agree with the earlier comment that the family was able to get along only when lying and/or avoiding the truth. And I would include the family's relationship with the mother in that pretense as well. Alice mentions that while she is reading Nona's letters to her mother, she has to "breathe through her mouth to filter out the sour, damp scent of her yellow skin and oily hair." It takes physical will and discipline for Alice to pretend that her mother is a normal part of the family. And in this way, Alice suffers, just as every other being in the book suffers.

I was disappointed in the beginning and the ending of the book. I did not like the first page of the book. The first chapter was originally the short story called "Foaling Season." Perhaps the rhythms between a short story and a novel are different enough that it was a little awkward transitioning from one to the other. The first page of the novel starts out with Polly's drowning, but then, in the same sentence, moves back six months to Nona's leaving and then sticks with the Nona story for a while. This shift seemed appropriate because Alice's sister's leaving would seem more important to the family than the drowning of a schoolmate of Alice's, but this proves not to be true. The end of the first paragraph ends with the words, "pulling a dead girl out of a canal." I thought it was a bit choppy.

Maybe Kyle juxtaposed those two events closely to set the tone in the first sentence -- a bit of tension between the mystery of the drowning girl whose life could be filled in by Alice's imagings and, thereby, avoiding the reality of your sister taking off with a cowboy -- even though the events actually happened 6 months apart. But it struck me as awkward and it colored my impression of the book for the first few chapters. Then I relaxed and was able to enjoy most of the rest of the book. Until the very end.

Sarah and Joshua: I agree the ending went kind of flat. I was left empty. I wanted Alice to change, but she appeared not to at all. The promise of a new understanding of herself and her relationship to horses never materialized.

Sarah: I agree that endings are amazingly difficult to pull off. I am revising my first novel and the ending is horrendous. It is a very difficult trick to transition out of the world you created in the writing of the novel and create a door which you can close satisfactorily. Do you leave the reader wondering what the heck happened, or do you tie everything together and put a happy smile on it, or do you just destroy the entire creation? Do you leaving it hanging and ready for a sequel? But the feeling you are left with at the end of a book is so personal and it depends on so much. I am just amazed that any writer actually comes to a decision about how to end a novel!

Thanks for picking an intriguing book.

Sent by Ellen Wilkin | 10:14 PM | 5-2-2008

I found myself pulled into Kyle's use of Shelia and Patty Jo to reflect what was right and/or wrong about their contemporaries, Alice and Marion. Shelia and Patty Jo were able to come to the barn and extract all the joy and adulation from the barn and from Joe that both his wife and daughter craved.

I also wondered what people thought about Nona.
For all Alice's faults, I did root for her to find some sort of affection, love, or at least hope for either. Nona as a deserter and spoiler of the facade that Joe and Alice built to mentally survive, left me cold.

One more SUPER obvious question--Why do you all think Alice lies so much and so easily?

Sent by Alison Stewart,NPR | 7:57 AM | 5-3-2008

I guess everyone agrees (as do I) that this book was a good read, but like some of the other readers, I was looking for some sort of redemption of Alice in the ending. The water metaphors only work if Alice is redeemed because water is so often associated with washing, becoming clean or new or changed, ie, baptism. As I wrote earlier, to me what is missing is grace; where cruelty and lies can be defeated by a subtle change within a person that eventually grows into kindness and truth. I wanted to see that beginning to happen to Alice in those last pages. But no. As far as we can tell, she will live out the flaws of her forebearers and pass them on to the next generation. For me, that is the only flaw in this story.

Change the ending and it would make a good movie.

Sent by Deana | 10:34 AM | 5-3-2008

@Alison: Why do you all think Alice lies so much and so easily?

I took this as fairly typical 12 year old behavior. I certainly lied a lot at her age. My favorite radio shrink, Joy Browne, says people lie to obscure the difference between the way things are and the way they wish they were. Perhaps Alice lies a bit more than most people because she is very unhappy with the way things are.

Sent by Dave Wiley | 4:14 PM | 5-3-2008

Poorly researched and poorly written. I am a voracious reader and a horse owner. The book fails in both arenas.

Sent by Pam | 6:48 AM | 5-4-2008

Aryn Kyle hit a homerun with this book. While it is more on the dark side of human nature I found her family intricacies to be quite believable. I didn't grow up with horses but I did grow up with family secrets and elephants in rooms we never mentioned. What really hit home for me was the line, "Childhood is never over, not really...But the places we come from don't leave us as esily as we leave them." WOW that's a powerfully true statement that evokes in my heart all the longings I too feel of the place where I grew up. Roots tugging me back.
I wish I knew more of what Alice did with the money at the end, what happened to Alice's mom and why the author is such a marriage cynic?? Since all marriages fail and love ends in this book does Alice ever find a real love?
There's so much in this book that I love and hate. Cruelty makes me cringe, loneliness and lost loves make me cry ...couldn't possibly touch on it all.
Great twist in the middle that kept me reading when Alice wins the blue ribbon, "after that, it was a whole different game." I didn't expect her to win and couldn't wait to see what happened next. Well written indeed.

Sent by LaVonda | 6:36 PM | 5-4-2008

Question for Aryn:
The thing I enjoyed most about The God of Animals was the vivid characterizations. When developing a character what do you think most about strengths or flaws?

Sent by Dave Wiley | 8:38 PM | 5-4-2008

Deana's comments interest me, raising the question of whether a book without redemption is flawed. Isn't it possible for a work of literature to explore the idea that sometimes there is no redemption?

That said, I'm not sure that I agree that there is no redemption here. Alice says that after she received the check from Patty Jo, "I took the money, and I left." Wasn't leaving perhaps her only way to break the cycle of dishonesty and defeat in her family?

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 11:07 AM | 5-5-2008

Maybe I live on the other side of the moon, but the people in Alice's world (including Alice) were the most believable people I've read in ages. Sadly? As sad as the human condition is, I guess. What made Patty Jo and Alice have to close their eyes in order to perform well, to synchronize with another being, while Nona -all smiles and ribbons- gave it up, and Sheila, all cheery innocence and doggedness, will most likely continue to ride like a sack of doorknobs?
I still believe that ignorance is bliss, and that everything after that is painful in greater and greater degrees. After a while, even true love is usually about as beautiful as Alice's view of a horse giving birth...
Redemption? From what? This is Alice's life, her background, her heritage, what she will come back to again and again, and much of it I found to be worthy of admiration. As someone wrote early on: a sarcastic tomboy. What a great narrator!

@Trisha, as far as the father goes, if I had to vote one way or another, I'd say he's a good guy, but in truth I think he is, like most of the rest of the world, a bit of both. A regular Joe.

Sent by Kymm in Barcelona | 4:59 PM | 5-5-2008

Given the basically universal love fest this book is enjoying on this blog I feel almost guilty confessing that I didn't really like it. Basically, the book struck me as trying too hard to be more than it was. The references to Wuthering Heights and To Kill a Mockingbird would've been better off left out. Just let the book speak for itself and be what it is (or isn't). Alice is no Scout and she doesn't need to be. (I'll just skip Heathcliffe and Boo Radley. OK, I am done. Sorry. Anyone who manages to write a novel has my respect and this author does.

Sent by Kate Kenealy | 11:08 PM | 5-7-2008