What dog lover would not want to know exactly what her or his pet was thinking -- and hear those thoughts articulated verbally? And what if it were indeed possible to teach a dog to communicate as humans do? This is the goal of the grieving widower at the heart of Carolyn Parkhurst's quirky but moving debut novel The Dogs of Babel.
Parkhurst's bold debut grew out of an inventive "history" of canine linguistics she penned while in college. This wholly fictional "research" paper provided Parkhurst with the basis of what would become The Dogs of Babel. "I think every dog owner has wondered, what is my dog thinking?" she explained to Bookpage. "What do they make of what they observe about my life? I wish it were true that we could talk and find out what they're thinking, but I don't think it's ever going to happen."
This bizarre premise was actually a means for Parkhurst to explore the themes of grief, loss, redemption, and communication that form the emotional core of The Dogs of Babel. In the novel, a linguistics professor named Paul Iverson finds his beloved wife Lexy lying dead beneath a thirty-foot apple tree in their yard. Not knowing whether Lexy slipped from the branches accidentally or willfully plummeted to her death, Paul turns to the sole witness to uncover the secret of Lexy's death. Unfortunately, this witness happens to be Loralei, his pet Rhodesian Ridgeback. Devastated, Paul abandons his job and embarks on a quest to teach his dog speech in order to discover what, exactly, happened to his wife.
The eccentricity of this premise is not lost on the author, who admits, "There's a real issue of getting readers to suspend their belief when your premise is a man who is trying to teach his dog to talk," but said, "My hope is that, as you learn more about Paul and what he's like, it's believable that he might follow this unlikely course."
Thanks to Parkhurst's skillful blend of absurdity and genuine humanity, readers have not only bought her outlandish premise but have enthusiastically embraced the writer as a significant new talent, Book magazine even naming her as a "new writer to watch." The Dogs of Babel has received raves from a string of publications including The Los Angeles Times, Esquire, People magazine, Marie Claire, and Entertainment Weekly. Furthermore, the novel helped Parkhurst come to terms with her own tragic loss. "My dog, Chelsea, who died during the time I was writing the book, was certainly an inspiration to me," she told Identity Theory.com. "I think that the experience of living with such a sweet dog is probably what made me want to write about dogs in the first place."
Carolyn Parkhurst is following up her touching smash debut with a novel that is no less insightful, but somewhat more humorous. Lost and Found explores the relationships between seven mismatched couples as they compete in the reality TV show from which the novel takes its name. The fictional show is a global scavenger hunt, and the participants find more than they bargained for as relationships become increasingly strained as the game's stakes grow higher. The book is already accumulating more positive notices for Parkhurst. Kirkus Reviews has even stated that Lost and Found surpasses Parkhurst's critically acclaimed debut, adding that, "Given the high-concept premise, Parkhurst has avoided the pitfall of simply engineering a joyride..." Deserved praise for sure, but what else would anyone expect from the writer of The Dogs of Babel?
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In her interview with Barnes & Noble.com, Parkhurst shared some fun facts about herself:
"I wrote my first story, 'The Table Family,' when I was three. Actually, I dictated it to my mother. It was about a family of tables (Table was their last name), and they were upset because there was a family of leaves growing in their house, but then they all learned to live together. The story also had self-driving cars, a friendly witch, and a man who had only one eye -- all the important plot elements."
"I've had three dogs in my life; their names were Fritzie, Shannon, and Chelsea. My mom and I got Chelsea when I was in college, and she's the one who chose his name, despite the fact that he was a male dog and Chelsea is largely a female name.
"A few years later, when Chelsea had come to live with me, my future husband and I tried for a short time to change his name to Doug, which we thought was more fitting (we were inspired by a 'Far Side' cartoon that shows a man standing on his front lawn next to a sign that says, ‘Beware of Doug.' We also liked the way it sounded: ‘This is my dog, Doug'). We did manage to get him to respond to the new name, but ultimately we decided to go back to the name he'd had since he was a puppy."
"I've spent a lot more time watching game shows than I care to admit. I like the excitement of them, the combination of luck and skill, and the possibility that someone could win something really great. Sad as it may sound, The Price is Right is one of the highlights of my day. Whenever my son hears the theme music, he runs to the TV and points at it with great agitation and excitement."
"I love to travel and to cook, although I haven't had much of a chance to do either one since my son was born."
"I collect masks, which is the inspiration for my character Lexy's career as a mask maker, and the first one I ever got was a Carnival mask I bought in Venice. It's a tall gold feather made of papier-mâché, with the features of a woman's face pressed into it. It's beautiful, but it's about two feet tall, and when I bought it I didn't realize I'd have to carry it through Italy for the next two weeks. I dragged it on trains and buses and planes, and I was terrified I'd damage it. The man at the store had wrapped it in paper, and I was scared to unwrap it while I was traveling, so I didn't know until I got home whether it had made the trip intact. Luckily, it was fine; now it's hanging in my living room."
"I also like to play games and do crossword puzzles. When my husband and I were celebrating our first wedding anniversary, I read that the gift is supposed to be paper, so I spent about a month making a crossword puzzle for him. It's surprisingly hard to do. I filled it with clues and references that only he and I would know about, and on the morning of our anniversary, I made him sit there and fill in the whole thing."
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Carolyn Parkhurst had to say:
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold -- A great big treasure chest of a novel about magic and illusion in 1920s San Francisco, packed full of colorful plot twists and cameos by everyone from Warren G. Harding to the Marx Brothers.
Then She Found Me by Elinor Lipman -- A wry, quirky comedy about a woman who's horrified to find out that her birth-mother is an overbearing talk show host.
Shopgirl by Steve Martin -- An elegant and surprisingly poignant little book about a lonely young woman who sells gloves at Neiman Marcus.
The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken -- An astonishingly beautiful fable about the unlikely romance between a Cape Cod librarian and a young man who grows to be 8 feet, 7 inches tall.
Election by Tom Perrotta -- This thoroughly entertaining novel about the casualties of high school politics falls into the read-it-in-one-sitting-and-feel-sorry-when-it's-over category.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders -- George Saunders' imaginative and darkly funny vision of the near future includes surreal theme parks, widespread genetic mutation and memories that can be "off-loaded" and sold for entertainment purposes.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind -- A dark and compelling novel, set in 18th century France, about a sociopathic genius born with a highly advanced sense of smell.
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters -- A lusty, kaleidoscopic romp through the hidden spheres of Victorian society.
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon -- There are few things more satisfying than a well-told story of revenge, and this is an excellent one.
Leave It to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse -- Wodehouse's books are the precursors of the modern comic novel and are, therefore, perfect summer reading; in this one, the resourceful Psmith tries to remedy his financial troubles by advertising that he'll take on any job (as long as it doesn't have to do with fish).
Carolyn Parkhurst took some time out to answer some of our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life ?
I find it very hard to come up with a single book that's been the biggest influence on my life. There are so many books that I've loved throughout my life, and each one of them has had an impact on the way I think about the world. Even when I'm asked what my favorite book is, I always end up naming five or ten titles. Perhaps, in a sense, the most influential books in my life were the ones that taught me to love reading in the first place.
My favorite book when I was a small child was Jellybeans for Breakfast by Miriam Young, which is a great book about two little girls playing make-believe. I remember so clearly the sense it gave me that imagination can be a wonderful and powerful force. It's out of print now, but I was able to find it on eBay a few years ago, and it's one of the best things I own.
What are your favorite books -- and what makes them special to you?The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides -- The voice Eugenides uses to tell this hypnotic and heartbreaking story is so compelling that I was hooked from the very first sentence. The story is narrated in the first person plural by the group of teenage boys who lived alongside the five mysterious Lisbon sisters and watched as, one by one, they killed themselves. But the incredible thing is that the story is never morbid; it's an amazingly evocative look at youth, with all its yearning and despair. I love this book more than I can say.
The Palace Thief by Ethan Canin -- I never knew the novella could be such an enjoyable and satisfying form of fiction until I read this book. Each of the four novellas in this collection is the perfect length to read in a single sitting, and each one will transport you to a place you didn't even know you wanted to go.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf -- I first read this book in college, and it was a revelation to me to see the way that the internal lives of ordinary people could make such a compelling story. It taught me, as a writer, that interior action can be just as intriguing as external action.
Jazz by Toni Morrison -- Morrison's prose is as fluid and dazzling as ever, and her characters are as fully formed as any real people I've ever met, but the thing I love about this book is the story she tells: a Jazz Age love triangle that leads to murder.
They Whisper by Robert Olen Butler -- This beautifully written book is an incantation about the mysteries of attraction and the power of sexuality. I just love the way he writes.
Mama Day by Gloria Naylor -- This wonderful book about the often mysterious inhabitants of a fictitious island off the coast of Georgia Is infused with a dark sense of magic. I reread this book every few years, and I love it every time.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon -- The sheer breadth of this book is stunning -- how does Michael Chabon fit so much into a single novel and weave it together so seamlessly? If you'd asked me if I'd ever be interested in a book about the golden age of comic books, I would have said no, but the characters are so utterly human, and their problems so real and so heartbreaking that I loved every page.
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro -- This book captures, better than anything I've ever read, what it feels like to be in the middle of a dream. Things don't always make sense, but they have their own internal logic. Ishiguro also wrote The Remains of the Day, which I also loved, but it's hard to imagine two more different books being written by the same author.
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson -- I love the touches of the fantastic that Winterson uses in her books. This one involves the web-footed daughter of a Venetian gondolier and Napoleon Bonaparte's chef.
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino -- This is a book, above all, about the pleasures of reading. Calvino leads the reader through a whirlwind tour of all the different novels he hasn't quite written, and it's a mind-boggling but thoroughly enjoyable journey.
Groundhog Day, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Memento, A Few Good Men, This is Spinal Tap, The Shining and Wonder Boys. For me, these are all movies that stand up to repeated viewings.
Spinal Tap is just one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, and I find new details in it every time I watch it.
A Few Good Men is a great courtroom drama, and there's one shot where you can see a house where I used to live. The Shining terrifies me every time I watch it.
Hedwig is hilarious, but also surprisingly poignant, and the music is great. I listened to the soundtrack constantly when I was pregnant, and as a result, the song "Wig in a Box" has an almost magically lulling effect on my son. We sing it to him every night at bedtime and keep the CD in the car in case he gets fussy. Someday he'll probably see the movie, which is a wonderful film but not exactly appropriate for children, and I'm sure he'll think it's an awfully strange thing to choose for a lullaby.
I like a lot of different kinds of music. The first popular song I remember liking was the thoroughly forgettable song "Him" by Rupert Holmes. The song my husband and I danced to at our wedding was "At Last" by Etta James.
I was a teenager in the ‘80s, and I have probably 20 different compilations with titles like The Best Music of 1983. One of my favorite albums is 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields, which is, as you might guess, a collection of 69 love songs, written in a bunch of different styles and genres. The lyrics are great, sometimes ironic, sometimes hopeful, sometimes bitter, sometimes wistful. Songs from this album make it onto practically every CD mix I make.
Another favorite album is Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco, which is really interesting -- the artists took a bunch of unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics and set them to music, and the results are a great mixture of rock, folk, and country. I love the soundtrack of the TV show Scrubs -- it has some really fabulous and surprising songs on it, including "Hallelujah" by John Cale, which is my current favorite song, and a couple of great solo songs by Colin Hay, formerly of Men at Work (there's that fondness for the ‘80s again). And I'm always listening to Once More, with Feeling, which is the soundtrack of the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is, in my opinion, one of the best TV shows of all time.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, because it's such a fun book to read that I'd like to share it with my friends. It's such a lively portrayal of the seamy side of Victorian life. But there's also a lot of substance to the characters, and a real heft to the story. I think it would inspire some great discussions about what it means to write about (and read about) the 19th century with a 21st-century perspective.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
All of the writers in the above section; Toni Morrison's beautiful prose and Michael Chabon's compelling storytelling inspire awe in me. I also love Patrick McGrath; I really admire the dark, gothic tone of his novels. Margaret Atwood is great at exploring the whole continuum of human emotion and the many different ways people treat each other badly. Kazuo Ishiguro writes books that make you question what you know about the world. I like writers who tell stories that don't feel like anything else I've ever read, and these writers all do that splendidly.
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