Friday, October 15, 2021

How to Train Your Dad

Paulsen, Gary. How to Train Your Dad
October 5th 2021 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Carl and his father live in a dilapidated trailer outside of town. While his father revels in getting food from the dumpster, clothes from garage sales, and bartering for everything else, Carl is less thrilled, especially when the overalls his father obtains are hot pink! Most of the time, Carl is okay with their off the grid lifestyle, and even admires his father for his efforts, but when he gets further into middle school and wants to draw positive attention from girls (and one girl in particular), he is increasingly embarrassed by his father. His friend, Pooder, on the other hand, thinks that bartering and making do are really cool; mainly because he doesn't have to live that way himself! When he is emptying dog food for their pit bull Carol into a secure garbage can, he finds a puppy training manual, and decides to use positive reinforcement to slowly change his father's behavior. He goes to great lengths to distract his father, spending weekends at nature preserves and doing other activities so that the two don't end up at more garage sales. This doesn't stop his father from making a spectacularly ugly recumbent bike for him, but his father does catch on eventually and makes attempts at having a more stable, socially acceptable life style. 
Strengths: I am continually surprised by Paulsen's ability to write humorous books, but his Liar, Liar series, Masters of Disaster, and This Side of Wild are all excellent examples of how well Paulsen does with this genre. As someone who can scrounge with the best of them and whose furniture was largely gotten from curbs, I can both understand what the father is trying to do to survive and also understand whey Carl might be embarrassed by this. While Carl does want some "nicer" things, like clothes that are new and fit, or a better bicycle, he's not at all bratty about this. When his father does buy him new clothes, he appreciates them, and tries very hard to keep them nice, even when he has an accident and is bleeding. He willingly dumpster dives while wearing pink overalls, and is philosophical when he makes the news while doing so. While it isn't explicitly state, there was a strong undercurrent of worry about economic insecurity that I could see Carl experiencing, and I think that is what pushed him to "train" his father. This was pure fun at many points, and even had an excellent scene where Pooder is treating women in a sexist way, and Carl has this thought (From the E ARC): There are times when you correct your friend for being an archaic, sexist pig like CB and then there are times when you sit back and wait for karma to drop-kick his disrespectful butt into gentlemanly manners... who a I to depreice some budding feminist of the chance to put Pooder in his place?" Excellent point!
Weaknesses: The use of dog training methods to change human behavior was done better in Margolis' Boys Are Dogs (2009!) and Stewart's Fetching (2011). The training works, but more because his father finds out what he is trying to do than because the training is effective.
What I really think: Mr. Paulsen is 82 years old. I will enjoy every book he writes for the great turns of phrase and ingenious plots, and be okay with any roughness in execution. 

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