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New on the SF State bookshelf

January 2, 2008 -- Cinema Professor Jan Millsapps doesn't own a dog, but for the past year and half she has been obsessed with one pooch in particular: Laika, the Soviet canine who, in 1957, was placed aboard Sputnik 2 and became the first living creature in space.

Book cover: Screwed Pooch.

Little is known about the first space dog. She was chosen for the Soviet space program among several strays (all female) and was doomed never to return to Earth. In their haste to meet Khrushchev's demands to put a living creature in orbit following the success of Sputnik 1, scientists failed to devise a way to bring Laika home. Shortly after Sputnik 2's launch, all contact with the dog was lost.

In part to mark the 50th anniversary of Laika's voyage and to illuminate her contribution to the advancement of human space travel, Millsapps wrote and published "Screwed Pooch," a history-based novel that attempts to fill in the gaps in Laika's biography.

Narrating her story from the afterlife, Laika recounts her time as a stray pup roaming the streets of Moscow, her kidnapping by KGB agents and the secret training center where, among other regimens, she is put in successively smaller cages so she can adjust to the cramped quarters of Sputnik 2. Laika also describes the humans and other animals in her life -- some fictional, some real -- and their own stories of romance, intrigue and adventure.

Millsapps did extensive research into the Soviet space program for the book, uncovering archival photos and newsreels in the process. Millsapps has posted many of these films and images, along with book excerpts and a short movie about Laika on the book's Web site.

"Screwed Pooch" is available through Amazon.com and the SFSU Bookstore.

Below is an excerpt:

The visitor was not willing to dawdle, but stopped long enough to lean down and look carefully at each one of us crouched in our cage. That's when I noticed his sad eyes, his wide forehead wrinkled with worry, and the constant frown that occupied his face. I didn't know at the time he was The Chief Designer, the one who would send me to my death in one of his fire-breathing missiles. I didn't know that he'd come here to instruct Gazenko on the details of the upcoming launch; already the clock was ticking.

"Then how will you choose?" I heard this visitor ask.

"I have a method," Gazenko explained. "Every day the cages are adjusted, and the space they occupy becomes more limited."

He used his hands to demonstrate how much, then continued, "Some whine and wiggle to be set free. These will not be successful. Eventually one will prevail and she's the one I will choose."

He paused in front of my cramped cage as he said this. I glared at him mutely.

"This new one," he gestured toward me, "she has a ways to go, but she's making good progress, and we still have some time."

Suddenly he thrust his index finger through the metal bars of my cage. I resisted the urge to spring forward and snap it off; instead I huddled in the back corner, and this time I kept quiet, calm and still. Gazenko, for the first time ever, smiled at me before moving away, the bristly corners of his big fuzzy moustache curving upward, lips parted to reveal his perfect teeth.

"Good dog," he whispered in the same low, emotionless voice he'd used when he'd captured me, as if trying to conceal his actual feelings, but I could tell he was pleased with me.

What was disquieting about this? Not that I'd learned how to make this despicable man smile, but that part of me wanted to do so again.

Never, ever let down your guard around a human just because he treats you nicely.

I wish now that I'd listened more carefully to my own advice.

-- Barbara Hanscome

-- Michael Bruntz


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