Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream

The tiny, tiny town of Royal, Nebraska had a zoo, more of an optimistic roadside attraction or a sort of do-it-yourself menagerie with aspirations.  It never made much money (or any at all), but the people of Royal, near the South Dakota border, were proud of it; it was popular, and it gave them something to fight over.  Nebraska native Johnny Carson even donated money to build a “primate center” for Reuben the chimp who was later joined by Jimmy Joe, Tyler and Ripley.  Zoo Nebraska, in its day, housed a variety of wildlife, but the chimpanzees, the “non-human primates”, were the center of the attraction.  However, it’s the “human primates” (though I’m hard-pressed to make a distinction) who are at the center of Carson Vaughn’s book.  If this “one-horse town” had had a horse, they’d have fought over the horse.  They did, in fact, have someone who made buggy wheels, quite a unique character, and, boy, did they fight with him.  Did you know there’s still a market for buggy wheels?  It’s a wasted day if you don’t learn something.

Anyway, Royal resident and really good-hearted fellow Dick Haskins fell in love with Africa and the Great Apes after seeing a Jane Goodall documentary in eighth grade.  From that point he’s all about going to Africa to work with Goodall or Dian Fossey, so after college, he finds a job at the Folsom Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska working with “non-human primates”, and this is where he meets Reuben the chimp.  And he’s off – on his way to becoming a self-styled primatologist.  When the Folsom Zoo seeks to relocate Reuben to another facility, Haskins gains custodianship of the chimp and begins planning a primate center in, of all places, Royal, Nebraska – population about sixty.  The school is closed; the Methodist church is closed; the library is closed.

For years, Haskins works himself to the bitter end without pay – adapting as his hoped-for primate center becomes a small zoo, and losing sight of Africa all together.  When, at last, he must give it up, Zoo Nebraska begins its long and contentious downhill slide to oblivion.  Just plain folks doing the best that they can?  Maybe, maybe not.  But first Royal will be in the national headlines and not in a good way.  Human primates.  What is that saying about big fishes in small ponds?  A good piece of non-fiction.  I read it, and, if I were you………I’d read it, too!

Zip on out to your local bookstore for this one or support an indie bookseller online by clicking here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little A via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Wholly Unraveled: A Memoir

How does a child make any sense of a life that can go from the light of day to the dark of night in a heartbeat?  From smooth waters to dangerous rapids that you never see coming?  Each step could be the one that takes you from a safe place into terror and pain.  Keele Burgin’s young life was one of  glaring contrasts and terrifying uncertainties.  Life on high alert.  Wealth and luxury (a lavishly restored Victorian home on the ocean, horses, station wagons and Cadillacs), a severely abusive, all powerful father, a vacant, submissive mother, a stultifying, fundamentalist version of Catholicism.  (Amazed me.  Didn’t know that existed.)

It was rough – far more than most could imagine or endure.  But if it was rough, she was tough.  Their housekeeper Shirley called her Little Ox.  She develops a hard shell and becomes a headstrong, hard-eyed child and teen-ager, not particularly likeable, to tell the truth.  She couldn’t let herself hate her parents, so she hated herself and became an even harder, self-damaging adult, unable to maintain a giving relationship.

To be honest, at one point, I gave serious thought to bailing out of this read.  Portions are somewhat erratically written, and there is an inconsistency of voice that bothered me from time to time, but I suspect it was either purposeful – a reflection of her erratic young life and inability to find any voice at all of her own –  or just hard as hell to write.  Or both.  Too ugly, too scary – not anywhere I thought I wanted to be.  (Sometimes I get a little down, you know.)  Stuck it out, though, just a little longer, and was rewarded with a redemptive ending that is filled with hope.  This book?  Tough, but worth it.

Currently available from your local indie bookstore here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little A via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Louisa Treger’s The Dragon Lady

I was ready for a good chunk of a novel – not genre, not froth, not gimmick, not avant garde.  And by chunk, I’m not talking about heft, but rather, density, depth, a novel that you unpack as you read.  A novel that ends before you want it to.  Are you with me?  I just wanted a dadblamed book!

So…..you know that first line thing, lines that get the job done?  Well, here’s one.  “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget, yet the smallest thing takes me back to the time the Dragon Lady was shot.”  Let the unpacking begin.  The Dragon Lady is Virginia Courtauld (Gini), wife of Stephen Courtauld, and the dragon is not a dragon.  It is a snake, a fearsome serpent, tattooed up the side of her leg.  Scandalous.  How far up it goes no one knows except Stephen.  Did such a tattoo ever exist?  Not sure about that, but Gini and Stephen did, and The Dragon Lady is a fictionalization of their lives – Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld.  In fact, their home, La Rochelle in what was then Rhodesia, is now a hotel.

Stephen’s family is British and very wealthy.  To be more precise, they are upright folks, filthy, stinking rich, and so is he.  He’s a WWI vet (with flashbacks), a highly principled man, involved in the Arts, devoted to Gini, and he spends gobs and gobs of money.  Gini, well, she is already tattooed when she marries Stephen.  She is wealthy, too, but not as, and it’s upstart wealth.  Also, she’s half Italian, half Romanian.  Hmmm.  Antecedents are so important, you know.  A fascinating, mysterious woman and a bit of a social climber, but, to her disappointment, she never quite makes the cut.  As a couple they are genuine, liberal, philanthropic and always, always controversial.

The book moves back and forth in time from the 1920s to an epilogue in the 90s, but focuses on Stephen and Gini in Rhodesia in the 1950s.  They move to Africa for a new start, and build a beautiful home only to find that native Africans are held in dreadful contempt, and white society is both fearful and fearfully racist.  The Courtaulds reach out for ways to help.  They start a Home and Craft Center for native women, a school for African children, a model farm teaching agricultural methods; they build a theater and an art gallery.  However, as you well know, no good deed goes unpunished.  Stephen is ultimately knighted for his work, but they gain only anger and animosity from their white neighbors.

Oh damn, I hope I haven’t managed to make a slam dunk sound boring.  And I was off to such a good start, too.  Trust me, Rhodesia, a powder keg at that time, cannot be boring.  Neither can Stephen and Gini.  Nor can a ghost, a pet lemur, ladies who smoke slim cigarettes and people who – as if in a Noel Coward play – call each other “darling”.  The very names of African trees will make your eyes light up.  And did I mention the Duke and Duchess of Windsor?  This, my darlings, is a book.

Book your trip to Rhodesia and the past on August 13 when The Dragon Lady hits bookstore shelves.  Support your local indie bookstore if you like by pre-ordering here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Bloomsbury USA / Bloomsbury Caravel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – July 16, 2019

frogs GIF

“Celeste Jones had kissed so many frogs looking for her prince, she should have turned green and grown warts on her lips.”

Sheila Roberts, The Summer Retreat

I don’t think I’ll ever get over this one.  It may leave me scarred for life, this first line gone horribly wrong.  We were doing just fine through “green”.  Period.  Just a period or, if you want, maybe “and croaked” or “and hopped”.  Probably not “and ate flies”.  It’s marginally better, but risky.   It could get you almost back to where you landed in the first place.

Folks, I’m sorry, and I’m not saying this isn’t funny, but you know how it is.  Sometimes when you’re among friends or out with the girls (or the boys), you say something gross that gets the big yucks.  I mean, they really fall out.  Somebody thinks about it five minutes later, and they’re losing it again.  Trust me though, there are those types of funny that cannot be counted on to come across well in print.  I can hear my snarky self saying something like this to get a laugh.  Unfortunately, in writing, I saw the horror of it.

I haven’t read the book at this time, and this is not meant to reflect in any way on Sheila Robert’s work, so please be fair.  Simply my observations on a single line, and one line is not a book.

Going to the drugstore now for some Compound W.

Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession

Now just hold your horses, all you obsessed, bloodthirsty, thrill-seeking ladies out there.  This title would have you devouring the pages of the book, ripping at them with fang and claw…..drooling.  ‘Fraid not.  This is sociology, my friends, and, according to the sociological theorizing in Rachel Monroe’s book, it is the ladies who are obsessed with true crime.  Maybe, but it does make interesting reading, and the true stories of four women are cited as examples of cultural archetypes – Detective, Victim, Defender, Killer.

The unlikely Detective is Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy heiress, who, in the Forties, constructed Nutshells, exquisitely detailed miniatures of crime scenes as training tools for law enforcement….how to see and analyze a crime scene.  Arguably, Ms. Lee’s work could be called the beginning of forensic science, introducing a thread that continues throughout the book.  Many of Ms. Lee’s Nutshells still exist and have been exhibited as art.

The Victim is Patti Tate, younger sister of Sharon Tate.  She inherits her mother’s fight for victim’s rights.  The Defender, Lorri Davis, marries incarcerated Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three and works tirelessly for his eventual freedom, one of many women who befriend and, eventually, love imprisoned men, investing them with a bad boy sexiness or a mysterious uniqueness.  The Killer is a very young Lindsay Souvannarath, and her James, internet buddies/imaginary lovers involved online with admirers of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.  Mostly chatter and bravado, but Lindsay and James actually make plans to shoot up a mall in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he lived.  Unrealistic plans.  Neither had ever fired a gun, and she insisted on wearing heels.

These four women are springboards for broader discussions, a sociological mash-up that tries to cover the waterfront and is only more or less successful.  A Sisyphean task, either in search of a point or adrift in a sea of them, so don’t obsess over it.  Just leave your savage appetites in the basement and nibble thoughtfully on this one.  Here’s the thing.  Without reference, I named Sharon Tate, Damien Echols, the West Memphis Three, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold , and you know who they are.  Don’t you?

Savage Appetites takes aim at bookstores on August 20, or thereabouts.  Pre-order here from your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Scribner via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Tupelo Hassman’s gods with a little g

I was loving it.  I did love it.  I do love it, but there’s a but, and we’ll get to that later.  Snarkily self-protective high school student Helen Dedleder (hmm, her dad’s a postman) lives in Rosary, California.  Her mother is deceased, so it’s just Helen and her dad, but her dad is zombified with grief, so her Aunt Bev, a psychic, moves to Rosary and opens the Psychic Encounter Shoppe, henceforth referred to as the shoppe.  Now, Rosary, you see, is home to a giant belching refinery, lots and lots of churches and lots and lots of religious folks that Helen calls Thumpers.  The Thumpers pretty much control Rosary, and they are not happy to have a psychic shoppe in their town.  They’re even more unhappy with Aunt Bev’s second job in the back of the shoppe after hours.

Helen and her friends call themselves the Dickheads and they hang out after school at Fast Eddie’s Tire Salvage, drinking beer.  Thumpers aren’t happy with the Dickheads either, and the Dickheads aren’t happy with the Thumpers, so there you go.  Me, I was riding the crest – sexually-obsessed teenagers, quirky misfit angst, a rollicking good time.  Then, near the end, almost home-free with a standing ovation, Ms. Hassman throws in an ill-advised scene that gave me the vapors.  I won’t go into it, but I will say that no one is hurt, so there’s that.  It is, however, ugly, unnecessary, and unnecessarily ugly.  Now this particular scene might not bother you; it doesn’t have to.  And, when all is said and done, this is a meaningful book, a raucous riot of a book, but……..it did bother me.  So, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Farrar, Straus and Giroux will put this novel in your hands on August 13 as long as you shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Farrar, Straus and Giroux via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Superlative: The Biology of Extremes

The outliers:  biggest, smallest, deadliest, smartest, strongest, oldest, fastest.  A sort of Guinness Book of Records for grown-up nerds, huh?  Same fascination factor, for sure, but with purpose and science to boot.  What can we learn from these extremes of nature?  How did they come to be?  What are the challenges to their survival?  How can they benefit us?

For example, in “Why Almost Everything We Know About Giraffes Is Wrong”, we learn that prevailing theories say giraffes developed their unique bodies and long necks in order to graze from tree tops.  But did they?  They seem to bend down to eat from grasses and shrubs as much, if not more, than in trees.  So why those long necks with those pretty little heads at the top?

And there’s “Why Elephant Cells Are Like Empathetic Zombies”.  Elephants grow so rapidly that cells tend to mutate, and so it seems that elephants would develop cancers at an astounding rate – but they don’t.  In elephants, mutating cells appear to “develop a conscience” and die.  Now wouldn’t it be great if our pre-cancerous cells offed themselves?  Yeah, that’s the ticket, and we’d have elephants to thank, so back off, poachers!

I’ve only sampled Matthew LaPlante’s good book, but I’ll be back, and it’s perfect for enjoying this way if you like.  Of course, for many, it’ll be like potato chips.  Hard to stop with one or two.  Whatever your style, munchies or the full buffet, the line starts here.

Be the biggest, smartest, fastest reader to buy this book from your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by BenBella Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.