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.

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.

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.

Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story

After finishing Silver, Sword, and Stone:  Three Crucibles of the Latin American Story, I felt as if I’d been beaten about the head and ears.  The “brutal calculus” of Latin American history simply clobbered me, left me reeling.  Marie Arana calls her book a mixture of history and reportage, and that approach, I think, is what makes it so readable, but her work is massive in both scholarship and scope:  from the Pre-Columbian to the Perons, conquistadores to Castro, Santiago to Pope Francis I.  Its structure and focus are derived from three major currents, co-equal driving forces of Latin American history, identified in the title as silver, sword and stone.

Silver for wealth:  mineral, agricultural, fossil fuels, and drugs.  Sword for violence:  war, conquest, revolution, terrorism, dictatorships, gangs.  Stone for religion:  the Sun God, ancient sacrifices, Catholicism, missionary zeal, political involvement.  All leading to or resulting in weakened extractive societies and exploitation driven by greed.  For each of the three, Ms. Arana weaves in a humanizing touch, stories of three individuals, living examples of silver, sword and stone in today’s Latin America.  Leonor Gonzales is the wife, now widow, of a sick, impoverished gold miner.  Carlos Buergos, a petty Cuban criminal, fought in Angola and was expelled from Cuba when Castro emptied the prisons of “undesirables”.  Spaniard Xavier Albo, a Jesuit priest from Catalan, has served the Church in Bolivia since he was seventeen and is now in his nineties.

To this day there is a cruelly high economic imbalance between rich and poor in most of Latin America and a pronounced arc toward violence and instability.  Latin American countries and cities are often in the majority on lists of the World’s most dangerous. Exploitation and greed, internal and external, historic and current.  Ms. Arana is both fair and thorough in her examination of these volatile parts of our world, and her timely book is a good balance of scholarship and readability.  Effective and affecting.

Available at booksellers everywhere on August 27, 2019. Shop your local indie bookstore to pre-order.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Simon & Schuster 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.

Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness

That subtitle basically says what needs to be said.  Jennifer Berry Hawes gives us an even-handed look at the horror in Charleston on June 17, 2015.  An atrocity that, for a moment in time and shared grief, appeared to unite us in a complete reversal of Dylann Roof’s avowed hope for race war.  Nine innocent lives are lost at historic Mother Emmanuel, and there is a tenth, lost but not innocent:  the shooter, lost to hatred.  Ms. Hawes movingly recounts the anguish of the families involved, and willingly recognizes that, as human beings, we are all flawed.  In the aftermath, there are those who inspire us with forgiveness, others who struggle, family quarrels, and church schisms because, well . . . humans, you know.  The book offers no blinding insights or solutions to our ongoing struggles, but rather, it serves to remind us of the healing power of forgiveness and, for those who believe, the grace of God.  Oh, wait, did I say no insights or solutions?  Could be I was wrong.  A thoughtful read.

Out today, June 4, from St. Martin’s Press.  Shop your local indie bookstore for a copy.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press 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.

A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming

Dennis Rader of Wichita, Kansas, is a perfectly ordinary looking man, living with his wife and two children in a small ranch house, working reliably, going to church and rearing his nice family.  Dennis Rader is a serial killer known as BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) who terrified Wichita for thirty years, taunted the media, and killed eight adults and two children.  Dennis Rader is Kerri Rawson’s father.  Kerri’s innocence and that of her family ended on February 25, 2005, when Dennis Rader was arrested.

The secret life of a loved one.  Unimaginable, isn’t it?  Devastating, emotional ruin…..but Kerri tells her story with fairness for the father she loved while offering no possible explanation for or understanding of the killer she didn’t know existed.  How could she?  How could anyone?  Her father writes from prison, and she writes in return, initially – and then she turns away.  Fits and starts, years of on-again, off-again therapy, a PTSD diagnosis, a loving, insightful husband, supportive family, a growing strength in her faith, and, to some extent, the saving grace of humor, as in the chapter title “PTSD Blows Chunks”.  Ms. Rawson’s story is a difficult one to read.  How difficult must it have been for her to endure and to tell?

Shop your local indie bookstore for this wrenching memoir. Also available at Amazon.com

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Nelson Books / Thomas Nelson 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.