Friday, September 19, 2014

#49 [2014/CBR5] "Animal Madness" by Laurel Braitman

"...as Oliver Wendell Holmes says, a weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself." (61)

I am an animal lover, so when I first spotted Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves (2014) by Laurel Braitman at my local Costco, I was intrigued. I imagined in-depth stories of animals that have made miraculous recoveries. I wanted inspiring tales of elephants with new best friends and dogs who become miraculously happy and well-adjusted. I was really looking forward to reading this one.

So, let's just call those expectations unrealistic and optimistic. It turns out that most animals become crazy, at least the animals we know about, because people are doing something horrible to them. Another title for this book could be "A History of Animal Abuse." Perhaps if I had thought it through a little more, I wouldn't have been so surprised, but this was not what I was expecting.

The book begins with a personal story of how the author's dog jumped out of a four-story apartment building window because it had gone crazy with anxiety when left alone. The dog miraculously lives, and I appreciate the personal aspect of the story, but it's hard to read about. And it just gets worse from there. After the poor dog, there is story after story of poor lab animals: shocked until they go insane; mistreated; and stuck in cages with no companionship for their entire lives. Then there are the circus animals beaten into performance, and zoo animals drugged up to deal with the boredom and stress of living lives so far from what nature intended.

To be fair, there is a lot of interesting information in this book. Braitman goes through the history of people's views of animals and their emotional lives, how these views changed as people's lives changed, and how drugs for depression, anxiety, and psychotic disorders were first tested on animals and then used widely on animals--just as they expanded their use with people.

Yet, even if I could enjoy dwelling in the pain of so many animals, I wasn't too impressed by the writing. Again, I think this has a lot to do with my expectations, which might not be fair, but it is how I saw the book. I wanted more depth and more explanation. I would have been much happier if Braitman has chosen the story of just five or so animals and went into great detail about their lives, what was going on in their heads, how they relate to people, etc. Instead, as I read, I felt that the book was all over the place. First, there's the history of animal abuse, then a long treatise against zoos (I kind of agree with Braitman here, but, again, it wasn't what I was expecting). The lack of purpose and depressing stories about animals combined with my initial high hopes left me disappointed with this one.

"We could also, and most important, make a lasting peace with Darwin's belief that humans are just another kind of animal, different only by degree." (284)

#48 [2014/CBR5] "Fast Track" by Julie Garwood

Julie Garwood is the author of some of the first romances I ever read. They had danger and suspense, and she's always been one of my favorite romance authors. I don't know if the quality of her books have declined, if I have gotten tired of Garwood's plots, or if my standards have changed, but she's lost her spot at the top with some of her more recent novels. Yet the nostalgia is still there and I rarely pass up a new Garwood book.

Fast Track (2014) is Garwood's latest novel, and she helps with my nostalgia by throwing together her hero and heroine from characters of previous books. Cordelia Kane (Cordy) is a teacher and has been in love with her best friend's brother Aiden, since she was five years old. Aiden is a workaholic hotel magnate. He is rich and powerful--very rich, and very powerful.

Cordy's father has made something of himself. From a lowly mechanic, he became a millionaire business owner of a chain of auto stores. When he dies, he tells Cordy a secret. Her mother did not die in a car crash as Cordy had been told, but she is alive. She ran away from him and her daughter when Cordy was a baby. Cordy does a little digging and discovers that her mother is part owner of a huge real estate developing family in Australia. Yet when she investigates in Australia with her giant crush, Aiden, someone starts trying to kill her. Fortunately, they know enough FBI agents to not be able to turn around without running into one, and she and Aiden and their team of FBI are able to keep her safe and catch her killer.

I had mixed feelings about this novel. On the one hand, using characters I had already read about made it all seem so familiar. It was like a reunion of sorts. On the other hand, I was pretty disappointed with the actual romance. I could not understand why these characters liked each other. Cordy had a crush on Aiden since she was a child, and Aiden is very good looking. But otherwise, he is something of an asshole. He never talks to her, and he's always working. After they sleep together, he leaves her without a word--more than once! I didn't see any kind of development of their relationship. Aiden was arrogant and bossy, and Cordy was happy to be sleeping with him--trying not to expect anything more. Near the end of the novel, Aiden decides he doesn't need to work as hard as he has been, so maybe things will get better once the book is over?


I did have fun trying to figure out which secondary characters Garwood would be featuring in her next novel. There are at least three possibilities, and I think they'd all be interesting. And despite my disappointment with the relationship in this book, I'll probably be reading it.

#47 [2014/CBR5] "Landline" by Rainbow Rowell

"You don't know what it really means to crawl into someone else's life and stay there. You can't see all the ways you're going to get tangled, how you're going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten--in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems." (201)

Georgie McCool is in her mid-thirties, married to her college sweetheart, Neal, with two young daughters and a successful career. But her marriage is strained. Her husband isn't happy: he doesn't like her work, and he doesn't like her focus on work. Things come to a head when a life-changing work opportunity forces Georgie to skip the family Christmas trip to Neal's mother's house in Omaha. Neal is angry and isn't talking to her, and Georgie is alone over Christmas.

I've read all of Rainbow Rowell's books, so it was a no-brainer that I'd be reading Landline (2014) as soon as I could get it out of the library. Even though I only started reading Rowell last year, I feel like I've grown up with her. I've read her stories about high school adolescents, college kids, after-college angsty adults, and now full-on adults--settled down and married with children. I wasn't sure what to expect with this one, and I enjoyed it. Neal and Georgie feel like real people with a real relationship. I understood who they were, why they were together, and why they have problems. I felt a visceral connection with their courtship, heartbreak, and fights. There is no doubt that by the end I was emotionally invested in these characters, as I have been with all of Rowell's books.

However, unlike other Rowell books, this one took longer for me to get into. I was about one hundred pages in and terrified that I was going to dislike this one. I imagined the whole of Cannonballers rising up to smite me and my poor taste down. Fortunately, soon after, I began to understand the characters better and ended the book with no regrets. Like everyone else, I would definitely recommend this one.

***SPOILERS***
One of the main problems I had in connecting with this book was the unexpected fantasy element. I was completely unprepared for it, and it took me out of the story. At first I didn't understand what was happening and thought I'd accidentally skipped some pages. Then I was distracted by the inevitable details and problems that come when you mess with time. I had a hard time thinking of Georgie and Neal's relationship as "real" when something so crazy and unexplained was happening in an otherwise completely normal world.

However, despite the confusion of time traveling phone lines, it was interesting to see the different Neal (younger and older), especially with his attitude and willingness to work at a relationship. Younger Neal was more open and less jaded, while the older Neal had gone through so much with Georgie that he was more closed off. If only we all could go back to where we started when our relationships become harder. It also added some tension to the ending. I didn't actually think that Georgie's kids were going to disappear, but Georgie's fear of losing everything, and her complete disconnect from the outside world in the airport added some tension and drama to the ending. I still wonder why Rowell chose to break out of reality for this book, but the characters and their feelings eventually grounded it enough for me to enjoy.
***END SPOILERS***

"No," the woman answered. "Better stay where we are. They use seat assignments to identify bodies." (274)--This line made me laugh.

Monday, September 8, 2014

#46 [2014/CBR5] "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie

"'I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,' I said. 'By black and white. By Indian and white. But I know that isn't true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.'" (176)

I have begun working my way through "25 YA Novels Everyone--Even Adults--Should Read"--a list I discovered on the internet. Numbers one and two are the Harry Potter and Golden Compass series, so I decided it was legit--even if the first entry on the list is seven books long. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) by Sherman Alexie, with illustrations by Ellen Forney, is also on this list. A winner of a 2007 National Book Award, I hadn't heard of it before. However, I think the title reminded me of The Indian in the Cupboard--a book that I loved as a kid, but one that I won't be re-reading. I'm afraid it might not stand up to my more critical and grown-up self.

Okay, back on topic. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a semi-autobiographical story about Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, a Spokane Indian living on "the rez" in Wellpinit, Washington. Junior has always been an outsider in a hostile world. Born with water on the brain, he's got a big head, thick glasses, and a stutter--attributes that are always helpful when going through adolescence. He gets beat up regularly and struggles with the poverty and alcoholism surrounding him. But he is lucky enough to be smart, courageous and optimistic. At the prompting of a teacher, and looking for hope, Junior transfers from his reservation school to the relatively rich, all-white school over twenty miles away. A curiosity and stranger at his new school, and even more of an outcast and pariah for "leaving the rez" when he comes home, Alexie follows Junior's first year at his new high school.

The language and simplicity of the story, as well as the main character, put this book in the young adult category, but I still found it incredibly moving without being overly melodramatic. This book would be great for teenagers to read and discuss. Alexie doesn't shy away from how racism has affected him and his tribe, the hopelessness of poverty, and the helplessness of addiction. Yet positive themes of inclusiveness, tolerance, and understanding also run through this novel. In addition, the cartoon illustrations by Ellen Forney work perfectly with the character of Junior, adding to our understanding of him and his situation.

At the end of my version of the book there are some book group questions, an interview with the illustrator, and an interview with the author, all of which were worth reading. In his interview, Sherman Alexie stated that Junior was based off of him, but he made Junior smarter and kinder than himself. I was not too surprised, and was perhaps glad to hear, that this novel was based on reality. The narrative felt so personal and real, I think I would have been disappointed if it was unrealistic or exaggerated for the drama.

I would recommend this book to anyone. It's one of those novels that you fly through, but then it sticks with you much longer than you'd expect.

"I shrank back into my chair and remembered when I used to be a human being." (86)

"The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know." (97)

"There are all kinds of addicts, I guess. We all have pain. And we all look for ways to make the pain go away."  (107)

"If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing." (129)

"Just as I would always love and miss my reservation and my tribe. I hoped and prayed that they would someday forgive me for leaving them. I hoped and prayed that I would someday forgive myself for leaving them." (230)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

#45 [2014/CBR5] "Frostbite" by Richelle Mead

Frostbite (2008) by Richelle Mead is the second book in the Vampire Academy series. Wikipedia describes the books as "an American best-selling series of six young-adult paranormal romance novels." Paranormal is not my usual go-to genre, but now it's captured my interest and I'm planning on finishing the series.

Rose Hathaway is a high school student at a preppy boarding school in Montana, but she also happens to live in a world with three different kinds of vampires. Moroi are pure vampires: they drink blood but don't kill their prey. Strigoi, on the other hand, are evil vampires. They have red eyes, and are incredibly strong and dangerous. Rose Hathaway is a Dhampir, half Moroi and half human. She has been born and bred to become a Guardian, an official bodyguard of the Moroi, when she graduates.

The two most important relationships in Anne's life are with Lissa Dragomir and Dmitri Belikov. Lissa is Anne's best friend and member of the royal family. The two share a special bond and Anne hopes to be Lissa's official guardian when she graduates. Dmitri is another Dhampir and a well-respected guardian. He is also twenty-four years old and is something of a mentor and teacher to Anne. These two have certainly crossed the line into something inappropriate, but I'm assuming the author is waiting until Rose turns eighteen before she goes too crazy with this appealing, yet disturbing [because of the age difference and his teacher status] relationship. This second book also develops more of the relationship, or lack thereof, between Rose and her mother, another famous guardian.

In this second installment, Rose, Lissa and Dmitri are all still at school. Strigoi have been going to unseen lengths to successfully attack royal Moroi families. The school, as well as the entire vampire world, is on edge. Fortunately, the entire school gets to vacation at a posh ski resort with their families for winter break. And they get to fly there on private jets. I guess it doesn't hurt to throw in a little wish fulfillment for the kids.

What keeps my interest in these books is, well, Dmitri is a very charismatic character, but I'm also a fan of Rose. She's brave, aggressive, loyal, and smart. She's got smart-alecky responses to anything, tries to brazen through all of her weaknesses, and is a natural leader. She is far from perfect, but she is also demonstrably growing and maturing as the books continue. I also like the fact that that there is room for this world to grow, especially the relationships between the Moroi and Dhampirs. The plot of Frostbite seemed to work a little better than the first book, too, which sometimes felt a little strained. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.

#44 [2014/CBR5] "Cop Town" by Karin Slaughter

Before reading Cop Town (2014), I was unfamiliar with Karin Slaughter and not looking to read any bestselling thrillers. But then I happened to see the author on television, talking about her latest book. Slaughter mentioned that she set Cop Town in Atlanta, Georgia in 1974 because she was interested in the restrictions and challenges facing women in that period. She talked about women not being able to find housing or even get a credit card without their husband's approval. A restrictive society, indeed, and only a couple of years before I was born. I hadn't heard enough to learn anything else about the book, but the historical [no matter how recent] struggles of women always grabs my attention.

The story revolves around the lives of two women who work for the Atlanta Police Department. Maggie Lawson has been on the department for about five years--since she turned eighteen. She's grown up in the environment--both her uncle and brother also work for the force. Maggie has something of a hardscrabble, working-class background. She lives with her family, and gives her salary to her uncle. She is strong and smart, and you'd think her family connections would help her on the police force. Unfortunately, her uncle is a raging, abusive asshole who does not want Maggie around. Her brother, a high school football hero and the darling of the force, is only inconsistently tolerant of her.

On the other hand, Kate Murphy grew up wealthy and Jewish in the nice part of town. Her mother and grandmother are survivors of the Holocaust. Kate is well educated and unfamiliar with this new atmosphere filled with coarse, racist, and sexist cops. But her husband died in Vietnam and she couldn't find any other job that she could stick with. After seeing an article in the paper about women motorcycle cops, Kate is intrigued and decides to join the force.

The book takes place over only four days and begins on Kate's first day on the streets. After an introductory hazing by Maggie's brother, Kate is pawned off as a partner to Maggie. The cops are up in arms because there is a serial cop killer on the loose, and the fifth cop had just been shot in the head the night before. Maggie isn't a gentle mentor: she doesn't like Kate and doesn't think she's going to last, but she gives her some helpful advice. The mystery unfolds as Kate and Maggie struggle to find the serial killer before another cop is killed.

This book was dark and gritty with a lot of violence and actions that made me squirm. I kept thinking of it as a movie, and imagining something like End of Days but with women. Most of the characters are hard and hateful and every character in the book did something I disagreed with by the end.

The mystery part of this novel was fine. There were some clues along the way, and I didn't figure it out until the end. However, what made this novel so intense and unforgettable for me was seeing Kate's introduction to the police force, and seeing how Maggie and Kate dealt with being such an extreme and unwanted minority. Having given up on the prestigious, white-collar career that has been expected of me since I began school, I recently joined a large, metropolitan fire department--one where only four percent of us are women. So, while reading this book I alternated between disbelief and recognition. I was relieved that I didn't have to go through what Kate faced, but so much of it felt so familiar that I knew Slaughter had gotten it right.

On the one hand, things are so much better now. My department's administration is more autonomous and doesn't want to get sued. Even men who would act horribly if given the leeway are afraid of getting in trouble, so most of the overt actions that Kate faced are less likely to happen today. Yet the attitude [of some] is remarkably unchanged. Kate discovers that there are no women motorcycle cops. And there aren't women detectives. It's not even an option. The highest on the food chain a woman can go is to become a PC (Plain Clothes) and work undercover as a hooker. In my department, the restrictions aren't as severe or as official, but it's not an accident that most of the women on the department are shunted to the outskirts of the city where it's less busy--especially when a chief of the downtown district openly tries to keep women out. And it wasn't an accident when one of the guys put his hand on my ass after a call while I was on probation. I found myself reading Cop Town partly for job advice. I was afraid that Kate would decide it wasn't worth it, and it would make me question whether I thought it was worth it.

So, this felt like a personal book and it impacted me much more because of it. However, I would still recommend reading it, not so much for the mystery, but for the characters of Maggie and Kate.

"I'm terrific," Kate quipped, because this job had turned her into an animal who couldn't show weakness." (149)

"He gently cradled his hand under her elbow as he helped her behind the nurses' station. Kate felt a swell of emotion. After half a day on the job, she had forgotten what it felt like for a man to treat her like a woman." (141)

"I will never understand humanity the way you will if you continue to work this job." (271)

"The job was soul-killing and humiliating and terrifying but on some strange level, it was challenging, and most surprising of all, fun." (272)

#43 [2014/CBR5] "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

"But it's a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America." [359]

The summer before beginning college, I received a package from my new school. It was a paperback copy of The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje. This was the summer reading for all incoming first year students, and the enclosed letter explained that we would have a book discussion during orientation. I was thrilled! I love books, and even though my tuition certainly covered the cost of one paperback novel, receiving one unexpectedly in the mail was fantastic.

Fast forward to present day when I was procrastinating by browsing my alma mater's website, and I discovered that Americanah (2014) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was this year's summer reading for  incoming first year students. I'd already heard of Americanah from Cannonball, and it was on my list, but this second reminder moved it up to the top. And it was a great book, and a great selection for incoming freshman. Having grown up in a very white, very politically correct, and very liberal environment, I would have found this book challenging and enlightening as a rather naive teenager. Now that I've grown up a bit, seen more things, been exposed to more ideas, and read books similar in nature [books regarding the Black experience in America as well as books written by Africans], I was not particularly surprised by any of the content but impressed by Adichie's novel.

Ifemalu was a middle-class Nigerian, but when constant strikes and government corruption interrupt her University education, she obtains a student Visa and moves to the United States. With over six hundred pages, Adichie goes into detail about her adolescence in Nigeria, her struggles upon first coming to America, her relationships and experiences in the United States, and what finally brought her back to Nigeria. Most of the story feels centered around relationships. The relationship between Ifemalu and her Nigerian aunt and nephew when she first arrives, the relationship between races in America, the relationship between black Africans and black Americans, and the relationship between different nationalities of Africans in America. In addition, Ifemalu's story is often framed by whom she is dating: a rich, white man; an African-American professor at Yale; and her high school sweetheart from Nigeria. Between these relationships and Ifemalu's blog about racial issues, Adichie furrows into what feels like every racial issue in the United States from a variety of perspectives.

This story is so detailed, so exacting, and so perceptive, that I felt like I was reading a personal autobiography. Looking up Adichie after finishing this novel, I discovered that she was also born in Nigeria and went to school in the United States, so I can only guess that much of this novel is informed by personal experience. Ifemalu is smart and outspoken and I enjoyed reading about her.

If I may go off on a quick tangent, there were instances when I did not understand Ifemalu. When dealing with a boyfriend, Ifemalu would occasionally lie or cheat--usually when the relationship wasn't going well. I could perhaps understand what drove her to these actions but then she'd seem surprised that the men in her life were hurt and angry. I don't know if she couldn't admit to herself that what she'd done was wrong or if she really didn't think what she'd done was wrong. I also wasn't sure if this was some kind of cultural thing I wasn't understanding or some weird aspect of her personality. This stuck out only because I understood Ifemalu's attitude throughout the rest of the book, and these small pieces were the only sections where I couldn't see where Ifemalu was coming from.

Anyway, I'm afraid this rambling review is not doing this book justice. Whenever I try to find the words to sum up my experience I am paralyzed because whatever descriptors I come up with feel inadequate. There's a lot going on in this one and it's worth reading.