Review: We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo, Benjamin MeeLife takes you strange places. Benjamin Mee always loved animals, but he never thought it would lead to buying a zoo. He also never imagined embarking on such an adventure without his beloved wife, Katherine.

But that is where he finds himself: elbows deep in paperwork and big cats, working with his family to revitalize a failed zoo in the south of England.

We Bought a Zoo is Mee’s chronicle of his family’s two-year journey toward zoo ownership. What started as a lark soon became a vocation, a calling to save the animals and the people at Dartmoor Zoo.

Talk about a bold move

You know what probably doesn’t make life easier? Sinking all your money (plus your siblings’ and mother’s) into buying a zoo.

It started out as a pipe dream, a wild hare that no one imagined would take over their lives. But the more Mee learned about the zoo — its animals and its people — the more he saw his ownership as stewardship.

While it’s always better for animals to live in their natural habitats, sometimes zoos are the only thing standing between an animal and extinction. A zoo closure means stressful travel or even death for animals. Mee was determined that that wouldn’t happen.

We Bought a Zoo is a timely reminder to care about the world around me, to follow my passions, and to do what makes me happy, even if other people think I’m crazy.

Book vs. movie

We Bought a Zoo was adapted into a film starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson in 2011. The filmmakers decided to set the script in Southern California, probably so it would appeal to an American audience and so they could cast top American talent.

It also introduced the love interest angle. It made for a nice movie, but wasn’t more interesting than Mee’s original story. That said, there are some great moments that made the film a truly wonderful experience.

I can’t say whether the book or movie is better — they’re too different for direct comparisons. Suffice to say they’re both wonderful, and you should check them out.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. May’s challenge was to read a book that has a movie based off it.)

Review: The Midnight Assassin

The Midnight Assassin, Skip HollandsworthIn the early 1880s, the city of Austin, Texas was on the rise. The backwater at the edge of the United States was officially a boom town, complete with over 11,000 citizens, an air-cooled ice cream parlor, and an opera house. The town coffers were full, and the new Capitol building (under construction since 1882) was said to rival the White House itself. The city was on its way to being the jewel in the South’s crown.

Until women started dying. On December 30th, 1884, Mollie Smith was murdered in her room. Clara Strand and Christine Martenson were attacked in March 1885, and Eliza Shelly and Irene Cross were killed in May. Clara Dick and Rebecca Ramey were attacked in August — Rebecca’s 11 year-old daughter Mary was killed. Gracie Vance died in September, while Lucinda Boddy and Patsey Gibson were also injured. And finally on December 24th, 1885, Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips were killed.

The killer was brutal, dragging many of the women into their yards before hacking them apart with an axe and stabbing some kind of sharp object or rod into their brains through their ears.

If you think this modus operandi — female, mostly lower-class victims, incredibly savage attacks — sounds familiar, you’re not the only one. Some people believe that the “Midnight Assassin” murders stopped only because the killer had hopped the Pond to England. There he continued his vicious killing spree under a new name: Jack the Ripper.

Seriously, guys?

I love true crime, but it’s not a fun genre.

The Midnight Assassin has all of the things that frustrate me: violent crimes against women, racism, shoddy police work, and no satisfying conclusions.

These murders happened when forensic science was in its infancy: we knew that humans had unique fingerprints, but we hadn’t figured out how to use them in murder investigations. It was a time when people would routinely tromp through a crime scene, destroying what little evidence remained.

The first victims were African-American (or African-Swedish) — less than 20 years removed from the end of slavery, their lives were considered less valuable, and their murders less worthy of intense investigation.

Even after the investigation began in earnest, many of Austin’s leaders took a “head in the sand” approach to the murders. They seemed to think it would all just go away. The police arrested dozens of men on almost zero evidence, hired charlatan “special investigators,” and in general made such a pig’s ear of the whole thing that I’m not surprised the killer got away.

The mind of a killer

The Midnight Assassin was America’s first true serial killer. The country had experienced “maniac” killers before, but this man was something new: a person who targeted a specific type of victim, planned his attacks carefully, escaped unnoticed, and didn’t seem to have a typical motive like jealousy or revenge.

Psychological profilers existed, but weren’t called to help investigate murders they way they are today. Never before had America seen a criminal who killed so violently…for no known reason.

The police and media blamed the murders on “bad blacks,” the mentally ill, and Austin’s criminal element. But these murders were committed by someone clever and quick, someone who could blend in as a normal citizen during the day and slip out at night to bludgeon and dismember women. And that’s what makes this story that much more frightening.

A London connection?

It’s interesting to think about. I don’t think the Ripper woke up one day and just started killing sex workers in England; and I don’t think the Midnight Assassin woke up one day and stopped killing women in the US.

Was the Austin killer the same person who would rise to international fame as Jack the Ripper in London’s West End? I don’t think so. Yes, the Midnight Assassin killed women brutally, and there were some ritualistic elements…but the Ripper was at another level of hatred and precision. The types of violence acted out on these women were just too different — I don’t see a clear path of escalation from one to the other.

We’ll probably never know. Too much time has passed, and we just don’t have enough preserved evidence.

The Midnight Assassin is a marvelously well researched and written book that I’d recommend to Ripperologists and anyone interested in true crime in general. Just don’t expect a satisfying ending.

(I read this book as part of the Off the Shelf Reading Challenge.)

Review: The Martian

The Martian, Andy WeirWhen the Ares 3 crew makes an emergency departure from Mars during a windstorm, they do so without their botanist. Mark Watney is killed on the way to the extraction point.

But after the dust settles on the red planet, Mark is still alive. For now. He has no way to contact his crew or NASA, and it will be over a year before the next manned mission sets down on Mars.

He’s not giving up. In fact, he’s going to do something amazing: survive alone on an inhospitable planet until help arrives.

Holy mackerel

I’m several years late to the worldwide obsession with The Martian, but I’m officially hooked.

This book was fantastic! Mostly because of the main character. Author Andy Weir makes Mark relatable and human from the word go — which is nice, because if he’d started us off with all the science that the book eventually gets into, I wouldn’t have felt so connected.

According to Neil Degrasse Tyson and a bunch of people way smarter than me, the science is pretty damn accurate (except for that one teeny, tiny, no-one-will-ever-notice-it thing). The plausibility of the entire situation makes it that much more exciting and scary.

Ignoring the fact that I’d never be chosen for a mission like this, I definitely wouldn’t survive being stranded alone on a planet. I love that one of Mark’s main weapons is his humor. At several moments it’s the only thing that keeps him from giving up.

The TL;DR is that I loved The Martian. It’s so well-written that even though I’d seen the movie, I was still on pins and needles wondering if the Hermes was going to rescue Mark.

And speaking of that inevitable comparison…

Book vs. movie

I’m usually not happy with book-to-movie adaptations; they have to cut so much that it’s just not a fair comparison.

I watched the movie The Martian sometime last year. I’d heard good things about the book, of course, but I thought it would be a bit of a “talking head” piece — and if I had to muscle through something like that, I’d rather be watching Matt Damon on a screen than picturing him in my head.

It didn’t end up being a talking head piece, and it had far more humor than I was expecting. And it even did some things better than the book. For example, even though Weir’s book had more room to flesh out other characters, the film versions felt more three-dimensional. I could see the physical differences between each of them, whereas in the book there’s not much description of what people look like.

That said, there’s a chilling moment in the book that I really wish had been included in the movie. I won’t spoil it — because it’s just that awesome — but I will say that it prompted an hour-long conversation with some friends about how one would go about field dressing human remains in space.

No matter how you choose to take in the story of The Martian, I encourage you to do so. The science gets a little heavy for laypeople, but not overwhelmingly so. Check it out!

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. March’s challenge was to read a book set in a different dimension, a book in which time travel is involved, or a dystopian or science fiction book where reality looks very different than what we’re used to.)

Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank

Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth PetersMiss Amelia Peabody, bluestocking and self-proclaimed “spinster,” has left England to pursue her passion for Egyptology. It’s 1884 — on the cusp of the 20th century — and she’s determined to spend her inheritance doing what she enjoys.

En route to Cairo, Amelia meets Miss Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a young woman with a shameful secret. Amelia takes the girl under her wing, and together they embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

This adventure takes them to Amarna, the ancient city established by Akhenaten more than 500 years previously. They meet up with two gentlemen they met in Cairo: Radcliffe Emerson, a prickly excavator, and his brother Walter, a master of hieroglyphics.

Something strange is happening on the outskirts of the destroyed city. The locals are nervous, especially after a mummy goes missing. Amelia, Evelyn, Radcliffe, and Walter are under siege, and their enemy may be supernatural.

Cheeky and wonderful

Crocodile on the Sandbank is the first in author Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, and it is fantastic. Set in 1884 but published in 1975, it’s a marvelous mixture of Victorian language and modern thinking.

Amelia is my new favorite character. She’s smart, practical, and outspoken, with a soft sentimental underbelly she tries to hide. If you enjoy Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, you’ll love Peters’ book.

Evelyn and Walter are younger and stupider (in Amelia’s opinion as well as mine), and it’s fun seeing Amelia boss them around and mow down their ridiculous notions like so much grass.

Although I caught onto the mystery’s final solution before it was revealed, the journey to that solution was surprising and exciting. The story and characters are fun, funny, and charming.

I loved Crocodile on the Sandbank. And the best part? There’s 19 more books in the series!

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. February’s challenge was to read a book involving spies, detectives, private investigators, or a character in disguise.)

Quickie Reviews: Personal Stories

My 2017 reading started off slow, but I’ve kicked things into high gear in the last few weeks. So of course I have a review backlog. Let’s hit the high (and low) points, shall we?

Work Rules!

Work Rules! Laszlo BockThe subtitle on this is a mouthful: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. It’s got some good ideas on transforming company culture, but most of it seems pretty “pie in the sky” and a little bit “We’re Google and we’re awesome.” I’ve had some good conversations about it with co-workers, though.

The Princess Diarist

The Princess Diarist, Carrie FisherCarrie Fisher’s last book before her death in December 2016. She was a fascinating, complicated woman, and I want to learn more about her. Unfortunately I don’t think this was the right book for that. The Princess Diarist is a bit disjointed, and focuses mostly on her fling with Harrison Ford during Star Wars filming. It just not as interesting as I hoped it would be. But she’s got a great writing voice, and fortunately wrote several other books that promise to tell more about her life.

The Portable Dorothy Parker

The Portable Dorothy ParkerThis one’s been sitting on my shelf for years, and is part of my 2017 Off the Shelf Reading Challenge. I’ve gone all the way through it, but probably read only about half. I love Parker’s poetry and letters, but have trouble with her short stories (anybody’s short stories, really — I don’t often like them). She was always better at short form writing than long form. And those quips! “It is true that he is so hard-boiled you could roll him on the White House lawn.”