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.)

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Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, Erik LarsonOn February 24th, 1890, Chicago was chosen to host a world’s fair that celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.

Daniel H. Burnham — who later designed New York City’s famous Flatiron Building — was chosen to put together and lead the group of designers and architects responsible for building the fair’s buildings and other wonders. The Exposition Universalle in Paris, France the year before had ruffled American feathers, and Burnham was determined to build a world’s fair that put other countries to shame.

Chicago’s business owners were excited about the throngs of people who would soon be flocking to their city. Among them was a man known to his customers as Dr. H.H. Holmes. The handsome doctor could charm anyone, especially the young women who flocked to the city in search of jobs and excitement. He would use that charm to lure and murder at least nine people, most of them inside his booby-trapped hotel.

The Devil in the White City is the story of Daniel Burnham’s efforts to take Chicago to new heights, and H.H. Holmes’ efforts to drag the city into hell.

What a ride

I picked up The Devil in the White City because I’d read that it was a phenomenal look into the creep-tastic H.H. Holmes murders — the history of the Chicago World’s Fair didn’t seem nearly as interesting.

Well, I came for the murder, but stayed for the architecture. Honestly, I can’t decide which story is better.

You might not think there’s much to putting together a world’s fair — that’s where you’d be wrong. Burnham had a little over three years to choose a team, find a suitable location, design and construct dozens of buildings, landscape the square mile of fairgrounds, and bring exhibits and people in from all over the world. Plus he had to find some way to “out-Eiffel Eiffel,” the man who just a year before had astonished the world by designing and building the Eiffel Tower, the world’s tallest man-made structure.

Jammed cheek-by-jowl with that insanity is the story of H.H. Holmes, the psychopath who built a hotel with hidden rooms and a crematory and then murdered at least nine people before being arrested. Reading about how he lured women, plotted their murders, and then disposed of their bodies (after dissecting them) chilled me to the core.

Larson could have written separate books about each of the subjects; his master stroke was putting them together. What could make for a bigger juxtaposition than a group of men trying to bring Chicago into the 20th century with engineering and entertainment marvels, and a single lunatic suffocating and gassing women and children in the basement of his gloomy hotel?

Endlessly fascinating

Holmes is, of course, as interesting as he is repulsive. Much of what investigators learned about him was never presented in court, and many primary sources that discussed him are lost to time. We have only the testimony presented at his trial, as well as Holmes’ own memoir (untrustworthy in itself).

The concept of psychopathy was only just being formed in the early 20th century, and contemporary investigator and general citizenry just couldn’t comprehend the idea of a man killing people just because he could, and because he could get away with it.

We don’t know what made Holmes the monster he was. The only information we have about his childhood comes from the man himself, and may be entirely fabricated. Was there a traumatic event that sent Holmes down his evil path, or was he simply born a psychopath? We’ll never know, and that keeps me up at night.

Only slightly less interesting to me was the man who landscaped the Chicago World’s Fair: Frederick Law Olmstead. He designed New York City’s Central Park, and would go on to design the grounds of Biltmore, the North Carolina home of George Vanderbilt.

Olmstead was obsessed with landscape design. He dwelled on the subject like composers dwell on their compositions, and painters on their canvases.

Flowers were not to be used as an ordinary gardener would use them. Rather, every flower, shrub, and tree was to be deployed with an eye on how each would act upon the imagination. This was to be accomplished, Olmstead wrote, ‘through the mingling intricately together of many forms of foliage, the alternation and complicated crossing of salient leaves and stalks of varying green tints in high lights with other leaves and stalks, behind and under them, and therefore less defined and more shaded, yet partly illuminated by light reflected from the water.’

I wish I could be as passionate about anything as Olmstead was about landscape design.

More juxtapositions everywhere. As Olmstead was trying to coax life from the muddy grounds of the world’s fair, Holmes was snuffing it out mere blocks away.

The Devil in the White City reads like a novel, but is in fact a well-researched telling of the Chicago World’s Fair and one of history’s most famous killers. True crime fans will love it. Give it a read today.

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The Write Stuff: Ugghhhhhh

Writing Challenge: The Write StuffA third of the year is almost over, and as you can probably tell from the title, The Write Stuff is not going great. I haven’t made progress on any of my four goals since March; I can feel the shame spiral forming.

It’s probably because I’ve spread myself too thin. There’s always a cross-stitch project to work on, chores to do, letters to write, friends to visit, games to play, dinner to cook…there’s just not always enough energy to go around.

The good news is that my creative energy isn’t being wasted. We started a D&D group last October, and it’s been so much fun getting into my character and seeing everyone get into theirs. Some crazy stuff went down in our last session, and we’ve been posting things in character in our Facebook group.

This doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on The Write Stuff. I’m so close to my goal of four completed stories, and I want to see the project through. I’m just giving myself permission to not be perfect, and to recognize that I’m creative in lots of other ways that bring me joy.

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Podcasts I STILL Can’t Stop Listening To

My days of long commutes are done (I hope), but I started listening to podcasts last year and I can’t freakin’ stop. You guys, I listen to 24 podcasts!

Between menial work tasks and endless chores at home, I mostly manage to keep up. Here’s what I’m loving the most recently.

My Favorite Murder

My Favorite Murder podcastWho says learning about murder can’t be funny? Every week “murderinos” Karen and Georgia read about murders — new or old, solved and unsolved, it’s all fair game. They also post “mini-sodes” where they read emails from listeners who talk about their hometown murders. Every episode is hysterical, despite the macabre subject matter. With a motto like, “Stay sexy and don’t get murdered!” what’s not to love?

The Popcast with Knox and Jamie

The Popcast podcastAlso known as the podcast with “the wheezy guy and the lady who hates everything.” This Southern lady and gentleman talk about all aspects of pop culture, from television shows to things people need to chill out about (looking at you, Pumpkin Spice Lattes). They are so funny, and Jamie’s accent in particular makes me feel right at home.

Lore

Lore podcastHost Aaron Mahnke shares the truth — or the theories — behind the scary stories we tell around the campfire. Episodes have titles like “Going Viral,” “Quarantine,” and “Within the Walls.” They’re creepy, well-researched, and make you take a closer look at the people around you. Plus the music is spot-on.

2 Dope Queens

2 Dope Queens podcastComedians Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams host a show featuring female comedians, comedians of color, and LGBT comedians. Not only is everyone funny, they also share different perspectives on life.

Twice Removed

Twice Removed podcastHost A.J. Jacobs meets with a celebrity guest and tells them about interesting people in their family tree. At the end of the episode, Jacobs introduces them to a “mystery relative” they didn’t know they had. It’s fascinating to learn about people’s history, and then be surprised by the mystery relative. The show is between seasons right now, but the first season is up on iTunes and is well worth a listen.

What podcasts have you hooked lately? What should I add to my list?

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Review: Akata Witch

Akata Witch, Nnedi OkoraforFor 12 year-old Sunny, every day is a challenge. She was born in America, but her parents have brought her home to Aba, Nigeria. As an American she’s already the class freak; combined with her albinism, she’s mocked as a witch and has few friends.

Things start to change when she meets Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha. Her new friends inform her that she is a Leopard Person, born with innate magical abilities. Her albinism is an indicator of these abilities, and lets her slip between shadows and worlds as if invisible.

But Sunny cannot stay invisible for long. The four children form the youngest coven of Leopard People in history; it is their mission to track down Black Hat Otokoto, who has kidnapped and maimed dozens of children.

The coven is young, and new to magic. Can they defeat Otokoto in time, or will his dark spells bring about the end of the world?

A solid start

Akata Witch has been on my TBR list for so long that I’d forgotten what it was supposed to be about. I’m glad I finally got my hands on it.

The world building is good, if a bit overwhelming. Not only did I have to wrap my head around the Leopard People and their world, I also had to remember that the book is set in Nigeria. Both cultures involve different words and names and mythologies than I’m used to; I was probably 100 pages in before things really gelled.

I loved that the Leopard People value learning above all else, and that the things that make them strange in the normal world are the things that give them power in the magical lands.

Sunny is a wonderful character, brave and insecure and curious and stronger than she knows. The other members of the coven, and even many of the adults, blur together a bit, but Akata Witch is the first in a series — author Nnedi Okorafor should have plenty of space to flesh them out in future books.

For me, the mystery of Black Hat Otokoto was less interesting than following the kids’ education and adventures. But that doesn’t bother me; those characters are more three-dimensional and flawed and funny than a guy who’s Definitely Bad News.

I do have a couple small quibbles, though.

First, I don’t understand why the prologue is written in first person, while the rest of the book is in third person. The change put extra distance between me and the main character, delaying my eventual enjoyment of the story.

Also, the kids feel mature for their ages. Aside from two “I’m totally being a pre-teen/teenager right now” moments, I think the kids’ behavior was the littlest bit unbelievable. They also seemed to accept their “destinies” with few questions…it just rang kind of false.

That said, I still enjoyed Akata Witch. It’s great middle-grade fiction, teaches some important lessons, and overall is a fun adventure for readers of any age.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. April’s challenge was to read a book that has won a literary award, or a book written by an author who has been recognized in the bookish community.)

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