Review: Lives in Ruins

Lives in Ruins, Marilyn JohnsonMost people know a little bit about archeology, or have heard about Machu Picchu, Pompeii, and the pyramids. But what do we know about the people who discovered these places, or any of the thousands of other archeological places of interest around the globe? What makes them obsessed with digging through the dirt an inch at a time?

Lives in Ruins: Archeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble is author Marilyn Johnson’s search for answers to these and other questions.

Worth digging into

I read one of Johnson’s books, This Book is Overdue!, about four years ago and was impressed by her level of research. So when I saw that she’d written a book about another fascinating topic, I scuttled down to the library and grabbed a copy.

The first thing this book does is eviscerate the romantic notions of archeology. Archeologists are finding great stuff, of course, but they’re slogging ankle-deep through mud, bugs, and red tape to do it.

Archeology is not a profitable job. The education is expensive, the work difficult and sometimes dangerous. Most outsiders don’t understand what it means to be an archeologist, or the value of the things they scratch from the earth.

Lives in Ruins reads almost like a set of short stories. Each chapter follows a different archeologist as he or she fights to discover and preserve the past. My favorite chapters focus on aspects I knew little about: marine and military archeology. I love the idea of volunteers and deployed members of the armed forces educating themselves on how to spot and preserve archeological finds.

Johnson has written another good book, one I recommend you check out — especially if you’re an archeology buff.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. August’s challenge was to read a book in which the season, the elements, or the weather plays a role in the story.)

Review: A Little Princess

A Little Princes, Francis Hodgson BurnettSara has led a life many children can only dream of, surrounded by every comfort and a papa who adores her. She is not eager to attend the English boarding school in which her father has enrolled her, but knows that she should face any adversity like a brave soldier.

When her father dies in India, Sara is left penniless. She must be a servant in the school she once attended, despised by her former classmates, with only her imagination for company.

No matter how unbearable her life becomes, Sara is determined to meet her trials with head held high. “If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside.”

Simply lovely

I’ve seen the 1995 film adaptation of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic about a million times — I’m not sure how I made it this far without reading the novel.

Much like her other novels, including The Secret Garden, Burnett’s A Little Princess is philosophy masquerading as children’s literature. In this case it’s about being who you know you are inside, even when the outside doesn’t match.

Normally I hate a Mary Sue. Sara is so good and sweet that she should be unbelievable as a character. Maybe it’s because she’s got a bit of a temper, or because her life takes such a terrible turn that my sympathy outweighs my annoyance.

I love that her principal forms of escape are books and storytelling. She uses her imagination to help herself and her friends forget, for a time, how hard their lives are.

Like a lot of books from the 1900s, A Little Princess does sometimes feel a bit paternalistic. The characters are black and white (either fully good or fully bad), and the entire premise is a bit far-fetched.

Yet there are some good lessons about facing adversity and blooming where you’re planted. Hodgson clearly believes in the power of storytelling and fantasy to lift us from pain and sorrow, and remind us that there is still magic in the world.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. July’s challenge was all about fantasy and fairytales.)

Review: Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour, Morgan MatsonIt’s been three months since Amy last got behind the wheel. Her father’s death in a car accident fractured their already-fragile family — her brother’s in rehab and her mother has decided to move across the country. And now, Amy has to somehow get the family’s remaining car from California to Connecticut.

Fortunately, Roger needs to get to the East Coast, too. And if they follow the route Amy’s mother planned, it should only take four days. But what is it they say about the best-laid plans…?

Just perfect

The only thing harder to portray accurately than teenagers is grief. Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour does both perfectly.

My heart aches for Amy. She blames herself for her father’s death, and has spent months pushing away the people who care about her most. Author Morgan Matson portrays Amy’s grief accurately and without histrionics — it’s brutal and beautiful.

I also really like Roger, mainly because he’s just a good guy. Plus I think most people can understand the idea of hanging onto a relationship you know is over because you’re scared.

Matson’s book also left me jonesing for a road trip, preferably one with my husband. I’d love to see some of the places she describes, and feel my troubles blow away on the wind. Who wouldn’t want to forget the rest of the world for awhile?

But Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour isn’t about forgetting. It’s about journeys, questions, and having the courage to face your fears.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. June’s challenge was to read a book in which the characters take a trip, travel somewhere, go on a quest, or find themselves on a journey toward something.)

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.)