Another month, another pile of books read, a stack of Gothic, creepy, Halloween-appropriate stories, another stack about elephant/animal psychology, and a few centered on the periphery stories of World War II, the ones not central to the fight but that show pockets of humanity and bravery that existed throughout the war and in the aftermath.
I realize Halloween is upon us, it might be a wee bit late to start one of those books that keeps you up at night. HOWEVER, there are some fantastic ones here that you should definitely consider. The October Country, in particular, will have something you’ll love; that Ray Bradbury can write a killer ghost story.
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier (5 stars). I loved this! What a fantastic book for October! In many ways I related to the unnamed, second Mrs. De Winter, coming into a position she feels unprepared for with enormous expectations and incomplete information, feeling both invisible and far too much in the spotlight. And then, you know, there’s the big secretive house, the super strange housekeeper, the secret-keeping husband, and whole cast of Gothic characters. Love, love, love. The other Gothic novels I’ve read I didn’t particularly like (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights), so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this one.
The October Country, by Ray Bradbury (5 stars). A delicious book of creepy short stories; they are suspenseful and give you the heebie-jeebies without being gruesome or disgusting. These are excellently crafted, Bradbury is a genius at using language and setting a scene. Dah, these were so great!
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (4 stars). I had forgotten how much of this book is psychology and ethics vs scary, creepy monster-making. Dr. Frankenstein is hopelessly flawed, but he explores so many Big Questions throughout this book that it’s hard to fault him for his very human flaws. His creation (not named Frankenstein, the Halloween industry has it totally wrong) goes through a tremendous learning curve, and it’s fascinating to see that condensed into a couple of chapters, learning everything from the difference between daylight and nighttime, to survival skills, language, and human relationships. love, hate, revenge, and fear, and then the question of ethics and moral responsibility. Dah! It’s so good! And I had forgotten how terrible everyone treats Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Honestly, by the end of the book I wanted to adopt him so he would have a friend, someone to care about him, someone who saw his insides instead of his deformed and raggedy frame. Frankenstein reminded me a lot of The Count of Monte Cristo, and Crime and Punishment.
This Monstrous Thing, by Mackenzi Lee (4 stars). This retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein keeps all of the philosophizing of the original–questions on good and evil, humanity and monstrousness, family and heart, cleverness and moral rightness–but also adds a hefty dose of steampunk brilliance with men and women who have prosthetic arms and legs made of clockwork technology, and the discrimination and hate they encounter from being “other.” Centered at this tale are brothers Alasdair and Oliver, one completely human, one who only survives because of his clockwork insides. This is a quick, delightful read.
Elephants & Animal Psychology:
You know how I get hooked on a topic and devour everything I can find about it? Well, currently that topic is elephants and, by extent, animal psychology. Elephants, man! They are fascinating! Newsweek recently published a (lengthy) article about cancer in humans, dogs, and the surprising lack of cancer in elephants. Despite their size and the ENORMOUS number of cells in their bodies, elephants are less than a 5% risk for cancer, and of cancer cases, less than 5% are fatal. (Dogs have a 25% chance of getting cancer, humans a 30-50% chance. An oncologist at the University of Utah (Go Utes!) is trying to find the link that exists in elephants that may be able to help cure or eliminate cancer in humans, and dogs, presumably. So interesting!!!
The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, by Charles Darwin (3 stars). This is the original landmark work on animal emotion, Darwin spent years observing animals and making detailed notes as his children grew up (it was unheard of for a man of his rank and status to pay any attention to children, even his own). Darwin collected observations from other naturalists and psychologists around the world, and the result is a highly detailed book discussing at length the conclusions that all animals–including humans–have some kind of emotional response, whether that is a fear response, a nurturing response, or any of a thousand others, they do have emotions. I love that Darwin discovered what many other studies have verified simply by observing and making notes. There was very little dissecting, no cruel studies on behavior, just years of paying attention; animal behaviorists still use his work today as the basis for their study.
The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild, by Lawrence Anthony (4 stars). Author Lawrence Anthony owns a large game reserve in Zululand, South Africa, and is gifted with a herd of wild elephants. Yes, really. He must learn how to respect these enormous creatures, care for them, trust them–and in turn he must help them learn how to respect him and trust him, but without domesticating them. He wants these animals to remain wild and free, he doesn’t want circus pets. This was so fascinating, his thoughts and stories about interacting with wild elephants, learning from them, watching them, while also protecting them and the other animals on his reserve from the ever prevalent poachers…dah, it was such a wonderful book!
Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, by Ralph Helfer (3 stars). This book is based on true events but reads as larger than life and near fantastical. Modoc, an elephant born into a German circus, was shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, had an extended stay with a Maharajah, trained in the teak forests of Asia, was an instrument of war on impossible mountain passes, returned to circus stardom in the USA, love, death, fear, friendship…and that’s all for the elephant. Bram, Modoc’s trainer, keeper, and friend, is right alongside Mo through all these adventures, and I found I couldn’t put the story down. However, there is a bit of shoddy writing, especially towards the end, and the chronology gets a little loosey-goosey and confusing, with days or years going by without the author really specifying how much time has passed. When you are talking about an elephant who lived almost 80 years, with Bram right by her side every enormous plodding step of the way, there is a lot to pack into this elephantine biography. (See what I did there?)
Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story, by Daphne Sheldrick (3 stars). Daphne spends her life in Kenya in taking care of orphaned baby elephants as well as an assortment of other animals. Her work with the elephants is delightful, although it can get a little tricky to keep them all straight (yes, she names them all). There is some interesting commentary on poaching, environmental conservation, relations between blacks and whites in Africa, and the British Empire removing it’s iron grip on the African colonies, and feminism. The author and I only agree on the parts about poaching and conservation. Ahem.
When Elephants Weep: The Emotional lives of Animals, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (2 stars). I wanted to love this book, I truly did. But, it felt pretty heavy-handed where it did not need to be regarding animal testing and animal cruelty, telling the facts is gruesome enough to get people to think twice. The author is a trained Freudian analyst, not a scientist, and it definitely shows. I also felt that there wasn’t quite enough individual research for this book to stand on it’s own, the author heavily quotes Darwin (who I love) and another elephantologist, whose book I have since ordered. I appreciate Moussaieff Masson bringing so many important issues to light, however, if you want a book about the difference between animal and human psychology you should read Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee. If you want a book about wild elephants you should read The Elephant Whisperer, for tamed elephants read Modoc.
World War II:
All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (4 stars). What a beautifully told story!! I truly enjoyed this book. I listened to it and sometimes got a little confused on the switching point-of-view and bouncing around in time. I love Marie-Laure’s character, the blind girl who has such vivid and intense descriptions of place. I love her love of Darwin and books and science. I also think Werner has a beautiful character arc, and his constant caring for Jutta and worrying about her made me all teary. I thought the ending was perfect, heartbreakingly perfect.
Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, by Philip Paul Hallie (4 stars). A small village in southeastern France, Le Chambon, became a city of refuge for Jewish and German refugees during World War II. A few Protestant pastors rallied the small town to accept thousands of people fleeing the Nazi regime, they housed, fed, clothed them, hid them, and helped them escape to Switzerland. Their story is not very well known, but it is absolutely beautiful. The entire town operated on basic human goodness–feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, protect the unprotected–and defied both the Gestapo and the French Vichy government, who well knew this town was harboring refugees, yet could not get any of the townspeople to rat each other out or turn in a refugee. The writing is not very polished, but the idea that even in the face of incredible evil and anger and fear and hate, ordinary people will stand against hatred and defend and protect oppressed people was just gorgeous. Particularly apropos right now with the mounting media surrounding the refugees around the world.
The Sonderberg Case, by Elie Wiesel (3 stars). The prose in this book is beautiful, but at times it was a little too disjointed for me, the bouncing from character to character and time period to time period. That being said, towards the end, Werner Sonderberg–accused murderer–gives one of the most glorious speeches on right and wrong that I’ve ever read. That alone is enough of a reason to read this book.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce (3 stars). I really want to read Ulysses, but thought I’d start with this shorter, more manageable James Joyce first. This book wasn’t ground-breaking for me, but I appreciated the internal monologue of Stephen Dedalus and his struggles with right and wrong, God and devil, religion or no religion. In many ways this reminded me of Catcher in the Rye.