Monthly Archives

October 2016

Book Review: WHERE AM I NOW? by Mara Wilson

mara-wilson-where-am-i-nowMara Wilson shot to fame when she was five years old, after playing Robin Williams and Sally Field’s daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire. That led to her stepping into Natalie Wood’s shoes in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street. At seven, Wilson landed her dream role: the titular character in the film adaptation of Matilda, the Roald Dahl classic that Wilson and her mother loved.

Then tragedy struck. Wilson’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and would not live to see the release of Matilda. After her mother’s death, Wilson started having anxiety attacks and OCD symptoms. As she entered puberty, casting directors stopped calling.

Where Am I Now? contains engaging, poignant accounts of the actress-turned-storyteller’s struggles to find her identity after losing her mother and Hollywood’s adoration: “I didn’t want to stop acting because I had to, because I was too ugly.”

Wilson covers difficult topics but can leaven a painful anecdote with incisive wit. Remarking on a harsh review in which a movie critic expresses a desire “to shake [Wilson] by her tiny adorable shoulders until her little Chiclet teeth rattle,” Wilson writes: “What better way to show one’s edgy coolness than hypothetical child abuse?”

When fans ask for a picture with her, she panics: “I don’t photograph well, and…they’re going to put it on the Internet, where not everyone knows I’m funny and charming and generally a decent person.” But that’s exactly how she comes across in this memoir, with a sense of self-acceptance that indicates she knows where—and who—she is now.

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission.

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Squirrels and Kittens and Gators—Oh, My!

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Today is pub day for Laura Benedict‘s The Abandoned Heart, and I’m happy to welcome her back to PCN. She’s the nicest twisted person I know, as evidenced by the creepy post she wrote for me last year about medical dolls, which I’ve barely recovered from.

This year she takes a look at Victorian taxidermy, which plays a part in Abandoned Heart. Oh, man, I’m going to have nightmares about the kids below for a long time.

Read on, and then check out Laura’s book!

Victorians and Their Love for Creepy Dead Things

The Victorians were mad for taxidermy. One theory is that it had something to do with their legendary obsession with death. But given that Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert didn’t die until 1861—giving rise to elaborate mourning traditions that the middle class quickly embraced—I think it was more complicated than that.

From the very early nineteenth century, naturalists like Charles Darwin were traveling widely, trying to make scientific sense of the natural world. They brought that world back with them for research and curiosity purposes.

The middle and leisure classes were also always on the lookout for new and novel things to fill their free time. If you were even vaguely interested in exotica like a baby rhinoceros and couldn’t get to Africa to see one, why not trot down to the local exhibition and view the next best thing?

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London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 featured the work of no fewer than fourteen taxidermists. The one who drew the longest lines was Hermann Ploucquet, who had published a book called The Comical Creatures from Wurtemberg. Its illustrations featured anthropomorphized animals, and Plouquet took the illustrations one step further by posing taxidermy animals in representative tableaux.

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drinking-cats

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From the pert look in the eyes of Ploucquet’s creatures, it would appear he figured out that animal eyeballs had to be replaced with glass. Not all early taxidermists understood this, and their work is sadly (and perhaps for the best) lost to time.

There are plenty of bad taxidermy examples on the Internet, but please enjoy this lion assembled from bones and skin in the eighteenth century by a taxidermist who had never seen an actual lion.

This is the famous Lion of Gripsholm Castle, along with his backstory.

lion-of-gripsholm

Plouquet was famous in his time, but the taxidermist who emerged from the era with truly enduring fame is Walter Potter. No one is certain, but he must have been inspired by Plouquet’s earlier work.

Potter (with whom I share a birthday; apparently Cancers are a little twisted) took the tableau method and went crazy with it, often with birds (many, many birds) and kittens. He exhibited his work in a private museum in the village of Bramber in England until 1914, and his animals do look incredibly lifelike and plausible. Let’s try not to think how all of these kittens and squirrels coincidentally died at the same time, yes?

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squirrels

The Guardian did a piece with some wonderful photography of several of Potter’s works.

Thanks to some adoring parents, we have photographic evidence that nineteenth and early twentieth century taxidermy wasn’t just for grownups, but was enjoyed by the kiddies, too.

kid-with-crocodile kid-on-animal

And, yes, also by the Paris Hiltons and Kardashians of their day.

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Taxidermy as popular viewing entertainment fell out of favor early in the twentieth century as Victorian whimsy was replaced by the very real concerns of industrialization and World War I. People also began to examine the provenance of the animals. Surely they all could not have died natural deaths, as Walter Potter’s descendants suggested.

Hmmm…okay.

Laura Benedict’s latest dark suspense novel, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel, is set in 1878 Virginia. One of the children in the novel is very attached to a balding taxidermy squirrel named Brownkin, given to her by her eccentric grandfather, an amateur taxidermist. Read more about The Abandoned Heart and Laura’s other books here.

Photo: Jay Fram

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Nerdy Special List October 2016

Need something to take your mind off all the ugliness in the news these days? How about checking out the books on this month’s Nerdy Special List? Our contributors have diverse and excellent taste so I hope one of these titles will spark your interest. Happy reading!

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Balls: It Takes Some to Get Some by Chris Edwards (Greenleaf, October 4)

ballsChris Edwards knew at the age of 5 that he’d been born the wrong gender. Every step of growing up only reinforced that understanding, leaving him depressed and suicidal.

Balls is the amazing, courageous and even humorous story of his 30+-year journey through the loneliness and isolation, the discovery of gender dysphoria and an amazing therapist, as well as the grueling ups and downs of 28 surgeries.

Before the term “transgender” existed, before Chaz Bono and Caitlyn Jenner, Edwards dared to pursue the life he was intended to lead. Balls is told with eloquence, grace, sharp wit and brutal honesty. This is currently my favorite book of 2016.

You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris, trans. by Sam Taylor (Penguin Press, October 25)

you-will-not-hateIn November of 2015, French journalist Antoine Leiris lost his wife to a terrorist act. She was attending a rock concert at Bataclan Theater in Paris. You Will Not Have My Hate is partly his story of the days following the attack and partly his manifesto to the world.

He and his son will find happiness in her name, and they will deprive the terrorists of their hate and fear. A short book you will likely read in one sitting, You Will Not Have My Hate packs colossal impact into every single page. Leiris contrasts the hideousness of the crime with writing that sings a moving tribute to his wife.

The translation doesn’t seem to have lost an ounce of the emotion Leiris poured into this inspiring memoir. With so much hate in the world now, this book is a shining beacon of hope for us all.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Hogarth, October 11)

hag-seedThe Hogarth Shakespeare project launched in late 2015, with prominent authors retelling and reimagining the works of Shakespeare.

With authors such as Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, and Gillian Flynn participating, I couldn’t help but be excited about these novels. Yet despite Atwood’s contribution being the fourth installment, it’s the first one I’ve read!

Hag-Seed, Atwood’s take on The Tempest, is the perfect blend of humor and heart. Felix (as Prospero) is the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, or he was, until he was maneuvered out of his position by his scheming assistant, Tony.

After a self-imposed exile, complete with a dilapidated shack, he takes on a new position at The Fletcher County Correctional Institute for nonviolent offenders. Here he teaches inmates about Shakespeare, changing their lives—and his—in the process.

I won’t say how it wraps up, but I loved it. While I had very little doubt about Atwood being an excellent choice for such a project, I am very happy my suspicions were confirmed. Hag-Seed is witty, wonderful, and tongue in cheek. I’d highly recommend it to most anyone.

From Erin at In Real Life:

IQ by Joe Ide (Mulholland, October 11)

iqA debut novel that shows great promise is a thing of beauty, and IQ is such a novel.

IQ is Isaiah Quintabe, a young man living in Los Angeles who is brilliantly clever, incredibly observant, and works as an unlicensed private investigator.

Sound familiar? It should. In many ways, IQ feels like a return to any one of a number of favorite PI stories. Isaiah is something of a neighborhood Robin Hood, helping those who have nowhere to go in exchange for whatever they can pay him. He’s the young man we’d all like our daughters to date, but his history is clouded and dark.

This is very much a “start of a series” book, combining Isaiah’s history, the how-he-got-here tale with a new case involving a self-absorbed rapper who’s on someone’s murder list. IQ is refreshing for its moderate violence and a cast of characters as varied as the world around us. You’ll want to meet IQ.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Annie Year by Stephanie Wilbur Ash (The Unnamed Press, October 11)

the-annie-yearWhen the new vocational-agriculture teacher arrives in Tandy Caide’s small Midwestern town, her staid life as a CPA takes a careening turn.

With his ponytail, man clogs, freshly-mown-ditch scent and multicolored beaded belt, the Vo-Ag teacher lights a fire in the semi-uptight Tandy, causing ramifications across town, including with Tandy’s former lover and the daughter of Tandy’s estranged best friend.

Ash’s raucous debut will have readers cringing and laughing as the first-person narrative takes them through Tandy’s awkward journey of redemption and self-discovery.

Soul-baring and heartfelt, Tandy’s story is both relatable and foreign, and always entertaining. The humor alone makes it a winner, and this reader is still laughing over the town diner’s nickname.

The Heavens May Fall by Allen Eskens (Seventh Street, October 4)

heavens-my-fallAllen Eskens is a monster. In The Heavens May Fall, he takes two supporting characters from his prior novels, turns each into a hero protagonist, and then puts them on opposite sides of a high-profile murder case.

Law professor Boady Sanden agrees to return to the courtroom to represent his former law partner, who’s accused of murdering his wife. Boady is certain Ben is innocent.

Boady’s best friend, Detective Max Rupert, is just as sure Ben is a stone-cold killer. Each man is determined to see his view of justice served, even if the heavens may fall as a result.

The fact that one of these good men has to be wrong is an ingenious means of sucking readers in and holding them captive, and Eskens executes it brilliantly.

With short chapters from alternating perspectives, Eskens’s straightforward yet scintillating prose keeps the action moving at a perfect pace, and his legal acumen keeps courtroom scenes intriguing. This is a friendship-testing murder mystery well worth diving into.

From PCN:

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta (Mulholland, October 11)

tell-the-truthI was going to recommend Joe Ide’s IQ—it’s heartbreaking and hilarious, with lead characters I can’t wait to read more about—but Erin selected it above, so I’m going with Truth, not that it’s second best. The two books are equally excellent.

Bish Ortley has just been suspended from the Met Police when he gets a call saying a bomb went off on a bus containing his daughter. She turns out to be OK, but Bish sees something disturbing on the passenger list: the name of the granddaughter of a man who bombed a supermarket years earlier. And the girl disappears. Was she the target, or the bomber?

No blurb I write can do justice to the complexity and emotional depth of YA author Marchetta’s first novel for adults. The story deals with familial loyalty, the danger of racial profiling, and the sacrifices made out of love. Bish reminded me of a British Harry Bosch—relentless in seeking out truth and making sure everybody counts.

What are you excited about reading this month?

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Movie Review: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

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DreamWorks/Universal Pictures

Though I was less than impressed with The Girl on the Train in book form, I like the talent associated with the movie, especially Emily Blunt, who plays Rachel, the titular character. So I went in with an open mind, but the last thing I expected was to be bored.

For those of you unfamiliar with the plot, here’s a spoiler-free version: a woman (Rachel) who takes a train every day becomes a voyeur of the lives of people who live along the train tracks. One day Rachel sees a young woman (Megan) kissing a man who’s not her husband, and then Megan goes missing afterward. Rachel is convinced what she saw is important to the investigation, and finagles her way into it as a helpful citizen. But wait—she’s a drunk and an extremely unreliable witness.

I tore through the book because Hawkins’s nonlinear and unreliable storytelling kept me constantly wondering what the heck was going on, despite my intense dislike of all the characters. They remain unlikable in the movie, even though Blunt, Haley Bennett as Megan, and Allison Janney as the investigating cop do good work. Rebecca Ferguson, a revelation in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, is criminally underused as Anna, the third narrator in the novel.

Some prominent details have been changed (mainly Rachel is in NY instead of London) or left out altogether, but the adaption, written by Erin Cressida Wilson and directed by Tate Taylor (The Help), remains mostly faithful. Since I now know all the answers, it was hard for me to maintain interest. The story had lost its only hook: keeping me in the dark.

I sat next to a woman who hadn’t read the book, and it was clear from her vocal reactions she was really into the movie, especially the ending. So it might be a solid choice if you’re coming to it clean. Otherwise, it’s OK to miss this Train.

Nerd verdict: Take a different Train

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