Overdue Reviews: The Dragon Behind the Glass

The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish, Emily Voigt

Published May 24th 2016 by Scribner

Hardcover, 336 pages

Source: e-ARC from NetGalley

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A journalist’s quest to find a wild Asian arowana — the world’s most expensive aquarium fish—takes her on a global tour through the bizarre realm of ornamental fish hobbyists to some of the most remote jungles on the planet.

A young man is murdered for his prized pet fish. An Asian tycoon buys a single specimen for $150,000. Meanwhile, a pet detective chases smugglers through the streets of New York. Delving into an outlandish world of obsession, paranoia, and criminality, The Dragon Behind the Glass tells the story of a fish like none other. Treasured as a status symbol believed to bring good luck, the Asian arowana, or “dragon fish,” is a dramatic example of a modern paradox: the mass-produced endangered species. While hundreds of thousands are bred in captivity, the wild fish has become a near-mythical creature. From the South Bronx to Borneo and beyond, journalist Emily Voigt follows the trail of the arowana to learn its fate in nature.

With a captivating blend of personal reporting, history, and science, Voigt traces our fascination with aquarium fish back to the era of exploration when intrepid naturalists stood on the cutting edge of modern science, discovering new species around the globe. In an age when freshwater fish now comprise one of the most rapidly vanishing groups of animals, she unearths a surprising truth behind the arowana’s rise to fame—one that calls into question how we protect the world’s rarest species.

An elegant examination of the human conquest of nature, The Dragon Behind the Glass revels in the sheer wonder of life’s diversity and lays bare our deepest desire—to hold on to what is wild.

When I read the above blurb – a pet fish that people commit murder over! –  I knew I had to read this book.  What with life and babies and all I didn’t read this right away, but when I read mention of an arowana getting plastic surgery in Rich People Problems it sparked my memory and I knew I had to read the Dragon Behind the Glass soon.  And I learned Kevin Kwan didn’t make it up – people really are that extreme about the Asian Arowana!  

Once I started reading I was hooked!  (Also I’m clearly hilarious)  What started as one story in New York let Voigt into places that very few people travel to try to find the story of the wild arowana.   She follows both the collectors who want the fish for the prosperity it can bring and the scientists trying to study a possible new strain.   I know I am not such an explorer so it was fascinating reading how far the quest to see something new and wild would take Voigt and the biologists that she worked with.  I know I wouldn’t try to get into Burma just to catch a glimpse of a fish in its native environment! Especially for such an odd looking fish.  Fish conventions, fish nicknames, fish theft – quite a world out there.

Voigt also left me thinking more deeply than I expected about how we treat endangered or threatened species and how those animals end up on the list in the first place.  While I fear without an endangered list we would drive even more species to extinction she has me wondering if instead we do even more harm than good.  When my daughter and I took our usual turn around the fish department at the local pet store last week I definitely was looking at all those tanks differently.  

Thank you Scribner and NetGalley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

Nonfiction November: Choosing My Nonfiction

I’m slow but I’m here for week two of Nonfiction November!  Thank you Rachel at Hibernator’s Library for keeping this going this week!

What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book?

I’m definitely a mood reader so I have to pick up a book that fits at that time.  For example based on my anxiety right now due to the state of the world I’m going to be looking for lighter nonfiction.  Something that tells an engrossing story like Into Thin Air or The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and The Missing Corpse.  

Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to?

Always feminism and biographies or autobiographies of awesome women.  Bring them on!  I’m always interested in Lucrezia Borgia and currently obsessed with RBG.  Otherwise I am pretty much all over the board in my interests.  I am curious about more hard science books – like Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity after Shannon at River City Reading recommended it – but I think I need shorter the better for that kind of topic. 

Do you have a particular writing style that works best?

I don’t think so?  As long as I’m interested I’m in -even if it takes me 4 months like Romantic Outlaws did in the end.   I would probably pick up narrative nonfiction first given a shelf of options. 

When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you?

Totally!  I can’t imagine not at least picking up a book just based on a great title or cover.  I mean – The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu or again The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse?  I get so very curious right away!  I really need to pick up Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Found – I forget who recommended this but thank you!

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Review: Sex Object

Sex Object, Jessica Valenti

Published June 7th 2016 by Dey Street Books

Hardcover, 205 pages

Source: e-ARC from Edelweiss

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Author and Guardian US columnist Jessica Valenti has been leading the national conversation on gender and politics for over a decade. Now, in a darkly funny and bracing memoir, Valenti explores the toll that sexism takes from the every day to the existential.

Sex Object explores the painful, funny, embarrassing, and sometimes illegal moments that shaped Valenti’s adolescence and young adulthood in New York City, revealing a much shakier inner life than the confident persona she has cultivated as one of the most recognizable feminists of her generation.

In the tradition of writers like Joan Didion and Mary Karr, this literary memoir is sure to shock those already familiar with Valenti’s work and enthrall those who are just finding it.

I found Jessica Valenti’s book The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women to be totally fascinating and well done even as it scared me.  I appreciate all the work she did on feministing and I think her essays are always worth reading.  I’ll be honest though, I had a hard time with Sex Object.  I had to put this book down for long breaks before I could get through it.  The topics are hard – sexualization that Valenti’s been experiencing since childhood, touches on familial sexual abuse, and inappropriate teacher behavior.  In adulthood Valenti goes into her relationships and briefly into her path through colleges to feministing, then lightly into her marriage and her traumatic pregnancy.

Valenti asks “Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?”  Maybe it’s because I am lucky enough that I haven’t felt hated that I hard a hard time relating to her stories?  Her experiences on the New York subways are not the ones I have had on my train rides.  Her stories were brutal and painful to read at times.  They scared me.  I’m raising my kid to take the train – I don’t want to think about men exposing themselves to her on the Brown Line one day.  The harshness of her language and the topics I think in part made me struggle with Sex Object – there are only so many stories I want to read about anyone’s sexual history and partly the flow of chapters was somewhat jarring.  I would have liked deeper essays rather than short and shocking chapters. 

I can’t imagine the hatred and vitriol that Jessica Valenti is exposed to because of the internet and the work that she does – I looked at her twitter as part of writing this review and Valenti announced a social media break after she received a rape threat directed at her 5 year-old daughter.  All this woman does is advocate for the rights of women and she finds hate directed at her helpless child?  What the fuck is this world?  I have a 5 year-old daughter and I’m in tears and nauseated at the very thought – and I’m angry!

That’s why the book is important – Valenti tells her stories and experiences and they’re important and deserve validation.  This wasn’t an easy book but oh my God what is this world?  Some of the stories felt like too much – too much sex, too much vulgarity, too many drugs – but this is real life and it should make you react physically and even angrily at times.  Only then will we really be determined to follow Valenti and advocate for change.

Thank you Dey Street Books and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Review: Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, Claire Harman

Published March 1st 2016 by Knopf

Hardcover, 462 pages

Source: Library 

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A groundbreaking biography that places an obsessive, unrequited love at the heart of the writer’s life story, transforming her from the tragic figure we have previously known into a smoldering Jane Eyre.

Famed for her beloved novels, Charlotte Brontë has been known as well for her insular, tragic family life. The genius of this biography is that it delves behind this image to reveal a life in which loss and heartache existed alongside rebellion and fierce ambition. Claire Harman seizes on a crucial moment in the 1840s when Charlotte worked at a girls’ school in Brussels and fell hopelessly in love with the husband of the school’s headmistress. Her torment spawned her first attempts at writing for publication, and the object of her obsession haunts the pages of every one of her novels–he is Rochester in Jane Eyre, Paul Emanuel in Villette. Another unrequited love–for her publisher–paved the way for Charlotte to enter a marriage that ultimately made her happier than she ever imagined. Drawing on correspondence unavailable to previous biographers, Harman establishes Brontë as the heroine of her own story, one as dramatic and triumphant as one of her own novels.

What a short and sad life.  Really what sad and short lives all of the Brontë children had.  So much talent lost to consumption, to a strangely unhealthy family lifestyle and to opium in the case of Charlotte’s brother.  Though this book was about Charlotte it would be impossible to tell her story without the context of her family.  It was fascinating to read about the Brontë siblings writing and sharing as children and how that grew into the three sisters publishing as the Bells.  The letters that Harman accessed for source were moving and gave such thoughtful context to the eventual writing of Jane Eyre.  I suppose as a reader I should be thankful for the unrequited love in Charlotte Brontë’s early life because without that story there would be no Rochester and that would be a loss!    

I might not be raving about this book quite as much as Romantic Outlaws, but it was still fascinating to read about how really revolutionary Charlotte was for her time.  Really though in the end, I was just sad.  I wonder how much happiness Charlotte missed out on with her early death and how many books she might have had left to write.  I am absolutely more inspired now to read Vilette, reread Wuthering Heights to see if I can hate it less and to try Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Obviously I have to reread Jane Eyre as well.  A Fiery Heart felt long while reading, but despite the depth was really easy to lose myself in the Brontë’s world every morning.

Next nonfiction though will be Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell based on The Paperback Princess’s raves about it.  What biographies are you loving now? 

 

Review: Mother Tongue

Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish, Christine Gilbert

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published May 17th 2016 by Avery

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Imagine negotiating for a replacement carburetor in rural Mexico with words you’re secretly pulling from a pocket dictionary. Imagine your two-year-old asking for more niunai at dinner—a Mandarin word for milk that even you don’t know yet. Imagine finding out that you’re unexpectedly pregnant while living in war-torn Beirut. With vivid and evocative language, Christine Gilbert takes us along with her into foreign lands, showing us what it’s like to make a life in an unfamiliar world—and in an unfamiliar tongue.

Gilbert was a young mother when she boldly uprooted her family to move around the world, studying Mandarin in China, Arabic in Lebanon, and Spanish in Mexico, with her toddler son and all-American husband along for the ride. Their story takes us from Beijing to Beirut, from Cyprus to Chiang Mai—and also explores recent breakthroughs in bilingual brain mapping and the controversial debates happening in linguistics right now.

Gilbert’s adventures abroad prove just how much language influences culture (and vice versa), and lead her to results she never expected. Mother Tongue is a fascinating and uplifting story about taking big risks for bigger rewards and trying to find meaning and happiness through tireless pursuit—no matter what hurdles may arise. It’s a treat for language enthusiasts and armchair travelers alike.

Welcome to a #WeekofReviews hosted by Andi at Estella’s Revenge.  I’m going to do my best to clean out my long list of books to review starting now!  First is a book that made me want to take off and travel the world.

I love the idea of packing up my family and living somewhere else.  I spent a semester in Rome in college and I loved learning Italian, exploring Roman neighborhoods and finding all the gelato and chianti that I could.  I would pick up and move to Europe if our careers could take us there absolutely!  When I heard about Christine Gilbert chronicling her journey to take her family through three completely different countries while trying to gain language fluency in each I had to read it.  While the countries that Gilbert and her husband chose wouldn’t be mine I was still fascinated by their adventure.

I loved how Gilbert wove her personal story with her research into how we learn languages.  (Shocking – there is no one answer)  She shared the many theories she studied without weighing down the flow of their journey.   As much as I liked reading about her efforts with schools, flashcards and tutors (at a minimum) I thought it was even more fascinating how her young son picked up bits and pieces of Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish each as they moved.  I was really impressed at the level of commitment Gilbert gave to this project.  I can’t imagine hours of language lessons on top of audio recordings, homework and research – all while living in a new culture with a young family.  

I appreciated Gilbert’s honesty even when her choices weren’t the best – when she realized Shanghai was not liveable for her family because of pollution or when she realized she had been too strict with her education plan to really forge a life as an expatriate.  This crazy adventure definitely had moments of great beauty and inspiration –  with learning both news languages and cultures.  

For an added reading bonus – I had a flashback to Hausfrau and to Anna’s language lessons. As much as I loved that book I’m glad Christine’s was a very different kind of story!

Avery has kindly offered two copies for me to giveaway!  Here is a link to a Rafflecopter giveaway so go and enter!  Would you pick up and move to another country?  If so where would you go?

Bon Chance!  US Only, giveaway ends 6/20.  No spam giveaway accounts!

Thank you Avery for this copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer

Published April 19th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

Hardcover, 288 pages

Source: e-ARC from Edelweiss

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To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.

Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.

Clearly with a title like Bad-Ass Librarians I had to request this book right away right?  Bad-Ass is definitely an apt descriptor for Abdel Kader Haidara and his band of merry men in Mali.  I had no idea of the scholarly history of Timbuktu over the ages and it was fascinating.  Hammer describes how manuscripts were once dispersed among families and Haidara crossed Mali back and forth as a young man buying them back to be placed into a library.  That Haidara was able to rescue the manuscripts he found just once was phenomenal.  Parchments thousands of years old originally buried in the sand for protection then saved to be restored and cataloged with international funds…    

And then came the terrorists.  Haidara realized that the manuscripts he had saved once were under a new threat of imminent destruction and they had to be removed from the ostensibly safe libraries they had been placed in.  So he had to arrange for the movement of priceless artifacts under the noses of uneducated and armed militants! Hammer made me feel like I was right there a few times watching boxes of priceless papers going under the nose of the militants by donkey, then car and then boat.  Miraculous really.  

There was more detail than I expected about the terrorists but it was all important and flowed with the story of the manuscripts.  The context was necessary to understand the threat Mali was under and the real victory Haidara and those working with him had in saving thousands of manuscripts.  This ended up being a really interesting read not just for the librarians but the events in Mali and the importance with global terrorism. 

Thank you Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

Review: Five Days at Memorial

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink

Hardcover, 558 pages

Published September 10th 2013 by Crown

Source: Blogging for Books

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In the tradition of the best investigative journalism, physician and reporter Sheri Fink reconstructs 5 days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive and to maintain life amid chaos.

After Katrina struck and the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths.

Five Days at Memorial, the culmination of six years of reporting, unspools the mystery of what happened in those days, bringing the reader into a hospital fighting for its life and into a conversation about the most terrifying form of health care rationing.

In a voice at once involving and fair, masterful and intimate, Fink exposes the hidden dilemmas of end-of-life care and reveals just how ill-prepared we are in America for the impact of large-scale disasters—and how we can do better. A remarkable book, engrossing from start to finish, Five Days at Memorial radically transforms your understanding of human nature in crisis.

I worked myself up to being extremely nervous before beginning Five Days at Memorial – this was a mistake on my part.  I was afraid this book was going to be an extremely emotional account of the days spent at Memorial Hospital following Hurricane Katrina.   What I found was a well balanced recounting of the history of the hospital, the time leading up to the storm, and riveting accounts of the medical staff and families inside Memorial Hospital.  This is not to say the book was without emotion, but Fink moved so quickly from person to person that I never felt too caught up in any one individual’s story or feelings.

I really don’t want to imagine myself in that powerless, stifling, and terrifying building but Fink nearly had me there in the minds of the nurses and physicians.  I cannot imagine the decisions they were forced to make about triage, evacuating patients, and about letting go of patients that were too sick to face the conditions outside Memorial – all while worrying about their own loved ones and homes.  I can’t stop talking about this book with my friends and family.  Fink brings you to see why the doctors and nurses felt they needed to make the decisions they did, but leaves the reader to wrestle with the implications of those decisions.   

Fink tells the stories without judgement and follows with important discussion about what we’ve learned since Katrina.  It was shocking to read that the same kinds of decisions about patient triage were made in New York facing Hurricane Sandy and I don’t know that we’re any more prepared for medical disasters today.  Pretty terrifying really.  What’s also so important is more discussion about end of life care and about what kind of life prolonging treatment we want for ourselves and our families.  We could be doing so much better.  I think my next non-fiction now has to be The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America.   It will be interesting to see how these two link up in my thoughts.  

4 stars!

Thank you Blogging for Books for this copy in exchange for an honest review.