Funny Farm, by Laurie Zaleski*****

“You never know what you are capable of until the day comes wen you have to go places you hadn’t planned on going.”

Laurie Zaleski knows how to make a debut. Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life With 600 Rescue Animals has created a tremendous buzz, and all of it is deserved. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, February 22, 2022.

Laurie’s early childhood was in many ways an enviable one; her mother stayed home to raise Laurie, her brother, and her sister, and her father made enough money to hire household help and buy a couple of vacation homes, too. There was nothing they lacked for, other than physical safety. Because while her father could be warm, and loving, and generous, and funny, he could also be a monster. His reign of terror was worsened by alcohol consumption. As the beatings became uglier and more frequent, Annie, their mother, chose poverty for the children and herself over the constant terror and danger of living with their dad.

“’I almost became a nun,’ Mom would joke years later. ‘Then I met the devil…’ Annie McNulty and Richard Zaleski fell in love like tripping into an open manhole: one wrong move followed by a long dark plunge.”

There’s one searing episode Zaleski recounts, toward the end of their life with Dad, in which they are all hidden in a bedroom with the door blocked shut, and their father is sneaking up on them, commando crawling up the hallway toward them so they won’t see his shadow approaching, and he has a large knife between his teeth. It sounds like something from a Stephen King novel, doesn’t it?

And so, when Annie’s efforts to build a modest nest egg to finance their flight is uncovered, she has no other option but to leave without the money. She finds a dumpy cabin in the woods, half fallen down and in no way legally rentable, and strikes a bargain with the owner. To say that their standard of living decreases is the understatement of the year, but they make it work.

Once she has made her escape, apart from the creepy forays from an unseen enemy that occur from time to time, Annie can’t turn away anyone else, human or otherwise, that is in a dark and vulnerable place. The woods surrounding their little shack begin sprouting makeshift outbuildings; there’s a little lean-to here, and a sort-of paddock there. And it keeps growing.

Zaleski is a gifted storyteller, and she alternates her narrative from the present to the past, breaking up the nightmarish episodes of her childhood with hilarious stories, most of which are about the critters. Her writing is so nimble that I find myself repeatedly checking to see what else she’s published, because there’s just no way this can be her debut. But then, that’s what they said about Harper Lee, right?

Perhaps the most glorious aspect of this book is seeing how Annie McNulty’s can-do attitude, sterling work ethic, and positivity transformed her life and lit a path for her children. She provided them with an outstanding role model, and in return, they did everything possible for her when cancer forced her to slow down.

This book will inevitably be compared to Educated and The Glass Castle because it is a memoir of someone that has overcome horrifying challenges in childhood and emerged triumphant. But make no mistake, Zaleski’s story is in no way derivative, and likely will be held up as an example for future writers. It makes my feminist heart sing!

Highly recommended.

Agent Sniper, by Tim Tate***

I was invited to read and review this book by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. I accepted because I do love a good spy story, and there aren’t many of them being published at this time. Tim Tate has had a long, illustrious career as a documentary filmmaker and as an author, but is new to me.

So, when I began reading and found my attention wandering, I thought it was a personal problem. Too many distractions. I tried again, and when that didn’t go well, I procured the audio version and listened to it while I prepared dinners during the week. Eventually, I threw in the towel and admitted that this is simply not an engaging book. The topic sounds fascinating, but just as a gifted, dedicated author can spin dull material to gold, so can an indifferent one tell an electrifying spy story in a way that leaves the reader checking the page numbers and the clock—is this thing over yet?

It’s not all bad news: the research here is top drawer. For the researcher, this book has use, although I would caution the uninitiated into reading carefully, because history is always politically charged. Every fact that is included, and every fact that is not; the interpretation; the language used, all give a biased account, even when a researcher and writer is endeavoring to be as balanced as possible. I don’t care for this writer’s interpretation, which makes him sound like a hardened right winger, but I have no doubt that the facts that he uses are accurate ones.

Then we come to the audio, and I must wonder why, if we’re primarily dealing with the CIA and its agents, we have a narrator with a clipped English accent (and a few pronunciations that sounded very odd to me,) telling the story. I found it disorienting, but if this had been a more engaging story, I would have overlooked it.

Ultimately it comes down to wordsmithery, and I didn’t find much of it. Those interested in dabbling in this genre would do better to read Ben McIntyre and Tim Weiner.

This book is for sale now.

Buses Are a Comin’, by Charles Person and Richard Rooker*****

I’ve read my share of Civil Rights memoirs, and this is one of the best. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Charles Person grew up in an all-Black Atlanta neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s. At the story’s outset, he describes how sleeping arrangements were juggled inside their two-room apartment, with four family members sleeping in the front room, and three, himself among them, back in the kitchen. Since everyone in the neighborhood had roughly the same economic standing, it didn’t occur to Person that his family might be considered poor. He was at the top of his class academically, college-bound. His family were faithful church goers, and his father worked two-plus jobs to provide the bare necessities, but they never went hungry. It was only later, when his neighborhood was featured on a news program addressing “Urban blight,” that he learned that the place he loved and called home was part of a “tenement.” The overall tone of his home life is set at the beginning, when he describes an incident from childhood. He and another child stole peaches off of a neighbor’s tree, and his mother marches them to the door, makes them confess—which meant looking the owner in the eye and using the word “stole,” rather than a softer euphemism—and pay for the fruit they ate. Thus we know there’s a definite moral compass here.

It isn’t until he’s grown that Person learns about racism. He gets his first job at a bowling alley, and he learns what parts of that place and the surrounding businesses he is allowed to access, and which are for whites only. Later, he insists on sending his test scores and application to a Georgia university, knowing his marks are excellent, but is notified by mail that the school will not admit Negro (the accepted term at the time) students. As the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina draw headlines, Person becomes part of a local student effort to end segregation at the lunch counters in their area. Person is thrown in jail, and when he is released a short time later, he is experienced, primed, and ready for more.

The story of Person’s life, and of the Freedom Rides, which make up most of the memoir, is riveting. It’s told in first person, in a you-are-there kind of narrative that drew me in. I listened to part of this story using the audio book that I borrowed from Seattle Bibliocommons, but although the reader generally does a serviceable job with the text, I recommend the print version. I winced when the reader mispronounced “mimeograph”; there are no mimes in there, honey. But mostly, there are a lot of freedom songs interspersing the story, as the riders sing in jail, sing in the bus, sing, sing, and sing some more, and I don’t know about you, but it sets my teeth on edge when in the audio version the lyrics are simply read, with or without rhythm. Many of these are well-known songs, and if I see the words on the page, I will hear the music in my head. Listening to someone recite the words in a bloodless, wooden recitation is just sad.

For anyone that misses the connection, Person draws the connection between the Freedom Rides and the struggle of the present:

“It is sixty years later, and politicians do the same today when the devalue and disrespect important African-American societal concerns by turning Black Lives Matter into All Lives Matter. Of course, all lives matter. No one argues against that, but changing the issue from “Black” to “All” steals the legitimacy of a vital concern that needs political attention and a political solution. The intentional and insidious shifting on an issue through language is a calculated move. It was by [Georgia Governor] Vandiver in 1960, and it is today. It avoids and insults at the same time.”

There is no better time to learn the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1900s, and apply them to the struggle against racist cop brutality in the present. If this subject makes you sit up a little straighter, you need this book. Of course, it’s also great reading for anyone that likes a good memoir, but even so, read it actively. There’s so much more work to be done.

Pride of Eden, by Taylor Brown*****

Taylor Brown is quickly becoming one of my favorite novelists. His 2018 book, Gods of Howl Mountain is one of my ten best loved books among the 1,300 I have reviewed since 2012, so I have been waiting for this book, and it does not disappoint. My undying thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale today.

Pride of Eden is a wildlife sanctuary in Georgia, owned and run by a Vietnam vet named Anse. Anse has PTSD related to his service, and his most searing memory is of the loss of a service dog that sacrificed its life to prevent a soldier from being killed by an explosive device. Anse is a complicated character with a possible death wish, but this aspect of his character is never overplayed, and after a haunting, visceral passage at the beginning, it becomes a subtle quality that runs beneath the surface, as it likely would in real life.

Anse accepts animals of all sorts; some come from illegal private zoos, or from private owners that are surprised that their adorable lion cub has grown up to be a wild animal. But secretly, he is also a vigilante. When he sees an animal in need of rescue whose owner plans to keep it—or sell its dead body for parts—he creeps in at night and liberates it.

Tyler is the preserve’s veterinarian, a buff no-nonsense woman who is also Anse’s girlfriend. My favorite passage involving Tyler is when a man comes to see Anse, and Anse is in a mood and wants Tyler to get rid of the guy. Tyler pushes back; it might be important, and the man has traveled a long way to see him. Anse grudgingly tells her to “Send him in,” and Tyler fires back that she is “not your fucking secretary, Anse.” At the outset of the story, Tyler does not know that Anse does not acquire all of his animals legally.

The third main character is Malaya, who comes to the sanctuary looking for work:

  “What do you want to do?” he asked.

   “Anything.”

    “What are your qualifications?”

“Third infantry, two tours in Iraq. Honorable discharge. Then I contracted in South Africa, tracking ivory and rhino poachers.”

“You catch any of them?”

She uncrossed her arms, buried her hands in the pockets of her shorts. Anse could see her knuckles ridged hard against the denim. “Yes,” she said.

Malaya is complex as well. But I love Malaya not only for her meaty internal monologue, but for the things she isn’t. Most male authors (and some female ones too) wouldn’t be able to resist these tired elements, and once again I admire Brown’s respect for women, which shows vibrantly in the way he frames his characters. Malaya is not romantically interested in Anse, nor does she try to mother him. Malaya and Tyler are not jealous of one another, and they do not compete. Both characters are buff and intelligent, and at no time do they have to be rescued by men. As a result, I could appreciate this story as it unfolded without the distraction of stereotypes or overused, sexist plot devices. Neither female character is motivated by sexual assaults in her past.  

The other two characters are Horn, another damaged vigilante that collects wild animals, and Lope, Anse’s driver, who helps him move large animals.

This is not an easy read. It will attract Brown’s fans, of course, and also animal lovers; yet those same animal lovers have to wade through an awful lot of sorrow, as the story is rife with tales of animal abuse. Brown’s purpose, apart from writing outstanding fiction, is likely to raise awareness of poachers that kill endangered animals for profit, and of private game reserves that send semi-tame animals to an enclosure so that wealthy ass hats can bag some big game, take that animal’s head home to hang in the den.

 Yet there’s nothing at all here that is included to be prurient or sensationalistic; every word has a purpose, either to develop a character or drive the plot forward, or both.

My emotions run the full gamut as I am reading, and this is a sign of excellent literature. I laugh out loud a couple of times; at others, the prose is so painful that I have to walk away for awhile and then come back. But I am never sorry to be reading it. The ending is so deeply satisfying that I want to high-five someone, but alas, I am reading it alone.

Once again, Brown’s novel is destined to be one of the year’s best reads. I highly recommend it.