Seven Down, by David Whitton

Helmuth von Moltke said way back in 1871 that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. (In a nutshell.) But we learn in David Whitton’s fascinating novel, Seven Down, that the people putting together the plan should maybe also take a closer look at the folks they’ve engaged to carry out the plan. No matter how well designed the plan, no matter how perfectly timed each piece, no matter how carefully placed the players, someone is going to screw things up.

The prologue to Seven Down sets things up for us. A mysterious company set up an elaborate plan to kill a man at a fancy hotel in London, Ontario. More than two years later, an agent of that company has finally compiled his report about what went wrong. This report contains transcripts of interviews and interrogations with a series of sleeper agents who were placed at the King William to take out the company’s target. And it’s apparent from the first of these that the sleeper agents are…not the best choices for the job. Reading the transcripts of conversations (and the interrogation) revealed people who are worried about a missed period, are on a lot of cocaine, are bleeding out from a gunshot, are clinically paranoid, and so on. There are so many human flaws that I started to try and match the characters to the seven deadly sins. (I almost got seven matches.)

This book is a stunning piece of writing. Structurally, it’s brilliant. The way that the beginning and the end of Seven Down echo each other is so amazing that I desperately want someone else to read this book so that I gush over Whitton’s writing with them. But the characters! The characters! Each character has such a distinct voice that I stopped trying to figure out what was supposed to happen on that messy, violent day at the hotel and focused completely on how the conversations let me into the characters’ heads so deeply that I felt like a fly in the wall of a therapist’s office. I could see how all of their busy thoughts made the company’s plan go to hell before it even happened. Honestly, it’s a wonder anyone at that company even has a job anymore.

It’s kind of funny that I read this book so closely on the heels of John Connolly’s The Nameless Ones. The two books have me thinking about thrillers. Plans don’t always work, either because of someone getting outsmarted or secrets are revealed or because of general chaos. Human flaws play a part, but never in the ways that I saw in Seven Down. None of the characters were the usual ethically tortured, world-weary figure that I usually see in thrillers. The characters in Seven Down are ordinary people, who thought they were signing up for something important when they chose to be sleeper agents only to realize that, when it came down to it, they were not the right people for the job.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Fuzz, by Mary Roach

Mary Roach’s latest dive into the interesting and odd is Fuzz, in which she pesters experts and government officials in four different counties to ask all kinds of inappropriate questions about human-animal conflict. She talks to wildlife rangers who determine if people were killed by animals, other humans, or by accident. She attempts to get straight answers out of officials who really don’t want to talk about India’s monkey overpopulation problem. And she talks to lots and lots of biologists who study species they clearly enjoy, but that they are tasked with finding ways of eradicating. The result of this tension is that Fuzz might be the most melancholy of Roach’s books. Thankfully, it is packed with irrelevant facts, fun vocabulary, and plenty of silliness.

Humans have been locked in a struggle with many species since the first humanoids. We are killed by and kill in turn large predators like bears, mountain lions, and leopards. (All are covered in Fuzz.) We’ve also been fighting with species who steal our food and mess with our stuff, mostly by pooping on it. (Roach discusses several species of birds and rodents.) We’re not even safe from plants. Windthrown (a new word I learned from Roach) trees destroy our property and occasionally hurt us. Some plants can poison us. It’s a dangerous world out there. As Roach discovers, however, most of the things we do to avoid, mitigate, relocate, or eradicate the problems are pointless.

There’s a fact Roach deploys towards the end of Fuzz. Until the mid-nineteenth century or so, boys were employed as bird scarers. Twice a year, the boys would head out into the fields to scare the crap (literally, but accidentally) out of birds that would eat seed and ripe grain. Because they only did this semi-annually and because they were kids, the birds didn’t acclimate and the scaring worked a charm. All of the other methods used since then—explosives, poisons, and even lasers—stop working very quickly, if they even work at all. The real kicker of this is that birds don’t take that much. A rancher tells Roach in the last chapter that he estimates that the birds take about the same amount of cattle feed that he loses to the wind. These facts summarize Fuzz well. First, technology is no substitute for understanding animal and human behavior. Second, really understanding animals and the ecosystem would show us that it’s best if we left things alone. On the way to this lesson, Roach dives into monkey contraception, gene drive eradication plans, dynamiting treetops, lots of humane rodent traps and less humane poisons, and the US Navy futilely waging war on the gulls of Midway Island.

I learned so much from this book that I’ve been blurting out all kinds of trivia to everyone I’ve talked to in the last two days. The urge to drop trivia into every conversation will probably fade. (It usually does.) What’s going to stick with me is the knowledge that we need to learn to live with all of the other species on this planet. The critters are crafty and they’ve had a very long time to learn how to survive. Our energies would be better spent making peace with the rats and the gulls and getting into the habit of correctly using bear-proof garbage bins.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Illustration from US Patent 269,766 (“Animal Trap”), submitted in 1882 by J.A. Williams (Image via PlanetPatent)

How to Examine a Wolverine, by Philipp Schott

The amiable veterinarian Dr. Philipp Schott is back with a second collection of blog posts, short essays, anecdotes, and thoughts from his decades practicing medicine for the furry denizens of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. This volume, How to Examine a Wolverine, might be the coziest thing I’ve ever read. And, fittingly enough, I read it mostly on a Sunday afternoon with one or the other cat napping in my lap.

The chapters jump back and forth in time from Dr. Schott’s days in veterinary school almost up through the present. Unlike the previous book, this collection is a little light on the animal stories. Rather, Dr. Schott spends a lot more time answering frequently asked questions about cats and dogs (Why do cats like catnip? Is catnip addictive? Why are dog farts so pungent? Is being a vet now at all like it was in Dr. James Harriot’s day? How do you examine that wolverine from the zoo?) He also ruminates (‘scuz the pun) on what draws people into veterinary medicine, why vet care is so expensive, how to deal with difficult customers, why the profession flipped from mostly male to mostly female in the last 50 years…and so much more. This sounds like an awful lot of topics for such an easy read. Dr. Schott mostly manages this by keeping the chapters short.

The best chapters in this book are the animal stories. (My personal favorite involves a cat named Blizzard that is as destructive as its namesake.) In fact, this book makes me wish that I could spend a Sunday afternoon with the doc himself, a mug of tea, and lots of time for me to winkle every cat and dog story out of him that I can.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Speak, Silence, by Kim Echlin

Trigger warning for discussion of rape.

Kim Echlin creates a protagonist who can navigate, in fiction, real events during and after the Yugoslav Wars in Speak, Silence. An old love of travel journalist Gota Dobson connects her to a group of remarkable women who are trying to get justice for the women of Foča, located in a still disputed part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The women of Foča were kidnapped and subjected to repeated rape and torture during the war. Now, years later, some of these women will testify against the man who ordered their victimization as part of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Gota, at first, struck me as an odd choice as a narrator for this book. Why not one of the women who is testifying? Or one of their lawyers? Or someone closer to the crimes being adjudicated in the tribunal? Gota is Canadian. She is only sort of connected to the tribunal because she fell in love with a Bosnian man—who is in love with one of the lead witnesses. Gota’s desire to be close to Kosmos brings her into Edina’s orbit, just as she and her lawyer are deciding who will (and who can) testify at the tribunal. It wasn’t until I got near the end of the book that I figured out a reason for having someone only tangentially connected to the Yugoslav Wars be the narrator. Gota is an every-woman who also has a talent for eloquently writing about her observations. Being an every-women means that we can easily put ourselves in Gota’s shoes, as she witnesses to the witnesses at the tribunals.

Speak, Silence is a hard book to read but, I think, an important one—especially in a time where #MeToo is still working towards justice for women who’ve experienced sexual harassment and assault. We live in a world where rape is very rarely punished, especially when it’s been weaponized during war. Women (and men) who have been raped are too often left to stay silent to avoid social shame, who’ve been told that being raped might be their fault, and who might have to see the people who brutalized them walking around unpunished. Not only does Speak, Silence ask us to confront all of this, it also leaves us with the question of what justice even looks like. Even if the women win their case and the defendant is convicted, how can there be reparations?

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Erratics, by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

Vicki Laveau-Harvie got the call that she’s been dreading for years. Except, the call is not exactly the same one that other adult children dread. Laveau-Harvie’s elderly mother has just broken her hip. She’s alive and Laveau-Harvie has to go back to the town she fled years ago, and the incredibly toxic family that caused her flight. The Erratics contains the story of what happened after that call, as Laveau-Harvie and her sister spring into action to care for their stubborn, damaged parents.

No names are mentioned in The Erratics. The characters are so strongly drawn that they don’t really need names beyond the narrator’s pronoun, the sister, the father, and the mother. The narrator shows herself to be ambivalent at best and fearful at worst at the thought of returning to Canada. The sister is the kind of person who deals with everything with furious activity. The father has been so beaten down by his wife’s abuse that he is a passive object to be taken care of by his daughters and hired caretakers. The mother is an incendiary character whose brief appearances in the narrative confirm the narrator’s memories of her tumultuous, frightening, erratic childhood.

A glacial erratic is a chunk of rock that was moved miles out of its original position by glacial ice that has since retreated. Like that glacier, Laveau-Harvie was moved miles out of her original location by the unstoppable force that was her mother. Laveau-Harvie shares pieces of memory—such as the time her mother suddenly cut off her ponytail—with new crimes she found out later—her mother’s spending of the family nest egg and near starvation of the father—to explain her own position on her parents. Even years later, it isn’t hard to see the stamp of her mother on Laveau-Harvie’s character.

I’m surprised that I haven’t seen more of this kind of literature: memoirs about dealing with parents as they decline. There are memoirs by adult survivors of childhood abuse but books like The Erratics take that story a bit further as Laveau-Harvie, as an adult survivor, is suddenly expected to take charge of her parents’ property and make decisions about housing parents that need full-time care. The only other book that kind of comes close was the delightfully prickly, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. I felt for Laveau-Harvie from that first dreaded phone call. I don’t think I would have had the courage to go back to Canada, to leave a safe harbor for a place where we have to confront the fact that we suddenly have to parent our own parents.

Strongly recommended for readers who like stories about dysfunctional families.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Big Rock, Okotoks erratic field, Canada, near where The Erratics is set (Image via Wikicommons)

Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline

Joan’s husband stormed off into the woods a year ago, after a rare fight. He never came back. At least, that’s what Joan thought. As Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline, opens, Joan stumbles into a tent revival meeting. She’s still drunk from the night before but she would recognize her husband Victor anywhere. She has no idea how he came to be leading a church meeting at a tent; it’s about the last thing she would have expected. She certainly didn’t expect that he wouldn’t recognize his wife at all.

Joan’s family of Métis have clung tightly to their land in Quebec. They’re muddling along, but it’s clear that they’re not doing much better than surviving. Some family units have been broken. Only the oldest members of the family remember any of their language and traditions. That said, they’re not giving up anything else. In fact, the argument that sent Victor out into the woods in a huff was about selling some of the family land to get ahead for a change. Joan flat out refused to sell. Even after he’s been missing for a year, Joan hasn’t given up on finding Victor.

When Joan runs into her husband at the tent revival—in his guise as Eugene Wolff—Joan will not walk away from the church folks’ explanations that Joan is drunk and that she’s mistaken their preacher for someone else. Along with her nephew Zeus, Joan starts to stalk the tent revival in the hope that she will figure out a way to help Victor remember who he really is. Meanwhile, interstitial chapters show Victor lost in a wood with a terrifying creature that wants to eat him. If Victor stops moving, he’ll lose himself and Joan forever. These chapters confirm what Joan’s elders are telling him: that Victor has been possessed by a rougarou. If Victor can’t get out of the woods and Joan can’t save him from the increasingly sinister tent revival people, he will become the same kind of creature that is trying to consume him.

Empire of Wild is a tense, engaging ride. I loved how Dimaline built in more and more layers with each chapter. At first, this looks like a case of a husband running off and starting over in a surprising. Then, there are hints that something supernatural is going on. Later on, another shocking layer is revealed that explains everything. And the final twist at the end is a brilliant—albeit heartbreaking—cap to a cracking good read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Highway of Tears, by Jessica McDiarmid

Since the 1970s, thousands of Indigenous teenaged girls and women along Highway 16 in British Columbia have gone missing and been murdered. The true number isn’t known. In Highway of Tears, Jessica McDiarmid blends heartbreaking stories about the missing and murdered and their families’ struggles to find answers with the many mistakes and prejudices that lead to this human rights crisis. This book will rightly make readers sob and burn with anger.

Many of the chapters of Highway of Tears center on individual cases of teenagers and women. They are horribly similar. Young girls with promise make plans to visit, go to a party, or just go to work by hitchhiking and are never heard from again. Sometimes they just vanish. Other times, their bodies are found months or years later. Most of the time, the missing are labeled as runaways and little investigation was done. Their families advocate for years to try and get media attention and government action for the missing girls and women. Later in the book, McDiarmid talks about multiple commissions and taskforces that reviewed the original work by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In many cases, there is frustratingly little information to go on. Only a few cases are ever solved.

About a third of the way into Highway of Tears, McDiarmid turns her attention to the glaring question of how so many girls and women could have gone missing and never had their cases solved. She discusses the long history of racism against Indigenous people and the systematic way that the British and Canadian governments have stripped them of land, economic opportunity, legal rights, language, culture, and children (by taking them to abusive residential schools or by putting them into the foster system). She reveals the deeply, almost insurmountably antagonistic relationship between the RCMP and Indigenous communities; sometimes the name of the RCMP in the Indigenous languages translates to “war makers” or “those who take us away.” When Mounties are transferred from community to community, they never get a chance to get to know the people they serve or learn to banish deep rooted prejudices about Indigenous people.

It’s only recently, after years of advocacy, that the Canadian government has started to devote resources to the Highway of Tears cases—years, decades too late for justice. In some instances, perpetrators are found to have died in the years since they committed their crimes. The lack of attention paid by the RCMP and the Canadian government is especially galling when McDiarmid mentions the case of Nicole Hoar, a Caucasian woman who went missing on the highway, who received exponentially more attention in the media and from the police. There are good investigators in the RCMP, who care about the missing, that McDiarmid highlights for their efforts to find answers. But it’s hard not to condemn the entire RCMP for years of failure to help Indigenous people.

Highway of Tears tells a history that needs to be widely known. What happened to these girls, women, their families, and their people should never have happened. Indigenous lives matter. All lives matter, of course, but it’s clear that Indigenous lives have been treated as though they don’t, and McDiarmid makes it clear that a lot still needs to change in order to make the region safer: better transportation, better communication, better investigations. Most of all, the racism and prejudice towards Indigenous people has to change. And yet, Highway of Tears ends on a chord (not just a note) of mixed resignation, healing, and hope that things may be different in the future. Some of the families, those who learned what happened to their missing, have found a measure of peace. We can only hope that all the thousands of other mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles will also get the answers to their questions, and be able to heal, too.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Highway 16, Mt. Robson Provincial Park (Image via Wikicommons)

A Victory Garden for Trying Times, by Debi Goodwin

Having a loved one diagnosed with stage three esophageal cancer means a lot of things, not least of which is learning to become a caretaker for someone who is going to be very sick. And yet, at the beginning of A Victory Garden for Trying Times: A Memoir, author and journalist Debi Goodwin decides to take on another monumental task. At the same time that she is caring for her husband, Peter, Goodwin will also create a victory garden.

Appropriately enough, this memoir begins in November, with Goodwin planting garlic cloves to harvest next fall. She and her husband love eating fresh bruschetta, with tomatoes, garlic, and basil from their own garden. She worries about whether or not Peter will be around to eat this garlic. She also hopes that he will. After all, planting a garden is an act of hope. We put seeds and seedlings into the ground in the hope that they will grow and that we will be around to partake of the bounty. A victory garden is also an act of defiance, too. Goodwin points out that victory gardens were a way for people who weren’t soldiers to fight the enemy—at least according to the propaganda that was produced during the two world war wars.

Goodwin’s memoir takes us through one year in her life. We see Peter through several surgeries, his highs and a lot of lows. We also see Goodwin come to terms with her grief and depression as her husband’s health declines. Meanwhile, Goodwin’s victory garden has highs and lows. Some plants do well; others inexplicably wither. It’s a good metaphor for cancer in that, cancer has rules that we don’t always understand. We can do everything right (or mostly right) and still not be able to get rid of every invasive beetle or cancerous cell.

A Victory Garden for Trying Times is also a memoir of Goodwin’s love for her husband and partner, and her love for gardening. We get to know Goodwin so well that my heart ached for her. Because of some events in my own life (a cancer diagnosis, a sudden loss of a loved one), this book turned out to be a perfect read for me. The garden at the heart of this book, both as actual garden and as metaphor, reminded me that life goes on, as long as we do the little, constant, necessary tasks of taking care of ourselves. We might not feel like it now, in the middle of our grief, but someday there will be roses and fresh garlic again.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A man prepares a victory garden, c. 1943, by Ann Rosener (Image via WIkicommons)

Little Fish, by Casey Plett

Trigger warning for discussion of suicide and transphobia.

In many ways, Wendy Reimer lives a marginal life. She has a part-time job at a gift shop that’s closing down. Her friends run the gamut from sex workers to academics. She is transgender and is on the outs with most of her family. She presents as a woman and has had gender-confirmation surgery, but a lot of people still loudly question her gender. It isn’t hard to see, even a few pages into Casey Plett’s Little Fish, that Wendy is starting to lose herself in the middle of all of the things that have a claim on her.

The publisher’s description of Little Fish makes a bigger deal about Wendy learning, early in the book, that her grandfather may have not been a cis-gender, heterosexual man than it actually ends up being. Instead, Little Fish is primarily about Wendy in the weeks after the death of her grandmother. We see Wendy as she looks for love, a livelihood, and answers about her grandfather. We also get a close look at her somewhat tenuous support network of trans women and lesbians in Winnipeg, Canada. These women do their best to hold each other up, but friends can’t always save people from their troubles and all the rejection they face from the rest of “straight” society.

A lot happens in Little Fish, but little of it is pleasant except for the caring relationships Wendy and her friends have with each other. Wendy does a lot of self-destructive things with no idea of how much she is hurting herself. She begins to drink even more than usual and starts having risky sexual encounters with men that could turn violent at any moment. Worst of all (and all of this is pretty bad), is that Wendy seems to have little idea of how close she is to danger for most of the book. I wanted to have a sit down with her so that I could give her a sharp reality check before she does anything permanent to herself. Thankfully, someone eventually gives her that reality check, although they do it in a completely different intention. Perhaps intention doesn’t matter when someone can make something good out of hard words?

Little Fish was nominated for a 2019 Lambda Literary Award for transgender fiction, so I feel that I can recommend this as a portrait of the struggles that some trans women feel. Even though Wendy looks like the woman she is, she still wonders if she is the person she wants to be. She wonders if she made the right choices in her transition. She also thinks a lot about why the lives of transgendered people are so hard and so often end before they should because of suicide or violence. This is a hard read. I feel emotionally wrung out after reading it. That said, readers who are curious about the inner lives of transgender people will find plenty to ponder in Little Fish. I think this book has the potential to open eyes (and hearts) for readers who don’t know how lost people can feel when they don’t seem to fit in the world, in society, or in their bodies, all of the time.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who want or need to know more about the perspective and lives of transgendered people.

The Accidental Veterinarian, by Philip Schott

Philip Schott’s slight book, The Accidental Veterinarian, is a collection of posts from his blog, Vetography. The posts are alternately biographical, advice about pets, and stories about clients and their pets (the best parts). I suspect that long time readers of Dr. Schott’s blog won’t find much new here. For readers who haven’t heard of or read the blog, The Accidental Veterinarian is a fun jaunt through the life of a vet.

Schott is Canadian, with a winning sense of humor, which shines throughout the book. More than once I wished that I lived in Winnipeg*, so that I could take my boys to Dr. Schott. The early sections of the book contain Schott’s origin story. Unlike many vets, I suspect, Schott didn’t grow up in a house full of animals. He only had a pet gerbil after months of begging when he was a boy and a cat that wandered in from the cold when he was a teenager. He fell into veterinary medicine after following his father’s advice to choose a practical major in college. Thirty years on, Schott seems to have found lasting joy in his profession even though veterinarians suffer from high rates of emotional burnout.

Obligatory cat photo: Mogwai (right) and Ari

I asked to review The Accidental Veterinarian because I wanted to read stories about animals, the funnier and more heartwarming the better. I have fond memories of reading All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot, as a teenager. There weren’t as many stories as I had hoped. In fact, many of the stories here are launching points for advice about how to care for one’s pets (especially dogs) or when to call the vet. That said, there are some good stories about dogs who can’t stop eating things that are bad for them and pets who have names too innocent for their aggressive natures.

Readers who want pet stories would probably be better off reading the blog. Readers who are thinking about becoming vets, however, should pick this book up. In addition to the advice about taking care of our furry friends, Schott also has a lot of advice about how to be a good veterinarian. There are no illusions in The Accidental Veterinarian. Schott is clear that the life of a veterinarian is full of emotional highs and lows, and a lot of work. The highs, he says, make up for a lot of the lows. His best advice is that being a veterinarian is as much about the humans as it is about the pets. Veterinarians have to work with the people who are scared for their pets or who don’t understand the costs of having a pet or who just don’t know what’s involved in having a pet.

Spay and neuter your pets, folks, and don’t forget to get them vaccinated!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

*Also, public health care and whatnot.