You Filthy Animal!

Pretty sure that’s a movie quote,* but it’s something my dad used to say a lot. (I miss him.)

I recently finished a book (so here’s your obligatory spoiler alert) that ended up quite different from what I typically read. Unleashed by Cai Emmons started out like a typical realistic fiction piece. A middle-aged California couple (George and Lu) drops their daughter (Pippa) off at college for the first time, the typical rite of passage but infused with some tension because the bond between Lu and Pippa is stronger than most mother-daughter bonds, to the point where even George thinks it’s odd.

Once George and Lu return home from dropping off Pippa, they can’t seem to resume their lives. Without their daughter to unite them, they don’t have much of a bond. George is heavily into his work (he owns a vineyard) and the trappings of his wealthy lifestyle, such as filling his custom-built house with expensive artwork. Lu is more down to earth and spiritual, less fixated on conspicuous consumption. Growing up with parents with such different points of view has led Pippa to be a bit of an oddball in that she connects more easily with animals than people. Case in point: She brings her cat to college.

There were a couple instances in which the book could have followed the typical plot of many novels: George, not sure what to do with himself now that his daughter is gone, has a midlife crisis during which he almost cheats on Lu with a local artist, Marley. Feeling overwhelming guilt, he confesses to Lu what he almost did, and her feelings of insecurity upon the departure of Pippa worsen so much due to this near-miss of infidelity that she becomes depressed and even more disillusioned with her materialistic lifestyle.

Meanwhile, at college, Pippa’s only friend is one of her professors, an eccentric guy named Dar (short for Darwin?) who loves animals as much as she does, and even lets her bring her cat to his lectures. As I was reading, I had the thought that this would go the way of many other novels, and Pippa would begin an affair with her much older professor, but thankfully, this did not happen.

The characters get more and more miserable as the story progresses, and there are news bulletins in which people begin to mysteriously disappear. These disappearances weigh heavily on the minds of Lu and Pippa. Then two things happen almost at the same time: George’s father gets sick, so he has to go to Florida for a while to care for him, and a huge wildfire breaks out where they live, which is prone to wildfires. I know very little about California fires, so it was interesting to read about it. Lu evacuates from their house and takes refuge in a shelter, which she actually enjoys because the communal experience is a nice break from her increasingly dismal, lonely life. George, on the other hand, can’t stand shelters, so it’s good that he’s in Florida. Pippa is safely ensconced at school and doesn’t need to evacuate.

During her time at the shelter, Lu befriends Marley and gains a new perspective on life while she is away from her home and the fire ravages the area. What is the point of having fancy possessions when they are ultimately meaningless? Maybe Pippa has a point, and animals really do know what truly matters. George wants Lu to find something to do with herself now that Pippa is at college, but Lu doesn’t care for any of it. She would rather spend time living in the present and just “being,” which is a noble goal but probably not terribly realistic with a goal-oriented husband like George.

The wildfire worsens, and against common sense and better judgment, Lu ventures out to inspect the damage. Strangely, her and George’s house is the only one in the neighborhood left standing, although everything in it has been destroyed by smoke. By this time in the novel, she has reached a low point and decides to set the house and all its expensive furnishings on fire to finish what nature had started. That’s when the book started to get really weird. Lu runs away, sheds her phone, her clothes, her jewelry, and other markers of her humanity. She stops taking showers and starts eating out of dumpsters.

She has somehow become a dog, and the transformation gives her a newfound happiness and joy at not having to be concerned with the trivial woes of being human. The author does a great job describing Lu’s transition from human to beast. Magical realism! Honestly, it’s not as cheesy and weird as I’ve made it seem here. George and Pippa are obviously worried about Lu, who seems to have gone off the grid completely. They fear she has perished in the fire or disappeared like the others they had been hearing about in the news. Pippa gets Dar the professor to take her back to her parents’ house, as she is in danger of flunking out of college.

Along the way, Pippa becomes a dog as well, and she meets up with Lu, who had found her. Both dogs are now in possession of a confused and flustered Dar. He meets up with Marley, who eventually takes both dogs to George. However, they’re not truly tame dogs. While in George’s possession, they run off into the woods to joyfully commune with nature and likeminded others (the missing people mentioned earlier in the book).

The book brings up some interesting questions about animals versus people. Do animals have souls? Is animal consciousness equal to human consciousness? Do animals have a sort of “personhood”? The author seems to imply that animals are, in a sense, wiser than people. It wasn’t clear if she was implying that animals are equal to or matter as much as people. I don’t like either of those perspectives. Animals do have inherent dignity, which is why they should never be abused or treated badly. However, they are in no way equal to people and should not be given “rights” in the sense that people have rights. I don’t believe that animals have souls in the sense that people do. Yes, a dog can look at you with gooey chocolate eyes and fool you into thinking he has a soul and will live forever, but when we go to heaven, the presence of God will be so all encompassing that petty things like dogs and even relatives and spouses won’t matter. Human souls belong to God. Dogs and cats may go to heaven, but we won’t be aware of them in the same way we’ll be aware of, and in awe of, God. That might be theologically incorrect, but at least that’s the way I understand it.

Bottom line: This book was a surprising read. I’d recommend it if you’re into, or want to try, something involving magical realism.

*Don’t ask me which movie. I have no idea. I’m not into movies.

Favorite Books of 2022

In 2022, I managed to read more books than I did in 2021. Most of the books from the latter half of the year were read in the wee hours of the morning when I was feeding my newborn daughter and/or trying fruitlessly to get her to sleep. Therefore, I don’t remember many of the details of those books. But I do remember enough to make a list of 10 favorites (in no particular order)! First, two notes:

1. I read these books in 2022. Not all of them were published in 2022.

2. This post is also a public service announcement and reminder that your local library is your friend. You can save tons of money and space in your house. All of these books were checked out from the library. Thank you, library, for fueling my reading habit and saving my budget.

Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton. I mainly got this one for my son because it has tons of pictures of all the strange people walking the streets of New York City. He spent hours looking at it and still asks about it, even though we read it back in January. The book is pretty light on text, but the anecdotes and quotes were fascinating and sometimes sad or hilarious.

Sandy Hook by Elizabeth Williamson. This book was more about Alex Jones and the conspiracy theories surrounding the Sandy Hook massacre than the massacre itself, the perpetrator, or the victims. Some of these people put so much faith in conspiracy theories that they attacked and harassed the families of the victims, which is unconscionable.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. I’m not a fan of Hillary, but I love this author’s writing, which was why I checked out the book. This is a fictionalized version of her life in which she did not marry Bill, and it’s so full of realistic detail that it seems like a true biography. I wonder if Hillary read this book and if so, what she thought about the author’s depiction of her and her life.

Everything Below the Waist by Jennifer Block. This nonfiction book was about all the ways that many doctors and hospitals lie to women and perpetuate outdated and harmful medical practices and often push unnecessary procedures that cause more harm than good. I appreciated the focus on fertility awareness methods of family planning as an alternative to hormonal birth control.

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson. One of those rare books that was so strongly emotional it made me cry. This one explored alternate realities: A woman lives another life in her dreams, and this version gradually becomes more and more real than her waking life.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. Set in Australia, this novel used some cultural references I didn’t understand, which was fine because the issues it discusses are universal. A man slaps another man’s child at a barbeque, and many questions follow. Was it because the kid is a spoiled brat? Was it because the man lost his patience and doesn’t understand children? Reading about the implications of one occurrence on an array of friends and family members was enlightening.

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink. I’ve been trying to read more horror that’s not written by Stephen King. Most horror novels I read aren’t particularly scary, but this one was. Maybe that’s because I was reading it in the dark at 3 a.m., but it probably would have creeped me out anyway. A woman’s significant other is presumed dead but is actually involved in hunting zombie-like creatures called Thistle Men.

Secondhand by Adam Minter. Ever wondered what happens to all the stuff you leave at Goodwill? This book will tell you. It will also to inspire you to downsize and purchase fewer new things when possible, especially clothing and electronics. The book revealed the good news that there is a lot more environmentally friendly recycling going on than the news media will lead you to believe. However, we still live in an extremely materialistic society.

Moth by Melody Razak. This was a fictional portrayal of the partition that happened in India in 1947 and the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. The writing style and characters were superb, and the book gave me a window into cultures and countries I don’t often think about. I’m interested to read more about this period of history now.

Fairy Tale by Stephen King. I was bracing myself for this novel to be a disappointment because I haven’t liked Stephen King’s newer stuff as much as the older and because the man somehow manages to inject his political views into every book he writes. He still did that in this book, but it was easy to overlook because Fairy Tale was great. It made me want to dig up some of the old Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales for my kids.

Favorite 10 Books I Read in 2021

Reading became my number one hobby over writing after my son was born. Don’t get me wrong, I always liked to read, but when a diaper change is needed or a screaming fit commences, it’s a lot harder to get ripped away from your own created world than from a world of someone else’s creation. So I read 102 books in 2021. When I looked back at the list, I didn’t even recall reading some of them. Weird how that works. Anyway, here are my 10 favorites (in no particular order). Warning: This post may contain spoilers.

  1. Subdivision – J. Robert Lennon: I must admit, this novel was bizarre. The main character, an unnamed woman, somehow winds up in a mysterious neighborhood that gets stranger and stranger, sort of like Alice in Wonderland. It was so much fun to see what kind of odd stuff would happen next, and I never did figure out definitively what happened at the end. That could have been frustrating to some readers, but I was happy about it because it meant that my interpretation couldn’t be wrong. This book was so good, I’d read it again, and I almost never read books twice.
  2. Ohio – Stephen Markley: If you like character-driven novels that discuss contemporary issues, this book is for you. It’s about an Ohio town that was devastated by the Great Recession and the opioid epidemic. It also has a really cool twist at the end. What I enjoyed most about it was how relatable the situations and characters were. It actually read like a nonfiction account of how horrible the country has gotten. The characters were also around my age, so I understood all the cultural references.
  3. Blitzed – Norman Ohler: This was about how the Nazis were high on various drugs during World War II and how the time before the war began the proliferation of these drugs in Germany. A big part of the book was how Hitler’s personal doctor continually dosed him with strange combinations of drugs and “vitamins” that kept him a raving lunatic until the end. I have read a ton of books about the Third Reich, and I thought I’d heard it all, but I never really knew much about the drug abuse aspect.
  4. Long Black Veil – Jennifer Finney Boylan: This book was so dark, and the language was so beautiful. It was also impossible to put down. I suppose I’d categorize it as a literary thriller. Six friends end up in a ruined jail because they’re college students and therefore risk takers. What happens there changes their lives forever. The book did have a transgender character (maybe because the author is transgender), but I didn’t feel that I was being lectured to or judged (or given a political sermon) when I read the book. That subject matter was handled with tact, which I appreciated.
  5. The Scribe of Siena – Melodie Winawer: This novel had a lot of really cool elements: the Black Plague, time travel, and Italy. The main character travels back in time to the Middle Ages and falls in love. She also becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that involves the plague. The only downside was that the love story aspect was a little too mushy for me, as I’m not really a romance fan, but everything else about the book was so compelling that I greatly enjoyed the story.
  6. The Escape Room – Megan Goldin: I literally could not put this book down. I actually finished it in the car (and I never read in the car). It was a fast-paced thriller in which four coworkers in a highly competitive workplace are lured into an elevator and are trapped there until they can figure out how to escape. I had so much fun reading this book. You will find yourself rooting so hard for the main character.
  7. The Road to Jonestown – Jeff Guinn: An interesting take on Jim Jones and his cult. If you ever wondered how all those people could have committed suicide just because some crazy man told them to, read this book to get the whole backstory of how it happened. The psychological manipulation behind it all was fascinating. Anybody could become the victim of a cult given the right set of circumstances. It’s scary.
  8. A Year of Biblical Womanhood – Rachel Held Evans: As an experiment, the author decided to take the Bible literally for an entire year and become a real-life “Proverbs 31 woman.” This book is a memoir of the crazy antics and lessons learned that resulted from that challenge. Highly enjoyable because of the author’s honesty and writing style. Personally, I wouldn’t want to live as women did in biblical times, but I can see how it would be character building.
  9. The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano – Donna Freitas: This one was a feminist screed, which I don’t usually care for, but the premise and structure were unique. The book explores the different lives the main character would have had if she had made different choices, mostly regarding the decision to have children and divorce her husband. I think the point of it was that as a woman, you can do whatever you want, but you lose out on a lot depending on the path you choose.
  10. The Hearts of Men – Nickolas Butler: The only reason I even looked at this book was because my son decided to rip it off the library shelf and hurl it down the aisle. I’m glad he did because this book was great. It’s a coming-of-age story built around the Boy Scouts and featured one of the most honorable characters I have read about in a long time. It also spanned multiple generations and discussed how morality and honor changed (and didn’t change) with each generation.