Our Kindred Creatures, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

Our Kindred Creatures, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy (Knopf, 374 pages)

With the notable exception of factory farms, cruelty to animals is generally not tolerated in the U.S. today. Criminal penalties exist for everything from neglect to the hoarding of pets; New Hampshire’s definition of animal abuse even includes taking a colt from its mother in the first three months of life.

It’s hard to imagine, then, that just 175 years ago animal cruelty was rampant and for the most part rarely noticed or remarked upon. The change to where we are now didn’t occur gradually but was the result of a moral crusade that began in the 1860s with three New Englanders at the helm.

In Our Kindred Creatures, husband-and-wife team Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy weave together the stories of George Thorndike Angell of Massachusetts, Caroline Earle White of Philadelphia and Henry Bergh of New York, the latter of whom was said to have founded “a new type of goodness.” While many other people have argued for compassion to animals over the course of human history, these three were especially effective and their stories are remarkable.

But let the reader beware: The book is tough reading for the tender-hearted and anyone who loved the movie The Greatest Showman. Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum, it turns out, left quite a bit out.

Angell is perhaps the best-known of the three crusaders, as his name is attached to a Boston animal hospital and an animal shelter near the Massachusetts-New Hampshire state line. But it’s Bergh whose story is the most compelling. He was left a fortune by his father, which enabled him to travel as a young man. During those travels he had a moral epiphany when he watched a brutal bullfight in Spain and was horrified not just by the suffering of the animals but by the glee he witnessed in the audience by a family with young girls. Bergh came to believe that “cruelism” arises when people are entertained by animal suffering of any kind, and that human beings themselves are made morally worse by even witnessing it.

Inspired by animal-rights efforts in Europe, he came back to the U.S. and founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. Shortly afterward, thanks to Bergh’s efforts, New York passed its first anti-animal-cruelty law and ASPCA officers were given power to issue citations and make arrests. Bergh himself took to the streets, at first going after people abusing horses, and cattle en route to slaughter. He also boarded a ship carrying sea turtles from Florida to New York and tried to bring its captain to justice. (The effort failed when the judge ruled that turtles were fish and were not subject to animal cruelty laws.)

But Bergh most famously sparred with P.T. Barnum, whose story in The Greatest Showman was shockingly whitewashed. As Barnum bought and displayed an enslaved person in his exhibits, he also had elephants and whales captured and brought to New York for display. The whales all died in short order, but none in such a grisly fashion as the two that were burned in the fire that consumed Barnum’s “museum” in 1865.

Bergh and his compatriots were operating in a time in which animals were as numerous as humans on city streets, and they were not romanticized as they are today. Their excrement and, often, carcasses, were everywhere, and stray dogs were rounded up and drowned en masse in New York and beaten to death in Philadelphia. Dogfighting and rat baiting (betting on how fast dogs could kill a collection of rats) were common and cheap forms of entertainment.

Animals were also suffering behind closed doors in more sterile environs — laboratories and classrooms where vivisection was common — and at one point Bergh sent his ASPCA agents undercover into hospitals to see first-hand what was being done, similar to the undercover operations still done by PETA today.

Word spread throughout New England about what Bergh was doing, and the ASPCA offices were visited by people hoping to launch similar efforts in their own communities. One such person was Caroline Earle White, who visited Bergh on her way home to Philadelphia after spending the summer in the Adirondacks. White, like many people drawn to the animal-abuse cause, was an abolitionist, and she went on to found the Women’s SPCA of Pennsylvania and the American Anti-Vivisection Society.

She was also instrumental in the change to a more merciful manner of killing shelter dogs — using carbon dioxide, which of course is seen as cruel today, but at the time was seen as a step up from bludgeoning a dog to death with an ax. Also, in a revolutionary shelter that White and her colleagues created, dogs were given shelter and water, “and all were fed a healthy diet of horsemeat, cornmeal, and crisped pork skin, even those destined for culling.”

A Quaker-turned-Catholic, White had been troubled seeing mules and horses struggling to pull streetcars heavy with coal. She had started changing her routes around town so that she didn’t have to endure the sight. But one of the more horrific examples of horses being literally worked to death happened in Boston in 1868, when a “sleighing horse race” took place that resulted in the deaths of both animals after they were compelled to pull 400-pound sledges from Boston to Worcester, a distance of 38 miles.

The winner died the night of the race; the other horse a few weeks later. Reading about the event compelled Angell to renew efforts on behalf of animals, pushing for a law that would prevent such abuses and starting a newspaper that would go to every town in Massachusetts with the name “Our Dumb Animals” (“Dumb” here meant mute, not stupid). The publication would endure until 1970.

Wasik and Murphy are excellent storytellers, which is no surprise — he is the longtime editorial director of The New York Times Magazine, she is a veterinarian, and their first book, 2012’s Rabid, a history of rabies, was well-received. What was surprising to me was how much of this story I knew nothing about, even as an animal lover living in New England — from the Barnum whales to a horse plague that swept the country in the 1870s to how a novel published more than a decade earlier in England, Black Beauty, came to be harnessed by Angell to galvanize compassion for horses.

The authors say they researched Our Kindred Creatures for three years; 30 would have been equally believable. They have crafted an extraordinary, though heartbreaking, story. A+ —Jennifer Graham

Not in Love, by Ali Hazelwood

Not in Love,by Ali Hazelwood (Berkley, 400 pages)

Ali Hazelwood prefaces her latest book with what is, essentially, a fair-warning note to her readers: Not in Love, she says “is, tonally, a little different from the works I’ve published in the past. Rue and Eli have dealt with — and still deal with — the fallout from issues such as grief, food insecurity, and child neglect. They are eager to make a connection but are not sure how to go about it except through a physical relationship. The result is, I think, less of a rom-com and more of an erotic romance.”

Hazelwood has thus far been known by fans mainly as a rom-com writer who creates smart female lead characters and puts them in STEM-related work environments amongst other smart people and, inevitably, a male counterpoint. In Not in Love, Rue is a biotech engineer working in food science, so we’ve got the STEM setting, and we have the male counterpoint – in this case, his name is Eli, and he works for a company that’s trying to take over Kline, the company Rue works for.

The difference between Not in Love and Hazelwood’s other STEM romances is a much stronger emphasis on sexual chemistry and very explicitly written descriptions of what happens when that chemistry ignites. When Hazelwood warns readers that this is more “erotic romance” than rom-com, she’s not kidding.

But, in addition to the (plentiful) steamy scenes, everything I’ve liked about Hazelwood’s rom-coms is here too: witty banter, emotional complexity and well-drawn characters.

I love that Rue is science-smart but not unapproachable; there are plenty of relatable I-need-to-Google-this types of moments. Case in point, the book opens with Rue and her friend Tisha trying to figure out what a loan assignment is; they ask her friend’s sister, a lawyer, who doesn’t understand their lack of comprehension (“You guys are doctors,” she says, to which Tisha points out that “the topic of private equity firms and loan assignments did not come up in any class during our chemical engineering PhDs. A shocking oversight, I know….”).

Meanwhile, Rue could not be convinced to dumb down the title of her Ph.D. presentation: “A Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry Investigation of the Effect of Three Polysaccharide-Based Coatings on the Minimization of Postharvest Loss of Horticultural Crops.” Her unapologetic thought is, “I had no talent for enticing people to care about my work: either they saw its value, or they were wrong.”

Rue is unapologetic about her dating life, too. She has a “no repeats” rule, meaning one and done, no exceptions; she doesn’t want a relationship, or the emotions that go with it. That was her plan when she matched with Eli on a dating app. She didn’t expect to ever see him again, so of course he ends up at the center of her workplace drama.

Rue probably could have stuck to her no repeats rule — she’s that emotionally stunted — but Eli falls hard for her. I like that the book moves between Rue’s point of view and Eli’s, because we can see how intense his feelings, emotional and otherwise, are, compared to her internal hesitations. And yet Eli is nothing but respectful to her and her hesitations, despite his desire for more, which makes him a very likable character.

The supporting characters aren’t always likable, but intentionally so — they all have a purpose and elevate the story, and many of their interactions with Rue and Eli are hilarious, adding to the novel’s smart, sassy vibe.

The plot is intriguing and believable, as Rue tries to save her scientific work from the grasp of Eli’s company, thinking — incorrectly, of course — that they’re being greedy. More seriously, as Hazelwood points out, there are mentions of grief, food insecurity and child neglect, but it’s not as depressing as it sounds. They’re issues that Rue and Eli dealt with that still impact them as adults, but there are no heavy-handed lessons or weepy sob stories — just real, life-goes-on reminders that what’s in the past doesn’t always stay in the past, and it can take a lot of work to build trust and open your heart after it’s been hurt.

This is another winner for Hazelwood, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes their romantic fiction smart, emotional and extra spicy. Just not you, Mom, and if you do read this, please never tell me. A-

Never Been Better by Leanne Toshiko Simpson

Never Been Better by Leanne Toshiko Simpson (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 288 pages)

If you don’t know what it’s like to struggle with mental illness, Never Been Better offers a fresh perspective with a fun plot and a good amount of humor — which, fair warning, veers toward the dark side at times. If you have experienced mental illness, or been close to someone who has, you’ll likely relate to many of the messages in this book.

The protagonist is Dee Foster, a woman with bipolar disorder who hesitantly agrees to travel to Turks and Caicos to attend the wedding of her best friends, Matt and Misa, then decides that as long as she’s there she might as well let Matt know she’s in love with him — and has been since the three of them met in a psychiatric ward.

I think it’s important to note that, although this is fiction, author Leanne Toshiko Simpson has bipolar disorder, so her characters are drawn in part from her own experiences — which, for me, was important to know, because some of the dark humor might have felt disingenuous, almost flippant, if it had been written by someone who hadn’t lived these thoughts and feelings. And using humor to cope is certainly not uncommon. (“I’m glad depression gives me the sex drive of a ham sandwich,” Dee replies when Tilley points out an attractive man and comments that she’s glad she wore her push-up bra.)

I should mention that I’m a (relatively new) therapist, so I read Never Been Better from that perspective, as well as the perspective of someone who has dealt with depression and anxiety. I respect that Toshiko Simpson doesn’t shy away from the very real challenges that mood disorders can present, even as life goes on and people plan weddings and love triangles ensue. The story somehow feels both deeply heavy and blissfully light.

Dee’s sister Tilley plays a solid part in that lightness; she’s wild, bold and fiercely dedicated to protecting Dee. She also embodies the challenges of loving someone with a mood disorder, navigating the slippery slope between emotional accommodations and tough love. In one scene, Dee is struggling hard to get up for an early-morning barre class at the resort they’re staying at, thanks in no small part to the side effects of her medications. But this is nothing new to her, or to Tilley.

“‘After this many years of living in the same house, I should have earned a damn black belt in helping you wake up,’ said Tilley. ‘Just today I’ve pulled all the sheets off your body, turned all the lights on, licked the side of your face…’ More footsteps, then Tilley dumped a full glass of water over my head.”

As Dee struggles openly and honestly, she feels some resentment toward Misa, whose wealthy family doesn’t know she met Dee and Matt in the psychiatric ward, because she never told them she was there as a patient and continues to conceal her mental illness from them, presumably because it doesn’t “fit” into their tidy, proper world.

“Misa went on to run an entire golf tournament dedicated to bipolar disorder without happening to mention her [own bipolar disorder]. … What I really wanted was for her to … be messy in her illness, like I was in mine.”

Good days for Dee are the ones where she doesn’t crave a depression nap, she can get across town on a bus without having a panic attack, or she can make it through a first date without the guy asking, before she’s about to spend the night, whether she’ll be the same person when she wakes up in the morning. So getting through this destination wedding is all kinds of hard, as she navigates her feelings about Matt (while also trying to figure out how to confront him after she finds out he’s stopped taking his meds) and her feelings about Misa, who she felt so close with when they were in the hospital but feels so distant from now.

Along with those considerable issues, Dee is fighting to keep up with the daily pre-wedding activities among Misa and Matt’s friends and family — a whole other fun cast of characters that bring levity to this book, from a kindhearted grandma to a spunky but wise cousin.

This is the debut novel for Toshiko Simpson, who, awesomely, also co-founded a reflective writing program at Canada’s largest mental health hospital. Though at times Never Been Better edges a little too close to the line between mirth and despair, in Toshiko Simpson’s understanding hands it comes together as a heartfelt story of persevering time and time again in the face of mental illness. A-

The Women by Kristen Hannah

The Women by Kristen Hannah (St. Martin’s Press, 480 pages)

I am not, generally speaking, a lover of historical fiction, but something about the way Kristen Hannah does it is so right: a rich blend of shocking truths, visceral emotions and captivating characters. She did it well with Four Winds and spectacularly with The Nightingale, and she does it again with her latest, The Women.

The Women is set in the era of the Vietnam War. I am not a history buff, which is probably why I don’t veer toward historical fiction often, so I’m not sure if I wasn’t paying attention when being taught about the Vietnam War in school, or if it was just never talked about in a way that made any kind of lasting impression. Or at all. In any case, it was news to me to read that veterans coming home were spit on and shunned, and that the government, for a long time, wasn’t sharing the depth of the devastation that was happening overseas.

Frances McGrath — Frankie — joins the Army as a combat nurse and heads off to war at the age of 21. She’s following in her brother’s footsteps and hopes — naively — to make a place for herself on her dad’s “heroes wall,” which features photographs of all the men in the family who have served their country.

But when she tells her parents that she’s signed up for a tour, they’re horrified.

“‘Take it back. Unvolunteer.’ Mom looked at Dad. She got to her feet slowly. ‘Good Lord, what will we tell people?’”

It wasn’t the future that her parents expected for her, or that society approved of.

“Frankie had been taught to believe that her job was to be a good housewife, to raise well-mannered children and keep a lovely home. In her Catholic high school, they’d spent days learning how to iron buttonholes to perfection, how to precisely fold a napkin, how to set an elegant table.”

Instead, amidst the backdrop of war, Frankie grows up. We watch her lose her innocence as she’s confronted with gruesome injuries and innumerable deaths at work, deplorable living conditions, oppressive weather in the form of heat and monsoons, and a social scene that includes a lot of drinking. She arrives as a young girl who doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink and easily turns down propositions from married men. She’s not the same girl when she returns to Coronado.

Hannah splits the book into Frankie’s time at war and the years following her return. Both time periods are bleak for Frankie, for obvious reasons when she’s at war and for some pretty depressing reasons when she comes back home, including that the country seems to have turned on its veterans. On top of that, few people believe that women served in Vietnam. Her parents, whom she so badly wanted to impress, pretend she wasn’t there.

Through it all, fellow Vietnam nurses and “hooch” mates — bunkmates — Barb and Ethel are by Frankie’s side whenever she needs them. They show her the ropes when she arrives, and they show up at her door when she’s spiraling downward at home. The three women come from very different backgrounds, and despite the divergent paths they take when they return to the U.S., they never lose touch. More than once, Barb and Ethel prove to be Frankie’s lifeline. It’s a beautiful friendship, adding bursts of color to an intrinsically dark story.

And, of course, there are men, many of whom vie for Frankie’s attention. Love happens, in complicated and heartbreaking ways. But those are secondary stories, really; there is no doubt that Hannah’s intention is to give a voice to the women who served in Vietnam.

Although this is a work of fiction, Hannah makes it very clear in her author’s note and acknowledgments that she did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people who experienced the war, so I have to believe that most of Frankie’s experiences were not embellished or exaggerated. Hannah also notes that she originally used fictional names of places, but her Vietnam War readers felt strongly about keeping those details accurate, so the settings are all real.

There are a couple of moments toward the end of the book that seem somewhat contrived, but this is a small quibble, and honestly, the whole story might seem contrived if you didn’t know it was based in large part on real experiences.

Hannah superbly blends the heaviness of war with the frailty of humans at their most vulnerable — and often at their best. A

Meghan Siegler

Familia, by Lauren E. Rico

Familia, by Lauren E. Rico (Kensington, 368 pages)

I started reading Familia in a hotel room while waiting for my daughter to get ready to go to dinner – and promptly lost all desire to go out to dinner. (I mean, we went — she wasn’t about to buy “but I really like this book” as a reason not to).

Lauren E. Rico’s novel is a fast-paced story that covers a lot of bases: family, obviously, but also different cultures and how they form us, a bit of a mysterious crime, and coming to terms with a life that can change in so many significant and unexpected ways.

A DNA test brings together Gabriella and Isabella, the former young woman fully believing the results were a mistake and the latter having no doubt that they weren’t. Isabella, who has lived her whole life in Puerto Rico, used to have a sister, Marianna, and she disappeared when she was seven months old while in the care of their extremely inebriated father. Gabby, a magazine fact-checker who lives in New York City and was raised by now-deceased parents whom she loved deeply, does not believe it’s possible that the parents who raised her — Mack and Lucy — were not, perhaps, her birth parents.

Gabby embarks on a trip to Puerto Rico, for the sole purpose of writing a magazine story about what happens when DNA test results are wrong. She thinks it’s the perfect way to show her boss that she has talents beyond fact-checking and deserves a staff position as a writer.

It seemed a little unbelievable that Gabby is a fact checker — her job is literally to dig in and find facts — and yet she doesn’t make much of an effort to dig into the facts about her family history despite the DNA test results. I guess there’s that emotional component that would make it difficult to believe that your history is anything other than what you remember and what you’ve been made to believe.

As Gabby explains to Isabella, “For what you’re saying to be true, I’d have to believe Mack and Lucy would have — could have — literally stolen a baby off the street. … This isn’t about not being able to believe that I’m your sister. It’s about being able to believe that I’m not their daughter. And I just … I can’t.”

The story mainly alternates between Gabby’s and Isabella’s points of view, but there’s a whole cast of interesting characters, and Rico gives most of them at least one chapter. This means the story is tied together from all sorts of perspectives, from Alberto’s — the book opens with him, coming to on a street, baby missing — to the detectives’ on the missing-baby case. It was a really fun way to see the mystery unravel, because, of course, nearly everyone has a secret. The narrative also switches between now and “that day,” the day the baby disappeared, offering another compelling angle.

There’s the mystery, and then there’s the juxtaposition of two young women who were raised very differently and have different kinds of intelligence; Gabby is more book smart while Isabella is more street smart. Rico shows this subtly but effectively, in scenes like this one, from Isabella’s point of view, as the women walk through one of the shabbier areas of Puerto Rico.

“When Gabby takes out her phone to snap a picture, all she can see is the mural — a spray-paint reproduction of the Mona Lisa draped in a Puerto Rican flag. All I can see are the two guys standing just out of the frame, conducting a little street-side retail.”

There’s definitely a “wealthy girl from NYC vs. poor girl from San Juan” piece of the narrative, and while I personally didn’t feel like it was overdone, I think someone who is of Puerto Rican descent or is more familiar with Latino culture would likely read the representations of Puerto Rico a lot differently than I did. A lot of the descriptions shine a negative light on the people and places of Puerto Rico, mainly San Juan and la Perla, and I can’t pretend to know how accurate they are. The author does include a note at the beginning of the novel explaining her own family history and that she is trying to honor her heritage and the stories she heard from her Cuban grandfather and Puerto Rican grandmother, along with her extensive DNA connections to the island and her own experiences visiting there (which she acknowledges were from a tourist point of view).

Familia is a quick read that manages to be both fun and a bit dark, but it’s also meaningful and has a lot of heart. A-

Maame, by Jessica George

Maame, by Jessica George (St. Martin’s Press, 320 pages)

There’s a lot to like about 25-year-old Maddie Wright, the main character in Jessica George’s debut novel. Born in Ghana and living in London, Maddie is navigating her unique brand of young adulthood struggles, from low-key workplace racism to familial responsibilities and expectations. She is sweet and kind and very innocent, at times frustratingly so. But watching Maddie grow up and figure out who she is and who she wants to be is what Maame is all about, and it’s a charming journey.

In some ways, Maddie is forced to be more of an adult than many 25-year-olds; she’s taking care of her dad, who has Parkinson’s disease, and her mom, though still married to her dad, spends most of her time in Ghana running a hostel while Maddie and her dad live in London. Her mom is critical of Maddie and the fact that she isn’t as engaged in her Ghanaian heritage and customs as her mother would like her to be — yet Maddie is the one paying all the bills at home and sending money to her mom in Ghana, while her brother does little to help.

In other ways, though, Maddie seems younger than most women her age, and she knows it. That’s why she sets a goal to transform herself into “The New Maddie.” She makes a list of who she wants to be, which includes “drinks alcohol when offered, always says yes to social events, tries weed or cigarettes at least once (but don’t get addicted!), goes on dates, is not a virgin,” and so on.

Maddie gets the chance to work on these goals when her mom returns to London for a year to take over the care of her husband. Maddie moves out and into a flatshare with two women her age, both very different and seemingly more worldly than she is, which gives her a whole new opportunity to live her own life. At the same time, she starts a new job at a publishing house, and, of course, there’s suddenly a new guy hanging around. (Happily, though, romance is not a central plotline but rather a nonintrusive piece of Maddie’s coming-of-age puzzle.)

George expertly depicts both Maddie’s Gen Z traits and her innocence through her frequent Google searches. She Googles random things like “back pain in your mid-twenties” and gets mostly-useless answers from random people: “CC: ‘It’s all linked to the Government. … From a young age we’re told office jobs are the goal. Then you sit at a desk hunched over 9-5, 5 days a week for most of your younger years.’ LG: ‘Why would the government want a nation suffering from back pain?’ CC: ‘So we don’t take over.’”

Many of her questions show her uncertainty and lack of confidence, particularly in the social domain. Waiting to hear back from a potential love interest, she Googles “How long do guys wait before asking a girl out on a date?” (Some very realistic Google answers range from: “I spent four months getting to know my now-girlfriend before I asked her out on a date” to “One hour.”) George incorporates these searches sparingly enough that they’re not annoying and they add some relatability to Maddie’s character no matter how different she is from the reader. We can all relate to the frustration of such drastically diverse search results with no definitive answer from a source — the almighty internet — that is supposed to have all the answers. (Honestly, who hasn’t Googled “weird rash” and been led to believe it’s either totally normal or a sign of impending death?)

Maame covers all the bases of growing up with cultural barriers, without being heavy-handed or preachy. Despite Maddie’s sometimes cringy naivete, I was rooting for her all along. Her story is often funny, and always heartfelt and engaging. A

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