Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

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“From the time I began my career at the museum, my father told me I was a wonder of the world. Yet when I held up my hand mirror to study my face, it did not seem wondrous to me. My features- gray eyes, black eyebrows, high cheekbones, pale complexion- added up to a plain person, a simple individual no one would look at twice. I considered myself to be nothing special, a dull creature who could not compare to those God had made to be unique in all the world, for the living wonders my father employed were as marvelous as they were strange.”

There is something about the circus that displays the strange and unbelievable that grabs a person’s imagination. As a child it’s the wonder that such things exist and as an adult it’s a chuckle at the creativity behind the display and maybe even a slight appreciation for a well created trick for the eye. I had high expectations for Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things and while it may not have been what I expected, it was still a very enjoyable read nonetheless.

Coralie has grown up with people that the rest of society deems “freaks” but to her they are friends, family and individuals with beautiful thoughts and intentions no matter how different the shells they live in may be. Her father employs these people at his museum where he displays the strange and frightening, a mad but ingenious scientist who is always dreaming up the next oddity he can create. He even places his daughter in a tank, her webbed fingers and toes making her a mermaid worth displaying. Eddie has run from his only remaining family member, forsaken his Jewish community and lost hold of who he is, all the decisions he made in his youth haunt him every day in one manner or another. But Eddie has a gift and is able to find things and people lost to the whirlwind of life, his only saving grace as far as he is concerned. Random events will bring these two old souls together amidst the noise and metropolis of a blooming New York City and redefine what is strange and what is fate.

Hoffman is one of those authors that I truly respect and look forward to new releases from. She has a fantastic writing style and very few people can match her when it comes to telling a story with finesse. And from the books I have read by Hoffman, she often chooses to tell stories that are intriguing and by taking an angle that might not be expected by her readers.

One of the highlights of reading Hoffman is the intricacy of her characters and The Museum of Extraordinary Things does not disappoint on this front. Coralie is the strong, intelligent lead female character that I wish I would see more often in novels, a woman under the thumb of a controlling father and who lives with a visible peculiarity but who grows to know the value of her own self-worth. Maureen, the housekeeper and mother figure for Coralie and who also has a disfigurement, is a second admirable female character that provides guidance and acceptance. Eddie has countless layers of development; the rejection of his father and religion, his youth as a thug, a return to the beauty of nature, and a desire to find the perfect moment from behind the lens of his camera. Perhaps the most surprising ideology weaved into the story by Hoffman is that the museum’s human displays, the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, all of them, are still humans and seek the same things that their more perfect counterparts do. All of these characters exist against the background of Coney Island in a time when the entire world was changing and people struggled to find their place in it, no matter their outward appearance.

While a small part of me would have loved to see a bit more about the different acts and people of the circus-like museum, The Museum of Extraordinary Things is still a wonderful story of life, love, hope and urges the reader to revaluate their definition of extraordinary. For those who enjoy Hoffman and her literary passion for telling a consuming story, this is a must read.

Devon – a1000booklife

Other books by Hoffman: The Ice Queen (2006), Green Angel (2010), The Dovekeepers (2011), The Red Garden (2011), Green Heart (2012) and many others

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Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby

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But what if the capture of the young calf had never occurred? Tilikum might still be swimming free in the frigid water of the North Atlantic, chasing his cherished herring, perhaps alongside his mother. He might be surrounded by siblings, nieces, and nephews, and his grandmother might still be leading the pod.

An oceanic Tilikum would be gliding through his boundless home with fearless power and majestic grace, his fin erect, his teeth intact, his interactions with humans minimal and nonlethal. There would be no need for gelatin or Tagamet, antibiotics or isolation.

And of course, if Tilikum had never been wrenched away from his family and friends, entirely for the amusement of humans, the family and friends of Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes, and Dawn Brancheau might not be grieving to this day.

Tilikum was trying to tell us something. It was time to listen.

The road to this book began with watching the documentary Blackfish (thank you to my sister and her Netflix). It was spurned even further by a love of marine life that I’ve had since I was a little girl. I was never one of those kids who begged to go to Marineland, but more so a kid who begged for whale watching out on the ocean every summer my family went out East (to the Maritimes for you Yanks, much love to ya). Even now, living a few short hours from Niagara Falls and having been there numerous times, there has never been a desire to visit the so-called “educational marine mammal” park. After watching the ground-breaking Blackfish and reading Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity as a follow up, I’m grateful I recognized, even as a kid, that something about SeaWorld and its captivity of orca whales just didn’t feel right.

In Death at SeaWorld Dr. David Kirby tells the story of whale captivity for the purpose of entertainment and propagated by a company driven to protect their earnings as well as the complexities of the marine whale communities those whales were taken from in the wild. As one reads through the book it becomes clear that the very topic of captive vs. whales in the open oceans is what both sides cling to for their defense. Kirby moves back and forth between the views of the scientific community, along with the freely swimming whales they study, and the stories of whales who now perform in parks around the world. The history of the whale entertainment industry is examined stage by stage along with the whales that perform (whether captured or born at SeaWorld), the stages of protest against whale custody and finally the fatal attack on Dawn Brancheau in 2010 that led to a public war about the morals of whale captivity.

There are so many things I loved about this book. First, while the first impression is to think this book is biased, especially considering its agenda and the main figures that Kirby includes, I slowly came to understand that much of the evidence against SeaWorld was damning enough by itself (four deaths seems legitimate enough proof to me). Kirby also states in the prologue that he offered SeaWorld representatives opportunities to respond and be involved but heard nothing back. Their side is voiced through public statements and contact, and even then it is clear how contradictory their own public declarations have been.

Kirby has done extensive research to make this study as accurate as possible. The studies and ideologies of many of the world’s most renowned marine biologists and scientists who specialize on orcas are included, backed up by statistics and research. Dr. Naomi Rose is the main scientific figure, a marine biologist who spent years studying the pods off of the Pacific coast and who took up the anti-cap torch. Kirby also includes the stories of numerous SeaWorld trainers who during their employment saw things they could not come to terms with (such as the lack of stimulation for the whales and the horrendous ways in which some of them died) and would later speak out against their former employer.

However, the most significant aspect is the stories of the whales themselves. From their boredom in non-stimulating holding tanks, the destruction of their families and social customs, from drilled down teeth and deadly mosquito bites, to the victory of a singular release into an open concept sea pen, Kirby reveals how their intelligence, emotions and human-like familial structures are abused for the sake of entertainment. The big-bad ocean was never such a thing to them (as SeaWorld apparently likes to claim) but a world of interaction and discovery. It becomes clear that keeping orca whales caged in tanks is like sentencing a Great Dane to live forever in a car.

There’s no denying that the deaths that occurred at SeaWorld over the past few decades are tragedies. Kirby recognizes that in Death at SeaWorld but he also examines the causes that led up to these tragedies. When you finally turn the last page there is only one conclusion to come to; that killer whales deserve to be in the depths of the ocean and not in the shallows of a tank.

Devon – a1000booklife

Other books written by Dr. David Kirby: Animal Farm: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment (2011)

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