Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma

I love reading books about other books. Of course, those types of novels only cause my to-be-read pile to grow, but I really like seeing the magic that books work on other people. I don't know a lot of people that enjoy reading in my own, day-to-day life, so seeing others describe which books have influenced them makes me feel less alone. They let me know that somewhere out there in the universe, people like me exist. I own lots of "best of" type books that exist purely to list reading recommendations. I also have lots of online lists of recommendations saved to try and read from later. It's basically an obsession at this point. My life mainly consists of reading books, reading articles about books, reading books about books, talking about books, shopping for books, and (occasionally) eating and sleeping.

So, when I spotted Alice Ozma's The Reading Promise at my school's book fair a few years ago, I was instantly intrigued. This memoir promised to be about Ozma's impressive feat of  reading out loud every night with her father from the ages of 9 to 18. I was interested to see what her favorite novels were, compare them with the books I loved as a kid, and see how the stories she shared with her dad strengthened the bond between them. I bought the book and stuck it on my shelf, then ended up never getting around to reading it. With my Clear the Shelves and True Books challenges underway, I decided it was finally time to give The Reading Promise a shot.

The novel begins with Ozma recounting a bit of her childhood and explaining how she started her reading project. Her father was an elementary school librarian and they would read together already on most nights, but one evening, the idea of a reading streak entered Ozma's head. She proposed reading out loud together for 100 night in a row to her dad, and he readily agreed. Once that milestone was reached, Ozma extended the challenge to be 1,000 nights of reading in a row. Once that milestone was reached, the pair just kept on going all the way until she graduated from high school and left for college. The pair never missed a night and ended up reading all sorts of novels together, from old favorites like The Wizard of Oz, to newer selections like The Harry Potter series.

All of this reading forms the background to a series of vignettes about Ozma's life, with events such as her parents' divorce, her grandparents' deaths, her sister leaving for college, and other typical family milestones taking center stage. Her writing flows nicely and is easy to read, and her humorous anecdotes make the pages go by quickly. This is a relatively short read, and an enjoyable way to spend a few afternoons.

What this novel is not, unfortunately, is a book about books. The reading streak is consistently pushed to the background in favor of other family stories that have very little connection to the novels Ozma and her father make their way through. While the books and reading are always there, they aren't a significant part of the story. Few actual titles or opinions about books are even mentioned. What The Reading Promise truly is is a memoir about the life of a very young woman who hasn't undergone anything especially interesting in her life aside from achieving an unusually close relationship with her father. While her writing is nice and her stories are sweet and sometimes touching, this book isn't at all what the cover suggests it will be.

At the end of the novel, Ozma includes a partial list of the novels she read with her father during their streak. I was glad to see this element, but disappointed that it was so incomplete. Ozma explains that they has no idea while they were reading that their project would stretch on so long, so they didn't write down all of the books as they were going. That's completely understandable, but what we're left with is a rather short list that is composed of mostly Judy Blume, J.K. Rowling, L. Frank Baum, Beverly Cleary, and Donald J. Sobol (of Encyclopedia Brown fame). I was hoping for some lesser-known recommendations.

Unfortunately, The Reading Promise just wasn't what I wanted it to be. Based on the cover and summary on the back, I don't feel like I had unreasonable expectations for it. This was described as "the heartwarming, true story of a young woman, her single father, and the power of books." Most of that is true--just not the part of about the books. Books were there, but they did not hold as prominent a place in the story as I was expecting. Ozma's vignettes about her childhood and her dad are undoubtedly charming, but this is not really about reading. Ultimately, I was left wanting more from this one.

Challenge Tally:
True Books 2018: 7/18 + 2 bonus books
Clear the Shelves 2018: 9 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 20


Monday, May 7, 2018

The Reef by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors. My first exposure to her work was in high school, when I was required to read Ethan Frome. I liked it, but I hadn't really developed the taste for literature that I have now when I read it, so it didn't stand out too much to me at the time. I started to really appreciate her when I read The House of Mirth in college. That novel has the distinction of being the first book I ever shed a tear reading. From that moment on, I was hooked. In the years since then, I have read The Age of Innocence and Roman Fever and Other Storiesboth of which I really liked. I love Wharton's cutting sense of humor and long, intricate sentences. I also appreciate the fact that she writes about issues that affect women of her time period, like divorce, motherhood, oppressive societal expectations, and money issues. She's one of those authors that I want to read everything from, so I decided to give one of her novels that has been sitting on my shelf for years now, The Reef, a shot next.

The story begins with George Darrow, an American diplomat in London, traveling to France meet up with a woman named Anna Leath. Anna is an old flame from his past that he has very recently reconnected with. Things have been going quite well between the pair; he is in love and plans to propose marriage at their next meeting. Darrow is disappointed however, to receive a note from Anna just as he arrives in Paris urging him to postpone his visit by a month. The note doesn't offer an explanation for the delay, and Darrow becomes convinced that Anna intends to put an end to their renewed relationship.

In his frustration, he engages in a fling with a woman he runs into at the train station. Sophy Viner is spirited, beautiful, and down on her luck, a combination that proves to be irresistible to Darrow. He swoops in like a knight in shining armor, puts her up in a fancy hotel, and takes her to several popular theater shows. They spend a week or so puttering around in Paris, seeing the sights and fooling around. Eventually, Sophy heads off on her own to pursue a career as an actress. Darrow returns to his work as a diplomat, and life goes on.

Months later, Darrow and Anna patch things up and their relationship picks back up where it left off. Marriage is once again Darrow's intention and this time there are no delays or misunderstandings between the pair. They meet up at Anna's home and begin to make solid plans for their future together. Anna truly loves Darrow, but she is cautious in everything she decides with him because she has a young daughter, Effie, and an older stepson, Owen, to think about. She wants to ensure their happiness before her own. As Darrow is a diplomat, marrying him will involve traveling and living in different countries. Her aim is to make sure her children are provided for and settled before making any major changes. Luckily, her mother-in-law will look after Effie during the times she is away and Owen has fallen in love and is on the brink of getting married himself.

Everything seems to be lining up perfectly for Darrow and Anna to finally be together, but complications arise when Owen introduces the woman he loves and intends to propose marriage to. To Darrow's immediate horror, the woman is Sophy Viner. This leaves Darrow in quite the delicate predicament. He doesn't want Owen to marry the sort of woman that would have relations outside of marriage, but he can't reveal how he knows this about Sophy without exposing his own affair with her and spoiling his relationship with Anna. To make matters worse, Sophy reveals that she still has feelings for Darrow and questions whether she can go through with a marriage to Owen at all. The situation steadily declines as awkward behavior, a steady stream of lies, and jealous suspicions threaten to derail the happiness of the entire family.

While The Reef was by no means a bad novel, I struggled with reading this one. I wasn't excited to pick it up, so I began to push my reading off to the side in favor of other things. As a result, it took me a month to finish it. It's a short book. At my normal speed, it should have taken no more than a week. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't click with it. The prose was written in Wharton's beautiful, distinctive style, the story was interesting and scandalous, and there were plenty of female characters and concerns to analyze. It just didn't grab me.

Part of the problem is that I don't think I completely understood the message of the novel. I wasn't sure who or what was being criticized. Wharton seems to lampoon conservative society, "loose" women, and dishonest men in turns. Were Sophy and Darrow meant to be victims of oppressive societal rules, or were they villains behaving badly? Wharton's writing leaves it vague, with different scenes seeming to send different messages. The ending, which didn't feel like an ending at all, only created further questions. In the novel's final chapter, Anna attempts to visit with Sophy. She searches for her at her sister's house, and discovers that Sophy's sister is some sort of weird quasi-prostitute (or something else disreputable). Disappointed, she leaves, and the novel abruptly ends. I'm not sure if that was meant to show that Sophy was ultimately trashy, like the rest of her family, or if it was meant to show that Sophy was downright virtuous when compared with a real fallen woman. Even the title had me confused. There wasn't a reef, or any water at all for that matter, in the entire novel. I'm sure this means that I missed some symbolism somewhere, but for the life of me, I can't figure it out.

The main characters grew tiresome as the novel went on as well. Darrow, who reveals himself to be quite an accomplished liar, never seemed upset enough at himself or at the prospect of ruining his relationship for my taste and his seemingly cavalier attitude grated on me. He didn’t show enough positive traits in the novel for me to understand why he was desirable enough to be at the center of a love triangle. Sophy, who at first proclaims to not believe in traditional marriage, throws away more security and wealth than she could have ever dreamed of having because she suddenly “loves” Darrow again. Her reignited passion seemed so false and unrealistic that I’m not sure if Wharton was having her act on ulterior motives or not, and it is never explained to the reader. She simply disappears by the end of the story. Anna, who is torn between staying with Darrow and breaking off her engagement to him, changes her mind about what to do several times a chapter throughout the end of the book, and while I can understand her indecision and anguish, the execution of it became painfully annoying to read. I didn’t fully dislike the novel, but I was so ready for it to end by the time that I got to the last chapters that it was a relief to turn the final page.

Despite my struggle to engage with this one, I did enjoy some aspects of it. The feelings of betrayal, jealousy, and insecurity one experiences when they discover their partner has lied to them were clear and quite timely. Those are ideas that stretch across generations, and they were very relatable. I also liked the exploration of the double standard for behavior between men and women. Darrow’s liaison with Sophy, while unseemly, wasn’t ruinous to his reputation. No one would prevent him from marrying a society lady on the basis of it. It bothered Anna, but that was for personal reasons. If she broke their engagement, he would simply marry someone else. For Sophy, however, the affair meant the end of her marriageability. To reveal her participation in it would be to doom herself to spinsterhood. Anna comments on this imbalance in the story, and I found the acknowledgement to be interesting. I wish Wharton had gone further with it.

 Ultimately, I feel like The Reef was a confused novel. Its characters and message weren’t clear and too many questions went unresolved at the end. While I enjoyed the plot and social commentary, I was left wanting more from it. Perhaps the fault is mine, and I missed some clues that would have made the story make more sense to me. Regardless, I struggled with it. Obviously this isn’t going to be one of my personal favorites, but I’m still happy to have experienced more of Wharton’s writing. I look forward to trying more of her works (and hopefully discovering some more favorites) in the future.

Challenge Tally:
Classics Club (#74 on my list): 28/100

Total Books Read in 2018:19

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have been an F. Scott Fitzgerald fan since my high school days. Reading The Great Gatsby in 10th grade was a literary turning point for me. I had never before understood how sentences could be beautiful or how a well-crafted plot twist could leave you reeling. In fact, Gatsby started my appreciation for the classics, an interest that (obviously) hasn't waned over the years.

I eventually want to read all of Fitzgerald's novels. I tried This Side of Paradise a few years ago, and was a bit disappointed with it. It was his first book, however, so I considered it to be an interesting look at an author whose greatest works were yet to come. With my Back to the Classics Challenge requiring me to read a novel published in the 20th century, I figured this was a good time to give another one of his stories a shot. I started reading The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald's second book, hoping to enjoy it a bit more.

The plot of The Beautiful and Damned follows a young man named Anthony Patch. At the beginning of the novel, which is set in 1913, he is living a life of relative luxury in a New York City apartment. As the grandson of a famous social reformer worth millions, Anthony doesn't have to work. He lives off of a modest allowance of family money and spends his days socializing with his friends, attending parties, and casually dating a series of women. He has an interest in writing historical novels one day, but he only makes halfhearted efforts in that direction. He gets bored at times, but subscribes to the idea that since everything in life is mostly meaningless, there's not much point in trying to do anything more than pursue leisure activities.

His life takes a turn when he meets Gloria Gilbert, a similarly moneyed society girl vacationing in New York with her family. Gloria is uncommonly beautiful and very willful. She seems almost untouchable in her popularity, floating around the city every night with different friends and different men. She parties incessantly and is completely self absorbed. Instantly, Anthony falls in love with her, and after a short and dramatic courtship, they marry.

At first, Anthony and Gloria spend their days lost in a newlywed haze. They travel through Europe on a honeymoon and eventually settle back down in Anthony's apartment. As both have expensive tastes and go out nearly every night, they run through their allocation of money very quickly. They aren't overly concerned about that though, because they know that when Anthony's rich grandfather passes away they stand to inherit millions. They make no efforts to restrain their spending and are soon living high above their means, renting homes and driving around in cars that they can't afford in the long term.

The good times for the couple, predictably, don't last long. Their decadent and lazy lifestyle becomes boring quickly and their narcissistic personalities are in frequent conflict. Soon, both begin to push the limits with partying and alcohol in order to recapture the thrills of their earlier days. One night, during a particularly rowdy gathering at their home, Anthony's grandfather makes an unexpected visit. He is enraged by the debauchery he witnesses, immediately writes Anthony out of his will, and then dies just a few weeks afterward. Anthony appeals the will, but the case remains tied up in court for years. His money dwindles down to nothing, and the couple spirals deep into alcoholism. Faced with the depressing prospect of living frugally and working a job, Anthony becomes increasingly angry and violent until, one afternoon, he suffers a mental breakdown.

Anthony's downward spiral is part of the theme of the novel, but what exactly we are supposed to learn from his story is muddled at the novel's end. Against all odds, Anthony and Gloria end up winning their case against his grandfather's will and become millionaires. The final pages of the novel show an Anthony that is somewhat diminished from his emotional problems, but triumphant in his victory against having to give up his lifestyle and go to work. Indeed, he muses at the end of the novel that, "Only a few months before people had been urging him to give in, to submit to mediocrity, to go to work. But he knew that he was justified in his way of life--and had stuck it out staunchly." His final thought is "I showed was a hard fight, but I didn't give up and I came through!" He learns absolutely nothing from his experience, and comes out of it richer than he was before. I'm not sure what readers are supposed to take from that. It could be meant to be an ironic ending, but it feels like Fitzgerald was being genuine--like he honestly believed that Anthony "overcame" something and succeeded.

The reasoning behind this unsettling ending becomes a bit clearer when considering Fitzgerald's real life. He stands in a weird place in literary history. He was a legendary party boy while he was alive. He lived the stereotype of a 1920s life, with jazz music, flappers, and booze galore. He basically was Anthony Patch, right down to the frivolous lifestyle, tumultuous marriage, and serious alcoholism. However, his novels mercilessly lampoon the society he participated in. He frequently criticizes the emptiness of the lives of the wealthy during this time period and often shows these types of characters meeting tragic ends. He was a man who understood the problems of the society he lived in, but couldn't help indulging in all the vices he wrote about. Perhaps this explains why The Beautiful and Damned is both a cautionary tale and a success story. He knows that Anthony's behavior wasn't right, moral, or healthy, but he couldn't resist having him win at it.

This is the novel that Fitzgerald wrote in between This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, and it definitely feels like a middle kind of book. I enjoyed it more than his first novel, mostly because it stuck to telling one complete story and didn't digress too much into experimental chapters and philosophy sections. That being said, I had some issues with it. It was definitely over-long. Anthony and Gloria's boredom and flaws are discussed endlessly, and my interest started to wane as Fitzgerald labored his points. For a relatively thick book (my version had 366 pages of very small print), not much happens. This stands in stark contrast to Gatsby, which is a masterpiece in brevity. There were some beautiful passages in The Beautiful and Damned, but it was too often a slog to get to them. This novel was also lacking a character to root for, as both Anthony and Gloria were difficult to like, for multiple reasons. I found myself longing for a Nick Carraway or a Jay Gatsby to sympathize with. Instead, this novel was full of Daisys and Toms--empty people with nothing to say and even less to do. Even so, there was a lot in this novel that was promising, but despite my best efforts to get into it, I was often bored and sleepy while reading.

The best part about reading The Beautiful and Damned was knowing that Fitzgerald would be writing The Great Gatsby next. It was exciting to think that the issues I noticed with length, character development, theme, and structure were about to melt away in his very next work. While this story of Anthony and Gloria isn't a special favorite for me, it was definitely an interesting look at a stepping stone Fitzgerald used on his way to greatness. What's more, it was a clear window into the lives of the privileged, moneyed class of people living in America in the 1920s. Overall, I'm glad that I gave this book a shot, and look forward to continuing to explore the rest of Fitzgerald's novels.

Challenge Tally:
Back to the Classics (a 20th century classic): 6/12
Classics Club (#38 on my list): 27/100

Total Books Read in 2018:18

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Widow by Fiona Barton

The Widow is the very last book I had left to read from the sizable stack of novels my mother loaned me. Now that I've finished it, I'm officially done with the pile! I'm not complaining about this by any means, because everything my mom picked was pretty good, but I'm glad to be able to return them and get back to reading the backlog from my own shelves. Goodness knows I have enough of it.

The plot of The Widow concerns the aftermath of a terrible crime. At the start of the story, Jean Taylor is in mourning for her husband, Glen. He died recently after being struck by a bus while running errands. Unlike most widows though, she is unable to grieve in peace because of her husband's notoriety. A few years prior to the accident, he was arrested for the abduction, and presumed murder, of a toddler. He won his trial due to a lack of evidence against him, but most of their community still believed he was guilty. Jean stood by her husband throughout his case, supporting him and believing him to be innocent, despite a few worrying details she managed to ignore. Now, Glen's death brings renewed media attention to her doorstep. Many people believe that she might share more details about her husband, or maybe even reverse her support of him, now that is gone.

 Jean is damaged and depressed after the ordeals she has gone through with Glen. Without his controlling presence in her life, she begins to realize the strangeness and deception that existed in their marriage. She begins talking to Kate Waters, a determined reporter, anxious to quell the press gathered outside her house by giving an exclusive interview. The process of answering Kate's questions begins to stir up memories for her and leads her to reexamine what exactly was going on in her house. Once she is able to clarify some of her feelings and suspicions, she must decide exactly how much of her story she wants to share.

The Widow is told through multiple perspectives at different time periods. Some of the chapters take place during the time the abduction happened, and some of the chapters are told in the present day, as Jean prepares to be interviewed by Kate. Many characters are used as narrators, with some sections being told by Jean, some by Kate, some by Glen, some by the detective that worked the abduction case, and a few by other, more minor figures. Over the course of the story, the time periods catch up to one another, forming one cohesive narrative of what exactly happened to the abducted child. The pacing was excellent, with just the right amount of information doled out to the reader to keep them hooked on the story. This is the kind of novel you read in just a few sittings, anxious to put all the pieces together and sort out the details. There are lots of twists and turns to think about and the story is darkly interesting, like a Lifetime movie crossed with a Law and Order episode.

The characters are similarly well developed, each with distinct voices and personalities. Jean's character, unsurprisingly, is the best of all. It's obvious from the beginning of the novel that something isn't quite right with her, but what that something is isn't immediately apparent. Is she merely traumatized by her husband's actions, or is something inside of her influencing her behavior? It's obvious that she is a woman with secrets--that she knows more than she's letting on, but it's difficult to figure out whether she is knowingly lying to herself, or if she has genuinely blocked things out. She is an interesting character to try and understand, and her unreliability as a narrator keeps you guessing throughout the story.

The Widow was a fun read, and is perfect for fans of crime dramas or anyone looking for an exciting story to get lost in for a few hours. This is escapist reading at its finest, and its unusual, jumbled narrative style provides a nice mystery for readers to puzzle through. This is not the kind of novel I generally pick up on my own, so I'm pleased that I got the chance to experience it. Once again, I have to give my mom credit for passing on a great recommendation. 

Now, with her pile of books read and returned, it's time to get back to my own piles of unread books. While my mom's purchases skew towards self-help and crime dramas, my purchases skew to young adult and fantasy/science fiction novels. It will be nice to get back to some of my guilty pleasures for a little while.

Challenge Tally:
Clear the Shelves 2018: 8 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018:17

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman

I bought True Notebooks several years ago from Amazon, thinking that it might make a nice addition to my classroom library. This memoir about an author's year teaching a writing class at a juvenile correctional facility in Los Angeles seemed like an inspirational read, and I thought my students might appreciate seeing the writing of other teenagers. When the book arrived, a quick flip through the pages showed me language that was entirely too vulgar for an 8th grade classroom, so I stuck it on my shelf. I figured I'd eventually read it on my own. With my True Books Challenge underway this year, I decided that now was the time.

True Notebooks is a memoir of Mark Salzman's first year teaching a writing course to the inmates at Central Juvenile Hall in East L.A. He is unsure about volunteering at the facility at first, but as he gets to know his students better and reads the work that they produce, he becomes a true believer in the program. The young men that he works with are incarcerated for serious crimes, mostly murders. They are facing very long sentences for their actions. Some of them know that they will never live on the outside again. Writing becomes an important outlet for them to process their feelings and sort through the emotional trauma they have experienced. They write about family members, childhood memories, life in prison, and many other topics, and most of their work is genuinely thoughtful and  moving.

Salzman's chapters are all centered around his visits to the prison and focus on his feelings about teaching there, the affection he develops for many of the boys, and his students' work. Several actual excerpts from the inmates are included, which bring their stories to life for the reader. The boys' words call many troubling questions to mind about the juvenile justice system, racism, and the purpose of prisons. Salzman doesn't attempt to answer these questions or take a political stance on anything. Rather, he raises the issues and leaves it to the reader to ponder. Certainly, there are no easy solutions when it comes to dealing with children that commit criminal acts. It's easy to repeat sayings like, "don't do the crime if you can't do the time," but taking a closer look at the human beings behind the orange jumpsuits muddies the waters a bit.

I picked up this book assuming that it would be another motivational story about teachers, like Freedom Writers or I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. Those novels show teachers succeeding in the classroom and changing the lives of their students. True Notebooks, as I soon found out, is different. This is not a book with a happy ending. This is not a book where the students overcome their difficulties and go on to have happy lives. The boys in Salzman's class have no futures. They are caught up in gangs or drugs or both. They are serving life sentences or close to it. They will turn 18, get transferred to maximum security adult prisons, and leave their writing class behind. Salzman will only be in their lives for a short time, and there are no guarantees that his writing class will help them with anything. Seeing the boys bare their souls in their writing and then lose their cases and disappear to other prisons was disheartening. At the same time, it was a powerful comment on how our juvenile justice system functions and how poverty and gangs doom children to lives spent behind bars. Despite this heartbreak, the novel as a whole still manages to be a meaningful story. The writing that the boys produce offers a window into a world that most readers have never visited. Their experiences help readers develop empathy for a part of society that is easy to ignore or dismiss. Their stories are still valuable, even if they will be imprisoned for the rest of their lives. This novel is not really about showing a great teacher (even though Salzman is), it is about showing a group of students who, despite incredible disadvantages, refuse to give up.

In the end, True Notebooks was a good read. It was not what I was expecting from a "teacher book," but it gave me an interesting look at a segment of the population that I knew nothing about. I encountered a lot of difficult questions as I read about the justice system and society in general, and while these questions are frustrating to ponder, they are important to think about. The novel wasn't perfect by any means. There were sections where it dragged a bit and sections where I wished for more of a narrative. However, overall, I am glad I got a chance to read the work of the students featured in the story. Salzman did a good thing in teaching these boys and this is a great pick for anyone who teaches or is interested in disadvantaged students.

Challenge Tally:
True Books 2018: 6/18 + 2 bonus books
Clear the Shelves 2018: 7 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018:16

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City was one of those books that I noticed everywhere, but didn't really know much about. I saw it around in bookstores and on the internet, but as it was nonfiction, I didn't pay much attention. That all changed after I watched American Horror Story: Hotel. This season featured (among other characters) a hotel owner that killed his guests. It was good, creepy fun, but I never for a moment thought that the show was based on anything real. Imagine my surprise when I learned that not only was the hotel owner character actually based on a real serial killer, but that this Devil in the White City book I had been seeing everywhere was actually about that murderer. Intrigued, I picked up a copy so I could learn more. I didn't end up reading it right away, but now that I'm making a conscious effort to read more nonfiction with my True Books Challenge, I decided that now was the time to give it a try.

The novel centers around two very different men living in Chicago during the end of the 19th century. The first, Daniel Burnham, was a prominent architect in the city. The second, H.H. Holmes, was a hotel owner, a swindler, and a murderer. They never knew each other directly, but one major event tied them both together: the World's Columbian Exposition, or world's fair, of 1893. Burnham was the master builder who designed the fair and helped bring it to life. H.H. Holmes was a serial killer who made a pattern of luring young women coming to see the fair to his hotel, where he would kill them in unusual and gruesome ways. Both men's lives centered around the fair for the years of its construction and duration, and this novel tells both of their stories.

Larson alternates his chapters between the two men, giving readers small pieces of their lives with each new installment. The chapters about Burnham show him to be a highly ambitious and talented man. The Columbian Exposition was a massive undertaking, requiring the construction of several buildings, massive amounts of landscaping, the ability to manage huge expenses, and a lot of bureaucratic committee work. The United States was under intense pressure to live up to the glory of the Paris Exposition of a few years earlier, and anything less than perfection would be deemed an embarrassment. Burnham rose to the challenge, overcoming several difficulties along the way. His story isn't as flashy as his murderous companion's tale, but it is, nonetheless, an incredible one.

The chapters about Holmes show him to be a profoundly disturbed individual with an endless capacity for killing. Larson details how he was able to come into money and property through a series of cons, then how he used that money and property to capture and murder his victims. Intelligent, charismatic, and a doctor to boot, Holmes was easily able to convince young women traveling through Chicago to stay at his hotel, then lure them into rooms that he designed himself especially for killing. He used suffocation, chemicals, and other creative methods to dispatch these women, then disposed of their bodies in ingenious ways. For example, he sent some of their corpses to a professional "articulator" to have them turned into display skeletons for doctors, a rare and valuable medical necessity at the time. In this way, he was able to hide some of the bodies in plain sight. He also burned, buried, and dissolved his victims, according to his whims and access to resources. He was able to do all this with remarkable stealth and got away with several crimes before he was finally caught. No one know for sure how many people he killed. Estimates vary from nine people all the way up to 200.

I very much enjoyed reading this novel. It was engaging and entertaining throughout and truly read like fiction. The decision to tell the stories of both men concurrently using the fair as a way to tie them together was very smart, and added an interesting dimension to the novel. The juxtaposition of a builder with a destroyer was almost poetic - the two men lived and worked near each other for quite some time, but their lives were could not have been more different. Hopping back and forth between them was strange, but in a good way.

The Columbian Exposition itself was very interesting to read about as well. The story of Burham's life is largely the story of the fair, so I ended up learning a lot about it. It was such a massive undertaking and it was on such a grand scale that it's difficult to conceive of what it would have looked like in person. Larson does a good job describing the details of the buildings, landscaping, and exhibits-- so good, in fact, I found myself wishing that I could have attended it myself. It's a shame that this event has largely faded from public memory. It was a huge cultural moment for the United States, and it's rarely discussed now. Many inventions and innovations we enjoy today have their roots in it. The electrified third rail for trains, Ferris Wheels, moving walkways, Braille printers, and even souvenir squashed pennies were born out of it. This fair was the first time a lot of people experienced electricity and saw people from other cultures. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event and Larson's writing on it was very informational without drifting into dullness.

My only small issue with the novel was the imbalance of information about Burnham and Holmes. The Burnham chapters were much longer and more detailed that the Holmes ones. I frequently found myself wishing for more information on the disturbing serial killer, and for less on the honorable architect. I assume this was because there was way more information available about the Columbian Exposition than there was about the life of a criminal trying to avoid detection in the 1890s, but I was still a bit bothered by how short some of the Holmes chapters were. This novel was really more about the fair than anything else. However, at the end of the book, when Larson recounts Holmes' arrest and trial, we get a few nice long sections about him. This mostly made up for the lack of information in the earlier portions of the book.

The Devil in the White City is, simply put, excellent. It's nonfiction that is just as exciting and suspenseful as a literary novel, and the fact that it's all true makes it even more intriguing. Larson's work is a nice blend of informational and artistic writing that draws you right into the story and makes you feel like you're taking a trip back in time to 19th century Chicago. I'm glad that I ended up giving it a try. I learned a lot about a part of history that I knew nothing about, and enjoyed myself while learning it. I can't think of higher praise for an informational text than that.

Challenge Tally:
True Books 2018: 5/18 + 2 bonus books

Total Books Read in 2018:15

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

I've had Alas, Babylon sitting on my shelf since I was in high school, meaning that it's been on my to-be-read pile for about fourteen years now. The edges of the pages have yellowed and I had to blow a bit of dust off the top of it when I picked it up. Clearly, it's way past time that I actually read it. I initially purchased this book during my "buy anything that is a classic" phase, so aside from a vague recognition that the book was famous, I knew nothing about it. Up until a week ago, that was still true. I went into reading this completely blind, with no real idea about the plot, characters, or author. Naturally, that made it a perfect fit for my "classic by an author that's new to you" category in the Back to the Classics challenge. I went into my reading hopeful that I would find a new favorite.

The plot shifts between a handful of characters, but it mostly focuses on Randy Bragg, a rather aimless man living in central Florida in the 1950s in a tiny town called Fort Repose. He comes from a prominent political family in his hometown, but his own attempts to be elected to an office have failed. Mildly embarrassed, he lives alone in the house he inherited from his parents and makes his living from a family citrus grove.

As the story begins, Randy receives a mysterious message from his brother Mark that ends with the phrase, "Alas, Babylon." This phrase is a code from their childhood, and means that some disaster is about to happen. Alarmed, Randy goes to his brother who explains that Russia is poised to attack America with nuclear weapons. Mark, a high-ranking military official, is required to stay at his base and fulfill his army duties, but he tells Randy that he wants to send his wife and children to live with him for a while. Shaken, Randy accepts his brother's proposition and begins to prepare for the worst.

Mere days after this meeting, Mark's prediction comes true and atomic bombs begin to rain down on America. Randy's town is spared a direct hit, but he can see and hear several explosions from a distance. In an instant, the country is almost completely crippled. Electricity is lost immediately, food and gasoline run out shortly after that, and radio news updates are scattered and brief. Randy has no reliable way to figure out what's going on in the rest of the country and he feels alone and frightened. He pulls himself together, however, for his brother's family, who he is now responsible for. He takes on a leadership role within his neighborhood and begins, slowly, to learn how to survive in a world that has suddenly become alien to him.

Alas, Babylon was published during the height of the Cold War--a time when fears of nuclear exchange weighed heavily on the minds of Americans. Pat Frank worked as a war correspondent and served on several government committees before writing it, and these experiences allowed him to write a novel full of details that feel credible. He firmly believed that if America were to come under a nuclear attack, the government would not be prepared to handle it in an efficient and orderly manner, and the plot of Alas, Babylon reflects that belief. Once the bombs fall, the characters become cut off from the wider world. They don't know what other areas of the country were affected, if their government still existed, or even who was "winning" the conflict. They don't end up finding out any details at all until months and months after the bombings. Only by working together and sharing resources are they able to form their own functioning society, and they do it all on their own. In this way, the novel is ultimately hopeful about the future of mankind, but it is still a chilling examination of what might happen if a war breaks out in the atomic age.

That being said, I didn't enjoy this novel as much as I hoped I would. While Frank's insights into the military and how victims of war behave were undoubtedly valuable, his writing style and characterization missed the mark for me. The book was littered with dramatic moments that lacked proper build-up and his characters were often bland or weirdly hysterical. The prose demanded an emotional response from the reader that it hadn't earned, as it was difficult to care for anyone in the story. I found myself in the odd position of thinking that the situations in the story were realistic, but the characters themselves weren't. A lot of the narration was quite heavy-handed as well, with Frank's overly dramatic pronouncements sounding plain silly sometimes. It made the reading a bit of a slog, to be honest.

Another issue that consistently bugged me was the blatant racism and sexism present throughout the story. While I know that this is a reflection of the time period that the book was written in, there were several moments or comments that felt unnecessary. For example, when discussing inviting a black family to their house for dinner, one of the characters blithely remarks, "I've always believed in mixing crowds at my parties...but what about mixing colors?" In another section, a female character discovered a freezer full of melted, spoiled food and, "as any housewife would do under the circumstances, she wept." Later in the novel, Randy allows two of the younger children in the community to carry out guard duty at night. The young white boy in the group totes a gun, while the young black boy carries a spear. Perhaps my favorite moment, however, is when a few of the female characters become upset over the loss of a pet and the disobedience of a child and Randy comments that, "The more he learned about women the more there was to learn except that...they needed a man around." I do not think that Pat Frank was deliberately trying to be racist or sexist (in fact, he was probably pretty forward thinking for his time based on how he has Randy behave throughout the story), but he certainly wrote several cringe-worthy lines that had me rolling my eyes.

Ultimately, Alas, Babylon was only an okay read. I appreciated the ideas and professional expertise that Frank brought to the novel. I thought the story asked interesting questions, the plot was mostly engaging, and the ending was pretty good. My enjoyment of it was limited, however, by the odd writing style, wooden characters, and stereotypical beliefs. I don't think that Pat Frank is destined to become a favorite of mine, but I am glad that I gave his book a shot. It was an interesting look at a possible future that I hope never actually comes about.  

Challenge Tally:
Back to the Classics (a classic by an author that's new to you): 5/12
Classics Club (#31 on my list): 26/100

Total Books Read in 2018:14