31 January 2013

Erik Larson's Devil in the White City

My blog is almost a two-for-one discount.

I'm thinking about about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair through two books.... Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, as well as my adventure rescuing Shepp's World's Fair Photographed.

Devil in the White City itself is "two-for-one;" it's about how the Fair was imagined, constructed, enjoyed, and destroyed.... AND about the psychopathic serial killer Henry Holmes.

Things that had their "firsts" at the World's Fair:
  • Kellogg's Shredded Wheat
  • Aunt Jemima pancake mix
  • Cracker Jack
  • Juicy Fruit gum
  • Pabst Blue Ribbon
  • the zipper
  • Extensive electric lighting (200,000 bulbs, illuminated by alternating current, instead of direct current)
  • Belly dancing in America
(By the way... that "snake charmer" song?
NOT an Arab/Persian song at all..... it was thought up on the spot by Sol Bloom, Director of the Fair Midway)

and ... 
  • the Ferris Wheel
The White City was enormously difficult to build.  It involved the greatest architects of late-19th century America.  One of the buildings, if it were still standing, would be the 3rd largest building in the world.... even today.  The World's Fair was otherworldly for visitors.  It was a triumph for Chicago, trying to prove that they were more than America's Slaughterhouse.  It buoyed the spirit of a nation on the verge of an economic depression (1894) and the massive strikes by newly-organized labor.

And then there was America's first serial killer.

In the madness of the booming city, sometimes people simply vanished without a trace, walking away from whatever life they wished to leave behind. So Chicago of 1893, filled with hundreds of thousands of visitors and temporary workers, was a perfect place to ensnare and kill - especially naive young women new to the life of the metropolis.  Herman Webster Mudgett (who used MANY aliases, but was best known as Henry Holmes) was handsome, charismatic, and entranced everyone he met .  He could convince workers not to be paid, creditors not to collect.  He married again and again, and his wives "disappeared."

He bought a lot close to Jackson Park and built his "castle" - part retail space, part apartment space, part office space, part hotel, and part death machine.  He designed every feature - bizarre hallways, gloomy rooms.... and soundproof iron vaults, windowless airtight chambers (piped with hidden gas jets), a dissecting lab, and a crematory kiln. Holmes purported to be a doctor and pharmacist, so residents and guests never questioned the pervasive smells of chloroform and acid.  At the time, cadavers for academic use were hard to come by, so his pals helped him dispose of bodies, for profit - four of which became articulated skeletons at Cook County Hospital Medical School.  Erik Larson's depiction of him is so frightening - Holmes began to plan their deaths... to happen months later.... the same day he met them.

Julia Conner and her daughter Pearl, Benjamin Pietzel and three of his children, Emeline Cigrand, Minnie Williams and her sister Anna.  And on and on. It took years and dozens of disappearances, for their families to begin to admit the unthinkable.  An unstoppable detective, Frank Geyer, searched dozens of cities, followed thousands of leads, and built the case against Holmes. 

Some estimates put the number of Holmes victims at as many as 200.  Chilling, indeed.

Erik Larson has a new book out; I'm very eager to read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.  Yikes.

Now 120 years in the past, the Chicago World's Fair really did leave its mark on America in small and large ways.

Elias Disney was one of thousands of workers who built the White City.  Although it burned to the ground in 1894, Elias told his little son Walt marvelous stories about it - how happy it made the people who visited.  Disney theme parks and The White City have a LOT in common in terms of architectural and landscape design, exhibits, and the goal of being "The Happiest Place on Earth."  Because for a brief shining moment, the White City WAS The Magic Kingdom.

Note: only a handful of the marvelous buildings of the Exposition still exist.  One particularly grand one is now the Museum of Science and Industry on the banks of Lake Michigan in Chicago.  And another is the "Maine State Building," which you can see today in Poland Springs!

25 January 2013

Rescuing a vintage book

I don't know how I went to school 90 miles from Chicago and yet never knew anything about the 1893 Columbian Exposition.  I first learned about it a few years ago watching the PBS specials Make No Little Plans and Chicago: City of the Century

But then something mysterious happened.  I was sorting through our attic storage area and discovered this:

Our home has been in my husband's family for more than 60 years.  And family lore is that one of his great-great-great aunts was an adventurous, independent soul, quite ahead of her time, really.  It's entirely likely that she attended the World's Fair and bought this book as a souvenir.  This is the "official photography" of the Fair (attendees had to buy a very expensive permit to take "Kodaks" of their own).  Hundreds of images. 

And now it is mine to treasure... and to rescue.  The years have not been kind.

Pretty - but disconnected.


Yikes.  It needs a book doctor. 

I'm hoping Carlson & Turner Antiquarian Books may be able to help me.

Why now?  Erik Larson's Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America has gripped my mind.  WOW.  I am reading way too late into the night.  Not only is the World's Fair very interesting to me, but there's a terrifying serial killer, systematically luring and killing naive young women.  He's a smooth operator.... the most frightening kind of killer.

But more on that later.  First Shepp's needs TLC.  Stat.

18 January 2013

Cloud Atlas, or What is Reality?

I'm not gonna lie. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is a difficult book for me to understand, and even more difficult to write about.  I don't struggle in this way very often.  Now, it could be the book, or my head all muddled still from various winter maladies necessitating lots of prescription medication.  Three cheers for albuterol!

Extremely philosophical and complex, but worth it.

Cloud Atlas is a series of six nested stories - each one linked to the previous... and the subsequent.  Taking place in the mid-19th century, with various stops along the way, ending (or pausing midway, depending on how you think about it) in a post-apocalytic era several hundred years hence.  Each story stops partway through itself beforing launching into the next.  And then they all collapse back again.  It's like paper dolls - all folded up - and then expanding.... and then collapsing back on themselves. Or two mirrors looking at each other, into infinity.  Or Matryoshka dolls. Or Mise-en-abyme.

Each tale is about power and control: colonial whites over native peoples.  Big corporations over the individuals who expose the truth.  Society's warehousing of the elderly.  Genuine humans over clones. 

Cloud Atlas is a climb from the past to the present and into the future. Zenith. The view from the top. Then a climb back down to the present, and back to the past.  Everything is connected.

One of the most difficult themes it tries to unpack is "real" history versus "virtual" history:
The workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic.  The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave.  Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction - in short, belief - grows ever "truer."  The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficut to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.  The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of the will.  Power seeks + is the right to "landscape" the virtual past. (He who pays the historian calls the tune.) (p. 392-393)
Consider: what is more "real" to you?  Thinking about the actual sinking of the Titanic... (an event that happened before all of us existed) or watching James Cameron's Titanic?  Which causes more emotion in you?  Which hits closer to home?  Which one makes you cry?  What is "real"-ness?

Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ explores this "real" versus "virtual" reality.  As he is hanging on the cross, Satan offers Jesus the choice to not die by the Crucifixion, but instead to live out an ordinary life.  He chooses the ordinary life, with marriage, a family, growing old.  Much later in this alternate life, he chances upon Paul preaching about a Risen Christ, the Savior.  This not-crucified-Jesus protests to Paul that he is none of those things... that it never happened... he never died, and never rose.  And Paul replies,

You see, you don't know how much people need God. You don't know how happy He can make them. He can make them happy to do anything. Make them happy to die, and they'll die, all for the sake of Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God. The Messiah. Not you. Not for your sake. You know, I'm glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you. My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful [emphasis mine]. 
In this alternate reality, Jesus of Nazareth the myth is the only story, but it has a tremendous power nonetheless, because others are caught up in Paul's faith. He believes it so MUCH, it must be TRUE!  Even today, I have heard theologians discuss that St. Paul's development and expansion of the message of Christianity, his impact on the development of actual Christianity, the way it took hold, especially among Gentiles, is nearly equal to the ministry of Christ himself.

I know, I sound like a heretic.  Stay with me.

Notice: spoiler alert!

Sonmi-451, the "fabricant" (clone) in Nea So Copros (futuristic Korea), ultimately is not the messiah she appears to be.  She is a cog in the wheel, colluding with the power structure, Unanimity, to "generate the show trial of the decade." (p. 348)  When asked why Sonmi would cooperate in such a conspiracy, she responds,
We see a game beyond the endgame.  I refer to my Declarations [her manifesto], Archivist.  Media has flooded Nea So Copros with my Catechisms.  Every schoolchild in corpocracy knows my twelve "blasphemies" now.  My guards tell me there is even talk of a statewide "Vigilance Day" against fabricants [clones] who show signs of the Declarations.  My ideas have been reproduced a billionfold. (p. 349) 
Hundreds of years after the "life" of Sonmi, she is worshipped as a goddess and savior.

Be careful of the truth you choose to believe as gospel.

11 January 2013

Judging a Book by Its Lover

How can a book about books possibly be interesting?  When it's by Lauren Leto, self-described "law school dropout."  Judging a Book by Its Lover. 

Lord in heaven, the book is funny.

Leto hits the nail on the head about the challenges of being a "book person."  It's rare to find someone equally "bookish" as oneself.  You either feel like the nerdiest person in the room, or you're way out of your intellectual depth.

In the last year, I've had these two wildly divergent experiences:

I happened to mention to someone-I-knew-in-my-youth that I write a book blog. 
"Uh, why?"
"I've always read a lot, so I thought I should write about what I love."
"You read a lot? How much do you read?"
"Oh, about a book a week."
Give yourself a leg up!
"A book a week?  Oh my god, did you hear that, honey?  She reads a book a WEEK!"
"Um, yeah." (Everyone is now staring at me.)
"But why write a blog?"
"Well, that's a good question..."
"Why do you read, anyway?"

How do I respond to that?  Why write a blog?  Ask the hundreds of thousands of people who do.  It's like asking someone "Why do you ski?"  "Why do you run half-marathons?" "Why do you donate blood?"  "Why do you still work a 60-hour workweek?"  Everyone has something they are passionate about.  But, yes, I supposed it is still a reasonably unusual endeavor.

But asking me why I read?  That's like asking me why I bathe and brush my teeth.  It really took me aback that someone would simply not comprehend the validity of reading and/or writing for its own sake.

(Over the course of being in her presence, the "OMG a-book-a-week" person reveals that Coach bags, mani-pedis, watering the lawn, and the elliptical at the gym rank among her most inspiring moments in life.  We don't have much in common.)

On the other hand, I've also found myself in a group of such tremendous literati fire-power that saying, "I just finished Anna Karenina" sounded about as impressive to their ears as "I just finished Green Eggs and Ham."  After admitting sheepishly that, yes, I truly do enjoy the gladiatorial combat that is Notre Dame football, someone asked me where I went for my Master's.  (panic)  Oh, look, there's no line at the bar!  I think I'll freshen up this drink....

This book is fun fun fun if you know a bit about literature (classic or contemporary) because you get the jokes.  In "Stereotyping People by Favorite Author", it's one tweetable sentence after another.  Superfan of Charles Dickens? "Ninth graders who think they're going to be authors some day but end up in marketing." Ernest Hemingway? "Men who own cottages." Hunter S. Thompson? "That kid in your philosophy class with the stupid tattoo." Terry Goodkind? "People who have never been Dungeon Master but still play D&D."  (p.112-126) And on and on....

It's also fun fun fun if you don't know anything about literature. That's where Lauren Leto can save the day with the chapter entitled "How to Fake it," in which she summarizes just about every author that might come up in conversation while you are trying to balance a glass of chardonnay in one hand while simultaneously eating canapes off a small plate (Note: I haven't mastered the art of making this look good).  Consider it the cocktail party Worst-Case Scenario handbook.  I haven't read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, but I know about it, and now I know a little bit more about it - at least enough to "fake it." 

Sidebar - do people actually read Infinite Jest, or just read about it enough to sound worldly?

Finally, I really connected with her true love affair with books.  That "a good novel presents you with an engaging world that is a reality only for you" (p. 268). But it's also a world that we share with every other reader of that book.  But consider - every one of those "worlds" is one we've created, based on the book, in our own minds.  Every reading experience creates a new, unique memory of a new "reality.  Think about THAT one for a while!

Lauren Leto is the creator of "Texts From Last Night".  Don't go there if you don't enjoy jokes about being drunk, the things that happen when you're drunk (especially the things you don't remember... but your friends do), and the pitiful remorse the following day.

03 January 2013

Happy New Year! And a litany of excuses...

Hey folks, we can relax.  The Mayan Apocalypse did not materialize, and we didn't go over that Fiscal Cliff.  All is well.

Time to set some New Year's resolutions!

I hate to set diet / exercise resolutions.  Mostly because I hate to diet or exercise.  Well, I like to ski (and it's ski season, baby!) so I guess that counts as exercise, right? Because after skiing all day last Saturday, wow, I felt some muscles I didn't know I had.  And as far as diet?  I guess I can go with eating more fruits / vegetables and drinking more water.  There.  Done.

I've set my new GoodReads 2013 Challenge!  Last year I signed up at 50 books, and I pulled off reading 54 in total.  So, this year, I'm going for 55.

I know, I've been awfully quiet on this blog in the last few weeks.  I blame credit a few things. 
  • First, the holidays are just so darned busy. 
  • Second, when the Newtown atrocity happened, it was really heavy on my heart, and it was difficult to write about anything.  I didn't want to write about Newtown, but it felt weird trying to write about anything else.  So, instead, I argued with my Facebook friends about gun control. 
  • Third, I was under some Christmas knitting deadlines.  Note: American Girl Doll clothes are harder to knit than you might think.  It's actually easier to knit a full size sweater than a tiny one (how do people knit Barbie clothes?  OMG!). 
  • Fourth, I think I'm part Maine black bear, because in December, all I wanted to do was hibernate.  If I sat on the couch, I would fall asleep.  No lie.  Ask my family.  I think they took pictures.  Quite pathetic, really. 
  • Fifth, the 2nd season of Downton Abbey has re-run on PBS, and Fringe started from the beginning on Science Channel.  Two shows I really like.  Plus I had a pile of coupons for free rentals at VideoPort that expired December 31.  So, yes, I've been watching way too much TV.
  • http://www.markkurlansky.com/
  • Sixth, and finally, I'm addicted to a stupid MahJong app for iPhone, and I'm embarrassed proud to say that as of last night, I'm ranked 50th in the world.
I did finish one book, Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History, which is even part of my Bookshelf Project.  I was mostly intrigued to see how on earth someone could write an entire book about salt, but sure enough, it's possible.....  quite fascinating, really.  Lots of "fun facts" - Salzburg is named so because of their major salt industry.  A tremendous amount of the exploration and investment in New World endeavors were salt-related.  During the Civil War, the South was not able to adequately provision their troops because of a lack of salt for preserving meat.  The fellow who discovered oil in Pennsylvania?  He was really trying to drill a brine well for making salt.  Same thing in Texas.  Morton salt, especially the typical iodized, salt-shaker salt, was novel for its time for its uniformity, whiteness, and modernity.  Today, consumers are backing away from uniformity in favor of all things artisanal, and so there's a resurgence of sea salt and other types of hand-crafted salt.

Oh, I almost forgot my biggest New Year's Resolution: NO OVERDUE FINES AT THE LIBRARY.  Let's see how long I stay on the wagon on this one.....