The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (audio and print)

Source: Purchased
Paperback and Audible, 447 pgs. or 14+ hours
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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which was a book club pick from last year and took me more than the month allotted to read, is a look at Chicago’s endeavor to build a World’s Fair to rival that of Paris. Larson attempts to contrast the beauty of the white city created by some architectural greats with the dark serial killings of  H. H. Holmes. The story is one of a city growing up and expanding, which generally brings with it the darker elements of crime. As women began to seek out jobs and not marriage, many were preyed upon by criminals, including Holmes. These comparisons are easy to see, but the main bulk of this book is focused on the political issues of the 1893 World’s Fair and its construction.

“Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago’s Hull House, wrote, ‘Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.'” (pg. 11)

“To women as yet unaware of his private obsessions, it was an appealing delicacy. He broke prevailing rules of casual intimacy. He stood too close, stared too hard, touched too much and long. And women adored him for it.” (pg. 36)

Like the previous book I read by Larson, the narrative is big on detail — too much detail in some places — and this often bogs down the narrative and leaves the reader wondering if the book is about the fair or the serial killer. To finish this pick, I ended up reading along with the audiobook to keep my attention focused, as I found it wandered too much just listening to the audio and too much when reading the book — I started scanning pages rather than reading them.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were those short chapters about Holmes, and it makes me wonder if Larson had a hard time finding enough about him and his crimes to write about him alone — hence the need for the World’s Fair and its comparison with the darker side of Chicago. This was less boring than the previous Larson book I read, which isn’t saying much.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson was a mixed bag for me. The World’s Fair parts of the book were interesting but too long winded, while the parts about Holmes are too little throughout the book until the end. Saving the show-stopper for last is a detriment for this book. These subjects are not really related to one another, and the only thread holding them together is Larson’s slight juxtaposition of them and the fact that they both occurred around the same time. It would make readers wonder if Holmes would have been as successful as a serial killer if the World’s Fair had not distracted the police, officials, the government, and tourists alike.

RATING: Tercet

Other Reviews:

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 337 pgs.
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Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy, which was the January book club selection, is based on historical events along the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s involving the Glanton Gang that scalped many, engaged in mercenary acts, and sought their fortunes. Led by John Glanton, who fought for Texas independence during the Mexican-American War, the gang murdered Indians and Mexicans alike. Readers should expect this book to be brutal and violent. There is no way around it with this subject matter, and much of the violence has little to no purpose other than to garner wealth and property for the gang members.

“The judge watched him. He began to point out various men in the room and to ask if these men were here for a good time or if inded they knew why they were here at all.

Everybody dont have to have a reason to be someplace.

That’s so, said the judge. They do not have to have a reason. But order is not set aside because of their indifference.” (pg. 341-2)

The kid is the main protagonist here, and he stumbles into the gang after wandering for some time. Readers will not view him as a hero, and in many ways he is an anti-hero because he is morally ambiguous like many characters in westerns. The focus on the bloodshed and the meanderings of this gang through the desert and mountains is a surface reading of the novel, the central character and theme is related to “God”, “destiny,” and the order of the universe, which the judge clearly says encompasses more than can be understood by the human mind. Some mysteries are perpetual, but he reminds us to never forget that there is an order and a reason behind even the most chaotic and mundane events.

Like the kid, the readers is forced into a world where violence is the norm and it just is, without any moments of morality or kindness present. In this world, how can the kid strive to understand a wider picture, learn to review his role in that violence, and come to any other conclusion than human kind is animal-like in its brutality?

While there are allusions to Christian traditions, such as the burning bush, there seems to be a subtext about relying too heavily on the stories/tales of “leaders” — whether they are religious or otherwise — because they oftentimes are lies (like the early tales told by the judge). The judge even keeps a ledger, which makes readers reflect on who is keeping that ledger and why? Is it God, Satan, or someone else, and does it really matter who? Moreover, the final scenes of the book call to mind Shiva’s Tandava, a violent and dangerous dance related to the destruction of the world in order for creation to flourish. It seems McCarthy is using a mesh of myths and religions to bring his points across about the violent birth of America.

The narrative is distant on purpose, but following the kid throughout gets difficult, and the number of bloody events could have been pared down significantly to demonstrate the points the author wanted to bring across. The strongest character in the novel is not the antihero but the judge, his antagonist. Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy could have been a much stronger novel with some editing.

Book Club Discussion:

As I was more than halfway through this one, I attended the discussion and planned to finish it after the meeting. Many liked the book well enough, though some said the narrative had their eyes/brains glazing over if read too quickly. Others found a bunch of theories to postulate on, including one where the Judge Holden appeared to be Satan or Satan-like because he was very good at a great many things.

Upon further discussion and review, it seems as though McCarthy took a lot of his events from those in My Confession by Samuel Chamberlain, who claimed to be a member of the Glanton Gang. Some scholars have said that the Kid in McCarthy’s book could be Chamberlain. Judge Holden is supposed to be a historical figure, but the only references to him are in Chamberlain’s book.

RATING: Tercet

Other Reviews:

The Road

About the Author:

Cormac McCarthy is an American novelist and playwright. He has written ten novels in the Southern Gothic, western, and post-apocalyptic genres and has also written plays and screenplays. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for The Road, and his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was adapted as a 2007 film of the same name, which won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

His earlier Blood Meridian (1985) was among Time Magazine’s poll of 100 best English-language books published between 1925 and 2005 and he placed joint runner-up for a similar title in a poll taken in 2006 by The New York Times of the best American fiction published in the last 25 years. Literary critic Harold Bloom named him as one of the four major American novelists of his time, along with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Philip Roth. He is frequently compared by modern reviewers to William Faulkner.

In 2009, Cormac McCarthy won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, a lifetime achievement award given by the PEN American Center.

Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison Volume 1

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 214 pages
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Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison Volume 1 is a collection of poems, scribbled notes, photos, and a self-interview from Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors.  Like he music produced by Morrison and his band mates, his poetry has a hallucinatory quality.  Foremost a poet who unexpectedly found himself as a lead singer, lyrics of The Doors are in these poems, or vice versa depending on which he wrote first.  Fans of the band will enjoy looking at Los Angeles through Morrison’s eyes in these poems, with several referring to the city as LAmerica.  The seedy sides of L.A. are not glossed over, nor are his nomadic days with his family.  While much of his poetry is psychedelic in nature, dark, and offensive at times about carnal desires, there also is a reverence paid to the military, particularly military veterans, which could be influenced by the fact that his father was a military veteran.  However, like most artists, when compared to one another, the poems often contradict one another, as if the poet is working out some internal struggle of ideas.

“An interview also gives you the chance to try and eliminate all of those space fillers … you should try to be explicit, accurate, to the point … no bullshit.  The interview form has antecedents in the confession box, debating and cross-examination.  Once you say something, you can’t really retract it.  It’s too late.  It’s a very existential moment.” (page 1 — Self-Interview)

There are moments where the poems are lucid and easy to follow, but there are other times when the poems are confusing and make little sense to the reader without some reference point in the literature (i.e. William Blake or Nietzsche) or other knowledge Morrison picked up in his reading and living.  Despite the notes in the back that suggest Morrison often wrote many drafts of his poems (though the editors had a problem with chronology of those unnumbered and undated drafts), many of these poems feel unfinished and unpolished.

Selections from a few untitled poems:

"Men who go out on ships
To escape sin & the mire of cities
watch the placenta of evening stars
from the deck, on their backs
& cross the equator
& perform rituals to exhume the dead" (page 25)


"Androgynous, liquid, happy
Facile & vapid
Weighted w/words
Mortgaged soul
Wandering preachers, & Delta Tramps" (page 87)

Messenger in the form of a soldier.
Green wool. He stood there,
off the plane.
A new truth, too horrible to bear.
There was no record of it
anywhere in the ancient signs
or symbols." (page 89)

"Actors must make us think
they're real
Our friends must not
make us think we're acting

They are, though, in slow
Time" (page 117)

As I Look Back

As I look back
over my life
I am struck by post
Ruined Snap shots
faded posters
Of a time, I can't recall (page 201)

Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison Volume 1 is an existential journey of a poet, artist, and musician.  Fans of the band will love this collection, those that want an experience and look at the 1970s in Los Angeles will also love this collection.  Those looking for poetry that wows or connects with them may find it harder to connect with, especially since the poetry is a bit cryptic in purpose.

About the Poet:

Jim Morrison was an American singer-songwriter and poet, best remembered as the lead singer of Los Angeles rock band The Doors.

Book 14 for the Dive Into Poetry Reading Challenge 2014.




22nd book for 2014 New Author Challenge.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum, translated by Charlotte Barslund

Source: Borrowed
Paperback, 184 pages
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Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum is the 9th book in the Inspector Konrad Sejer series and is set in Norway, but readers will get little sense of Norway other than the odd name here and there for places and people and the references to the bitter cold.  While Norway can be bitterly cold in the winter months, there has to be more to a country and its culture than that, but little of that comes across in this novel.  Additionally, the series stars Inspector Konrad Sejer, but readers will get little sense of him in this slim volume where he makes the rare appearance and the main focus of the book being on three young men — Jon, Reilly, and Axel.

“He disappeared into the kitchen and they heard him scrabbling.  Then he returned with the fireguard and placed it in front of the fire.  The cast-iron fireguard with two wolves baring their teeth.

Jon looked at the wolves and at his two friends.” (page 2)

Fossum has created a scenario that demonstrates the power that friends can have over one another, particularly when one of the friends is more dominant in the relationship than the others.  It is easier to agree to cover-up an accidental death than to call the emergency services, or is it.  These young men are like sketches of profiles that police would create following a crime, and while you uncover a little bit about their backgrounds and their pasts, you never really see them in full view, you cannot empathize with their decisions, and you cannot cheer for them to get away with their crimes.  The way in which Fossum has crafted these characters must be intentional, a cautionary tale against the pressures of friendship especially when it can lead to compromised principles.

“‘We’ve talked about the nature of truth before,’ he said.  ‘Many things are true, but they still need to be left alone.  Imaging if people always told the truth, it wouldn’t work.  Society would fall apart.  We need to start each day from scratch,’ he argued.  ‘Build something that people can see, that they can cope with and believe in.'” (page 10)

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum could have been a stand alone novel without the inspector, as he plays a minimal role, but as it isn’t, the novel leaves readers with a desire for more — more characterization, so that the inspector and the young men become real.  Exploring the darker tendencies of peer pressure and how it tests our mettle when we are called upon to do what’s right is a tough subject to tackle.  Fossum explores a number of themes along this line, but with little background on the boys, it’s hard to keep up with their motivations.

***This experience hasn’t soured me on reading others in the series, but this one just fell short for me.

About the Author:

Karin Fossum is the author of the internationally successful Inspector Konrad Sejer crime series. Her recent honors include a Gumshoe Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for mystery/thriller. She lives in a small town in southeastern Norway.

3rd book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; this is set in Norway.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Source: Purchased at Public Library Book Sale
Paperback, 110 pages
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The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is a coming-of-age story about Esperanza Cordero in a Latino neighborhood on Mango Street in Chicago.  She doesn’t remember much of the time before Mango Street, and it is clear that things were both good and bad there.  Neighbors she knew were hit by their husbands, while others had given up on their dreams simply because they got married.  In many ways these stories are woven together and are lyrical enough that they could be an epic poem about growing up as an immigrant in America.

Each short vignette tells a story from Esperanza’s point of view, revealing the harsh realities of growing up in an area other people are afraid to step foot in.

“All brown all around, we are safe.  But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight.”  (page 28)

Esperanza is growing up and learning how to become a woman, running in the city streets in heels an old lady hands her and her friends.  At the same time, she’s struggling to hold onto her childhood, while she’s admiring the older girls in the neighborhood wearing make-up and nylons.  She’s naive about relationships between girls and boys and she finds herself in situations where she can be taken advantage of, thanks to those she trusts.  But she also comforts her father when he cries.

“They don’t walk like ordinary dogs, but leap and somersault like an apostrophe and comma.” (page 71)

Cisneros paints a bleak picture as seen through Esperanza’s eyes, but at the same time she allows her character to feel something beyond the confines of her neighborhood.  She does not want to be that woman who merely looks at the possibilities and wallows in sadness and regret.  The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros pays homage to these struggling women in a cadence, and she ensures readers not only glimpse a life that may be unfamiliar but that still contains a sliver of hope.

About the Author:

Sandra Cisneros was born in Chicago in 1954. Internationally acclaimed for her poetry and fiction, she has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Lannan Literary Award and the American Book Award, and of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation. Cisneros is the author of two novels The House on Mango Street and Caramelo; a collection of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek; two books of poetry, My Wicked Ways and Loose Woman; and a children’s book, Hairs/Pelitos. She is the founder of the Macondo Foundation, an association of writers united to serve underserved communities (www.macondofoundation.org), and is Writer in Residence at Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio.

This is my 58th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.