Month: March 2013

Let’s Discuss — The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The corpses of dogs, cats, and horses often remained where they fell. In January they froze into disheartening poses; in August they ballooned and ruptured. Many ended up in the Chicago River, the city’s main commercial artery. During heavy rains, river water flowed in a greasy plume into Lake Michigan, to the towers that marked the intake pipes for the city’s drinking water (28)

Let’s see*…the majority of the book is a meticulous recounting** of American architects and engineers banding together in 1893, to place a fair in Chicago representative of American exceptionalism, worthy of international praise and symbolic of the nation’s great legacy and innovation of the future.

What is it–Murphy’s law? Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. That’s a basic description of the planning, opening, success and demise of the fair; weather disasters, politics, a bad economy, labor unions, accidents, vandalism, crime…wrong measurements, rejected blueprints…newspaper headlines. Every possible detail that can be accounted for in the existence of this fair is recounted. I suppose that’s good research on Larson’s part. But for this reader it really dragged…except for the chapters on Holmes, the psychopath predator, and Prendergast, a mentally ill man with political aspirations. These chapters could have belonged in a different book altogether. But they’re flawed in the same way. There is no intrigue. No tension. Larson loves to foreshadow to a fault.

Where was the magic and madness?***

*If you couldn’t tell by the brevity of this write up, I was very disappointed with this one.

**Novelistic/Narrative non-fiction may not be my cup of tea.

***The title in its entirety is–The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.

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Let’s Discuss — The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

It is a sad thing to think of, but there is no doubt that Genius lasts longer then Beauty. That accounts for the fact that we all take such pains to over-educate ourselves. In the wild struggle for existence, we want to have something that endures, and so we fill our minds with rubbish and facts, in the silly hope of keeping our place (14)

Basil Hallward paints a remarkable portrait of his friend and muse, Dorian Gray. It’s his best work, something to be admired. Yet the piece of art becomes an object of hate and fear. Basil has given eternal life and beauty to the Dorian in the portrait, whereas, the actual Dorian will eventually be marked with imperfection, age and ugliness. To Dorian it’s unfair and unbecoming, and somehow he inadvertently sells his soul for eternal youth.

Dorian undergoes an intellectual and moral transformation. The change of his psyche is contrasted with the stagnation of his physical being. He doesn’t age. He becomes a fickle person, seeking sin, pleasure or any experience that can satisfy his search for what he considers beauty or novelty of the moment. He commits a heinous crime, develops shady habits and ruins his reputation. He goes from loved by all, to detested by most. He has the face of youth, innocence and good, but not the soul to match.

I have such mixed feelings about this book. The beginning was rough for me because I kept running across passages like this:

He was bareheaded, and the leaves had tossed his rebellious curls and tangled all their gilded threads. There was a look of fear in his eyes, such as people have when they are suddenly awakened. His finely chiseled nostril quivered, and some hidden nerve shook the scarlet of his lips and left them trembling (23)

and this:

As he thought of it, a sharp pang of pain struck through him like a knife, and made each delicate fiber of his nature quiver. His eyes deepened into amethyst, and across them came a mist of tears. He felt as if a hand of ice had been laid upon his heart (27)

Aren’t they too…I don’t know–mushy?

I suppose they’re meant to be romantic and artistic, but I find the descriptions, and in particular, the use of the word quiver very irksome.

Maybe it’s just me.

Anyways, once I got over that, I was annoyed with Harry/Lord Henry. His musings, while very quotable, are silly. However, he’s such an important character in the book. It’s clear that his haughty attitude and naturalist view of society influence Dorian Gray substantially. In fact, Dorian becomes Harry’s social experiment. Harry poisons, pokes and prods hims; drops crumbs, which eventually lead Dorian to corruption.

Let’s Discuss — Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

A man like Dewitt Albright didn’t die couldn’t die. It frightened me even to think of a world that could kill a man like that; what could a world like that do to me? (210)

Mosley creates an Ellisonian* figure named Easy Rawlins, to lead this hard-boiled crime story. Readers will tour the L.A underworld with Easy to find a woman named Daphne. Whether it’s a hole-in-the-wall bar, secret jazz club, local barbershop, sketchy apartment complex, or around-the-way brothel, Easy uses his social connections to extract the information he needs to find her. It’s through the connections and information that readers absorb his reality and race relations of the era. They add a layer to Easy’s persona. However, it’s not just blackness or whiteness, right and wrong. There’s a universal idea that regardless of background, money, fear and power can turn anyone.

There were a few things I could have done without, such as, the “voice”.** I thought it was kind of cheesy. Coretta and Daphne bothered me too. I didn’t have a problem with them seducing Easy, no, that was to be expected, but it’s unfortunate how they were simply objects of possession; easily used and discarded. I mean, after Coretta hooks up with Easy she’s murdered and that’s it. I don’t know, just seemed like a very masculine-fantasy way to go about things…I’m wondering if that’s just characteristic of this type of fiction.

Out of all the characters (and there are many), I hold a special dislike for Daphne. Not Albright, not Mouse, not Frankie Green–Daphne Monet. I hate that she was placed on a pedestal, although I understand why.  Her connection to a potentially large sum of money, the crimes she’s connected to, and the fact she was seemingly unavailable and unattainable, added to her enchantment. However, this doesn’t deter Easy one bit. He bends over backwards for this mysterious, white woman and puts himself in danger to help her, to be with her, to be her lover. But Daphne has her own secrets.

“She wanna be white. All them years people be tellin’ her how she light-skinned and beautiful but all the time she knows that she can’t have what white people have. So she pretend and then she lose it all. She can love a white man but all he can love is the white girl he think she is.”

What’s that got to do with me?”

“That’s just like you, Easy. you learn stuff and you be thinkin’ like white men be thinkin’. You be thinkin’ that what’s right fo’ them is right fo’ you. She look like she white and you think like you white. But brother you don’t know that you both poor niggers. And a nigger ain’t never gonna be happy ‘less he accept what he is. (209)

When Easy finds out the truth about Daphne, he’s devastated. He actually compares it to an earthquake and almost refuses to see her for what she is. A woman he lusted for, who caused him to search down in his soul, someone he could have died for had deceived him. On top of that, she was one of his own! …I love that Mosley was able to convince me to dislike a character so much.

In the end, we have an intriguing story of Easy Rawlins’ transition from war veteran and day laborer to private investigator in 1940s, Los Angeles.

* In the manner of Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man (fantastic book)

** The conscience that likes to pop up during high stress situations, and lead Easy to victory