Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson -- Book Review


Wow---so much great information and so many emotions to deal with! 

I've been on a Victorian/Edwardian literature kick for a couple years now so when I saw this on paperbackswap.com, I had to request it---even though gory murder is just not my thing. I love reading about America's Gilded Age and one event that really defines this time in our history is the Chicago World's Fair. 

This book is really two stories in one. One track features every single detail you could ever want to know about the planning, building, executing, and aftermath of the Fair. The second track is the story of a lunatic murderer and how he was able to gruesomely kill LOTS of people right under the noses of authorities who were too wrapped up in the Fair's events to notice.

It's shocking how many crimes were committed due to the ease of being anonymous. While today's process of registering, confirming, double-checking, etc. of ID infuriates me sometimes, this story has given me an appreciation for the practice of making sure people really are who they say they are. The stories of Holmes' victims were so sad---many naive women who came to Chicago with such hope. It just blows my mind that police had little or no suspicions about him for as long as they did. It makes me worry about my own daughter who is getting ready to step out into independence.

The story of the Fair took awhile to really get in to. I enjoyed it much more once people and exhibits began arriving. Many of my 19th century favorites made an appearance: Houdini, Tesla, Edison, and Helen Keller---who doesn't show up very often in modern literature. There were also some neat notes and stories about the origin of the Pledge of Allegiance, pancake mix, the zipper, the Ferris Wheel, and more. Several things surprised me---like the limits and penalties for photography. 

These were stories that will definitely stick with me for a long time. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak -- Book Review


It's been almost 10 years since my sweet BookCrossing friend, dg7500, gifted me with this book. A lot of crazy life has happened in between---including the birth of four more children, my husband entering and graduating college, six moves (one cross country), and more. I'm staying with my mom in Oregon for the summer and discovered this book in a box of things she was storing for me in her basement. I brought it upstairs to be added to the summer TBR shelf I was building in my attic bedroom.

A few weeks later, I joined a swap on Swap-Bot which required my swapping partner to pick my next book from my Goodreads TBR list. For the swap, I am to read a book, write a 1-2 page review, and send it to my partner---all before the end of June. I listed 25 books on my TBR shelf, this one included, not thinking about the fact that this novel is 552 pages long. Sure enough, this was the one my partner chose---and I had a little freakout at the thought of reading only one book this month.

Suffice it to say, my fears were unfounded. I began this book less than 48 hours ago and have done very little else since then but consume it. 200 pages in one sitting, 200 pages in another. Then I forced myself to shower. Then another 80 pages. Then sleep. Then the last 70 pages in less than an hour before I could begin my day.

From the cover: "'It's just a small story really, about, among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery....'

Narrated by Death, Markus Zusak's groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young foster girl living outside of Munich in Nazi Germany. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she discovers something she can't resist--books. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, where they are to be found.

With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, Liesel learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement. Markus Zusak has crafted an unforgettable novel about the ability of books to feed the soul."

The first and most important thing I'd like to say about this story is the last thing I wrote down---the truth I realized less than 20 pages from the end. That is, history's propaganda is still telling us the Germans murdered the Jews. 70 years after the holocaust, many Americans hold a muted grudge against the Germans. We hear the word and we immediately think Hitler and we bristle. Today's propaganda tells us the Muslims are terrorists. We hear Muslim and we immediately think ISIS and our hate boils over.

The truth is that the Germans who murdered the Jews were extremists. They did not accurately represent the whole of Germany's attitude toward the persecuted. And so, so much was accepted out of fear. It is so sad how many Germans, like Liesel's father, likely had a desire to help but felt they couldn't because of the repercussions of being a "Jew lover". I don't need to explain how this all parallels current events.

"The sun was blond and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye." How many in our younger generations won't understand this symbolism as we butcher history's truths? This is a story that still needs to be told.

Beginning the book, I wasn't at all sure what to think. Should I keep reading? Am I going to be able to handle this? The story is narrated by Death, but he's not a mean or evil entity---just an inevitable one. In fact, I began to feel sympathetic for "Death" by the end of the book. The opening tragedy hit me hard as it parallels a personal tragedy and the separation of Liesel's family mirrored some of my own fears while my kids and I are separated from my husband by 1,800 miles right now. {We're in Oregon visiting my mom for the summer---he's in Arkansas working.}

The story quickly pulled me in with phrases like, "burning words were torn from their sentences."

One beautiful thing about this story was the way in which the author approached such horrific subject matter. Told mainly from the perspective of preteens, I was able to see the beauty of the German people and the goodness of humanity. There was a lot of innocence in this story. "Death" would offer a foreshadowing phrase or event and I'd think the worst was coming...but then it wouldn't be at all what I thought. This says a lot about me...

I loved this quote about knowing the ending of a story but reading it anyway: "It's the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me."

This book changed me. I am so grateful.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The New York Times: Footsteps: From Ferrante's Naples to Hammett's San Francisco, Literary Pilgrimages Around the World -- Book Review



From the Publisher: "A curated collection of the New York Times' travel column, "Footsteps," exploring iconic authors' relationships to landmarks and cities around the world. Based on the popular New York Times travel column, Footsteps is an anthology of literary pilgrimages, exploring the geographic muses behind some of history's greatest writers. From the "dangerous, dirty and seductive" streets of Naples, the setting for Elena Ferrante's famous Neapolitan novels, to the "stone arches, creaky oaken doors, and riverside paths" of Oxford, the backdrop for Alice's adventures in Wonderland, Footsteps takes a fresh approach to literary tourism, appealing to readers and travel enthusiasts alike."

The past few years have found me increasingly interested in travel stories as I've had the opportunity to step out into the world a little myself. Footsteps, a collection of travel essays centered around the homes and haunts of literature "greats", started out interesting, even though I was unfamiliar with a few of the writers. I enjoyed learning about these figures and their places in the world. After awhile though, the stories became more tedious as the writers became more and more obscure. 

Ironically, it was the story of Mark Twain that was my favorite; a writer I vowed years ago to never read after discovering the horrid things he said about Jane Austen. I feel there was a striking imbalance between writers who contributed positivity and decency to the world and those who prattled off drink and sex-fueled mumblings. Overall, I was not super impressed with this collection.

Blogging for Books gifted me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.