Monday, October 26, 2015

"Devil in the White City": Pure Evil and Pure Triumph at Chicago's 1893 World's Fair

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood. - 
-Daniel H. Burnham
Director of Works
World's Columbian Exposition

I lost count of the number of people who recommended that I read Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City"(2003) over the last 12 years.  That number increased when I told people I was moving outside of Chicago.  Even the woman who worked at Tumble Town in the York Galleria Mall suggested it to me.  "I would love to go to Chicago and see all the things in that book," she said as I peeled the name tag stickers off of my sweaty girls.  "Everyone in my book club loved it, and most of the time we fight about books," she said as she looked at me intently.  I handed her my credit card as she continued, "I mean, if you are moving out there, you really need to read it." Most of the time friends would reference it and say, "What do you mean you haven't read it?" almost as if they were mad at me for neglecting my duties as an avid reader.

When we moved to Crystal Lake, my cousin who lives in Chicago visited us and brought her copy of "The Devil in the White City" with her and dropped it off at my house. She repeated the same thing everyone else who has read it said, "You'll love it.  It's really amazing, and now that you live near Chicago, it's a must read."

Still I was unswayed to pick it up immediately.  I thumbed through and noticed that the words inside were really small and it looked rather long.  And non-fiction history isn't really my favorite thing to read.

I put it on a shelf and proceeded to read many other books.  Then, one day, I was passing by my bookshelf and the cover of "The Devil in the White City" was facing me, and I decided that it was time.

The subtitle of this book is "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America" and murder, magic and madness take center stage throughout the book. Larson's book tells two stories that are equally compelling in flip flopping chapters.  With one story he recounts Chicago's improbable journey of winning the bid for the 1893 Columbian World Fair and the treacherous road that the architects and landscape artists traveled in order to showcase a fair such as the world had never seen.  The second story tells the tale of the twisted Dr. H. H. Holmes who constructed his own house of murderous horrors and turned it into a hotel during the World's Fair in order to trap and kill unsuspecting prey.

Although through the first 40 pages or so names and places overwhelmed me, both stories quickly gathered steam and I was drawn into the mayhem of both.  Larson used his stellar research to weave two equally sensational historical oddities together, and I loved every detail in both story lines.  I never tired of all the set backs due to weather or the naysayers who repeated "it's never been done before" or the constraints of the budget or the unions who were against the fair's progress.  I loved every fact about nails and bolts equally as much as I marveled that Ferris was able to achieve something no one had ever seen before with his towering rotating wheel.  At the same time, I was horrified by the gruesome accounts of the seductive and cunning Dr. Holmes who carefully chose his victims and then disposed of bodies in chemicals and his high temperature basement furnace. His murderous spree went undetected largely in part due to the distraction of the World's Fair.

But it wasn't only Larson's impeccable research that made this book so amazing.  He was also able to construct both story lines into nail biting narratives that read more like a novel than a fact based history book.  During certain parts I wanted to stand up and applaud Larson's writing prowess and his ability to keep me turning pages.

I also gained new respect for the city of Chicago and the amazing progress that the 1893 World's Fair brought with it.  From actualizing an urban landscape that is beautiful and technologically advanced, to improved sanitation efforts, to making cities a place that people want to visit, to beating impossible odds, Chicago proved to be both an unforgiving landscape for the Fair as much as it was the best location ever for a fair.

Because Larson's book reads more like a novel than a non-fiction book, I raced to get to the conclusion.  What happened to Holmes? I had to know, so I shut out the world and read on.  What other pressures would the World's Fair face? I couldn't wait to find out how each obstacle surfaced and how the builders and planners forged onward.

Everyone who urged me to read this book was right.  It was an incredible book, and I can't wait to visit downtown Chicago and see it with new eyes.  Not only that, I recently learned that the movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese will be released soon. I promise not to wait 12 years to see it.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"After You": Not as Enjoyable as Me Before You

Before I begin explaining the title of this blog post, I want to first emphasize the fact that I love Jojo Moyes books.  They are witty, charming, romantic, and I always look forward to reading them.  Actually, I get a bit giddy when I have a Jojo Moyes book in my hands at the library check out.  Because I only discovered her books a year ago, I've been catching up on Jojo Moyes books, and I even went on binge in the summer to prepare for reading her latest novel, "After You." And, I actually went to Barnes and Noble and finally used the gift card my sister sent me in June for my birthday to buy "After You" the day it was released.

What makes Jojo Moyes books so lovable stems from the fact that they all have the same sort of plot structure which involves the following:
A working class girl who is extra ordinary but doesn't really know it falls on hard times.  She meets a more wealthy or more seemingly put together bloke who is always dashing but he struggles with flaws of his own. The two fall hard for each other, but they both need to overcome incredible odds or their own inner demons in order for everything to work out.

The female characters are usually bumbling in one way or another, but also extra ordinary in one way or another.  At the heart of the heroine is always kindness.  Add a romance, a cast of supporting characters who enhance the charm and wit of the plot.  Finally add more dips and bumps in the road than the average human being can handle and have the characters work through those dips and bumps by falling hard but always brushing themselves off to overcome.

Moyes writes the kind of books that make me want to bury myself in my couch, grab a big cozy blanket, light a candle, grab a cup of tea and then get lost in the story.  She is a master of rom com and it's no wonder she has a legion of fans who adore her books.

I am a dedicated new fan which is why I couldn't help but be disappointed in the sequel to "Me Before You."

I want to apologize to all of you who are Jojo Moyes fans and loved this book.  I wanted to love it.  I really, really did, but I didn't.

Here are my reasons:
1) I love the character Lou, and I loved her relationship with Will Traynor in "Me Before You" BUT I feel like she grew so much in that novel and she didn't just take a few steps back, she took leaps and bounds back in the outset of this book.  She chose to work at a crappy job (and then stay there), she chose to live a life of isolation, and then she chose to wallow.  All of those things seemed out of character to me of the Lou that I watched grow in "Me Before You." I get that she was devastated by the loss of Will, but I just expected more from her.

2) I wasn't thrilled with the addition of Will's daughter that he never knew existed.  This seemed like a strange twist in the story and for me it didn't work.  Lily felt unfinished and hurried as a character which is odd coming from a master of character creation like Moyes.  I did not like the "Lily backstory" chapter where the reader learns why Lily is so surly and so unpredictable.  It didn't fit for me and felt thrown in. The angst was too much. The situation that she struggled against too improbable.  Her mother was too evil to be real, her step-father's business associate too creepy, and the reconciliation of the whole Lily situation seemed too tidy.  If a strange teenage girl showed up on your doorstep, would you really allow her to just live there without consulting the mom? Would the mom really be that unfeeling that she abandons her altogether because she's too much trouble?

3) The shooting scene with Sam and Donna was too farfetched.  That's all I'll say about that.

4) The entire situation with Lou's job at the airport bar.  From the costume to the boss to the staying on to help.  It all felt contrived.

Because the two main female characters were in situations that I wasn't crazy about, I had problems loving the entirety of the book.  That's not to say that I didn't love parts of it.

Here are the things I loved:
1) I loved the character Sam.  What's not to love about him? He's a handsome, caring man who loves his nephew, his job, and he's building a house from the foundation up.  He's open with his feelings and wants to be in a committed relationship.

2) I loved the conflict between Lou's mom and dad.  Her mom wants more freedom and her dad wants everything to stay the same.  The fighting led to funny moments and the only time I actually got teary eyed while reading (which is saying a lot because usually I'm a mess by the end of most Jojo Moyes books).

There's more to love, but those were my favorite things about it.

For the hardcore fans of Jojo Moyes, I know they will be entertained and most of them will disagree whole heartedly with my criticisms.  I haven't read all of her books (that's why I consider myself a new fan).  The upsides: I read it fast.  I didn't cry a bunch.  It was a little enjoyable and somewhat touching, but it definitely did not grab me the way that other Jojo Moyes books have.  I will continue to read Jojo Moyes with hopefulness that her next novel will be way better than this one.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

"Rising Strong:" Just Go Out and Buy It

"The opposite of recognizing that we're feeling something is denying our emotions.  The opposite of being curious is disengaging.  When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don't go away; instead, they own us, they define us.  Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending - to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened.  This is my truth.  And I will choose how the story ends."
- Brene Brown

I used to buy every single book that I wanted to read, but then I realized that
#1) Books take up a bunch of space
#2) Books are heavy when you need to move and movers charge by the weight of your stuff
#3) Not all books are worthy of keeping after you have read them
#4) Books are expensive
#5) Although many people love to read from their devices, I still love the solid feel of a book in my hands (which brings me back to numbers 1-4)

In the past few years I've been way more of a library junkie, making sure to put holds on all the books that I would like to read.  When I saw that Brene Brown released a new book called "Rising Strong" I decided to purchase it instead of waiting for it to come in at the library. Brene Brown's Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability is one of my favorites because it really made me think about how I constantly need to show everyone how strong I am rather than allowing myself to appear vulnerable.  I also really enjoyed reading her book "The Gifts of Imperfection" (my wonderful friend, Nikki sent it to me right after I moved).  That book allowed me to ease into my move without feeling overwhelmed by perfectionism that can sometimes cripple me.

Not only do I not regret this purchase, I am encouraging others to go out and buy Brene Brown's new book, "Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution."  I've actually recommended it to so many others and several of them are reading it and loving it. Why? Because there are so many take aways from this book, that it's one that you will want to come back to when you are struggling through conflicts, work drama, family issues, or just trying to own the story of your life.

I actually annotated as I was reading (which prompted raised eyebrows from both of my daughters who have had it drilled into their heads at school that you NEVER PUT MARKS IN BOOKS.  They asked me with strained voices, "Mommy, why are you writing in your brand new book?!").  I told them I would never write in a library book, but this book was mine and there were things that I wanted to remember and if I took notes in the book as I read, I could easily find them again.

I underlined and annotated more things than I can effectively share in this post, but I will tell you some of my biggest take aways.  My first take away is from Brene Brown's story about meeting the Pixar creative team.  During their meeting and subsequent correspondences, she realized that the struggles we all face are very similar to the creative process of creating a story and the struggle that the story writers and animators face. When a creative team maps out a story they follow the steps of a hero's journey or archetypal theory; they see this as three acts to the story.  It's Act 2 that the creative team struggles with the most.  This is the act where the hero has to reach rock bottom, the lowest of the low point, before he or she can rise and achieve redemption.  Applied to real life, act two is where many people don't dare touch because it is messy, it's complicated, it's emotional and it's where we are at our most vulnerable.  Let's face it, most people don't enjoy being uncomfortable.

Brene Brown's take away from this is that we need to rumble through this messy Act Two phase in order to rise strong as we create the stories in our lives.  She realized that story is an integral part of our vulnerability.

For me, this was a big point of wisdom because I do believe that telling our life stories honestly and being able to share them makes us not only vulnerable, but helps us to connect with others. That's why our tag line at is "changing the world one story at a time." Our stories humanize and connect us, and the more vulnerable we are willing to become in sharing our story, the greater human connections we will make.  In Brene Brown's book she wisely says, "The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole ore more acceptable, but our wholeness - even our wholeheartedness - actually depend on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls."

She encourages us to own our stories, and shares her own stories of conflict in her relationships as examples to show how the process works.  Through examples from misunderstandings with her husband, to professional missteps, to how to handle miscommunication in meetings, Brene Brown's greatest asset is her ability to make everything clear and connected.  She uses references from Anne Lamott's book "Bird by Bird" and her concept of a "shitty first draft" (SFD) and how we often get caught up in the story that we tell ourselves about a situation.  Being able to say "The story I am making up about this situation is . . . " puts things into perspective.  We honestly don't know all the angles of a situation or conflict.  We only know our own story, so if we can own the story that we are telling ourselves and even be vulnerable enough to share our own insecurities with others, we may be able to rise strong through  the rumble in act two rather than let it control us.

Pretty cool, right?

As I read this book (which is a really fast read), I shared the parts I underlined with my husband every night.  He could apply everything to his own situations at work and told me that as soon as I was done that he wanted to read it.  "Rising Strong" is a book that you will want to pass along to others, because it just makes sense.