Category Archives: nonfiction

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

(Finished November 7, 2011)

I finally finished this crazy ridiculous and true novel. I bought this book at my fave little used bookstore when I first moved to Chicago because I thought it would be fun to read a little history of the Second City. I didn’t know anything about the “World’s Columbian Exposition”. Also, I’d never heard anything about a serial killer during the fair. I knew I had to read this book.

Clearly the story of the “doctor” murderer was the most interesting part of the book. How one man, with several aliases and unknowing partners in crime, could murder several dozen people without the knowledge of any authorities, seemed unbelievable to me. I got hooked; I had to know how that particular story line ended.

The best part of the fair section of the book was recognizing several names and places around Chicago and learning the history of them. The architects of the “White City “ — the main section of the fair – were important and influential people in Chicago’s history. Although not necessarily the most well-known (or even well-liked) during their time, these men certainly left their mark on the city as we know it today. Come spring or a nice winter’s day, I hope to head down to what is now Hyde Park and stroll along what used to be The White City, Midway Plaisance, and Jackson Park.

The Devil in the White City : Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City : Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Just Kids by Patti Smith

(Finished October 19, 2011)

Whenever I hear “Because the night”, I’ll picture Robert Mapplethorpe smiling and congratulating Patti on her song that he could dance to.

I really, really enjoyed reading this book. Why?

First of all, because Patti Smith writes so beautifully. Descriptive, clever, meaningful. The people and places in her stories seem to jump off the page. Whether she’s talking about her childhood, working at a bookstore, living dollar-by-dollar, or her time in Paris — it all came alive.

Although she surely doesn’t make the artist life seem easy or even very appealing, her descriptions do make it seem real. More real than I’d ever really thought that lifestyle could be. Sure, a bunch of spoiled rich kids “suffering” for their art. That’s kind of what I always pictured. But it was so much more. They REALLY lived it. And breathed it, their art. It was their passion; what they had to do. (And of course I found myself filling with jealousy because I don’t know what my passion is, but I want to find it so I can get lost in it like they did!)

Oh, and I was also jealous of Patti’s awesomeness. Though she mentions her talents with a certain nonchalance, this book couldn’t help but highlight her knack for all things art. A poet, a visual artist, a writer, a singer — Patti did it all. And it seems as though it came naturally. Oh, raw talent, to have just a bit of you…But yay for Patti, right?

I also really enjoyed learning all about the people and places in Patti and Robert’s life. From Andy Warhol to Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan — they met them all. And then some. New York at that crazy artistic time of the late 60s and early 70s was an insane place — so full of talented people whose habits and distractions were slowly killing them. It’s tragic, but also fitting. I really respected Patti for her refusal for so long to dabble in the world of drugs. Maybe she was one of the few in that world who saw what was happening to those around her and didn’t like it. (Oh, and the scene in the book where she finally does try pot is pretty hilarious.)

I think I might try to find some of the places they mentioned in the book — or where they used to be — on my trip to New York in January!


Just KidsJust Kids by Patti Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larsen

(Finished September 20, 2011. I’m majorly behind on blogging so I’m fixing that today!)

This was another book on my summer reading list, and I got it in JUST in the nick of time!

Again, I’m showing my true colors with my WWII obsession. I knew this book would be pretty good because I’m halfway through another Erik Larsen book — The Devil in the White City — and I love that one. But for some reason In the Garden of Beasts didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

The thing that bothered me the most about this book is how the author focused SO much on the ambassador’s daughter, Martha. To be completely honest, the book felt more like a story about her many scandalous affairs and her party-loving ways. Martha’s story was great — and would have made for a great book on its own. But I felt like it was a distraction from the story of Dodd’s role as ambassador. And really, that was probably the truth.

I knew going into this that Americans chose to ignore many of the signs of Nazi Germany’s worsening treatment of human rights. It became more and more evident as the book went on just how these oversights occurred. It was infuriating. But what can you expect?

For example, the ambassador and his family rented their fabulous home from a Jewish owner of a bank. The Jewish man lived on the top floor and eventually brought his entire family to live with him. Here were prominent Jews feeling so persecuted and scared that they had to hide in their own home. Way before Kristallnacht in 1938. Right under the American ambassador’s nose. And he saw it mostly as an inconvenience. There’s something wrong with this picture.

Oh, and the Ambassador’s son was there too, but there was almost no mention of him in the book. I wonder what he was doing the whole time his sister was out gallavanting around Germany?

Basically, Martha’s story was what kept me reading. She got involved with a Soviet spy, met Hitler at a luncheon, dated senior (married) Nazi officials — I want a book just about her, please.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken was on my summer reading list, and I just sneaked it in with a little over a week to go! And I’m so so glad I did.

Those of you who know me fairly well will know that I am fascinated by World War II stories, specifically ones that involve the Holocaust and the European theatre of the war. Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the Pacific theatre.

Unbroken tells the story of Olympic runner Louie Zamperini and his almost miraculous survival. (There will probably be spoilers, so stop reading if you don’t want to know!)

Louie spent his childhood stealing and causing trouble. At the suggestion of his brother Pete, Louie began to channel his energy into running. He ran and ran, setting high school records in the state of California and throughout the country. He went on to a successful track career at USC and then ran in the 1936 Olympics.

WWII began and Louie was drafted. He served in the Army Air Force as a bombardier. After a few scary yet successful missions, his plane was shot down. He and two other men survived longer than anyone to date on the open ocean with nothing but a small bag of tools and rafts, one of which was destroyed leaving three men on one small raft. One of the men eventually died before they reached land.

The remaining men, Phil and Louie, floated 2,000 miles only to land on a Japanese-occupied island. They became POWs. They were routinely beaten, starved, kept in infested quarters, interrogated — you name it. They lived in a hut on an island so notorious it was nicknamed execution island. They were transferred to an interrogation camp and then separated. Louie went on to be tortured by a camp disciplinary officer known as “the Bird.” The Bird picked on Louie, routinely humiliating and mutilating him. After The Bird left the camp, Louie was transferred to The Bird’s new work camp. The Bird continued to terrorize him, at one point hitting him repeatedly in the head with his belt buckle causing Louie to temporarily lose his ability to hear.

The POWs lived in constant fear of being killed. Should the Japanese lose, they were to be given a “kill all” order. Geneva Convention, be damned. (Many of the officers would later be tried and convicted of war crimes — the ones who were not executed were released by the end of the 1950s as the U.S. wanted to better its relations with Japan upon entering the Cold War.)

After the U.S. began its air raids on Japan and dropped the a-bombs, the POWs were freed. But they were not freed from their past. Many suffered, both physically and mentally, for their entire lives. Louie came back to the U.S., married a woman he’d only known for a few weeks, and swiftly became an alcoholic. He wasted money on get-rich-quick schemes by day, drank himself silly by evening, and had nightmares of being attacked by The Bird at night.

Cynthia, Louie’s wife, wanted a divorce. But then she attended a Billy Graham revival. She came back convinced that Louie could be saved. The first time Louie attended a Billy Graham event, he left before prayer. Cynthia convinced him to go once more. And it hit him: he had promised God when he was floating in the middle of the ocean that he would serve Him if only he would be saved. From that moment on, he dedicated his life to the Christ. He spoke of forgiveness. He opened a camp for troubled boys — not to push Christianity on them but to show them that they can get through their hardships; that they had a future.

Hillenbrand’s writing is descriptive, yet simple and to-the-point. I devoured this book. It is inspiring and educational. And I could not suggest it more.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“There are Things I Want You to Know” about Stieg Larsson and Me by Eva Gabrielsson

(Finished August 4, 2011)

Shout out to all my fellow Millennium trilogy lovers. For you, this is a MUST READ. For those of you who haven’t read the Millennium trilogy, stop wasting your time with my blog right now, go to your local used bookstore or library or your ebookstore if you must and GET THEM.

I had heard news here and there about how Stieg Larsson’s longtime partner was treated after his death and the rise in popularity of his novels. When I heard she was writing a book about the events that transpired, I couldn’t wait to read it. The addition of information about their life together and how it influenced, and basically wrote, the triology, was a major bonus.

Although the organization of the book is a little lacking, it works to outline Eva and Stieg’s relationship while telling about his professional accomplishments while telling about how he wrote the Millennium and what his wishes would have been for the books. It speaks of Eva’s relationship with Stieg, his parents and brother. For the most part, Eva strikes a good balance among the topics she wants to discuss, but I also felt like she gets a little too personal at points.

For example, she copies word for word a poem she wrote for Stieg after his death, and a letter he wrote for her to be opened upon his death. These things are examples of something I would find much too personal to share. Sure, you probably know that Stieg wouldn’t have wanted his books scattered around like simple pop fiction, but it seems that he also probably wouldn’t have wanted a personal letter out there for everyone to see. Or maybe that’s just me. My theory is that Eva put those personal things in there to solidify her point — that she was the only one he would have wanted to take care of his intellectual remains.

I found it fascinating that the crime and racism and general political scene that Larsson described in the Millennium series actually existed. He wasn’t making things up — not at all. His real life work dealt with many of the same things that Mikael deals with in the trilogy. So much that happens in the books is taken from Larsson’s real life and happenings in Sweden that greatly affected him and the entire country.

Eva mentioned one good thing that came from these books was that Sweden was finally seen for what it is — a place with its own problems and faults. She and Stieg worked for years to tell the world about the wrongs being done there, but it took the books, and his death, to finally bring many of these issues to the forefront for the international (and Swedish mainstream) media.

Overall, this book was a really great (and quick) read. Quick anecdote: I was reading a section of this book on the train on my way home from work one day. The particular section I was reading was in diary form. The guy sitting next to be started reading over my shoulder and asked, “Why do you choose to read at that grade level? It’s so beneath you.”

Well, sir, you don’t know me. And if it wasn’t actually an incredibly easy-to-read book, I would have been offended. I kind of was anyway. I enjoyed the ease with which Eva wrote meaningful descriptions of her life with Stieg.

Sometimes simple and meaningful is perfect.

“There Are Things I Want You to Know” about Stieg Larsson and Me by Eva Gabrielsson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Bossypants by Tina Fey

It’s over. And I’m sad. (And yes, I finished this book in about 36 hours. I couldn’t stop.)

I’ve been waiting to read this book since I heard that Tina was writing it. Expectations were great, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what it would be about. Really, now that I’ve read it, the answer is, “What isn’t it about?”

Tina rambles on a general timeline. Yes, I said rambles. Sometimes where she goes makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. But she IS Tina, and I wouldn’t expect anything less than for her to keep her readers on their toes.

I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much while reading something. I read four chapters out loud to my roommate, and by the end tears were streaming down our faces as creepy silent laughter flowed from our hearts. Yes, I said our hearts.

You might think, yeah, two young woman laughing over something Tina Fey said. Not uncommon. And you would be right. But the thing is, my roommate normally doesn’t find Tina Fey funny. At least she didn’t until I convinced her to give Tina another chance.

I can kind of get that she doesn’t like 30 Rock Tina. Liz Lemon is a disaster, but I see myself in her. I think a lot of us super nerdy, insecure-about-our-bodies, sarcastic single ladies see a lot of ourselves in Liz Lemon. Chelsea doesn’t like the character or the show. But even Tina said in Bossypants that 30 Rock has attracted a certain kind of audience — and not necessarily the kind they intended. (Losers like me, for example.)

Tina is realistic. I think that’s one of my favorite things about her. She is honest and tells it like it is. She doesn’t make up excuses. SHE IS REAL. Other than the fact that she is one of the most hilarious people out there, her real-womanness is my favorite thing about her.

My self-indulgent, pop culture-loving side loved the parts of the book where Tina so nonchalantly talks about her SNL/Second City friends. Amy Poehler, Lorne Michaels, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig. Name-dropping like it’s hot. But she’s not TRYING to name drop. These people are her friends. And it’s normal. They’re NORMAL people. They just happen to have really cool jobs. It’s not like they’re Brangelina-esque movie stars. They’re improvisors and comedians. But really? If I could meet any celebrity, it would probably come from this witty group and not some Hollywood A-List nonsense.

Another thing I find so great about this book is Tina’s description of her childhood. So normal. She didn’t have some crazy rich parents or a dad in the industry. She got by on her own talent and wit and hard work. And a few lucky breaks. And she’s the first to admit it. Gives me hope that if I keep trying, things will work out for me one day too. Maybe my dreams don’t involve making people laugh by the millions, but I do want to make a difference. And I can’t forget there are lots of ways to do that…as long as you don’t give up.

Thanks, Tina.

BossypantsBossypants by Tina Fey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

I’ve wanted to read In Cold Blood for a long time, but never got around to it. I finally saw Capote, the movie, a few weeks ago and decided it was about time. The movie, and the book, were wonderful. Truman Capote was truly talented. As a former reporter, I know how much time and patience it takes to assemble information for a simple news story. I can’t imagine compiling all of the information for such an extensive nonfiction book. The time and organizational skills alone baffle me. Not only was I overwhelmed by the story, but I was also astounded by the actual writing process itself.

Capote’s writing style in the book is elegant yet straightforward. I didn’t feel like I was reading a news article, and it read fluidly, yet I could tell that it was meant for magazine-form. The details were crisp, the people described simply but thoroughly. Perfect tone for such an undertaking.

The story itself is chilling. I can understand why it baffled and intrigued audiences then and continues to do so now. The idea of human beings who could care so little for their fellow man sickens me. Yet Dick and Perry did not care at all. They were unattached, thinking only of themselves.

The book begins with a description of Holcomb Kansas and the ranch where Dick and Perry’s infamous murders would take place. The Clutter family, a well-to-do and pious farm family with great connections, is introduced. Intermittently, so are our antagonists.

Perry and Dick are parolees who are on a mission: get some money, move toMexicoand buy a tourist fishing boat. They met in a Kansas jail where a fellow inmate who used to work for the Clutter family told them about the wealthy farm-owner. This old inmate of theirs ended up being the link that lead to their arrest.

The crime spree that led the men throughHolcomb,Kansasbegan in Kansas Cityand took the men fromMexico to Florida and back. Months passed before they were caught.

The book details reactions and perspectives from many: Dick’s mother, a local shop-owner, Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend, and teachers, among many, many others. It ends as the men hang after years

As a (former) journalist, semi-news junkie, and lover of words, this book was at the same time refreshing and disturbing.

In Cold BloodIn Cold Blood by Truman Capote

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

(Finished this book June 16, 2011)

To preface this post, I want to say two things. 1. I knew nothing about Burma when I started reading this book other than general knowledge about conflict there and that it is a country in Southeast Asia. 2. I haven’t read 1984 or Animal Farm, but they are both on my list and I had a general idea about plotlines.

After reading this book, I feel much more knowledgeable about all things Burma and all things Orwell.

First of all, I would suggest reading Animal Farm and 1984 before reading this book. But if you’re like me and don’t have time to do so, then you’ll be okay. (And it will only kind of ruin those books – most of us already know what they’re mostly about anyway, do we not? Like I said, I still want to read them.)

Why didn’t I take the time to read them first? I was desperate to learn about Burma because I just started tutoring a Burmese young woman, Mu Mu, in ESL. I’ve only been tutoring her for about a month, but I really enjoy it. Mu Mu is 27 and married. Her husband, Htoo Wah, knows a good amount of English, but she has been home with the kids since they arrived in the US almost two years ago. Before that, she and her husband lived in a refugee camp on the Burmese border in Thailand. Anyway, I started reading this book the week before I met her. I wanted to know more about her background and where she comes from.

Finding George Orwell in Burma is written like a travel diary. The author almost literally travels the steps of George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair – his given name) as she travels to the places he lived when serving in the British Police Force in colonized Burma.

In short, he hated it there. Although people who knew him while he was there said he didn’t outwardly show this hatred, most believe it came out later in his writing: 1984 and Animal Farm. They believe Burma introduced Orwell to the idea of totalitarianism and showed him firsthand how it can go terribly, horribly wrong.

Near the beginning of the book, Emma meets an old Burmese scholar who refers to Orwell as “the prophet.” He believes that Orwell had foreseen the atrocities that were to happen in Burma and wrote about the totalitarian state in 1984 as a warning.

Books are banned in Burma. All written word has to go through the military government for approval. English-language books are sold on the black market, kept in extensive (but hidden) home libraries, and hoarded like treasure. (It made me feel all the more thankful for freedom of speech here in the good old US of A.) All media and printed information must go through the government; many risk their lives to print fact instead of government-approved fiction. Internet access is spotty, like electricity, and all information passed on the Web is open to government scrutiny.

Universities in Burma are state-run and failing. It can take students years to get a degree, and then, a biology student probably never explored a cadaver, a chemistry student never mixed chemicals. Universities are closed down randomly – whenever there is fear that a student uprising might occur. The military government fears student uprising because that has been the only legitimate threat in the past.

Minority groups in Burma are not treated well. They are pushed to the outside, abused, taken advantage of, pushed into physical labor “for the good of the country” and many are pushed out of their homes into refugee camps.

The daughter of the biggest former democracy-pushing politician is under house arrest because the government fears her followers might rise if given their leader.

As Emma Larkin traveled around Burma, she had to check-in with the police wherever she went. Some foreigners are allowed to enter as tourists, more every year, but their trips are highly scrutinized. Tour guides must only use government-approved information. When Emma ventured outside the typical tourist areas, she garnered much attention. She had to be extremely careful when interviewing anyone as the government pays everyday citizens to spy on their own neighbors.

Despite how sad this book made me about the state of affairs in Burma, I’m glad I read it. The tie-in between George Orwell and Burma’s situation is undeniable. Discovering a bit about Burma’s past and present was helpful while working to understand where Mu Mu came from and the kinds of things she wants to learn.

Finding George Orwell in BurmaFinding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

If it’s not entirely obvious by now, I love historical fiction. The Things They Carried is definitely historical and parts of it are fiction. Other parts, as the author explains throughout the work, are not quite fiction.

Based on real events in the author’s Vietnam war experience, this book describes the every-day life of a soldier and his platoon. The beginning bit of the book literally lists what the soldiers carried — a list that was shocking in itself.

Then, the actual story begins. The author goes through his friends and fellow soldiers, telling stories about their lives and war experiences. He tells about the lieutenant’s  girl at home and how she distracts him until one day his distraction causes a man his life. He talks about a 19-year-old soldier who sends money to bring his high school sweetheart to Vietnam — and she comes.

Then, he tells about his experiences with death and pain — about the times he got shot and when he had to leave his platoon. How he lost friendships. How he should have been going to Harvard instead of the war. How he literally drove to the border with Canada because he didn’t believe in the war, stayed there for a few days with an old motel-owner who said a lot in his silence, but went back home because he couldn’t deal with the shame of hiding from the draft.

If you like history and memoirs…read this book. I learned so much — more about the Vietnam war than I’d ever learned from an actual history book.

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