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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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Yes, I have finally gotten around to reading The Hunger Games. Or rather I finally got it from the library after being on the waiting list for about two months.

It was worth the wait. Well, really, it probably would have been worth buying buuuuuuut oh well.

I’m just glad I finally read it. So good. Although I don’t know how I feel about it being meant for kids, what with the forced murder and violence and all.

Clearly, Katniss is awesome. She is the kind of heroine I had wished for Margo to be in Once Upon a River. She is a skilled hunter, smart, cunning, brave and talented. But she’s still messed up — she has problems — she just seems to deal with them in a much more productive way than Margo.

Oh, and yeah, Katniss is a weird name. I’m just glad they explained it was a kind of plant. Because otherwise, I would have continued being confused about her name. (Little things like that bug me when I’m reading — don’t know why.)

Anyway, she’s awesome. And then there’s Peeta.Who just comes off as this adorable guy. And I totally called from the beginning, when he was also chosen as a tribute and Katniss had a weird reaction, that something was going to happen there. Typical young adult book plot. But I was totally okay with how it played out in during the Games. Even his apparent back-stabbing was perfect. Of course it was all a part of the games. (Or so we think at this point…? Might there be twists lurking in the next book?)

I won’t share too much — don’t want to give away any spoilers — but let’s just say the games are intense. And nutso. The whole Panem and Capitol and Districts — that whole situation is crazy to start with, but add the Games, and wow. You reach a whole new level of crazy. Throughout the first half of the book, I had to keep reading simply to find out what the heck they were talking about.

Like I said, I’m really glad I read this book. Can’t wait to get the second one. (Hope I get it from the library before I’m tempted to buy it! Maybe I’ll need to make a trip to my fave used bookstore just to check if they have it. Hmm…)

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 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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Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

(Finished October 5, 2011)

For a book touted as a heroine survival story, Margo doesn’t seem like much of a heroine. Call me a feminist, but when you practically rely on men for your survival during your entire “journey”, it doesn’t really make you a heroine.

Margo lets things happen to her. She does. Sure, she can be resourceful. And I know she is just doing what she can with what she knows. But again, for a heroine, she is rather short-sighted. And her quickness with a gun — well, it gets her in trouble more often than it helps her.

Life had to be tough for an outcast only daughter in rural Michigan, this much I understand. You’re the only child of your grandfather’s illegitimate son. That’s tough. But for the most part, Margo’s family seems to accept her. Until her uncle does something unthinkable. And she tries to get revenge.

Revenge isn’t always the answer.

My favorite part about this book was the author’s descriptions of life on the river. I love Michigan, and I enjoyed reading about the river, its twists and turns, its creatures and its inhabitants. In some ways, it seems idyllic. In other lights, it seems almost barbaric. I do think Margo is brave for facing so much on her own. For killing her own food, skinning it and all. I couldn’t do that. But then again, I didn’t grow up on a river.

I almost feel sorry for the guys who come into Margo’s life. Especially Michael. He is a good man, and she takes total advantage of him. And I seriously don’t like how she sleeps with all the men who help her. Really, a heroine?

Margo lies a lot too, and I’m not really sure that makes a good heroine.

I read so many rave reviews of this book, and it makes me sad that I didn’t like it as much. But, to each her own. And I plan to never live on my own on a river. Ever.

Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon

(Finished September 27, 2011)

So I’m 4/7 of the way through this series. And I can’t imagine what the next novel has in store. But I’m reading them with Ms. Recob, and we both decided we needed a break. These novels are fantastic, but they are also intense and time-consuming. So I’ll be reading some other things for a while, but I will get back to number 5 eventually.

Anyway, for my review I’m going to have to give myself a refresher. I started this book about two months ago, then took a break because my ebook from the library expired before I could finish it. (Love that you can rent ebooks from the library though, I must say!) So then I got the hardback version but it’s a beast so I only read at home. But it’s done. And it was worth it.

So we left the last novel with Claire and Jaime in the American colonies. They find Jaime’s aunt Jocasta who owns a plantation. Jocasta is blind and her husband has died; she wants Jaime to take over control of the plantation. But he wants to make his own way. And Claire is disgusted by the idea of owning slaves, (as she should be.)

Luckily, the governor has decided he wants hardworking men like Jaime to settle the land at the outskirts of the territory — to protect it from Indians, mostly. Although it is going to be rough, Jaime agrees. He and Claire move to the newly dubbed “Fraser’s Ridge” with some of their little band and start a new life.

Meanwhile, back in the future, (or present, depending on how you look at it), Roger has discovered that Claire and Jaime are together in the past. He has also discovered information about when and how they will die. He keeps this secret from Brianna, their daughter. He doesn’t want to hurt her. And, more importantly, he doesn’t want to lose her.

But guess what? Brianna was doing her own research and found out about her parents’ life and death. She decides to time travel through the stones to find them. Roger finds out and follows her. What ensues…well, tons of crazy things.

Indian killings, ghost men from the future, unplanned pregnancies, unexpected alliances, shock, horror and intrigue. Gosh, these books really do have it all.

Drums of Autumn (Outlander Series #4)Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

(Finished September 24, 2011)

I can’t stay away from Hemingway. It probably doesn’t help that in the recent Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris”, I found the actor who played him to be really attractive. Eek.

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time. Actually, I first started wanting to read it before I studied abroad in Paris (and should have) but I ran out of time. Of course, it just made me want to go back.

I love reading about la génération perdue. For many reasons. Mostly because they were writers in Paris during one of the most interesting times in the city. And sure, they were poor, but they lived in Paris. And they traveled Europe. And they lived the life. And they wrote.

In this book, Hemingway describes his life in the early 1920s after WWI. He and his first wife, Hadley, live in the Latin Quarter. He spends his days writing in cafes and at friends’ apartments, chatting with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and James Joyce. He helps raise money to allow T. S. Eliot to quit his bank job and write full time. He hangs out with the owner of the wonderful bookstore Shakespeare & Co.

Oui, it's still there.

I’m so glad Hemingway wrote these memoirs before his death. It brings those of us for whom that life is a dream THAT much closer.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

There’s not much more I can say. Je l’aime.

A Moveable FeastA Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 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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Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

(Finished August 24, 2011 — Slacking on blogging!)

Down and Out in Paris and London is another book I’ve wanted to pick up for ages, but never got around to reading. I’m glad I did.

A very realistic and mostly autobiographical book, Down and Out describes George Orwell’s experiences living and working amongst the poorest of the poor in two of Europe’s most well-known and richest cities, (both of which I adore.)

Many people have a romantic vision of Paris and London. I certainly did. But now I know the neighborhoods around the Seine and the Thames are not all rosy. In my study abroad program, we learned about and spent time in every kind of neighborhood in Paris. One of our assignments was to attend and write about a market in the historically underserved neighborhood of Saint-Denis outside Paris. It really opened our eyes. (Story and pics: And in London, we certainly wandered through some not-so-ideal places.

Anyway, none of that was as shocking as some of Orwell’s stories. (But of course, one must realize that he wrote decades ago.)

Orwell describes his experiences in a matter-of-fact way, not lingering in self-pity. He does not seek sympathy from his readers, but merely describes the lice-ridden public houses and the dirty George V hotel kitchens.

One of my favorite quotes from the book came when George’s acquaintance, a down-and-out Englishman, was discussing how he failed to let his economic standing affect his mind.

Bozo said: “If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, ‘I’m a free man in here’” — he tapped his forehead — “and you’re all right.” (p. 165)

Another great quote to ponder: “In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it.’? Money has become the grand test of virtue.” (p. 174)

So true. And depressing.

Another favorite addition was the glossary beginning on p. 174 of British slang of the day. For example, a clodhopper was a street dancer, a toby was a tramp and kip, a place to sleep.

My francophile and anglophile tendencies were more than satisfied by this book. If you share those interests, you should read it post-haste.

Down and Out in Paris and LondonDown and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

My rating: 3 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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