Thursday, November 29, 2012

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Another worthy read by Larson.  The Devil in the White City is about building the Chicago World's fair exposition in the late 1880's, the architects and engineers who dreamed and brought their designs to reality to amaze the attendees.  Along with the history there is a sinister mystery happening, murders unnoticed, missing women whose families did not search for them, all victims of a psychopath, a Jekyll and Hyde type personality.  Published in 2003 it is making a resurgence featured at Barnes and Noble and with readers who appreciate a touch of mystery and fright along with history.  I enjoyed reading the acknowledgements and the citations with the research  notes as well as the 396 pages of the  book. (See "In the Garden of Beasts" this blog, June, 2012)

 Daniel Hudson Burnham was the architect with the dream, the driving force to bring a world's fair to Chicago looked down upon by the urban elite of the East coast who considered it a town of butchers and hogs attributable to the stock yards.  Burnham  vowed to outdo the Paris Exposition.  He had to first convince the board to choose Chicago, not an easy task bidding against New York City, which was seen as far superior in culture and achievement  in  the US.  The book is the story of his trials, challenges, attention to detail and of others the likes of John Olmstead the country's preeminent  landscape architect who'd designed New York's  Central Park and the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, those visionaries who engaged with Burnham once Chicago was chosen. I tried to anticipate how Burnham would harness and entice the best of the American achievers to top the Paris feat as I recalled some details about the Paris exposition from reading McCullough's "The Greater Journey" (See review on my other blog in December 2011 )   The obstacles he overcomes from man and nature are a testament to holding onto the vision and persevering in spite and in the face of tragedies.

Pg.4-5  "Its official name was the World's Columbian Exposition, its official purpose to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, but under Burnham, its chief builder, it had become something enchanting, known throughout the world as the White City.....It had lasted just six months, yet during that time its gatekeepers recorded 27.5 million visits, when the country's total population was 65 million...On its best day the fair drew more than 700,000 visitors......"

When he solicits proposals for a structure that will overshadow the grand Eiffel tower in Paris, Eiffel himself  responds.  But the selection goes to  a young engineer from Pittsburgh, PA  who proposes to erect a vertical revolving wheel, 250 feet in diameter, yes, it is the world's first ferris wheel,  brainchild of  George Washington Gale Ferris. It would hold 36 specially built Pullman rail cars to transport people  264 feet into the air.  That is just one of the famous accomplishments.  Others more earthly  would be introduction of Cracker Jack snacks, Juicy fruit gum,  Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Nabisco shredded wheat, something few imagined  would be enjoyed let alone survive as a cereal today.  Elias Disney, Walt's father  was a carpenter and furniture maker among the  4,000 workers employed to build the  fair; the stories  he would tell later on about the construction of this magical realm beside the lake would inspire Walt in designing Disneyland.  Francis J Bellamy composed   The Pledge of Allegiance for the dedication.  The Bureau of Education mailed it to every school in the country to be recited by schoolchildren nationwide on the day of the dedication. The term "snapshots" was derived when Kodak introduced the folding version of its model No 4 box camera for the fair.  Anyone who wanted to bring his own Kodak to take photos had to buy a permit for two dollars and inside the fair there were additional one dollar fees for taking photos.  Today with out digital cameras and smart phones, I find this an amazing reflection however in 1893, few people could afford their own cameras; professional photographers who  brought  tripods, etc. were  charged an additional $10 which was what many out of town visitors paid for the full day at the fair including lodging, meals and admission.  These are just tidbits of the history divulged throughout the book.  Paraphrasing a comment on the back cover, how couldn't I have already know so much of this?  But I did not so I learned a lot in this reading.
Back  cover of the book

The psychopathic murders and  mysterious disappearances of many young women that coincide with the process of the  fair are told parallel; introducing H H Holmes at the start of the fair, Larson easily weaves that tale through to the end of the book to the disastrous resolution.  Because it is a mystery I do not want to spoil the tale for other readers by revealing much here.  But even with this, Larson gives us history of how the term psychopath evolved in 1885 in the Pall Mall Gazette which described it as a new malady stemming from what had previously been described as "moral insanity"  done by "moral imbeciles."

The author writes in his introduction to his Notes and Sources, "The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city's willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world's fair in the first place.  The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions.  The more I read about the fair, the more entranced I became.  That George Ferris would attempt to build something so big and novel--and that he would succeed on his first try--seems, in this day of liability lawsuits, almost beyond comprehension."

This book is a 5 *****; history and mystery conveyed in  wonderfully chosen vocabulary, words to dwell with.  I absolutely enjoyed it.   I would be an outstanding movie, but likely loose much in the showing.  There is nothing like a well written book to inform and tell a story and Erik Larson does so superbly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Let's Roll by Lisa Beamer

I have transferred this review which I wrote in 2010 from my other blog, where for some reason it has been attracting spammers.  (This is the third older post which I've pulled from my first blog, the other two are sitting as drafts for a time, one from 2009.  The pesky spammers are from Turkey, Korea, Russia and God knows where; fortunately because they are focusing on previously published  posts on  which  publication of their solicitous comments requires my approval,  so I simply mark them as spam and  then  set the post as draft.   I wish that Blogger had  the block feature but it does not. ) Well I finally had to bloc the ability to post comments anonymously and that took care o the problem.  Of course it locks out those who do not have a URL as well, se la guerre!

Let's Roll by Lisa Beamer, wife of Todd Beamer, a 9-11 Hero on Flight  93that  crashed near Somerset, PA is an excellent, easy  faith filled read that was released in 2002.   I marvel at this young woman's strength, she,  who is living proof of the benefit of a life long faith.  Only a few pages into the book reveal  that her strength comes from her very deep solid Christian faith.  To lose her husband that way while she was pregnant with their daughter and raising two young sons and to remain steadfast in  faith in God is her testimony.  The book is simply  written , assistance by Ken Abraham, a professional writer.  However, Lisa is not just a simple stay at home mom as she claims; she is an educated woman  who has traveled to foreign countries, a professional who was employed by  Oracle as was Todd before they had their first son. They met when both were attending Wheaton College.  She has joined that elite but Job like club of those of us who have been tested by a loss beyond what we life long believers should have to endure and she has  pulled on her  strength from her faith, the only way we make it.

I have seen Lisa on TV interviews and  admire her.  I know she will survive and thrive because she has it all pulled together with strong support of wonderfully close family and outstanding church friends.  True friends in faith are the best kind! The book is 312 pages and at the end   she scripts the names of all those  who were on Flight 93.  Romans 11:33-36 is one of her spiritual sources; she has memorized much scripture being  a lifelong believer.

Back cover of book

My heart went out to her reading  the book.  On  pg 287 she asks "why would God allow the baby to be  born without a father?"  Or why did  God allow her to get pregnant when He knew Todd would not be alive?  She answers that, again with faith,  pgs. 287 and 288 " I know the only answer was to trust God to provide everything I needed.  .....He was teaching me that I could trust Him  moment by moment even for mundane needs....."   She shares the story of weeding and her friend showing up just when she needed her, an example of how God can  answer in the smallest way.  I have had that same  experience many times through my life from a  phone call at the right  time to an email to a card in the mail to an old friend  from long ago showing up again in my life.  Serendipity of faith rewarded..

More than 45 widows of the September 11 attack had given birth by the time Morgan Beamer, their daughter  was born.  This is striking to me because  you know I was born to a young widow and never knew my father, a WWII pilot whose plane went down months  prior to my birth.   I know that Lisa and her children will be more than OK in life.  She is  balancing sadness with hope.   She has established the Todd Beamer Foundation which has as its  purpose "seeks to equip children experiencing family trauma to make heroic choices every day.  

This is an excellent book for Christian women to read.  I picked it up at Book Sale and will share it with others now.  I have kept special prayers for all the surviving families of 9/11 victims.  Don't even get me started about the mosque proposed to be built  in New York at ground zero. 

Addendum,  my book  club read this in 2011 at my suggestion and all gave it 4 or 5 stars.  To me it is a 4 star. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

American Elegy by Jeffrey Simpson

Front cover, notice the compliment
by McCullough
American Elegy by Jeffrey Simpson is a  rare  lifetime book as well as  a model of how to write a family memoir so that people who never knew your family will want to read it.  At a concise, 227 pages, this story published in 1997 is one of the best books I have read period.  And if you read  here you know I have read great  books, works by McCullough and more.  I might be smitten because I have not read much about our Pennsylvania home town, and by a contemporary;  although Jeffrey (I feel I know him now but did not before) focuses on Parnassus, which was merged into New Kensington and out in the country around there.  That was not my neighborhood growing up as Mom and  grands had moved up the hills to Catalpa.  My great uncle Bill Austin did live in Parnassus with his wife, Louise for whom I was given my middle name.  Even though Parnassus did not exist as a separate town, old habits and haunts of home do not fade and still today some of us  recognize what was Parnassus.  Sadly today it is desolate and dreary like most of the downtown New Kensington of which is was a  sideboard and has been decimated by cruder inhabitants, low lifer's who are an insult to the old town and once grandly built and maintained  homes now in shambles.  My friend Carlie sent me this book for my birthday with some hints about who was who because Jeffrey did fictionalize names for some of the  people and places. Some needed no explanation, I knew immediately who the Martinelli's were, the syndicate family that kept New Kensington safe for all of us back in our day just as I knew that the Titanic was the old Kinloch coal mine. Some are not changed, such as the drive down Coxcomb Hill, immediately recoznizable to a local, even a transplanted like me.  Carlie was reminded about this work on her visit to a friend in Chautauqua and I am so grateful that she made that trip and shared with me.

Jeffrey Simpson is one superb writer, he knows how to use words, and not just ordinary trite words.  His descriptions reverberate with exquisite language  a tribute to his ancestors and family who told him these stories and to his own experiences for a short time in the old family area.  Although  his parents moved to Pittsburgh in his early years, they returned for family visits each Sunday to Parnassus to the home of two maiden aunts.  His stories begin with an ancestor in 1792, Mary,  aka Massy,  Harbison who is abducted by Indians and sees her family not only murdered but scalped.  I do not recall her story despite learning about the Indians and the early settlers from elementary school at Third Ward.  I understand, from Carlie that the Massy Harbison cabin has been restored and is standing today near the high school.  This flows along like the Puckety Creek and Allegheny Rivers up to his parents' last days in a nursing home. 

Back cover
I disliked having to put this book down, much like I did  reading both O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln and Kennedy books, indicative of how enveloping the book becomes.  It may be available on Amazon today and has been sold in Canada and Australia.  Jeffrey has written for Architectural Digest, or a similar type magazine but he would do us all a favor by writing more personal tales.  Some stories of his family resounded with familiarity of my own, even though they were staunch Presbyterians (aspiring if not achieved WASPs) and mine just as staunch Catholics whom the Presbys considered unknown to God, and the Catholics felt the same about all Protestants.  Hearing his stories about the grand parents farm, and the country setting resounded of my family, especially my aunt Jinx who generally referred to "way out in the country" long after the autos made it a short doable drive. So much similarity in memories is attributable to that wonderful area of New Kensington that made us all who we are today.  But enough of my interludes.

From the first page to the last, the  descriptions and language flow along, like the Allegheny River there along New Kensington.  There are  no duplicate trite words and each description suitably adapts and gives the reader a presence of the personalities and the events.  The family tragedies kept almost secret and not discussed are typical of the times and not unique to his family. 

Selecting a few quotes from this writing is a challenge.  If I were not going to pass this book along to another friend, I would have hilited so extensively on pages for the words worth reading that the book would appear to be printed on a canary not paper.   Here are but a few examples....and some of my impressions. 

Page 70..".life seems to have flowed into the mainstream of Parnassus life, the voices multiply and the pictures called up by the voices are as multitudinous and varied as the quickly moving scenes of a magic lantern show flickering across a sheet hung up in the back parlor for a children's party."  Memories of the past and  our stories arise and can overtake us, there is so much back there to hear, observe and know.

Page 72....".Again, that was all; the black heavy newsprint with its old-fashioned smudged edges on the yellow paper, not much more durable than a soap bubble."    Now that's some description of fading! 

Pg 73 where his mother describes how she dreaded when a bird flies into a window,  it means death is the same prophecy my Mom had and why she would not allow the birds to nest under the awning  eaves of her front porch.  Here is another familiarity of the thinking of the area over generations and amongst people who never knew each other.  I  thought the omen of death when a bird pecked at the window was a Polish legend, not so.

Pg 103.."she shook her umbrella slightly.  It was a grey drizzly day, with leaves stuck like wet newspaper to the slate sidewalks of the old town.  Murky light, which obscured rather than illuminated, filled every corner of the hall like fog."  This book reminded me about the old slate streets, do any exist anywhere anymore?  The old slates were the best to chalk up for a game of hopscotch.

Pg 117  ...."Aspiration and retribution, the fullness of life and punishment for it, were the oxymoronic companions of Western Pennsylvania life."   This is may be my favorite quote from the book and reminds me of my own family.... 

Pg 162..."The next afternoon I walked up to Monticello Hill, where Aunt Myra lived, climbing the worn cement steps, which mounted the bluff behind old Parnassus, shortcutting the switchback road angling across the cliff face.  ... sagged around the top of the hill in concentric circles.  Rows of 1920's bungalows tired as banners hanging in the VFW hall....."  We native sons and daughters will recognize this as the steps to Mt. Vernon whose name he has changed to Monticello. 

Page 219...."I had learned late in life, that you could usually harness anger and only release it for a full gallop when it suited you; it was a good tactic, but, as with many of my perceptions my performance fell far short of my knowledge, ..."  This certainly is admirable to channel and harness anger yet,  I like him do not match performance with knowledge.

 The book manifest qualities I treasure in writing:
      Outstanding literary vocabulary, punctuation and grammar;
      Enticing characters who are portrayed just right, not tediously detailed;
      Historically based;
      Something to which I absolutely relate. 

There it is  a 5 star read *****

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Game Change by Heilemann and Halperin

"Game Change"  was published in 2010, co-authored by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin was recommended by a friend who enjoys political discussion.  I  have always been intrigued by how Barack Husein Obama, a little known Senator from Illinois could best the Clinton political machine and rise to be elected President out of relative obscurity.  That friend  said it is all in this book, well she exaggerated or oversimplified but the book is very well written and revealing about the personalities in the 2008 election.  I read it about a month ago.  

 This book,  well worth reading at 436 pages, validates much of what I suspected, the  arrogance of the  president himself and his narcissism and the oldest adage that politics makes strange bed fellows.  It begins with the specious  initial campaign of the unknown Obama and ends with his first election and Hillary Cinton's acceptance as his Secretary of State.  I picked this  book up for only $3 at Big Lots, in PA on my travels and will be sending it along to another friend, in CA whose birthday is imminent.  I hope she reads it.  
Page 24, "  Precious few people in any walk of life could even faintly comprehend what had happened to him and what it meant.  But Hillary would understand completely, Obama's view of her husband was complicated, there was much about Bill Clinton and the creed of Clintonism that he admired, but also much that gave him pause...His feelings about Hillary were, however, more straightforward.  He'd liked her from the moment they met.  Obama was wonkier, more enthralled by policy than most people understood and he  saw in Hillary a kindred spirit.,...He wanted Hillary's assistance in the minefield stretched out before him. ..Clinton believed that success in the Senate required the sublimation of the ego..."

Page 25, "He could come across as cocky, that was for sure--and not just to people outside his circle.  He was smarter than the average bear, not to mention the average politician, and he not only knew it, but wanted to make sure that everyone else knew it too."  Recognize  who that is? 

 I learned some things from reading this book but primarily confirmed what I suspected.  I do not know why it never surged on the best seller's lists or if it did I was not aware of it then.  I confirmed that Axelrod who is still with Obama has been a long time operative in the liberal end of the  democratic party and  both Edwards and Obama were clients.  I learned that Rahm  Emmanuel, who would become  Obama's first chief of staff and then return  to Chicago to run for mayor was one of the few people in the campaign counseling both Obama and the Clintons.  I read of Hillary's betrayal and abandonment by the powers of her party, including the Kennedys who were swayed by their younger children all smitten by Obama.  As I suspected these movers and shakers and old time king makers wanted the Presidency and figured this articulate unknown could be the first black president.  

There is a lot of  detail about Obama's and Michelle's dislike for the Middle of the country as well as Hillary's disdain for Iowa.  

Page 251 describes "bitter people" as the Obama code name for  white working class voters, something I wonder about.  How about all those of that code who voted for him yet again, re-electing him?

The last part of the book covers the McCain Pailin campaign and immediately paints McCain as  erratic at best and downright crazy at first.  So if I had not been part of this I would have quickly gotten the idea that the Republicans had a losing team from the  beginning, I thought so too but supported them in the voting booth.  

Well we have now passed the 2nd election and are stuck with this Obama presidency for another 4 years.  I hope it will not be the undoing of the country but I think we are in for the worst with this narcissistic man and his wife.  Time will tell.     Too bad more people do not learn before they vote.  

  I give this book 4****  it is well worth reading.   

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Charleston by John Jakes

I appreciate historical fiction but I cannot believe that perhaps in my early 20's I might have enjoyed reading this book. I have matured considerably in my readings.  I picked this up for 50 cents at a book sale, with my renewed interest in Civil War era, and continued interest in the history of Charleston.  Well, it does have history for the less curious reader,  at several  times the author recites a litany of historical events by way of introducing a chapter or event in the book.  It is the saga attempt  about the fictitious Bell family  and follows them  from  the American Revolution  through the years after the Civil War.  I cannot believe I continued to slog through all 524 insipid pages, likely I kept expecting surely something will improve.  It reads like a mix of Danielle Steel and or other  prolific modern writers who churn out books that sell well.  There are hosts of characters and some are more interesting than others, but over all there were no surprises about outcomes to any of the personal tragedies, trials and triumphs.  It was a very fast read for me but I will not entertain myself  again with this author who is popular from his high sales.     I give this 2 ** and that is generous, I'm not awarding half stars.