Sunday, February 15, 2009

Having time to read

I've been working as a nighttime caregiver for the past two weeks, and it's given me more time for reading than I've had for a very long time. So, this week, I've read two books and am halfway through a third.

I get quickly frustrated when I go to write about the books I've read, however. I generally expect myself to know how to do anything I want to do, it's a significant shadow of mine. And so I expect myself to know how to write a good book review, and I really don't. I knew how at one time, and in order to get good at it again, I'd need to get into the habit of reading well-written book reviews as I used to.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is a book that came highly recommended by several people, and I enjoyed it enough to consider reading it a second time. It's about the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago (called Columbian because it was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World). It was what we today would call a world's fair, and a significant event in the life both of Chicago and of the United States at the time. The planners, who included Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, wanted to outdo the Paris Exposition of several years earlier and wanted to show Europe that America could hold its own in culture and magnificence.

The devil to which the title refers is the subject of the book's other primary story, of America's first documented serial killer, a man who used the name H.H. Holmes, who killed between 10 and 230 people during the same period of time as the Exposition, some of them visitors to Chicago for the fair. It's uncertain how many people he managed to kill because, as amazing as it sounds, he had his own crematorium as well a lime pit in the basement in which he could dissolve the bodies of his victims. One of the most stunning things about Larson's story is that so many people who encountered Holmes and fulfilled his bizarre construction plans for a crematorium and torture chambers never thought to question why he wanted them.

Larson's style is enjoyable, full of factual detail and a degree of suspense without resorting to the kind of hypnotic obsessiveness that makes The DaVinci Code a spellbinding page-turner, and that's a good thing. I won't qualify this review as a rave because I think the book suffers badly from a lack of photos and useful maps. As Larson talks about the design and construction of each of the Exposition's buildings and features, it would have been most helpful to have a map to follow, and the lack of photos was really puzzling. (I was able to find a slideshow of photos of the Exposition online today here, which was very satisfying.) The Exposition site was huge and complex, and even after looking at the photos it's hard to grasp how the pieces fit together. A map, a map, my kingdom for a map!

Next, I read Marley and Me, a copy of which I found on a bookshelf at the facility where I'm caregiving. I'd heard some reference to it recently, possibly about it being made into a movie, so I picked it up even though I'm not a "dog person" and haven't read very many pet stories, with the exception of James Herriot's books. I enjoyed Marley and Me very much, and in some ways even more than Herriot's work because author John Grogan doesn't manipulate or skew the plot of each episode in his relationship with Marley in order to maximize suspense or sentiment. There are times when a Herriot story begins to strain credibility, and Grogan's style is by contrast so candid that it's entirely believable. There are a few really touching moments in the book, too, which brought tears to my eyes.

I'm halfway through True Believer by Nicholas Sparks, which I'm feeling a bit guilty about reading. I loved the movie The Notebook, based on another of his books, but was appalled at the style when I tried to read the novel and gave it up. The style of this one is less annoying but the characters are pretty shallow and they don't act in a very consistent way. It's an unabashed romance, though, and I haven't read a regular romance in a long time, and it's fun, lightweight reading.


Rosemary Carstens said...

Alyce: You DO TOO know how to review a book! As you know, I read a ton of books, partly because I'm obsessed and partly because I am the editor of FEAST, my ezine about books and other cultural stuff. I rarely read reviews of books because too many reviewers, in my opinion, for both books and film are men and their sensibilities are just different than mine in terms of what moves me. When you write about what emotional impact a book has on you, you are writing all there is. The only point that matter for the reader is how it feels to him or her. If it feels important, it is, because we view all our reading, all our film watching, through the lens, the frame, of our own experiences and life. No one else's opinion really matters. I found your response to these three books really interesting.

Alyce Barry said...

Thanks so much for this comment, it's very nice to hear. I've been finding it hard to articulate what I thought about these books as I've been reading them, and as a result feeling clueless and wordless in writing about them. Which I think would improve if I read more reviews, whether on blogs or wherever. I'm about halfway through the 7th Harry Potter book and not enjoying it at all; her writing style is even worse than usual, her plot even more contrived than usual, her character development nonexistent as usual, and I'm reading it only to find out what happens. Quelle disappointment.