Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Nevermore: Christopher Hitchens, Cold Comfort Farm, Devil in the White City

The first book up for discussion was God is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens.  Hitchens, who died in 2011, was known for his keen intellect, wit, ability as a debater and his strong opinions on a variety of subjects.  He had particularly strong views on religion, as can probably be discerned from the title of the book.  God Is Not Great reflects Hitchens’ cynical views that all religions are designed to limit believers’ independence and that organized religions promoted hatred. Our reviewer said that it was interesting to read because Hitchens’ arguments are of a sort that is seldom heard, whether or not one agreed with those arguments. In fact, Hitchens had a number of religious friends with whom he had lively, non-combative debates.

Another reader was enjoying Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.  Set in the “near future” and written in the 1930s, this is a satirical look at class and at a literary tradition.  Flora Poste is an educated, fashion conscious, upper class young lady whose parents perish within a few weeks of one another, leaving her to fend for herself—something for which she is not quite prepared, especially if it involves getting a job. She moves in with relatives who own a farm but not, alas, one of those happy, sun-kissed farms populated by robust, cheerful folk.  Instead, it lives up to its name of “Cold Comfort.”  Flora decides to take everyone in hand and fix their lives.  It’s a clash between sophisticated and country folk, with eccentric characters and, yes, a madwoman in the attic.  While it’s a difficult book to categorize, our reader said, “It’s a really fun book!”

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is the story of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. It’s also the story of a notorious serial killer who used the allure of the fair to bring in victims.  Larson has a gift for evoking a time and place through wonderful details, and his research is thorough.  He can make seemingly dull subjects both vibrant and relevant.  This is non-fiction that reads almost like fiction. Our reader was very impressed, and several other members commented on his marvelous style as seen in books such as Isaac’s Storm and In the Garden of Beasts, both of which had been discussed in earlier meetings.

The Nevermore Book Club meets every Tuesday at 11:00 am in the Frances E. Kegley Conference Room.  Readers talk about whatever book it is that they’re reading at the time. Coffee is provided by the library, and doughnuts are courtesy of the fabulous Blackbird Bakery!  Feel free to stop by and join us.

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Reviewed by Jeanne

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is in part the story of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the "White City" of the title. Chicago was stretching its muscles, vying for a place not just on the national stage against New York, but for a piece of the international spotlight.  Paris had just hosted a very successful Fair, one in which an enormous tower built by Gustav Eiffel had captured the world’s imagination.  Now the United States wanted to do the same thing.  Several cities were competing for the chance to take center stage and prove that America was as innovative, as cosmopolitan, and as prosperous as any country in Europe. New York was the obvious choice, as it already had a reputation as an international city but other places begged to differ.

Chicago was one.  Chicago was a robust city, famed for its slaughterhouses and its industry, and it was ready to prove that it could be a sophisticated metropolis on a par with the East Coast cities.  When Chicago was awarded the Fair, architect Daniel Burnham was named the director.  It was his job to bring a unified vision to the Fair, properly the World’s Fair:  Columbian Exposition.  Burnham brought in Frederick Law Olmstead, the elderly but influential landscape architect, along with a number of other architects, inventors, engineers, and vendors in order to realize their goal.

While this may not sound like the most exciting of endeavors, Larson’s telling makes it so.  He has a knack for recreating a time and place.  Just as he did with Isaac’s Storm, Larson keeps readers on the edge of their seats wondering how something is going to unfold, even if we already know how it ends. One scene in particular resonated with me, when some brave souls step aboard an untried vehicle about to ascend hundreds of feet off the ground.  He captured the uncertainty, the thrill and the faith it took to try this for the first time EVER. Then there was the sheer number of new products and innovations that were introduced at the Fair, things that still influence us today, from foods, amusements, and the radical idea of putting electric lights on some of the buildings. The designs of the buildings and landscaping set the standard for municipal construction for years to come, for better or (in some views) for worse.

Oh, and did I mention there was a serial killer on the loose?

In fact, some have described this book as a sort of dual biography, comparing and contrasting Daniel Burnham, man with a glorious vision of what a city should be, with one Herman Webster Mudgett aka H.H. Holmes who came to Chicago with a different but no less ambitious agenda.  Holmes was just as thorough, just as creative, and with his own vision of perfection: his just involved murdering people for pleasure and for profit. One of the surprises for me was just how modern some of his ideas were-- very effective and efficient.

Unlike many true crime books, Larson doesn’t wallow in the gory details, though he doesn't shy away from them, either.  He presents the facts as well as he could learn them; he says in his notes that the times he had to speculate he did so based on information from the best available sources.  His restraint makes the retelling no less powerful or chilling.  

Larson has a gift for evoking a time and place through wonderful details, and his research is thorough.  He can make seemingly dull subjects both vibrant and relevant.  This is non-fiction that reads almost like fiction. In short, I highly recommend Devil in the White City.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Series rule!

Comments by Jeanne

Or so it seems, anyway!  Readers do enjoy following a particular character from book to book, and this September  will see a bumper crop of returning favorites.

Catherine Coulter teamed up with J.T. Ellison to start a spin-off of her very popular FBI series about a Scotland Yard detective stationed in the U.S.  The Final Cut came out last year to good reviews. The new book will be The Lost Key. Some of our local readers also recommend books by Coulter’s co-author, so you may want to check out some of Ellison’s other books while you wait for this one.

Reacher fans who have been waiting anxiously for the next book after the twists of Never Go Back will have curiosity satisfied when Personal by Lee Child hits the shelves.

Philippa Gregory brings her “Cousins’ War” series to a conclusion with The King’s Curse. Margaret Pole was an intimate of Katherine of Aragon, first meeting her when Katherine was married to Arthur, Prince of Wales who died some six months after the wedding. Margaret becomes one of Katherine’s ladies-in – waiting when Katherine marries her former brother in law when he takes the throne as Henry VIII. Gregory has a real gift for making historical figures into flesh and blood people, making her one of the most popular current historical novelists.

Several authors have picked up characters from Robert B. Parker following the author’s death in 2010. Ace Atkins picked up the Spenser novels and Michael Brandman took over the Police Chief Jesse Stone, producing three novels.  Now Reed Farrel Coleman is going to take up the challenge of writing a new Jesse Stone.  We’ll see how he does in September, when Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot comes out.

Speaking of characters picked up by other authors, Sophie Hannah will be resurrecting Hercule Poirot in an as yet untitled book.  According to an article in The Guardian, Agatha Christie’s estate selected Hannah to revive the series in hopes that it will bring new readers to Dame Agatha’s original books.  The only plot hints so far is that the book will be set in 1920s London. A few years back, Charles Osborne adapted a play by Christie as the Poirot novel Black Coffee, but Hannah's will be the first original book by someone other than Christie to feature the detective.

This is a good place to mention that another Golden Age detective has been revived for at least one book.  Albert Campion returns for Margery Allingham’s Mr. Campion’s Farewell by Mike Ripley.  After her death, Allingham’s husband Philip Youngman Carter had completed one of her books, then went on to write two Campions of his own.  He in turn left notes for another adventure, which form the basis of the Mike Ripley novel. The book is already out in England, but won’t be published in the U.S. until July.

Jill Paton Walsh has done another in her continuation of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane series. The Last Scholar takes the two back to Oxford where Peter wants to look in the disappearance of the Warden, who was to cast the deciding vote as to whether or not to sell some of the school’s assets. As with The Attenbury Emeralds, the story takes place in 1950s as the characters are adjusting to the changing times of post WW II England. The book is due out in June.

Another intriguing book for June is an anthology edited by David Baldacci entitled Faceoff.  This collection of stories pairs some of the most popular characters in thriller fiction in new stories written their creators:  Lee Child’s Jack Reacher meets Joseph Finder’s Nick Heller, Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme meets John Sanford’s  Lucas Davenport, and many more, including Linda Fairstein’s Alexandra Cooper, Lisa Gardner’s D.D. Warren, and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman

Reviewed by Jeanne

For decades, the name “Rockefeller” has been synonymous with wealth and power. John D. and William Rockefeller established Standard Oil Company in 1870, at a time when the petroleum industry was in its infancy.  Unlike many wealthy families, the Rockefellers have managed to hang on to most of their wealth, with succeeding generations following the philanthropic pattern set up by John D. 
Nelson Rockefeller, grandson of John D., opened the Museum of Primitive Art in New York to showcase the works of indigenous artists from around the world. Nelson’s son, Michael, went to New Guinea to find possible additions for the collection. He was working with a Dutch anthropologist filming, collecting data, and generally attempting to document native cultures.  On November 19, 1961, their pontoon boat was swamped.  After waiting some hours for help, Michael said, “I believe I can make it to shore.”  He swam off, and vanished.

The disappearance made headlines around the world.  Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York,   chartered a plane and flew to New Guinea to search for his son, but in vain:  no trace of Michael was ever found.  The questions lingered.  Did he drown?  Was he killed by a crocodile? A shark? Or was there a darker explanation?

That part of New Guinea was home to groups which practiced cannibalism as part of their rituals. The Dutch authorities insisted that such rituals had ended, and that the region was an emerging new nation eager to trade with the West. But rumors persisted.

Carl Hoffman, a journalist and award-winning travel writer, decided to retrace Michael’s ill-fated journey to see if he could uncover any facts about the case.  The book opens with what Hoffman believes to have happened to Michael; the rest of the book is an exploration of place and culture, along with a great deal of delving into Dutch archives. The surprises are not so much in revealing what Hoffman believes to have happened-- that scenario is presented early in the book-- but in how much was actually reported to officials at the time but suppressed.  The result is an interesting look at colonialism, international politics, the Asmat culture, and the Rockefeller family.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Nevermore Gets Happy, Happy, Happy, plus The Outcast Dead, Dead of Summer, and Sixth Extinction

The burning question for Nevermore members was, “Did she or didn’t she?”  Read Happy, Happy, Happy:  My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander by Phil Robertston, that is, which had been a challenge from the week before.  The answer was, “No,” but she gave it over thirty pages before she gave up. Every book is not for every reader.

Other books had a more enthusiastic reception.  The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths is the next in the series of Ruth Galloway novels, about a British forensic anthropologist who keeps ending up involved with murders, both current and historical.  Ruth is an appealing character who is happiest when she’s doing her job:  she’s extremely competent and finds her work fascinating.  She’s less comfortable in other situations, seeing herself as awkward both physically and socially.  In this entry, Ruth has uncovered some remains which may be the body of a notorious woman who was executed for murdering children back in the 1800s—a woman Ruth believes may have been innocent.  Meanwhile, DCI Nelson is investigating a case of suspicious infant deaths.  Griffiths’ books are notable for the interesting characters and strong sense of place as well as the plots.

Another mystery with a good review is Dead of Summer by Mari Jungstedt, another of the “Nordic Noir” Scandinavian crime books which have become so popular following Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. In Jungstedt’s novel a man is brutally shot while out for a jog but there seems to be nothing in his background which could explain why someone would want to kill him.  His wife and children are devastated. Our reader said it was a great page turner, and hard to put down.  This was the first of Jungstedt’s novels that she’d read, but she was very impressed.

The rest of the meeting was devoted to The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, a book which has received a lot of attention lately.  Kolbert points out that “extinction” is a relatively new concept, dating back only to the time of Jefferson. There have been five previous “die-offs” in Earth’s history, the last being the dinosaurs, and she believes that we are in the midst of another.   Further,  this one is notable because it’s due to human factors instead of natural causes.  Not everyone agrees with her, as the reasons for extinctions are complex: there isn’t one single source that scientists can point to as THE cause, but rather a number of factors combined. Kolbert draws on experts from several different disciplines, including geology, botany, and biology, to make her case.  Our readers have found it a fascinating book.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Hot Dogs and Cocktails: When FDR Met King George at Hyde Park on Hudson by Peter Conradi

Reviewed by Jeanne

A few years back, there was a book entitled The Roosevelts and the Royals: Franklin and Eleanor, the King and Queen of England, and the Friendship That Changed History.  I didn’t recall ever hearing about such a close bond before and had good intentions to read the book, but as with most things I intend this didn’t happen in a timely manner.  The next time I thought about it was when I heard about the movie “Hyde Park on the Hudson,” which covered the same ground. I was rather underwhelmed by the film, but that’s a review for another time.  (See intentions, above.) Anyway, in the intervening decade or so, all copies of the book had disappeared and I was contemplating whether or not to use Inter-Library Loan when I found there was a new book out called Hot Dogs and Cocktails by Peter Conradi which covered the same territory. Also, I had previously read The King’s Speech by Conradi, a book which (surprise!) covered the events of a movie.  And yes, he admits in his introduction that his inspiration for this book was the movie.

The crux of the incident has more to do with symbolism than anything else.  It’s hard for some nowadays to remember that America’s ties with England were not nearly as warm as they are today; there was no “special relationship” as Churchill dubbed it in 1946.  This was 1939 and, after one world war, Americans were in no mood to go poking their noses in another European matter.  King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, two bright young things who had recently ascended the throne, were planning a North American visit to Canada. It was proposed that they make a detour to U.S. to garner some favorable publicity and to lay the groundwork for US interest and aid should Germany go to war with the UK.  After all, this would be the first time that a British monarch would visit the United States, not to mention one who only became king because his brother was besotted with a (gasp!) American (double gasp!) divorcee.  The idea was to showcase the King and Queen as two down-to-earth, unpretentious people with whom Americans could identify; hence the great Hot Dog Question.

During the early excited flurry of interviews about the upcoming visit, Eleanor had been asked what was to be served at the proposed outdoor “picnic.” The First Lady answered a bit offhandedly that they might serve hot dogs.  People were instantly agog, though the reaction was split between those who thought it an insult to offer royalty that ghastly common food and those who were delighted to think that royalty would enjoy something so American as a hot dog.

If you didn’t know Conradi was a Royalist at the beginning of the book, you certainly would before long.  King George VI and Queen Elizabeth are paragons of patience, good will, and family values.  At one point, the author remarks on the contrast of Roosevelt’s messy family life (strained relationship with his wife, affairs, overbearing mother) and the strong family ties of the Royals—which one can only do if omits most relationships outside of King, Queen, and daughters. There are several other such instances, but the author is so earnest that he apparently sees no contradiction. Nearly two thirds of the book is devoted to setting the stage for the historic meeting, such as some background on FDR and family, as well as the King’s stuttering and the Canadian part of the journey. Some of the most amusing parts are from Canadian, American, and British newspaper stories of the time, representing various viewpoints from charmed to offended.  Proving that some things never grow old, there was much discussion as to whether Americans would or should curtsy. 

In short, this is a fun little book, light on analysis and heavy on admiration.  Brew a pot of tea and pick up a scone from Blackbird and enjoy!