Book lovers get most of their best books from other book lovers, and with that universal truth in mind, we invited Scene writers to offer selections from their recent earlier season discoveries. Enjoy.
Providing a peek into the mind of a certified psycho, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America is a chillingly thorough work of true-crime reportage that’s destined to become a nonfiction classic. In this Gilded Age period piece, Larson expertly reconstructs the stranger-than-fiction events surrounding the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition that drew almost 28 million visitors and introduced novelties like Pabst Beer, Cracker Jack and Shredded Wheat to America’s incipient consumer culture.
The Fair was the nation’s chance to show its stuff, an opportunity to outshine the Old World opulence of the 1889 Paris Expo, where the Eiffel Tower made its audacious debut as the tallest structure in the civilized world. Conceived at a time when everything hadn’t already been done, when folks still lived in a world of firsts, the Fair’s grounds and attractions were designed to dazzle. The complex logistics of building the Fair in the Windy City take up part of Larson’s book, and he makes the process compelling by focusing on the bigwigs involveda combustive group of willful, flint-tempered visionaries, including eminent architect Daniel Burnham and crotchety genius Frederick Law Olmsted.
But even as their plans for construction commenced, a nightmare was unfolding not far from the fairgrounds. Dr. H. H. Holmes, a serial killer posing as a physician, had built the strangely labyrinthine World’s Fair Hotel, equipped it with a gas chamber and crematorium, and set about luring tourists to their deaths. Deucedly seductive, Holmes had little trouble attracting prey, especially pretty young women. No one knows exactly how many people he tortured and killed27 at least; 200 at mostalthough he did sell some of the bodies for research purposes.
Larson captures perfectly the psyche of his villainthe practiced charm, the deviousness, the unnerving ease with which he snuffed out life. Alternating between Holmes’ hideous doings and the planning of Burnham and his cohorts, he builds suspense and tension, presenting a novelistic history of a country coming of age. Clipped and energetic, his sentences feel, well, Midwestern. His is a spirited, staccato prose style that reflects the sky’s-the-limit, can-do attitude of the era.
Throughout The Devil in the White City, Larson delights in the play of opposites, contrasting darkness and light, good and evil, repression and freedom, spinning a narrative that showcases the nation at its best and worst. The most remarkable thing about this book of marvels, though, is that every bit of itfrom the U. S. map made entirely of pickles featured at the Fair to the unspeakable end of Holmes’ final victimis true.
What Mil Millington’s Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in laughs. As the title implies, arguments between Millington’s hapless protagonist and his girlfriend comprise the meat of the noveland deliver tear-inducing laughter. Unfortunately, Millington’s story is full of bluster but no direction and consequently slows down between the uproarious dialogue. Nevertheless, men and women (especially those in long-term relationships) will find the characters far too familiar, and the arguments dead-on.
On the other hand, though Lily Burana’s memoir Strip City has its funny moments, it is overall a sober retelling of her farewell tour across America as a stripper. Before getting married (and already knee-deep in her writing career), Buranawho had worked as a stripper through collegedecided she wanted to travel across the country working a club in every state as an exotic dancer. Her dry, journalistic tone sometimes slows the pace, but simultaneously manages to suck any excess glamour out of the profession, as well as inject it with much needed humanity. Her tone balances out her personal, emotional journey with the historical perspective on stripping, as well as the stories of those with whom she intersects. Like a good documentary, Strip City takes a subject of great interest, destroys one’s preconceptions about it and provides a fresh, personal perspective.
Villa Incognito’s plotlineif such a term is applicable hereswirls out from the hedonistic proclivities of its central framing character: the Tanuki, a mythical Asian badger known for shape-shifting and trickster behavior. Bestselling author Tom Robbins’ latest novel imaginatively connects this furry, scrotally well-endowed anti-hero to a group of Vietnam-era MIA’s who have chosen to remain in Laos, where they indulge in their own pleasure-seeking activities and philosophical anarchism. Add to this a family of threateningly independent Japanese women with Tanuki blood in their veins, and you have the makings of Villa Incognito’s multi-layered worlda place where circus performers, bad Elvis impersonators and well-meaning prostitutes mix wildly in a roller-coaster ride of reinvention and sly social commentary.
In some ways, Robbins’ meta-plots, abrupt scene changes and time machine tactics are comparable to those practiced by current hot-property screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation.). Unlike Kaufman, however, whose postmodern time and space-warps often seem like lazy, cynical attempts to fill minutes, Robbins’ attention-deficient style is purposive and highly imaginative. At one point, for example, the author leaves his characters seemingly in the lurch in order to pursue a lengthy and detailed descriptive paean to mayonnaise that includes the following:
“Mayonnaise is France’s gift to the New World’s muddled palate, a boon that combines the cellular warmth of pure fat with the modern, romantic fondness for complex flavors...it projects the luster that we astro-orphans have identified with well-being ever since we fell from the stars.”
Rather than being a distraction, these elegantly written, tangential pages serve to illuminate his character’s humanity. When Robbins finally returns to his narrative, you understand exactly why the character in question, a confused, southern-born MIA named Dickie, misses his favorite sandwich dressing.
Anyone who hates Robbins’ work needn’t bother with Villa Incognito. If anything, the author’s absurdism is even more head-spinning in this book than in his previous narrative send-upsand that’s bound to irritate readers who prefer a more linear plot line. However, fans of Robbinswho’s achieved near rock star status in certain circleswill find the author’s familiar tone and erudite unpredictability just as applicable to Villa Incognito’s themes of identity and disguise as they were to feminine freedom in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and immortality in Jitterbug Perfume.
Paul V. Griffith
Yes, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is a big, fat, made-for-the cineplex blockbuster, but it’s also one of the most erudite pulp thrillers you’ll ever read. Brown weaves enough art history detours and religious symbolism into his infectious, real-time whodunit to make readers from all camps feel wanted, and, by the twisty end, smarter. Beyond just the creepy murder in the Louvre that kicks off all the action, you also get a villainous, cartoonish French police captain, Catholic secret societies, myriad breakneck chase scenes, an obscenely corpulent and homicidal albino figure and some rather complex and theologically provocative conspiracy theories. All of which makes Da Vinci Code that rare specimen: the hard-back beach book.
The Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is profoundly strange and moving. Its chief protagonists are a 16-year-old boy from French India and a 450-pound Bengal tiger, both shipwrecked and later marooned together in perilously close quarters. With traces of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Martel’s often harrowing, fable-like narrative is steeped in fantasy. It’s also replete with meaning, wonderment and exceptionally great sentences.
Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs and Binion’s World Series of Poker by James McManus is really two (incredible) books in one. The central story concerns the author’s experience participating, and, against heavy odds, advancing, into the deep rounds at the annual World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. At the same time, McManus spins a true crime supplement into the mix as he reports from the ongoing local murder trial of Ted Binion, offspring to the family that created the high-stakes event. Told in concert, the sections play off each other brilliantly, culminating in a nail-biting third act that would rival most any novel. With plenty of sex, intrigue, violence and suspense, this is not just a book about cards.
In Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, follows-up nicely with this equally well-reported exposé of the contradictions and hypocrisies surrounding pot, porn and illegal immigrants. Told in three long-form essays, Schlosser sheds light on our government’s murky moral compass; the genesis of such arbitrary life-breakers as the “zero tolerance” policy; and an underground free market that presently comprises an estimated 10-percent of our total economy. Riveting.
Also recommended: The part biography, part Pacific Rim travelogue Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz; the equally globetrotting-inspired essays of the breezy and pessimistic Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It by Geoff Dyer; the 50 compelling, if decidedly somber, career crisis profiles collected in What Should I Do With My Life? by Po Bronson; and the drug-infused, free ’70s love fest story of Alaska-set period novel Drop City by T.C. Boyle.
Railroad memorabilia gets more attention, but some people are just as passionate about airline souvenirs. Carl Reese, for example, has 70,000 airline safety cardsthose plastic cards telling passengers what to do in the event of an emergency. His collection forms the basis of Design for Impact: Fifty Years of Airline Safety Cards, which features page after page of almost ghostly, glowing images of safety cards suspended on black backgrounds. (Note how many discourage removing the cards from the plane.) Swedish graphic designers Eric Ericson and Johan Pihl gave the book its great look, but the real star of the project might be the text of Elias Modig. Interspersed through the collection is a brief history of powerhouses Boeing, DeHavilland and Douglas and the 707s, Comets and Constellations that transformed air travel from great adventure to high luxury to common experience.
British filmmaker/ producer/ director Chris Petit applied the concept of six degrees of separation to history and world events when writing his espionage novel The Human Pool. The result, when combined with a couple of plausible conspiracy theories, is a genuinely creepy thriller. In the story, former spook Hoover is pulled out of retirement when a mysterious book arrives at his Florida home, luring him back to Europe. He soon finds himself retracing his late WWII movements attempting to wrap up details of business he considered long finished and encountering people he assumed long dead. Hoover teaches his protégé Vaughn to be suspicious of every neatly concluded war and cynical about official history.
Relatively tiny Britain at one time ruled a vast empire, thus leaving its markranging from a fondness of tea and cricket to educational systems to the prevalence of the English languageon countries around the world. In Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and Lessons for Global Power, historian Niall Ferguson discusses how Britain got so mightyand what happened next. He covers a lot of ground in short order, which makes the book read like a college history text at times. Still, it’s a worthy read with a wonderful introduction, in which Ferguson lays out the pros and cons of British imperialism and discusses how it affected his own family. Now that nation-building and occupation is once again a hot topic, Empire takes a candid look at one the most significant influences in world history and dares to ask whether it was such a bad thing.
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