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Random words, pictures and thoughts of one who always wishes to be on the mind's road to discovery!

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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Chicago, White City and the Psychopath

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

After reading this book I said to my daughter, a history major, "Why do some authors have such a wonderful way of presenting history and others are soooo boring!". She laughed and said " some history teachers are that way, too. Some are so stimulating and others just put you to sleep!" Well, Erik Larson is definitely one of the former in both cases.

In trying to determine what makes his work so readable and interesting I came to the conclusion that he fleshes out the sources he uses. Rather than just describing the White City, a magnificent assemblage of white painted buildings designed by the top American architects of 1890's US on the shores of Lake Michigan outside Chicago, by quoting the various contemporary visitors' guides, he takes us through its planning and building step by step. The architects are physically described and their personalities brought to life in such a way that you feel as though you are one more of their company. The vivid description of 1890's Chicago and its competition with the East Coast cities, particularly New York, to prove itself more than a Midwest backwater primarily known for its slaughterhouses and manufacture of pig bristle brushes is vibrantly described.

Intertwined with the comparison of the real Chicago with its labor problems, filth and stench and the magnificent make believe heavenly streets, lagoons and elegant huge buildings is the story of the charming, handsome predator living just a stone's throw down the street from Fantasy Land. A man who built his own Castle or House of Horrors. The " doctor" who charmed young women, married a few and murdered and disposed of them all. His story is told in a very matter of fact way. It is horrible but not nightmare inducing. He was calm, gentle, seemingly caring and the tone lulls you into the same place his victims probably reached. A place of trust and involvement until the final moments of that relationship fade away into a gassed or choloroformed haze. After that the final desecration of the bodies seems horrifying. Until then I'd not given a very real thought about the source of the articulated human skeleton, the real one in my early years of teaching, that hung on a hook in the back of the room.

At the end, all is gone--the beautiful White City, but for one building which is now a museum amidst the lagoons and the architects and workmen and engineers. Thank goodness for that--the buildings were not left to fall down and the area to sit forlorn and deserted, like the sight of the Montreal Age of Man metal dome. The strange man who assassinated the mayor, Buffalo Bill who was not allowed to take part in the White City so bought land adjacent to it and thrived, and the sort of doctor who took the lives of countless women seeking to be free in a large city of excitement--all, too, are gone The story of their existence lives on, however, in echos of replication, in the buildings of other cities designed by these men and in the mind of anyone who reads this book.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Tale of Nature's Ability to Devastate and Humans' Ability to Recover and Rebuild

America's Deadliest Twister: The Tri-State Tornado of 1925America's Deadliest Twister: The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 by Geoff Partlow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having traveled through many parts of the US that have been devastated by tornadoes I was very interested in learning about the Tri-State Tornado of 1925:America's Deadliest Twister, a Goodreads First reads giveaway. I was overwhelmed by the size of the storm, sometimes a mile across; its speed of travel, up to a mile a minute; the distance it covered; 219 miles, the number of deaths,695 people, many children; the incredible wind speed, at times exceeding 300 miles per hour!!; and the unbelievable devastation of towns, villages and cities. The details, taken from newspaper accounts, interviews with people in their 90's who had been elementary school children in 1925, and the reports and statements of people in authority at the time, were so intense and real that it left me feeling that no one who experienced this event could ever recover from its horror. If you have ever seen the opening black and white sequences of The Wizard of Oz showing the cyclone that transported Dorothy and Toto to the land of Oz, you might have an inkling of just a millisecond of this disaster.

Overwhelming in its detailed descriptions of death, and the randomness of it; the recovery of bodies, their preparation for burial, the sheer number of funerals; it is also incredibly uplifting in the descriptions of heroism, and neighborly care shown to the survivors. The author follows the path of the storm from its opening attack in Annapolis, Missouri to its final throes near Petersburg, Indiana. It began at 1 pm March 18,1925 and had done all its damage by 4:30 pm ! Three and one half hours to turn wooden homes into kindling, collapse brick buildings into chaotic piles of brick and, in other areas, to totally scour the landscape of any evidence of inhabitance whatever.

In the days, when Calvin Coolidge and most Americans did not feel the Federal government should be in the business of the recovery of towns and large swaths of the nation through the action of Nature, corporations, folks from neighboring towns, The Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Churches and Hospitals, survivors all pulled together and waiving any remuneration rolled up their sleeves and mobilized to get things back together. A woolen mill in New Hampshire sent tons of blankets to he area; Jewel Tea company sent thousands of pounds of coffee to the Red Cross for distribution; the railroads put train cars at the disposal of those needing to be transported to hospitals in larger cities; casket manufacturers sent hundreds of caskets to the towns. None of these things came with invoices then or later.

Yet, there were those afoot who would attempt to benefit from the conditions. Militia, State Police, Army forces were sent to protect women and young girls who might become prey to ill-minded males; to protect the bodies of mothers and wives that were looted for their gold wedding bands and other jewelry. Insurance companies attempted to avoid paying claims stating that wind had caused damage in areas where fire and flood insurance should have covered the buildings that burnt to the ground, sometimes with people trapped within them, or that were washed away by the already swollen rivers that flooded with the rains brought by the storm. The head of the Recovery Commission sent personal letters asking for donations to help rebuild schools to some of the richest Americans: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Russell Sage, Julius Rosenwald-a Sears, Roebuck partner- John D. Rockefeller. None of them acknowledged receipt of the plea but for Rockefeller who sent $5000!

The aftermath of the storm described at the end of the book makes it all the sadder. The Depression set in soon after and then, as the times moved on with paved roads, the rise of environmental concerns about the use of coal, the development of the automobile, the primary sources of employment--the coal mines, the railroad and the intercity trollies--all closed down. As a result, much of the area has never truly returned to the economic status it once had. One town never rebuilt, another is a ghost town and in other places the physical scars remain, if fading.

An emotionally moving book, well written, hard to put down.

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Monday, May 26, 2014

Willie Black is The New Damon Runyon--Or At Least An Old-Fashioned Newspaper Guy

Parker FieldParker Field by Howard Owen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A former minor league baseball player in his seventies is shot with a high powered rifle and is lying in a hospital bed clinging to life. No one can figure out who would want to shoot Les, an unassuming, kind man who does not seem to have any enemies. When it is discovered that an addled former military man, now homeless, appears to have broken into a vacant condo and shot him, Les' sort of adopted son decides to investigate.
Willie Black is a newspaper man, heavy drinker and three time loser in the marital game. Listening to Les' buddy, Jimmy, talk about the old days and the team members and a team groupie, not so affectionately called Fannie Fling, Willie decides to do a piece on the old starting line up of Les' old team, the Richmond Vees. He soon discovers that a number of the old guys are dead, their deaths, in some instances, rather premature and, in others, somewhat suspicious.
Connecting with the younger sister of one of his boyhood friends, Cindy Peroni, Willie heads out to interview the kids, widows and ex-wives of some of the deceased as well as the one other remaining Vee. What he discovers brings him to death's door and the solution to a puzzle he didn't know existed.
Fast moving, surprising, interesting, amusing and sad this slim volume is the perfect rainy Sat afternoon read. Going to look for more Willie Black stories--he's a good old fashioned story teller, that guy. Think he has printers' ink for blood.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Debut Novel Not So Great; Second Effort Much, Much Better

JulietJuliet by Anne Fortier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was Anne Fortier's first book and, though I liked it, I found the characters difficult to keep straight. This was true especially in that portion of the book set in the present. Ms Fortier employs a style in which the action alternates between the present, in which a modern Juliet Jacobs is a descendent of Shakespeare's Juliet of Romeo and Juliet fame. This Juliet has a twin sister who has been a thorn in her side since birth and who has made her constantly feel inferior. They have been raised by an aunt in America, though they were born in Italy. Both parents died under suspicious circumstances and Aunt Rose brought the girls to the States to protect them from some danger she has never revealed to them. Now, Aunt Rose has died. She's left her estate to Janice but through her lawyer she has left Juliet a supposed treasure which is in a safe deposit box in Siena, Italy.

And so the stage is set for Juliet to go to Siena and retrieve this mysterious treasure. What she finds are a silver crucifix and documents dating back to the 14th century which seem to indicate that Shakespeare's story is based in fact but that he took some poetic license in its rendering. Seems the actual story took place in Siena, not Verona and there were three prominent families involved, not two. From this point onward the book moves back and forth between the present in which our Juliet is on the trail of the original Giulietta and her Romeo. There is a twin sister in the past also and several modern day descendents of the three families, all of whom either help or hinder or hinder or help, depending on any given day, our Juliet to solve the mystery of the treasure and lead her to her very own Romeo.

All works out in the end,without suicide by poison or dagger, but it is a long slog that sometimes gives the reader a headache. If you want to read a really amazing book by this author try her second--The Lost Sisterhood, which I have also reviewed.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Another Page in the History of JFK

JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the PresidencyJFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency by John T. Shaw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was a first reads giveaway. Back in my freshman year of college, 1959-1960, a flurry of activity and tittering took place among us young women in the main gathering place of the Administration Building called Crossroads. It seems that the young Democratic candidate for the presidency and his pregnant young wife had stopped briefly outside the gates of the Mt St Vincent campus to say a few words to all us young Catholic girls, mostly too young to vote but also mostly giggly in the presence of this handsome, movie star-like creature and his " beautiful" wife. Many of the girls in Crossroads ran up the hill in their Pendleton skirts, twin sets, pearls and saddle shoes to bask in the glow of his charm. I did not. I found the whole spectacle shallow and phony and did not find myself at all under the spell of the new Camelot.

I was 16 then and, other than feeling a terrible sense of disbelief at his assassination when I was in physics class during graduate school several years later, JFK didn't enthrall, interest or impress me throughout his presidency. Having been rather young during his Senate years and knowing very little about them I entered the giveaway thinking that, perhaps, his greatness lay in his Congressional career and not only in the unfortunate method of his death. Well, no. But I discovered that what my initial impressions of his fame were true. He was smart, there is no doubt. I don't think dumb men become President, no matter the comments about some of his successors. But, more importantly to his success, in my opinion ( and this book does little to change it ) was his father's money and connections. Both these things enabled him to make all his little trips throughout Europe--getting through Nazi Germany in 1939, for example--and Asia with meetings with prominent people everywhere he went. What was his claim to fame? That he was an undergrad at Harvard or that he was the American ambassador- to- England's eldest son?

How is it possible that his senior thesis was published and became a best seller AND, interestingly, won the Pulitzer Prize when it wasn't even suggested to the selection committee by anyone. Oh, those Kennedy dollars and may it be added the assistance of heavy editing by others than JFK. The book goes on the show that his greatest strength on his own was his ability to choose a good speech writer and surround himself with excellent staff to do research for him and flesh out historical anecdotes and pithy jokes so that he was able to give speeches so filled with quotes, jokes and stories that they overwhelmed the listeners with words that basically entertained but offered no real meaning. History lessons given by an appealing looking charming Irishman with a Boston accent. He got himself elected to Congress at a time that a whole generation was reaching voting age. They looked upon the sitting President and the next, Truman and Eisenhower, as old men from a different generation and they were. They were tired having led the country through a harrowing War successfully and they were serious men and grave. Not young joking men with a cute wife and sparkling eyes,who seemed just like them, ready for a brand new world.

Having once reached Congress the real business could begin--get his name in the papers, on radio, on TV. Use charm and wit, utilize the machine surrounding him, Daddy's money and influence and get this show to the White House on the road. The most interesting part of the book, which deals with these years of Senate service, otherwise known as subtle presidential campaigning, was the story of the Kennedy Committee. This was a LBJ brain-child that fell into Kennedy's lap when LBJ had a heart attack, a long recovery and the desire to get back to heavy Senatorial duties. Essentially, the committee had as its goal the identification and subsequent honoration of the five greatest Senators ever to serve our Country. This took the better part of two years from start to finish and Kennedy was the chairman, overseeing the discussions and selection. It is most likely the hardest work he did in the nearly eight years he served there.

By all indications, Kennedy never saw the Senate as a place where important work was to be done, nor did he see it as the place where he would spend his career. He used it as a stepping stone to the White House. In his last years, he barely set foot in it or attended meetings or cast votes. He traveled the country glad-handing, charming, enlisting and plotting his final run to the Democratic convention and his nomination as Presidential candidate. I do remember his Presidential years--he did not impress. His biggest claims to fame for me was the fact he got elected young, was able to get elected as a Catholic and that he was unfortunately assassinated. Considering the inordinate adoration he and his family has garnered through the years, I'm amazed the Catholic church didn't canonize him. Though we don't have royalty in this country, by virtue of his father's money and connections and his position as the eldest son, since Joe was killed in the War, JFK came as close to it as possible. And like so many second sons and monied Princes, he was lazy but crafty in his pursuit of his goals. He achieved them but unlike the author who wonders what he would have done had he not been assassinated, I wonder what he would have done had he not been elected President and whether he may have lived longer and accomplished more.

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