Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #45: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

My boss actually recommended this book to me a few months ago. I downloaded it but didn’t get around to reading it until I went on vacation this last week. It seemed right up my alley – it’s about a time period I find fascinating (urban U.S. in the late 1800s/early 1900s) and two I find interesting (urban development/architecture and, well, true crime). The book certainly delivered on the time period and the urban development side; the story about the serial killer H.H. Holmes less so.

Larson employs some interesting writing devices to tell these intertwining stories. On one track, he follows Daniel Burnham on his quest to not just bring the World’s Fair – known afterwards as the “White City” to Chicago (planned as a celebration – blech – of Columbus ‘discovering’ the ‘New World’) but to try to create all the buildings, the expositions, and promote the fair in an effort to beat Paris’ exposition from a couple of years prior. It also follows Olmstead (of Central Park fame) in his quest to have quality landscape architecture. That story alone was fascinating, set against the “Black City” of crime and slaughterhouses of the rest of Chicago.

The other component of the story – the ‘Devil’ – follows H.H. Holmes, a man in his 20s who uses his charm and wiles to defraud creditors, build businesses, and ultimately kill many people. It’s also a very interesting tale, although the book spends far more time on the World’s Fair than on Holmes’ story, possibly because not nearly as much is known about him. It’s definitely still interesting, but it’s not exactly what I was expecting from this book.

One thing I appreciated from the book was what felt like really meticulous research. His claim that everything in quotes comes from real sources – no reconstructed conversations – is fascinating. The book is non-fiction, filed under true crime, but it certainly feel like a piece of literature because the writing is quite good and it reads rather quickly given its length. I enjoyed it, and will likely check out his other books as well.

Lollygagger’s CBR5 Review #44: Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding

I was trying to figure out how to write this review without spoiling the book (beyond the whole Mark is dead thing, which is not a spoiler, but instead the whole premise of the book). Most of what bothered me about the book involves pretty specific plot lines, but I’m going to try to get through the review by speaking at a general level. However, if you want to read the book and don’t want to know ANYTHING about the plot, maybe just stop reading at the end of this paragraph. I’ll TL:DR it for you: pretty entertaining, retreads much of the same ground from the first two books, Bridget does seem like Bridget still (but older), worth downloading in e-version or checking out of the library for a quick read.
Alright, the longer, slightly spoiler-y stuff. So Bridget is 51 in the book. For those of you who were introduced to her via the movie, that sounds too old, but I think the time line is based on the original books, but even so it’s not that far off as the first move came out TWELVE YEARS AGO.
Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck
Overview:
As stated above, we’re visiting Bridget over a decade down the road, and four years after Mark has died, leaving her a widow with a young son and a three-month-old daughter. I noticed this comment when Pajiba originally reported the news, from Sara_Tonin00 “There’s a decent romcom to be made about a young widow trying to figure out how to date again – but I don’t think it’s about Bridget Jones.” To that person I would say this works better than I thought it would, but that’s not to say that it’s groundbreaking or earth shattering. It’s a pleasant book, and to me it strikes true to the Bridget we’ve gotten to know in the first couple of books: still self-centered but not much more so than most folks seem to be these days.
The high points:
She doesn’t utterly forget about her children; they aren’t like Emma in “Friends,” they serve more than just a plot twist every few chapters. In fact I actually came to care for them. They aren’t angels but they aren’t devils; I don’t have children of my own but my experience with my nieces seems to fit. And while the children certainly feature in the book, Bridget still has experiences that aren’t entirely about them.
I also think that Ms. Fielding does a good job (as far as I can say, not having experienced the death of a spouse) of capturing how, as time passes, sure the grief isn’t top of mind all the time, but it’s there, and can pop up as easily at a mundane event as during the holidays. I think it made sense to set the book well after the death so it’s not so much about getting through every day but instead about getting through life and what Bridget wants it to include since it can no longer include Mark.
Most of the same folks figure in this book, so it’s fun to see how the past few years have been treating them. I especially enjoyed catching up with Daniel, who surprisingly does make an appearance. The writing was also pretty good – I started on Monday night (the benefit of being on the west coast – it came through on my Kindle just after 9PM) and finished up Thursday at lunch, and it only took that long because I had a bunch of stuff to do on Tuesday and Wednesday evening. I am traveling this week and wish I had saved it because I know it would have made the flight go faster.
The low points:
Yes, the book now incorporates Twitter and OK Cupid (woo, up to the minute technology!) but so much of it seems like a retread of the previous books. Obviously there are only so many different ways to talk about searching for love but, without spoiling anything, a lot of the book seems VERY familiar, and I was able to (accurately) imagine the last page of the book a few chapters in.
There’s also a storyline about her being fat, and I get that Ms. Fielding was looking for a total transformation / look what’s happened but COME ON. That’s a pretty lazy writing device, and also offensive to anyone who is, well, fat, because fat is a substitute here for letting everything go. Fat isn’t bad, isn’t even necessarily unhealthy, and the fact that once she decides to lose it the method she picks just .. works? Not realistic. It’s obnoxious and I would hope Ms. Fielding was better than that.
Also the Twitter component seems a little OOH! Look at the older folks and the hip new technology! It eventually serves a purpose but I did start giggling because it seemed like the start of a bad SNL sketch more than a plot component.
Suggestions:
If you enjoyed the first two books (or the first move – let’s all just pretend that second movie never happened, shall we?), I think you’ll be able to get past the whole no more Mark component and enjoy checking in with Bridget. It’s not a feminist tome, and I doubt that any women who have lost their husbands will be looking to it as a guide, but it’s a fun quick read.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #43: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

I know it might be blasphemy to admit this on a site frequented by so many Pajibans, but here goes: I’m not really into zombies. I have no desire to watch The Walking Dead (and have muted all related hashtags on Twitter); no interest in World War Z. I did see Shawn of the Dead about two years ago and I recall laughing very loudly at Zombieland. But that’s it for me.

I say this all because the reason I ended up reading Warm Bodies is because I saw the movie. It was available on Redbox, my husband and I wanted to watch something, and we both thought we’d remembered someone saying it was cute and different from standard zombie fare. And that generic someone was correct: the movie was adorable. So adorable that we ended up watching all the extras, including one where they speak with the author of the book. If I’m remembering correctly, the book was actually written to fulfill an option placed on a short story Mr. Marion had written, and which a film director had picked up. That sounded kind of interesting, so I decided to read the book.

The book is a quick read – it’s not short, but the action moves at a nice clip. If you’re familiar with the film, you’ll recognize most of what’s in the book, although there are some differences. Based loosely on Romeo and Juliet, Warm Bodies follows the life (or “life”) of R., a zombie who has a very rich inner monologue. He lives in an airplane at the airport (flight has stopped long ago), goes out hunting with his fellow zombies, and even has a zombie wife. Until he runs into Julie and her friends, regular humans out on a scavenging mission from their home, an old sports stadium. Julie gets caught up with the zombies in R.’s hunting group, and R. saves her, taking her back with him to the airport and hiding her from the other zombies who just smell the life in her.

While the book certainly has some connection to the star-crossed lovers concept of Romeo and Juliet (I mean, how much more star-crossed can you get when one of you is, you know, dead), I enjoyed it more for its exploration of what being a zombie means. Why DO they eat brains? What happens when they do? Do they have any feelings? Can they be helped? What does that mean for the regular, living humans? As I said, I’ve never really cared for zombies once they are seen as this threat to the humans, but the back story? The view from their eyes? That’s pretty cool indeed.

Lollygagger’s Cannonball Read V Review #42: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

This is my second Mary Roach book of this Cannonball read, and the fact that it popped into my queue right now is perfect, because Gravity is out and I cannot wait to see it.

I was excited to read this because when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. Not enough to get into the physics and astronomy track in college, or enlist in the air force, or really do anything to actively pursue that career path, but enough that to this day I still think that if I win the lottery I plan to squirrel away a chunk of the change to pay my way into space (after donating the vast majority of it to charity, of course.)

The premise is not just exploring space travel, but specifically extended space travel. Ms. Roach does a great job of weaving in the history of space travel through specific areas from eating space food to … eliminating said food. There are so many wonderful facts, great footnotes and just fun stories. She gets to ride the vomit comet (i.e. the parabolic flight), interview groundbreaking (atmosphere-busting?) astronauts, scientists and others.

The book is especially interesting because it doesn’t sugar-coat anything about space travel. I didn’t realize, for example, that some of the early space flights involved two dudes hanging out in a capsule for two weeks, no ability to wash or really take care of any personal hygiene needs. Or how much fecal matter can end up floating around in the space shuttle, and how much research and development had to go into creating a toilet, or how much effort goes into creating food that allows for a little more time between … evacuations.

Along the way of telling the story of all the challenges that are increased on a long space trip, Ms. Roach drops great little bits of knowledge. For example, she explains how the flag on the moon looked like it was blowing in the wind even though there isn’t wind on the moon, and talks about why people get motion sickness. There are so many awesome nuggets that it’s worth it for anyone who is into trivia.

You know the drill. It’s Mary Roach. It’s good. You’ll probably like it. Add it to the list.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #41: Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding

As you may have read yesterday, I loved Bridget Jones’s Diary. It was fun, honest, shallow, deep. Everything I want in a quick read. So naturally I downloaded the second Bridget Jones book. Still a quick read, still entertaining, probably not as great, but still fun.

Spoilers ahead, sort of.

This book starts with our heroine still dating Mark Darcy. There are some challenges, and they spend the better part of the year apart, possibly due to a scheming ‘friend’ who has decided that SHE belongs with Mark Darcy, not Bridget. There are bits that made me somewhat uncomfortable – basically the entire storyline involving Bridget’s mother and a trip to Africa – but there were also a lot of moments where I genuinely laughed. There’s also an entire chapter that I admit to reading with one eye closed because OH MY GOD EMBARRASSING. If you’ve read this book, I think you know the chapter. Ah, Colin Firth.

This book has a few more absurd components than the first one, and I have to say that I was a bit annoyed that the same plot device from the first book – Horrible Legal Misunderstanding Fixed by Dashing Mark Flying Somewhere To Fix It – was unnecessary and seemed to be a bit … lazy? I mean, it worked in the first one, so perhaps Ms. Fielding felt if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? I don’t know. The second half of the Thailand storyline was ridiculous, but the first? I do have to admit that I didn’t see it coming. So there’s that.

Also, there’s a weird language issue – I don’t know if this is an England thing, and I don’t recall it from living there a year, but instead of referring to someone as Asian, the author has the characters saying ‘oriental.’ That’s … not right. And was jarring every time I saw it.

I don’t see myself re-reading this book, but I am still excited for the third installment. I like Bridget. I don’t know if I would be friends with her, but I’m invested. She can be shallow, but I do think Ms. Fielding has written her with a good heart. She’s flawed but she’s not insufferable. I want good things for her.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #40: Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

This book is so good.

I saw the movie. I laughed at the idea that Renée Zellwegger was fat. I drooled a bit over Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy. I loved the screw-up at work where Bridget claimed she was on the phone with an author who had, unbeknownst to her, died three decades earlier, when the word fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck scrolled across the bottom of the screen. I recognized the friendship archetypes.

The book isn’t better, or worse. It’s different, and frankly, I thought it was fantastic. I was expecting a sad, ridiculous stereotype of a woman – instead the Bridget Jones in print is a complex woman who isn’t overly intellectual but isn’t flighty or ridiculous. She’s living in a world where she’s been told what her value is in terms of looks and in terms of her marriagability. She is rational, then irrational, then rational again.

The book has a somewhat similar storyline to the film – there is a relationship with her boss Daniel, there is a disdain, then attraction, then disdain, then attraction with Mark Darcy, all her friends are accounted for – but there are also some diversions. For example, she has a brother in the book. And her mother’s journey takes something of a dark turn. But the core of the book – and of Bridget herself – remains.

I’m newly married, and I only spent one year as properly single in my 30s. However, I could relate to so much of Bridget’s internal monologue. Some of it was so ridiculous – like when she leaves a potential sex partner because she doesn’t want to just fuck around, and has this triumphant feminist moment … then muses “I may have been right, but my reward, I know, will be to end up all along, half-eaten by an Alsatian” – but still relate-able. She’s so hard on herself – tracking her daily food consumption, her weight, her cigarette intake – and beating herself up with each weight fluctuation.

One favorite part is when she somehow manages to get her weight down to her goal, and everyone comments that she looks a bit tired, and looked ‘better before.’ “Now I feel empty and bewildered…Eighteen years – wasted. Eighteen years of calorie- and fat-unit-base arithmetic…I feel like a scientist who discovers that his life’s work has been a total mistake.” Observations like that – as well as the one that she has lost 72 pounds and gained 74 pounds over the course of the year – are real, at least, to me, and they represent the constant struggle many women face, and how they feel they can’t win. I’ve been there. Shoot, I live there.

She’s also hard on herself when it comes to work, and men. Whenever she has a flash of self-confidence or makes an attempt to start fresh, something inevitable pops up to derail her. Sometimes it’s silly, but most of the time it seems fairly realistic. It’s not like everything is bad, always, but there is this sort of constant underlying stress. It’s not the same stress as someone who is facing poverty, or racism, or anything so serious, but it’s that steady undercurrent saying you aren’t thin enough, or smart enough, or attractive enough, or enough like society wants you to be (i.e. married and having children). It’s the stress of wanting to fit convention, then buck it, then fit it again.

The book feels light and deep at the same time. I’m sure if I spent more time analyzing it I could find some problems to dissect (is she an active agent, or does she fixate her life around finding a mate?) but I kind of don’t want to spend more time focusing on it because I don’t want to ruin a really fun reading experience.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #39: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Content Note: Discussion of depression, mental illness, suicide.

I’ve seen the movie – the one that won Angelina Jolie her best supporting actress Academy Award, the one starring Winona Ryder and featuring Whoopie Goldberg as the head nurse. It’s the one about a young, white, middle-class woman who commits herself into a psychiatric institute at the direction of a therapist. I felt some sort of inexplicable connection with it the first time I saw it, to the point where I ended up purchasing it. On VHS. I found a DVD of it at a going-out-of-business sale a few months ago. It reminded me that I wanted to read the book it was based on.

I should say loosely based on, because the book painted a much sparser picture than the film. In the book, Ms. Kaysen does tell some stories about the women she encountered while at the facility, and those women were definitely present in the film, but some of the stories in the film differ. There isn’t the same overlap, and clearly the narrative arcs of those women were expanded to make for a more involved film. It’s also possible that Ms. Kaysen shared more information with the screenwriters to flesh out those women for the film.

The book stands well on its own though. It is disjointed at times – it’s not a straight through memoir, but instead a collection of essays – but there is a lot of wisdom in the writing. The author has clearly had time to reflect on what her diagnosis (Borderline Personality Disorder) meant then and means to her now, as the book was written 25 years after she was discharged from the facility. For example, her discussion of her suicide attempt is really interesting – she thinks of it as wanting to kill only part of herself – “the part that wanted to kill myself” – which is both pretty meta but also makes a lot of sense. She also describes mental illness as coming in two forms: slow and fast, or ‘viscosity’ and ‘velocity’.’ “Viscosity causes the stillness of disinclination; velocity causes the stillness of fascination. An observer can’t tell if a person is silent and still because inner life has stalled or because inner life is transfixingly busy.

The book is also interesting as a study (although again, a sparse one) of the facility itself. Kaysen describes it quite vividly, but she describes the feel of it even better: “For many of us, the hospital was as much a refuge as it was a prison. Though we were cut off from the world and all the trouble we enjoyed stirring up out there, we were also cut off from the demands and expectations that had driven us crazy.

The author clearly struggled with whether she really was ‘crazy’ enough to be in the facility – some of the other residents seemed to have much deeper mental health concerns than she did. Was she being self-indulgent? Was she just someone who didn’t accept the rules everyone else accepted, and did that make her crazy, or just different? Or both? And would she have been viewed differently if she had expressed the same feelings and taken the same action but were a young man, not a young woman, in the late 1960s?

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in this area. It was a very quick read for me (only a couple of hours) but I do feel like I got a lot out of it. I wish there had been more, so I’m going to look at some of her other work, as I did enjoy her writing style. Her self-awareness and introspection could come across as navel-gazing in less competent hands; instead the book provided me with an interesting introductory look at how mental health is viewed.