I had hoped to have a few more (at least one more) book to share with you this month -- but then I started having fun and something had to give! So, there are five this month -- and all were well worth the time.
"The Devil and the White City" by Erik Larson
I love the historical non-fiction of Erik Larson (who documents his references well) but I'd never read this one -- and it seems to be the book "everyone" has read. I can see why. It was fascinating.
The book follows the lives of two very different men -- Daniel Burnham, a Chicago architect during the Gilded Age and H.H. Holmes, a prolific and clever psycopath/serial killer. It is centered around the Chicago World's Fair (Columbian Exposition) in 1893, which Burnham spearheaded. Getting the bid for the World's Fair was considered a great coup for Chicago with its reputation as a very dirty, stinky and crime-laden city. Burnham was determined to build a fair that would erase this idea from the minds of Americans, bigger and more exciting that the previous exposition in Paris that brought about the creation of the Eiffel Tower.
Holmes moved to Chicago (after more than one murder elsewhere, notably his wife and child) and opened a hotel near the fair site. The World's Fair Hotel would attract single women traveling alone, often for the first time. Many of these women -- along with others in Holmes' life (including other wives or women who thought they were legally married to the charming, beguiling man) died soon after at his hand.
The book goes back and forth from the challenging issues surrounding the fair (finding the architects to create the massive buildings, acts for the midway, landscape and more) to Holmes and his duplicitous actions. Both are equally fascinating in different ways. The fair was -- to be honest -- a bureaucratic mess. Too many men had too many agendas and luring first-rate architects to the city was a challenge. All this put the schedule behind and even after it opened, areas remained incomplete.
In Holmes' case, the story is just mind-boggling. We all know serial killers can be devious but he may well have topped them all, including in his hotel an airless chamber, an incinerator, and (because he was also a doctor) access to chloroform, which he used often. The quest of detectives to find and learn more about him is equally intriguing, though regrettably short compared to the rest of the book.
You may well have already read this one. If you haven't, I heartily recommend it.
"The Tale of Beatrix Potter" by Margaret Lane
Beatrix Potter has long been one of my favorite writer/illustrators. Her work is deceptively simple but when you read Lane's biography, one realizes it's far more complex -- as was Potter herself.
If you have seen the film "Miss Potter," you may know bits of her life and the film is relatively faithful to her story. If anything, it underplays how repressive her life and upbringing in London actually was. Beatrix was more or less confined to her nursery quarters until she was beyond her teens and, due in part to this and incredible shyness (no doubt exacerbated by her restricted life). She had little contact with anyone besides her brother, and parents (particularly her father) and governesses. She suffered from depression. It was loneliness as much as interest and talent that brought about her intense interest in painting and animals.
Potter and her brother, Bertram, would dissect animals they found, studying their structure inside and out and she kept a small menagerie in her room, including her bunny, Peter. She was diligent in her artistic studies and her summer vacations visiting the Lake District brought her great inspiration. She noticed detail and incorporated it into her work. But for the most part, this was shared only with the children of family relatives in the form of stories sent in a letter. This was the genesis of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit."
What the "Miss Potter" film doesn't emphasize at all is Potter's later life as a farmer in the Lake District and her significant contribution to Britain's National Trust through her purchase many acres of land, later given to the Trust. After her marriage to William Heelis and her purchase of Hill Top Farm and Castle Cottage, she did little of her best (or most famous) work. Instead, she devoted her life to farming, particularly sheep, and involvement in the village community. She disliked publicity or curiosity seekers unless they were able to discuss her work critically and forged several acquaintances with American children's book aficianodos.
The book gets into the details of her work -- how she approached her art and her stories, focusing on the writing as much as the art -- and her professional relationships with her publishers. She was a savvy businesswoman and one with a great forward-thinking approach to preservation. I found it most intriguing and would recommend it to fans of her work or others interested in England's north country.
"The Decent Inn of Deceit" by Rennie Airth
The sixth in the John Madden series of mysteries features much less of Madden and more of his former partner and friend, Angus Sinclair. Angus is suffering from heart-related issues and slowing down. While John and Helen Madden are traveling, he is invited to visit a friend and former colleague's home for an overnight and dinner. During the visit learns of what he thinks might be a murder (though it's classified as an accidental death). Curious, and without telling anyone, he decides not to return home to Highfield as planned but check out the one lead that he has on the incident, promising himself he will turn over any information to Scotland Yard when he is done.
But Angus is like a dog with a bone and while he shares his story with the Yard's Billy Styles, he decides to continue his search for one more clue. That takes him to Oxford where he encounters one of his dinner partners from his recent visit. That trip takes him to a more remote village where a snowstorm and a fortuitous meeting with yet another of his dinner partners -- a paralyzed former ski champion and wealthy widow -- who invites him to stay with her until the storm ceases.
Only the storm gets worse. Angus is stranded with the women and her servants, and there is a murderer on the loose. Meanwhile, Madden (who has since returned home), Billy and others are concerned for their friend's health and safety.
This was a fine entry into the series and an atmospheric one. If I have any disappointment at all, I did guess the murderer. But the book is so well written it didn't matter.
"All About Me" by Mel Brooks
I've always loved and admired the work of Mel Brooks. His comedy just hits me the right way. Now in his late 90s, he's still at work. His autobiography begins with his childhood in Brooklyn and continues through his life, from the serving in the Army in World War II to his work with Sid Caesar in the early days of television, through his comedy films right up to Broadway. It is peppered with humorous reminiscences and yes, a few jokes. "All About Me" is definitely worth the read, if for the laughs if nothing else.
But a word of warning! This book will take you longer than you think to complete. That has nothing to do with the 456 pages within. Those fly by. But at every chapter you will be sorely tempted to put the book down and head to youtube to check on the many comedy bits to which he refers in the book. You google "Sid Caesar videos" and pretty soon instead of just watching the one you planned on, you have skipped to another and then another. Then, moving on to the next chapter, "The 2,000 Year Old Man," you think, "Just one routine." Good luck with that! I was on the hunt for scenes from "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," "High Anxiety," "To Be or Not To Be," "The Twelve Chairs" and, of course, "The Producers" (both versions). It's time well spent, to be sure!
Brooks is not without ego but it is good natured ego, if that makes sense (and to be honest, half the time it is dished up with such humor, one isn't sure if he's joking or not!). He's also honest about what worked or didn't, and deeply personal as he talks about his relationship with his wife, Anne Bancroft, and his role as a producer of films in which he's not a writer, director or star, such as "The Elephant Man" and "Equus," among many other titles.
He is generous with praise -- some might find it too generous but I found it refreshing that with every reference to every show he worked on, he lavished praise on the individuals who were part of it. And not just the actors, whom everyone knows but the people on his writing team (he's first to admit that some of the best ideas came from others and they worked together well); but also the production designers, choreographers, costumers and music directors. He speaks particularly highly of his music director/score composer for many of his movies, John Morris, but all are mentioned.
It's clear that he has developed a great deal of loyalty and deep friendships with the people he works with, many of them performing in multiple films as well as behind the camera. He "pays back" those who have given him breaks in the past, such as Caesar and Howard Morris, part of the original "Show of Shows," as well as recognizing others who may have influenced him peripherally by casting them in small film roles.
And, perhaps the biggest thing I learned from this book is that no matter the film, as wild and wacky as the comedy may get, he tries to impart a message or sense or awareness about an issue (racism in "Blazing Saddles," kindness to the damaged in "Young Frankenstein," for example). His spoofs of genres are spoofs done with love, because he loves those various genres. It might surprise you to learn that before doing "High Anxiety," a take-off on Hitchcock, that he went to the master filmmaker for his blessing and said, "If you say no, I won't do it,."
I've always liked Mel Brooks and the films he does. They make me laugh. But after reading this, I learned something else. I like Mel Brooks, the person. Maybe (if it's possible) even better than I like his movies.
"The Fifth Risk" by Michael Lewis
Written in 2018, this chilling look at the transition from the Obama to Trump administration by the author of "Moneyball" and "The Big Short," "The Fifth Risk" is as scary a book as I've ever read (and that includes reading "The Shining" when I was alone at the lake on a stormy night).
While the book focuses on the transition in part, what Lewis does (and does really well) is ask various career civil servants who have served in relatively high or significant positions (but not cabinet officers) what it is that scares them most about our country. John MacWilliams cites five, including things you might expect -- nuclear war, crashing of the electrical grid, major disasters, North Korea and the fifth -- bad project management.
Then he goes on to visit several agencies within large departments (Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, etc.) to highlight just what they do (and believe me, you'd be surprised to know what things we all rely upon that end up in these areas!).
For example, Department of Energy -- one thinks of windmills and oil. But the largest focus is on nuclear-related issues. Who's tracking the plutonium? What happens "if" it is stolen by a bad actor and how do we protect our country when that happens. To oilman and Trump DOE appointee Rick Perry, the idea was to protect the oil industry. I'm oversimplifying. But the fact is, Perry (and the other appointees to various offices) never really understood what the departments they oversaw did, what they included, or go through the briefings prepared by the outgoing administration to brief them on the various areas they would be in charge of -- the pitfalls and the plusses.
Did you know the Department of Commerce oversees the National Weather Service? When that one goes down, it affects the world because of how we work with other countries. And, when you put a guy in charge who wants to eliminate any public unclassified data from the cloud related to weather studies because he wants to charge for it, you could have some big trouble.
I know this sounds overly wonky but it is fascinating. I learned more about how government works (or should work) from reading this book with rich and in-depth interviews than I did when I studied government in high school -- or from reading the daily news. The impact of bad project management affectes our country in particular and the world in general.
I found the chapters on weather and agriculture most interesting as the data is crunched to reveal how people -- like you and me -- react to different things. For example, the Trump administration radically cut programs that had their primary impact in rural areas where over 80 percent of the people voted for him. And, how we deal with things like emergency warnings can make an impact on how people chose (or choose not) to take shelter (because it won't happen to ME.)
I read this book in two days. I just couldn't put it down. Whether one is liberal or conservative this book definitely deserves a read and now is the time. (Note: It was written in 2018; I'd love to see a sequel and see that Lewis has written a more recent book about the Covid pandemic.)
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