Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

So I’ve been reading a book about a deranged serial killer who had a hotel constructed to his own design, and being a twisted individual arranged it so that some of the rooms were soundproofed and airtight with externally-operable gas jets feeding in.  Some of the rooms were asbestos-lined for easy corpse incineration and he also had a system of chutes to the basement, which contained a kiln - again, of his own design, which did double duty as a crematorium.  He also did a brisk trade in selling articulated skeletons to the local medical school, and even though he was a physician he bought so much chloroform that his suppliers threatened to cut him off unless he explained what he wanted it for.

Oh, did I mention that this is nonfiction?  That’s all a real thing that actually happened.

The saga of the infamous killer Herman Mudgett a.k.a. Dr. H.H. Holmes a.k.a. a whole bunch of other things is really only half the story, as the chapters alternate between him and architect Daniel Burnham.  The book is ostensibly about the giant World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893.  From the moment of its announcement in 1890 the city was in a frantic state to get everything prepared and show that the US, and Chicago in particular, had arrived.  Also they invented the Ferris wheel.  And the mayor got shot.  There was quite a bit going on.

Both of these stories are quite interesting, but although they are contemporaneous there really isn’t much else linking them.  Holmes didn’t really have anything to do with the fair besides the fact that all the chaos surrounding the event made it somewhat easier for him to avoid detection for his over the top crimes.  He didn’t have any particular influence with the city or anything.  In that respect this book reminded me of “Newton and the Counterfeiter” by Thomas Levenson – although in that case Newton did actually have the titular counterfeiter hanged.  However, Newton didn’t really consider that a big part of his life (I suppose that the counterfeiter considered his encounter with Newton somewhat more important).  In that respect this is essentially two books in one, either of which would have made a nice story on its own.

Holmes was a slick ladies’ man and was able to capitalize on the fact that many young women were transients in Chicago.  He was also able to leverage the poor communication of the era and the fact that people were just more likely to drop dead.  One of his victims’ parents accepted his story that their daughter had gotten married and gone on a honeymoon to Europe, and after not hearing back from her for a long time they assumed that she must have died on her trip.  It would be easy to think that these people were pretty dumb to believe that, but we’ve got a family story about one of my great-great grandfathers who went to California to look for work and was never heard from again.  Maybe he died, maybe not, the point is that it was easier to disappear back then and I guess folks just had a slightly different perspective on it.  I’d like to think that Holmes would be caught much quicker today but even for the era his offenses were so brazen that he must have been an incredibly persuasive guy.  It’s pretty amazing to read about him but it’s also gut-wrenching in its way; after all this is the 1890s, so although Holmes’s bio looks just like every other psychopath’s you’ve ever heard of none of these poor young women have even considered such a thing, and neither have the cops.  No one manages to put two and two together and follow up the fact that the last known address of a lot of missing people is this screwy hotel with a lot of custom fixtures.  He’s a fully fledged modern serial killer and neither the victims or law enforcement is prepared to deal with something like that.  It’s like the Aztecs seeing metal weapons and horses for the first time; so it’s fitting that he was eventually busted for insurance fraud, a thoroughly modern concept.  Holmes may well have killed over 200 people or as few as seven; he confessed to killing 27 at one point but when on the gallows changed his story to two, and those only by accident.  But of course he was a gifted liar as well so there is no way to tell now.

The chapters on the World’s Fair are also interesting but not in as visceral of a way, although the death toll of the construction was probably greater than anything Holmes was responsible for.  They had different ideas about workplace safety back then too.  However, I’d have happily read the book if it had just been about the fair.  I couldn’t do justice to all the skullduggery and politicking that went on in trying to assemble a major international event in a growing, somewhat corrupt boom town, so I’ll just say it’s substantial.

One of my annoyances about the book is the tendency for the author to tell you what the various people involved are thinking and feeling at various times.  While I’m pretty sure that he’s at least broadly correct, this is sort of off-putting for me.  I mean, it’s probably true that Homes got sexual excitement out of killing people and that Burnham was irritated when one of his telegrams didn’t get sent on time but I don’t really like to blur that line between non-fiction and historical fiction.  Nonetheless, I’ll probably look into some of the sources on this book, and may check out some of Larson’s other work too.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Neal Stephenson observed in “Snow Crash” that every man, until he is twenty five, thinks he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world if he was properly motivated; and in that book what cures the main character of this notion is running across a radioactive seven-foot drug lord who has a hydrogen bomb in the sidecar of his motorcycle.  “The Magicians” follows one Quentin Coldwater through a similar journey, except that in this case we follow him for several years, he hasn’t really completed the transition yet, and he’s also his own biggest antagonist.  There’s a lot to like about this book.  Not only is it one of the best fantasy novels that I’ve read in the past several years, there’s just a lot going on with it.

There’s a sequel on the way in August, “The Magician King”.  I’d originally considered putting my thoughts on “The Magicians” at the beginning of a review of that, but upon reflection I decided that it’s really worth its own separate post.  Namely, why I’m both looking forward to the sequel and fearing it.

The book opens on Quentin Coldwater, seventeen year old high school senior, as he is killing some time with some friends of his and waiting for the first of an upcoming long slog of interviews for expensive private universities.  Quentin attends an elite high school in Brooklyn which is a magnet of magnets, he’s a certified math genius and a gifted amateur magician, and he’s suffering from ennui.  He’s got a crush on Julia, one of his friends, but she doesn’t seem to have any reciprocating interest.  The ennui seems to be pretty endemic to his social set; they are all children of the rich or at least upper middle class, very intelligent, spend their time surreptitiously drinking and sleeping around, and are very likely to go from their high-end school to prestigious universities and eventually to become the next generation of asshole investment bankers, attorneys and politicians before settling down to spawn and start the whole process over again.  Quentin doesn’t appear to get any particular joy from contemplating this, and in fact doesn’t seem to have too much joy in anything at all besides reading the occasional fantasy novel.  He’s doing these college interviews because that’s what he’s supposed to do at this point in life, so it’s just as well for him that the interviewer happens to drop dead just before he arrives, although obviously not so much for the dead guy.  Instead he ends up sort of flirting with a paramedic and then finds himself in a dream-like state taking a bizarre standardized test followed by a bunch of poking and prodding by a slew of weird folks.  Before he knows it he’s been offered a place in the exclusive Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, term starting immediately, he’s got to forget his last semester of his senior year and if he doesn’t like it he can take a mind whammy and go back to his normal life.

This is one of the first points that “The Magicians” diverges from a typical magical school tale.  Quentin’s special but he’s not all that special.  There’s no prophecy or oracle that make him have to go to Brakebills and there’s nothing in particular that the school needs him for.  In order to use magic in this world you have to be rather more intelligent than normal and willing to work hard, but you’re either born with the magical mojo or you aren’t.  So right from the start we find that the genetic lottery is working just as hard in magic as it is in everything else in the real world.  Another thing is that all these students are fantasy-aware, they’ve played Dungeons & Dragons, they’ve read all the fantasy staples like the Harry Potter novels and “The Lord of the Rings”, so in their opinions they’re not flying blind here.  One glaring exception is “The Chronicles of Narnia” which doesn’t appear to exist in this world, but apparently everyone reads the “Fillory” novels as children and some, such as Quentin, continue to love them into young adulthood.  Grossman wanted to have a little leeway to muddle in this particular fantasy world and also he wanted to insinuate some things about the author of the Fillory books that would be unfair to C.S. Lewis, so we’ll just say that Fillory fills the same bibliographical niche as Narnia and leave it at that for now.

Quentin spends the next five years and a significant portion of the novel learning magic.  In other fantasy novels there’s usually lip service paid to how hard magic is, but at Brakebills it’s really shown.  Magic follows some sort of rules but they aren’t easy to sort out and depend on a lot of factors like your latitude, the phase of the moon, the time of day, what the weather’s like, probably the score in last night’s Cubs game, and so forth.  Oh, and if you screw up while performing a spell then your body and soul can be consumed into a magical conflagration which destroys you past any chance of recovery.  Or you may attract the attention of some eldritch horror from between dimensions which may toy with you for a while then horribly kill you.  So there are some downsides that you wouldn’t necessarily have to worry about at Hogwarts.  For the most part these are not huge risks, there’s only one student who gets killed by an eldritch horror, although for such a small student body that is actually a pretty bad loss ratio.

Furthermore, Quentin is sort of responsible for that, although it’s hard to call it his fault exactly and he doesn’t beat himself up over it too much.  This is indicative of his character, he certainly angsts quite a bit but not necessarily about the things that he’s really done wrong.  Throughout his school career he makes some friends and enemies, meets a nice girl, and generally excels at his studies without having a real idea of what he plans to do after graduating.  He’s focused on obtaining things that will make him happy and yet is completely oblivious to much of what goes on around him.  The reader can learn a lot about the other characters by things that Quentin observes but doesn’t fully understand.  He doesn’t realize how freaked out his parents are that he doesn’t like to hang out with them and has some sort of mystery lifestyle, he doesn’t really appreciate how awesome his girlfriend is, many of his other friends drink too much and party too hard and he fails to notice that either.  He’s chasing the high of external happiness and completely failing to appreciate that he’s going to be along for the ride wherever he goes.  He finds Brakebills tolerable enough, though, and accomplishes quite a bit – he even finds out that he has a natural talent for a traditional magic sport, but again, this works out a little differently than it would at Hogwarts.

So after five years and a pretty awesome graduation ritual Quentin’s out on his own and quickly begins to break down.  A degree in thaumaturgy may be unique but it’s not generally marketable.  There are career paths open to him such as research mage, political wheeler dealer, even magical SWAT officer, but instead he decides to take some time off and screw around with his friends.  This is probably a reasonable enough plan in some ways but he manages to be a complete jerkhole and mess up all his relationships with his callous and stupid behavior while totally failing to appreciate what he’s doing or why he is wrong to do it.

It’s at this point, nearly three fourths of the way through, that the book takes a major shift in tone.  Because, you see, the land of Fillory is a real place and it’s possible to go there – and Quentin decides that what he really needs to distract everyone from his personal problems is to lead an adventure to this magical land, and surprisingly enough manages to attract a decent following on this insane plan.

One of the great aspects of this book is its nasty dose of realism and how obvious it is that this is a really stupid idea.  In most fantasy novels you can hand some goofball a sword or a magic wand and a few chapters later he or she will be mixing it up with seasoned warriors or ancient mages without any trouble whatsoever.  In this case these kids may be young, but they’ve just gone through a pretty daunting magical education, so their skills in that arena are top-notch.  But they’re na├»ve and it shows.  In a world they don’t understand they think that some sort of fantasy literature rule is in effect that’s going to protect them from danger, so the first suggestion they hear from a critter about how conditions in Fillory might be improved they’re meeting up with some grubby mercenaries in a tavern and preparing to go fight a bunch of monsters in a catacomb somewhere.  If Quentin had suggested they all go to the beach in Cabo to work out their issues would they have listened to a bartender complain and then gone out to fight the drug cartels?  I wouldn’t think so, because they might figure that it’s not their problem or they might make things worse, but since they are in a magical world they figure that somehow common sense doesn’t apply.  Not to mention the fact that it’s pretty hard for the average person to go out and kill a human they don’t know for no particularly good reason, although it’s probably easier to fry some horrific sentient pangolin with a lightning bolt.  The ensuing carnage is pretty sobering but also possibly the weakest part of the novel, mostly because their enemies’ motivations are unclear even after everyone’s loyalties are sorted out; they apparently just like hanging around being evil.  But this too is a staple of fantasy literature so I’ll let it slide.

This bunch of aimless kids find themselves caught up in the agendas of powerful people who really want something, and Quentin in particular finds that all his intelligence hasn’t prevented him from being played like a two-dollar guitar.  It turns out that he actually does have the power to influence the destiny of Fillory, but it doesn’t turn out nearly as well as he’d thought.  Although the better side does prevail in the end and he’s arguably accomplished something worthwhile, it wasn’t his goal to do what he did and he isn’t allowed to choose whether it was worth the cost.  Plus he didn’t even come up with the winning plan so he’s got to worry that he’s a coward as well as a chump.  Well, welcome to adulthood.

I’ve seen some reviews of this book that state that Quentin’s problem is that he wants something he can’t have.  I don’t think that’s entirely accurate.  Rather, his problem is that he can have anything he wants but has been put off because actually having everything is less exciting than anticipating it.  So in many ways he’s just an observer of his life, totally detached from the reality of it as things go on around him.  After the events in Fillory he detaches even further, but maybe by the end he’s finally decided to become a participant in his life and learn to forgive himself for his errors . . . or maybe he’s just decided to chase the rainbow one more time and do something that this time, surely, will make him happy.  It’s kind of a perfect ending, a little hopeful and also a little pessimistic for Quentin after we’ve seen him torch his own successes time and again.

So despite the somewhat obvious sequel hook at the end I’m not entirely sure that a sequel is necessary.  Still, Fillory is a pretty neat and scary place and there’s a lot that can be done with Quentin there, so I’m cautiously optimistic about where this is going and whether Quentin can grow into adulthood and responsibility without being a complete twerp.  We’ll see in August.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff

I recently got this book back after loaning it out to someone at work, so I went ahead and re-read it during the next couple of commutes.  I’ve been a fan of Matt Ruff for a while, ever since Amazon suggested that I might like “Sewer, Gas, and Electric”.  SG&E is hard to classify, but personally I’d put it in the criminally underserved SF humor category alongside books like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” or “The Android’s Dream” by John Scalzi.  I really enjoy it and have recommended it to a fair number of people, who tend to either like it or find it far too silly.  Since it is silly, that’s probably a fair critique.  After all, you either like that sort of thing or you don’t, but for what it is it’s done well.

Anyway, I’m a completionist at heart and thus got around to reading all of Ruff’s other books eventually.  “Bad Monkeys” is my favorite of the lot and is, if anything, even harder to classify than SG&E is.  It’s got a lot of fantastical elements, but takes the format of a police procedural, and it’s got a lot of action and thriller elements in it while also maintaining a sense of pitch-black humor.

Most of the humor comes through the observations of the protagonist, Jane Charlotte.  As the novel opens she’s cooling her heels in the psychiatric wing of a jail in Clark County, Nevada.  She’s in jail because she has just been arrested for killing a man by the name of Dixon.  In fact, she freely admits to the detectives that she’s guilty.  As to why she’s in the psych ward, she also maintains that she’s an operative for a clandestine secret organization that’s dedicated to fighting evil, specifically the division officially entitled “Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons”, unofficially “Bad Monkeys”.  And yes, she’s aware that humans are great apes, not monkeys.  That sort of nitpicking is the sort of thing she’s been putting up with from her brother Phil her whole life.

There’s a friendly, somewhat skeptical psychiatrist in the cell with her and the majority of the novel follows her explanation of how she ended up where she currently is.  Ruff mentioned “Homicide” by David Simon as one of his influences on this novel, and it shows – that book examined a group of Baltimore homicide detectives and gave details on how police interrogations typically go, as naive individuals try to tell the detectives a story that will minimize their involvement, explain their motivations, or simply exculpate them entirely.  Clever and/or experienced criminals don’t say anything at all, and since it quickly becomes clear that Jane is both, the reader begins to wonder what, exactly, she’s attempting to achieve with her confession here.

This is the point where Ruff’s other influences show up.  Jane Charlotte and her brother Phil are shout-outs to the famous author Philip K. Dick, and like many of Dick’s works this book gets seriously strange pretty fast.  In addition to the names and themes, the replicant detector test is borrowed from “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, since the organization has a machine somewhat like a lie detector that, under interrogation, can tell whether someone is evil or not.

It’s pretty clear from the beginning that Jane Charlotte isn’t trustworthy, and in fact she’ll tell you as much herself.   Of course there’s something strangely reassuring about someone claiming to be untrustworthy, and Ruff uses that for all it is worth.

Jane explains that her first encounter with the organization occurred when she was still in high school, when she became convinced that one of the school staff was a serial killer.  According to her, she was right, and she eventually received assistance to kill him in self defense.  When the psychiatrist looks up the details he confirms part of her story, but notes that the guy in question died of natural causes.  At this point Jane explains the Natural Cause gun used by the organization, which also has a bunch of other neat toys – near-ubiquitous surveillance, constant communication, and a large staff of selfless, incorruptible agents who tirelessly fight evil wherever it’s to be found.  Jane’s not recruited immediately but she eventually gets pulled down the rabbit hole into a strange world of espionage and assassination.  For even the organization isn’t omniscient and they’ve got an ancient enemy, a counterpart evil organization currently going by the name of the Troop, whose agents have access to everything the organization does and who seek to create evil in the world.  As to how the Troop manages to survive as a coherent group of people who are simply devoted to doing evil for no particular reason, they may be working for Satan, or maybe they just do it for fun.

Jane’s amusing enough, but she’s clearly a sociopath and her attempts to make herself look better often don’t work all that well.  Sometimes she doesn’t even try to put positive spin on her behavior.  She lies to the psychiatrist about various things, she relates to the psychiatrist times when she lied to the organization about various things, and she is pretty quick to resort to violence.  The reader gets the sense that the organization needs people like her who don’t have any particular scruples for their wet work (they fight evil, not crime as such), but at the same time they don’t seem like such a good fit.  Jane’s bad at following orders and often makes stupid mistakes which work out poorly for the organization.  We find out that the murdered Dixon was in the organization’s equivalent of Internal Affairs and didn’t like Jane very much, for what even Jane can’t deny are pretty good reasons.

In any event, the narration follows Jane through training and a couple of missions before the last mission that ended up with her in jail in Nevada.  That last one has a couple of really well-described fight scenes and some good tension as well.  It all comes back to the jail cell, though.  Does she really expect to be safe from such a powerful organization in an ordinary Nevada jail?  Why did she kill Dixon?  Is she trustworthy at all?  At the end, will any of this make sense?  In the end this novel really delivers with a powerful and probably unexpected ending that nonetheless plays 100% fair with what the reader’s been told.  It holds up on repeat reading and given the many layers of deceit going on actually lends itself to various interpretations.  After all, there’s plenty that goes on in the world that Jane doesn’t know about.

If you’re looking for a treatise on good and evil, this isn’t the book – it doesn’t deal with edge cases and neither the good nor evil organization is especially plausible.  But as far as a page-turner that delivers on a mind screwing tale, this is a good read.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


I've been thinking about doing this for years, and finally decided to take the plunge.  Enough people seem to be doing it, and I could probably use the writing practice.

At the moment, my plan is to post my thoughts on books that I'm reading or ones that I just like.  I may throw in movies or video games from time to time as well, as well as the occasional random observation.  If there's anything here that interests you, I hope you enjoy it.