'Devil in the White City' by Eric Larson (2003)

I would like to express my great disbelief that writers as immature as Larson:
  1. are published;
  2. are nominated for a National Book Award.
The man seems to take his writing cues from scribes of the noir era. What Larson does not seem to realize is the average modern author mocks such writing. Larson’s prose is clumsy and hackneyed. He telegraphs plot points and uses an excessive amount of ridiculous and/or nonsensical similes, including:
  • “came to see her as an obstacle, just as a sea captain might view an iceberg”
  • “sitting down to dinner with these men was like being a stranger at someone else’s Thanksgiving”
  • “the bride…appeared like a white ghost”
  • “iron-clad wheels that struck the pavement like rolling hammers”
  • “the tension was…like the inaudible cry of overstressed steel”
  • “Chicago is like the man who marries a woman with a ready-made family of twelve”
  • “glances of young women fell around him like wind-blown petals”
  • “in the heat and haze [the plants] looked like desert troops gone too long without water”
  • “Cinder and smoke drifted like soiled gauze past the window”
  • “Sentences wandered through the report like morning glory through the pickets of a fence”
  • “his eyes…gleamed…like marbles of lapis”
  • “gas jets…hissed like mildly perturbed cats”
  • “in his eyes there was only a flat calm, like a lake on a still August morning”
  • “as if a giant wool blanket had settled over the house”
  • “She felt as if a coarse blanket has been lifted from her life”
  • “the human body was like the polar icecap, something to be studied and explored”
  • “he looked forward to most were the days before his departure when her need flared like fire in a dry forest”
  • “This notion came to Prendergast initially as a glimmer, like the first sunlight to strike the Masonic tower each morning”
  • “Minnie was an asset now, an acquisition to be warehoused until needed, like cocooned prey”
  • “laughter that rang like crystal touched in a toast”
  • “chemical odors ebbed and flowed like an atmospheric tide”
  • “The possession he craved was a transient thing, like the scent of a fresh-cut hyacinth”
  • “[Ferris wheel] cars…stood on the ground like the coaches of a derailed train”
  • “The frontier…stood there glittering in the sun like the track of a spent tear”
  • “pale blue uniforms standing out like crocuses against black loam”
  • “three huge Worthington pumps began stretching their shafts and pistons, like praying mantises shaking off the cold”
  • “the great Golden Door, which arced across the light-red face of the building like a gilt rainbow”
  • “Harrison’s murder fell upon the city like a heavy curtain”
  • “Leaves hung in the stillness like hands of the newly dead”
  • “[The humidity] clung to Holmes and his fellow prisoners like a cloak of moist wool”
  • “The house was charming…like the gingerbread house in a fairy tale”
  • “For Dora Root life with John had been like living upon a comet”
  • “now that Julia had begun looking at [her husband] as if he had just emerged from a rendering vat at the stockyards”
  • “other days with a silvery medicinal odor, as if a dentist were at work somewhere in the building easing a customer into a deep sleep”
  • “The wind pummeled the balloon as if it were an inverted punching bag”

I also think that Larson has tried to tackle too much material. In a work of this nature, the reader sometimes is confused by all of the one-shot characters necessary to telling the story. By switching between three or four different stories, Larson only compounds the problem. I think that Larson should have detailed Holmes’ killing spree in a separate novel. Though The Colombian World’s Fair provided Holmes a stream of victims, his killing was in no way motivated by or limited to the Fair. He didn’t kill anyone at the Fair; he killed people before and after the event. The connection between Holmes and the Fair seems arbitrarily imposed by Larson. Holmes’ geographic and temporal proximity to the event did not necessitate Larson detailing Holmes’ story along side the Fair’s. The inclusion of Prendergast seemed more appropriate, though I believe that his story could have been greatly truncated.

'Bee Season' by Myla Goldberg (2000)

With Bee Season, Myla Goldberg delivers a rich, sensual novel that explores a breadth of subjects including religion, language and familial relationships. Goldberg creates four distinct characters with very different worldviews, each on his or her own spiritual journey.

Aaron and Miriam seem to be on similar though diverging paths. Eliza’s spelling practice replaces Aaron’s guitar lessons in his father’s study, a time during which Aaron became acquainted with Judaism and prepared for his bar mitzvah. Ousted from the study, Aaron experiences a crisis of faith. At the beginning of the novel, Aaron is hyper-conscious of his body, sensitive that his body has not fulfilled the potential that his masculinity promised: he’s too pale, too thin, too weak, too small. Thus, in his exploration of religions outside of Judaism, he is drawn to ISKCON because of its emphasis of transcending the physical constraints of the body. Rather than transcending his body, Aaron reconstructs his understanding of his body through his religious experiences through Krishna. Once a source of embarrassment, his body becomes the ultimate instrument with which to praise god. The services at the ISKCON temple involve movement and expression with the body, and Aaron’s return to Beth Amichah prompts him to note that god should be worshiped through motion and not sitting in a chair.

Conversely, Miriam seeks a connection to her body or what she conceives of as her body or whole self. Miriam understands herself to be fragmented and describes the objects that she steals as pieces of herself. By “reclaiming” the pilfered goods, she strives to put herself back together. As an expectant and new mother, Miriam dislikes the baby’s demands on her body. Breastfeeding is particularly difficult for her because the baby is taking something from the body she strives to rebuild. Perhaps sex becomes appealing to her during her abstinence from breaking into houses because she feels as her body is being augmented in a way, even if sex is only a simulation of the feeling of reclaiming a piece of her “kaleidoscope.” Judging by Saul’s observations of his wife’s body during these encounters, Miriam does not derive any kind of sexual pleasure.

Aaron’s relationship to language acts as a gauge of his connection to a religion. During his studies with his father, Aaron masters his Hebrew pronunciation, which elicits a compliment from the rabbi on the day of his bar mitzvah. Performing the services in Hebrew that day evokes Aaron’s second experience of god, an experience which to him feels like an actual communion with god. However, Hebrew does not allow him a recurrence of that experience — he performs his part in services automatically, not needing to consult a prayer book for guidance, and plays “sheep” with Eliza. His distance from the language increases when he observes that he does not know what the words he says during services mean, merely how to pronounce them. While Aaron does not know the meaning of the words that he uses during ISKCON ceremonies, his lack of understanding does not concern him because he feels connected to god whenever he says them.

Saul and Eliza’s journeys are more closely connected. Saul’s spiritual path seems very much shaped by his father withholding his Jewish identity from him. Similarly, Eliza sees potential in his path to the national spelling bee because success at spelling could enable her to obtain something that Saul has withheld from her: his being proud of her for any reason but especially for her intelligence and academic performance. When Saul finally recognizes his daughter’s potential, he sets his daughter on a path that he had to abort because of his shortcomings. Besides her spelling ability, Eliza shows an understanding of language superior to her father’s in her ability to detect lies. Aaron notes several times his surprise at his father’s ignorance of his lying. Eliza always knows when Aaron lies and she knows her father lies when he fibs about Miriam after her arrest.

Saul is a character whom the reader both dislikes and pities: dislikes for his manipulation of his children and pities for his inability to attain his spiritual goals. Saul reminded me of a failed child prodigy in a way, in that he seemed to have greater success as a youth and young adult but his potential dried up and his success tapered off. Despite all of his aspiration to become a great spiritual leader, he only managed to be a dorm-room prophet, using his accumulated knowledge of mysticism to seduce young women and achieving spiritual transcendence only through the facilitation of drugs. He realizes the limitations of his collegiate and post-collegiate activities but never ascends higher than a cantor at a temple in his quest for transcendence through Jewish mysticism. Saul recognizes his children’s potential to continue the path that he started. With both Aaron and Eliza, he manipulates them into following a spiritual path: the safe haven from bullies that Saul offers Aaron becomes training for his bar mitzvah and the study help that Saul gives Eliza becomes conditioning for communing with god. Instead of offering obligation-free parental attention, Saul only offers his attention on the condition that the time ultimately results in his child fulfilling a part of his unattained spiritual path, i.e. Aaron becoming a rabbi and Eliza mastering Abulafia’s ladder.

Of the four characters, three have biblical names. In the bible, Aaron is Moses’ brother who leads Moses’ people in building an idol while Moses is up on a hill talking to God and the idol, of course, angers God. Naming the character Aaron as she does perhaps Goldberg alludes to Saul’s placing his faith in the wrong child: he expects Aaron to achieve the highest position in Judaism but ultimately Aaron “betrays” him by joining ISKCON. The biblical Miriam was Moses’ sister, I think, and one of the women who found him floating in a basket on the Nile. She was a prophetess and suffered from leprosy. This biblical characterization of Miriam as a prophet causes me to wonder if Goldberg is suggesting that her Miriam isn’t so crazy after all. And Saul is the first king of Israel whom God replaces with David because he broke God’s rules. Saul is a rather pitiable figure in the bible because God ousts him from his position for rather trivial reasons, including showing mercy to people in battle and not waiting to make an offering to God before heading into battle. Goldberg’s Saul has the namesake of his uncle Solomon, also a biblical king who was known for his wisdom. The combination of these two names describes Goldberg’s Saul rather aptly: he aspired to and was expected to attain wisdom but ultimately failed in a rather pitiable way. Eliza is the only Naumann name with no biblical counterpart, perhaps to accentuate her otherness in the family. “Eliza” is pretty similar to “Elijah,” who was an important prophet in the bible.

'How to Be Good' by Nick Hornby (2001)

How to Be Good had a curious effect on me while reading it. Not to sound like the protagonist — whose continued insistence of goodness based on her occupation annoyed me after the first 20 pages – but I think that I’m a good liberal: I work at a nonprofit organization for very little money; I vote; I help out the Democratic party when I can (and agree); I volunteer at a food bank a few times a month; I don’t eat meat because I disagree with the treatment of animals in the meat industry and I try to stick to my values in other ways. But How to Be Good revealed great gaps between potential liberalism and realized liberalism. There isn’t an empty spare bedroom in my apartment, but I do have an air mattress and a living room that some homeless people could be using. Am I a bad liberal because I would never consider allowing a stranger to live with me? Even though at the most obvious level I was mocking GoodNews and David’s plans for being good, I was provoked to think about things that I do to be good and what I could do better.

In this novel, Hornby managed to create an almost conservative form of liberalism in a way. I’ve always envied staunch conservatives because they have the ability to paint an “us” versus “them” picture of the world. They have a clearly defined world in which there are good people and there are bad people and no one falls somewhere in the middle. Liberals often do not have the liberty of living in such a bifurcated world. Personally, I almost constantly feel trapped in the liberal paradox of we accept everyone except those who do not accept everyone. But GoodNews and David’s reasoning has the clarity and exclusionary attributes of the reasoning of the most conservative Republican.

One very brief part of the novel that I found interesting was the narrator’s ruminations about what life after divorce would be like for her family. Because of their respective careers, the narrator occupies the work sphere while her husband dominates the home sphere, which obviously is the reverse of what one is encouraged to accept as standard gender roles. The narrator’s realization that she fills more of “the man’s role” in her household causes her to ask her son if he thinks of her as his “mum” or his “dad.” I don’t know of any kid whose answer would have differed from Tom because the use of “mom” and “dad” or some equivalent is intended (linguistically at least) to differentiate from male and female parent. However, there is so much more associated with the word “mother” than just a pair of ovaries and a uterus and the same for “father.” When same-sex couples have children, most do not slap the word for a biologically female parent on a male or vice versa (unless one person in the couple is transgendered). Even if one parent in a lesbian couple stays at home with the children and the other works, their children usually call both parents “mommy.” I’m rambling, but I think it’s interesting when literal interpretation and interpretation based on social conditioning begin to tussle.

One small complaint for me about this book: for the first 30 pages or so I was often surprised by references to the narrator’s sex. Hornby most often and most deftly narrates with a male voice and his narrative voice didn’t change that much in the case of his narrator being a woman.

Steven Spielberg's 'Munich' (2005)

I knew that I should not have rethought my dislike of Steven Spielberg films and seen this film. But the previews looked so good. And the reviews were so good. At least the ass didn’t tack on a happy ending to a depressing film as he usually is wont to do. Though given the strange, unsatisfying ending to the film (”There’s a verse in the bible that talks about men breaking bread together. Will you break bread with me?” “No.” [cue Geoffrey Rush stomping on the bread and the macaroni-and-glue picture of the two of them holding hands that Eric Bana made]) a ridiculous, happy ending might have been preferable.

And what most annoys me is that, really, there is a decent, though not particularly inventive, motion picture within Munich. The theatrical release simply needed a more discerning, critical editor and a less egotistical director. And it could have stood for better dialogue, which contains gems like, “Don’t tell anyone about this. […] Just don’t! [cue Eric Bana crossing his arms and stamping his foot before crossing the playground to play with someone else].” I suppose that the really asinine dialogue and the bloated, tedious running length were the real deal-breakers for me. Oh, and the really predictable plot. And the lack of any new ideas to the debate about terrorism and fighting terrorism. Only the most thick-headed, oblivious individuals could consider Spielberg’s depiction of the war on terrorism “eye-opening” and those people are not very likely to see this movie.

So, why did critics like this film so much? I just don’t understand.