Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

History is a subject that often bears the charms of a box of saltines, a chore kids endure only because they know that recess is next. Unfortunate, really, because behind history's names and dates is a wealth of spellbinding stories that can enrich our perspective of the world via knowledge of what came before. As such, there is no better historian than the one who can sit down at the campfire and spin a fuckin' yarn, chief among them surely Erik Larson on the evidence of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.

Yeah, that'll be abbreviated from here on out.

The Devil in the White City is historical nonfiction that relates three true stories. First, Larson details architect Daniel Burnham's struggle to orchestrate construction of the World's Columbian Expo held in Chicago in 1893. Secondly, the book delves into America's first serial killer, a certain H. H. Holmes who used the Expo as a preying ground for mostly female victims. Thirdly, The Devil in the White City tells the story of late 19th century Chicago, a filthy city bustling with equal parts vice and civic pride.

So, to tackle those in reverse order:

Larson paints the picture of turn of the century Chicago as an industrial giant of a city eager to prove its cultural capability to the rest of the world. Larson effectively captures the spirit of the city, its now-unthinkable civic pride that drove it to complete the impossible task of building the biggest world fair in record time. It's the details he provides, however, that lay bare the grim reality beneath it all: cholera outbreaks caused by tainted drinking water, corpses of horses and dogs rotting in the street, skies choked with coal dust. Chicago was a city booming, a city overwhelmed, a city whose growth had outstripped its morality.

As such, it offered the perfect environment in which a certain H. H. Holmes could murder a string of victims that may have numbered in the hundreds. The city was flush with visitors, so what's another missing person to the overworked Chicago police force? In handling Holmes Larson thankfully resists getting cheap and sensational, leaving the chilling facts to speak for themselves. What's perhaps most interesting about Holmes is not that he built a death-trap hotel and gave it a vigorous workout as much as the fact that he was an amoral charmer with an ungodly gift for manipulation. This was a man who borrowed $2500 from a great uncle-in-law and immediately forged a counterpart check. This was a man who registered his hotel's property to a fictitious name to facilitate deflecting debt collectors. This was a man who saw life insurance as a free paycheck to be invoked as often as he liked. The sheer audacity of this guy's evil chutzpah is staggering.

As for Daniel Burnham's role in building the expo, Larson tells the story of a group of people who pushed a mammoth project from concept to completion despite fires, storms, deaths, missed deadlines, and a bank-crushing financial crisis. It's the struggle to build an ambitious dream into reality, a story claimed bursting with universal appeal (despite ownership claims by America). Larson weaves the various threads of the tale with a novelist's penchant for storytelling, restructuring cold history into a compelling narrative. The flow of information is manipulated to build suspense for certain developments, case in point the night I couldn't stop reading until it was revealed what structural marvel Chicago built as a response to the Eiffel Tower, which I'll not spoil beyond saying it's only fitting that America's answer to Paris's landmark was a goddamn ride.

A ride in which some people died, by the way. In a fair in which other people died. In a fair that was built upon the occasional worker's death. Christ, there was a lot of death back then, wasn't there? One thing The Devil in the White City illustrates is just how less predictable death was back then. Practically every person in the book was touched by premature death, in either their own lives or the lives of loved ones, and if pneumonia and poor sanitation weren't enough there was a psychopathic animal like Holmes taking advantage of an inadequate criminal system. While modern medicine and current law enforcement certainly isn't perfect, it's difficult to walk away from The Devil in the White City without newfound appreciation for the last century of progress.

But what a place 1890's Chicago is to visit! Larson's enthusiasm for assembling a world out of historical documents yields a vivid landscape and his fascination with the time and its people is contagious. The Devil in the White City's paper trail of letters and news articles is even of interest, the lengthy bibliography a good read in and of itself. Larson operates completely transparently, tracing down the source of every last quote and providing his reasoning on the rare occurrence that he deviates from cold fact to make some educated guesses. Everything is either documented or fully justified.

So what is The Devil in the White City, anyway? It's nonfiction, yet it reads like a novel. It reads like a novel, and yet every quote can be traced to a direct source.

It's history, and it turns out that history kicks ass.

Who knew?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Adventures in solitude

Part of what made last weekend's walk on State Street so enjoyable was the fact that I did it alone.

This goes completely against 33 years of accumulated belief. Yes, there are certain things you do alone, like reading or shopping for socks or engaging in any form of cardiovascular exercise. But activities of a less purposeful sort--heading to the park or cruising a farmer's market or hanging out at the mall, you know, activities that can be best described as going places to walk around and see what's going on--well, aren't they best experienced with someone else? Someone with which to chat and joke and riff when something unintentionally amusing occurs?

Sunday was warm with a dawning summer, the sky cloudless. Without any concrete plans for the day, I decided just to spend a couple hours downtown. I admit I had a little shopping to do, but the main draw was just getting out of the house and seeing what was going on. The rest of Madison apparently had the same idea as State Street was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with students and families and couples and people all unified in the desire to get out and enjoy the sunshine.

I saw three guys and two girls perform an island-inspired drum and dance routine on Library Mall. I saw a washboard player of indeterminate gender provide rhythm for a weathered steel guitarist. I saw a trio of aggressively fashionable Asian men wearing scarves and elf shoes. I saw at least forty bickering cyclists lapping Capital Square in some extended endurance race. I saw an enormous dog mortify its owner by happily dropping a shit in the middle of State Street.

I saw a lot of things, and at some point I realized I was enjoying the experience in part because I didn't have anyone to share it with. Without a partner, the city and its people and its bustle of activity became my companion.

I was reminded of last summer when I travelled solo to San Francisco. It was my first trip alone, and while I enjoyed the point each day in which I met up with other vacationing friends, I found myself treasuring the mornings spent wandering the streets by myself. Much like Sunday it was just me and the city and its people, and I don't think I would have connected with San Francisco nearly as much had I experienced it entirely with a travelling companion.

There is a certain raw power in not having someone else with which to build a zone of defense--it's just you and the world around you. Without your own bubble of social activity, you're more attuned to the details of your environment. You're free to truly connect with your surroundings and let yourself be tugged in whatever direction most pulses with life.

Which isn't to say that shared experiences aren't rewarding in their own way--my mornings in San Francisco wouldn't have been nearly as enjoyable without the accompanying social periods in which the city was used as a launch pad for epic collaborative brilliance, after all. I am inherently a people person.

But I'm done assuming someone else is necessary for those moments when I want to get out of the house. I think I'll take myself to the farmer's market this Saturday just to walk around a bit and see what's going on, in fact. I'll wander without a plan and drift toward centers of activity.

I'll probably buy something, but I won't be disappointed if I don't.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A brief note from the management

Dogs On Houses isn't even two months old and yet I've written more entries than I managed during the past two years on my LiveJournal. Part of this is due to the allure of a shiny new toy, I'm sure, but I've also got to admit it is nice to have a platform large enough to encompass more than just scatological humor.

On the topic of my now defunct LiveJournal, I'm thinking of sifting through those archives and polishing some of the better stories for inclusion on Dogs On Houses. I'll probably do it once a month or so as a means of giving a permanent home to the entries I deem worthy.

Generally speaking, though, I am more interested in writing new things than trying to patch leaks in old posts, so we'll see if I ever actually get around to doing this.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Mist, Addendum

For both of you who actually care what I have to say about The Mist (beyond yesterday's already lengthy review), I have two more observations that are absolutely packed with film-shattering spoilers so for the love of god please proceed with extreme caution.



Observation The First:

I mentioned this in my review yesterday, but my god the people in this film are jaw-droppingly stupid. I can't quite stress how annoying it is to watch a two hour display of unrealistic decision making.

To wit:

Characters wrestle with alien tentacles coming through an open docking door for a good two minutes before someone decides to try closing the door.

Characters pile up bags of dog food to fortify the massive glass windows that make up the front wall of the store, despite the fact that everyone could be moved to the back docking room that is far less open and has doors that would be easy to barricade.

The protagonist's end plan involves piling everyone into his truck and driving until out of either gas or supernatural mist, whichever happens first. As opposed to, say, driving to a quarter of a tank and then siphoning gas from a stranded vehicle. As opposed to, say, trying to find enclosed suites of buildings like malls that might house other bands of survivors. As opposed to, say, any damn thing that makes sense.

Some may dismiss my complaints outright as expecting too much from a B movie, but the fact is everything hinges on the audience buying into the characters enough to experience the unfolding horror directly through them, and this illusion is shattered when characters earn loathing via a string of head-smacking decisions.


Observation the Second:

Yeah, the ending was great and all, but was it really the best ending for that particular film? The original novella had a slightly more ambiguous close featuring the protagonist heading for Hartford on vague indications of possible human activity. Darabont axes that in favor for the suicide-pact-gotcha, which completely changes the angle of the film by justifying the religious zealot's actions. She spilled the blood necessary to appease her god, and in the end her people are rescued while the disbelievers are damned to the darkest level of personal hell.

Far more satisfying, for me, would have been a compromise between the two, a vague ending that still suggests a bleak future for mankind. End directly after the protagonist and co. witness the massive, mountain-like alien crossing the highway, albeit punch it up slightly:

They near a major city in the search for civilization, truck suddenly sputtering on empty. Then the giant beast wanders over, the awed passengers visually following its path as it passes and--here's the money shot--the fog parts enough to reveal the first shots of the obviously empty city, another distant alien behemoth--this one even larger--carelessly knocking over a dark and dead skyscraper as it lumbers across the landscape.

The new management has arrived.



This, for the record, is probably the most I've ever written about a movie I couldn't stand.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Review: The Mist (2007 film)

Except for a spirited final five minutes, Frank Darabont's recent cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's novella The Mist is a complete loss.

Wait, back up.

Except for a spirited final five minutes and an earlier scene in which a bagboy is gorily eviscerated by an alien tentacle, Frank Darabont's recent cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's novella The Mist is a complete loss.

Let's try that one more time.

It's easy to see what Darabont is going for in The Mist: an urgent thriller about a group of people trapped in a supermarket surrounded by an ominous mist, the physical monsters spewing from the smoky depths outside reflecting the psychological monsters taking hold of the terrified people inside. Overgrown creepy crawlies will be gorily battled, terrified townfolk will be picked off one by one, and the building's four walls will begin to seem increasingly constricting as hysteria begins to boil with the rise of mob mentality.

So what went wrong? Well, including characters that behave and interact in a natural manner wouldn't have hurt. The first sign of trouble occurs early on as two local yokels lash out at Thomas Jane's everyman protagonist, deciding to belittle him and read class condescension into his cautious suggestions. It unfolds awkwardly and unearned, their words inexplicable. It's not that their behavior is impossible, just that the script, direction, and acting don't build enough to make the sale. The scene is reduced to a display of bizarro world behavior that destroys any suspension of disbelief.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a momentary gaffe as much as a template for things to come. Trapped townsfolk respond to a late-night invasion of giant insects by turning on all the lights. A tow-headed son tears from protective arms during a moment of danger for the express purpose of giving the protagonist someone to rescue. Characters saddle themselves with an elderly lady while walking as slowly as possible through the exposed parking lot during an expedition to an adjacent drug store. People repeatedly decide that the best way of reacting to life-threatening danger is to dancing around long enough to die, instead of, you know, getting the hell out.

The worst suspension of disbelief violation, however, is the third act that sees Marcia Gay Harden's religious old-testament crackpot reduce a store of normal townfolk to slathering cult fiends within a twelve hour period. It's a feasible plotline but the movie, again, fails to make the sale. Harden's cartoonish preacher is simply too nasty and crass, a shrill zealot bereft of any charisma whatsoever. Successful cult leaders berate and insult, yes, but don't they also occasionally tell you something you want to hear?

As if two hours of unbelievable people doing dumb things isn't bad enough, visually the movie is a clumsy, disorienting mess. Darabont seems to be attempting a cinéma-vérité style that unfolds like a true crime reality show, but the result is a disjointed television drama punctuated with mediocre CGI beasties. "Amateurish" isn't a word I would have previously associated with the man behind The Shawshank Redemption, but The Mist's numerous 180 degree rule violations and baffling crash zooms imply otherwise.

But then we get to the ending, a climax so relentlessly bleak that it deserves applause on some level. The previous two hours may be one misfire after another, but it takes true balls to foist such a soulcrusher on an unsuspecting audience. Advance warning had me waiting for it, but every time I thought we had reached the bottom Darabont yanked out the floor and tumbled things deeper. The black ending does carry a "gotcha!" that reduces the film somewhat to Twilight Zone episode territory, but ultimately the protagonist's fate is dark enough to graft itself to one's consciousness until it can be fully absorbed a few days later. As such, a success.

But imagine how much better that ending would have been had we actually cared.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My mother, always one step ahead of me

A recent visit from my parents left me with a loaf of sourdough bread home-cooked in my mother's kitchen. A few nights ago I decided to toast a slice as an after-dinner snack.

I made a discovery when I tried to eat the first slice and the discovery was this: the crust of homemade bread operates as a conduit for heat in a manner completely unlike the mild-tempered variant found in supermarket aisles. Homemade bread crust could light cigarettes.

There was an audible sizzle as the crust fused to my upper lip.


I yanked the slice away but it tugged and broke in two, one piece dangling from my mouth.


I grabbed the crust directly and managed to peel it away from my lips, but not without losing some stowaway strips of burned skin.

And so.

I looked down and saw the bread burning a hole in the counter top, melting its way to the basement.


Friday, April 4, 2008

Things researched at work today

Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, mustaches and penstaches are, in fact, mutually exclusive.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Inventory of a misspent youth

I am sorting through boxes of leftovers from my childhood, piles and piles of evidence of how I spent my copious spare time before I started shaving and going on dates.

Just tonight, for example, I have seen the following:
  • Junior high skit scripts

  • Maps of imaginary continents with apostrophe-plagued city names

  • A manual for a video game I never got around to actually making

  • Character sheets for roleplaying games I would never actually play

  • An absolutely appalling 20 page prequel to an otherwise unwritten fantasy trilogy

  • Restaurant mat dinosaur artwork

  • A notebook drawing of Mt. Rushmore featuring the heads of famous cats

  • Recipes culled from the finest chefs of Mrs. Field's third grade class

  • Cinema titles parodies like "Indiana Jerk and the Pimple of Doom"

  • A drawing of a beach-loving gremlin in bermuda shorts with the caption "SURF'S UP!"

  • An uncompleted Ninja Turtles radio adaptation script that is nothing more than a direct transcription of dialogue from the comic book

  • Illustrations of bands I wanted to be in (complete with setlists of nonexistent songs)

  • Logo designs for "Monopoly III"

  • The worst lyrics ever fucking written

So many years of nerdy adolescent creativity stacked up in towers of graph paper and notebooks. What do I do with all this stuff?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The reluctant souvenir

A coworker of mine recently brought in a collection of sea shells his family had picked during a recent cruise of St. Kitts.

He told me to keep one, if I wanted.

Later he sent me a photo of the St. Kitts beach from which the shells were selected. The sunlight poured down to warm the vast shores of sand, the surf white and gentle as it rolled in. Lush hills formed knuckles on a green finger curled around the bay, the peaks lost in distant, rolling clouds. A gull screeched somewhere, invisible in the endless sky.

I looked down at my transplanted sea shell, sitting on my desk in my cubicle in Madison, Wisconsin.

"This is bullshit," it said.