What I’m Reading In Nonfiction [#1]

As always, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction these last few weeks. Somehow I managed to pick up two books that have Chicago as a major setting.

1893-chicago-fair-white-city-dayThe first, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, talks about Chicago as the site of the 1893 World’s Fair. The work it took to build the fairgrounds while the dark machinations of H. H. Holmes also played out in a hotel of his own construction. As the whole of the United States were struck dumb with awe at the White City. Holmes was murdering people, particularly young women, in his murder palace designed in a way to best secret away the bodies of his victims. Since I recently completed the fifth season of American Horror Story, I couldn’t help but draw between Holmes and James Patrick March of the Hotel Cortez which I’m sure was the intention.

tenor

 

Now I’m reading Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard which centers on the oft-overlooked US president, James Garfield. He was spontaneously nominated at the 1880 Republican National Convention which was held in Chicago that year. This happened despite him giving a speech in support of fellow Ohioan and then-Secretary of the Treasury, John Sherman and publicly decrying his name being put up for nomination as the convention went on.

 

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Garfield (left), Sherman (right)

 

Unfortunately, Garfield’s is perhaps most famous for being assassinated. He was a Gilded Age president and in my high school history classes, we were taught a good chunk of president’s during this time were unremarkable. There was so much corruption fueled in part by the spoils system beneath the surface of their administration that their tenures seemed moot in comparison.

But I’m not quite sure how fair this assessment was. I question most of the things I learned in high school history classes and this book has already more keenly interested me in Garfield’s life. Here are a few of the things I learned about the 20th President of the United States:

1) He was raised in poor circumstances. He lost his father at a fairly young age leaving his mother, Eliza, to care for him and his other siblings. Encouraged by her and propelled by his own work ethic, he made the most out of his status by improving himself through education.

2) He lusted after a life on the seas. He set off to be a sailor when he was young acting on this desire.

3) He was a Union hero, during the Civil War and a fierce abolitionist. His strategy at the Battle of Middle Creek not only landed him a Union victory despite his small army but helped keep the state of Kentucky from falling into Confederate hands.

That’s all I have this week! Did any nonfiction book catch any of your interest this week? What were they about? I would love to know!

 

Yesterday [Review]

17264080The Skinny: Amanda is trying to get her life back on track after experiencing a recent tragedy. While making her way to her job, she runs into a Mark Callahan, a mounted policeman of the Chicago force. After their dramatic meeting, they feel drawn to each other. Almost as if they’ve known each other in a former life. Their discovery of what ties them together takes them from the battlefields of the Civil War to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

You know those novels where the premise just sounds so perfect. Where it seems to have the perfect blend of action, psychology, history with the right smatterings of a romance to make for a compelling narrative? Ever had all these hopes dashed?

Okay, that might be a bit harsh. While reading this book, I just couldn’t help but feel so disillusioned with everything: the characters, the structure, the romance (oh the romance!). But let me take a step back.

Of course, there were narrative elements I really did like about the story. The opening chapters are full of action and quirky character details were instantly engaging. Every step back in time was beautifully written with rich historical detail. I looked forward to the sections where we were seeing the Civil War through a child’s eyes and the devastation wrought by the Chicago Fire of 1871. Samyann’s clear love of Chicago, past and present, really comes through. These were the parts where I thought the book truly shined.

Let me just preface the next section by stating that I know that this book wasn’t written for me. For a mystery, horror, and nonfiction enthusiast, romance ends up being a really hit or miss genre. I more enjoy romance as a piece of greater narrative, not the point of the narrative. Whether two people get together can’t be the only stake. Despite the many elements in Yesterday, it is essentially a romance story with that one stake. More frustratingly, however, is that it’s a romance novel where I didn’t even care if the leads got together.

I really disliked the characters, particularly the leads. Amanda has suffered many tragic losses throughout her life and finds that these tragic incidents define her life. She refuses to get close to any other person. When she feels that she might lose someone, she completely breaks down. This is not too bad by itself but how it was executed grated on my nerves. She has obvious coping issues but the narrative posits love instead of therapy as her ultimate cure.

The psychological therapy where she regresses into her past life was supposed to reveal a trend of trauma and to figure out how she knows Mark, the other main lead. The story continually posits Mark as the fix to her trauma. That being together will ultimately fix Amanda’s mindset and I wasn’t here for it. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way and it was really difficult for me to root for them as a couple because of it. There’s no growth that naturally springs from the narrative. The solution is that they should be together and the narrative more hinges on that question than any personal development.

I also had a problem with how the story was structured. Most of the plot happens while the characters are sitting down talking and drinking their favorite beverage (be it wine, beer, coffee, what have you). Important plot points are referenced in the past tense. Scenes outside of these that I would’ve much rather seen like Mark’s discussion with the antique store owner are skipped over so the characters can talk about it in Amanda’s apartment. This structure becomes quite trying. Even in past scenes, I would’ve more liked to see how Bonnie’s (Amanda’s past life) family lived through the Civil War before ultimately making the decision to go North. Or how I would’ve loved to see Bonnie and Daniel first meeting in the past rather than just dropping into that story at a much later date–skipping right past their first meeting to their courting.

Unfortunately, this is why I could hardly enjoy the book. I really, really wanted to love it but I couldn’t.

 

My Rating:

1 star