I'd love to say January was a fresh new start for me, with a new attitude and a whole new helping of mojo. It was, alas, not. I seem to be going through a bit of a rough stretch. Hell, the entire planet seems to be going through a rough stretch so I feel that I am perhaps not entitled to complain. So anyway, let's ignore the dour mood and carry on, shall we?
Most of the books I read this month were recommended to me. I treasure that I am surrounded by so many book-loving people and that we all have different tastes and experiences to inform our choices. Keeps things interesting, for sure. Another theme this month seems to be that most of them are non-fiction that feels like fiction, or vice versa.
First up was Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson. It tells two overarching stories simultaneously: that of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and of a serial killer that preyed on the women who flocked to the city at that time. It reads like a novel, yet it is deeply researched and rooted in fact.
I recommend this book highly. It's a great read and educational. It's like – this may sound creepy and weird – but it's like the serial murderer story is the spoonful of sugar that makes the learning about history and architecture go down. Yeah, I knew that would sound creepy.
I really did learn a lot though. The Chicago World's Fair is pretty much solely responsible for all the lookalike architecture for seats of state and local governments across the US. Chicago is called the Windy City not because of the wind. And it's where the Ferris Wheel made its debut! Thanks to the Dave for the recommendation.
The Girls by Emma Cline was recommended to me by a client. It's an exploration of how someone who's lost and looking to belong could find themselves enmeshed in a cult. When young teenager Evie first connects with a group of hippies near her California home, she is beguiled by their seeming freedom and unconventionality, their attachment to their charismatic (older, male) leader. Over the course of the novel, the rot begins to manifest.
If you're familiar with the story of the Manson Family (is everyone, still?), this novel will evoke strong echoes. It very much feels like a fictionalized telling of real events. It is beautifully written and strongly reminded this very grown-up (grown-up chronically speaking, at least) reader of the challenges of being 14. You're so young, so naive, yet so hungry to not be. I'm not going to tell you how it turns out. Go ahead and read it yourself.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. It's hard to believe this book is actually classified as non-fiction. Its bizarre cast of characters and its surreal setting in Savannah, Georgia seem to plead the case for fiction. I first read this book shortly after it was published back in the mid-90s. I remember enjoying it a lot the first time around. I know it made me want to visit Savannah.
The reason I picked it up again was because we were considering a trip for March Break, maybe to Savannah. So I thought I'd see if it would rekindle the enthusiasm and inspire some planning. This time, I did not find it quite as magical. The supporting characters seemed more in the nature of caricatures; I'd like to learn more about them as humans, particularly The Lady Chablis, the drag queen and Minerva, the Voodoo practitioner. And the main character, Jim Williams, is not particularly interesting nor are most of the others as riveting as I'd remembered. As it happens, we've decided there are a lot of reasons to stay domestic this year for March Break – and this book didn't dissuade me.
The Girls by Lori Lansen. Why yes, this is the same title as the novel previously mentioned! As I was reading the other, I mentioned it to a couple of different people who each assumed I was talking about this one and enthusiastically endorsed it. Once we unravelled that we were talking about two different novels, I decided I simply had to read this one as well.
Seriously, so good. It tells the life story of conjoined twins, "the girls" of the title, Rose and Ruby Darlen. Each chapter alternates first-person perspective from one girl to the other. Over the course of the novel, the reader gets to know each girl intimately. It's a fascinating study in how two people who have, of necessity, virtually identical life stories can experience those events so very differently.
This novel is fiction, yet it reads so believably as a memoir. Even the peripheral stories are so genuine. It was a bonus as well that it takes place in the fictional town of Leaford, very near my little corner as well as the very real cities of Chatham, Windsor, London, and Toronto. Lori Lansens is certainly an author I'll look for again.
The Clay Girl by Heather Tucker. This novel came very highly recommended by one of the friends who also recommended Lansens' The Girls. I have mixed feelings about it when I think it through. On the positive, I was held rapt at many points by the language and storytelling, especially when the main character, Ari, is very young. She is one of several sisters from a tremendously damaged family. I found myself thinking about this book frequently when I was doing something else entirely. I almost worried about the characters when I wasn't with them. Wow, right?
Increasingly throughout the novel, however, it seems like the author is simply too enamored by her creation. Ari is perfect. Captivatingly beautiful, astoundingly intelligent, deeply empathetic, and gloriously creative. Pretty much utterly flawless. Everyone around her falls in love with her. Honestly, it gets a little tiresome. I want a little more nuance, a little more darkness, mixed in with the light in a character. On the other hand, if you're in the market for hagiography, have I got a story for you.
The Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Okay, so nothing memoir-like or particularly educational here. I had to laugh when Dave said he tried to read this novel because it was classified as time travel. It's really more of a Harlequin romance set in ye olde Scottish Highlands with time travel as the convenient device for a fish out of water heroine. Lots of smouldering glances and sexy times. Also some graphic sexual violence, which is less my cup of tea. I don't know if I'll read any further in the series, but I did get a kick out of this one. Based on its enduring popularity (turns out there's a TV show now and, no surprise, the lead male actor is hot like fire), I expected something more. But if you're looking for a entertaining story, fairly well told, you'll not go wrong with this one.