Sunday, August 25, 2013

What I'm Reading: City of Scoundrels

City of Scoundrels by Gary Krist is historical non-fiction covering the story of a particularly horrific week-and-a-half in the history of Chicago, specifically, July 21st to July 31st 1919.  The experimental flight of an airship kicked the eleven days off when it caught fire above the Loop and crashed through the atrium of a bank building, killing airship riders and bank employees alike.  The next day, a six-year old girl was kidnapped, the prime suspect a pedophile living next door, kicking off a media feeding frenzy. An incident on the border between a white beach and black beach a couple days later sparked one of the worst race riots in American history, exacerbated by a transit strike that forced thousands of city workers onto the dangerous streets and nearly shut the city down.

It's a dramatic period to cover, and Krist does a good job of giving each of the events its due, but without crowding anything out.  He provides context and background, bringing readers up to speed on how and why each development occurred, and to what extent they were inter-related.  He also does an excellent job of bringing interesting little details to light, helped by his use not only of newspapers and official reports from the period, but also diaries from contemporary Chicago residents, particularly that of Emily Frankenstein, a nineteen-year-old with an interest in current events.

That Krist was able to assemble such a complete picture of the period is largely due to the existence of eight daily newspapers in Chicago at the time.  The different newspapers served Chicago's left, right, and centrist readers, its labor sympathizers and big business, its blacks, Germans, and Poles, assuring that any major event, and lots of smaller ones, would receive coverage from several viewpoints.  Should an American city now experience such an eventful week, I wonder if historians decades from now will be able to research it as thoroughly.  That even major cities now rarely support more than two, and often only one, daily makes me doubt it.  The typical response to that would be that of course blogs and micro-newssites on the Web cover cities with a wealth of detail not possible in earlier times--but will these blogs and sites still be accessible in fifty, eighty, or a hundred years?

Rather less successful was Krist's attempt to show that this sequence of events had far-reaching consequences in Chicago.  In fact, the whole point of the book is that this eleven-day period somehow forged modern Chicago, but I just don't see it.  The airship disaster was a freak accident, the kidnapping of the six-year old was regrettable but not especially important (except to her family, of course!), and the transit strike was only one in a long line of labor unrest incidents in Chicago, not the first and far from the last.  The only one of the incidents that really had a long-lasting impact, from what I can tell, was the race riot.  Up until then, in Krist's telling, Chicago had been relatively welcoming to blacks migrating from the South, but the riot seemed to have ignited a period of racial animosity that smoldered for decades.

In fact, I'd say the very facts Krist present show that Chicago went on pretty much as it always had, despite its hellish summer in 1919.  The same Republican-machine mayor, Big Bill Thompson, was re-elected that fall.  No important businesses began or failed, no social movements or major reforms had their seeds in the events.  Big Bill did manage to pass his Chicago Plan a few months later, a framework for vastly expanding and modernizing Chicago's roads, bridges, parks, and civic institutions.  While the events in the book perhaps gave fresh impetus to the Chicago plan, it had been in the making for almost ten years and very likely would have passed in any case.

No, the real event of 1919 that impacted Chicago was the passage of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution on 16 January, with entered force a year later.  This amendment, prohibiting alcohol, was the prime cause of the rise of organized crime in Chicago, which really defined the city in the 1920s.  Except for the race riot, the events related in City of Scoundrels, as fun and satisfying as it is to read, are little more than historical footnotes, notable only for their close temporal proximity.

If this sounds interesting to you, by all means read this book--you won't be disappointed. I highly recommend it for the armchair historian.  But if you're hoping to find out what really made the city tick in the 1920s, you should instead read Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, the definitive history of Prohibition, and one in which Chicago plays no small role.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

What I'm Reading: X'ed Out

X'ed Out is a graphic novel by Charles Burns.  It was loaned to me by a friend who lauded it as one of the better things he's read lately.  It follows Doug, a 20-something art school student who's been having a tough time lately.  His relationship with his girlfriend is going bad, his mom is sick, and his dad is descending into pain pill addiction.  Worst of all, he's taking pills (for depression, maybe?  It's not made clear.) that give him bizarre nightmares.

I have to say, the nightmares were my favorite parts.  In them, the art turns more cartoony and Doug looks like an adult Tin-Tin.  It's nicely surrealistic and horrifying, while mixing-up the events of his daytime world with dream logic.  They take place in a sort of South Asian village, where bizarre creatures curse Doug out when he slows them down on the sidewalk, people eat strange worm-like creatures with human facial features, and biotoxic waste spills openly into the waterways.  Yet, like dreams, there is a sort of internal logic to this world and indeed, Doug seems to be on a sort of mission there, something involving a queen imprisoned in a big beehive in the center of town, even if he doesn't understand fully the mission or why he must carry it out.

Of course, Doug's waking life is hardly any better.  These parts didn't work as well for me, largely because Doug isn't very sympathetic.  His life is aimless, living at home with his parents, attending art school because he doesn't know what else to do, passive-aggressively trying to break up with his girlfriend when he meets someone new.  Actually, passive-aggressive is a good term for how he lives.  It's no wonder he's depressed and finds it easier to live meaningfully in his dreams.  He rejects anything that might make his waking life worthwhile, but doesn't seem to have the energy or gumption to create his own way.

Not that his character doesn't ring true--I've met plenty of people like him.  Like those people, I kind of want to give Doug a shake.  Wake up!  Set yourself a goal!  It frustrates me to be around people like that, and it frustrates me to read about them.

Of course, maybe the point of the book is that Doug finds his way.  I don't know because the book ends just as Doug is about to enter the Hive, where the queen in his nightmares has been taken.  The next volume is due in, let's see...2012.  So I guess it's probably out already.  I might check out, the art was pretty great, and I'd like to see what the Hive looks like.  But if I don't get to it, I won't miss Doug.  See you around dude, hope things work out for you.  You want my number, maybe we can hang out sometime?  Nah, I'll see you when I see you.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Again With the Importance of Writing Groups

So I was on vacation last week, and the week before that was just crazy, and maybe the week before that I'd been kind of lazy.  But for whatever reason, I hadn't written in my WiP for three weeks.  I was really dreading getting back to it, too.  After you haven't worked on your project for a while, it's hard to get back into the groove.

But on Monday I went to my Writers of Chantilly meeting, and I came away charged.  Ready to return to my work.  Maybe it was the positive comments I received on my latest chapter.  Maybe it was being around other writers excited about their work.  Maybe it was simply thinking about the writing process.  Whatever the reason, last night I sat down at the computer and made a number of changes to my novel I've been meaning to for a while, and got in some actual writing as well.  All in all, a solid night, and I'm still ready to write again tonight.

So here's another reason we could add to the list of why you, a writer, should definitely be in a writer's group: getting back on track when you've lost your way.

Friday, August 9, 2013

What I'm Reading: Daytripper

Daytripper is a graphic novel by Brazilian brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá.  The two have illustrated American comics in the past (notably the Umbrella Academy series from a few years back that was popular with the artier portions of the comics readership), but I think they might be better known in other parts of the world.  I remember Daytripper receiving quite favorable critical reviews when it appeared in serialized single-issue form in 2010, though I passed it by at the time.  I think now doing so was a mistake and am glad that my brother sent me the collected version last Christmas.

The story follows Brás, a journalist in his early 30s whose career is stuck at a small newspaper in Sao Paulo, where he writes the obituaries.  To make matters worse, his father is a famous and respected novelist in Brazil whose accomplishments will always overshadow Brás's, no matter what he does.  He's depressed over having to attend a reception for his father, although things are looking up when his best friend Jorge, a staff photographer, also ends up assigned to the reception.  At the end of the first chapter, Brás is unexpectedly shot in a robbery at a bar near the reception hall, and the final words are his own obituary.

This sets the pattern for each of the ten chapters (corresponding to the ten original issues), each of which visits Brás at a certain period in his life and ends with his death, giving the overview of his life up to that point in obituary form.  Obviously, the point here is not a straightforward narrative of his life; indeed, the chapters are not even in chronological order, jumping around to various important points in his childhood, adulthood, and old age.

Rather, I think the purpose is to show how the meaning of Brás's life changes with the context, his roles as lover, friend, son, father, husband, employee, and so on coloring the way his life is interpreted with each succeeding obituary.  It's not surprising that Brás has a certain everyman quality about him, allowing the reader to easily identify with his different life stages.

It's perhaps a little odd I should have gotten this far in the review without discussing the art.  After all, it is a graphic novel, and one with spectacularly good art.  Perhaps it's because the art so perfectly fits the story, realistic but loose, catching all the little details and illustrating characters' emotions so well, it hardly seems necessary to comment on it specifically.  Odd, but I think perhaps making art that is unobtrusive is harder than something that really calls attention to itself. 
Some nudity and sex makes the book inappropriate for younger readers, but it's not salacious in nature and shouldn't put any older readers off.  I would recommend Daytripper to any adult or mature teen-ager who is interested in a quiet but beautifully told and drawn story delving into what life means as we assume different roles as we age.