Friday, June 27, 2008

Karen Abbott, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul

Back around the turn of the century, Chicago's red light district was affectionately called "the Levee," a section of south Dearborn that was the location for, among other things, the famed Everleigh Club, a high-end brothel run by Minna and Ada Everleigh. Boasting a bevy of beautiful "butterflies" -- as well as perfumed rooms decorated in opulence and a reputation for cleanliness, safety, and sophistication -- the Everleigh Club became world-renowned, a double-edged sword that not only brought millions of dollars to the city's vice district, but also a notoriety that led to the Levee's demise.

Abbott's book recounts the time period beautifully, rewarding the reader with details about this period in Chicago's history while showing how famous names like Al Capone, Jack Johnson, Katherine Hepburn, and Frank Lloyd Wright became part of the tapestry that was the Levee district. Moreover, Abbott explains how the Everleigh Club contributed to the establishment of the Mann Act, the Women's Suffrage movement, and even the formation of what would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Similar to Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, Abbott's book is a readable and fascinating look at this piece of Chicago history, even illustrating how its resonance is still felt today.

If you're like me and enjoy reading about turn-of-the-century Chicago history, definitely check out Sin in the Second City. You won't be disappointed!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Joseph Frank, Dostoyevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821 - 1849

This fall I will conclude my four-year Newberry project involving the complete works of Charles Dickens, and although part of me would like to resume the seminar series all over again, another part of me would like to tackle another author I haven't read much of, but would like to: Feodor Dostoyevsky. I am in the process of gathering his major and minor fiction and, along the way, came across the well-known five-part biography of Dostoyevsky by Joseph Frank. I just finished reading volume one today.

In this volume, Frank focuses on the early years of Dostoyevsky, from his birth up to his arrest in 1849 for his involvement in the Petrashevsky circle. Along the way, significant attention is given to Dostoyevsky's early childhood and family life, his involvement in various literary groups and the socio-political milieu of mid-nineteenth century Russia, and his earliest publications (Poor Folk, The Double, Netotchka Nezvanova, and various short stories of the time period). What I really enjoy about Frank's biographical style, however, is that he doesn't burden the reader with the daily incidentals that occupy his subject's life; instead, he discusses only those people and those incidents that will somehow later inform Dostoyevsky's fiction and his philosophical ideology. Hence, for as comprehensive as volume one is, not a word is wasted!

I would like to read some of this early fiction before I proceed to Volume Two.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

I don't know if this ever happens to you, but I've been in a bit of a reading funk for the past few weeks. I want to read something, but nothing feels right ... I begin a dozen different books, hoping that something with sustain my attention, but nothing does ... Every so often I get into a funk like that, and it usually takes that one particular book (and a few weeks of false starts) to get me back on track. This time, Edwin Drood was just that book. Maybe it was the unsolved crime and detective aspect of the novel that grabbed me, appealing to my noir fiction guilty pleasure. Regardless, my Summer Reading 2008 kicks off with The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

This was the final novel Dickens wrote, left incomplete because he died mid-way through the composition. Although he left a few minor notes and a couple of fragments that offer clues to how he might have continued the narrative, Drood is the best example of fiction based on an unsolved crime simply because it is unsolveable: Which minor characters are ultimately important? Is the title character even really dead? Who has the best motive for committing the crime? Which details are really red herrings? We'll never know, and although legions of "Droodians" over the decades have tried to speculate on the answers, the solution (to paraphrase Hamlet) is silence.

What I like about this novel is Dickens's command of his material at this point. He was failing in health, he was exhausted from public readings, and he was experiencing difficulty with his creative process ... yet he was able to muster the energy and will to create a novel rich in imagery, well-sustained in tone, and linear in plot. What it lacks in typical Dickensian touches (rambling subplots, grotesque characters, biting social commentary, etc.) it more than makes up for as the first half of what might have been his crowning achievement as an author.

If you enjoy detective fiction, crime fiction, and mysteries, you'll enjoy the unfinished novel that is The Mystery of Edwin Drood!