I’d thought that short stories would be an ideal source for audiobook material, each story being about the length of a one-way commute, but the collection of 11 Chekov stories was not satisfying at all. I’d had a similar experience listening to an unabridged version of The Brothers Kharamazov a few months earlier. The more I type, the more it seems like I don’t have the proper apprecation for Russian literature, which tends to be very philosophical, weighty, the characters more likely to be symbolic representations if not outright mouthpieces for deep thoughts rather than being memorable in their own right. If that is the case, if indeed Russian literature is something I need to study, to learn to appreciate, then I don’t think audiobooks, which by their nature are superficial, is the appropriate format.
Glad I made the decision to read this book, rather than listen to it on the commute. Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City” is a masterful work of non-fiction, able not only to re-tell two compelling true stories, but also link them in a logical fashion.
Larson focuses on two men. Daniel Burnham, lead architect and driving force behind the 1890s Chicago World’s Fair, is depicted as brilliant and visionary, yet also maniacal and controlling. Plagued by natural and man-made disasters, constantly behind schedule and over budget, the World’s Fair depicted by Larson seems ever on the brink of failure, and when the Fair (dubbed “the White City” by the press) does open, its subsequent fantastic success is largely credited to Burnham’s genius and ambition.
Dr. H.H. Holmes is a genius of a different sort. One of America’s most infamous serial killers, Holmes operated a hotel just outside the World’s Fair, and Larson presents evidence (never brought into court — Holmes would be convicted and executed for murders committed outside Chicago) that Holmes used the hotel to lure dozens of young women to their deaths. While the author never shows admiration for Holmes’ act, the book does marvel at his ability to operate his “murder castle” and conduct numerous swindles for many years without being caught.
When faced with crimes as horrible as Holmes’, there are two likely but opposite reactions — either to question and attempt to understand how anyone could act with so much evil, or turn away and dismiss those actions as those of a monster. Larson chooses to question, and concludes that Holmes’ crimes are motivated by a warped desire for control, over his victims, over his world. It is the same maniacal desire, used for more noble ambitions, that drives Burnham to overcome overwhelming obstacles to build the famous White City of the World’s Fair.
I doubt I’d have been able to appreciate the complexity of this comparison had I only listened to the audiobook. Perhaps I need to restrict my commuting entertainment to light fiction, or works I’m already familiar with, and save the works that beg for analytical appreciation for regular reading.
This was an abridged version of the novel that I’d downloaded several years ago, finally deciding recently to take it off my roundtoit list. This is a wonderful comic novel, embracing the romantic nostalgia that fuels the Don’s fanciful mock battles but not endorsing it — the supporting characters in the novel are constantly discouraging him from indulging his madness. Is Don Quixote sympathic or pathetic? Probably a little of both, which is what makes him so intriguing.
Kassie knew that Butch also had an agenda, but the fact that she knew about it made Butch’s agenda different from Annie’s. Son of the Rev. Goodman, Butch was an outspoken evangelist, pushing the limits of the school board’s rules regarding the handout of flyers for his youth group, prayers during after-school activites, open challenges to his biology teacher.
And yet, for all his evangelical outspokenness during school, Butch was not like that at all during fencing practice. Had Coach Dan talked to him — intelligent, egalitarian, and yes, Jewish, Coach Dan? Or had Annie, whose family was no friend of any organized religion, pulled him aside and liad down the law with Butch?
Or could it have been the young man (she didn’t think of him as a kid, or a teen) sitting in the driver’s seat? Double-J, his short but powerful body seeming to push out on his down jacket, seemingly on the verge of splitting, erupting? Kassie sensed that Double-J would not have shown the diplomacy she was sure Coach Dan would have demonstrated, would not have bothered with Annie’s rationality. No, Kassie was sure that Double-J would have been able to silence Butch merely by the force of his personality.
Rex presented himself as an open book, yet he was also clearly a man with secrets, hiding the chapters of his life he did not want read. It wasn’t a hidden agenda like the one Kassie felt that Annie always seemed to have. While open with her advice, most of it quite useful, Annie’s wisdom always seemed to come with an obligation — use this information well, or don’t use it at all. Kassie felt that Annie wanted her to succeed as proof of her wisdom.
Bernie seemed the friendliest of the group. The greasy-haired boy did not have Annie’s agenda, or Rex’s secretiveness. When showing Kassie how to hold her weapon (elbow in, angle the forearm out, hand in, make kind of a goose neck shape with your arm) or in talking about Coach Dan (he’s a perfectionist, but he’s patient too), Bernie always seemed gracious.
Yet Kassie sensed there was something not quite right about Bernie. He had a mercurial disposition, at one moment calm and the next VIOLENTLY angry, sometimes over a trivial matter. Of all the team members, Bernie was the only one who scared Kassie.
There too was Rex. Kassie liked him, was drawn to his flamboyancy, his confiedence, his bravado, yet was not convinced that it was authentic. She suspected Rex was hiding something that he cared not to admit. She had hear rumors (not from the other members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team, but from other students at the school) that Rex’s family was poor, not poor as in My parents can’t afford to take us to Disney this year but truly poor, as in eating dog food for dinner poor. Kassie had no way of knowing if those rumors were true, but based on her impressions of Rex she would not have been surprised if they proved to be true.
“Come on, close the door.” Double-J’s voice was polite yet impatient.
Kassie, her right foot still resting outside the frame of the open passenger door, looked over at Double-J in the driver’s seat. She realized that in the weeks she had been going to fencing, Double-J was the one person she had never really interacted with. She spent most of her time with Annie, full of energy and enthusiasm, her brown pony tail seeming to prance with excitement as she demonstrated proper footwork (toes up, push from the heel), or described that bout last spring with Francis Pine he got the first three touches but then I hit him with a parry riposte and then another and then he was all like I’ve had enough of this and he threw these long lunges at me I’ll be ready for him he’s at the Academy my brother is his friend.
November. The second Tuesday.
Bythetimeshehadexplainedthathermotherwasataradiostationrecordingacommercial, Kassie saw that Double-J had already pulled into the driveway of her home. He turned, left hip brushing the steering wheel, and looked at her.
“Super Saver? The grocery store?” Kassie nodded. Double-J frowned, the thin black wires of his hair waving as she shook his head. “Christ. Hate that place. She doesn’t sing this time, does she?” Kassie said she did not know. “Huh. No offense, I like your mom and all, but singing’s not her thing.”
Kassie opened the door of the coupe, thanked Double-J for the ride home from fencing practice. “When’s she coming home?” Kassie shrugged, said she wasn’t sure, if the radio station had more work for her she might be home real late. She swung her right leg out of the coupe.
“Hmmm. Hold on.” Kassie flinched reflxively as Double-J’s right hand reached out and grasped the front of her left upper arm. After a series of questions about her mother, he verbally concluded that she would not be home in time for dinner that evening, a statement Kassie confirmed. “So you’re eating by yourself?” Kassie replied she was going to make herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “That sounds dull. Come on, get back in, we’ll pick up something a drive-thru.”
Kassie replied that she did not eat hamburgers. “Vegetarian?” She nodded. “S’okay, we’ll find you something.” Double-J turned, his squat body now facing forward, reached with his right hand and put his coupe into reverse. Foot on the brake, he turned his head towards Kassie.
The dog barked with increased ferocity as Rex rolled down his window. “King, quiet.” Bernie saw the dog’s ears fall, heard it start to whimper at Rex’s command.
Rex turned back to Coach Dan, waiting patiently in the driver’s seat. “Coach, I wouldn’t be comfortable with being captain of the fencing team.”
“Nobody’s going to make you do anything against your will, Rex.” Outside the sedan, King resumed its wild barking. “That’s not how we run things. We’re all captains of our own fates.”
“Huh.” Rex turned his head, looked at his family’s trailer, silent and dark in the winter night. King’s barking paused. “Wish I could agree with you, Coach. It’s just that — things seem to follow me, my family. And I don’t want any of that stuff following the team.”
Coach Dan quickly objected, causing King to resume barking. Rex raised his left hand. “I’m sorry, Coach. I need to go.” Coach Dan nodded, said he’d see him tomorrow. Rex opened the sedan door, King rushing to the door before stopping short upon seeing Rex’s long body unfold from the passenger seat. Now wagging its tail, King pranced around the metal door, lifted its snout up to Rex, licked the back of the tall teen’s hand.
From the back seat, Bernie watched Rex patting King’s head. King turned, its black eyes catching Bernie’s glance — ROWF! ROWF!
“King!” Rex called, taking two brisk stepss away from the car. He turned, placed his hand on the door, leaned in and looked back at Bernie. “Getting in front?”
Bernie looked at King, who caught his glance and growled. “I’m — good. Thanks.” With a wave, Rex closed the door, walked with King at his side to the wooden steps leading up to his trailer’s front door.
End of third ride
“That’s my family’s trailer, coming up on the left.” Rex’s voice sounded relieved at finding a convenient way to avoid answering Coach Dan’s question.
The sedan slowed. Coach Dan flicked his turn signal up, click-CLICK, click-CLICK. The long yellow cones from the headlights illuminated the front of a trailer, rust visible in spots on the battleship gray siding. Weathered wooden steps lead up to the narrow front door. A small plywood board, wrapped in plastic and attached to the door with gray duct tape, replaced what appeared to have been a window.
Immediately in front of the steps, two tiny daggers of light suddenly illuminated, followed immediately by the sound of loud barking. As the sedan approached and turned into a level dirt area in front of the trailer, the dog charged, barking crazily. It was a German Shepherd, the largest Bernie had ever seen, its head taller than the sedan’s headlights, its snarling snout snapping aggressively at the front fender as it passed.
“Jesus,” Bernie muttered reflexively, and was immediately ashamed. He glanced quickly at Rex, who made no sign that he had heard. But Rex was not one to object, even to direct insults, so Bernie could not be sure.