Writing My Life

Now and Then


… it’s about THAT setting, part 3 …

This is a final look at how setting can become one of a book’s characters – sort of. Part 1 examined  The Given Day by Dennis LeHane and part 2 reviewed The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. The first book is historical fiction, and the second is non-fiction. I found that time and place was so influential in these 2 books, as well as the one I’m writing about today, that I connected with the setting as much as I did with the characters. I know this happens often, but inadvertently choosing three books in a row with this commonality grabbed my attention, and I decided to write a little about each one. I guess the experience reinforced the importance of placing or finding a story in the near-perfect place is critical.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere is written by Neil Gaiman, an “out-there” British writer who pens books for children, adolescents, and adults. Bazaar as his writing might be for some,  The Graveyard Book won the 2009 Newbery Award, which is “awarded each year by the Association for Library Service to Children to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Another one of his popular children books is Coraline, which was made into a movie that received Academy Award nominations. Anyway, I’ve always thought of him as a Tim Burton type that appeals to some but not all.

Because I’m not a big fantasy fan, I’ve never read any of his books, but I enjoyed the movie  Stardust, based upon one of his novels. I guess that’s why I picked Neverwhere off the library shelves. Neverwhere is particularly interesting because readers can check out or buy a traditional novel, a graphic novel, or an audio book that is the “author’s preferred text.”  I listened to the audio-book and am on the waiting list to check out the novel because I want to find the differences between Neil’s audio version – which he narrates beautifully – and the “editor’s” version. My guess is that the audio book includes more cussing. I did look over the Amazon peek-a-boo version of the graphic novel, and saw that published pages followed the story with VERY scary pictures and without Gaiman’s skilled narrative. That’s one thing I miss in graphic novels – the great descriptions of characters and setting.

Published in 1996, this novel, like most if not all of Gaiman’s works, is a fantasy … for adult readers. I found Gaiman’s writing is so good that even a non-fantasy fan enjoys the ride. His characters are intriguing and the plots are fun, if not always easy, to follow. Much like the mazes he inserted in Neverwhere. The book’s main  setting is a parallel universe/city of London, and as the main character Richard Mayhew winds his way through this landing place of all things lost, he embarks upon the hero’s quest to find his way home and help and be helped along the way. He and his companion Door, the survivor of a deadly attack against her family, encounter a mishmash of historical LondonS, dating back to the city’s origins. Because of the challenges of each era, London’s history blesses and curses their adventures.

The upside-down world filled with rats, garbage, and discarded belongings as well as people who have fallen through the cracks, reminded me of the LandFILL of Oz  If Oz was inspired by the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (a.k.a. The White City), this London was more like the REAL Chicago of that time – dark, dank, and dirty! Gaiman’s characters even make references to Dorothy and her companions’ journey to find the wizard. Mayhew and his friends, however, are searching for an angel called Islington. Because this world is topsy-turvy, the Christ-figure is the despicable Marquis de Carabas, and the arch-villain is the angel.

The titles of both Neverwhere and The Graveyard Book refer to the stories’ settings, but at least in Neverwhere, place is such a large part of the action and outcome that it goes beyond mere setting. It assumes a personality like all the other characters, a complex personality made up of traits both good and bad, strong and weak, ugly and beautiful.


… it’s all about the setting …

I recently completed 3 books where the setting was as much a character as the protagonists and the antagonists. In fact, the cities operated as both PRO- and ANtagonists, too. Another interesting observation is that these books were 3 totally different genres: historical fiction, non-fiction, and fantasy.  (And yes, while not  CREATING “characters”, non-fiction authors do EXPOSE heroes and villains.)

I have worked on this entry for over 2 weeks, and as a result, it has grown and grown in length. I’m not sure why I am so attached to this idea of commenting upon the settings of 3 books, but I feel compelled to finish it. (You would think I was turning it in for a grade or something.) Because of the LENGTHS I have gone to in creating these posts, however, I decided to separate them into 3 separate entries.

The 3 books are The Given Day; The Devil in the White City; and Neverwhere. Don’t think because I am writing about these titles that I am recommending them. I always hesitate to suggest books because my taste is all over the place. Sometimes I think it is SO non-discriminating that I have no taste. Now I don’t care for romance novels at all; and I don’t like poorly written works, but I do enjoy a good page-turning best seller even though it may lack the craftsmanship of more gifted authors. Once in a while, I’ll tolerate LANGUAGE if the other words are well crafted – I guess that’s why I hesitate to recommend 2 of these 3 cussed books. Reading about serial killers is not usually my preference either, but one of the 3 stars such a demon. Anyway, please read at your own risk and don’t tell ANYONE that I recommended that you check them out!

The Given Day

The historical fiction novel is The Given Day by Dennis LeHane. (Don’t in any way confuse this author with Tim LaHaye who writes the Left Behind series. No, no, no. Dennis wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island, and a bunch more that have been “movie-ized.” If you read excerpts from the link to Amazon, be warned. Profanity is included. )

The Given Day takes place in Boston near the end of World War I or The Great War or The War to End All Wars. Anyway, this incredibly researched novel details that time period so well that whenever I listened to a segment, I felt like my little PT Cruiser changed into a time machine, and I was right there.

Danny Coughlin is the main character, a Boston policeman of Irish decent caught in the thick of a city of immigrants seeking the American dream but finding poverty, discrimination, and violence instead. Boston was dubbed the second Athens, but like a sepulcher, its white and shining exterior disguises a corrupted interior. Danny’s police captain father and the evil Eddie McKenna are part of the corruption, but Danny makes his own way.

Living barely above the poverty line, Danny and his brotherhood of policeman tackle the Spanish Influenza of 1918 that took the lives of 1000 Bostonians. They also faced Italian terrorists and Bolshevik dissidents. The most challenging obstacle, however, was standing up to city government via the policemen strike of 1919.

While readers follow the characters from one page to another, they learn dozens of fascinating details about Boston’s Irish, Italian, and African-American history. Readers are also introduced to more than these ethnic cultures, they see South Boston as it existed for the middle class Irish and the Irish factory workers. Readers walk the streets with the flatfoots of Italian Boston and visit its tenements and markets. LeHane’s researched details uncover a post-war city rocking with tension created by political corruption, cultural prejudice, civil unrest, and industrial abuses. Boston’s charged atmosphere exposed poor leaders’ short-sited choices and courageous citizens’ brave choices that cost them everything but paved a smoother way for others.

If it weren’t for the HARSH language, I’d declare this as the best book I’ve picked up in a long time, but LeHane’s love affair with profanity prevents that endorsement. Nevertheless, his fascinating characters, his meticulous historical research, and his plot development pulled me in. I just couldn’t leave Boston until Danny and Nora left, too.

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… it’s about the setting, part 2 …

This post is the second in a series of 3. The focus looks at the significance of setting. While time and place is important in most novels and many non-fiction works, setting is almost a character in three books I recently finished. The first post examines a novel of  historical fiction: The Given Day by Dennis LeHane, and part 2 reviews The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, while part 3 looks at Neverland by Neil Gaiman

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

When studying reading comprehension, I learned that to understand written text, readers must be able to determine what is important. This is especially pertinent when reading non-fiction. Sometimes authors weave interesting details into events, descriptions, or explanations that distract us from the main point. This minutia is often called “seductive details.”

When I first heard of The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, I was curious as to how and why the author wed the journey of building the World’s Colombian Exposition (a.k.a. the Chicago’s World’s Fair) to the journey of a mass killer, the likes of Herman Webster Mudgett (a.k.a. Dr. H.H. Holmes.) As I read, I started thinking Dr. Holmes’ story functions as THE seductive detail that fills nearly 1/2 of the pages and boosts the book’s sales. Why? Because I just didn’t see a link strong enough to bring the 2 events together through more than coincidence.

While both stories have been separately told before, I don’t know if any volumes reached “best seller” status as Devil has. Simply put, Larson writes that his book explores good and evil and the stage that brought the two extremes together: Chicago, 1893.The question that lingered in my mind, however, was HOW the Colombian Exposition brought the architect of the World’s Fair and the architect of murder together. Rather than reading to find out how Holmes pulled off his murders or how he would be found out, I turned pages to find an answer to THAT question. I honestly thought there would be a stronger link than time and place. Being the questioning reader that I am, I wondered …

  • Would Holmes use the exposition to lure victims to Chicago?
  • Would the bad doctor meet potential victims at the fair?
  • Would he stash bodies on the construction site or in the “white and shining” buildings, thus turning them into sepulchers?
  • Would Holmes murder victims at the exposition?
  • Would Chicago detectives finally catch up to the villain as he stepped off the  fair’s GINORMOUS Ferris wheel?

The answers are – once, sort of;  no; no; no; and no. These were the connections between the two people/events:

  • Holmes did invite the sister of one victim, Minnie, to come to Chicago to visit her sister AND the fair! The sister Nannie  also met her demise at Holmes’ hands, and that incident is the only indication that he indirectly used the exposition to bring a young woman to his lair.
  • Holmes lived near Jackson Park during the building and duration of the Chicago World’s Fair.
  • As Holmes planned and constructed his dingy, dark building, Daniel Burnham, the world’s fair architect,  struggled through the planning and construction of “the white city.” It seems, however, that the author’s comparison is subtly implied rather than explicitly touted. Interesting.
  • Larson does write that the doctor and his legal wife and some of his victims rode their bicycles near Jackson Park during the construction of the fair.
  • Holmes also treated Minnie and Nannie to a day at the fair before disposing of them both that night – back at his own place.

I am not saying the book is not well-written; it is an excellent piece of non-fiction that enthralled me. Devil is a national book award-winner, for heaven’s sake. But I just find the connection of the two historical incidents is without correlation or causation; whatever commonality there is  is coincidental. To a degree, it’s like saying Tiger Woods’ marital problems and President Obama’s health-care reform struggle are connected: The Tiger in ObamaCare.

I did learn so many interesting tidbits about the 1893 World’s  Colombian Exposition – all seductive details in and of themselves:

  • Chicago, considered the western hog-butcher, went all out to win the honor over their nemesis New York City.
  • The White City, its nickname because buildings were all painted white to save time and money, inspired the vision of the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz.
  • The Ferris wheel – first ever built – was America’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, centerpiece of the World Fair hosted by Paris.
  • Walt Disney’s father worked on the fair and talked often of that experience. Devil’s author speculates those stories influenced his son’s vision of the theme park called Disneyland.
  • The fair’s layout and the  buildings’ classical architectural model long influenced city planning and the design of important business and government buildings. I recently learned that our very own capitol was influenced by Burnham’s White City.

By the way, if you are wondering how I manage to read so many books, please don’t be impressed. As much as I love reading, I have become a serious audio-book addict.  I still read, but because I write so much more now, I don’t finish as many books as I used to. That’s why I love listening to books on CDs. AND because I live out here in the western desert, I drive A LOT, so these authors keep me company – BIG TIME.