Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Wicked" by Gregory Maguire (1995)

 The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

You have read this one before. It was over a decade ago, before the musical hit Broadway, and you've wanted to reread it ever since. You borrowed the book the first time you read it though, so you've been searching for a inexpensive copy for years now. A few weeks ago, you found a pristine paperback edition for $1.50 and you were like, "I'll get you, my pretty!"

You're a nerd. You know that right?

Gregory Maguire specializes in novels that re-imagine familiar stories with new and interesting twists. He has taken on such classics as "Cinderella," "Snow White," and "A Christmas Carol". In "Wicked," he tackles the story of the Wizard of Oz (obviously) and it is the best work of his career. It is never clear whether Maguire draws more from L. Frank Baum's book or from the 1939 movie, but what is clear is that this is more than a story about a familiar character. "Wicked" is an examination of the nature of evil itself. It is an attempt to see a familiar character, one who is automatically thought of as evil (Wicked is right there in her name), from a different point of view.

One of the great sages of your life, Obi Wan Kenobi, is quoted as telling Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi that "you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." As you have gotten older, and tried to see things from different perspectives, this quote keeps becoming more and more true. Heroes and villains are often easily interchangeable depending on the point of view. Nelson Mandela is now seen as a hero and the father of modern South Africa, but he was seen as a terrorist for decades before. Martin Luther King Jr. is such a hero to you that you have raised your boys with his speeches ringing in their ears, and his words guiding their beliefs, but from a different point of view, Doctor King was a dangerous revolutionary who was bent on the destruction of an entire society's way of life. The same can be said of Vaclav Havel, Caesar Chavez, Ho Chi Minh, or even Jesus of Nazareth.

So it is with Elphaba. Maguire created her name as an homage to the author of Oz's initials, L. F. B... "El-Pha-Bah." Elphie to her friends. Fabala to her devout father. The Wicked Witch of the West to generations of American children who grew up not caring if she had a back story, only fearing her for her skin color and her hatred of a girl named Dorothy and her little dog too. But Maguire fleshes out the witch's personality in ways that lend her a familiarity beyond your childhood fear. In fact, you quickly came to love Elphaba.

One of the most interesting things about the book is how Maguire tells most of it, not from the witch's perspective, but mostly from the perspective of her friends and loved ones. First, through the eyes of  her lonely and promiscuous mother, her long suffering Nanny, and her religiously zealous father. Then from the perspective of her college roommate Glinda, who is revealed to be more of a self serving, servile, class conscious bitch than any kind of good witch. Next you see Elphaba from the perspective of another classmate, the stalwart and clear headed Munchkin boy, Boq. But it is when Fiyero, a dark hued pagan prince from the West, and Elphaba begin their love affair a few years after college that we see Elphaba as a lithe, sexual, passionate person.

She is bold, curious, skeptical, and iconoclastic. She has a depth of compassion for those of the social classes most often pushed aside. She is politically passionate, dropping out of school to become a revolutionary. She is misunderstood and she is prejudged. Elphaba's only desire after the heartbreak of her life is to go forth and do no harm in the world. The Wicked Witch. Do no harm. But you wouldn't know it from the way others think of her.

Indeed, it is a full 200 pages before the voice of the novel comes from Elphaba herself, until Maguire allows us to hear her thoughts in her own head, not spoken out loud to another character. She is almost always presented from other people's perspectives.

And that is what the book is about. What we call evil is only that from a certain perspective. Good witches and bad witches. Good Guys versus Bad Guys. Us versus Them.

But the truth is that there never really is a Them. There is only Us.

True evil, not the stuff of children's stories, but true evil begins when one of us allows ourselves to begin thinking of some of the rest of us as enemies. Maybe evil is not just the violence and suffering we inflict on one another. Maybe the greatest evil of all is when we choose to stop caring for others, even if those others are a Them. Only then are we able to allow ourselves to excuse all kinds of savagery being inflicted on others. Only once we think of them as just that. Others. Them.

"Wicked" uses one of the most iconic cultural images of evil and shows that it may not be that at all. Elphaba isn't one of Them. She is Us. And if the Wicked Witch of the West can be shown to be one of Us, who else could be too? Who else do you consider evil only because you have been told to? How many other times do you assume someone just IS the way they are without considering their history, without putting their lives in perspective?

For years now this book has helped you try to be aware of not making that mistake. It has helped you to  consider things from the perspective of the Other. That's pretty powerful. Maybe that's why you've been looking to get your hands on another copy for over a decade now.

Maybe that's why you are always looking for new great books too. Because they can affect you so powerfully.

On to the next book!

Monday, May 13, 2013

"The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson (2003)

America's first serial killer on the loose during the Chicago World's Fair. This should be interesting.

Your first book review on this blog was of Erik Larson's "In The Garden of Beasts." The only reason you even read that book was because you had heard of Larson through everyone talking about how good "The Devil in the White City" was. So this review feels like you are coming back full circle to the beginning of the blog.

As with the last Larson book, the multiple pages of praise at the beginning were a bit of a turn off, as was Larson's fleeting, almost offensively casual relationships with maps. He gives you two maps but neither are of any actual help when it comes to locating any of the action in the book. Honestly, why would anyone even include them if they don't do any good? It's just infuriating to those of us who have unhealthy obsessions with maps. So, in all honesty, you found the parts of the book before it even started a bit frustrating.

After that (as in, once you started actually reading the book) it got much better. Larson is one hell of a story teller. He starts building tension from the very beginning, peppering his prose with copious foreshadowing and insinuation, hinting at plot lines that promise to reveal themselves in the next few hundred pages. Well crafted tension like that always encourages you to speed through any book. It's why Dan Brown novels are so easy to read.

The story of "The Devil in the White City" promises on the cover to be about one of America's first serial killers, but there are really two almost unrelated plot lines. One certainly follows the murderer, H. H. Holmes, as he ensnares and kills dozens of women and children, but the other plot line follows the preparation for, and the construction and running of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and has almost nothing to do with Holmes. The Fair, officially called The World's Columbian Exhibition, was set to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World. In actuality, it was an attempt to show up the French who had just concluded their record-breaking (and Eiffel Tower erecting) World's Fair in 1889. The architects, artists, and entrepreneurs of the United States were eager to show the world that they could out shine the spectacles of Paris. This was all about honor and pride.

"The Devil in the White City" is an enchanting (if at times disturbing) snapshot of what life was like as America became the modern nation you think of it as being today. Much of what you think of as being integral to your concept of America began there at the Chicago World's Fair, and yet it was happening only 100 years before you were attending high school.

The more history you read and the more you internalize the timeline of world events, the more you realize how very young the United States really is.

You've never been much for the True Crime section of the book store, so the parts of "The Devil in the White City" chronicling the serial killer and his sins weren't nearly as satisfying to you as the historical perspective of Chicago's coming of age party at the tail end of the Gilded Age. It was a time between two terrible wars, the Civil War had been over for thirty years, and the First World War wouldn't be fought for another twenty. Men who faced Pickett's charge at Gettysburg also watched the buildings of the Fair rise from the banks of Lake Michigan, and it is possible that many of those same men would also live to see some of the world's first airplanes riding the wind in the first decade of the next century. It was a time of huge changes and growing pains for a nation which was just beginning to feel the responsibilities of a major world power.

Many of those huge changes and novelties presented at the Fair became permanent fixtures of American life. The Chicago World's Fair was where incandescent light bulbs finally grabbed hold of the population and became a mainstay of modern life. Elias Disney was one of the workers who helped construct the jaw-dropingly beautiful, self-contained city nestled inside a major metropolitan area. His son Walt paid close attention. The Pledge of Allegiance was created to celebrate the day the fair was dedicated. Children throughout the U.S. recited it that day (without mention of God or even the United States of America) and they have been ever since. L. Frank Baum walked among the gigantic buildings whose beauty earned the Fair the nickname The White City. He was bewitched by the sights, and soon went home and wrote a book about an Emerald City and a yellow brick road. Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley rode every night of the Fair and Thomas Edison even recorded Mrs. Oakley's prowess with a rifle on his new video camera (footage here). The negotiations between Daniel Burnham (the architect who was in charge of the Fair's construction) and striking carpenters and other workers who were building the Fair's White City lead to major concessions by the Fair's management. The workers were given minimum living wages and overtime pay. This showed the United States how effective organized labor could be and it served as a major catalyst to America's Labor Unions at the dawn of the 20th Century.

On October 9th, 1893, "Chicago Day," no fewer than 750,000 people attended the events at the Fair. No single event in the peacetime history of the world had ever had so many people attending it at one time. So many people attended the Fair over the six months period it was open that it is hard to overstate its influence on American culture. Men like Houdini, Tesla, and Darrow wandered  along the Fair's Grounds, drinking in the spectacle. Teddy Roosevelt was there, and Woodrow Wilson. Susan B. Anthony and Helen Keller were drawn to the event as well. The world's first Ferris Wheel gave 2,000 people at a time a bird's eye view of the park grounds and Lake Michigan. It was a heady, joyful time and it inspired generations of American's to go on and shape the world around them in ways that you still feel today.

But there was darkness too. There were snowstorms that delayed construction and there were wind storms that collapsed buildings and terrified everyone. There were fatal accidents and there were fires.

And there was murder.

H. H. Holmes was a physician who had built a three story building near the fair grounds. He used it as a hotel during the Fair and he lured women into this house of horrors. And then he killed them. Holmes was a true psychopath, showing no remorse or sympathy for his victims. In fact, on more than one occasion, if his targets had children, he simply killed the children as well. But he wasn't a Jack the Ripper type, grabbing strange women and eviscerating them in the darkness. No, Holmes lured his prey into his arms. The thrill of being in absolute control was his motivation. He was manipulative and disarmingly charming and he used these talents to build relationships with his victims, even going so far as to marry some of them before suffocating them with gas or chloroform. Holmes then cremated the bodies of his victims in his custom built kiln in the basement of his World's Fair Hotel.

Psychopaths are not born evil, but they are also not simply conditioned to become evil either. It seems that producing a serial killer requires a combination of both nature and nurture. The World's Fair wasn't what caused Holmes to become a killer, that tendency was already in his character, but the huge influx of unsuspecting women into his city sure didn't discourage his predatory nature.

As you neared the end of "The Devil in the White City" you were sure there was some metaphor waiting to be teased out from the juxtaposition of these two stories; something about how even as a nation step onto the world's stage and into the light of true modernity, there are also some corners of darkness that remain; or about how no matter how good we think were are, as individuals or as nations, there always remains some violent fragment of ourselves lying inside of us just waiting for an opportunity to lash out... or something like that.

But mostly you were simply impressed by Larson's ability to add excitement and dramatic flair to a book that could have easily become a boring litany of disconnected events, and you were impressed by his talent for making history come alive, to read more like a novel than nonfiction. Some authors can take a good story and ruin it. But it takes impressive talent to take many, unconnected stories and find the narrative thread that connects them all together. The best historians are really just the best story tellers.

Isn't that why you read books anyway? For the great stories?

On to the next book!

P.S. While you were reading this book, there was an interview on Fresh Air with Adrian Raine, author of "The Anatomy of Violence," a book about the biology of psychopathology and certain people's tendency towards violence. Fascinating stuff. Maybe this should be added to your list of books to read next.