Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

photo-4Book Description (Amazon): Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.

This improbable story of Christopher’s quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for one of the most captivating, unusual, and widely heralded novels in recent years.

My Review (Spoilers!–am I the only one who says that in River Song’s voice?):

Executive Summary: amazing

We selected this book for our “literary fiction” category for book club. Basically books that don’t fit into another obvious category. I had read this book before, probably about 10 years ago, and I loved it then, and I was happy to reread it. This book is seriously a must read. And it’s a very quick read too. And there is no way I am going to capture half the essence of this book in my review no matter how hard I try.

Christopher Boone is a 15 year old who lives in England with his father. The story is set in the first person. The story begins when Christopher finds his neighbor’s dog Wellington stabbed with a garden fork (I assume this is British vernacular for a pitchfork and Christopher points out that it is not an eating fork). Christopher is horrified and picks up Wellington, wondering who killed him and why when his owner (Mrs. Shears) comes out shrieking. We learn that Christopher knows every country in the world, their capitals and all of the prime numbers up to 7,057 (all book chapters are numbered with prime numbers). But he doesn’t understand other people’s emotions. (It is never clearly stated in the book but the author later stated in an interview that Christopher has a form of Asberger’s.)

After the introduction, Christopher clearly tells us that his is a murder mystery novel. His teacher, Siobhan (how is that name pronounced?) has encouraged him to write a book that he would like to read. And he likes murder mystery novels. And Sherlock Holmes (me too!) but not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because he believes in things that aren’t real.

So back to the original story of the dog. After Mrs. Shears finds Christopher with the dog, she starts shouting at him, which makes him shut down–cover his ears and close his eyes and curl up and put his face on the ground. The police arrive and don’t understand. And Christopher doesn’t understand metaphors or any other statements that are not direct and obvious. So a bit of a misunderstanding turns into Christopher hitting a police officer and being taken to the police station. He likes the cell–it’s a nearly perfect cube. Eventually his father arrives and Christopher returns home.

Christopher’s mother died two years previously. She went to the hospital, and then died in the hospital due to a heart issue. Christopher assumes that she died of an aneurysm because embolisms only happen to old people and his mother was not old and she was active.

Throughout the book, we find out many details about Christopher–how he cannot tell a lie, how he loves red (has red food coloring so that he can dye ugly colored food red), hates yellow and brown for a variety of detailed reasons, has Good Days when he sees 4 red cars in a row on his way to school (but 4 yellow cars in a row make it a Black Day where he doesn’t talk to anyone). He doesn’t believe in heaven or anything that cannot be proven by science. He doesn’t like strangers but not because of “Stranger Danger” (which is where a strange man offers you a ride because he wants to do sex with you) but because he doesn’t like people who he has never met before, and how he hates France (who doesn’t lol).

Christopher decides that because it was a Good Day, he was going to investigate who killed Wellington despite his father’s previous protests. But his father isn’t home from work yet so Christopher goes to tell Mrs. Shears that he didn’t kill Wellington but he wants to find out who did. She tells him goodbye and closes the door in her face. He didn’t take the hint so he went around to her shed and found the garden fork in there (which either means it’s hers or a Red Herring). She finds him and tells him to go home before she calls the police so he goes home and says hello to his dad and his pet rat, Toby.

The following day he proceeds in the neighborhood despite not usually talking to strangers to do detective work. First he creates a map of his street and then proceeds on to talk to Mr. Thompson (no info), the black lady (unnamed) who tells him that perhaps he should ask his dad about who might want to make Mrs. Shears sad (but he can’t because his dad doesn’t want him doing detective work), Mr. Wise (who made a joke and laughed at him causing Christopher to walk off because he hates people laughing at him, and then Mrs. Alexander, an old lady who had a dog. He talked to her for a while and she invited him to tea. But since Christopher doesn’t go into other people’s homes, she went to bring him out some Orange Squash and some biscuits. When she didn’t return soon enough, Christopher left because he thought she was calling the police.

Christopher formulates a Chain of Reasoning to determine who would want to kill Wellington, and he determines it was probably Mr. Shears because he left her two years ago and never came back. Mrs. Shears would come over to Christopher’s house sometimes after Mr. Shears left and Christopher’s mom had died and tidy up. Christopher assumes that if Mr. Shears must dislike Mrs. Shears enough to get a divorce, he must dislike her enough to kill her dog. But no one told him why they got a divorce in the first place so he decides to find out.

Christopher goes to a special school with “stupid kids” (he’s not supposed to call them that. (They have learning difficulties or special needs). Christopher disagrees with the term learning difficulties because he says everyone has something that is difficult for them to learn or a special need like people who use artificial sweetener to prevent them from getting fat. Christopher is going to take his A-level maths class and get an A grade because he is not stupid. (A-levels are apparently used for determining competency in subjects for college. Something like an AP test I guess.) After he takes the A-level maths, he’s going to take A-level further maths and A-level physics and then go to university for a degree in some combination of maths and physics.

On his way home, Christopher thinks about how he sometimes thought his parents would get divorced because of him. They argued a lot, and his mother always got irritated with him. When he arrives home, his father is waiting for him. Mrs. Shears has called him. Christopher tells his father that he believes that Mr. Shears has killed Wellington. His father gets angry and makes Christopher promise to stop his “ridiculous game”.

It isn’t until the end of the week that he had a Super Good Day so he decides that he will go go to the shop at the end of the road to buy licorice laces and a Milky Bar and Mrs. Alexander is there. So he talks to her a bit without specifically doing any detective work. And Christopher’s father did not specifically tell him that he could not ask about Mr. Shears (he was just not allowed to mention Mr. Shears in their house, ask Mrs. Shears or anyone about who killed the bloody dog, not to go trespassing in other people’s gardens, and to stop this bloody detective game). So Christopher decides to ask Mrs. Alexander if she knows about Mr. Shears. She tells him that his father is probably right to tell him to not investigate Mr. Shears and that he probably knows why his father doesn’t like Mr. Shears very much. He gets out of Mrs. Anderson that his mother and Mr. Shears were “doing sex”, and he promises not to tell his father about the conversation.

The next day at school, Siobhan proofreads Christopher’s book and asks him whether he was upset to find out that his mother had had an affair with Mr. Shears but he doesn’t feel sad because his mother is dead and Mr. Shears isn’t around anymore so it doesn’t matter. That evening, his father finds his book and is very angry with Christopher. The other thing that Christopher wasn’t supposed to go sticking his nose in other people’s business. His father shouts at him and grabs his arm. He takes Christopher’s book and throws it in the trash. The next day they went to the Twycross Zoo as his father is trying to make up for things.

When he gets home from school on Monday, Christopher goes to get the book from the trash, but it’s no longer there. So he decides that his father has hidden it and he eventually finds the book in a box in his father’s closet, but he hears his father pulling up so he leaves the book for later. As he is putting the book back in the box, he sees a letter in the box that is addressed to him and the writing suggested it was written by 3 people–Siobhan, Mr. Loxely (a former teacher at his school), or his mother. He takes the letter with him and reads it later in his room. It was written by his mother, and it was postmarked 18 months after she died.

Six days later, he returns to the closet, and finds 43 letters addressed to him from his mother. He reads one after another until he realized that his mother wasn’t dead. She and Mr. Shears (Roger) had run off together to London, and Christopher’s father had lied to him. By the time Christopher’s father has returned, he has shut down fully and his father realizes what has happened.  After a hot bath, since he wants to come clean to Christopher, his father also admits that he was the one who killed Wellington because Mrs. Shears loved the dog more than she loved them. Christopher panics. He waits until his father falls asleep and then takes Toby, his Swiss Army knife, and his snacks and goes outside and hides until morning.

In the morning, he has to make a decision on what to do. After his process of elimination, he decides that because he now knows his mother’s address, he will go live with her. He takes his father’s ATM card from the house and proceeds to find his way to the train station. Through many unusual interactions, Christopher (and Toby) eventually find their way to his mother’s flat. His father is soon behind them, but Christopher refuses to go back with him because he is a murderer.

Christopher’s behavior is too much for Roger (who really does seem like a mega jerk) so eventually Christopher and his mother eventually move back to Swindon into their house, but not so that Christopher can take his A-level maths because his mother has already rescheduled them for next year. Christopher’s dad goes to live with his friend for a while and Christopher and his mom live in the house. He returns to his school and is able to get his A-level maths rescheduled and even though he is tired and upset, he takes them. Eventually Christopher and his mother move to a new place (what I presume to be a room in a house) and it isn’t working out very well because they had to share a bathroom. And then Toby died, but he was 2 years 7 months which is very old for a rat so it wasn’t that sad. But his mother wouldn’t let him get another one because of where they were living.

Christopher’s father continues to try to spend time with him, which doesn’t go very well at first. But then in a grand showing of peacemaking, Christopher’s father shows up with a two month old golden retriever. The dog will stay at his house and Christopher can come visit. And then Christopher got the results from his A-level maths and he got an A grade. And it made him happy. (That’s a big deal). Christopher named the dog Sandy and began to split time with both of his parents. And he planned to take his further A-level maths and get a First Class Honors degree (but it doesn’t have to be from a university in London) and he will become a scientist because he was brave and wrote a book and solved the mystery of who killed Wellington.

Verdict: 4.5 stars. Read this book. Trust me.

This book is just really great. It’s happy. It’s sad. It’s every different emotion you can imagine. Interspersed within the main story are lots of great little tidbits–the milky way, how to calculate prime numbers, astronauts, Ask Marilyn’s Monty Hall Problem, formulas for animal populations, constellations, etc. that really make the book so entertaining to read (and so realistic that a child wrote it). It’s a great peek into a world which most of us will never experience, and yet at the same time a look at how the rest of us react to that world. I actually bought a copy of this book today (because I borrowed it electronically from the library) so that I can share it with others.

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The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson

photo-3Book Description (Amazon): Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller In the Garden of Beasts—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World’s Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: informative

My best friend recommended this book to me because she was going to Chicago last year for her one year anniversary, and I am going to Chicago this year for my one year anniversary. When I went to request it from the library, I realized that it is by an author who I have read before. I read Isaac’s Storm a few years ago after Hurricane Ike hit Houston, and I really enjoyed that book. It made me even more interested to read this one.

So the book juxtaposes two separate stories that happened in Chicago in the late 1890s–the story of Daniel Burnham, one of the architects in charge of the world’s fair; and the story of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who preyed on people, specifically women who came to Chicago for a better life. Both stories are quite interesting, but aside from happening at the same time in the same place, there isn’t much (anything) that brings them together.

The story of Burnham, in my opinion, was the duller of the two stories. There are some really interesting parts for sure, but a lot of it reminded me of work. Meetings, people arguing, nothing getting done. H.H. Holmes’s section was much more suspenseful and kept me engaged. (In their basic form, however, I don’t think that serial killers are more interesting than architects. 🙂 )

Paris had hosted a world’s fair in 1889 where Eiffel’s Tower was unveiled (named after Gustave Eiffel I learned). The United States wanted to do one that was even bigger and better than Paris (‘murica!) in 1892 celebrating Columbus’s discovery of the area 400 years prior. 4 cities bid for the fair–Chicago, NYC, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis. After a long period of back and forth, Chicago ended up winning the bid. This was a big surprise due to a variety of factors–the location being so far inland and the issues that Chicago had including their recent fire, crime, sanitation, and the fact that their main industry was a slaughterhouse.

An architectural firm–Burnham and Root were selected to design the fair. Burnham studied hard to get into Harvard and Yale for architecture but had difficulty with standardized tests. He feels insecure about this fact when working with other more pedigreed architects especially when Root tragically dies shortly after the preparations began, leaving Burnham to lead the project alone. He hires additional architects and designers from around the US to help with various projects, but he continues searching for that one key structure to rival the Eiffel Tower.

We are then introduced to Holmes. He acquires a pharmacy from a soon-to-be-widowed old woman, who after her husband dies, eventually she disappears. The pharmacy flourishes as women flock to go there as he entrances them with his unusual (for the time) demeanor and piercing blue eyes (seriously I think the author mentioned this 100x). (During this time, we also learn a bit about Holmes’s (Herman Mudgett is his real name) childhood. He was born in New Hampshire and had a scarring incident involving a skeleton as a child. He married a local girl, Clara, with whom he had a child, and then later abandoned both (though never formally divorced) to attend the University of Michigan medical school where he began scamming insurance companies with cadavers to collect insurance money.) Holmes apparently cannot forget about a woman he met in Minneapolis–Myrta–and asks her to marry him and move to Chicago with him. She does, and they have a child Lucy. Quickly things cool between the pair, and Myrta and Lucy move in with Myrta’s parents who have moved to Illinois. Holmes buys the plot of land across the street to build a castle of doom. He doesn’t hire an architect because he doesn’t want any suspicion about his creepy plans–a giant kiln, an airtight vault with gas access, a chute from the upper floors to the basement. He hires and fires people quickly, never paying anyone. He finds help with a few “friends” (conspirators, creeps?) specifically Benjamin Pietzel who helps with his plans.

The fair finally picks a location–Jackson Park. This suits Holmes due to its proximity to his building. He realizes that he can capitalize on this (both monetarily and with fresh blood) by offering space as a hotel. This spot does not impress any of the East Coast architects making Burnham’s job even more difficult. Olmsted, the landscape architect, likes the spot and has grandiose ideas involving boats, plants, and everything else.

Labor laws play a big part in Burnham’s part of the story (somewhat in Holmes’s too although he is quite the opposite in paying and keeping employees). Burnham appears to be a decent man who tries to do good things. It’s hard for him regarding the unions as they don’t seem to know what they want themselves. He hires a man named Bloom from San Francisco to design the midway of the fair. Burnham decides to paint all the buildings at the fair white (aka The White City) and the concept of spray paint is invented for the task. Burnham is still in search of that one final piece–the rival to the Eiffel tower–and reaches out to some engineers for some suggestions (yeah, engineers!). Eventually one of the engineers’ ideas is selected and the first Ferris wheel (designed by George Ferris) is planned for construction.

Holmes continues to go through girls. Next is Julia and her daughter Pearl, then Emeline from the alcoholism facility that Benjamin went to (where Holmes also stole the idea for an alcoholism treatment for his mail order catalog), and Minnie Williams (someone he knew from when he lived in Boston) and her sister Anna as well as supposed nameless female guests at his hotel. He makes out well financially in most of these killings as well due to shady insurance policies and the like. In some of the killings, he partially dissects them and then sells them to a man who sells skeletons to doctors and medical schools. In others, he burns them in his kiln.

The fair eventually opens to a much smaller crowd than is expected. A lot of firsts happen at the fair however–Juicy Fruit gum, Shredded Wheat, zippers, day care centers, and a beer name Pabst is crowned the Blue Ribbon thus changing its name forever. Thomas Edison lights the fair all over with electric lights (adding to the name “The White City”). The fair continues to grow and push to gain attendance. The Ferris Wheel runs its first unmanned spin and then eventually an inaugural spin with passengers and then finally is open for business. This increases attendance significantly but it is still falling short of expectations. Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, who were denied entry to be in the fair themselves, but have set up their Wild West show just outside the fair, have been doing very well and it is thought that maybe they should have been included. (Many other “weird” attractions were such as hula dancers, belly dancers,  etc.) The fair does not go off without its hitches though. A fire happens in one of the buildings and a few lives are lost. Burnham is charged with negligence although he knew nothing of it and was never actually arrested for it. As the fair is winding down, a promotional idea is set in motion–creating “Chicago Day” where all businesses are closed for the day. Attendance at the fair on that day only pushes the fair out of the red.

Holmes has gotten married to a new woman–although not legally–and decides the time is right to leave Chicago. He sets fire to his building to collect the insurance, however the investigator is skeptical after finding out how many debts Holmes has. The investigator is the first to really think something is off with Holmes and gets the businesses and their lawyers together to confront Holmes. Holmes finds himself in an overwhelming situation that he doesn’t really know how to get out of so he and his wife flee to Texas to live off of the money he has swindled from Minnie.

The fair finishes on October 30 (as someone didn’t realize October had 31 days). Mayor Harrison is set to do the closing ceremony, but he is shot before he can by a deranged lunatic I discuss below. The closing day of the fair turns into a makeshift memorial service for the mayor who was apparently well liked by the common man.

Holmes eventually ends up in Philadelphia where he is under police custody for faking the death of Benjamin Pietzel and collecting insurance money. The investigator assigned to the case, Geyer, doesn’t believe that is what has happened. Geyer tracks down and finds that Holmes has killed many people and committed many crimes. All the while Geyer is off investigating, Holmes is writing an auto-biography pleading his innocence. Geyer ends up finding the bodies of Pietzel’s children as well as many human remains in his house in Chicago. Holmes is sentenced to death and is eventually hanged.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

I liked the book overall, and I found both the stories interesting. However, I didn’t really think they belonged together.

Another small issue I had is that throughout the book there are a few bits that I did not understand the point of including. The first is Prendergast, a delusional person who eventually kills the mayor who he believes should give him the position of corporation counsel. I don’t think the story would have been changed by not including him. The second is the visit of the the Spanish royal. I didn’t think it added a thing to the story.

I would recommend this book though because it’s easy to read and it includes a lot of little tidbits of history–most of which I didn’t know. I also think it is interesting to read about old timey serial killers because I just like having that knowledge when old people tell me about “my generation” and how immoral and terrible we are.  In the end though, I think I liked Isaac’s Storm better, but I will not hesitate to read another of Larson’s books in the future.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Review, Books