“I was born with the devil in me . . . I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”

devilBooks on Tap read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson at Champion Brewery on September 6.  Instead of usual novels, this title was a work of narrative nonfiction. It follows the men who established the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, those who planned and built it, and the male serial killer who took advantage of the influx of young women into the city.

What we most responded to was the rivalry Chicago felt with both Paris, the site of the previous fair, and New York, who competed to host the 1983 iteration. Larson shows both the civic cooperation and dysfunction that launched the fair, reminding us that the Windy City nickname is a result of its politicians as much as its weather. We also discussed the contrast between the White City of the fair and the Black City of open sewers and dark alleys. It was both the allure of the fair and the chaos of parts of the city that allowed serial killer H.H. Holmes to prey on the young woman who flooded the city looking for independence and work. While more workers at the fair died than Holmes probably killed, the state of police work and the undervaluing of the victims allowed Holmes to go undetected until he kidnapped three children.

All of our readers liked at least some parts of the story, especially tidbits about products introduced at the fair like the Ferris wheel, Cracker Jack and chewing gum. However, some readers thought that the book could have been more satisfying and faster-paced with fewer minor storylines. Larson, a former journalist, is a formidable researcher but not every detail was necessary to the story. He does pull the reader along by hanging the narrative on a few familiar names such as Frederick Law Olmsted and maintains suspense around Holmes’s activities, even though the reader already knows the broad outlines of the story. Ultimately, Larson’s research enabled us to trust him as a reliable reporter as he spun out this at times unbelievable tale.

More Information:
About the author
Interviews with the author
About the book
Upcoming movie
Images from the 1893 World’s Fair
The most recent World’s Fair in Kazakhstan in 2017

Related Recommendations:
Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King
The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan
The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Mathews
David McCullough, especially The Great Bridge
Nathan Philbrick, especially Sea of Glory

Books on Tap Information:

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“We must never be a country that says there’s only one way to love, only one way to look, and only one way to live.”

tomorrowThe LGBTQ Book club met on August 28 to discuss Tomorrow Will Be Different, Sarah McBride’s memoir about coming out trans in college, advocating for trans rights in Delaware, speaking at the Democratic National convention, finding love and losing it to cancer and advocating for trans rights on a national scale. It’s a lot to pack in to 25  years of living and a bit too much to pack into a book of this size.

About half of the group were familiar with trans people and rights before this meeting, although none of us knew much about McBride herself. One reader said that although he hadn’t been familiar, McBride’s authenticity elicited his empathy and that he has a better understanding of trans lives. Another reader had the opposite reaction, wanting more of McBride’s life story and less of the minutiae of her political life. We all agreed that while she does acknowledge her privilege (race, class, parental support), she doesn’t fully explore that but she is taking full advantage of the slide that has been greased for her.  

We explored the ways in which terms such as trans, bigot, and gay have evolved and the intersectionality of identities. One reader spoke of the conflict of including  lesbians and bisexuals in the now-LGBT community. We also touched on the work of trans women in the Stonewall riots.

Ultimately we agreed that the 28-year-old author has already led a remarkable life that is well documented in this book but we were left wanting to know more about the person and less about the potential political candidate.

More Information:
About the author
Interview with the author
About the book
TED Talk

Other Trans Authors of Memoirs:
Arin Andrews
Cris Beam
Chaz Bono
Jennifer Finney Boylan
Katie Rain Hill
Skylar Kergil
Janet Mock
Jan Morris
Amy Ellis Nutt

Recommendation:
As One opera

Next meeting:
The LGBTQ Book Club is going on hiatus this fall. Look for more information on jmrl.org in the spring.

“No coincidence, no story.”

teagirlThe Brown Baggers met on August 16 to discuss Lisa See’s The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.

The story takes place in the mountains of China. Li-yan, a young girl of the Akha ethnic minority group, lives with her family picking tea leaves and following the customs of her culture. Li-yan is smart and is able to continue her schooling beyond what is typical for someone in her village. When a stranger visits the village in a jeep, the first automobile any of them had seen, Li-yan acts as a translator and begins to understand that there is a world far beyond her own and that she doesn’t have to stay in her village forever.

In Li-yan’s teenage years she falls in love with a young man who is not considered an appropriate match by her mother, but Li-yan bears his child, then takes the baby to an orphanage in the city, leaving the infant with a special tea cake. Li-yan eventually makes a life for herself outside of her small village, through owning a tea shop that sells pu-erh tea, but she never forgets the child she gave up.

Almost all of the Brown Baggers loved this book! They thought the story was interesting and loved learning more about the Akha people and about how tea is grown and processed. Some noted that although the novel had many characters, it was a plot-driven novel, rather than character-driven, which made the story move quickly.

Some readers mentioned that they thought there were too many details about tea. Although the book centered around the unique tea culture, there was a lot of information about the price of different tea leaves and this seemed to distract from the plot of the story. But others mentioned how much research the author must have completed around the topic.

Many readers felt that it was interesting to learn about the superstitions of the Akha culture and how they were different (and similar) to superstitions from other parts of the world. The Akha had the saying “no coincidence, no story,” but some Brown Baggers pointed out that there were many, many coincidences in the book. Also, most felt that the ending was too contrived, but they still enjoyed it. Others felt like the ambiguous ending was disappointing, but in an interview, the author said that she purposefully wrote the ending this way.

The Brown Baggers will meet again on September 20th at 12pm and will be discussing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

More Information:
Article about Pu-erh tea
About the Akha People

Reviews of the Book:
From Kirkus Reviews
From the Washington Post
From the Los Angeles Review of Books

Books and Authors Mentioned:
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
China Dolls by Lisa See
Pearl S. Buck