Monday, June 04, 2007

Book of books - The Chicago connection

One of the reasons for reading Theodore Dreiser was because my parents live in the suburbs of Chicago and his most famous novel, Sister Carrie is based for a large part of the novel in the City at the turn of the last century. Having read that book it spurred on more reading that took the windy city as its backdrop and so in shortish reviews there are some of the books I have read with a Chicago connection. I’m sure there are more and would appreciate any suggestions of titles that are worth a read.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
A slow burner that finally creeps up on you and takes you by the throat. First of all Carrie and Drouet are transformed with the poor girl impressed and abused to a certain extent by the smooth talking salesman. But then as she seeks an alternative relationship she finds the bar manager, and the real tragic figure of the book, Hurstwood, who is used to show the gulf between someone with success and those who head for the gutter and death. Having stolen money and headed to New York Hurstwood slips into a spiral of doom while Carrie discovers stage success and wealth. Failure means poverty in an America crippled by the Great Depression and for some, Hurstwood included, poverty ends in death. Has some great descriptions of the wealthy in Chicago and the power of the dollar to motivate people to break strikes and sell their principles.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Another bruising novel about the costs of poverty this had an impact on American politics because of the descriptions of the workers in the meat processing plants. The first half of the book involves a detailed description of the stockyards, factories and the people who run them using an immigrant family and the experiences of the head of the household Jurgis who is taken advantage of. In some cases the work kills, permanently disables and all the time the odds are stacked against you beating the system. But then the second half of the book, where Jurgis becomes transfixed on the socialist party, it becomes a polemic that loses the power that the first half of the book had. The preaching at the end might have got results at the turn of the last century but it makes for a difficult read now.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
A real breeze to read and despite its grizzly content a good history of the World’s Fair in 1893 and the architecture of Chicago. It is written with a real eye to detail and a determination to make it feel authentic. This has been one of those ‘bestseller’ books and the reason is not only is it written in a way that it races along but you cannot help but get involved and hope that the killer Holmes is caught and gets justice. What would have really helped is some pictures of the fair, The White City, just to get more of an idea of what Burnham built and how it was so important for the City of Chicago.
City of the Century by Donald Miller
It starts badly in terms of following it as a reader and it is a challenge to stay with it. But it gets better with the growth of the skyscrapers, the building of a more ambitious and modern Chicago and the building of the White City. There is a chance to also read about stronger characters that shaped the modern city like Marshal Field, Pullman and others. It leaves you understanding what the driving theme behind the development and one that exists still - the mighty dollar.

City of Big Shoulders by Robert Spinney
An easier read than the Miller and the history of the City runs up to 1997, so more has been squeezed in. It seems to be a soft on Mayor Daley, who many see as a crook that crushed protest (particularly at the 1968 Democratic convention). You leave the book without learning a huge amount other than throughout the history, through fires, world fairs and skyscrapers the most important person was the mayor. The most crucial element of the Mayor’s position was their stance on crime and corruption. As a result of the political wranglings and the prohibition years and Al Capone the stories of wealth and non-political characters are sidelined too much. There is a temptation with a chronology to treat most events with the same weight.

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