Tell Me a Story: Empire of Sin

by Gary Krist

4/5 stars

I love books about the seedier sides of history. They just make good narratives. And yes, sex sells. So I loved this book that covers the story of New Orleans around the turn of the century, covering things like Storyville, the birth of jazz, corrupt politics, and a potential serial killer. Empire of Sin paints a broad picture of specific parts of New

While Krist covers lots of territory here, he maintains a compelling narrative. True, there’s not necessarily a thru line in the sense that we don’t have any one story that seems to tie all the others together, although some of the politicians get pretty close. Still, his pacing is spot on. I never began to feel bored, which is particularly impressive for me with audiobooks. It’s easy for me to space out every once in a while.

I am strangely compelled by stories of historical serial killers, so the section of the book about the possible ax murder was my favorite. Those interested in H.H. Holmes and Jack the Ripper would also find this section interesting, though I wouldn’t have minded even a little more on this case. It did cement the fact that I am apparently afraid of murders from the past. I listened to this part of book while falling asleep and had to continue until the section was finished, because I was pretty sure otherwise I would have had weird nightmares. I have never pretended to be normal.

Sections of the book covering Storyville didn’t necessarily offer me any new information. I wouldn’t have minded this section to have some more anecdotes like Sin in the Second City. Storyville is one of the most iconic parts of New Orleans from this time period, and I would have liked to dig even further into this. Also, I’m not gonna lie; I’m interested in books that explore the history of prostitution.

While I admittedly don’t know much about the history of jazz, I think Krist covers it pretty well. This is where he does the best with anecdotes. But it should be established this is not a history of the musical evolution of jazz, rather the main characters in its creation in New Orleans, and how it played into the story of New Orleans.

As always, I loved hearing about the moral pushback against everything. And I think it would have been even further illustrated with more information on what the majority of New Orleans was like at this time. What was expected of most people? What did the general world around these distracts looks like? I think it only would have reinforced everything explored throughout.

Tell Me a Story: Alice I Have Been

By Melanie Benjamin

2/5 stars

“But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired.”

 

This has been on my list for a while, but over the past year I’ve encountered some very notable theatrical pondering on the life of Alice Little. My favorite is John Logan’s Peter and Alice, which centers around the meeting of Alice and Peter Lleewelyn Davies, a meeting that Alice I Have Been touches on briefly at the end of the book. I have also recently attended a reading of a musical on this theme, and have heard tell of another play devoted entirely to Alice Little and Charles Dodson. So, it seemed like as good a time as any to finally check Alice I Have Been off the list.

At the end of the day with this book though, I just don’t care. I have no reason to be invested in Alice other than any history I may bring connected to Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland. This is particularly true of Alice herself. Nothing she does in the novel is particularly compelling. She spends most of the early part of the novel as a precocious, bratty child. She then grows up to be thoroughly uninteresting. Neither is there really any forward momentum. The pacing jumps across seemingly important periods of her life, but gives us meandering looks at these periods rather than a dire reason we are stopping in these periods in particular.

The novel hinges around the unknown regarding the Little family’s break with Charles Dodson. I didn’t need, or want, an answer, but I expected to be compelled to figure out the truth. Benjamin seems to want to create mystery, but leaves things so hazy as to create no real interest. Even with this attempt, there was not much nuance here. Much of the speculation seems to take the form of whether there was any inappropriate incident. Rather I found myself more repelled by a relationship with another gentleman Alice had in young adulthood, long after her family’s break with Dodson.

Overall with this novel I just could not bring myself to care. I wasn’t expecting Wonderland, but I did want to be enchanted by these characters. I wanted to care for Alice. I wanted to be heartbroken, and slightly uneasy at her family’s break with Dodson. I’ll stick with Peter and Alice.

Tell Me a Story: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

By Matthew Quick

3/5 stars

It’s Leonard Peacock’s 18th birthday. He has big plans, plans that involve using his grandfather’s Nazi WWII pistol to kill a classmate, and former friend, Asher before killing himself. But first he has to say goodbye to the four most important people in his life: the elderly neighbor with whom he watches old Humphrey Bogart films, the student he listens to practicing their music at lunchtime, his Holocaust teacher, and the home-schooled evangelical Christian for which he harbors a crush. Along the way we learn more about Leonard Peacock, and what has brought him to this moment.

While we gradually learn more about Leonard Peacock, through his point-of-view, the details revealed in a slow-building masterful way, I don’t necessarily like who I see. I recognize Leonard Peacock. This book leaves me feeling glad I was never inside their head. I went into this book conflicted, especially about how I was supposed to feel about a character that starts us off relishing in the thought of committing such an awful action. I was ready to be sympathetic to him, knowing that his targeting of killing Asher specifically hinted at a horrible history of some kind there. And there was.

And yet, I couldn’t always get on board with Leonard. I felt bad for him, sure. Even before knowing what happened with Asher, his home life was no walk in the park. He was obviously unhappy, approaching life with a cynical air that included following miserable adults to work to see how bad it could get. Leonard feels superior to his classmates, something not all that surprising in both high school and from someone in his frame of mind. I think what ultimately turned me off Leonard was the way he interacted with Lauren, the home schooled Christian girl. He was attracted to her, but when she turned out to have a boyfriend he became angry with her. His questioning of her faith was maliciously aimed rather than stemming from a place of curiosity. Finally, when it seemed he finally was being emotionally honest with her, he kissed her, even after she had told him she was saving that for marriage. Regardless of beliefs it seemed a way to bring her down, and I think in a way he relished in having power in even that one area of his life.

Even Leonard’s letters from the future, a task assigned by his teacher in hopes of providing a promising tomorrow to look forward to were tinged with pessimism. The letters themselves threw me as a narrative device. We don’t find out about the assignment until much later, bringing things together nicely. Before that I was left somewhat floundering as we left things emotionally intense modern YA novel for missives from some unknown, dystopia future.  Overall, they interrupted the flow of the novel and weren’t particularly engaging, neither did they offer me much hope for the future (although that may not have been the point).

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock left me with many mixed feelings, but it also got me thinking, and that’s never a bad thing. Neither are we obligated to like a character to need to hear their story.

Tell Me a Story: I Am Number Four

by Pittacus Lore

2/5 stars

I enjoyed I Am Number Four enough at the beginning. I love a good “I’ve got a secret” high school tale. But, as we continued on the adventure, nothing of import seemed to happen. The book went through the motions (befriends likeable outcast, defeats bully, gets girl) without anything really happening. As this sank in, a number of other problems became evident.

The characters are not particularly well crafted. Four’s name is John Smith. And he didn’t have a different name at home. That’s about as bland as it gets. His one “quirky” feature seemed to be he played video games once. John Smith’s romantic interest used to be the head cheerleader, but dropped out of the squad when she realized it, and her romance with the top football star (see bully), was impacting her negatively. She’s still popular though. I wanted to like her. I wanted to like her so much. She seemed to have good intentions. But she was so bland. And John kept saving her. It’s been a while since I’ve read a sci-fi/fantasy book with a male protagonist, so I was excited. But this utterly let me down in regards to its male and female characters. John’s guardian Henri was the most compelling character for me, if only because he seemed to be the only one with common sense.

The fact that the novel is ghostwritten under the name for an elder of the world is somewhat laughable, if only because it seems to imply a level of thought about that world that did not communicate itself to me. If the characters aren’t well crafted, the world is worse.  At least we’ve met those character types before and know how to interact with them. This is sci-fi only in as much as there are “aliens.” John develops powers. Why? ‘Cause it makes him a superhero. But, why were the Mogadorians coming after them again? If it was mentioned, I don’t remember, which is almost as bad. The final stand-off seems to go on forever, for no real reason.

Basically, everything feels very arbitrary. Whether John and Sarah pass their home-ec test seems to have as many stakes as John’s “survival.” There are no real stakes, mostly because John doesn’t really seem to feel the stake. He just wants to hang out in Ohio okay? We’ve been here. And we’ve seen it better.

Tell Me a Story: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

I have been listening to some audiobooks lately, something somewhat new in and of itself to me. I don’t like to feel like I’m wasting reading time while doing every day tasks, hence the branching out into audiobooks. I will feature things I’ve listened to as an audiobook under the “Tell Me a Story” heading. So, without further ado:

by Leo Tolstoy

3/5 stars

I like Tolstoy. I tore through Anna Karenina last fall. I read War and Peace in a week over Christmas last year. Tolstoy is a master at building complex characters. You know they’re not perfect. Many times they’re far from it. Anna Karenina does this perfectly. Despite Tolstoy’s best attempts, Anna is sympathetic. She’s not happy in life, and I yearn for her to find that happiness, even as I watch society destroy her for it. And yet, by all accounts, she had a good life before. Her husband was not a brute. They just didn’t work well together. And watching the circumstances spiral out of control with two people you could conceivably root for made it all the worse.

In this same vein, Ivan Ilyich is far from perfect. He’s a mid-level man who models his life after the rich and successful. But he’s not a particularly engaging man in any way. He focuses on appearances. He becomes short with family. And it is this man we see dwindling in illness, coming to terms with his inevitable death.

As a conceit, it’s a good one. And one that truly belongs to a Russian author to squeeze out both the melancholy and the “this is just how it is” factor. Unfortunately, it is imposable for me to think about this novella without Anna Karenina and War and Peace in my head. And I enjoyed those much more. And maybe it comes down to the scope being so much less than what I’m used to with Tolstoy.

That being said, the opening of the novella was beautiful, following the companions in Ilyich’s circle and their being made aware of his death. There was a distance to this narrative that contrasts interestingly with the rest of the novella that features Ilyich so singularly. I wanted to see more of them.

Overall, my enjoyment of the novella might also have been impacted by the fact that I listened to the audiobook. It was a rather dry telling, in that I’m not sure it mined all of the emotion that’s in the text.