Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, by Ellen Bryson

Though he didn't say "there's a sucker born every minute", P.T. Barnum might as well have done.  Circus founder, freak show impresario, theatrical producer, politician, he made a livelihood from the gullibility of the American public.  Bryson's novel is set in his New York City Museum, and is the story of Bartholomew Fortuno, the fictional "thinnest man in the world". 

Fortuno believes that his body and the oddities of the other "Curiosities" are special gifts, "emphasizing different aspects of human beings".  Into his world comes a new act, Iell the Bearded Woman.  She is treated differently from the other prodigies, not living in the Museum with the rest, and seems to have some connection with Barnum not shared by her colleagues.  Fortuno is intrigued, an intrigue heightened by Barnum sending him on a mysterious errand to fetch a packet for Iell from a Chinatown apothecary, who also gives Fortuno a root that will give him "what his heart wants".  And so his transformation, on many levels, begins.

I struggled to get through this book.  The characters never came alive for me.  Though we gradually learn a good deal about Fortuno, where he comes from, what his life has been,  he isn't, at bottom, a very interesting person.  And we don't learn much about anyone else.  The story itself drags, and is a slender reed on which to hang a novel, a novel that Bryson's writing isn't compelling enough to save.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Angel of Death Row

Angel of Death Row, by Andrea D. Lyon

Full disclosure:  I know Andrea, I've worked with Andrea, I've represented some of the same people, I know and have worked with people she writes about in this book.  But I'm going to review this book all the same.

Andrea joined the Cook County (IL) Public Defender's Office at a time when there were very few women trial lawyers, much less criminal defense lawyers.  She took a lot of guff from prosecutors, judges and colleagues, but she never let it stop her.  By the time she left that office, she was the head of the Homicide Task Force, than which there are, in no small part thanks to Andrea, no better lawyers.  She went on to found the Capital Resource Center, representing Illinois' death row inmates in post-conviction proceedings (the Center is now the Post-Conviction Unit of the Office of the State Appellate Defender), and then moved on to clinical work at the University of Michigan and the DePaul University School of Law, where she heads the Center for Justice in Capital Cases.

This is the story of how she came to be "The Angel of Death Row", as she was dubbed by the Chicago Tribune.  She talks of her life, her family, and her clients in an easy, conversational style.  It's not a book that's heavy on the law; that's not what it's about.  It's about people.  The people she works with, the people she lives with, the people she represents.  The last are the most important.  It's so easy to see criminal defendants as "the other"; Andrea helps us (as she has helped juries) see the man or woman, and how they got to be sitting in the defendant's seat.   Some of the stories are horrific, some are sad, some are incomprehensible.  But they are all stories of human beings whose lives went terribly wrong.  Andrea knows that the "why" is as important as the "what" in these stories, and she is indefatigable in conveying that to judges and juries.

Andrea's passion for justice and her anger at injustice and the system that tolerates it are obvious on every page of this book. 

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Two New York City guidebooks

I recently went to New York City, and took two guidebooks with me. The first, Forbes City Guide New York 2010, I had requested through the Amazon Vine program in anticipation of the trip. The second, Touring Gotham's Archaeological Past: 8 self-guided walking tours through New York City, I picked up second-hand.

Forbes City Guide New York 2010

I waited to review this until after my trip, but I'm afraid that first impressions were right. It's not a guide that I can recommend.

To begin with, although there is the occasional nod to the other boroughs, this guide should more properly be called the Forbes City Guide "Manhattan 2010". And trendy, expensive Manhattan at that. This is a guide for people with money. Forget budget hotels; there are hardly any moderately-priced hotels suggested. The same is generally true of their restaurant recommendations.

But what really drove me nuts was the almost complete lack of directions. You can't tell a visitor to New York City that a restaurant is located at 541 Amsterdam Avenue. You've got to give the cross-street. And the guide doesn't tell you what subway line to take and which station you need. There's a subway map at the back, but it doesn't designate the lines! Come on! Everyone in New York rides the subway! I guess they expect readers of this guide to take cabs everywhere, which I would NOT recommend. Why would you want to pay to get stuck in Midtown traffic?

On the plus side, they're right about the M60 bus to and from LaGuardia (best bargain in town!) and TKTS (the discount theatre ticket service), and they have most of the major museums and cultural institutions. But those can be found also in guidebooks that don't have the drawbacks of this one.

Touring Gotham's Archaeological Past: 8 self-guided walking tours through New York City

Now for the good one! The authors Diana diZerega Wall and Anne-Marie Cantwell, are professors of anthropology at the City University of New York and Rutgers University-Newark, respectively. They have put together these walking tours, in all the boroughs except Staten Island*, to help tourist and resident alike learn more about the history of the city.

Now, you might think that they're going to take you off the beaten track, and in some cases that's true. Most tourists don't get up to Inwood in Manhattan or out to the Bronx. But they do go to Ellis Island and Liberty Island, though they likely don't know that Ellis Island's Main Building was built on top of a Native American burial site, or that the island where the Statue of Liberty stands was a Native American shellfish-gathering station and hunting and fishing camp.

As Cantwell and Wall guide us along New York City's streets, we learn through the excavations that have occurred there much about the lives of the Native Americans who inhabited the area and the lives of the early European settlers. Pot shards and dog burials, bottles, dice and buttons, all have their stories to tell, and one of the great things about this book is that the authors teach us how to understand those stories. How do the skeletons in the African Burial Ground tell their stories of malnutrition, disease and physical hardship? How do preservation architects figure out when a house was built? What is it about artifacts found in one backyard privy that tells us they likely came from a brothel? The book is full of fascinating stories, and even if you don't go on all, or even any, of the tours, you'll learn a lot just reading it.

If you do decide to take book in hand and set out on a tour, you'll find that Cantwell and Wall make it easy. Each tour is accompanied by an excellent map, and though they cover a good deal of territory, all can be accomplished with a comfortable pair of shoes and a MetroCard (the authors give explicit transit directions for each, though it's always a good idea to check ahead of time in case of cutbacks and route changes!). You might want to take a standard guide along with you, in case you want to find a place to have a bite to eat along your route, though it might be more fun (and more in keeping with the "sense of adventure" the authors recommend) to rely on serendipity!

* The authors did not include the Staten Island sites because they are vulnerable to looting.

At Printers' Row

At Printers' Row
Originally uploaded by mojosmom

What used to be known as the Printers Row Book Fair, and is now the Printers Row Lit Fest, was held this weekend in Chicago. As usual, I went. As usual, I came home with a bunch of books. Heavy (literally) on art books and memoirs. Herewith the haul:

Chicago's Left Bank, by Alson J. Smith
Passages from the French and Italian Note-books of Nathaniel Hawthorne
Tales of a Theatrical Guru, by Danny Newman (with a foreword by Studs Terkel)
Dear Genius: A Memoir of my Life with Truman Capote, by Jack Dunphy
Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the form of Nature
The Medici, MIchelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence
Edgar Miller and the Hand-Made Home: Chicago's forgotten Renaissance man
Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of a lost city

It was quite a nice day to browse, cool enough for a light jacket but not cold. I love warm summer days, but carrying a ton of books around when it's mid-'80s and sunny isn't always pleasant.

I have to say that I was shocked to find that the fair is devoting less and less space to books. I don't mind that they're doing a lot more author events. That's completely appropriate. But the fair is now shorter by one block, and much of the space was taken up by the C-SPANmobile, a "reading lounge" (read: furniture sales), a mattress seller and a car dealer. Look, I know they need sponsors, but this was ridiculous.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Adventures in Chicago with Marie Grandin

The following is a guest post from Mary Beth Raycraft, translator of A Parisienne in Chicago: Impressions of the World's Columbian Exhibition.

Mary Beth will be in Chicago discussing this book at Women and Children First
(one of my favorite bookstores!) on Wednesday, June 16, at 7:30 p.m. The bookstore is at 5233 N. Clark St.

Adventures in Chicago with Marie Grandin

While translating Marie Grandin’s 1894 travel memoir, A Parisienne in Chicago, Impressions of the World’s Columbian Exposition, I also had the pleasure of embarking on a lively behind the scenes tour of late 19th-century Chicago. A twenty eight old Parisian schoolteacher, Marie arrived in the city in August 1892 accompanied by her husband, the sculptor Léon Grandin. They would live in Chicago for ten months while Léon supervised the installation of the Columbian Fountain at the Exposition. While he spent his days in the sculpture workshops, Marie took full advantage of her freedom and circulated in the bustling streets of the city, attended cultural events, and asked many questions as she gathered information about American life for her travel account.

Determined to get a true sense for middle class American life, the Grandins opted to stay in several different boardinghouses near Jackson Park during their time in Chicago. In each boardinghouse, Marie had an opportunity to carefully observe the clientele whose routines, interactions, and manners she meticulously documented for her readers. Determined to go beyond superficial appearances, she delicately probed relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and servants and employers.

Pleasantly surprised by the independence and energy of Chicago’s women, Marie quickly undertook her exploration of the city. She began with walks in her neighborhood, strolling in Washington Park and along Drexel Boulevard, which she compared to the elegant Parisian Avenue des Champs Elysées. After getting settled on the south side of the city, Marie soon discovered that a tram car conveniently shuttled between Jackson Park and the Loop. The bustling city center, the Loop became the focus of many of her expeditions, including visits to department stores, the Chicago Public Library, the Athenaeum, and the Auditorium. In order to verify information, she went to the Public Library which at the time was located on the fourth floor of city hall at Lasalle and Washington streets. The Athenaeum building on Van Buren Street housed classrooms, offices, and studios as well as the growing collection of the Art Institute. Grandin’s friendship with two instructors at the Art Institute, Lydia Hess and Marie Gélon Cameron, gave her access to many activities there, including afternoon teas with faculty members. Also on her itinerary was the Auditorium Building, which attracted much attention during the fair for its stunning architecture and multifunction design. Marie and her husband joined distinguished foreign visitors at the elegant inaugural ball held there in October 1892 where she was struck by the sumptuous décor and the graceful dancers. She also frequented the commercial establishments of the Loop, including department stores where she admired the vast range of goods and Gunther’s Confectionary on State Street where she indulged her sweet tooth.

Armed with a letter of introduction from an acquaintance in Paris, Marie Grandin eventually gained entrance into Chicago’s highest social circle, becoming a habitué in the salon of Bertha Palmer’s elegant home on Lake Shore Drive. At the time, Palmer was busy with preparations for the opening of the Woman’s Building at the fair which Marie enthusiastically described as “without question one of the most interesting buildings of the entire site.” Indeed, Marie’s visits to the Woman’s Building and her conversations with individual women involved in the project provided her with a place and framework for thinking about what she had observed in Chicago in terms of education and gender relations.

While she admired Chicago’s modern cityscape and unusual tourist attractions, Marie Grandin was particularly struck by the relative freedom of American women. She was surprised to see girls and boys studying side by side in coeducational classrooms and young people socializing away from the watchful eye of a chaperone. Over the course of her interactions in boardinghouses, private homes, schools, and at the fair, she encountered a number of dynamic women who were passionately engaged in the social, cultural, and political life in Chicago. Although Marie Grandin had eagerly anticipated visiting the city and the Fair, in the end, Chicago’s women turned out to be the most dynamic spectacle of all.

Mary Beth Raycraft teaches French at Vanderbilt University and is the translator of Madame Léon Grandin’s A Parisienne in Chicago, Impressions of the World’s Columbian Exposition (University of Illinois Press, 2010). See for interactive maps of Madame Grandin’s Chicago.

(Photo of Mary Beth Raycraft courtesy of the author)