The American Writers Museum

I spent part of the first day of fall at Chicago's newest museum, the American Writers Museum, which opened back in May. The museum is located on the second floor of an office building on Michigan Avenue, about a block from Millennium Park and the office building where I used to work. 

The museum is small. It took me only an hour or so to through the whole thing. I don't know if the size was by design or a result of finances. I hope the latter, because the museum seemed like a "starter museum," much like the starter house a young couple might buy. It could be so much more, and I'd like to see it grow.

One of the tools on display in the writer's craft section of the museum. Patrons are encouraged to sit and type their own stories. 

One of the tools on display in the writer's craft section of the museum. Patrons are encouraged to sit and type their own stories. 

The museum is divided into two halves: one about the history of American writing and one about the craft of writing. It's a nice balance. It also has space for two special exhibits--in this case, one about palm trees and one about Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The Kerouac one was my favorite. It includes the scroll on which Kerouac typed his first draft and, holy cow, is that impressive.

Of the two halves, I enjoyed the writing-craft section more than the history section. It was very interactive--with typewriters and laptops for visitors to try their hand at original writing, games to compare yourself to famous writers, and a challenge where visitors can pit their own word skills against the masters.

The history part of the museum was interesting but superficial. That's where the museum has the potential to be so much more. There's a small room that serves as an exhibit about the wonders of children literature, with images from Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and Charlotte's Web. This, too, was interactive--inviting children to explore and experiment. With more space, I think the museum could explore children's literature in much more depth. I'd love to see something about the history and evolution of children's literature, for example.

The bulk of the history display is a wall-length timeline of important American writers. I was impressed by the diversity of the list. There were a few names that I'd never heard before. But again, I wanted to know more. With more space, the museum could devote a room or wall to each time period on the timeline and provide more information about each writer and display artifacts related to the time period and/or its writers.

With most museums, I leave with a need to go back and explore parts of it again. I didn't have that experience this time. I think I got out of the American Writers Museum everything there was to get out of it. Should it expand, however, I'd go back in a heartbeat.

REVIEW: Death of an Assassin by Ann Marie Ackermann

**Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this book in exchange for writing this review.**

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Death of an Assassin is a short but fascinating work of history. It tells the story of a murderer from the German states who died at Robert E. Lee's side during the Mexican-American War. He made enough of an impression on Lee that Lee mentioned the man in a letter home. As much a history of crime-solving techniques as a biography of a little-known historical character, the story Ackermann tells is intriguing.

Ackermann's writing is clear, vivid, and engaging. Her choice of detail, spot-on, and the photographs included enhance the story, rather than distract from it. Sometimes it really does help to actually see what a place or an object looks like, instead of relying on a written description. History is best told from primary sources, and that's exactly what Ackermann did. Her narrative is based largely on primary sources, both German and American.

There were only a few small things that I wish Ackermann had done a little differently. The first part of the book is set almost entirely in Germany, with the exception of a chapter about Robert E. Lee and a chapter about Texan independence. Because those chapters were one-offs in a sense, they were a bit distracting. I would rather have stayed in Germany and then read those chapters when the narrative moved across the Atlantic.

My other quibble comes as a lover of mysteries. Ackermnan reveals the assassin's name about halfway through the book. Or rather, she reveals the name of the soldier and tells us he's the assassin. I'm glad we got to know the soldier's name when we did, but I would have preferred to make the connection to the assassination when the world did--after the soldier's death.

She also made a passing reference to Commodore Perry, and I very much want to know if that's the same Commodore Perry who forced Japan open to trade in the 1850s. That wasn't addressed in the Notes, and I wish it had been.

That said, these are all minor quibbles, and they did not interfere with my interest in or enjoyment of the book.

 

The Best Book I Read This Month: Darktown, by Thomas Mullen

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It's early in the month to be posting this, but there is no way anything else I read this month will top Darktown by Thomas Mullen. It left me breathless.

Set in Atlanta in 1948, the story follows two of the Atlanta Police Department's first African American officers (Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith) and one white rookie (Denny Rakestraw) as they try to solve the murder of a young black woman, a murder that everyone else wants swept under the rug. All three main characters are compelling, and I look forward to following their story in Mullen's sequel, Lightning Men.

What really knocked me out about Darktown, though, was the atmosphere. This is not a light book. Even calling it noir would be a disservice. Every page captured the oppressive heat and humidity of that Atlanta summer. Every page captured the unrelenting, oppressive racism of 1948 Atlanta. Every word felt a hair's breadth away from violence. This is definitely fiction that brings history to life. There were spots so intense, I had to put the book down and take a few deep breaths. But then I picked it right up again because it was so compelling.

The Best Book I Read This Month: Surrender, New York by Caleb Carr

First, a disclaimer: my choice for this month is not the best book I read in terms of quality of writing. It is, however, the book that provoked the strongest reaction. In actuality, I still haven't decided whether I like the book. But  the fact that I finished all 592 pages despite my frustrations surely says something.

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Surrender, New York is a mystery centered on the deaths of "throwaway," or abandoned, teenagers. It is set in upstate New York, in the fictional Burgoyne County (which is supposedly located in the environs of Albany, near Rensselaer County). The mystery, itself, was one of the better aspects of the book. It was intricate and well-plotted, with some nicely executed twists and turns. The characters--well, the supporting characters--were colorful and their loyalties not always clear. (I like stories and characters that live in the gray areas.) The main character, however, felt flat. More about him later.

I picked up the book based on the jacket copy. I adored Carr's The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness, which centered on a psychologist named Laszlo Kreizler and the development of what we now call forensic psychology in the dawn of the twentieth century. So when I read that Surrender, New York was a contemporary "sequel" to the Kreizler books, I grabbed it. Much to my disappointment, the connection to Kreizler was no more than a gimmick, not much better than name-dropping. It felt forced, and I feel duped. The story would have been just as good--maybe even better--without it. The Kreizler connection simply allowed the author to use his main character (Trajan Jones) to pontificate on everything he (Carr) thinks is wrong with modern law enforcement and forensic science. (He has particular venom for CSI and similar television programs.) This single-minded focus made Jones feel flat as a character, despite Carr's attempts to make him seem otherwise (amputee, cancer survivor, ill-advised love affair, pet cheetah).

Jones's pontifications often took the form of long passages of expository dialogue, another of my frustrations with the book. I found my eyes glazing over and my attention wandering during the especially long ones. Shortening, or even eliminating, many of these passages would have made for a much tighter story.

Carr also displayed a tendency for some rather amateur-level foreshadowing. More than once, I read something along the lines of "Much later, I realized the importance of so-and-so's words." My God, man, let me as the reader realize that importance for myself! Let me figure out the connections on my own! That's what makes a good mystery work.

So, while I recommend The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness wholeheartedly, I am not sure I can do the same for Surrender, New York.