Murder in Old New York

I always love to see what other people are reading. On the subway, in the park, really anywhere. I also love bookshelves filled with books, and seeing other people’s collections. While I was traveling throughout the month of August, I stayed with a good friend of mine in Maine. I was staying in their very cute guest room, and was happy to see that they had a selection of books lined up on the dresser. I picked up The Alienist, a book I had started in high school but never got the chance to finish, and started reading.

ImageI hadn’t gotten very far in the first go-round of reading The Alienist, but I remember thinking that it was a really good book. And upon rereading the beginning of the story I wasn’t disappointed. The Alienist follows the story of John Schuyler Moore, a newspaper journalist in 1896 New York as he, a psychologist, and a small group of detectives work to find a serial killer who is ravaging downtown Manhattan of its young boys.

The thing that kept me reading throughout the first chapter was Caleb Carr’s elegant writing style. As I kept reading, I found that he painted all his characters, whether they were big or small, with amazing detail.

The character of the alienist, a man named Lazlo Kreizler, works as a psychologist and has many used-to-be misfits working for him as personal servants. Carr gives each one of these characters an elaborate backstory that he shares with the reader, and each one plays their own part in the telling of the story.

Carr also has a very strong female character in Sara Howard, whose dream is to be the first female detective. Right from the bat it is clear that she is not someone to mess with, and we all know how I feel about strong female characters, especially in period pieces.

The narrator, Jacob Moore, reports the story retrospectively, as if it were one of his news pieces. This allows him to step back from the story and elaborate on some of the different elements of life such as various buildings that were being built at the time, the nature of mobs in the city, or how childhood was viewed during the late 19th century. This doesn’t slow down the fast paced plot however, and adds an element to the story that would be hard to get otherwise.

Carr paints a very gritty, very realistic view of New York City at the turn of the century. He doesn’t shy away from some of the darker, more disturbing elements of life in the city at this time, and some of his descriptions can be pretty graphic. He does do a good job, however, of showing the variety of life that New York had in the late 1800’s Kreizler and Moore travel from the slums of tenement housing to the opera, and everywhere in between.

Carr also intersperses the story with some real characters of the time such as J.P. Morgan, Jacob Riis, and Teddy Roosevelt, who was chief inspector of the police department at the time. The sites in New York are also very accurate for the time, and Carr really gets the grit of the city under his fingernails. I enjoyed reading another story about a place I know so well such as New York, but seeing it at a different time.

Probably the most interesting part of the story for me was how the murder was actually solved. The story starts out the way many mystery novels do, with finding a body. But since there are no actual clues for the police to go off of, the case is handed over to Kreizler the psychologist to see if he can make anything of it. Psychology at this time was a fairly new field, and one that was not widely accepted by the general public. Freud was alive and practicing at the time, but psychology wasn’t seen as a valuable science beyond the walls of a psychiatric hospital. This is addressed in the book when the mayor of New York confronts Kreizler about the case at the opera. He says,

…let me be plain. If you were to associate yourself with the Police Department in any capacity, Dorctor, it would constitute just such a way for our enemies to discredit us. Decent people have no use for your work, sir, for your abominable opinions of the American family, or for your obscene probing into the mind of American children. Such matters are the province of parents and their spiritual advisors. If I were you, I should limit my work to the lunatic asylums, where it belongs.

Psychology clearly was not a credited science at this point, and there has been much debate about it over the years. I enjoyed seeing how Carr used the psychology aspect of the book to drive the story. Much of the psychology used seemed to stem from Freud, with its focus on childhood, mothers, and sexual orientation etc., but in the end it was the psychology that solved the case. It was also interesting, in a similar light, to see how crime fighting was conducted at this time. There is a scene in the book where two of the men on Lazlo’s team ultimately explain that there is a new fangled way of seeing who has been at a crime scene – its called fingerprinting, and it might just work.

I was happy to see that The Alienist has a sequel, The Angel of Darkness, that follows the same team of crime fighters a few years later. I didn’t know about this sequel before and now I want to read it and see where the characters and the crimes go from there. Guess I will have to add it to my list of books to read!

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Step Into My Office II

I was hoping to do two blog posts this week again but sadly jury duty got in the way…

A few months ago now I talked about different places where I like to do work. Usually they consisted of coffee shops or Barnes and Nobles cafes around the city, but now I have somewhere to go when a cafe or bookstore is too loud and a couch or my bed is just too comfortable.

In my apartment there is an alcove off of my room that used to be a kitchen before it was gutted out once upon a time, but we have been using it as a storage area. There are no kitchen appliances there, but we did have a desk in there, so a few weeks ago I decided that it was time to clear it out and use it as my very own office. There cleaning out process wasn’t as painful as it originally looked to be and I was left with a nice little work alcove that I now love. It’s a change of scene from my room without having to travel too far and I have gotten a lot of work done there over the past few weeks.

There is still some cleaning up that needs to be done and I am debating putting up a few posters to liven up the area but so far it’s off to a great start. I put my lamp from my college room there to brighten up the space and I even bought some sun flowers to put in the window. They have since wilted but I always wanted sunflowers and never really had a reason to get them before. But this was a great excuse, I thought.

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The Society Continues to Crumble: Insurgent

ImageA few nights ago, I stayed up late to finish Insurgent, the second book in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. To see my review of her first book click here, or scroll down to the next post. Insurgent starts right where Divergent leaves off, and Veronica Roth continues the action at the same break neck speed. At the end of the first book, the factions that Tris’s society has come to rely on began to turn on one another, and Tris and the rest of her Dauntless family are left to their own devices.

Much of the book is spent with them traveling from faction to faction, trying to figure out who to trust and who to believe after the Erudite community’s attempted take over of the Abnegation. There is also the introduction of some new characters, including the Factionless – those people who either failed to successfully chose or get into a faction, or those who have left the factionless life. Tris, having spent most of the first book in fear of a factionless life without community – begins to see these people, and her society as a whole in a different light.

Throughout the book, Tris is dealing with quite a heavy load in the aftermath of the battle that concludes the first book. She has lost both her parents, and is dealing with the fact that she shot one of her friends, a fellow Dauntless transfer. Things with Tobias, otherwise known as Four, are also a little rocky, as the two of them try to figure out how to navigate in this new unstable situation, what they want to get out of it, and how to fit each other into their plans, especially when their plans may differ. Trouble in paradise. I personally enjoyed this conflict as it made both characters more flushed out and realistic – no one’s relationship is perfect, and it gets tiring when relationships are shown in only one light through books, movies, etc.

What with all that Tris is going through, it would be easy to say that she becomes weak in the second book, but I would disagree with that statement. While she constantly talks about how she wants to curl up in a ball and pretend that her life isn’t happening, she never actually does that, even when it would be easy for her to do. She knows that she has people she wants to protect and goals she wants to accomplish, she just isn’t always sure what those goals are. Most importantly, she doesn’t want her parent’s deaths to be in vain.

Roth really gets inside Tris’s head in this book in terms of her fears, hopes, and desires. It can be easy when writing such character heavy scenes for the action to slow down, and it can be easy during action heavy scenes to step away from the characters and let the action play itself out, but Roth strikes a good balance between these two extremes in her writing. All of the action comes directly from the characters and the decisions that they make, and she makes much of the internal process within the character’s minds (mainly Tris) exciting and fast paced.

It was also interesting as a reader to see the different factions and the way the members of different factions lived their lives. The first book was primarily focused on the Abnegation and Dauntless, but in the second book we get to see Candor, Erudite and Amity as well. Roth also does a good job of defining these factions with their blunt, almost stereotypical traits, but then moving beyond that to show the complexities that lie within each faction.

For example, in the first book, Dauntless is seen as both reckless and fearless, but also brave and selfless. Similarly, in the second book Roth touches on ideas like what is the difference between the thirst for knowledge and the thirst for power, or how is being kind different than being passive and where is that line drawn? She really pushes both Tris and the reader to look beyond the stereotypes of each faction within the divided nature of the society.

Once again, Roth does a good job of writing a unique, exciting story while staying within the formula that a dystopian Young Adult novel provides. If I had planned this better I would have read these two books in October closer to when the third book, Allegiant, comes out. That way I could have finished Insurgent and just gone to the bookstore with the masses of people I am sure will be there to buy Roth’s third book. But it didn’t work out that way so now I am stuck waiting until October 22. Oh well.

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Some More Dystopia: Divergent

ImageI first bought Divergent by Veronica Roth last fall at a used bookstore for about $3. I started to read it then but as I read it, I found the dystopian world to be a lot like the one in the Hunger Games, so I put it down.

Since then I have come to realize that when I first started reading Divergent I hadn’t read any other dystopian novels other than The Hunger Games, (besides The Giver) and therefore that was my definition of a dystopian Young Adult novel. I didn’t have anything to compare it to.

But now I have read some other dystopian series, and when I saw the trailer for Divergent, I decided that if I ever wanted to see the movie in the future, which I might want to do, I should read the book first.

So I read it. And I was pleasantly surprised when Veronica Roth’s futuristic Chicago no longer reminded me of Panem.

Beatrice Prior lives in a world that is divided into factions based on virtue. There’s Abnegation, Erudite, Candor, Amity, and Dauntless. Beatrice was born into Abnegation, and is taught to be quiet, calm, and to constantly think of others before she thinks of herself.

While Beatrice loves her family, she struggles to maintain these values in her life. When the time comes for Beatrice to chose her own faction, she finds out that she is in fact a Divergent; one who has an aptitude for multiple factions, in Beatrice’s case Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless. But Beatrice has to decide which one to join. She is told that her Divergence must be kept a secret, as it is dangerous for others to know about her.

So Beatrice joins Dauntless, changes her name to Tris, and throws herself whole heartedly into Dauntless training. But all the while, it looks like something bigger is going on around her, and while Tris struggles to keep her Divergence a secret, her world starts to change, and her secret might be more important than she originally thought.

Dystopian novels in themselves are inherently formulaic: a seemingly perfect yet controlling society starts to unravel and it is up to a bunch of teenagers to save it. That’s not too surprising. What makes a dystopian novel good then, is how the author uses the formula to tell his or her own unique story, and Roth does this well, in my opinion. There enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. The fact that the society is going to fall apart is not what kept me reading, it was the how and why that were interesting. It’s kind of like watching a chick flick and you know the girl is going to end up with the guy, but you watch the movie anyway to find out how it happens.

And of course, what would a dystopian novel be without a love interest? Although there is no love triangle in Divergent, which I find rather refreshing – I tend to get very cynical when it comes to love triangles, and its a pretty big trope that is hard to avoid in YA books lately.  What made this love interest different, and even enjoyable for me, was that Tris is already a hugely strong and defiant character. That is clear from the beginning.

But as Tris starts to fall for Four, her leader in Dauntless training, Roth uses this relationship as a means for Tris to find out more about herself, the Dauntless faction, and her society as a whole. It’s not just a girl swooning over a guy. In a similar way, Four also learns about himself, rather than being the perfectly flawed boy that helps a helpless girl through her life. To me, that makes the relationship all the more real, believable, and enjoyable to read. It should be no surprise by now that I am a huge fan of the strong female character and Roth portrays through a variety of different characters and relationships in her series.

As I was reading Divergent, I began thinking – is this book darker than The Hunger Games? It’s hard to be darker than a book about kids battling to the death for public enjoyment, but I saw The Hunger Games as more of a survival story for Katniss rather than a battle. She doesn’t kill unless she needs to. And while the plot of Divergent is different altogether, there is more outright violence simply within the Dauntless faction, and frequently it is this violence and turmoil that pushes the plot forward. I’m not one of those people who condones violence in Young Adult books, I’m all for it; if the story calls for it, then by all means put it in. I really enjoyed reading Divergent and, I am currently reading Insurgent, and I am looking forward to reading Allegiant when it comes out in October, but the comparison of violence was a thought that entered my mind while reading Divergent.

It will be interesting to see how the violence is portrayed in the movie when it comes out next year. Personally, I found The Hunger Games movie to be darker than the book, simply because it was visual instead of verbal. You are being shown something outright as compared to imagining it yourself off the page. So it will be interesting to see how Divergent is translated to the big screen.

One problem I had with Divergent was there were a few times where it seemed like the narration came to a conclusions about the turn of events before Tris did. This was a little strange considering that it is narrated in the first person. It meant that there were times where I felt like I was ahead of Tris when it came to figuring things out, and it made some of her realizations not as gripping as they could have been if they came slightly earlier in the book. This didn’t detract me too much from the series, as I still tore through the book and enjoyed reading it, but I think some of the realizations could come earlier in the narrative while not throwing off the plot, or slowing down the story too much.

All in all I thought Divergent was a good read. I always enjoy it when authors create unique characters and worlds and Veronica Roth does this well in her series. I am currently enjoying Insurgent and I am debating placing a hold on Allegiant before it comes out so I won’t have to wait forever to read it from the library. And now, if I want to, I can go see the movie when it comes out in 2014.

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Labor Day Means School

For thirteen years, Labor Day meant packing all our possessions from our house in Long Island and making the trek back to the city to start school the next day. With the exception of last year. Last year it meant preparing for my internship at InkWell Management, trying to figure out something to wear that wasn’t too formal or too casual but still professional, and most of all, trying to figure out what my life was now that I wasn’t writing papers, going to class, and constantly working on piles of homework all the time.

Last fall, I went with a friend to hear a lecture at Columbia. Since it was still early September, and not all the summer heat had left the city yet, the lecture was held outside on Columbia’s main quad by the old library. After attending four years of school in rural Massachusetts, spending time at a college in the city was still a novelty to me. I am a city girl at heart, but living in dorms that look an awful lot like apartment buildings still seems strange to me. Anyway, while we were waiting for the lecture to start I remember looking around me and taking in the college life that I had recently left.

Off to the side, there was a girl taking notes from a Philosophy book. I remember being able to see her handwriting, and I have a strange fascination with handwriting (otherwise I would probably not be able to remember this). I remember looking at her and thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m probably older than she is.” That was a scary thought. My next thought was, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have any homework to do.” Not in a my-professor-didn’t-assign-me-homework-this-weekend kind of way but in an I-don’t-have-a-professor-to-assign-me-homework kind of way. It was a strange realization.

If there was anything I had learned over the years, it was how to be a student. I could, and have, written papers till the cows come home, and I am an excellent note taker (must be my obsession with handwriting again). I knew how to get a good seat in the library during exam week, and that once you have it you do not give it up. I knew what time my friends and I all went to dinner (6 on the dot), and what table we always sat at in the dining hall (the one straight ahead in the corner). And I knew, after a while, not to get the chicken in the stir-fry for dinner. It wasn’t worth it.

But this past year I have learned a new set of skills. I have learned how to send out acceptance and rejection letters for an agency and how to critique a manuscript for an agent. (I was happy to find out that I, in fact, already knew how to critique a manuscript from my Creative Writing classes, and I have continued to do so as a freelance editor). I have learned how to answer a company phone, greet visitors, and use a Keurig machine. I have learned that when applying to jobs you often do send off your information into a dark abyss, and I have learned that you can network anywhere, oftentimes without meaning to. (The amount of people who I have met with from my church who work in publishing still astounds me.)

I have learned that I work better when I have a schedule of things to do – I knew that one already, but it was confirmed when I was just looking for a job after finishing at InkWell before I started freelancing. I have learned (and am still learning) how to be in charge of my own schedule and how to negotiate a price for my work. And I have learned how to communicate with clients when it comes to their manuscript (another skill I would like to thank my Creative Writing classes for. Yes, I am an English major – Creative Writing and Literature major specifically – whose job directly correlates with the classes I took in college. It can happen!)

I have also learned a lot from volunteering with FOCUS on a regular basis this past year as well, both in the office and with middle and high school students. FOCUS wasn’t as new to me as the post-grad life, which really helped to form my schedule and a home base this past year. I have also learned more about One Direction than I ever really thought I would, but hey, you never know when that will come in handy?

When I looked outside this morning the light seemed different to me. It looked flatter and more like fall. That might be because I know it’s September now (and am trying to ignore that fact), and that is changing my view, or it might be because it is actually September and that the light actually is different. Either way, pumpkin spice lattes are on sale at Starbucks and even though that is my favorite Starbucks drink I have yet to get one out of principle – it was still August when they started selling them. I’m sure I will cave soon. I am not quite ready for fall yet and I would be happy with another month of summer. Yes, I am in denial about fall, but I’m telling myself it is okay because I can still do work/be productive and be in denial. I guess that’s the beauty of not being on a school schedule.

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