Saturday, October 22, 2011

by Michael Sims

Charlotte's Web has sold millions of copies. It's the best children's book ever published in the United States according to a poll of librarians, authors, teachers, and publishers. Since 2010, it has been translated into thirty-five languages. For a very shy man who didn't like being in the limelight, that changed abruptly with the book's publication.
Elwyn Brooks White was always happier around animals than he was with humans. Growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, there was a stable behind the house with horses, chickens, geese, and rabbits. The darkness, the strong smells, the earthiness would be his refuge.
Elwyn began writing at an early age and was transfixed by nature. When he was ten, he wrote a poem about a mouse, sent it off to a magazine and was awarded a prize for it. Very soon, he was contributing to a periodical for children and joined a whole parade of, at that time, unknown teenagers: Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, E. Vincent Millay, and others.
When Elwyn went off to Cornell University in 1917, he changed his first name to Andy because one of the college's cofounders was named Andrew and Elwyn never liked his given name.
Journalism was his calling and when he graduated, he submitted his writings to different columnists. The New Yorker would be the magazine to hire Andy in 1927 and there he would write his columns for over thirty years.
Andy would buy a farm in Maine with his wife, Katharine, (she was the editor of The New Yorker) and it's here that his imagination blossomed. Charlotte's Web would be conceived from his experiences with animals and all of his cherished memories as a child and as an adult.
What a wonderful book. Michael Sims captures all of the nuances of White's character; why the spider was called Charlotte; how he created the story (it took him six years to write); who was used as an illustrator; how natural history about arachnids was brought in.
The latter part of the book is when Andy started on his classic. It's interesting to read his sentences especially when he crosses out words but you can still see them underneath the markings. He was a perfectionist and was forever making revisions.
Besides his masterpiece, Andy wrote seventeen other books. Remember Stuart Little? And there's The Elements of Style which students use in college.
It's obvious that E. B. White was quite prolific and Sims, seamlessly, brings everything together.
Beautiful writing and a pure delight to read.
Very highly recommended.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

by David King

For four years, during World War II, Paris was in the throes of the Nazi Occupation. The French would suffer from hunger, fear, tyranny and terror. It would become their darkest time in history. Admist all of this wretchedness, one man would inflict the most heinous crimes on the innocent. He was true evil incarnate.
On a particular night in March of 1944, thick black smoke streamed out of a town house in the fashionable district of the 16th arrondissement. The smell was especially putrid. Nobody was home and nobody could enter. Firemen were called to the scene and a window was smashed open. The horrific odor was traced to the basement where a coal stove was burning. Dismembered human body parts were scattered throughout. It got worse and there were more nightmares discovered.
The owner of this illustrious place became the instant suspect. He was Dr. Marcel Petiot who, ironically, was called "The People's Doctor" because he was kind, generous and gave free medical treatment to the poor. Supposedly, he was a member of the French Resistance (Petiot constantly bragged about that) and saved many by his vast network. He would charge an exorbitant amount of money with no questions asked of him. The evacuees were so anxious to leave that they readily agreed. They were never seen or heard from again. The number of missing persons kept increasing. At the time of Petiot's arrest, it was up to twenty-seven murders but the total, many believed, was even higher.
The trial was a total farce due to the prosecution's negligence of asking questions that missed the main points, ignoring the convoluted and contradictory answers and never seeming to be in control of the situation.
Petiot, on the other hand, was in his element. He was the star of the show being both brilliant and arrogant which the spectators ate up.
Death in the City of Light is quite a book. The amount of research (incredible details) is astounding. At times, it can be quite grisly but the tale is so absorbing that you cannot turn away.
If you like to read true-crime, this one is a winner.
Highly recommended.