Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Empire of Zzzzz ... *nods off* HEY! I mean SIN!

I've been completely and utterly spoiled by Erik Larson when it comes to narrative nonfiction.  Well, and then there's Steve Sheinkin, who does the same thing for kids and teen nonfiction.  For some odd reason, the only nonfiction I really enjoy reading is about crime, but it has to be historical crime.  Or some sort of disaster.  But yes: morbid, I know.  I swear I'm not a degenerate.  It just looks that way when you see my nonfiction shelf.



I especially like books that discuss the nastiness of the past that was hidden under the lie of the "good old days" and the veneer of respectability.  While perhaps fewer people committed truly heinous crimes a hundred or two hundred years ago, said crimes still occurred.  And it wasn't that people didn't cheat on each other or have multiple spouses or take drugs--they did, it was just very hush-hush.  I find all of this fascinating, particularly in light of the social climate that shaped how people hid and then reacted to the discovery of their crimes.

So to tide me over until I could get my grabby paws on Dead Wake, Larson's newest book about the Lusitania, I requested Empire of Sin by Gary Krist.  First of all, the cover is pure Golden Age decadence.  Hubba.


It promises sex!  Murder!  Jazz!  And, while Krist does discuss those elements, the story never coalesces into one lusciously decadent and sinful whole.

Because there's no real plot, but just a chronological progression from then to now, it's rather hard for me to review nonfiction.  I'm not a New Orleans scholar, or an expert on brothels, or the origins of jazz, but I would hope that Krist portrayed things accurately-ish (which is really all one can expect about any "true story," since the "truth" belongs to those who tell it).

Here's how I'll grade it: a good nonfiction writer doesn't make stuff up.  Krist falls into this category.  He dutifully records murders, madams, and the origins of Louis Armstrong.  A great nonfiction writer takes the drama inherent in every story and presents it in a way that grabs the modern reader.  He or she ties everything together at the end.

The stories Krist tells about the people of New Orleans are much more interesting than the acutal book as a whole.  Krist tries to tackle a lot at once--even throwing in an axe murderer, for pete's sake. Yet, oddly enough for a book about the original Sin City, the narration comes off as prudish.  Krist talks about the Blue Book and how various brothels offered many services to their clientele, but doesn't tell us why they would be so shocking.  I'm no fiend, but what makes these situations fascinating is how they are completely at odds with the morals of the times.  If I don't know what the women were doing, how am I supposed to figure out why people were so scandalized?

Once I hit the halfway point of the book, I kept hoping it would all be over soon.  Even a rushed return back to the axe murderer storyline didn't help any.  Imagine my relief when I realized how much of the book was actually endnotes!

Not a necessary read by any stretch of the imagination.  Krist fails to capture the spirit of New Orleans because he's too busy trying to juggle several disparate storylines.


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