Sunday, March 1, 2020

Make Me a City

Title:  Make Me a City
Author:  Jonathan Carr
Publication Information:  Henry Holt and Co. 2019. 448 pages.
ISBN:  1250294010 / 978-1250294012

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In the beginning was a game of chess, and on the outcome of that game would hinge the destiny of Chicago."

Favorite Quote:  "Historical events are never as simple as they may look. Nobody acts alone and nothing happens in isolation. And not much occurs as a consequence of reason and good sense. And I believe it is in the cluster of small events, and in the lives of those who, in more traditional studies of the past, have been consigned to footnotes, from where we can retrieve our history."

The city in question is Chicago, a city I love and a city I have lived in. So, an opportunity to read a fictionalized history sounds intriguing. Given the length, I am picturing something in the style of James Michener or Edward Rutherford. I am envisioning a cohesive story through the years, perhaps even centuries, that depicts a history and also tells a cohesive story.

That, to me, is not what this book ultimately delivers. The book covers a century of history through a multitude of characters and a multitude of plot lines. It appears to be not a composite story of the city, but rather a collection of narratives of some major but mostly minor characters who lived in the city. Some of their stories intersect, but they never quite all come together. A visual of family trees and lineages might perhaps have help.

The characters appear at different times in the book, which means at corresponding different times and stages of their lives and the at different points in the history of the city. Ultimately, it proves a challenge to follow and to read. Too many people and too many events to keep track of. In addition, by the time I am interested in the characters and plot of one chapter, the chapter ends, and the next continues on a different path. By the time the original return, I have lost both the interest and the thread of the story.

After a while, I stop trying to follow a cohesive plot and start treating each chapter as an episodic short story or vignette. That interpretation seems to lend itself to this book. It is easier to read as a collection of history told through different media - book excerpts, newspaper articles, correspondence, and narratives. That means it is not quite the epic novel I expect. Despite that attempt, unfortunately, the book still remains a challenge to get through.

The use of journals and people's writings as one medium for conveying the story introduces the challenge of language to the reading as well. Some of these are the narratives of individuals with limited literacy skills. The attempt to make them "authentic" means that the language itself is at times hard to read.

In a nutshell, I love the city. I love the idea of telling the story of the city. The end result is just a bit scattered for me to quite get the story and even more to invest in it. I still intrigued enough to look forward to seeing what this debut author writes next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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