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Boilerplate is an ambitious book, rich with detail that makes the story feel about as real as anything you can get from a history book. Guinan and Bennett have constructed analternate history which lies so close to the real thing that I promise you you’ll be checking Google and Wikipedia to see if what they’re saying is true or not. I’m still not entirely sure that Boilerplate, the robot, didn’t exist. He appears, Zelig-like, in photo after photo with historical figures and yet blends into the background as if he was nothing very much out of the ordinary. The main reason for the brilliance of this book is the deft way the visuals are handled. The text itself is a bit dry, though it does have a history-book feel to it which works well under the circumstances. If pastiche was the intention, then it’s well done.

But the book isn’t just a wonderful fantasy. Folded into the history is a pointed commentary on subjects which are still pertinent a century later. Boilerplate is a mute witness to to early movements for workers’ and women’s rights. It fights alongside the Buffalo Soldiers and sees action in the Philippine-American War, Spanish-American War and WWI, fighting both in the trenches and with T. E. Lawrence, in Arabia. While the narrative never becomes preachy, only a fairly obtuse reader could fail to understand the point of history as it’s presented here. This is not a book likely to appeal to people whose beliefs run to the right of the political spectrum.

“Robot”, a word not in existence when Boilerplate itself was supposed to have been created, derives from a word that means “forced labor.” (Karel Capek, R.U.R., 1920) Even the name, “Boilerplate” suggests a kind of non-existence, something that only serves as a model for the real thing. Created as a replacement for soldiers, Boilerplate is intended to save lives in time of war. Sadly, what he foreshadows is mechanized warfare, increasingly removed from human concerns. There’s a nice tension between our knowledge of what Boilerplate represents, and his thoroughly anthropomorphized features — his human form and a face that registers perpetual surprise, between his utter lack of personality and the concern his creator feels for him as he strides into battle.

The questions raised by this book aren’t easy ones, but they’re raised in a way that does allow us to choose the level on which we read. Boilerplate is still a ripping fantasy adventure.

 

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In mid-July of 1919, the Wingfoot, a dirigible owned by the Goodyear company was making tests flights along Chicago's lakefront. On the third flight, the pilot decided to take the airship over the downtown area. Not too far from the lakefront, over Chicago's financial district, flames began to shoot out of the engines. The pilot told his passengers to jump, and took his own advice, landing on the roof of a nearby building. Not all the passengers were so fortunate, nor were the people in the bank beneath the burning airship. The now-flaming dirigible fell onto the roof of a bank, shattered the skylight and fell into the bank, crushing or incinerating those inside. Over the next twelve days, as an inquiry was launched into the air disaster, a young girl went missing and was eventually discovered to have been brutally murdered, race riots claimed hundreds of victims, and all transit workers went on strike, crippling the city. And the mayor went on vacation.

City of Scoundrels is an engaging account of an almost two-week period in the city's history when everything that could go wrong did. It's a story of the political machine (Still very much a force in Chicago politics.) and how it dealt with cumulative disasters. It's also intriguing because I've lived in this city for sixty years and had never heard of any of the events, not even the Wingfoot disaster which predated the Hindenburg by almost twenty years. Kudos to Gary Krist for chronicling it and the events which followed and helped to change the face of Chicago.

Krist's prose is tight and smooth which makes the social and political analysis easy to read and assimilate. This is, after all, a book about how the political institutions of the city functioned (or failed to) in a perfect storm of disaster and social unrest. It could have been dry; it isn't. It's an immediate, involving story, and if you have any interest at all in how cities are shaped, and in Chicago in particular, I highly recommend "City of Scoundrels."

The Wingfoot Air Exprress prior to liftof from...
The Wingfoot Air Exprress prior to liftof from Chicago's Grant Park site. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Honestly I don't know what people are thinking when they market books anymore. The blurb on this book would have you believe that it's not only a laugh riot -- except for the beach scene which is "horrific" -- but that it's so remarkably written and in some way so easy to spoil that it all but swears the reader to a code of silence. And in fact, it's none of those things. All those marketing ploys actually do a disservice to an excellent book and if I were the author, I'd hate it that my work was being so misrepresented.

Briefly, "Little Bee" is about a young Nigerian refugee whose very existence changes the lives of a group of English citizens in dramatic ways. It's a good story and well-written but it would be silly of me to say that I don't want to tell you more because I don't want to spoil it for you. That would feel like me saying "I have NO idea what this is about."

It's about sadness. Really. It's not funny, except perhaps in small details where you might find yourself smiling ruefully. It's a sad book filled with sad and often thoughtless people. It's about how we cover our sadness with layers of so-called civilization, wrap our fears in popular culture, and never ever have the opportunity to face any of it and learn to rise above. Little Bee knows how to rise above. She's known how to do it her whole life because there's nowhere to hide in her country. Poverty, abuse and death are common where she is from, and if you don't want them to destroy you, they must be transcended.

I read the first two chapters just waiting for the comedy to begin. I waited for the beach scene with a measure of anxiety. I waited for some enormous surprise which I would long to tell others, but would keep to myself out of a sense of reader's decency. And each time, I found the truth to be something quite different. I'm actually happy about that because, for me at least, it means I was reading a book that might not be dismissed in a year or even a month as some pop cultural flash. It's a book which should make you think about the world and your place in it, and about what we owe to one another as human beings on this increasingly small, spinning globe.

I found it profoundly moving.


Little Bee: A Novel

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Tracy Rowan

August 2013

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