Thursday, January 10, 2008

Book Reviews: Fair Weather and Rock Springs

I have a stack of books waiting to be reviewed… Let me knock out two of ‘em in this one post. Both of these books I read the other week while on train to and from Chicago, and they couldn’t be more dissimilar, the only similar trait being the first name of the authors. Someone had recommended that I read Richard Ford as an example of a post-modern writer (a term that is about as easy to define as existentialism). The other by Richard Peck is written for a younger audience. His book was a Christmas gift I’d purchased for my daughter because of the trip we were taking and I felt it would be good for me to read it too. For those of you who want to know why I occasionally read books for 9-12 years olds, it’s so I can converse with her about what she’s reading.

Richard Ford, Rock Springs (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 235 pages.

Rock Springs is a collection of short stories based in the American West. The stories are told through a host of characters, all who have experienced loss. There are boys whose mothers have run out on them, men and women who have been betrayed by lovers, young girls trapped by the poor decisions they’ve made. All the characters are down on their luck. Some are out of work, one has car problems, one lost the use of his legs, and they all have relationship issues. The setting, mostly small towns with seedy bars and cheap hotels, cold winters and sad train yards, emphasize the loneliness of those whose stories are being told. Yet, in all the stories, there’s a glimpse of grace. It feels as if Ford uses the rail lines, the rivers, the highways and the hopeful destination of Florida as reminders there is something better somewhere else. In a Kafkaesque sense, none of the characters are able to escape even though a few find peace, such as a man and wife still being devoted to one another even though their future is bleak. “Nobody dies of a broken heart,” (33) one of the characters, quoting his ex-wife, tells his son. In a way, that’s true. These characters all seemed trapped in their own personal hell and are unable to escape; in many of the stories, death might be a welcome release. My favorite sentence in the book: “Trouble comes cheap and leaves expensive” (150). This certainly rings true in all these stories.

Richard Peck, Fair Weather (New York: Puffin Books, 2001), 130 pages

Its 1893, and three children who have grown up on a farm in Southern Illinois are going on the trip of their life. The story is told through the middle child, Rosie. She has an older sister and a younger brother. Their aunt has sent then tickets on the Illinois Central so that they could come and stay visit her in Chicago and attend the World’s Fair. Their mother was supposed to go with them, but she sent her ticket back, putting the girls in charge of their older sister. On the train, they find their eccentric old grandfather had stolen his daughter’s ticket (he was supposed to mail the ticket back, put kept the letter). Grandpa along with his dog also goes to Chicago. The three of them, two girls, a boy, and a crazy old man, along with their widow aunt who’d married well (the old man’s daughter), spend a week seeing the sights at the fair.

I love the grandfather character. He meets the mayor of Chicago, a Democrat, and introduces himself in an obvious reference to Lincoln as a “Republican from the day we put that rail splitter in office.” He sings all kinds of little songs; his favorite I may take as my own theme song:

Beefsteak when I’m hungry
Corn likker when I’m dry
Pretty little gal when I’m lonesome
Sweet heaven when I die…

As they make their way through the fair, the kids who have already been surprised when grandpa brought along his dog are in for another shock. They see a marquee advertising a show by Lillian Russell, the name of Grandpa’s horse. Buster thinks Grandpa has managed to also bring his horse to the fair, only to discover that Lillian Russell is, at least according to their aunt, a risqué actor. Their aunt is livid; gramps is excited to get to see the woman of his dreams. He also wants to see the belly dancers, providing another shock for the kid’s aunt who is trying to protect them from the seedy side of the fair. As is often the case in these younger “fairytale” novels, gramps turns out to having fought with Buffalo Bill in the Civil War and becomes quite a celebrity, allowing the kids to have all kinds of experiences.

I like historical books for children and would recommend this one for younger readers. For adults wanting to know about the 1893 Fair, I’d recommend Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003). This is a well researched book that weaves together the fair and the story of Dr. Holmes, who may be America’s first modern serial killer, a man who committed many of his murders in Chicago at the time of the fair.

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.


  1. I'd like to read the top two, and I did read the devil in the White City. I found it fascinating!

    I am almost done with the trailer park book and I have enjoyed it, although some parts I had trouble undertanding - or keeping straight.

    I read one several months ago I meant to recommend to you. I think it was called The Last Hard Time, and it was about the dust bowl of the 30's. I think you'd like that one.

  2. I'll have to hold off on these for awhile. I'm still trying to work on The Secret Knowledge of Water.

  3. Sage: I'll re-check to make sure you are still in my Blogroll. But these are fascinating books with great reviews. Reading them while in transit is a great way to use time!

  4. "Trouble comes cheap and leaves expensive." So true. I see it all around me.

    Great reviews. I like reading books for 9-12 year olds, too, for the same reason. I'll tell my daughter about the second one.

  5. "I occasionally read books for 9-12 years olds, it’s so I can converse with her about what she’s reading."


  6. Kenju, Thanks for the suggestion--it reminds me of a book about a Buffalo NY bar titled "The Last Fine Time" a very good book that deals with the changes to the city throughout the 20th century

    Murf, you've been working on that book so long that any water you had would have long ago evaporated!

    Michael, thanks

    Scarlet, I hope she enjoys it.

    Karen, thanks for the encouragement, last time Murf took me to task for reading a young person's book.

  7. My book list keeps growing b/c of you. Finished Skinny Dip last night. GREAT! Have to review it when time permits...

  8. Ya know, I've never seen other bloggers make recommendations for younger readers, and I think it's a great idea. Besides, think of the wonderful books by such young adult favorites as Ursula K. LeGuin and Piers Anthony... not mention JK Rowling and Madeleine L'Engle. :)

    Great use of blogging.
    Glad Michele sent me.

  9. Richard Peck, why do I know that name? I think I've read something of his at one point.

    Have a great weekend.

  10. Great reviews! May I recommend RIchard Peck's other books (i.e. A Year Down Yonder and its sequel) if your daughter hasn't read them? In my opinion, they are better than Fair Weather.

  11. It seems you read real interesting books. I like short stories once in a while. I am halfway through Collected Stories by Gabriel G Marquez.

    I too read Childrens' books for the same reason you mentioned here. That way I can discus it with my nephews, nieces and my pupil. Also I enjoy those books!

    I might go for the Peck book. For the kids.

  12. I think I'd like to read the latter two books together. Robert Lawson's The Great WHeel is another children's book set at the Chicago World's Fair. It's a good story about the building of the first Ferris Wheel.

  13. Ooh, I'm glad Michele sent me back, Sage. I want to read the one that Sherry recommends above me.

  14. The title "Rock Springs" caught my eye as I live fairly close. Even though it is experiencing a boom right now, I think there have been times when it's been down on its luck, so a very appropriate title.

    "Fair Weather" sounds more interesting to me. I read young adult books simply because so many are well-written and fun to read.

  15. I thought Devil in the White City was fascinating too