Tag Archives: The Devil in the White City

Book Reviews? Who Does Those?

Strange little women who are putting off writing real things for real jobs, that’s who!

But in all seriousness, I believe I promised book reviews a couple of weeks ago and then sorely failed to deliver, yes?

First, a few items of general business:

  1. It’s the second week of Poetry Month! Feel free to join in- it’s so simple. Just work on one poem every day for the 30 days of October. I’ve been doing pretty well so far, and I’m feeling very exciiiiiteeeed! I plan to share some of what I;m working on on the 5’s- the 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, etc.
  2. I walk/jogged a 5k mud run and obstacle course on Saturday. I wore a t-shirt and tennis shoes.  Appreciate it, because you won’t see it often. (Tennis shoes, the vile things, are nothing but cruel prisons for your feet. And t-shirts make me feel sloppy, and I despise feeling sloppy.)
  3. I miss real fall weather. I’ve been wearing fall pieces is rebellion against the warm weather (some goldenrod corduroys here, a flannel button up there, and boots always), but it hasn’t really been making me feel any better. At least the weather lady is predicting it will stay in the 70’s here all week instead of the 90’s it was this time last week. (Yes, the high on the first day of October was 93. Outrageous!)
  4. Gratuitous animal picture! Because it’s Monday, and I need some cute in my life.

    Ma-am! We’re trying to sleep, leave us alone!

And now, for something completely different. (Name that 1970’s television show!)

I read State of Wonder  by Ann Patchett for a book club that I, sadly, did not get to attend. The book’s protagonist, Marina Singh, is a doctor contentedly working for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota when her lab partner, Anders, goes missing in the Amazon Rain Forest. He had been sent on a reconnaissance mission for their company, charged with making contact with one Dr. Annick Swenson and her team, who are supposed to be developing a new fertility drug.  Anders’s wife asks Marina to go down to Brazil and find out as much as she can about Anders’s death, and her company asks her to go to complete his original mission. But once there Marina discovers that nothing is as it seems, and her own hidden past with Dr. Swenson threatens to knock her entire mission, and perhaps the entire life she has built for herself, off course.

I asked Oscar his thoughts on this oval. He just licked the cover and said, “Seems tasty.” He’s a very helpful dog.

Patchette is a talented writer, deftly creating the tangible, stuffy atmosphere of a jungle village, and drawing the reader in with prose that tics along at just the right pace. Or at least she hits the right pace and pitch for 75% of her story. My main complaint was this: Patchett took her time with lush prose and complex story threads only to abandon them all much too quickly in the conclusion, which was unsatisfying at best. The last several chapters were rushed without explanation, as if Ms. Ann forgot she had a deadline and just bolted out the minimal skeleton of a conclusion in order to meet it. In her rush to end this otherwise good book, she let several story threads that previously seemed important fall completely by the wayside, and there were two events she introduced that literally made me angry. I will not share what they are so I don’t spoil the ending for anyone, but if you read the book to its conclusion you will know exactly what I am talking about. One seemed totally out of character for both parties involved, and the other just seemed like an easy, but ultimately meaningless and unfulfilling, way to solve a problem.

Other than that there are just a few mechanical issues. Marina Singh, our supposed protagonist, ended up being a very flat character, and she seems to be more of a stand-in for everyone else and not a true character in and of herself. Also, there were a lot of snakes involved. I wish someone had told me this before hand because I do not, I repeat I DO NOT deal with snakes. There was a scene with an anaconda and I literally cried. If you are as snake sensitive as I am (just typing that vile word so many time makes me cringe inside) skip the anaconda event!

All in all, this book would earn a solid three stars from me. Pick it up at the library or borrow it from a friend, but use the $15.99 jacket price to pick up a better book.

Perhaps that money could go towards this next book instead, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.

The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago is one of our countries forgotten shining moments. In response to Paris’s 1889 Exposition Universelle the United States decided to host their own World’s Fair in 1893. They had made a remarkably poor showing in Paris, where Eiffel’s Tower was first revealed, and were determined to “Out eiffel Eiffel” and show they world what America could do. All the major American cities- New York, Washington, St. Louis, Chicago- wanted a chance to host the world, but Chicago perhaps wanted it the most. Despite being the second largest city in the US, Chicago had a reputation as being a backwater, culturally lacking city, and they wanted to prove the posh societies in New York and Washington wrong.

Read this book!

Larson tells two tales here, really. The first is of Daniel Burnham, the architect charged with making the fair a reality, and how against enormous odds he created an expedition that not only matched Paris but outpaced it, changing American culture and architecture- and even electricity- forever. But inside of Burnham’s wonder world, a devil lurked, and therein lies the second story.

Largely forgotten by history, H.H. Holmes was a doctor, pharmacist, landlord, and con man who operated mere blocks away from the fair. He was also one of the first prolific serial killers in America’s history. Drawn to Chicago by the large numbers of young women who were moving there alone, and the excellent cover the notoriously rough city with an overworked and understaffed police force would give him, he killed at least 27 people between 1891 and 1893 before the authorities caught on to what he was doing. It is a chilling but fascinating tale that Larson tells with both precision and the appropriate amount of horror.

Larson deals purely with fact, but his writing flows so seamlessly and is executed with such superior prose that I forgot I was reading nonfiction. History buffs and appreciators of good stories alike will devour this book. It will definitely be on my favorite books of 2012 list, of that I have no doubt.

I’m now working my way through another of Larson’s best seller, In the Garden of Beasts, as well as Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours. I’ve also picked up Rhoda Jenzen’s newest offering Does this Church Make Me Look Fat?, and Catherynn M. Valente’s second Fairyland book, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. I have lots of work-y things to do this weekend, but my only weekend plan is to read, so I will tell you all about these hopefully wonderful tales very soon.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Cambria, Oscar