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This book review is a bit unorthodox for a couple reasons:
1.) I didn’t finish the book I’m reviewing; that’s a ½ book review.
2.) It might end up being partly about me, which is how a lot of my writing ends up, and, let’s be honest, how a lot of most writers’s writing ends up.
Last week I started reading the nonfiction National Book Award Finalist, The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. This book tells the two very different stories of two very different men as they race to prepare Chicago for the World’s Fair in 1893. One of these men is architect, Daniel Burnham. His firm, Burnham and Root, is selected to spearhead the overwhelming task of turning a barren Chicago park into a World’s Fair to rival, nay, to top, the one in Paris. The months leading up to the Exhibition saw the meeting of the finest architectural minds in America, which very well included the finest architectural minds in the world at the time. Turn of the century America was brimming with innovation, powerful brilliance, and a desire to progress, and Larson’s book enthusiastically embraces these principles.
I love history, and only in the past few years, I’ve loved voluntarily reading about it. I especially love the untold stories, the lesser known heroics, and the collision of art and history. A firm believer (and college literary theory paper writer) in the concept that art influences history as much as history influences art, I love books like The Devil in the White City, which map the interplay of these two phenomena. Well, I tend to love them.
The other man that Larson’s work follows is H. H. Holmes, notorious serial killer that turned the Fair from America’s dream into America’s nightmare. While Burnham and his band of architects are feverishly spending sleepless nights planning, designing, building, and creating our country’s crown achievement, Holmes is feverishly spending sleepless nights planning, designing, building, and creating the perfect murder hotel, a place full of hidden vaults and chambers, greased shoots that drop to the secret basement, and an on-site crematorium, perfect for disposing of his “materials.” Holmes, described as charming, well-spoken, handsome, and able to talk anyone into anything, is the textbook psychopathic serial killer, taking a leaf from the book of Jack the Ripper (whose killing spree was just ending when Holmes’s was just beginning.)
Now, let’s get one thing straight. I am a person in possession of a very overactive imagination. I’m already scared of my own shadow. I already spend my days looking over my shoulder in pure daylight, and plotting how I’d fend off attacks on the 3 minute walk from the train station to my car (Right now I’m somewhere between jabbing my keys into my assailants eyes and roundhouse kicking him in the face). I had to sleep with the light on when I was reading The Dante Club, I ask my husband every single night if the back door is locked and if the front door is locked, and the answer to both questions is always a sleepy, disgruntled, “Yes”. If there is a phobia for a person who has the irrational belief that she will be attacked by ‘bad guys’ in the course of her otherwise routine life, then I’ve got it.
All of that being said, it is no wonder I had to put this book down for good around page 150. The ideas were far too disturbing, the hard facts far too gruesome, the victims far too carefree and unsuspecting for me. If I felt that it was worth it, I’d read every other chapter to get to the end of the Burnham story, but I want to get this book donated to the library as fast as possible, to be honest.
I’m having a hard time even deciding if what I read of this book was worth recommending to somebody who is not me. Despite the fact that I didn’t like reading about the barbarous Holmes, I actually found myself trying to get through the architect chapters quickly, just to find out what was going to happen next in the brutal, hard too stomach, chapters. This made me angry and uncomfortable. Suddenly I found myself identifying with the people who watch Law & Order, stare at car wrecks and back up traffic, not hoping, but really hoping to see some gore, or the people who watch obscenely grotesque slasher movies. I was being pulled to the scary chapters because humans have this natural, ugly tendency towards morbidity. I wanted to know if the woman who moved into town with her child, sister-in-law, and husband, were all going to end up Holmes’s next victims. I wanted to know how he killed the sweet old lady he bought his first pharmacy from. And just as quickly, I was repulsed by my own desire to know these things. That is where my discomfort came in. My anger was directed towards Larson because the page-turning notion of his book is inherent in the facts themselves, not his writing style or his way with words. The reader is kept on his or her toes only because just when somebody makes the acquaintance of the serial killer, we’re right back in Burnham’s office, watching him frown over a set of building diagrams. Maybe that’s the point of the thrill. But it’s too easy for me, and I want to be thrilled for a different reason.
The Devil in the White City is not for the faint of heart, the weak of stomach, the slight of constitution. All that being said, I wouldn’t necessarily hesitate to recommend this book to somebody who’s braver than me, and more willing to see these Nancy Drew devices for what they are: storytellers and page turners. However if you are like me, stay tuned, and I will happily recommend a few history books whose pages turn for a much different reason.