Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

★★★½

I dislike non-fiction. There, I said it. I’ve always disliked it, I probably always will, but alas, I know I have a problem and I know I need to widen my literary horizons. So this year I set out to read more books that are out of my comfort zone—that is, books that aren’t fantasy and young adult. I can’t say this was strictly by choice; it was more like I was getting sick of YA and fantasy novels following the same 5 devilplot points across the board. I would read a book, like it, then pick up another book that—although the names and setting had changed—felt exactly like the last. Some authors, like Leigh Bardugo, pull it off (which is why I binged the Grisha trilogy back-to-back and am now currently reading Six of Crows). Others don’t. I seemed to be reading more of those that don’t.

I read to be transported. Not to escape, but to experience. My whole life is based around collecting experiences. It’s the reason I’ll never commit to being a vegetarian—there are too many strange, foreign foods I haven’t tried. It’s the reason I never want to end up settling in one place for too long. And fantasy, the genre that used to transport me, was beginning to feel as familiar as reality. So, feeling miffed and bored with the types of books that used to make my spirit soar with geeky abandon, I vowed to set my sights higher this year: not only would I read more books than last year, I would read books I already own but have been too wishy-washy to begin.

Out of my handy dandy book-title dish I pulled The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, a book touted as one of the best introductions to non-fiction. Perfect. So I dug in.

I was hesitant, to be sure, but I was quickly engulfed in the picture Larson painted of late 19th-century Chicago, complete with evocative descriptions of filthy streets, destitute workers, the rank smell of horse dung and the slaughterhouses, and, of course, the complement to all of this darkness: the White City, the location of the 1893 World’s Fair.

The story follows three separate plot lines; one of the trials and tribulations of the builders of the fair, another of a deranged young man who goes on to commit a terrible crime, and the third, of course, about the infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes, who built a sprawling murder hotel and used the lure of the World’s Fair to ensnare women.

Again, as one who reads to be transported, this book was phenomenal. It was vivid and rich with trivia. For instance:

  • Olmstead, the man who designed the grounds of the White City, also designed Central Park, the Biltmore, and many other gardens and grounds.
  • Shredded wheat was introduced at the World’s Fair in 1893.
  • In an attempt to outdo the centerpiece of the 1889 Paris World’s Fair (the Eiffel Tower) the designers of the Chicago fair went all out and eventually invented the Ferris wheel.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright worked under one of the architects who helped design the fair.
  • The “snake charmer” song (also called “The Streets of Cairo, or The Poor Little Country Maid”) was a random, spur-of-the-moment creation by the young, brilliant Sol Bloom who helped design the Midway of the fair. He then went on to become a politician in New York and a delegate at the convention that established the United Nations; he also suggested the first words to the Preamble to the United Nations Charter.
  • Burnham, one of the original designers of the fair, went on to design many other buildings, including the Flatiron Building (originally known as the Fuller Building).

There were about a hundred other interesting factoids that I can’t seem to remember now, but it seems to me, a casual know-nothing, that this point in history had its fingers stuck in about a hundred other points in history, and went on to change our world in ways we may not recognize. Reading, I wanted nothing more than to step back in time and experience the whirlwind of change undergoing the country (and then promptly return to 2017, where we have sanitation laws).

This is where my enjoyment of the book comes to a relative halt. Because, if you recall, I can’t stand nonfiction. So for me, the majority of this book was a bore. I wanted to know more about H.H. Holmes and his crimes, but I didn’t want to know quite so much about all of the old white guys building the fair. Unfortunately, two of the three storylines had such tentative connections to the fair that their inclusion felt more like a way to add drama to the otherwise quite dull account of old men trying and repeatedly failing to build this fair. Without the inclusion of Holmes’ or Prenderghast’s chapters, of which details are scant, the story would have been a fairly tired, hum-drum collection of newspaper clippings tied together with bits of prose detailing the slow and often unfortunate creation of the Chicago Exposition.

So although the book was interesting, I wouldn’t quite be able to call it fascinating (there is a large gap, in my mind, between those two words). It taught me a lot of cool, historical facts (which I’ll be sure to fling out the next time I’m at a highbrow dinner party), but I do wish more focus had been placed on exploring the crimes connected (however slightly) to the fair, as I find that more interesting than a bunch of aging architects with cataracts and gout (be they geniuses or not). Overall, it just didn’t hold my attention.

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Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

★★★★☆

Although I’ve barely watched The Daily Show, I had seen Trevor Noah in a clip or two on Facebook and knew I liked him. This book solidified that feeling, and listening to him actually tell the story made me feel like I knew him as a friend.bornacrime

This was my first time listening to a book on tape and let me say, this will have to be the way I listen to *all* autobiographies from now on. This is also perhaps the first time I’ve ever read/listened to an autobiography, or a biography, for that matter. I’m really not big into non-fiction, so having a book on tape to listen to on my commute helped me dip my toes into the genre.

Since this is one of the first autobiographies I’ve ever read, I don’t know how to compare it to others, and I don’t know what the ‘norm’ is for them. So while Born a Crime felt more like a collection of scattered childhood stories than anything cohesive, I’m assuming that’s what most autobiographies are; a glimpse into the major recollections of someone’s life. Sometimes the stories were short and sweet, sometimes they were silly, and others, like the story about Trevor meeting his father again after years of separation, were enough to make me cry. And don’t get me started on the ending. Born a Crime is, more than anything, Noah’s powerful ode to his fiercely religious, fiery, devoted, loving mother.

Noah covered a lot of ground—apartheid, racism, sexism, classism, and about a billion other isms—and explained things in a way that was easy for a dumby like me to understand while never talking down to the reader/listener. Before beginning this I knew only the very basics of apartheid—I knew very little of what it was or how it impacted life in South Africa, and although I’m by no means an expert on it now, I know more now than I did before, and that’s always good. Any book that can teach you something about the world is worthwhile.

Still, Noah didn’t really go into how he got where he is now, being a host on The Daily Show. There were a few mentions on how he had begun touring the South Africa and doing comedy routines, but he never actually told us how he got into that position, or how he decided to become a comedian. These insights would have taken the book from being a collection of memories and transformed it into something bigger.

I gave this four stars because of the nonlinear approach it took to storytelling. Though all of the stories were entertaining, few of them connected in a bigger way, so occasionally after a particularly short, seemingly pointless snippet (there were a few of these at the end of chapters or in the middle of two longer stories) I would think, “Okay, and…?” Still, it was heartfelt and fun to listen to (and made me cry twice), and I would definitely recommend the audiobook to anybody.

Review: City of Thieves by David Benioff

★★★★★

This is one of those books that isn’t going to be a life-long favorite or one I remember forever, but it’s one that easily earns five stars in every other department. Based on a true story of the author’s grandfather’s late teen years, City of Thieves depicts the Siege of Leningrad, and the mission that two young men go on to find the holy grail: one dozen eggs for a wedding cake. It’s this slightly ridiculous plot, set in a starving, war-torn city, that sets the tone for the entire novel. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s moving in such a way that your heart hurts but tears don’t come to your eyes.cityofthieves

The author doesn’t shy away from showing the horrific aspects of the war and its effects on families and individuals—starvation, cannibalism, rape, murder—but quickly bounces back with raw levity. This back and forth doesn’t feel forced or erase or diminish the sadness of the story, but shows the reality of life at this time in history: the people of Leningrad survived, and they survived by making do.

Despite the content, the way it’s written makes it feel jolly, almost like a (very dark) fairy tale or fable. Lev Beniov, the quiet, careful main character, is such a good kid that you can’t help but root for him as he falls in love with every girl he sees (until he lands on “the one”). Kolya, who was my favorite character, supplied the comedic relief, making me laugh out loud more than once with his bawdy pointers for Lev (and his unwarranted gastrointestinal updates: “You know I haven’t had a shit in nine days?”). The slow build of their friendship was heartwarming to watch and provided the book with a consistent undercurrent of love.

This fine balance between humor and war was what made City of Thieves a great book, as Benioff took the horror of war and masterfully flipped it on its head to show the goodness simmering underneath.