From the shelf: “The Devil in the White City”

There has been lots of buzz around Erik Larson of late. He’s known for writing fabulous works of nonfiction, primarily historical. His sixth book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin recently came out in paperback.

I just finished reading The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. It covers the events surrounding the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. One of the key players in the book is Daniel Burnham, the architect who presided over practically every aspect of the fair from winning the bid for Chicago, creating a team of architects to design the fair, overseeing the construction, and making sure the fair turned a profit before it closed. I might add, because I knew practically nothing about this fair before reading the book, that the Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, was no mere carnival. Almost 200 new buildings were created, some of them architectural firsts for the age. Every state had its own building, and several countries had buildings there as well. An authentic Japanese temple was even assembled there. It was a big project and when finished became known as “The White City.”

The other leading figure is H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who used to fair as a means to lure unattached women to his hotel. Chicago was a terribly dangerous place around 1893, and Holmes found it terribly easy to get away with murder. He’s one of the first known serial killers in United States history.

Larson’s account of all these events is engaging and thoroughly researched–there are hundreds of citations at the end. I learned a lot about the period, some things about architecture, and some things I wish had never happened. Clearly I recommend.

I’m actually feeling quite immersed in this time period now. I just started watching Downton Abbey, which begins just where Devil in the White City leaves off in 1912, though Downton takes place “across the pond.”

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10 Responses to From the shelf: “The Devil in the White City”

  1. Danny says:

    Hey! I just read this book! Hank loaned it to me. I found it quite interesting and enjoyed it a great deal. But I was struck by how much I was really into the story of Burnham and the architectural side of the story. I felt the Holmes side to be very engaging but stunningly disheartening. It was a sad reminder that there are some people who are simply monsters. Serial killings are intriguing because of their well thought out and methodical execution, but also for the same reasons hard to make sense of because we like to say “this happened because of this reason” but with serial killers there isn’t necessarily a reason, or one we can empathize with. So it’s very frustrating.

    I never understood how he could have some many women in and out of his life and nobody asked any questions. Like he lived with several women and nobody was like “wait, didn’t you have another really serious girlfriend a few months ago?”

    Anyways. I’m actually very excited that you read the book, because nobody reads the books I read, and therefor I have to bottle up all the information in my tiny little soul, just rattling around with nowhere to go.

    Do you know if any of his other books are any good? The internet reviews seem to suggest that White City is far and away his best book and that his most recent one about the Nazi’s isn’t anything to shake a stick at.

    Also David Foster Wallace. I’m reading thru. and enjoying!

  2. Kaitlyn says:

    I really liked Burnham’s story too! I was surprised because I sort of have a prejudice against architects in literature because of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” And I got really attached to Olmstead. There were parts about Holmes that just shocked me. I’d stop reading and tell Z about it, because I simply couldn’t believe a real human had done what he did.

    It was crazy that more questions weren’t raised. I’m sad the reviews of “In the Garden” aren’t good. I know the book has been selling really well and has been on the indie bestseller’s list for a while. I assumed it was good but perhaps “Devil”‘s success has been carrying it.

    I’m glad you like DFW. Are you reading anything else right now?

    • Danny says:

      I agree. I couldn’t believe some of the things he’d done, especially since at that time it would seem that there wasn’t much of a precedent. Serial Killing wasn’t such a conscious part of our culture then as it is now.

      I broke down and started reading Anna Kerenina. I’ve been wanting to tackle some of those Tolstoy writings that aren’t short stories. It’s really strikingly engaging and difficult to put down. I think the translation matters a lot. My only problem with it now is it’s almost too depressing and intense. It’ll make you second guess every human relationship you’ve participated in. and i’m only a third of the way done!

      • Kaitlyn says:

        I wanted to read that when I heard it was being made into a movie but couldn’t settle on a translation and dropped it. Which are you reading?

        • Danny says:

          That’s why I wanted to read it too! Lots of sources claim that Pevear is the best in translating the Russian literature. His version of Brothers K is the most popular as well as Dr. Zhivago. So i swung for his version and I definitely don’t regret it. I already had a version by Constance Garnett, but she’s fallen out of favor in modern times because Victorian English leaves a somewhat lacking experience apparently. Comparing the two copies I have i’d say the Pevear at least in the case of Anna K, flows much much better, and conveys the meaning in an easier and perhaps more accurate way. Especially if you aren’t totally familiar with the quirks of 19th C. Russian life style. What Pevear refers to as a “maid” Garnett calls a “french woman”. Things like that make Pevear superior so that I’m not wondering the whole time who the french woman is and why she’s cleaning. You assume all sorts of things about her, when she’s simply a maid. Unfortunately the Pevear version is only available in the famed “Oprah Book Club” format, so you have to tolerate that giant “O” on the cover. It makes me think of when Leslie tries to get Joan Callamezzo to endorse her book in Parks.

          • Kaitlyn says:

            Way to pull in a P&R reference! I’ll have to get my hands on a Pevear sometime. There’s probably one at my store.

  3. celflo says:

    Whoa. EN conducted a nice long dinner conversation about H. H. Holmes while I was home for Christmas. I’ll have her call you so y’all can talk about him.

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