Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America chronicles the building of the “White City” of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893, also called the Chicago World’s Fair. The Exposition was held to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America. Over 27 million people attended the Exposition which covered 600 acres and included almost 200 new buildings, all in a neo-Classical style and painted white. Hence, the name, the “White City.” Parallel to the story of the Fair, Larsen details the life of H. H. Holmes a serial killer operating at the same time.

First and foremost, this is a history book. The bulk of the story revolves around the Exposition, also called the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and takes you from the decision to hold the Fair at Chicago to its conclusion. The main character in this part of the story is Daniel Burnham, the architect who is responsible for overseeing its development. At stake is the reputation of Chicago as a city that can compete with New York City.

In the process, Burnham deals with some of the biggest names in architecture for the era including George B. Post, Charles McKim, and Richard M. Hunt, all from the east coast, which adds fuel to the fire of rivalry between New York and Chicago. Frederick Law Olmsted appears frequently. Often referred to as the “Father of Landscape Architecture,” Olmsted is known for his design of Central Park in New York City and the Biltmore House grounds in Asheville, NC.

But development of the fair isn’t all about architecture. You need engineers, construction crews, interior designers, and exhibits. The stories and people Larson tells us about add color and charm to the book. For example, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show was rejected as an exhibit, but Cody got around this rejection and made far more money than he would have had he been included. Sol Bloom’s exhibit idea was also rejected. When he took another approach, he ended up being responsible for the design and management of the Midway Plaisance. It was so successful that we still call the exhibit area of fairs the “Midway.” Oh and Bloom was only 23 at the time.

Other people you will encounter include George Ferris (as in Ferris Wheel), Harriet Monroe, Annie Oakley, Susan B. Anthony, Theodore Dreiser, Clarence Darrow, George Westinghouse, and Thomas Edison. It was a time of dramatic change in the country and the fair exemplified it.

The parallel story told by Larson is that of H. H. Holmes, serial killer. Holmes takes advantage of the coming Exposition to establish a business and build a cheap hotel. He is also a con man who avoids creditors through the use of aliases and his ample charm. The way he avoids suspicion and deals with it when it occurs is fascinating. He also has special needs for his chosen modus operandi as well as accomplice help. Larsen details all of this. He does take some liberties in describing Holmes’s murders, but he documents his choices and sources nicely in the notes and Epilogue.

All of this takes place against a backdrop of turmoil in the country. The Panic of 1893, the worst until the Great Depression, makes the success of the Exposition questionable and financial choices critical. It also brings hundreds of unemployed people to the city looking for work during a time when labor concerns and disputes were prominent.

Larson weaves all of this together beautifully and wraps the book up with a look at how the Exposition made an impact on the country overall. If you’re looking for a true crime book, you might be disappointed. Although true crime is definitely an element, in spite of the title, I don’t think it is the main focus of the book. If instead you are looking for a history book about Gilded Age America with a lot of interesting people and color, I think you’ll enjoy it. I certainly did.

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 31, 2012

May Catch Up

Well The Power Broker  by Robert A. Caro proved to be too much for one month. That wasn't really a surprise. It is excellent reading however, interesting and nicely paced. I haven't made nearly the progress that I wanted to. I've been distracted by my women's history blog which I love writing for.

A friend from times long past has joined me in writing for it. She is very enthusiastic which has encouraged me to write at a faster rate than I have in the past. Her name is Susan as well and her expertise is in European royalty, primarily British royalty. Susan's expertise is much more extensive than mine. She majored in history and has continued to read everything she could get her hands on about the areas that interested her. Unlike moi, who took a detour into STEM. People seem much more interested in reading about her queens than my mathematicians and scientists. Go figure!

While I continue through The Power Broker, I am reading a couple of other things that you might find interesting: Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith, which I've read before, but am rereading while I start a blog series on women's suffrage, and Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists by Jean H. Baker about five of the women who were instrumental in American women getting the vote (Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, Alice Paul.) I just got it, but am very excited about reading.

Well, I have a lot of reading to do! What are you reading?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

I'm not a technophobe or a "gadget geek" as I call a friend of mine. I use technology when it suits my needs, but don't feel the need to run out and get the latest, sexiest new device. That may explain why I've always been a PC gal, but the people I know who have Apple products love them.

Steve Jobs was a genius at combining technology with artistry, which was one of his goals along with building a great company. This is also a somewhat simplistic statement. Jobs' goals, along with the man himself, were complex. From his feelings about being adopted to his abandonment of his own daughter, from his refusal to work with anything less than "A players" to his "reality distortion field", Isaacson does a superb job of walking us through the complexities of the life and accomplishments of the man behind Apple and Pixar.

I am old enough to have taken Fortran IV and used keypunch cards to submit my programs, so I remember when Apple computers were first introduced and the fierce debates between PC and Apple fans over the years. However, I have not followed the career of Jobs, so much of the book was new to me. If you follow technology news closely, I suggest that you read a number of reviews before buying the book. If you are looking for a rundown of events, or a history of Jobs' companies and the technology, you might be disappointed. If you read biographies for a look inside the person, to try to understand what makes them tick, their admirable and non-so-admirable traits, and what contributed to their success, I don't think you will be disappointed. I wasn't.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

May's Mammoth Tome

Well, April is basically done and so is the Steve Jobs biography. I'll write a review soon, but it was a good book and I enjoyed it. Isaacson is an excellent author. We've selected the book for May - The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro. It won a Pulitzer and Francis Parkman prize and is considered a must read. The book is on at least one "One Hundred Best Books of the Century" list. So it comes highly recommended, but whoa! The book's over 1100 pages long excluding the photos and the notes!

Now don't get me wrong. I love a good, big book and we certainly haven't shied away from reading them for the book club, but it's May. May means that the grass has to be cut, bushes have to be pruned, and the battle with the ivy and wisteria has commenced. I guess it's commendable that we make our selection based on the merits of the book, and I didn't pay any attention to the length until I picked up the box from Amazon on my front porch. (This book is definitely not made of lightweight recycled paper.)

Nevertheless, this is our selection. We have been known to extend a book through two months when necessary, but I'm going to give it my best shot. Who knows it may be worth every minute that I spend on it. I'll let you know how it goes. If you're up for the challenge, don't be afraid. Even though Carolyn and I are both former teachers, there are no tests at the end of the month!

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book. It includes a little for everyone who enjoys non-fiction. Carr goes into the history of different media and how they changed society, such as the written word, printing press, TV, etc. This sets the stage for how the internet is affecting us.

There is good news and not so good news. It seems that use of the internet is very distracting (as if we needed to be told that.) But it's not just distracting us from the rest of our lives, but distracting us while we are surfing. There are so many links, ads, banners, etc. that we are getting better at multitasking and filtering out what is important. But imagine this - You're sitting in a comfortable chair with a good cup of coffee or tea. It's raining softly, maybe a little chilly, and you're sitting there with a soft afghan and one of your favorite books. You quickly get absorbed into the book. Well apparently frequent surfing on the web can decrease our ability to think deeply about what we are reading.

Carr goes into the science of how our brains work, how memory works, and what it takes to hold knowledge in our working memory. He cites many different studies that show our ability to comprehend information that we read decreases in proportion to the number of links and distractions in our material. But this inability to concentrate carries over to reading off of the internet.

The internet is here to stay and we have to make adjustments. When reading material became easily accessible to the general public, the need to memorize knowledge was lessened. Eventually, educators began requiring less memorization which actually decreased our ability to memorize. Now with information at the touch of our fingertips, we are keeping even less information in our working memories. This is no problem for things that are not required for critical thinking, such as logarithms or functions that a calculator could perform for you. But for example, when evaluating current political events in light of historical events, you need to remember the things you've learned.

It's obviously more complicated that this, so I would recommend reading the book for yourself. It's readable and full of interesting information both historical and scientific, which of course made it perfect for me.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Catching Up - New Books and Such

It's been a busy couple of months with spring and the Lenten/Easter season. Carolyn's yard is beautiful and well manicured. Mine is not, but a wonderful friend from church is helping me get a handle on the ivy and wisteria that have taken control, so I have hopes of being able to keep up this year after it's tamed. We are still reading though, in spite of my neglect of the blog.

For March we read The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough about the building of the Panama Canal. It was a feat that had a huge impact on the world by uniting the 2 great oceans. There was so much more to the story than I knew including scandal, civil and criminal court trials, conquering disease, and of course a lot of political maneuvering behind the scenes. The story spans 50 years and includes the monumental effort of both France and the US, not to mention countless West Indians who gave their back breaking labor and often their lives. McCullough is a master story teller and this book did not disappoint.

For the month of April we are reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I'm about halfway through and enjoying it. Jobs is definitely an interesting person and Isaacson is an wonderful author. The combination makes for an excellent book. I will say this though, I knew very little about Steve Jobs before beginning the book beyond who he was. If you are well versed in his life and career, you may want to read a number of reviews before buying it. I rarely read biographies of contemporary people and it is interesting recalling the "old" days of key punch cards and personal computers with 128k of memory.

We are meeting on April 27 this month, so you still have time to pick up the book and join us if you like. The more the merrier!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

February Book

As usual we had a great time last night at book club. We are finally finished with Team of Rivals and moving on to a little science. Our book for February is The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Should be interesting. Hope you'll consider joining us.