The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (audio and print)

Source: Purchased
Paperback and Audible, 447 pgs. or 14+ hours
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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which was a book club pick from last year and took me more than the month allotted to read, is a look at Chicago’s endeavor to build a World’s Fair to rival that of Paris. Larson attempts to contrast the beauty of the white city created by some architectural greats with the dark serial killings of  H. H. Holmes. The story is one of a city growing up and expanding, which generally brings with it the darker elements of crime. As women began to seek out jobs and not marriage, many were preyed upon by criminals, including Holmes. These comparisons are easy to see, but the main bulk of this book is focused on the political issues of the 1893 World’s Fair and its construction.

“Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago’s Hull House, wrote, ‘Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.'” (pg. 11)

“To women as yet unaware of his private obsessions, it was an appealing delicacy. He broke prevailing rules of casual intimacy. He stood too close, stared too hard, touched too much and long. And women adored him for it.” (pg. 36)

Like the previous book I read by Larson, the narrative is big on detail — too much detail in some places — and this often bogs down the narrative and leaves the reader wondering if the book is about the fair or the serial killer. To finish this pick, I ended up reading along with the audiobook to keep my attention focused, as I found it wandered too much just listening to the audio and too much when reading the book — I started scanning pages rather than reading them.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were those short chapters about Holmes, and it makes me wonder if Larson had a hard time finding enough about him and his crimes to write about him alone — hence the need for the World’s Fair and its comparison with the darker side of Chicago. This was less boring than the previous Larson book I read, which isn’t saying much.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson was a mixed bag for me. The World’s Fair parts of the book were interesting but too long winded, while the parts about Holmes are too little throughout the book until the end. Saving the show-stopper for last is a detriment for this book. These subjects are not really related to one another, and the only thread holding them together is Larson’s slight juxtaposition of them and the fact that they both occurred around the same time. It would make readers wonder if Holmes would have been as successful as a serial killer if the World’s Fair had not distracted the police, officials, the government, and tourists alike.

RATING: Tercet

Other Reviews:

The Power of Hurricanes

Finally, I finished Isaac’s Storm by Eric Larson. I know it has taken me an incredibly long time to finish, and there are several reasons for that; one of which is the first 60 or so pages of meteorological history I had to weed through at the beginning. The second portion was the ending, which dragged on a bit much for me.

The 2005 hurricane season is still fresh in the minds of many Americans even three years later, especially the federal bureaucracy that hindered and still prevents New Orleans from recovering fully. The 1900 storm in Galveston, Texas, faced similar problems, though in relation to the Weather Bureau, which was in its infancy at the time. Political infighting between the Weather Bureau and forecasters in Cuba caused delays in storm advisories and other notices headed for Texas and other regions west of Florida.

There really won’t be a spoiler alert for this review because I do not intend to get into the intricacies of the bureaucracy and its failure to alert the residents of Galveston that a major hurricane with winds over 100 mph was headed in a westerly direction. Isaac, who lead the Weather Bureau office in Galveston at the time of the storm, was considered one of the best forecasters in the bureau and he prided himself on his abilities. However, the 1900 storm fooled even him, which to me signals that humans take too much pride in their abilities to realize their own limitations.

Accounts derived from letters, newspaper accounts, and other records make up the bulk of Larson’s research, but I think my main problem with the book was the drab writing. I was plugging along slowly because the descriptions did not jump off the page at me as much as I had hoped, even when Larson was recounting the storm’s destruction.

I am not a major nonfiction reader by any imagination, though some will intrigue me enough to read them without a problem. This one was a bit tough to get through, taking me over a month to read for a mere 273 pages. If people are interested in the weather, the history of weather and meteorology, and historical accounts, I say pick up this book. Otherwise, steer clear.