My boss actually recommended this book to me a few months ago. I downloaded it but didn’t get around to reading it until I went on vacation this last week. It seemed right up my alley – it’s about a time period I find fascinating (urban U.S. in the late 1800s/early 1900s) and two I find interesting (urban development/architecture and, well, true crime). The book certainly delivered on the time period and the urban development side; the story about the serial killer H.H. Holmes less so.
Larson employs some interesting writing devices to tell these intertwining stories. On one track, he follows Daniel Burnham on his quest to not just bring the World’s Fair – known afterwards as the “White City” to Chicago (planned as a celebration – blech – of Columbus ‘discovering’ the ‘New World’) but to try to create all the buildings, the expositions, and promote the fair in an effort to beat Paris’ exposition from a couple of years prior. It also follows Olmstead (of Central Park fame) in his quest to have quality landscape architecture. That story alone was fascinating, set against the “Black City” of crime and slaughterhouses of the rest of Chicago.
The other component of the story – the ‘Devil’ – follows H.H. Holmes, a man in his 20s who uses his charm and wiles to defraud creditors, build businesses, and ultimately kill many people. It’s also a very interesting tale, although the book spends far more time on the World’s Fair than on Holmes’ story, possibly because not nearly as much is known about him. It’s definitely still interesting, but it’s not exactly what I was expecting from this book.
One thing I appreciated from the book was what felt like really meticulous research. His claim that everything in quotes comes from real sources – no reconstructed conversations – is fascinating. The book is non-fiction, filed under true crime, but it certainly feel like a piece of literature because the writing is quite good and it reads rather quickly given its length. I enjoyed it, and will likely check out his other books as well.
In the Garden of Beasts is not kind to the subject of its story. Erik Larson writes a compelling account of the ambassadorship of William E. Dodd and his family during their time in pre-WWII Germany as Hitler rises to power, but he does not pull any punches with regard to the astounding naiveté and ignorance with which they enter Berlin society during the rise of the Nazi party.
Dodd was considered a milquetoast of a man, quiet and unassuming, a lifelong academic from a poor family in rural North Carolina whose dream was to complete his A History of the Old South. His one ambition was to become an ambassador, and though he would have preferred Paris, he had studied as a graduate student at the University of Leipzig and spoke nearly flawless German, so when President Roosevelt couldn’t find any one else to take the job, Dodd was offered the post of Ambassador to Germany in 1934. Thinking this would be an easy posting with plenty of time for writing and research on his History, Dodd accepted.
Mrs Smith Reads In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it in any previous CBR reviews, but I’m not really into non-fiction. For me, reading is an escape from reality; though many novels I’ve read and enjoyed don’t always unfold with blissful endings, grand gestures or incredible scenery, I still find myself completely submerged in another world when I’m reading. I know it sounds cheesy and clichéd but I really do like exploring other worlds and life experiences from the comfort of my own couch. This really doesn’t have a lot to do with what I think about The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, but I think it does speak to why I may not have been able to enjoy this book as much as others. I joined a book club last year to make me read things I would never normally read and for the most part it’s been successful, though there have been some real stinkers (yes, I’m talking about you Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). I don’t mean to imply that Larson’s book on Chicago in the late 19th century is one of the stinkers. I just didn’t really love it either.
Devil tells two stories, both true. The first is of how Chicago first won, and then managed to build, the 1893 World’s Fair. The second, far more interesting tale is about a man named H.H. Holmes – a serial killer stalking his prey in and around the same fair. Perhaps this says something about me as a person (or the rest of the ladies in my book club as well since they agreed with me), but the pages that I looked forward to most were those about Holmes. Serial killers fascinate me – they always have. Give me anything on Ted Bundy, Zodiac, Manson, or Jack the Ripper and I’m hooked. So it shocked me I’d never even heard of this guy. The way in which he set out for Chicago with the intent to satisfy his murderous urges, and planned his crimes so well so as to almost completely get away with it would be almost awe-inspiring if the crimes themselves weren’t so gruesome. Granted, this was the 19th century; he couldn’t have gone undetected for so long today, or at least that’s how I like to think anyway. Still – his prowess at charm and deception is prodigious, so chapters devoted to Holmes are incredibly gripping and engaging.
The year was 1900. The place: Galveston, Texas, a growing town with dreams of becoming the next Houston. The guy: Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau, sent to Galveston with explicit instructions to establish a state-wide weather service, while simultaneously improving the perception of the bureau as—gasp—ineffective at predicting the weather.
So much for that plan. On September 8, Galveston is hit by an enormous hurricane, which over the course of the day destroys the town, kills more than 6,000 people—some estimates put the total as high as 12,000—and lends both anecdotal and scientific evidence to what was only recently proven again along the East Coast: hurricanes are serious business. Continue reading