Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #45: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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.

Mrs Smith Reads Savage Grace by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson, #CBR5, Review #14


Everybody’s parents screw up. In Antony Baekeland’s case, it seems he never even had a chance against the completely off the scale fucked-up-edness of his parents and their raising of him. Savage Grace documents, through interviews, letters and remembrances, as well as medical and police reports, the long strange trip it was, growing up and becoming the poor little rich boy who murdered his mother.

Mrs Smith Reads Savage Grace by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #12: Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist by William R. Maples and Michael Browning

I earn my living, in part, by planning for what to do when a whole lot of people die all at once. Yes, that is actually a real job, and hopefully one that exists in your city or state. There are a lot of people around the country who do what I do, and earlier this year I attended a conference of such folks. I chose to read this book during that conference; it seemed fitting.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales is a fascinating, detailed book by Dr. William Maples, an amazingly accomplished forensic anthropologist. You may be familiar with that field if you watch “Bones,” although as is usually the case, what you see on screen doesn’t closely match reality. A forensic anthropologist is trained in examining human remains to learn more about the decedent. They can tell if bones belonged to a woman or man, approximate age, and explain wounds. It’s very detail-oriented work, at times taking months or years when the identity is unknown (not the 45 minutes plus commercials Emily Deschanel might suggest).

In his book from the 90s, Dr. Maples takes the reader through many different cases he’s participated in over the years. Some involve people you’ve never heard of, and some are so famous it would be understandable if you didn’t quite believe what you were reading. Dr. Maples was, no joke, part of the small team that confirmed the identity of the bones of the murdered last Tsars of Russia. He put to rest the idea that President Taylor was killed by arsenic poisoning. He also helped convict murderers whose crimes were devastating but whose names you and I might not recognize.

As evidenced by my line of work, I find this to be an extremely interesting topic. I’ve read Mary Roach’s Stiff, as well as a couple of other books about the lives of medical examiners. If nothing else is on TV, I’ll likely leave it tuned to Dr. G. Medical Examiner or some other disease-related show on TLC or Discovery. I say all of that in service of the recognition that this type of writing is just not for everyone.

It is EXTREMELY graphic. Not to shock, but to explain. How else can he express to you how he was able to identify a murder weapon than to explain how he matched it to the wounds to the victim’s bones? Without the detail, it would be a very short book, with each chapter consisting of “so I did my work and concluded X.” His way of writing is so much better – it makes sense, and gives the reader a real insight into how forensic anthropology works.

If you enjoy history, or true crime stories, or science, and are not easily sickened by detailed descriptions of human remains, I think you’ll really enjoy this book. The only reason I gave it four stars is because at times the non-forensic writing (the set-up to the crime, or background) is a bit too flowery for my tastes. I appreciate creative turns of phrase, and I don’t doubt that the authors really do write this way, but at times it felt a little like one of them just got a new thesaurus. Additionally, while it suits the structure of the book, each chapter feels like its own independent essay; he re-explains some things as though the reader hadn’t just learned about them 50 pages prior.

But those are minimal complaints. It’s a great book.

genericwhitegirl’s #CBR5 review #4: Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore

shot in the heartThere is a small library of books at my work for employees’ reading pleasure. Pleasure might not actually be the best word, as most of the books are true crime novels, where death, murder, and mayhem are the topics of the day. When I need a book to read, I’ll randomly pick one…usually based on the cover or its name…much like the way I pick a bottle of wine.

Shot In the Heart is my latest pick and it didn’t disappoint. Mikal Gilmore is the brother of Gary Gilmore, a man who was put to death in Utah in 1977 for murdering two men. Although Gary’s story is enough to fill an entire book (Mikal recommends The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer if you are interested), Shot In the Heart is the story of Mikal’s entire family. Now I’m a sucker for multi generational stories…and this is no exception. Mikal details his family history, beginning with the origins of Mormanism. Not only does his mother’s family come from Mormon stock, but Gilmore is fascinated with the Mormon idea of blood atonement. This is the belief that the sin of murder is so heinous, only the shedding of the sinner’s blood will atone for it. Gilmore writes about how Utah’s capital punishment laws kept this doctrine alive by allowing an inmate on death row the option of death by firing squad.

Although Gilmore’s maternal lineage is defined by its Mormon roots, his paternal lineage has equally compelling stories. His grandmother was a psychic, and his father a con man with a spotty, incomplete past. After I got through the Mormon part of the book, I found myself reading stories of Harry Houdini, evil spirits, and haunted houses. I actually got the heebie jeebies reading some of his stories.

Gilmore then talks extensively about his parents and sibling’s lives. Although Mikal was lucky to enjoy his father’s love and relative family stability, he still describes the disfunction that dominated his brother’s lives and that carried into his own. With physical abuse, sibling rivalry, and unpredictable parents, I wasn’t surprised by his brother Gary’s life decisions. And although Gary became the “famous one” in the family, Mikal and his other brothers weren’t immune to poor decisions wrought from their lives’ trauma.

Although captivating, Shot in the Heart is sad in many ways. If you want an uplifting book, this isn’t the one for you. But as a study in human depravity, it’s worth the read.

Check out The Blist for more reviews by genericwhitegirl

genericwhitegirl’s #CBR5 review #1: Gangbusters by Michael Stone

gangbustersFor some reason, I love reading about drug gangs. Not sure if it’s the drugs, the gangs, the violence, or what…I’m addicted to these stories. Better than the alternative, right?
This book is the true story of a Dominican gang, known as the Wild Cowboys, that operated in upper Manhattan and the south Bronx in the 90’s. Responsible for over 60 murders, a unit of detectives and DA’s from Manhattan, Brooklyn, and The Bronx spent years painstakingly investigating this organization.

Stone begins with the murder of Andrew Carmichel, who was killed for apparently no reason while driving on the freeway. He then describes a seemingly unrelated quadruple homicide in the Bronx, at a busy crack hole. Victims were randomly gunned down, some still clutching crack vials in their hands.

In a neighborhood where gangbangers would boldly brandish weapons to cops driving by, a change for the better seemed impossible. But to the investigators and attorneys who worked the Wild Cowboys’ case, impossible slowly turned into achievable.

Stories like this are interesting on so many levels. I like learning the ins and outs of how the gang operated – bringing in more money a year than many major corporations. I also find it interesting to see how the case came together over the years. This book is a definite recommend if you are into the true crime genre.

Check out The Blist to read more reviews by genericwhitegirl

Shucks Mahoney’s CBR5 Review #4: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal

rockefellerI love stories about fakes, from the stylish likes of Catch Me if You Can, recent documentary The Imposter, or  this story about pretending to suffer a terminal illness. The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter is about Christopher Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant to the states who discovered the key to the long con – the bigger the lie, the easier it is for people to believe it. It’s a cracking story that’s still unfolding. Right this minute, Gerhartsreiter is going to trial on a murder charge. This is the culmination of thirty years of telling big pork pies about who he was. Most spectacularly, he managed to convince New York and Boston high society that he was Clark Rockefeller, art collector and bon vivant heir to a slice of the Rockefeller fortune.

It’s an impossibly juicy story, with jaw-dropping facts about his brazen deeds from one side of the country to the other. But instead of hoovering the shamelessness up contentedly, the author kept throwing me out of the narrative.  Continue reading