Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Devil in the White City

Title: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Author: Erik Larson
Year: 2003
Genre: Historical non-fiction
Rating: 1

If you could define a masterpiece, this might be a good example.
The Devil in the White City, a national bestseller, is a stunning portrait of dark and light America in the 19th century, a picture of realism and idealism. Very often, we tell our children the best stories of America and focus on the beautiful and cheerful and positive and neglect the shameful and petty. These disillusions are not dispelled as we grow up, and we remain blithely unaware of the dark past that many of our most beautiful places have. In order to interpret our future, we have to know our past, and The Devil in the White City is an enlightening piece of our own history.
Larson tell the story of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition- The World's Fair- in enrapturing, grisly detail. Beginning with the designation of the location and Chicago's determination to have it, he outlines the political winds of the time period and the reasons for why it was in the Midwest instead of the obvious choice, New York City. Larson focuses on the main architect of the fair, Daniel Burnham, who is a household name in Chicago even today, and follows his struggles, frustrations, and ultimate triumph in the legendary World's Fair.
However, Larson also tracks a nightmare in a parallel story. The tale of H.H. Holmes, a psychopathic murderer lost to history, is interspersed with the larger tale of the Exposition. In grisly, meticulously researched detail, Larson follows the quiet threads of the man who murdered at least nine people and possibly more than fifty over the course of five years. Larson paints a dark human picture, leading readers down a dark path of either madness or sick, disturbed thought.
You thought you knew history. But Larson takes his readers through their own history, rediscovering details that they thought they had forgotten and clearing away foggy parts of that time period as he goes. I don't want to spoil too much of the story, but did you know that Aunt Jemima's pancakes had their start at the Fair?
Perhaps the most astonishing part of this book is the historical accuracy. Most of us slog through history textbooks in high school and college and then never read another one until our kids ask us for help with homework, but The Devil in the White City reads like an enrapturing novel. With the skill of a historian and journalist, Larson retrieves hundreds upon hundreds of quotes from the annals of history, filling them in like dialogue. His sardonic sense of humor and irony also keep the novel funny, despite the dark overtones.
So even if you didn't think you knew history, this book is worth the week it takes to read. It's not long, and you'll rip through it. It's a little older now, so I got my copy at a consignment store for $2.00, but you can get your copy at Barnes and Noble for $16.95 or on eBooks for $9.99. And trust me, it's worth buying, because you'll read it two or three times. Then tell your friends to read it. Then recommend it to your coworkers. And so on.
Anyway, it also makes a great Christmas present. Merry Christmas, everybody!

The Journeyer

 Title: The Journeyer
Author: Gary Jennings
Year: 1984
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3

Gary Jennings is royalty in the genre of historical fiction. Aztec, Aztec Autumn, and Aztec Blood are all fantastic original pieces of historical fiction, enthralling readers in a world that now no longer exists. The Journeyer, published 4 years after Aztec, takes us back into 13th century Europe, and fulfills its name. As always, Jennings' descriptions of people, places, and events are stunning and enthralling, sometimes more attractive to the darker parts of ourselves than we care to admit.
We follow a young Marco Polo from La Serenissima, Venice, as he grows into a man and travels with his legendary father, Niccolo, and uncle, Mafio. Along the way, in classic Jennings fashion, we watch Marco become an adult through the somewhat destruction rites of passage (sex and violence) and experience the laws of pre-Renaissance Venice for ourselves as Marco is outlawed from his birth city until another Doge is crowned and he can return.
Jennings takes us from Venice to Constantinople, Baghdad to Cathay, and back again. Medieval Europe is grimy and violent, and the colorful descriptions of death will stay in my mind for a long time after the last page. Marco Polo's sometimes exaggerated adventures seem to fit in very realistically into Jennings' well-told tale.
However, if you've read Aztec, there's really nothing new here. In fact, I don't find Marco as charming character as Mixtli. I personally have always had a penchant for lost cultures, so Aztec had me from the beginning, but I feel like The Journeyer had so much potential that went unfulfilled. There are parts of it that drag, especially after the Yun-nan bit, and some parts are purely unnecessary (like Jennings' multiple descriptions of homosexual relations- one would be fine).
Don't get me wrong, it was still a fantastically written book; most of today's writers can only dream about achieving what Gary Jennings has. Superbly researched and well written, I liked The Journeyer for what it is- a wild adventure that doesn't fall into the traditional knights-in-shining-armor category of classic medieval literature. It's a step into another time and place that is not often explored- medieval China, the Middle East, and India. So often, in historical fiction from this time period, these regions are either cursory or completely ignored- Jennings explores them thoroughly and explicitly incorporates racial prejudices and wars of the time period.
Altogether, The Journeyer is yet another Jennings success. Nostril is actually my personal favorite character (and now you have to read it just to figure out the reason for his name). Don't go out and buy this book if you can avoid it, because it runs about $30.00 in hardback, but it's only $9.99 on the Kindle. It'll be at your library, and you'll want to renew it a few times, because it's a good long read.
By the way, merry Christmas! Buy a book for someone you love, because buying chocolate only lasts a week at the best and power tools only get you so far. :)