Tag Archives: Erik Larson

Top 10 of 2013

31 Dec

Happy New Year’s Eve, world! I won’t be like everyone and say, “I can’t believe how fast this year went by,” so I’ll just say, “I can’t believe how slowly this year went by.” We get 365 days and I only managed to read a handful of books! Here’s to a fuller 2014 with more books and more book reviews! For now, it’s time to wrap up the year by reflecting on the important things. Here is my list of the top ten books I read and reviewed this year with excerpts from and links to my reviews on each of them! Enjoy, and thanks to all my followers, casual readers, friends, and family for helping me enjoy myself with this little, whimsical blog.

The Top Ten of 2013

To Be or Not To Be was a smashing success on Kickstarter. Now Ryan North is working on another Shakespeare-Choosable Adventure mash-up featuring none other than Romeo and Juliet.

To Be or Not To Be was a smashing success on Kickstarter. Now Ryan North is working on another Shakespeare-Choosable Adventure mash-up featuring none other than Romeo and Juliet.

10. To Be or Not To Be  by Ryan North

Welcome to the chooseable-path review of Ryan North’s new chooseable-path adventure, To Be or Not To Be, which hilariously takes one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies and recreates it as a humorous, illustrated, maybe-but-maybe-not tragedy! North joins with dozens of the internet’s best/most popular Web comic artists to gamify Hamlet: “play” as Ophelia, Hamlet, or King Hamlet Sr., make choices throughout the book, and see where your will can take your character! This was originally a Kickstarter project that set the bar at a low $20,000 goal, but its novelty and the inclusion of some heavy-weight names (plus, who isn’t interested in Shakespeare …? No, really, who isn’t? Because I’m going to give you a scolding), catapulted the book to a lofty $580,905. Although it’s too late to donate to the project, you should still check out the site to see what it took to get this thing off the ground. …

My first experience with James Baldwin was filled with sighs and my own broken heart. Giovanni's Room takes the win for saddest book of the year.

My first experience with James Baldwin was filled with sighs and my own broken heart. Giovanni’s Room takes the win for saddest book of the year.

9. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

How does one even begin to talk about Giovanni? I’m so overwhelmed still, and I can confidently say, that Giovanni’s Room is my favorite book of 2013 so far … maybe. This novel speaks to James Baldwin’s ever-present awareness of his foreignness, his separateness, his Otherness. Giovanni’s Room is one of the truest most tragic novels I’ve read in a long time because it speaks to my sense of Otherness, too. …

Neal Stephenson tackled massive multiplayer online role-playing games AND terrorism in Reamde. What more do you want?

Neal Stephenson tackled massive multiplayer online role-playing games AND terrorism in Reamde. What more do you want?

8. Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Richard Forthrast—the billionaire, draft-dodger, former drug-runner, T’Rain founder—and his niece Zula find themselves invited to a figurative party of Chinese hackers, Russian mobsters, ex-military rogues, MI6 agents, and Islamic terrorists (obviously) that even Gatsby would envy, it’s so elaborate and wrought with confusion and angst. The plot that began with relatively simple, moneymaking scheme/computer virus becomes frightening and life threatening. But isn’t that how it always goes? …

Italo Calvino wrote a lot of letters in his relatively short life, and many of them are collected here in Princeton University Press' Letters.

Italo Calvino wrote a lot of letters in his relatively short life, and many of them are collected here in Princeton University Press’ Letters.

7. Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino

The bizarre thing about reading other people’s letters, is you get to thinking that they’re writing letters to you… Then you start developing some kind of strange celebrity obsession with those people, maybe more like an infatuation, or maybe like True Love. Not saying that happened to me or anything! But with Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985, it’s hard not to fall in love (or fall in respect, whatever) with this magnificent writer, Italy’s premier postmodern author, and one of my personal favorites. …

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts is the third installation of the Sarah Beauhall series, and arguably the best (so far). Make sure you start reading from the beginning.

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts is the third installation of the Sarah Beauhall series, and arguably the best (so far). Make sure you start reading from the beginning.

6. Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts

I think, at this point, I can officially classify myself as a Sarah Beauhall fangirl. When I saw the series as Powell’s for the first time, I decided I’d read it on a whim, not expecting anything more than brief entertainment or maybe something to write a scathing review on later. Lo and behold! I have to take back those thoughts of an unbeliever! Forged in Fire is J.A. Pitts’s third Sarah Beauhall installation, and I had more fun than ever. Pitts created a cast of full characters and a massive enough world to keep this series going strongly as Sarah Beauhall uncovers more dark magic, learns about a new secret order, and forms some important human bonds that help her understand the meaning of family. …

As troubling as it is genius, A Handmaid's Tale is a cautionary novel written in Margaret Atwood's iconic prose.

As troubling as it is genius, The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary novel written in Margaret Atwood’s iconic prose.

5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I finally read Margaret Atwood’s dazzling The Handmaid’s Tale and got a bitter taste of how scary religion can be. From my comfy seat in America, looking through my blinders out at the world, I can safely say I feel pretty free in comparison, and that other religions (*ahem* Islam) have gotten a little out of control. But Atwood’s beautiful novel is more like a slap in the face: America, already a so-called Christian nation, is short skip and a hop away from a society mirroring modern-day Iran’s or Afghanistan’s, a society that forbids the interaction between men and women, that “shelters” women with thick cloth and heavy restrictions for their “protection” and “purity,” that uses indoctrination and propaganda to destroy hope, to remove all routes of escape. Atwood’s dystopia is, in the end, much more frightening then the dystopias I grew up with—1984 and Brave New World—because it’s infinitely more possible. …

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

4. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

It’s never more apparent how brilliant Paul Auster is when you start reading him just after you have finished a mediocre novel. The New York Trilogy is one of Auster’s most renowned works of fiction, and–you guessed correctly!–it’s actually three separate novels. In New York, where all magical things happen, several mysteries are being investigated by several characters, some metaphysical shit goes down, people talk a lot about people talking or not talking, excuse me, my name is Peter Stillman. But all that aside, TNYT is a mystery of mysteries. It is the meta-mystery. It transcends. Best to read it while either completely high or sleep deprived.

I don't usually read nonfiction, but when I do, it has to be creepy, like Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City.

I don’t usually read nonfiction, but when I do, it has to be creepy, like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.

3. The Devil in the White City by David Larson

This is the story of two architects, tested on the sooty, soiled grounds of late-19th Century Chicago: Daniel Burnham, an architect of buildings in the age of steel and the director of works of the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; and H.H. Holmes, an architect of manipulation, murder, and the macabre who killed dozens of people while staying hidden from the police, just blocks away from the fair’s entrances–both were equally ambitious and worked incessantly toward their respective goals. At the World’s Fair, they represented the city’s two faces: the White City and the hell hole, the symbol of hope and the harbinger of horror. …

John Fowles's first novel The Collector blew everyone out of the water. I myself have been out of the water since I read it in April this year.

John Fowles’s first novel The Collector blew everyone out of the water. I myself have been out of the water since I read it in April this year.

2. The Collector by John Fowles

John Fowles’s debut novel certainly set the bar high. I felt the need to start by reading this book because it seemed to suit me (or suit my obsession with Law & Order: SVUCSI, andCriminal Minds; a girl can’t have too much crime TV), and I stand by my choice. The Collector follows Frederick Clegg in his project to stalk, kidnap, and woo the object of his affections, Miranda Grey, a young art student of the upper middle class. If Clegg were a young gallant knight or the Earl of Rochester, this story could be romantic, or at the very least, kind of kinky. But Clegg is a loner, a man with little to no social graces who happens to really, really like collecting butterflies, so the story has to go the creepy rout. Fine by me, since Fowles can definitely pull off creepy and pull it off well. …

And the winner of the LitBeetle’s Pick of the 2013 is …

Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I came to this book without expectations. It seems everyone but I had heard of it and already added it to their Goodreads “Want to Read” bookshelf, but it’s all in character for me, so I shouldn’t be surprised. That being said, I only got to page 16 before I decided I loved this book. Gillian (like my name, so we’re practically twins!) Flynn’s Gone Girl is a perfect specimen for a morbid curiosity. The girl in question is Amy Elliott Dunne, the supposed victim in a missing person’s case. Her husband Lance Nicholas “Nick” Dunne is the supposed perpetrator (because it’s always the husband, right?). Amy and Nick are beautiful, successful, clever, and bursting with love for each other, but when both are laid off, the initial spark of their marriage dies out, and a family crisis uproots them from their beloved Manhattan and lands them in Nick’s rural Missouri hometown of North Carthage, the two are embroiled in a battle of wit, sadism, and manipulation. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away from this train wreck, and you may think you can predict the outcome (and maybe you’re better at that than I am), but you will enjoy the unfolding of this disastrous relationship the whole time. …

A special runner up mention goes to …

A Memory of Light is the final installation of Robert Jordan's beloved fantasy series Wheel of Time.

A Memory of Light is the final installation of Robert Jordan’s beloved fantasy series Wheel of Time.

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

So I didn’t technically review this book, but I spent the better part of the first quarter of 2013 rereading Robert Jordan’s modern classic fantasy series The Wheel of Time, which culminated in this joint effort with author Brandon Sanderson. A Memory of Light ended a fourteen-book series and what was, for a lot of fantasy readers, an era of genre bliss. The Wheel of Time was my escapism from the minor horrors of high school, and A Memory of Light was a fitting end.

It would be a mistake to say I’m not obsessed with morbid mystery novels. I am. Just going to come right out and say it. Gillian Flynn’s novel goes above and beyond, taking morbidity to high entertainment. I won’t say Gone Girl is great “Literature,” but I enjoyed it the most out of all the books I read this year, and I think it will stand up to the test of time.

I can’t wait to read another several dozen books next year! Thanks, again, to all my followers who tagged along with me on my silly adventures through literature (and not-literature)! Send me book recommendations and help me make 2014 a more exciting year for books than 2013!

The Complete List

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan

Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan

Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan

Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus

A Spy in the Ruins by Christopher Bernard

The Collector by John Fowles

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Ganymede by Cherie Priest

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Black Blade Blues by J.A. Pitts

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North (and Shakespeare)

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Vurt by Jeff Noon

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

The Stranger by Albert Camus

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Honeyed Words by J.A. Pitts

A Lifetime by Morris Fenris

Underground by Haruki Murakami

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Nightlight by The Harvard Lampoon

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

The Wrecking Yard by Pinckney Benedict

A Sudden Wild Magic by Diana Wynne Jones

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

City of Glass by Paul Auster

Ghosts by Paul Auster

The Locked Room by Paul Auster

Suicide Game by Haidji

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

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On Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City”

13 Aug
Pick yourself up a copy. If you can't find it at your local book store, get it here!

Pick yourself up a copy. If you can’t find it at your local book store, get it here!

My recent phase of reading outside my comfy box (which is made mostly of Victorian novels and 14-book fantasy series these days) has now extended to non-fiction! Specifically, non-fiction about Chicago. I finally picked up a copy of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, upon strong recommendations from a good friend, and I’m glad I did! (I also picked up Sin in the Second City, so look out for Chicago non-fiction installation #2!)

This is the story of two architects, tested on the sooty, soiled grounds of late-19th Century Chicago: Daniel Burnham, an architect of buildings in the age of steel and the director of works of the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; and H.H. Holmes, an architect of manipulation, murder, and the macabre who killed dozens of people while staying hidden from the police, just blocks away from the fair’s entrances–both were equally ambitious and worked incessantly toward their respective goals. At the World’s Fair, they represented the city’s two faces: the White City and the hell hole, the symbol of hope and the harbinger of horror.

The beginning of the book may seem a bit disjointed–jumping from Burnham’s story line to Holmes’s and some seemingly disconnected players–but this simply adds to the fascinating coincidences that summed up to those fateful months in 1893. Larson manages to make me feel that fascination, that awe, Chicagoans must have felt during this time. Out of all the events, in all the cities, in all the world, Holmes has to walk into this one and use it as his murdering grounds.

The fair was a city unto itself. (Image from haygenealogy.com)

Holmes found the bustle of this world microcosm to be the perfect hunting ground. No one would notice if a girl or two disappeared out of the teeming crowd of hundreds of thousands of tourists. (Image from haygenealogy.com)

The Chicago of the late 19th Century was the breeding ground of innovation. Specifically, the World’s Columbian Exposition was the setting for numerous debuts of human ingenuity: Ferris Wheels, spray paint, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Shredded Wheat, and the Dewey Decimal System, to name a few. But first, Burnham and his team of planners and builders had to overcome waves of harrowing obstacles. Everything from rainstorms to unexpected, tragic deaths to funding trouble came close to keeping Chicago’s World’s Fair from being built. After it was built, everything from fires and economic collapse and skepticism came close to keeping the fair from succeeding. The evidence of Larson’s loving research is astounding. The detail he uses in building the reader’s image of the fair is what makes TDitWC worth your while.

The man himself: Daniel Burnham, Director of Works and creator of the impossible. He had his flaws, too, but we don't need to bother with them too much.

The man himself: Daniel Burnham, Director of Works and creator of the impossible. He had his flaws, too, but we don’t need to bother with them too much.

Of course, if you’re a crime fiend like me, it may be the details of Holmes’s blooming psychopathy that makes you fall in love with this book. H.H. Holmes, born as Herman Webster Mudgett, comes to Chicago already an accomplished swindler. In this new city, growing like a weed, Holmes finds room to stretch his wings. Holmes conned his way into accruing wealth and eventually building a three-story monstrosity that many called “the castle.” This gloomy building with haphazard hallways, windowless rooms, and hidden air ducts became the center of Holmes’s web of deceit. He began extending his feelers, laying his traps–his quest to conquer human lives–just as Burnham begins his to conquer the hearts of Americans with the nascent Columbian Fair. It’s strange to see the parallels. Both men want to gain utter control over their prey. They want to enrapture people, gain power over them, control their hopes and quell their doubts. Burnham wants to accomplish this through the artistry of architecture, throwing millions into reverie at what humankind can accomplish in an impossibly short amount of time. Holmes wants to seduce people with his charm and control their lives, and eventually control their deaths.

The man himself: H.H. Holmes. To look at him, you wouldn't suspect him, but that was the point.

The man himself: H.H. Holmes. To look at him, you wouldn’t suspect him, but that was the point.

Holmes finds his perfect setting in seedy Chicago. Larson quotes a madam of the time as saying, “I think Rome at its worst had nothing on Chicago during those lurid days,” and if anyone knows the real meaning of lurid, it would be a woman of the industry. In this younger, nastier Rome, Holmes drew in dozens of women into his confidences (and sometimes into his bed) only to catch him in his web. He luxuriated in his victims’ utter trust and then utter panic at the moment they realized their doom. All this in stark contrast to the game-changing, awe-inspiring fair just a couple of hundred yards away.

The great Ferris Wheel  towers over the White City. In just a single week, tickets to ride the wheel made over $400,00 in today's equivalent. (Image from explorepahistory.com)

The great Ferris Wheel towers over the White City. In just a single week, tickets to ride the wheel made over $400,00 in today’s equivalent. (Image from explorepahistory.com)

The Fair was more than a spectacle of industry or even the spawning ground for innovation, but it truly was a magical land–despite the grime of millions (pre-filtered water! pre-modern hygienic practices!). The White City was a place where people of all classes and ilk could mingle, where the world leaders could stand in awe at the same sights with the poorest of the poor. Holmes himself attended multiple times, bringing some of his victims, and it’s possible he may have run into any number of the era’s sainted inventors, like Nikola Tesla or Thomas Edison or maybe Daniel Burnham himself. I wouldn’t want to give spoilers, but some of the miraculous byproducts of the World’s Fair brought me to tears, and Larson’s incredible juxtaposition of Holmes’s darkness with the Fair’s efforts toward hope and the future just emphasizes where humanity’s true beauty shines through. This isn’t to say Larson is some kind of Humanist or throws an unfair, positive spin on this epic tale, and there were countless negative repercussions of something so grandiose. I know only that I didn’t come away from this reading experience feeling bogged by the fear of serial killers or disgust at heartless capitalism; I have come away satiated, more knowledgeable, and thrilled at reading more Chicago history.

Then I was like, "Oh, I want to see it, too!" And then I was like, "Aw, they burned it to the ground." Goodbye, ethereal beauty. But thank goodness for photography and Erik Larson!

Then I was like, “Oh, I want to see it, too!” And then I was like, “Aw, they burned it to the ground.” Goodbye, ethereal beauty. But thank goodness for photography and Erik Larson!