Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Reviews and More

Yesterday was "wait around for the dryer repair man" day, so I got some reading done.

Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson.  This is the story of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.  It revolves around a hero and a villain: Daniel Burnham, chief architect of the fair and Henry Holmes, a serial killer who murdered an unknown number of victims, mostly young women, partly by luring victims to his World's Fair Hotel.  The two men had no connection other than geographic proximetry. Paris had held its own world's fair in 1889, at which the Eiffel Tower was revealed, and the US felt that it had to put on something bigger and better for national pride.  Chicago, struggling against an image of a dirty meat packing town with no culture, put in a bid to host the fair, exposing itself to ridicule from more polished eastern cities.  Yet Chicago got the bid.  Burnham assembled the greatest architects of the age, including Frederick Law Olmsted to transform a boggy wasteland on the shore of Lake Michigan, to the elegant "White City."  One important thing was to outdo the Eiffel Tower, prompting kooks to submit all kinds of ludicrous plans.  The winning design?  I won't tell you so as not to spoil the story, but when you find out you will be delighted.  The fair was a triumph for Chicago.  Meanwhile, a few blocks from the fairgrounds, Henry Holmes, a handsome young doctor and pharmacist, seduced young women and killed them.  The total number of victims killed in his "hotel," a building he constructed specifically for the purpose of easy disposal of bodies is unknown.  Hundreds of people went to the Chicago World's Fair and were never heard from again, although they can't all have been Holmes' victims.

Adam Bede by George Eliot.  I haven't finished this yet, but I can tell you that it's perfect comfort literature, if you go in for pastoral British fiction peopled with strapping English workingmen, vicars, tart-tonged farm wives and dewy farm girls falling in love with the squire's handsome son.  George Eliot is a writer I admire.  This is her first novel, and you can see that she had some growing to do as a writer.  There's some preaching, awkwardly inserted by a narrator.  There's an entire chapter that I skipped because it was all the narrator's comments on the character of one of the characters plus a "conversation" with Adam Bede in his old age.  It doesn't seem like the sort of book a woman like George Eliot would write.  But that doesn't mean it's not the perfect book to cuddle up in bed with after a long day.  There's a movie too, which is in my netflix queue.  Another low-budget BBC costume drama.  Sometimes they're good, sometimes they're appalling.

Flashman's Lady by George MacDonald Fraser.  Another book I haven't finished yet, but I have to give a shout-out to the Flashman series.  These books are so much fun.  Henry Flashman has managed to be present at all the most important military engagements of the Victorian period, plus had a few private adventures.  The books are violent, sexy, funny, and manage to teach a little history along the way.  You will need to lower your threshold for being offended or you will never make it through the series.  For one thing, Flashman sometimes refers to women as "mounts" (among other things) but don't let a little sexism (and imperialism and racism) ruin your enjoyment of fantastic historical fiction.

The dryer repairmen have come and gone.  My dryer needs a new motor.  Motors are on backorder and won't be available for at least two weeks.  I told the repairman I was annoyed because my dryer is only three years old.  He shrugged and said, "It's a GE" as if everybody in the world should know that G.E. makes crappy appliances.  I guess I missed the memo.  I have a clothesline and I know how to use it, but I can see these "two weeks" stretching into months.

I am going to try to get my ass onto a number 10 bus today.


  1. Glad you reminded me of the Chicago book. Been meaning to get it and read it. The Worlds Columbian Exposition is a fascinating subject. The song by Sufjan Stevens is one of my all time favorites. You are the type of person who would appreciate Sufjan. I dare you to download his Illinoise.
    -- Mark M.

  2. I must seek out that George Eliot book. It sounds like just what I need to read.
    Yeah, I've heard "It's GE" before, too. Appliances can be such a headache.

  3. I really enjoyed Devil in the White City. Much more than I thought I would. I mean, you know I like serial killer books, but the stuff about the World's Fair was fascinating.

    The only George Eliot I have read is The Mill on the Floss, which I liked. I have Middlemarch on my Kindle, though.

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