For the last week or so I’ve been really in the mood to read, but not so much in the mood to write. But… I’m still like eight reviews behind, so I’m doing my best to kick through the writer’s block and share some book thoughts with you.
Today, two recently nonfiction history books, one that I liked and one that didn’t work as well for me. And they go together because they both have “madness” in the subtitle — a word that I really love.
I present, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean — You can click the photo to go directly to the review.
In just three years, architect Daniel Burnham and a enormous team of architects, designers, engineers, and day laborers constructed an entire city for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago — a feat unmatched before, and probably since. But the White City wasn’t without darkness, both internally and in it’s host city of Chicago, where a serial killer used the event to find his prey.
The first thing I have to note is that Larson heavily, heavily uses foreshadowing in the book, almost to the point of total distraction. This actually bothered me almost entirely to the end of the book.
But other than that style question, I found The Devil in the White City really enjoyable. Larson does a nice job contrasting his two protagonists (a word I use loosely, since one is a murderer) — Daniel Burnham, the heart and mind behind Chicago World’s Fair, and Dr. H. H. Holmes, a psychotic serial killer who built a murder hotel blocks from the fair to lure in unsuspecting female victims.
(Aside: I never imagined I would get to use the phrase “murder hotel” in a review, and I’m kind of excited about it).
The book is a sort of history of the fair/true crime/historical narrative story that is inspiring and creepy as it looks at totally different ways that people go to intense lengths to accomplish what they’re driven to do — create great buildings for one man, or murder people for another. I think this is a nonfiction book definitely worth a look, even if you’re not normally inclined to read the genre.
Edited to Add: Jeanne of Necromancy Never Pays recently reviewed this book, and I think she does a much better job than me of summing it up and sharing details. You should go read her review too 🙂
Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon is a book of stories about the development of the Periodic Table of the Elements — you know, the big chart on the wall of every chemistry classroom in the world used to try and explain how the building blocks of the universe fit together? Actually figuring out the table and discovering all the elements was a major undertaking, and the fact that it has stood the test of time is a testament to the scientists who put it all together.
I loved many of the individual stories Kean shares — a radioactive boyscout, a prosthetic nose of silver, and a blue man to cure syphilis, to name a few — but I struggled with The Disappearing Spoon as a complete book. I wasn’t sold on the organization, which was sort of chronological but did a lot of jumping, nor did I really love the chemistry descriptions. I wasn’t an expert at high school chemistry but I got the basics enough to pull good grades in the class, and yet somehow the descriptions in the book just weren’t clear to me.
By the end, I was feeling more confused than satisfied with the book, which isn’t something I normally feel after reading great nonfiction. If you like chemistry or science or history, I think the book would probably work, but it just felt off for me when I read it.