2/52 books of 2019: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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I’m really glad that I didn’t stipulate needing to have necessarily started the novel in order for it to count when I committed to the 52 books challenge. I’m going to get this out of the way early: Devil in the White City is taxing on the brain, and I don’t mean this in a negative way. Like most historical accounts, this is a very content heavy book. Where I usually fly through fiction, I was reading at a much slower pace to comprehend all the information that was being thrown at me. If not for this challenge, I probably would’ve taken another leisurely two years to finish the book.

I’ve never really been drawn in by the H.H. Holmes mythos – like most people, he isn’t the first person I think about when I think about true crime. In some ways I think his crimes were too horrific to be sensationalised by the media. They go past the point of being just the right level of horrifying and err more on the side of making me feel sick in my tum tum. I probably wouldn’t have picked this book if not for both Last Podcast on the Leftand My Favourite Murder raving about it. Ironically, despite my love of true crime, it was actually learning about the development of the Chicago World Fair that really sucked me into this story. I didn’t know I needed to know that much about Chicago soil, but I enjoyed learning about it none the less.

Ultimately, to me this isn’t really a book about either of the main male figures – H.H. Holmes and Daniel Hudson Burnham – in isolation. I don’t really think it’s even a book about what they achieved. Rather, I think this is a book about how consumerism and greed came to grip a nation in the American century (if you subscribe to the British century being the 1800s and the American century being the 1900s). It’s an ode to the great American past time of dreams and greed, and violence.

No facet of the American dream cannot exist in isolation. In order to have achieved the American dream, you must have fallen victim to its less desirable qualities.  Devil in the White City is an account of the different faces of the American psycho – the incessant need to destroy and rebuild, and the draw of greed, fame, and infamy alike. Holmes and Burnham are pitted against each other as representative of the American dream. Where Holmes represents the greed, violence, and mania that has plagued American identity, in turn Burnham represents the reach for glory, fame, and accomplishment.

Continuing on with my, “everything comes back to Gatsby” theory of American literature, it is easy to see the circumstances in which characters like Jay Gatsby were created. Devil in the White City is an account of the lengths a man will go to in order to achieve their dreams – whether that is to run the most successful world fair, or to create a murder hotel to kill young women in. Maybe, after all is said and done, this is what makes it so engaging. It is in our nature to need to succeed, and maybe we’re always doomed to be drawn in and revolted by the lengths people will go to achieve their dreams.

Would I recommend you read this book? Well, it really depends. Do you have a lot of time on your hands? Are you a patient person? Do you think you could sit through hundreds of pages explaining how the heating system was used in the world fair, not to mention the pages all about the soil types of Chicago, and still find it exhilarating? If you answered yes to these questions, I’d recommend reading it. If not, then I’d probably just wait for the movie or listen to a podcast series about it. I recommend the Last Podcast treatment.

On a final note, here are a few of the fun things I learned from this book: Pabst got the blue ribbon from the Chicago World Fair, there was one case of “extreme flatulence” recorded as an ailment resulting from the fair, and the fair was host to the largest Ferris wheel built to date at the time. Most people assumed it was going to result in tragedy.

1/52 books of 2019: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

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Image credit to: Paste Magazine

Please note: this review may contain spoilers for the novel in question.

When I think about what drew me into reading in the first place, a large part of it was being able to be transported to another place and time. To plunge headfirst into a life that I had never and would never otherwise know was something that I kept coming back for. As an adult I rarely have the same experience with a book as I did when I was a child. In some ways I feel like I’ve traded imagination and whole-hearted focus for all the other things I need to be on top of.

Typically, when I’m deciding on a book to read, I either go by recommendation from someone, whether or not I’m familiar with the author, and whether or not the blurb or first few pages grab me. I don’t like to let the popularity of a book influence me when it comes to selecting something, because I feel like that makes it easier to miss what might be a great gem of a novel. I remember years ago reading an article about Die Antwoord in which Ninja (the male counterpart of the duo) was talking about how he didn’t really listen to other rap because he didn’t want to be influenced by it to create something that wasn’t authentically them. Depending on whether or not you consider their music audible, your reaction to this statement may vary. However, my point is, I try to go into selecting books with that same anonymity so as to avoid homogenising the types of things I’m reading.

When picking up Warlight from my local library (and please support your local libraries), I was drawn at first to the fact that this was by the author of The English Patient. This might be me admitting to a cardinal sin of literature, but my only familiarity with The English Patient is the fact that it was the butt of a joke in Seinfeld. Nevertheless, I knew that this would at least probably be a trustworthy novel to read, and one that I would probably get enjoyment out of. While I may not want to make decisions based on popularity, I do like making decisions based on the probability of my enjoyment.

Right off the bat, the narration style of the novel drew me in. I love retrospective story-telling, probably most recognisable from Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As someone who has a preoccupation with the transgenerational phantom and the narrative style of reflecting on youth, I was already going to be sold based on that alone.

But there’s so much more to this novel. To put it lightly, this novel charmed me. To go into it more, I believe that I fell head over heels for it. I read through it ferociously, feeling as though I was enveloped in the world that Ondaatje had created. Even as I read, knowing that it would have to come to an end, this seemed to me to be an impossibility. I didn’t want it to end; I wanted to live in this world forever.

When I finished the novel, I felt as though that little world I had only just become privy to had died, and I mourned that.

Interpret this as you will, but I found myself identifying with the young male protagonist, Nathaniel, quite a bit when it came to navigating a place between childhood and adulthood. I understood the anonymity he felt for his family, the fact that he enjoyed having his own secret life away from his real life, and the heartaches he encountered in the novel. Much like when I was reading The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, I found so much of my own youthful experiences in Nathaniel – and so much of myself.

Beyond Nathaniel, the narrative’s treatment of the transgenerational phantom was superb. When examining trauma and negative experiences of childhood, very rarely does resolution of these experiences come in a linear fashion. It is ongoing typically, and experienced in layers; a wound that just about heals without ever really going away. In reading Warlight, we see a character who defines himself as without family. However, it is in this definition that we see that Nathaniel’s identity cannot exist without family. Even in the absence of his parents and the estrangement from his sister, he is defined by his feelings of isolation and separation. Even in his discovery of a pseudo family unit, it is defined by the fact that it is not a real family. Nathaniel is an orphan with a family at the ready, who is unable to repair what was damaged in World War II era Great Britain. We see how these experiences shape a person, for better or worse.

As my first novel for the 52 books challenge, this was such a lucky find. Much like when I read novels such as The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald or Revival by Stephen King, I would love the opportunity to read this book for the first time again – to feel it all over again. It stays with me, even weeks later, and I find myself thinking fondly on Ondaatje’s little world.

I definitely recommend giving this book a red hot crack.