Saturday, August 18, 2007

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Devil in the White City came to me highly recommended, but I can't say I was overly thrilled. I was under a time constraint and so was forced to listen to it on audio, which, truth be told, is not my favorite way to read a book, though I feel very efficient.

Perhaps I wasn't intrigued with the serial killer, Holmes. Larson wrote about Holmes childhood with a little too much bias, in my opinion. I felt myself thinking in frustration, "He (Larson) can't KNOW that!" There are several incidents were Larson makes conjectures about Holmes reaction to stressful events or his attitude toward animals. Since there doesn't seem to be any proof of his reaction or attitude in either situation, I would have preferred that Larson kept his account a little more objective, at least during this portion of the tale.

Perhaps I wasn't intrigued by the development of the World's Fair in Chicago. It seemed that Larson went over every painstaking detail 10 times - the committees, the architecture, the bad weather plaguing it all. There were moments during this portion that captured my interest - particuarly when it was revealed (finally) what the structure was that would "out-Eiffel Eiffel." I also enjoyed the moments that involved Frederick Law Olmsted, who was also developing the grounds for the Biltmore House in North Carolina, which is a place I've visited three times. His view of landscape architecture and his ability to plan 40 years in advance were very impressive. I just couldn't get a sense of the buildings somehow.

I'm in the minority on this one. Others I've talked to find this book one of the best non-fiction books they've ever read. I just found it too slow and detailed - and I'm not usually one to shy away from detail. Perhaps I just don't respond to being read to. On this one, it might be best to NOT take my word for it.

1 comment:

Arlene said...

As you know, I'm one of those crazy fans of this book. So here's my 2 cents on it. ;)

In terms of Larson's account about how Holmes' felt, Holmes himself wrote a good deal from prison about his life and the whys and wherefores of his crimes and I think that this was the source for a lot of the items that only Holmes would know (though of course Holmes could have lied!). Plus it was one of the biggest media news items of the day so there was a lot being published on the subject. That being said, the media then was even more untrustworthy than they are today so who knows how accurate they were?

I've always been a fan of Daniel Burnham, the architect that is featured prominently in the book. I literally cannot take my eyes off of his Flatiron Building in NY when I visit. So I really enjoyed reading about his involvement in the minutiae of the World's Columbian Exposition though I can see how this could be tiresome to someone not particularly interested in architecture. I liked how there was a chapter on Holmes and then a chapter on Burnham. I am usually not a fan of suspense or true crime so this tempering of murder with the fair seemed like a good combination to me.

I too listened to the audiobook and I really liked this particular recording so much that I made sure to listen to Larson's next book (though I did not enjoy it nearly as much!). That being said, there were times where I zoned out and had to rewind the audiobook to the last spot I remembered.

All in all, not everyone will like every book, even books that are highly popular or critically acclaimed.