Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Larson (3.5 Stars)

The Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic, And Madness At The Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Read in January 2012

I wanted to give this four stars, and I leaned heavily toward a 3.5 star rating, but ultimately, I settled for three stars. I liked it, but I did not love it. Bright gems gleamed amid the offal, but not enough of them to dazzle my mind’s eye with the gleam of the White City.

I enjoyed the writing style of Erik Larson, which made it easier for me to read a non-fiction book. Granted, I do enjoy a well written history, but Larson included elements common to a mystery or crime fiction novel that kept me turning pages. That being said, however, the two halves of this book (the history of the Worlds Colombian Exhibition of 1893 and the escapades of Dr. H.H. Holmes (and his many aliases)) interspersed with seemingly irrelevant trivia did not a cohesive whole make. And even though I found some of the trivial excerpts jarring, they nonetheless touched me to the quick. Two or three examples come readily to mind:

Chance encounters led to magic. Frank Haven Hall, superintendent of the Illinois Institution of the Blind, unveiled a new device that made plates for printing books in Braille. Previously Hall had invented a machine capable of typing in Braille, the Hall Braille Writer, which he never patented because he felt profit should not sully the cause of serving the blind. As he stood by his newest machine, a blind girl and her escort approached him. Upon learning that Hall was the man who had invented the typewriter she used so often, the girl put her arms around his neck and gave him a huge hug and kiss. Forever afterward, whenever Hall told this story of how he met Helen Keller, tears would fill his eyes. (p. 285)

(Buffalo Bill) Cody upstaged the fair again in July, when exposition officials rejected a request from Mayor Carter Harrison that the fair dedicate one day to the poor children of Chicago and admit them at no charge. The directors that this was too much to ask, given their struggle to boost the rate of paid admission. Every ticket, even half-price children’s tickets, matter. Buffalo Bill promptly declared Waif’s Day at the Wild West and offered any kid in Chicago a free train ticket, free admission to the show and free access to the whole Wild West encampment, plus all the candy and ice cream the children could eat. Fifteen thousand showed up. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West may indeed have been an ‘incongruity,’ as the directors had declared in rejecting his request for a concession within Jackson Park, but the citizens of Chicago had fallen in love. (p. 251)

No one saw Twain. He came to Chicago to see the fair but got sick and spent eleven days in his hotel room, then left without ever seeing the White City. Of all people. (p. 285)

Another passage (pp. 285-286) recounted a passing of the torch from the pioneers of the west (in the person of Buffalo Bill Cody) and those of the future (in the person of Susan B. Anthony). This encounter, on a Sunday morning at his Wild West Show, “brought the audience to its feet in a thunder of applause and cheers. The frontier may indeed have closed at last, … but for that moment it stood there glittering in the sun like the track of a spent tear.”

I did not find the relation of Holmes’ psychopathic serial killings overly horrifying (and what does that say about me and/or our times?). But neither did I feel compelled to ferret out his motivations or worry whether justice would be served. Larson had to take some artistic license in recreating some of the murders, but nothing modern journalists or other ‘true crime’ authors haven’t done as well. Perhaps the suspense became ‘suspended’ for me since many of the quotes from Holmes referred to his Confession, which implies his capture, conviction and sentence execution.

I finished reading this book a bare two hours before attending the Common Grounds Book Group discussion sponsored by the Kansas City Public Library and featured in the Winter 2012 Adult Reading Program “Destination: Anywhere.” Librarian Katie Stover hosted the discussion in a corner of the Nine Muses Cafe’ at the Central branch. About ten of us (nine women and one brave young man named Alberto) joined in the discussion. The following are some of the questions and answers we tossed on the table among the tea and coffee.

Why is this such a popular book? A look at the behind-the-scenes of this Exhibition and how it came about on such a tight schedule (less than two years) and overcame calamities and catastrophes. Larson’s detailed research made you feel as if you were there, present, at the events occurring in Chicago in the 1890s. He accomplished this without the use of any dialog (beyond quotes from diaries and journals).

Why write these two stories together? And do you believe Holmes committed two hundred murders? Holmes creating his personal ‘deathatorium’ by designing and building his mansion and keeping everyone, including the construction workers, from realizing his real plans.

What happened to his first wife and child? In this respect, the author left us in the dark, never circling back to tie up those loose ends. Perhaps, no record existed to relate their fate.

Why did Holmes do it? Did he believe himself evil? Was he compelled by some physiological imbalance? Holmes was ambitious and driven (contrastingly, so was the lead architect for the White City, Burnham). Yet Holmes held no remorse for his action. He knew he was doing wrong, otherwise why would he have gone to such lengths to cover his tracks and conceal or destroy evidence? We all agreed that being a devil reflected a figure of speech, not a true personification of evil, because if you don’t believe in God, how can you truly believe in the Devil?

We moved on to lighter topics, pondering the ‘cool’ things that were introduced at the Exhibition (some of which still exist today), including: A Ferris wheel, hot dogs, shredded wheat, Cracker Jacks, alternating current electricity, inspiration for Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom (his father was one of the carpenters who built the White City).

I mentioned the research I planned to do based on a couple of sentences found on p. 29: “Three years later a hotel they (Burnham and Root) had designed in Kansas City collapsed during construction, injuring several men and killing one. Burnham was heartbroken. The city convened a coroner’s inquest, which focused its attention on the building’s design. For the first time in his career, Burnham found himself facing public attack.” Again, Larson did not return to this tidbit, so I shall see what I can dredge up from microfiche or microfilm on the Third Floor of the Central branch.

Someone else read a passage the summed up the wonder of the White City (from p. 254):

For many visitors these nightly illuminations were their first encounter with electricity. Hilda Satt, a girl newly arrived from Poland, went to the fair with her father. ‘As the light was fading in the sky, millions of lights were suddenly flashed on, all at one time,’ she recalled years later. ‘Having seen nothing but kerosene lamps for illumination, this was like getting a sudden vision of Heaven.’ Her father told her the lights were activated by electrical switches. ‘Without matches?’ she asked.

Another person contrasted this divine vision, with the irony of boys chasing excitedly after the train carrying Krupp’s gun, which in but a few years would be used to kill them as war erupted across Europe.

Our discussion wrapped up by musing about how easily Holmes faded from one alias to another, how he avoided his creditors and mesmerized women by the dozens. We wondered why only an uncle of one of his wives (some of which he was married to concurrently) saw through Holmes’ beguiling veil to the heart of his dastardly deeds.

Service Review: Safe Harbor Pet Boarding & Daycare (Basehor, Kansas)

Roxy and Apollo visited a new home away from home last weekend. I planned the day trip to Abilene not knowing exactly when we would get home. Without having a large pet door installed at our house, I can’t leave them at home, trapped in the house, for twelve or eighteen hours.  Sometimes, if the weather’s nice and I know we won’t be gone for long (like over night or late into the night), I leave the back patio door cracked just enough so Apollo can nose his way out if he feels like it.  But Saturday’s forecast didn’t call for temperatures to climb much above freezing, so I went searching for an alternative.

The place I normally board the dogs doesn’t encourage pickup of pets on Sundays and doesn’t provide the normal bath their slightly inflated prices for boarding include if you pickup on a Sunday.  I drive by the Safe Harbor facility twice daily to pickup and drop off one of our vanpool riders.  She has mentioned several times how much she likes the place and that they board their dog there frequently.

I called and spoke to the owner and got all my questions answered.  Safe Harbor’s boarding rates were much less expensive than my usual boarder in Leavenworth.  And, since Safe Harbor allowed me to pickup the dogs on Sunday morning, I only needed to board two dogs for one night (instead of two dogs for two nights).  I had her fax me the forms to fill out.  I contacted our vet to get them to fax Roxy and Apollo’s records to Safe Harbor, only to discover that Roxy’s three year rabies shot had expired two days before.  I didn’t earn myself any favors with my husband when I asked him to take her up to the vet that very afternoon and get her re-vaccinated.

Bright and early on Saturday morning, we loaded up Roxy and Apollo and headed south to Basehor.  Safe Harbor opened at 7:30 a.m. and we arrived shortly thereafter.  Roxy and Apollo were eager to meet the owners and some new pet friends.  I arranged to have Apollo bathed and left the Rotties in good hands while we continued west for a couple of hours to Abilene.

Sunday morning, I wiled away the time reading two books (alternating between the non-fiction The Devil in the White City and the scifi space opera Honor Among Enemies).  I left Lansing shortly after 9:30 a.m. and headed south on K-7 to Basehor to retrieve Roxy and Apollo.  I paid the boarding and grooming fees and wrestled the Rotts back into the Bonneville.  Safe Harbor sent them home each with a bag of doggie treats and, in Apollo’s case, in squeaky clean splendidness.

I liked their location, their facility, their prices and their service.  Apollo and Roxy will definitely be spending more time at the Safe Harbor Pet Boarding and Daycare.

Restaurant Review: Gyros Village (Leavenworth, Kansas)

Update March 2013:  I’m a little slow, apparently, because this restaurant closed last Summer.  I guess Terry and I should have gone back and been good patrons.

On Wednesday evenings, my husband and I grab a quick bite to eat because that night also happens to be band practice night and neither of us have time to cook dinner.  Even though practice was cancelled, we still ventured out to a new local eating establishment called ‘Gyros Village‘ across from the Leavenworth Plaza (in Leavenworth, Kansas).

I did spend some time online at lunch trying to find a website for the restaurant, specifically looking for their menu and nutritional information (since I’m actively tracking all my caloric intake as part of my GetPHIT resolution).  I easily found entries in business directories (like the online version of the Yellow Pages), but not an actual website or for that matter, many reviews.  I wasn’t too worried, though, since both Terry and I like gyros and most Greek cuisine.

We arrived at Gyros Village in the early evening (probably between 5:15 and 5:30 p.m.) and entered the small dining area (about ten tables).  We waited while a customer ahead of us received their carryout order and then were seated.  Neither Terry nor I wanted an appetizer, although I will return so I can try the Dolmades.  Terry and I ordered the same thing: a regular gyro with a side salad.  I of course asked that any feta cheese be left off my order and, if acceptable, added to my husband’s food.  I don’t eat cheese voluntarily.  I also asked that my gyro be served dry (sans tsatziki sauce).  Dairy and I just don’t get along.

Wed sunset and new moonI watched the phenomenal sunset and spied the very new moon while waiting for our order, regretting leaving my digital camera at home yet again.  I did capture the scene as we left with my cell phone, but as usual the photo did not live up to my expectations.  Our gyros and salads arrived and we began to consume them.

I must say I thought the gyros were tasty and filling.  Rather than traditional pita bread (which my daughter made from scratch when she served us home-cooked gyros over her Christmas break), the restaurant used flat bread instead.  I didn’t mind, as it securely held and delivered the gyro goodness I bit into greedily.  I would have preferred red onions, as opposed to the white ones used in both the gyro and the salad, but I’m not entirely sure what is considered traditional.  I will consult with my daughter later today.

My only disappointment in the meal came with the state of the romaine lettuce in the side salad.  The leaves had begun to turn brown, and were no longer cold or crisp.  I would hazard a guess that the romaine had been left out most of the day at room temperature.  I did not try the house dressing that came on the side, but it looked like a typical Italian sort of dressing.  Another quirk of mine: I prefer no dressing on my salad (or only my own home-made dressing).

We asked the server for a small bag to take half of Terry’s gyro home with us.  When he returned he asked us if we had ever had Greek or Mediterranean cuisine before.  Terry mentioned that our daughter had made gyros and pita bread for us during her recent visit.  I mentioned she had learned from a local couple who also teach a couple of Greek cooking classes at the Culinary Center of Kansas City.  He urged us to take home their menu, which I scanned in and you can review it via this link.  And, after reading the menu more closely, I did discover that Gyros Village has a presence on the Internet.  They have a Facebook page (but nothing else).

We will definitely return to try some of their other dishes and I especially want to try their Baklava.  I ate too much gyro last night to attempt a dessert.  I found their prices reasonable and the portions more than hearty enough for our appetites.

Book Review: Eisenhower 1956 by Nichols

Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis–Suez and the Brink of War by David A. Nichols

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I read non-fiction, which isn’t often enough, I tend to favor biographies or histories. I picked up Nichols’ detailed microscopic compilation of a critical year in the life of President Eisenhower based on a review my uncle wrote. Being born and raised and still living in Kansas, I have an understandable preoccupation with one of our most famous and respected residents.

The extent of Nichols’ meticulous research impressed me. His delivery of the facts and circumstances and thoughts of key players (gleaned from personal notes and diaries) brought me to the center of the conflicts and the crises. I queried many older friends and family on what they remembered of 1956 (since I wasn’t born until eight years later), most of whom were too young at the time to really remember the Suez Canal crisis.

That didn’t stop me from feeling an echo of the anxiety and the beginning of our national belief in ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD – a very apropos acronym, don’t you think?). Eisenhower’s early understanding of the true horrors of thermonuclear warfare paved the way for his campaign of waging peace, even at the expense of some short-sighted WWII Allies. (For a great glimpse into an early (and now classic) apocalyptic novel, please see Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, originally published in 1959 – click here for my review).

While reading this book, I visited the website for the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. I learned the current exhibit entitled ‘Eisenhower: Agent of Change‘ ran until the end of January and the Library celebrates fifty years in 2012. As soon as I finished the book, I convinced my husband we needed to visit Abilene, since I could barely remember the last/first time I visited the Eisenhower Center (probably forty years ago or more). We spent a pleasant Saturday exploring the Museum, Library, boyhood home (intact and preserved on the grounds), the grounds and the final resting place of Dwight, Mamie and their son Doud (who died at the age of 3 in 1921).

View all my reviews

Movie Review: We Bought a Zoo (2011)

We Bought a Zoo (2011)

4 out of 5 stars

Terry and I saw this in the theater about a week ago (on a Monday afternoon, since I had the day off from work). Matt Damon played the bereaved widower, Benjamin Mee, excellently but failed to convince me of his anguish as the widowed parent of a teenager. MacFadyen and Church provided some great comic relief, but Scarlet Johansson, as the lead zookeeper Kelly Foster, didn’t really click as the romantic interest for Damon’s character.  Although, she totally captivated me while trying to convince Benjamin to ‘let go’ and euthanize a seventeen-year-old Bengal tiger.  A good family film and a pleasant afternoon spent laughing and crying at the local movie theater.

Movie Review: Like Dandelion Dust (2009)

Like Dandelion Dust (2009)

4 out of 5 stars

I found this a difficult drama to watch.  I could sympathize with both families.  I could empathize to some extent with the gracious biological mother.  I can’t say I was completely satisfied with the ending.

I originally wanted to watch this movie to follow Barry Pepper’s acting career (the last film I’d seen him in happened to be the remake of True Grit wherein he reprised the role of Ned Pepper well).  His performance as Rip Porter, the stereotypical alcoholic abusive anger management posture child, met my expectations, but paled beside Mira Sorvino’s performance as his wife, Wendy Porter.  Her character convincingly portrayed grace, forgiveness, resilience, perseverance and unclouded unconditional love on a scale I can only imagine and probably will never achieve.

The other couple (the affluent Campbells) got less sympathy from me, but that could have been intended by the filmmaker.  Or perhaps a result of less convincing performances by Cole Hauser and Kate Levering.

If you’ve ever been in the position, as a woman, and needed to ask and answer the question “Do I abort my baby, or give it up for adoption?” you may find some surprising insights in Like Dandelion Dust.

Scrabbling Scrabbler Scrabbles to Tournament

Scrabble Tournament Mini-Flyer from Leavenworth Public Library

I checked out more than just a held book last night at the Leavenworth Public Library. The first thing I saw, literally at eye level, was a large announcement taped to the glass door proclaiming ‘Scrabble Spells Fun.’ This I already knew.

I even recognized the name Ricky Sirois from my previous attempts at competitive Scrabble.  I asked at the front desk about the Scrabble event scheduled for Sunday afternoon, and she suggested I call the number listed on the mini-flyer she handed to me.  The person whom I needed to contact did not work the evening shift at the Library.

I thought at first the event would be a simple Scrabble club meeting type get together, but when I reviewed the Library’s website, the event is billed as an actual tournament.  I learned this after I had already called and left a message about attending.  I let my membership in the National Scrabble Players Association lapse more than a year ago.  I decided I didn’t have enough time to study like a real Scrabble competitor needs to study, nor could I afford the gas to attend the closest Scrabble club meeting held way down in Leawood every other weekend.  In fact, I haven’t played a game of Scrabble with anyone in well over a year if not two.

So perhaps this is not the brightest thing I’ve ever dived into.  Especially since I’m planning a day trip to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas on Saturday.  I will have no time whatsoever to even review the allowed two letter words or all the words that start with Q.  If only I had known about this two or three weeks ago.  Oh, well.  If I can find all my Scrabble playing paraphenalia (board, ProTiles, timer, score sheets, quick reference sheet, etc.), I can at least make an appearance and have some fun word playing.

Cramming in Some Word Study

I thought it might be a good idea to cram in some word studying today at lunch, so I downloaded my favorite Scrabble word study software:  Zyzzyva (appropriately billed as the ‘Last Word in Word Study’).  I’m about to find out how atrophied my word building muscles have gotten.