The Devil In the White City

Saturday, January 31, 2009


Yes dear readers, it's that magical time again, Suggestion Saturday. Today's book was suggested by Danimal, who cruelly tricked me into reading a really creepy book. I feel so deceived. Okay, well maybe that was actually my fault for disregarding the word murder on the front of the book - and I really shouldn't unjustly accuse my readers of nefarious acts if I want them to come back and keep reading. Sorry Danimal, I didn't mean it.

Here's the description of today's book: "Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that The Devil in the White City is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison. The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims. Combining the stories of an architect and a killer in one book, mostly in alternating chapters, seems like an odd choice but it works."

My sister is visiting this weekend, and I was a bit nervous about tackling a book that is almost four hundred pages while she was here - so, in order to avoid ignoring her all day, I challenged her to an old-fashioned read-off. It took me back to my elementary school days of competing in the Book It contests (for those who didn't experience the magic of Book It, it was a Pizza Hut sponsored reading contest for 1st and 2nd graders). Some kids competed so they could win the coupons for free pizza - but I was in it for the glory of winning. The win did not come easily - Tendy Chang and I were locked in a fierce competition for months - but he eventually relented. Sadly that was not the last time I attempted to crush the competition - I also engaged in a month long quest to be the top cookie-selling Girl Scout. I would sit in circle time, when they would make us sing that song about making new friends but keeping the old and think to myself, "Yeah right, I'm not here to make friends, I'm here to sell cookies." I would overhear other girls in the troop say they thought they were going to sell the most cookies that year, and I would mutter under my breath, "That's what you think." It's hard to believe that I was never awarded the kindness patch, isn't it?

I'd like to tell you dear readers that I have become less petty as an adult - but I can't bring myself to lie to you - I haven't. Every time my sister would have to get up to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water I would think to myself, "That's right, get a drink, and take your time while doing it." Okay, maybe I didn't so much think it as said it out loud in a sinister voice. In my defense dear readers - she started it. As you can see, I have not gotten more mature as the years have passed either. We were both inspired by the sinister tone of the book to make tacky, tasteless jokes all day about making the other person "mysteriously disappear" one another in order to win the reading contest. Clearly we have no sense of what's appropriate and what isn't. If only one more person had been here to make inappropriate jokes then it would have been acceptable, per my sisters motto, "Two wrongs don't make a right...but three do." Just so you won't be left in suspense, by mid-afternoon my sister was ahead by 35 pages, and that's when she began to get a little sleepy and she whispered the words, "You put something in my popcorn didn't you." Don't worry dear readers, she has recovered from her "special popcorn" and managed to stay a comfortable 15 pages ahead of me for most of the book - but I did eventually win, but it was a nail biter there for awhile.

The book was incredibly creepy, and if I really hope I don't end up having to sleep with the light on and an episode of Brady Bunch playing tonight - but I did like the book a lot. It was very well written. I also really appreciated the way that the author would always include after every discussion of how much something cost, the amount that it would cost today. It always bugs me when I read a book that doesn't do that because I always end up wasting a ridiculous amount of time on the Internet afterwards trying to figure it out. So thanks Erik for doing the hard work for me. I have no idea why I'm writing now as if the author is actually going to read this, I the blog might be turning me into an egomaniac - actually there's no "might" about it, it definitely is. I spend 20 minutes yesterday thinking, "Maybe I shouldn't have said such harsh things about Tori Spelling yesterday, what if I end up promoting this blog (after it gets turned into a book of course), and Tori's promoting her second book and we end up on the same talk show. That could be a very awkward conversation." The blog has made me delusional - or maybe this is what happens to a person when they no longer have a projects box to be delusional about. Maybe I should have kept that projects box after all - I was a much more normal person when I was only being delusional about making my own soap.

Random tidbits about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair:

  • It lasted for six months.
  • The total number of visitors was recorded as being 27.5 million. The population of the United States at the point was 65 million.
  • On it's best day the fair drew more than 700,000 visitors.
  • Cracker Jacks, Shredded Wheat (which no one thought would be around for long), Juicy Fruit gum, the first zipper, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and the first all-electric kitchen were all introduced to the public for the first time at the fair.
  • The fair featured such novelties as: a locomotive made of spooled silk, a suspension bridge built out of soap, a giant map of the United States made out of pickles, and a sculpture of a knight on horseback made out of prunes.
  • The fair's Palace of Fine Arts was transformed into a permanent structure after the fair, and now houses the Museum of Science and Industry.