Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

by Erik Larson
390 pgs

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, it’s not because I don’t enjoy it. More often than not, I enjoy it very much. But it usually doesn’t draws me in to the point where I don’t want to put the book down--like a good novel often does. Erik Larson's books—at least the two I’ve read so far—have been exceptions to the rule.

The Devil in the White City is about two men: Daniel H. Burnham and H.H. Holmes, two very different men, whose lives were tied to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The former was the architect of the fair, the latter a serial killer.

The fair stretched to more than 600 acres in size and contained close to 200 new buildings; all painted white, which gave it the name the "White City." It included the world's first Ferris Wheel, which was 80 meters high, had 36 cars, and could hold over 1,400 people when fully loaded. Close to 26 million people attended the fair, which lasted for six months, from May through October of 1893. Visitors included Harry Houdini, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Scott Joplin, Clarence Darrow, Helen Keller, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Annie Oakley, Susan B. Anthony, and Buffalo Bill Cody.

The fair introduced the world to "moving pictures," zippers, automatic dishwashers, Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jack, Aunt Jemima, Shredded Wheat, and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. It would be remembered as one of the most influential events in history.

H.H. Holmes's connection to the fair would not be realized until quite some time after the fair concluded, but his story is as interesting and compelling as the fair's is. At the time of the fair, the accounts of Jack the Ripper were only a few years old. The world was fascinated by this new kind of killer, the serial killer. And while Jack was known to have killed five women, researches estimate Holmes killed at least nine, and as many as two hundred. Holmes used the draw of the fair to lure unsuspecting women from all over the country to his hotel, many of whom would never be heard from again.

The Devil in the White City is an excellent book. It reads like a historical novel, and the fact that it's not, makes it that much more compelling.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Night Manager

by John le Carr
429 pgs

John le Carré is one of those authors who has been writing for a long time, whom I’ve often thought I should read one of his books, but for whatever reason, never seemed to get around to picking one up. It wasn’t until I watched the mini-series adaptation of The Night Manager, which recently aired on AMC, that I was finally motivated enough to pick up one of his books and bump it up to the top of my “to-be-read” pile.

The Night Manager is a story about two men. Both are refined and well-polished. Jonathan Pine is a former British intelligence operative who has made a life for himself after his military service working as the night manager at one of the top hotels in Zurich. Richard Roper is a British arms merchant, operating in the Bahamas, selling weapons on a massive scale to the highest bidders. He’s formed a world-wide network of shell companies to operate behind, and has surrounded himself with a protective retinue of former agents and operatives, who have kept him beyond the reach of the CIA and its counterpart in the UK.

The two men’s paths cross late one snowy night when Roper, his mistress, and a dozen or so others who protect him and his interests check in to Pine’s hotel. Pine knows of Roper, and considers him “the worst man in the world.” Pine used to be in love with a woman who came to know too much about Roper and his operations, and who paid the ultimate price because of it.

Pine resolves to find a way to expose Roper and if possible, to dismantle his extensive operations. Working with U.S. handlers, he devises a way to insert himself into Roper’s inner circle and begins to feed his handlers with information that may one day bring Roper down.

The book was enjoyable. Le Carré used to work for the British Secret Intelligence Service and his background is evident in the level of detail he works into his story. But I struggled with the pacing and excitement level of the book. Even near the end, when spy stories usually get to the point where I can’t put them down, I never felt that way with this one. I’ll probably try a few more of his books eventually. Maybe some of his earlier ones dealing with the Cold War. But this one didn’t make me want to rush to read his entire back catalog.


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal

by Yann Martell
332 pgs

Fifteen years ago Yann Martel made a huge splash in the publishing world when he released Life of Pi, a book that spent over a year on the NYT Bestseller List. Obviously many people read the book, and from what I can tell, either they really enjoyed it, or the really didn’t. I’ve never talked with anyone who read the book and was lukewarm about it. I was among the group who really enjoyed it and have been waiting for him to write another book that compares. His next book, Beatrice and Virgil fell flat for me, so much so, that I hesitated to bother reading The High Mountains of Portugal when it came out. I’m glad I decided to give it a try. While it’s not quite the book Life of Pi is, it’s a very worthy successor.

The book consists of three separate, but interconnected stories. Each takes place in the rural area known as “the high mountains of Portugal,” and each explores the nature and role of grief and faith in the life of Martel’s characters.

The first story takes place in 1904 and tells the story of Tomás, a young man who recently lost his son, his lover, and his father. Tomás is so affected by his grief that he decides he will walk backward for the rest of his life, physically demonstrating to God and the world that he has turned his back to them. Tomás embarks on a quest to find a religious relic he read about in the diary of a 17th-century priest who ministered to the slaves brought to Portugal. To help him search for the relic he borrows his wealthy uncle’s automobile, a new invention that very few people in Portugal, including himself, have ever seen before. Tomás has no idea how to operate nor maintain the automobile, but doesn’t let those facts deter him from using it to aid him in his journey.

The second story skips forward in time to the late 1930s and takes place in the office of Dr. Lozora, a pathologist. Lozora’s wife is a fan of Agatha Christie mysteries and has an unusual but entertaining theory about the connection she believes they have to The Four Gospels of the New Testament. Her theory serves as a precursor to a visit Lozora receives late in the night by an elderly widow who shows up with her husband’s dead body folded up inside her suitcase. She asks him to perform an autopsy, which turns into a metaphor for the life her husband led and her own grief at his passing.

The last story takes place decades later and involves Senator Peter Tovy, a Canadian politician who visits a chimpanzee refuge in Oklahoma and decides to adopt one of the chimps, quit his job, and move to Portugal, where his ancestors came from. Peter is still grieving the loss of his wife and without looking for it, finds the peace a solace he needs in the minimalistic life he makes for himself with his new companion in “the high mountains of Portugal.

I really enjoyed the book as a whole. There are times when it feels like the train Martel is driving has jumped the tracks, but by the end it’s clear that he was in control the whole time. 

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Sunday, July 3, 2016

End of Watch

by Stephen King
432 pgs  (Bill Hodges trilogy #3)

End of Watch concludes Stephen King's highly-entertaining trilogy featuring Bill Hodges, a retired police detective, and Brady Hartsfield, a sociopathic killer, responsible for one mass killing, and an attempt at a second.

At the end of the last book, Brady, in a vegetative state, is residing in the brain injury ward of the local hospital. But strange things keep on happening around him. The water turns on and off on its own, the blinds go up and down, and other things move inexplicably on their own.

Bill and Holly, now running their own investigation agency, are called to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding the suicide of one of the survivors of Brady's successful mass killing. As others who were there also attempt to take their own life, Bill and Holly begin to suspect that someone else is pulling the puppet strings. Bill's gut is telling him it's Brady and he's determined to end Brady's powers once and for all.

End of Watch is more like a Stephen King book than the first two books in the series were. As much as I enjoyed those first two, I enjoyed this one that much more because of the supernatural element King brought into it.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆