Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson

It’s not QUITE the longest book title ever, but possibly the longest on this blog? And it’s a little bit misleading, since there’s not really “magic” the way we think of it at the World’s Fair/Columbian Exposition. But I suppose there was magic in how everything ended up coming together despite everyone’s delays and misgivings. And there was definitely murder. Lots of murder.

But I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a sensationalist book; it’s definitely not. It doesn’t invent facts, but it doesn’t play them down either.  This books weaves together three main stories: the Chicago World’s Fair (Columbian Exposition) (whichever you want to call it) of 1893, including its planning and building stages; the descent into delusion of Patrick Eugene Prendergast; and the career of H.H. Holmes.  The World’s Fair parts revolve mostly around the architect Daniel Burnham and the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (who also designed Central Park), who were the driving forces for the layout and buildings of the fair. Patrick Eugene Prendergast assassinated the mayor of Chicago two days before the fair closed. And H.H. Holmes was a serial killer who lived in the area and, it is believed, used the fair as a cover to entrap and kill (mostly) women. (He was also an insurance fraudster and bigamist, among other things.)

I really liked how the book wove together the three parts. They all seemed to have the right amount of emphasis for the book – Prendergast was focused on the least, but not so little that Iwas wondering why he was even there, for example. The book never got too bogged down in details either of Holmes or of the fair planning and building. Structurally, it works really well.

Stylistically, it works a little less well. It’s still really good, but there were moments where Larson was obviously trying to create tension or keep the you reading. One example of this manufactured mystery is the part about the monument that is supposed to “out-Eiffel Eiffel”. Larson presents an “unnamed” engineer working for a steel inspection company who presents an undisclosed design, which is rejected at least twice before approval is finally given. It’s not until the approval is finally given that the name of this engineer is revealed to be George Ferris – and the design is, of course, the first Ferris wheel. The manufactured mystery struck me as just that – manufactured – and annoying for two possible reasons. One, if you’re like me, you looked up the Chicago World’s Fair on wikipedia either before reading or near the beginning of reading the book, to get a sense of how accurate it was or how potentially interesting it was going to be. If you did this (as I did), you know that the first Ferris wheel was built for the World’s Fair, and that it was the monument that “out-Eiffel-ed Eiffel”. No mystery; the fakeness of “the Pittsburgh engineer” gets annoying. If you are not like me, then it is entirely possible that you read this section thinking, “I know this is supposed to be significant; get to the reveal already”, which is also annoying.

The Ferris part of it was the longest of these “manufactured mysteries” and therefore the most annoying to me. It worked better when it was all included in a short paragraph – like when the guy who invented the Braille typewriter met a blind girl who was extraordinarily grateful for the typewriter and her escort. Of course, it was Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. But since that’s a minor incident showing the power of the fair and the extent of its capacity and reach, it works a lot better than the drawn-out “mystery” of the Pittsburgh engineer who, by the way, was responsible for one of the greatest innovations of the fair, one of its main attractions, and one of its most prominent safety concerns.

The other thing that kind of got to me, stylistically, was the actual style. Every once in a while, the prose got a bit imagistic and flowery – jarringly so for a non-fiction book. (Not that non-fiction needs to be dry and purely factual, mind.) I thought I had highlighted more examples than this, but some that I’ve found among my notes are

“Sentences wandered through the report like morning glory through the pickets of a fence.”

“fogged windows, paper curled from ambient moisture, the demonic applause of rain on rooftops”

“Bertha Palmer, whose diamonds radiated an almost palpable heat.”

Seriously.  There was also one sentence about Jack the Ripper (a near-contemporary of Holmes and possibly an evil inspiration?) that was syntactically confusing (a semi-colon rather than a comma would have made things a lot clearer, editors!) and at least one that was probably intended to be amusing (And, to be fair, was amusing – but I just have an image of Larson giggling to himself over this sentence and refusing to consider changing it): “It was the first in a sequence of impossibly rich and voluminous banquets whose menus raised the question of whether any of the city’s leading men could possibly have a functional artery.”  (Also, he goes on to detail the menus of some of these banquets – at least three of them – in printed menu form with wine lists and everything.)

The other thing that made me go “hm” was that for a book that, in the foreword, prided itself on factual accuracy, it detailed the emotional reactions and responses of people in situations where they cannot possibly have left records of their emotional reactions and responses. It is addressed in the afterword, but it took me aback when I first encountered it – especially when it was the reactions of Holmes’s victims.  Because the foreword had been so clear about the veracity of the content, I expected that parts which were so detailed had primary sources – in other words, that some of these women would have escaped and testified. None of them had, and the level of detail (although well-intentioned and effective) disturbed me.

The story itself – stories, really – are fascinating, though. Holmes is disturbing; Prendergast is disturbed. My favourite parts, though, are the details of the fair. The stories of the notable people who attended, either notable at the time (like Archduke Franz Ferdinand) or future notables (like Woodrow Wilson, then just a professor at Princeton, or Theodore Dreiser, then a reporter), are interesting in that celebrity-gossip kind of way. Details of things that premiered at the fair (like, say, Shredded Wheat) help connect the story to the present day. Personal stories like the reactions of people riding the Ferris Wheel for the first time (and having a serious panic attack on it) bring the reader back into the past. It’s an incredibly well-researched book and a captivating read.

One last comment, to try to make it relevant to (relatively) current events: Larson says in the afterword that his first two readers were slightly confused by the outpouring of civic pride in the bidding and the building of the fair. I have just one thing to point out about that: Olympic bidding. The process for the World’s Fair bidding may have been internal to the US, but it seems very similar in the politics of it and the emotions of it to the bidding process for the Olympics. I’m sure – although they weren’t mentioned in the book – that there were detractors from the World’s Fair bid in 1890 just like there were detractors from Chicago’s Olympics bid two years ago.

Anyway, The Devil in the White City is a fantastic book. I was completely absorbed in it (until the Kindle ran out of battery power right before section 3) and there are so many more things I could talk about: the characters, the architecture, the panic of 1893 and its connection/effect on the fair (more resonance with the Olympics and 2012?), the labor movement, etc., etc., etc. If you want to know more, just leave a comment and I’ll reply in the comments (and will probably end up writing more than you want…..)

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The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Like Moon Dust, The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book where the author/narrator is a character. By the end of the book, you know Rebecca Skloot almost as well as you know Henrietta Lacks or her family. Most of the time this works really well – it is, after all a personal story. The only time I thought that it didn’t work as well was near the beginning, when Rebecca is detailing her erratic, apathetic education. I understand why her initial exposure to HeLa and Henrietta’s identity is important, but the rest of it seemed a bit unnecessary to me. I kept waiting for it to be significant, to be a point of commonality that Rebecca could use, but it never happened.

But that’s a minor quibble for a book that includes so much on so many topics. In addition to being a biography of Henrietta Lacks, it’s also the story of her family, Johns Hopkins, the medical researchers, and the cell line.  It also touches on racism, social inequality, ethics, and education and class.  I’m not going to say a lot about the various biographies that are incorporated into the book: they are, after all, the story. But I do want to touch briefly on the wider issues.

The racism issue is pretty simple: would Henrietta Lacks and her family have been treated differently if they were not black? The answer is, sadly, probably yes. I don’t think the outcome would have been different: Henrietta’s cells would still have been taken, etc., but I think the way they were taken and especially the way her family was treated would have been different. I wish I could be wrong about this; there is of course no way to know.

Tied in with that is the question of social class (which in the US is often tied to race as well as economics and education). I feel fairly certain that the Lacks family would not have been dismissed the way they were if they had been, or appeared, richer and/or more educated.

Which brings me to the next thing I noticed: the assumptions that come with education. It’s something that I am often very guilty of.  When you’re surrounded by something when you’ve spent years learning about something, you forget that not everyone has.  You assume that the basic ideas and vocabulary of your subject are common knowledge, and you forget that there was a time when you had to learn them too.

This is what happened with Henrietta Lacks’s family.  Most of the researchers who contacted the Lacks family (for DNA samples, for example) or whom the family contacted for information assumed a base level of understanding that the family didn’t have.  If that basic understanding of a field isn’t there, the rest is gibberish and there’s nowhere even to start asking questions.  It wasn’t until someone took the time to make sure that the family understood the basics that they could move on and process what had happened.

The last thing – and the most controversial thing – that’s brought up by this story is the ethics of tissue collection. What sort of rights does or should a person have over cells that are no longer a part of their body? What sort of information should someone be entitled to if, like Henrietta, their cells prove to be useful or unusual? What responsibility do researchers have to follow up with patients or their families? There are no good or easy answers that can balance the rights of researchers with the rights of patients.

The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks is an incredibly well-researched book. There are points where, to me Rebecca’s story seemed a bit intrusive, but overall the stories it tells and the issues it raises help it live up to every glowing review.



Filed under Non-Fiction (History), Non-Fiction (Science)

Moon Dust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, by Andrew Smith

For my senior seminar at university, I took a class in New Journalism – the movement that started in the 1960s that led to more narrative non-fiction and the acknowledgement or realization that pure objectivity is impossible. In narrative non-fiction, the writer is often a character in the work. It’s still factual, but the research process, and the creative process, is as much a part of the story as the research findings. Moon Dust and the other book I’ve finished recently (The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks, blog post to come), are very much a part of the narrative non-fiction category of writing. The story of the writer is explicitly a part of these books, even more so, if I recall, than the gonzo journalism of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Moon Dust interweaves the stories of the surviving Moonwalkers with Andrew Smith’s own memories and feelings about the Apollo program.  He never pretends that this is an objective work of biography or technical detail; it’s very much a personal project for him. There are biographical details of the astronauts, of course, and a bit of technical information and history about the space program, but it’s almost more a philosophical book. Smith realizes by the end that the greatest outcome of Apollo is the opportunity it gave us as a species to look back on Earth, to reassess our place in the universe and our place in the world. The main question of the book is “what next?” What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon? How do you follow that up? How do we follow it up as a species, as a culture? Smith talked to all, or nearly all, the surviving Moonwalkers and a couple of the Command Module pilots, to try to answer that question.

Twelve men walked on the moon; nine of them are still living. No one has left Earth orbit since 1972 with Apollo 17. Eventually – and sooner than we might want or expect – no one living will have walked on the moon. No one will know what it is like to look back at Earth and see it complete and whole, hanging in space. It is almost sad: my generation especially knows the successes of the space program only through history. We didn’t live through Apollo, so we don’t really know the excitement and adventure of the moon landings. We know the current space program more through its failures or its trivia. We don’t hear about the successes anymore – they’ve become normal or commonplace. We only hear about NASA when things go wrong – Challenger, or Columbia. Or the last flight of the space shuttle. We only hear news about people going to space when it’s unusual or seemingly ridiculous, like the “space tourists”.  Being an astronaut is no longer something that most people dream of and strive for; those who do often realize that they were born in the wrong time for it.

Like most people, I only vaguely know the names of the astronauts in the “middle” Apollo missions. I know the names of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, of course. There are a few others that I’d heard of because they feature in Apollo 13. But some of them I had to look up as I was reading. And they are the ones that are the most interesting in this book. Neil Armstrong is notoriously reticent, Buzz Aldrin has a reputation for being wacky (although that didn’t really come through in this presentation of him); Gene Cernan is parlaying his “last man on the moon” status into lobbyist pressure for a return. Those are things you might expect, I suppose. The ones I most enjoyed were the ones who’d adapted their experiences into other areas: Alan Bean, who’s now a painter; Edgar Mitchell, who seems to still be living out his emotional “epiphany” from his moonwalk.

The writing in this book is quite conversational, and quick because of that. I only marked a few passages, and those near the end, just because of the way I read it (patchily, during breaks at my current job); there weren’t any moments where the writing left me skeptical. I’d definitely classify it as a good book, in part because my reading list afterwards has grown.  I feel like I’ve gotten the end of the story – what happened next – but there are gaps. I really want to read The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe now (another classic of the narrative non-fiction/new journalism style), and I want to know more about the Command Module pilots. (I can only name two CM pilots – Michael Collins from 11, and Ken Mattingly from 16. And I only really know Ken Mattingly from Apollo 13 and because he came to speak at USD a couple years after the movie came out. He’s now one of my favourites, of course.) But now that I know what happened “next” – as much as anyone can, I think – I want to know more. What was it like being in the space program? What was it like not landing on the moon? What are the stories of the other missions? Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 have become fairly well-known, but what was it like for the other ones? What was it like at Mission Control? And that’s what a good non-fiction book should do: give you information but also expand your horizons. (and your reading list, apparently…..)


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