Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"Devil in the White City" Review

Today's book review can't really be termed "English lit" related. It's a relatively new nonfictional piece that was published a few years ago. Before I get into that, however, let me provide the "preamble" as to why I'm reviewing it. As June is coming to its end and summer begins its usual decline back into the school-year, summer reading becomes a nuisance to the minds of lazy teenagers. This is the part of the summer where we must all discard our carefree attitudes and buckle down once more to read the piles of books forced upon us by our AP teachers.

As a result, most of my friends who haven’t picked up a book unless forced (or thanks to the genius of sparknotes haven’t picked one up at all) come rushing to me, the avid reader, asking for help. I sift through summer assignments pretty well. Most of them are pieces of Literature I enjoy reading or have read before (for example, our assignment for this year is reading Huckleberry Finn, which isn’t a stranger to me in the least). However, to “normal” teenagers who don’t enjoy the pleasure of reading the way I do,  help is always needed.

Cue Bonnie, the girl to which everyone runs when summer reading becomes eminent. I’m always being asked to “explain this” or “translate that.” It’s funny how people only appreciate your talents when they come in handy for their own personal use. Anyway, my best friend Ashley is a smart girl who I’ve a habit of helping with her summer reading. It’s been a tradition we’ve developed for the past few years because I always enjoy helping her and I don’t mind her taking credit for my work because she goes to a different school. She’s also the only one of my friends who genuinely appreciates my passion for reading rather than just try to flatter me in order to get her assignments out the way.

This year, the teachers at Ashley’s school threw a curveball at their students. To hell with assigning the students books that they don’t wish to read! Make them pick out their own books. The only problem is that one of them has to be nonfiction. Poor Ashley barely reads fiction, let alone stuffy biographies and nonfictional histories. So of course, the very day she got her assignment by email, she called me and asked me for suggestions. Giving her a fictional piece to read was easy. I told her to choose either Jane Eyre, North and South, or Pride and Prejudice. Each of these are books that I have extensive knowledge on and can assure an “A+” with. The problem this summer was finding a nonfictional book.

Here you may gain new insight into your fellow blogger: I absolutely despise nonfiction. I love writing that expands the imagination and takes one away from reality, or into a place where reality is at least better. Nonfiction does none of these things for me so I’ve always shied away from reading it unless forced. However, just last year I ran into a paperback that transformed my view of it forever. This book captivated me from beginning to end in a way that I thought no nonfictional piece would ever be able to.

I recommended Ashley to read The Devil in the White City.

Set in Chicago in the 1890s, this bestseller interconnects the stories of two men whose lives were both catapulted into fame by the 1893 World Fair. One is the genius architect behind the whole structure of the fair, called the “White City.” The other is one of the first infamous serial killers in America. He uses that same fair to entrap and kill young women.

Author Erik Larson uses his impeccable research to thread together a story that knocked my socks off. The fact that the book is actually nonfiction makes it all the more admirable. This book is not only a history of one of the most famous fairs in the world and the people that went there, but a story about connections. This masterpiece gives insight into the depths of human nature and how even the lives of the very best are intertwined with the worst.

I’m sure that this is not a book that most of you are familiar with. I don’t remember how I found it or what drove me to read it, but I know that I don’t regret it in the least. It turned out to be one of my favorite reads. It moved something inside of me. Before, I thought that nonfictional pieces were just facts spat out onto a page. After reading The Devil in the White City, I am grievously remorseful for my thoughts. Erik Larson combines the research and “reality” of nonfiction with the artistic beauty of the best fictional works.



  1. I completely understand your reticence concerning non-fiction but they don't always have to be stuffy. Granted, they can be boring, especially if its a subject that doesn't interest you. Over the years, as a result of my love for classic lit, I have also wanted to find out more about the time periods that the literature is set in. So, back when I was devouring Shakespeare's plays, I also devoured any books that I could find on the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare's life, etc. The same thing happened when I read the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. I decided to read a bunch of books about his life and times. In addition, I also read a lot of literary criticism books. You mind find non-fiction books to be fascinating if the subject is interesting to you. Don't give up on those sorts of books. In fact, they can help to enhance your fiction reading experience and possibly give you new insight into the books you are reading :).

  2. I'm starting to learn that lesson a little better now since I've read this book. I've read a few more nonfictional books and actually find myself to enjoy most of them. At the same time, it's hard to break old (and bad) habits, but I think my prejudice towards nonfiction is slowly starting to be removed.

  3. That is good to hear :). If you plan on majoring in English then a good background in history will be helpful. Especially if you end up teaching English lit :).

  4. Since Erik Larson lives here (Seattle), he has given multiple readings recently from his new book 'In the Garden of Beasts'. I regret I haven't gone to see him yet, but perhaps I will now after reading your review.

  5. I'm actually going to start reading "In the Garden of Beasts" soon hopefully. If he's giving a reading then I'm sure it's something you don't want to miss. I'm jealous!