“I was born with the devil in me . . . I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”

devilBooks on Tap read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson at Champion Brewery on September 6.  Instead of usual novels, this title was a work of narrative nonfiction. It follows the men who established the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, those who planned and built it, and the male serial killer who took advantage of the influx of young women into the city.

What we most responded to was the rivalry Chicago felt with both Paris, the site of the previous fair, and New York, who competed to host the 1983 iteration. Larson shows both the civic cooperation and dysfunction that launched the fair, reminding us that the Windy City nickname is a result of its politicians as much as its weather. We also discussed the contrast between the White City of the fair and the Black City of open sewers and dark alleys. It was both the allure of the fair and the chaos of parts of the city that allowed serial killer H.H. Holmes to prey on the young woman who flooded the city looking for independence and work. While more workers at the fair died than Holmes probably killed, the state of police work and the undervaluing of the victims allowed Holmes to go undetected until he kidnapped three children.

All of our readers liked at least some parts of the story, especially tidbits about products introduced at the fair like the Ferris wheel, Cracker Jack and chewing gum. However, some readers thought that the book could have been more satisfying and faster-paced with fewer minor storylines. Larson, a former journalist, is a formidable researcher but not every detail was necessary to the story. He does pull the reader along by hanging the narrative on a few familiar names such as Frederick Law Olmsted and maintains suspense around Holmes’s activities, even though the reader already knows the broad outlines of the story. Ultimately, Larson’s research enabled us to trust him as a reliable reporter as he spun out this at times unbelievable tale.

More Information:
About the author
Interviews with the author
About the book
Upcoming movie
Images from the 1893 World’s Fair
The most recent World’s Fair in Kazakhstan in 2017

Related Recommendations:
Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King
The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan
The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Mathews
David McCullough, especially The Great Bridge
Nathan Philbrick, especially Sea of Glory

Books on Tap Information:

Have a suggestion for future titles? Add them to this list.

Previous titles

“People who see themselves as victims sometimes don’t notice when they become oppressors.”

I was told to come aloneBrown Baggers met on June 21 at Central to discuss the memoir I Was Told To Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet. This book details Mekhennet’s experience growing up as a Moroccan-Turkish Muslim immigrant in Germany and her work interviewing high profile members of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other known terrorist groups.

Most readers found the book intriguing, while a few struggled with the journalistic feel. They wondered at the type of personality it would take to keep willingly entering dangerous, life-threatening situations to pursue answers. Most readers found Mekhennet very credible and objective and chalked her risk taking career behavior to being extremely driven.

Mekhennet is an award-winning journalist who has worked for the Washington Post and the New York Times. As a result, readers found it amusing how the powerful, dangerous men she went to interview insisted on asking about her relationship status. Readers also were impressed with both Mekhennet’s access to and respect received from her interview subjects. She describes this as a combination of shared culture, connections, or heritage (as a direct descendant of Muhammad).

The virulent hatred towards “the West” and America and the growing divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims were also discussed. Readers wondered, as does the author, how an individual ends up so radicalized, not just in the Muslim world but also here at home with the increasing organization of white supremacists and even Nazi groups in America.

Readers who made it to the end of the book found the ending truly heart-wrenching. The terror has always been close to Mekhennet, as some Al Qaeda cells originated in Germany, but increasingly it is her friends and family who are affected resulting in unexpected loss and grief. Again this felt very near to Charlottesville and the experiences of last August.

While it would’ve been nice for the author to wrap up this complicated foreign affairs subject matter with a nice bow and say sunnier days are ahead, she instead was very frank about the situation which is serious and perhaps worsening. She does end on a tiny, hopeful note that we are all more alike than not, and maybe we can begin to recognize that.

Other titles:
House of Stone by Anthony Shadid
Almighty by Dan Zak
The Eternal Nazi (book she wrote with colleague)
The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker

More information:
Headcovering differences
Author Bio
Author Interview

Brown Baggers will meet again on July 19 at noon to discuss The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman.

 

 

 

8 Books Filled with Fascinating Facts

Fascinating Facts - Blog Post Header

Have you ever picked up a nonfiction book to look at just for fun? These books, available from the JMRL catalog, are both visual and informative. Check one out and learn some little-known, interesting facts to share with your friends!

Brolliology by Marion Rankine – A fun, illustrated history of the umbrella’s place in life and literature that surprises us with the crucial role that the oft-overlooked umbrella has played over centuries, and not just in keeping us dry.

Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe by Kimberly K. Arcand – A book featuring full-color illustrations and infographics throughout that takes readers on an expansive journey to the limits of size, mass, distance, time and temperature in our universe.

Wonders Beyond Numbers by Johnny Ball – A history of mathematics explains how every breakthrough in math has represented an important step forward that both builds on the work of others and illuminates the importance of numbers, shapes and patterns in the world around us.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson – In the spirit of medieval bestiaries, presents a series of bizarre creatures that actually exist, including the honey badger, giant squid, axolotl, zebrafish, water bear, and yeti crab. Continue reading