Thursday, June 19, 2014

Devil in the White City and The Sociopath Next Door

Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, written by Eric Larson  presents us with historical fiction at its best. The White City is the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1892, and the Devil is H. H. Holmes, aka Herman Webster Mudgett, an extraordinarily successful lady killer (both figuratively and literally).  The book alternates between two concurrent stories about two men, the driven architect, Daniel Burnham who is building the World's Fair, and the serial killer, Holmes, building the World's Fair death hotel.

This story brings you into the raw driving capitalism that started the sculpting of the Chicago skyline along with the  new building technology that made this happen. The determination to surpass the wow factor of the 1889 World's Fair held in Paris resulted in the first observation wheel, later known as the Ferris wheel named after George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. This story, alone, was fascinating as we learn that only after a number of rejections was Ferris successful in convincing Burnham that his design wouldn't be a source of 2000 deaths in a single turn, but a sure way to best Paris where Gustave Eiffel had built the tallest man made structure in the world .  The spirit and drive of the architects, the side stories of the historical figures that made this possible, the incredible planning where ones dreams could come true, the fires, storms, accidents and bureaucracy that threatened the success of the fair made this a fantastic and highly entertaining tale.

The chapters alternate between the exciting building of the fair to the more disturbing tale of the psychopath extraordinaire, H. H. Holmes, a disgusting  killer who charmed women, married them, and then murdered them when the timing would be most advantageous to his personal finances.  There was no discretion in whom his victims were, be they children, friends, or strangers.
The Sociopath Next Door

I was so appalled that people could be taken in by such a person that I bought and read The Sociopath Next Door by Dr. Martha Stout .  Dr. Stout is spot on in her description of this personality.  For you who want to see more of this despicable personality, just watch the new Fargo television show! 

Aside from the review of Devil in the White City, I would like to tell you a bit that I have learned of this nature.  People exist that don't care about other people;  they have no empathy as they selfishly destroy anything that gets in the way of their agenda.  They can't be cured.  Correctly labeled as "antisocial personality disorder", they consistent of 4% of our population and 20% of our prison population.  The problem is that people with this disorder, though not necessary killers as H.H. Holmes, are only detectable to the rest of the 96% by viewing their actions.  You can't tell what people are thinking!  Really rotten bad people who want to destroy you can be very nice.  

The topics covered within the rich Chicago setting in the Gilded age, a time of rapid growth wrapped in social conflict, are reminiscent to me of a Chopin ballad;  there is enough material here to write a damn rich series of books centered on the events that were just touched, but it is all stuffed into one.  It will make you crave more.

I am interested in seeing how this story unfolds in film as the movie is in development staring Leonardo DiCaprio as the despicable Holmes.  Now, I wonder which of the stories Hollywood will emphasize, the fair or the death hotel, or perhaps they will be given equal billing? 

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

  The Book Thief "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak is an absolute work of art. Even though the story has been made into a movie, film would never be able to capture the author's style of imaginative narration chosen to weave his tale.

This story is narrated by the grim reaper who holds a fascination and love for man.  Death uses color to describe the moment he takes a soul into his arms the way we would describe the weather.  In Death's dutiful and busy labor during World War Two, he (she? it?) observes a very spirited little German girl, penned "The Book Thief", whose story he feels worthy to tell.

The author takes us into the world of a poor neighborhood in Munich, where we meet Liesel Meminger growing up in a foster home in Germany as her whole world tumbles into Hitler crazed politics.  The story, as told from the view point of German citizens, also victims of an evil regime that drove to control the soul of the people, casts light on their innocence.  We visit, through Liesel's eyes and heart, the forced depravity of the Jew, the terror of having your homes bombed, and the embodying fear of being convicted for your private thoughts.  Your neighbors could not be trusted, which was why Hitler was so successful in the appearance of national support.

At this point, I would think you would be running away from this book; who can withstand to relive such pain?  However, the redeeming qualities of love, perseverance, and the energy and hopefulness of youth, as recognized by our dear grim, make this book a page turner.  The nontraditional format of child-like illustrations, lists and special bolded points make this also an entertaining book to read.  I would also like to add that Zusak does an astounding job with his characters, both evil and good, making this one redeeming quality of this war story.

The realities of World War Two must be revisited upon us and our children.  They must know what happened, even if it was from the viewpoint of a child.  This would be an excellent book not only for a book club, but also for a teaching platform.  We should all be reminded that free thought, free speech, and our rights as a free citizen in a country where no one is persecuted by our government on the basis of race or belief is a treasure that we must all work to preserve.  It can be lost, and once we forget this, it will be.