Quickie Reviews: Time and Space

Yesterday on the way home from work, my car said it was 102 degrees. It’s officially too hot to do anything but sit on the couch and read. Here’s what’s been keeping me from melting for the last few weeks.

Cloud Atlas

Cloud, Atlas, David MitchellSome sadist recommended David Mitchell’s novel for our book club, and we’ve all spent the last month trying to wrap our heads around it. While I wouldn’t call it a “fun” read, I really enjoyed getting out of my comfort zone. Our club’s discussion on it was awesome! It was cool to talk about what we liked and what we didn’t, and to puzzle out the mysteries together. The stories are interesting — Sonmi for the win! — but you shouldn’t tackle it if the phrase, “I really love reading” has never passed your lips.

Minding the Manor

Minding the Manor, Mollie MoranMollie Moran’s memoir of her time as a scullery maid and cook in 1930s and 1940s England. Down-to-earth tone, excellent storytelling, and tantalizing glimpses into the lives of those working “below stairs” at the end of an era. Perfect for fans of Powell’s Below Stairs.

The Spirit War

The Spirit War, Rachel AaronThe continuation of the stories begun in The Legend of Eli Monpress, and one of my two current reads. It’s been a couple of years since I first picked up Rachel Aaron’s series, and I’m playing catch-up. So far this novel is just what the doctor ordered.

What are temps like in your neck of the woods?

Review: We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo, Benjamin MeeLife takes you strange places. Benjamin Mee always loved animals, but he never thought it would lead to buying a zoo. He also never imagined embarking on such an adventure without his beloved wife, Katherine.

But that is where he finds himself: elbows deep in paperwork and big cats, working with his family to revitalize a failed zoo in the south of England.

We Bought a Zoo is Mee’s chronicle of his family’s two-year journey toward zoo ownership. What started as a lark soon became a vocation, a calling to save the animals and the people at Dartmoor Zoo.

Talk about a bold move

You know what probably doesn’t make life easier? Sinking all your money (plus your siblings’ and mother’s) into buying a zoo.

It started out as a pipe dream, a wild hare that no one imagined would take over their lives. But the more Mee learned about the zoo — its animals and its people — the more he saw his ownership as stewardship.

While it’s always better for animals to live in their natural habitats, sometimes zoos are the only thing standing between an animal and extinction. A zoo closure means stressful travel or even death for animals. Mee was determined that that wouldn’t happen.

We Bought a Zoo is a timely reminder to care about the world around me, to follow my passions, and to do what makes me happy, even if other people think I’m crazy.

Book vs. movie

We Bought a Zoo was adapted into a film starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson in 2011. The filmmakers decided to set the script in Southern California, probably so it would appeal to an American audience and so they could cast top American talent.

It also introduced the love interest angle. It made for a nice movie, but wasn’t more interesting than Mee’s original story. That said, there are some great moments that made the film a truly wonderful experience.

I can’t say whether the book or movie is better — they’re too different for direct comparisons. Suffice to say they’re both wonderful, and you should check them out.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. May’s challenge was to read a book that has a movie based off it.)

Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, Erik LarsonOn February 24th, 1890, Chicago was chosen to host a world’s fair that celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.

Daniel H. Burnham — who later designed New York City’s famous Flatiron Building — was chosen to put together and lead the group of designers and architects responsible for building the fair’s buildings and other wonders. The Exposition Universalle in Paris, France the year before had ruffled American feathers, and Burnham was determined to build a world’s fair that put other countries to shame.

Chicago’s business owners were excited about the throngs of people who would soon be flocking to their city. Among them was a man known to his customers as Dr. H.H. Holmes. The handsome doctor could charm anyone, especially the young women who flocked to the city in search of jobs and excitement. He would use that charm to lure and murder at least nine people, most of them inside his booby-trapped hotel.

The Devil in the White City is the story of Daniel Burnham’s efforts to take Chicago to new heights, and H.H. Holmes’ efforts to drag the city into hell.

What a ride

I picked up The Devil in the White City because I’d read that it was a phenomenal look into the creep-tastic H.H. Holmes murders — the history of the Chicago World’s Fair didn’t seem nearly as interesting.

Well, I came for the murder, but stayed for the architecture. Honestly, I can’t decide which story is better.

You might not think there’s much to putting together a world’s fair — that’s where you’d be wrong. Burnham had a little over three years to choose a team, find a suitable location, design and construct dozens of buildings, landscape the square mile of fairgrounds, and bring exhibits and people in from all over the world. Plus he had to find some way to “out-Eiffel Eiffel,” the man who just a year before had astonished the world by designing and building the Eiffel Tower, the world’s tallest man-made structure.

Jammed cheek-by-jowl with that insanity is the story of H.H. Holmes, the psychopath who built a hotel with hidden rooms and a crematory and then murdered at least nine people before being arrested. Reading about how he lured women, plotted their murders, and then disposed of their bodies (after dissecting them) chilled me to the core.

Larson could have written separate books about each of the subjects; his master stroke was putting them together. What could make for a bigger juxtaposition than a group of men trying to bring Chicago into the 20th century with engineering and entertainment marvels, and a single lunatic suffocating and gassing women and children in the basement of his gloomy hotel?

Endlessly fascinating

Holmes is, of course, as interesting as he is repulsive. Much of what investigators learned about him was never presented in court, and many primary sources that discussed him are lost to time. We have only the testimony presented at his trial, as well as Holmes’ own memoir (untrustworthy in itself).

The concept of psychopathy was only just being formed in the early 20th century, and contemporary investigator and general citizenry just couldn’t comprehend the idea of a man killing people just because he could, and because he could get away with it.

We don’t know what made Holmes the monster he was. The only information we have about his childhood comes from the man himself, and may be entirely fabricated. Was there a traumatic event that sent Holmes down his evil path, or was he simply born a psychopath? We’ll never know, and that keeps me up at night.

Only slightly less interesting to me was the man who landscaped the Chicago World’s Fair: Frederick Law Olmstead. He designed New York City’s Central Park, and would go on to design the grounds of Biltmore, the North Carolina home of George Vanderbilt.

Olmstead was obsessed with landscape design. He dwelled on the subject like composers dwell on their compositions, and painters on their canvases.

Flowers were not to be used as an ordinary gardener would use them. Rather, every flower, shrub, and tree was to be deployed with an eye on how each would act upon the imagination. This was to be accomplished, Olmstead wrote, ‘through the mingling intricately together of many forms of foliage, the alternation and complicated crossing of salient leaves and stalks of varying green tints in high lights with other leaves and stalks, behind and under them, and therefore less defined and more shaded, yet partly illuminated by light reflected from the water.’

I wish I could be as passionate about anything as Olmstead was about landscape design.

More juxtapositions everywhere. As Olmstead was trying to coax life from the muddy grounds of the world’s fair, Holmes was snuffing it out mere blocks away.

The Devil in the White City reads like a novel, but is in fact a well-researched telling of the Chicago World’s Fair and one of history’s most famous killers. True crime fans will love it. Give it a read today.

Review: The Midnight Assassin

The Midnight Assassin, Skip HollandsworthIn the early 1880s, the city of Austin, Texas was on the rise. The backwater at the edge of the United States was officially a boom town, complete with over 11,000 citizens, an air-cooled ice cream parlor, and an opera house. The town coffers were full, and the new Capitol building (under construction since 1882) was said to rival the White House itself. The city was on its way to being the jewel in the South’s crown.

Until women started dying. On December 30th, 1884, Mollie Smith was murdered in her room. Clara Strand and Christine Martenson were attacked in March 1885, and Eliza Shelly and Irene Cross were killed in May. Clara Dick and Rebecca Ramey were attacked in August — Rebecca’s 11 year-old daughter Mary was killed. Gracie Vance died in September, while Lucinda Boddy and Patsey Gibson were also injured. And finally on December 24th, 1885, Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips were killed.

The killer was brutal, dragging many of the women into their yards before hacking them apart with an axe and stabbing some kind of sharp object or rod into their brains through their ears.

If you think this modus operandi — female, mostly lower-class victims, incredibly savage attacks — sounds familiar, you’re not the only one. Some people believe that the “Midnight Assassin” murders stopped only because the killer had hopped the Pond to England. There he continued his vicious killing spree under a new name: Jack the Ripper.

Seriously, guys?

I love true crime, but it’s not a fun genre.

The Midnight Assassin has all of the things that frustrate me: violent crimes against women, racism, shoddy police work, and no satisfying conclusions.

These murders happened when forensic science was in its infancy: we knew that humans had unique fingerprints, but we hadn’t figured out how to use them in murder investigations. It was a time when people would routinely tromp through a crime scene, destroying what little evidence remained.

The first victims were African-American (or African-Swedish) — less than 20 years removed from the end of slavery, their lives were considered less valuable, and their murders less worthy of intense investigation.

Even after the investigation began in earnest, many of Austin’s leaders took a “head in the sand” approach to the murders. They seemed to think it would all just go away. The police arrested dozens of men on almost zero evidence, hired charlatan “special investigators,” and in general made such a pig’s ear of the whole thing that I’m not surprised the killer got away.

The mind of a killer

The Midnight Assassin was America’s first true serial killer. The country had experienced “maniac” killers before, but this man was something new: a person who targeted a specific type of victim, planned his attacks carefully, escaped unnoticed, and didn’t seem to have a typical motive like jealousy or revenge.

Psychological profilers existed, but weren’t called to help investigate murders they way they are today. Never before had America seen a criminal who killed so violently…for no known reason.

The police and media blamed the murders on “bad blacks,” the mentally ill, and Austin’s criminal element. But these murders were committed by someone clever and quick, someone who could blend in as a normal citizen during the day and slip out at night to bludgeon and dismember women. And that’s what makes this story that much more frightening.

A London connection?

It’s interesting to think about. I don’t think the Ripper woke up one day and just started killing sex workers in England; and I don’t think the Midnight Assassin woke up one day and stopped killing women in the US.

Was the Austin killer the same person who would rise to international fame as Jack the Ripper in London’s West End? I don’t think so. Yes, the Midnight Assassin killed women brutally, and there were some ritualistic elements…but the Ripper was at another level of hatred and precision. The types of violence acted out on these women were just too different — I don’t see a clear path of escalation from one to the other.

We’ll probably never know. Too much time has passed, and we just don’t have enough preserved evidence.

The Midnight Assassin is a marvelously well researched and written book that I’d recommend to Ripperologists and anyone interested in true crime in general. Just don’t expect a satisfying ending.

(I read this book as part of the Off the Shelf Reading Challenge.)

Review: Unmentionable

Unmentionable, Therese OneillIf you’ve always thought that a clean, simple frock is better than low-rise jeans, that you would enjoy living in the time of Charlotte Bronte, or that the centuries before ours were simpler and better…this book is not for you.

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners will disabuse you of the laughable notion that the 19th century would be a fun place to spend any time.

Not only is there arsenic in pretty much anything you put on your face, there’s also no refrigeration, no talking to a man who’s not your husband or father, and definitely no talking about s-e-x. There’s also an astonishing array of crotchless clothing, and fat-shaming is totally a thing.

Therese Oneill’s book is an awesome examination of the horror show that was the 19th century. Let’s check out the revolting details, shall we?

Hello, slattern

I figured any book that starts with these words is probably going to be amazing. And I was right! Unmentionable is a sassy, snarky look at an era many people tend to romanticize.

Oneill starts you off with getting dressed (hide those ankles, ladies), and shares makeup tips (you know what’ll take care of those freckles? Acid!). Then it’s on to discussing periods (no matter how you manage them, it’s not the right way) and how to land a husband (by never speaking to him, apparently).

Next up we’ve got the typical “Your womb is a wandering monstrosity that makes you crazy” garbage, followed by quotes from old white dudes who thought birth control, masturbation, and visiting museums was going to lead to humanity’s downfall.

And it’s all written in the best tone ever. For example, in a section called, “Give Him NOTHING”:

You are a prize to be won. He must work to capture your affections and approval. Only the stupid and slutty trout leap out of the water to gain the fisherman’s attention. The virtuous trout simply allows the sun to gleam briefly on her shining scales and then dives back to the shadowy depths. Only a skilled man with the finest of fake bugs can ream a metal hook through her mouth. You are that trout, and the metal hook you are about to be impaled on is holy matrimony.

Unmentionable had me chortling and reading sections aloud to my husband. He didn’t think it was as funny. Maybe I let a bum fisherman catch me? Oh well. I shall comfort myself by reading this book again and thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t born in the Victorian era!