Choose Your Own Advent, Day 21: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, Erik LarsonChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Devil in the White City
Author: Erik Larson
Year: 2003

It’s rare that I read a recent novel, unless it’s been written by an author I already love. I understand that this is both massively unfair and foolish, but…

I don’t know. I know that I’ll only be able to read some finite number of books before I die. Every choice of book I made, I’m choosing not to read literally millions of others. And this worries me. There’s not time enough to read everything, and when you add in the fact that there are bound to be (and have certainly been) books I’d like to re-read, the number of books I’ll ever possibly get to dwindles further.

So I read older books, almost exclusively. I do this because time is an excellent curator. Something still in print after a hundred years is likely worth reading, and more likely at least of some merit. The older a book is the more likely a critical consensus will have been reached. The more likely it’s entered the cultural lexicon and I can have some indication of whether or not I’ll enjoy it before I pick it up. The more likely somebody I know has read it and might give me some indication of whether or not it’ll mean anything to me.

The Devil in the White City, though, is just a book that interested me. I rolled the dice. It was an investment of time I’ve already convinced myself I do not have.

And it was one of the most riveting, fascinating novels I’d read in a long time.

I’ll circumvent any concerns about this not being fiction up front. It is fiction. Period. It’s based on true events, it features (as far as I can tell) exclusively characters who actually existed, it’s the product of incredible amounts of meticulous research. Fine.


But it’s a novel. It’s the product of an author’s imagination, however near to reality that imagination preferred to hew.

Erik Larson necessarily must fill in the gaps. Must structure this dual history as a narrative. Must choose when to break chapters, which details to focus on, which events to gloss over. He must decide which tragedies will be described most horrifically, and which triumphs are most worthy of celebration. He must choose where to begin, where to end, how much to share and when to share it.

With The Devil in the White City he’s providing a necessary, overdue, and incredibly helpful historical narrative…but he’s also providing a novel.

And he’s providing one hell of a good novel.

It’s a page-turner. It’s deeply interesting. It’s enriching. And it’s terrifying.

See, America has the odd tendency to ignore its atrocities. To pretend that things are not as bad as they actually are. To shrug off some of the most heinous acts imaginable, to which our name should be rightfully attached. For instance, you’ll see in Germany a largely respectful, solemn acknowledgement of its immensely wrongful behavior during World War II. You won’t see in America a comparable regret for dropping atomic bombs on innocent civilians in Japan.

A similar correlation can be seen in The Devil in the White City. We all know about Jack the Ripper, because England wasn’t silent about it. They weren’t proud that a madman was on the loose, gorily murdering prostitutes, but they were never secretive about the tragedies that unfolded. Which is why this novel is so chilling: we had our own Jack the Ripper here in America. Only he was even worse. And we hushed it up. Refused to speak of it. Never educated anybody as to the dangers. Kept it just quiet enough that it could, easily, happen again. We deliberately forgot our own warnings, and pretended it never happened.

For roughly half of its pages, The Devil in the White City is the largely factual account of H. H. Holmes, a charming psychopath who builds a hotel full of secret passages, gas jets, torture chambers, and other terrifying things you’ve only ever seen in horror films. The difference is that this actually happened. In real life. To real victims. Holmes was an actual serial killer, one of the worst in American history. And yet, before this book, he was almost entirely unknown to anyone other than crime aficionados.

He was a true and mortifying American horror story, but, for whatever reason, he was never more than a footnote, overshadowed, as he was, by something parallel that we preferred to discuss instead: the 1893 World’s Fair.

That’s the other half of the book: architect Daniel Burnham and his team of engineers, artists, planners, marketers, cultural experts, and many more working together to bring the greatest event in history to life. Not just in America, but in Chicago.

I have a good friend who grew up in Chicago, and she told me that she skimmed through most of Burnham’s chapters in the book. It didn’t hold her interest as much as Holmes’ did. I enjoyed these sections, however. They were important to the story, of course, and they framed the historical context for what we were reading, but I also loved the real-life irony of a grand celebration that provided a murderer with a bottomless well of anonymous victims. Burnham worked tirelessly to build a fair so impressive that people would journey to it from around the world.

They did.

And Holmes may have murdered as many as 200 of them, who never journeyed home again.

In many ways, the World’s Fair was a triumph. It was a social triumph, for sure. It was debatably a triumph of culture as well. It was a triumph of planning and of constant action.

But it also invited a tragedy.

One we’d prefer not to speak about.

We focus in our history on those who left the World’s Fair with a smile on their face. We ignore those who never left at all. We ask everyone to focus on the fireworks and the music and the food. We ignore the adjacent, gruesome crime scene.

America isn’t responsible for the crimes of H. H. Holmes. It’s only responsible for keeping them quiet. For refusing to condemn them. For making it known that, for a while at least, this country might allow you to get away with murder.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 20: Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men, John SteinbeckChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Of Mice and Men
Author: John Steinbeck
Year: 1937

A good many works of art have hit me like a brick, but Of Mice and Men might have been the first one to really, truly get an emotional response out of me.

Like many of the books that dug deeply into me, I didn’t know at first what to expect from it. It was a summer reading assignment at some point in middle school. It was a short book, so I read it first. That was, I say in all truth, a great lesson for me to learn as an early reader; short doesn’t necessarily mean easy.

Not that it was difficult to read, per se. Rather, it was difficult to process. With that ending–my experience of that ending–still so vivid to me. I’ve read it many times since. The ending still gets me. But I remember the first time I experienced that ending. It happened to also be the first time I was left speechless by a book. The first time I had no words. The first time I found my emotions truly stirred by the work of another.

Of Mice and Men left a mark on me. It’s hard for me to enjoy books now that don’t affect me in some deeper way. Once I learned–or realized; it could be either–that books could do that…well…why bother with the ones that don’t? If reading a book can be a transformative experience, why spend time on the ones that aren’t?

I like being challenged, and not just intellectually. In fact, at the time I read Of Mice and Men…at the time it spoiled me as a reader…I wasn’t ready to be challenged intellectually. I needed exactly what it was: a simple story, told simply, that just happened to sting like a bastard.

Emotions I understood. I just didn’t realize that words on a page…words about people who never existed, made up by a man I didn’t know…could trigger them so easily. I felt helpless. I felt as though John Steinbeck had reached into me and done something without me knowing what it was. It was a unique feeling…one I remember well. And I know I give a lot of the credit for that to the book’s unforgettable ending, but the ending wouldn’t have had nearly the impact it did if not for the strength of the story that led to it.

Of Mice and Men is a bit of an oddity. I’ve read quite a bit of Steinbeck since, and at least one of his books prior, but it’s Of Mice and Men that I can most easily return to in my mind. I can quietly revisit the characters, the setting, the clothes…I can hear the voices…I can feel the sticky breeze…I can envision the rabbits right along with Lennie…

And yet, it uses the simplest–and most compact–language that I’ve ever personally experienced from Steinbeck. It’s his simplest tale. When you’re reading it it seems like something that could have rolled off the tongue of a storyteller. It doesn’t feel as complex or intricately crafted as Steinbeck’s other work…as deliberate…as aware of its own importance.

It is, however, his most effective.

It’s as though Of Mice and Men is a more naturally affecting work. One that resonates so well in simplicity that it doesn’t need to span hundreds of pages. One that is so immediately, so urgently, so poignantly recognizable that we can lose every one of Lennie and George’s adventures except for their last one and still understand, completely and thoroughly, everything that they’ve been through. Everything that led them to where they are. Everything that prevents them from going back. Everything that’s driven them to what absolutely, without question, has to be their end.

I’ve never known an entire history to be so effectively woven with so few words.

A few years ago I met someone who had read A Prayer for Owen Meany. That’s another novel that I love, so I was happy to talk about it with her.

She struggled a bit for words. I think she was trying to express something that she felt, but had never said out loud before. What she told me was that the characters she met in that book didn’t feel like characters; she felt as though she had come to know real people.

I can’t speak for her, but something like that isn’t really important to me as I read. My favorite author is Thomas Pynchon, and I think it’s fair to say that “realistic characters” aren’t high on his list of priorities when he sits down to write a novel. But I could understand and appreciate what she was saying; Of Mice and Men made me feel the same way.

In fact, I’ll take it further and say that these are real people. The fact that Steinbeck invented them doesn’t mean anything.

They are real people. Heck, they’re more real than Steinbeck himself is in Travels with Charley. Being real and being fictional aren’t mutually exclusive when it comes to literature.

And that’s why the tragedy in Of Mice and Men–when it hits, as it must–stings as deeply as it does.

It’s because we know these people. In just a few dozen pages, we know these people. Over just a handful of events, some evocative description, a bit of telling dialogue and accidental slips of the tongue, we know these people. Through lost tempers and honest hopes and dreams large and small clasped tightly to the characters’ chests, we know these people. From the distance between what these characters want and their chances of ever getting it, we know these people.

I don’t know what Of Mice and Men is about, really. At least, if I had to boil it down to a theme, I wouldn’t be sure what to pick. Loyalty. Humanity. Trust.

I don’t know.

I’m not sure George, at the end of the novel, knows either.

But he knows how he feels. And he didn’t expect to feel that way any more than I did.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 19: The Road

The Road, Cormac McCarthyChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 2006

We’ve reached a stage in which video games are just about accepted as the art that they actually are. Not all of them, of course; it’s the medium that has artistic possibility, and just like any medium the individual artists will embrace or squander that opportunity as they see fit.

But I think it says something about how far the medium has come when a very impressive work of literature–say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road–puts me in mind of a certain video game, and the comparison is all around favorable. Neither the book nor the game look poorer when evaluated next to the other.

The Road made me think of Fallout 3. The Road came first, but I didn’t read it until later. When I did, I was reminded of that great game, and I saw how both works of art rendered their post-apocalyptic wastelands with masterful bleakness. Neither world, strictly speaking, had to be without hope, but it sure was difficult to trudge through either of them and keep hope alive.

They did a great job of thrusting us into a world that was both recognizable and long past death. We witness humanity in its final throes. We see what passes for civilization. We see how unwelcome (and unwise) selflessness is. We see people we respect turned to monsters, and the monsters we already feared grow even more monstrous by the day. We see what people have to resort to just to buy themselves another hour.

And for what?

Both Fallout 3 and The Road raise that last question. Neither seems especially optimistic about the answer.

Later, I played a video game that reminded me of The Road. That game was The Last of Us, which had an even stronger tie to McCarthy’s themes. Like the unnamed protagonist in the novel, The Last of Us focused on a man without any expectation of a brighter tomorrow, shepherding a child through the ruins of a world he used to know.

I don’t mean to draw connections where there aren’t any. Imagining the aftermath of societal collapse has been fueling media as long as there’s been media to fuel. There are dozens of ways to approach the topic (at least), and between those there are shades of difference, of intent, of morality, of tone…

In short, it’s a story that can be told a limitless number of ways, yes, but there’s also bound to be some overlap, especially as the genre remains as popular as it does.

The subject matter is also quite affecting. Even in its more humorous incarnations, the apocalypse is, by default, still dark comedy. When it’s more overtly tragic, like much of The Road, it can feel oppressively so, just because we know that nobody else, anywhere, is having any easier a time than our characters are.

Post-apocalyptic fiction has always intrigued me, even if I haven’t read all that much of it. Complete social collapse is the sort of thing that automatically sparks the imagination. I suppose it’s because we each have our own personal ideas of how and where the pieces would fall. We each have our suspicions as to which aspects of humanity would survive (spoiler: they seem to be the negative ones), and which would never be seen again. We each have our own theories as to how–and where, and to what extent–civilization might rebuild.

But the one thing we all agree on is the fact that it won’t be pretty. It won’t be easy. It may not even be worth pushing through to see the next sunrise.

So, then, what’s the appeal? Is it just misery? Do we, in some way, like to believe that we won’t be here forever? That, yes, we will lose a lot of the great things that humanity has accomplished, but with it we’ll sweep away the pettiness, the greed, the idiocy?

I think it’s just the fact that a post-apocalyptic context gives an artist a fairly unique opportunity to explore what humanity is. Someone like Cormac McCarthy never held himself back from probing the darkness inside of men, from seeing how far they could be pushed and still keep their souls, but working in an unexpected genre gave him a chance to boil his characters down even further.

Strip away their names, their histories. Rob them of even basic goals. Oppress them so that they may not even desire survival. Ensure that no day is brighter than the last. Construct for them not only a situation they can’t win, but a situation nobody can win.

And then see what you’ve got.

That’s mankind.

Whatever is left when everything else is gone. Everything. Yes, even that, and that, and anything else you can think of.

Everything that we turn to in order to help us understand our world. Every scale by which we gauge ourselves and our behavior. Everything that made life on this Earth–whatever life, wherever on this Earth–what we know it to be.

Take it all away.

See what you’re left with.

That is mankind.

The Road is haunting. Devastating. Harrowing. But it’s also unforgettable, simply for how remorseless it is. McCarthy doesn’t pretend that there is anything left. Whatever might, at some point, have been worth fighting for…well, we chose to pick a different battle.

And now it’s gone.

All of it is gone.

But what’s left?

Every artist would answer that a different way, and I think that’s why the concept endures. We will see the world crumble again and again. To invaders from outer space. To disease. To nuclear war. To–often–no definable cause at all.

I’m not surprised that the apocalypse brought out the best in video games. It brought out the best in our great authors, too.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 18: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott FitzgeraldChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Year: 1925

When it comes to my experience as a reader, there’s something I don’t believe I’ve talked about before. I’ve thought about doing so, but never had a reason. Now, here, with this book, it becomes a bit relevant.

When I read, I don’t picture characters.

I don’t know if that’s just me, if that’s just the way readers usually operate, if there’s a word for whatever imaginative blindness I have, or what, but as much as I might easily see a setting, or an event, or an object I’m reading about, I don’t see physical human characters in my mind’s eye.

An author can tell me that a character is, say, 5’6″ with red hair. And I’ll hold on to those details in case they become relevant. (As a lifelong reader I can say that they almost never do.) I might be able to picture the shirt that they’re wearing, or their shoes. I can picture the way they walk. I can hear, sometimes, the way they sound. It depends on the level of description how much or little about a character I’ll actually envision while I read about them…

…but I don’t see faces. I don’t see distinct shapes. Characters are just…I don’t know. To me, I suppose, they occupy my mental space more than my visual space. Novels often afford us glimpses inside of minds…we’re privvy to thought processes, to motivations, to the unspoken beauty and ugliness we don’t get to see in others in our actual, daily lives.

Maybe that’s why. In real life, I can see as many faces as I like. When I’m reading a book, however, I have a unique opportunity to see beyond the face…so my mind doesn’t even stop there for a moment.

I don’t know if others read that way. I’d be interested to know. But I suspect they don’t, because one of the common complaints when a novel is turned into a film is that the characters don’t look the way readers pictured them.

I’ve never had that problem.

I’ve never pictured them.

Well, almost never.

The Great Gatsby is an incredible novel, and one of my absolute favorites in the language. That makes it significant in one way. It’s also significant in another: it contains one of the only characters in literature of whom I do have a clear, inescapable mental picture.

That character isn’t Gatsby. It’s not the object of his desires. It’s not even our narrator.

It’s Tom Buchanan. One of literature’s truest and least redeemable bastards.

I don’t know why Tom stands out to me. The Great Gatsby resonates, but it doesn’t haunt. Tom, however, does. He imposes himself on my psyche. He forces himself to be seen. He doesn’t accept the fact that I just don’t envision characters that way on the whole. No; Tom barges in anyway, and he’ll leave when he’s damned well ready.

I see Tom. I am in his imposing and uncomfortable presence any time he’s within the scope of the narration. He’s there.

I know Tom, or people like him, obviously. That probably helps. Or hurts. He’s not an invention of Fitzgerald’s; he’s a very clear and recognizable figure that Fitzgerald simply translated perfectly to the page.

I wouldn’t even be surprised if Fitzgerald based him strongly on somebody he knew. Fitzgerald, for the purposes of the novel, would have to answer the question of who Daisy–the undimming light of Gatsby’s soul–would have to end up with. And as great an author as the man was, I don’t think he could have come up with a better answer than Tom Buchanan. The self-satisfied, smug, unsinkable jackass we all already know.

Tom always stuck out to me that way. He’s the character I think of first whenever this novel comes to mind. The first time I read it was in high school, when it was assigned reading. I didn’t enjoy it very much, but Tom made his impression. When I revisited it in college, his image came immediately back to me. That son of a bitch had just been waiting to make me uncomfortable all over again.

The Great Gatsby is a book that wasn’t enjoyed by first-time readers when it was published, either. It wasn’t until after Fitzgerald died that it saw any kind of significant critical reappraisal. That’s nice; I don’t feel so bad for having to come back to it much later, when I’d become less of an idiot.

What I noticed about it the second time–what actually made me come to appreciate it in ways I could not before–was that The Great Gatsby is a love story told by a man who hasn’t experienced love.

Nick Carraway has the responsibility of telling the story simply because he was there. Not because he understands it, because he’s qualified to speak about it, or even because he can explain it. He’s our de facto narrator simply because he was there…something that, itself, seems to be a bit of a theme in Nick’s life. He’s never the most important person in his own story. I’d be surprised if he ever breaks the top five.

And that makes The Great Gatsby a complex book as much as it is many other things–worrying, humbling, tragic, profound. Nick’s lack of qualification to speak at any length about the book’s actual subject matter is what frees it to become a great novel. Nick reflects on life in a way that allows him to raise questions and sometimes propose answers, but never necessarily get nearer to any actual truth. He’s a passenger, much like the readers themselves. He’s not a tour guide; he’s sitting next to you, looking out the window, unable to truly understand most of what’s passing him by.

But he’s great to listen to. He’s respectful. He’s sincere. And, bless his little heart, he really does wish he had more insight to share with you.

Nick is sweet to a fault. He’ll always be a good man, which is why he’ll never get anywhere. He’s too polite and too self-aware to make an impact, and the tide will always decide his direction for him.

It’s why the Gatsbys and the Daisys and the Jordans can flit through his life, take from him what they need, and move on–in some way, always move on–without him.

And it’s why I’ll never know his face, while I’ll always remember Tom’s.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 17: Mostly Harmless

Mostly Harmless, Douglas AdamsChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Mostly Harmless
Author: Douglas Adams
Year: 1992

When I decided to do this feature, I made a list of all the books I would conceivably want to include. I hit twenty-four easily, as you might imagine, and every book on that list felt right. Each of them, indeed, was one that I wanted to write about. That I wanted to share. That I felt belonged.

Except for one. This one.

Now, I’ll make this clear: I like Mostly Harmless. Quite a lot. My reasons for second guessing it have nothing to do with its quality…except maybe in a relative sense. It’s not Douglas Adams’ best work. (That would be Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.) It’s not even the best book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. (That would be Life, the Universe and Everything.) It’s not a book that stands out even to his fans, and if it does it’s probably because it’s one of their least favorites.

But I put it on my list. Before I really started thinking about it, when I was just spitballing titles and seeing what came up, I put it on my list.

And I think it’s because it taught me something important. It will always have a place in my heart for that reason alone.

Before I get to that, though, I do have to reiterate that I genuinely do love the book. I think it’s just about as funny as anything Adams wrote, I think it offers a great (if abrupt, and rather dark) ending to the series as a whole, and I think it’s just good. It probably also helps its reputation in my mind that it follows on from the rather dreadful So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish. I remember reading the first four Hitchhiker’s Guide books in a collection when I was in my teens. I loved the first three…and couldn’t believe how disappointed I was in the fourth. I had to do some research to discover that there even was a fifth book, and I bought it as soon as I could.

I’m glad I did.

Because I love Mostly Harmless. It ended the series on a higher note. It gave me a qualitative kind of closure, even if we can argue about the value of that closure in a narrative sense.

When I reflect on the series as a whole, one of the moments that stands out to me above any other is a sequence from this book, in which Arthur Dent–aimless, luckless refugee from a destroyed Earth–slides into the quiet life of a professional sandwich maker.

After four full novels of adventure, absurdity, cosmic mysteries, confounding truths, dangerous scrapes, bizarre (and insulting) alien creatures, and maybe at least a little bit of single-handedly saving the universe, Arthur finds himself at peace.

At peace making sandwiches.

It’s a perfectly bathetic conclusion to his adventures, and the fact that it’s not exactly his conclusion does nothing to hinder its perfection. If Arthur Dent could have chosen to stop, that’s indeed where he would have stopped. Making sandwiches. One of the few things he’s ever been truly good at. He’s seen the literal end of the universe, and yet is happy to surrender to the repetitive comfort of a simple joy.

It’s probably not a highlight for many of Adams’ fans. For me, it’s a highlight of reading in general.

But that’s still not why I decided to write about this one.


See, when I read Mostly Harmless, I did something I can’t actually imagine doing today: I wrote a letter to thank the author.

It’s important to remember what things were like then. Now we can tweet at authors. Leave a post on their Facebook page. Email their agents. We can do whatever we like, however we’d like to do it.

In a sense, I think, that means less.

Back then, I had to look up an address for him. (I have no idea how I found it. I may have just written to the publishing house.) I had to sit down with a sheet of paper, get my thoughts together, and write them down. I had to buy postage. I had to mail it off, and hope that the international mail service would get it where it needed to go.

Here’s something else interesting: I forgot I wrote to him.

I only remembered years later, when he wrote back.

I think I was in college at the time. I got a letter from an unfamiliar address overseas. It was from Douglas Adams.

He sent me an autographed photo. To this day it hangs on my wall. That was more than I ever could have dreamed of asking of him. (In fact, I’m nearly positive I didn’t ask it of him.)

But he did more than that: he wrote me a letter in return.

A form letter would have been nice, but he answered my questions. He responded to the things I said. It wasn’t long, but it was personal. I must have expressed my appreciation for Mostly Harmless to him, because in his letter he said, “Mostly Harmless is your favorite? I think you’re out on a limb there!”

Yes, I can confirm that I enjoyed the book more than its author did.

It’s important to remember what I was like back then, too. I was a kid. I didn’t read much. I wasn’t well-spoken. My handwriting was terrible, and I am one thousand percent sure I had nothing interesting to say or to share with him. Of all the things in the world that he could have spent his time reading, he chose to read my letter. Because he appreciated it. And then he actually took more time out of his day to write back.

To this day, I remember what it felt like to get his letter. I remember I felt like the most important, fortunate guy in the world. I’m sure that’s why he took the time to reply.

In the years since, people have told me that that’s just who he was. He’d get fanmail, and he’d sit and read every piece, and respond to them, taking as much time as it took. He must have made a lot of people feel like the most important, fortunate people in the world.

That’s the definition of a hero.

He died in 2001. He wasn’t even 50. The world lost a beloved man who seemed to love all of his fans just as much in return.

His letter changed me. As a person, and as a writer.

I’m nowhere near as famous as Douglas Adams was. I wouldn’t dare say I’m anywhere near as talented, either.

But I get fanmail, too. And comments. And Facebook requests from people who read something I wrote on some site at some point and want to connect, for whatever reason.

I make it a point to be gracious. To let them know I appreciate everything they took the time to say. (And I really do.) To thank them for reading, because I know that reading anything I write is an investment of time on their part, and I want to be respectful of that.

I’m not Douglas Adams. I very likely never will be.

But if I can make anybody in this difficult world feel even a little better when they hear back from me…I’m going to do it.