Review: An Eclectic Mix for the End of Summer

As my summer winds down and the last few weeks of personal freedom come to a close before the start of another school year, the familiar frenzied urge stirs again within my soul. It is time: I must read as many books as possible before my precious reading-for-pleasure hours dwindle to scraps of minutes here and there, between ball games and during plan periods and after the soft snores of my husband have begun.

Without further ado, I offer you fairly brief reviews of the eclectic combination that comprised my reading list for the beginning of August:

  1. The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. Genre: history, true crime. img_4096 This nonfiction work, originally published in 2002, vividly paints a picture of 1890s-era Chicago and its strife to pull off one of the greatest one-uppers in history: the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, or World’s Fair. Following the debut of the Eiffel Tower, American architects felt a need to deliver something far more grand than the structure they felt was really quite hideous. In fewer than three years, several of the nation’s greatest architects, engineers, and creative minds collaborated to design the White City, a paradise so beautiful and magnificent it’s almost a mirage next to the crime-laden, filthy “Black City” of Chicago. While Larson spins a tale of the pop-up city and America’s obsession with proving itself capable of refined tastes and flourishes of beauty, he weaves in another captivating narrative thread: the development of Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H.H. Holmes — America’s first serial killer. The story alternates between the many misfortunes and setbacks faced by the fair’s developers, and the inexplicably successful life of a most charming murderer. While many were frustrated that the bulk of the novel is dedicated to the building of the fair (and as such, that the title of the book is misleading), I would argue that Larson’s alternating storylines painted a vivid picture of the time period, place, and people, vital to readers’ understanding of how an individual like Holmes could get away with heinous crimes for so long. Holmes’ horrific crimes are mostly alluded to throughout the book, which is perfectly fine with me; I did not seek a macabre retelling of every evisceration or slaughter. The author provides a wealth of detail in describing the construction of Holmes’ castle, in which a gas chamber, crematorium, and body-chute all play prevalent roles. Readers are rewarded with a thrilling finish that is both mesmerizing and deeply chilling. I loved this book for its rich historical details and easy readability. 4/5 stars
  2. The High Divide, by Lin Enger. Genre: western, historical fiction. img_4095 This 2014 publication, set in the great Northern Plains of 1886, follows the melancholy tale of a family struggling for clarity after husband and father Ulysses Pope takes off without saying a word of farewell, and offering little explanation. True to small-town Midwest living, the Pope family’s Minnesota neighbors begin to gossip, certain the man has left for another woman. Meanwhile, the family struggles to survive in their dire financial straits. Ulysses’ teenage sons, Eli and Danny, take off after their father after intercepting a mysterious letter from an unknown woman in Bismarck, North Dakota. Faced with the threat of losing both her husband and her sons, Gretta Pope embarks on her own wild goose chase across the country, determined to salvage at least part of her family. Along the way, Gretta and her boys discover truths about their father they could never have dreamed — and all begin to ask themselves if their family is really what it seemed. This western is rich in its themes of the resilience of family ties, the expansive western frontier, and the great injustices committed by the U.S. government and its citizens due to a misled sense of “patriotic” duty. Overall, I enjoyed this story of a man’s struggle for redemption, but found the first half dragged on a bit and the ending was a bit too convenient and contrived for my taste. 3.5/5 stars
  3. Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah. Genre: fiction. Published in 2010 by Kristin Hannah (author of The Nightingale), Winter Garden tells the story of two sisters and their mother, each quite estranged from the others. img_4097Raised in an awkward home by a loving father who couldn’t quite make up for the distant frigidity of their Russian mother, Meredith and Nina are two distinctly different adults. Meredith is the image of a perfect wife and mother: she’s devoted the last twenty years of her life to raising her two daughters, who are well on their way to becoming successful women in their own rights. For all the love she didn’t receive from her own mother, Meredith bestows her own affection twofold upon her daughters — unfortunately, the same can’t be said for her treatment of her husband. Nina, on the other hand, lives a wild, unpredictable life as a world-famous photographer, known for her work in war-torn third-world countries. The three Whitson women are forced together again after the death of the family’s patriarch, and after a lifetime of ignoring one another, sparks are bound to fly. The novel reveals a lesser-known tear in the fabric of our world’s history in an engaging story you’ll want to stay up late to read. I was captivated (again) by Hannah’s fantastic storytelling abilities in this exploration of family relationships — especially, what it means to be a good wife and/or mother, while retaining personal identity. 4/5 stars

Now . . . I’m off to squeeze in a couple more reads before in-services begin Wednesday. Read on, friends.

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