The Literary Horizon: The Devil in the White City, Stuff

Good morning! How about some nonfiction books I’ve recently added to my reading list?

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America’s rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair’s brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country’s most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his “World’s Fair Hotel” just west of the fairgrounds—a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.

via Amazon

When I saw this recommended in an issue of Bookmarks, I realized that it had been recommended to me before by a friend of mine. Well, I thought, I don’t need to be told twice, universe, and promptly added it to my reading list. I tend to have a problem with nonfiction, in that it more often than not gets scattered towards the end, and being told that this reads like a crime novel interested me.

The newly minted Dr. Fyrefly quite enjoyed it, despite not exactly liking historical nonfiction, and she especially liked Larson’s writing style and pacing. Laura at Reading Reflections also enjoyed it, although she noted that some people found the learning curve for it to be a little steeper than most. I hope this will change my opinion about nonfiction!

The Devil in the White City was released on February 11, 2003.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

What possesses someone to save every scrap of paper that’s ever come into his home? What compulsions drive a woman like Irene, whose hoarding cost her her marriage? Or Ralph, whose imagined uses for castoff items like leaky old buckets almost lost him his house?
Randy Frost and Gail Steketee were the first to study hoarding when they began their work a decade ago; they expected to find a few sufferers but ended up treating hundreds of patients and fielding thousands of calls from the families of others. Now they explore the compulsion through a series of compelling case studies in the vein of Oliver Sacks. With vivid portraits that show us the traits by which you can identify a hoarder—piles on sofas and beds that make the furniture useless, houses that can be navigated only by following small paths called goat trails, vast piles of paper that the hoarders “churn” but never discard, even collections of animals and garbage—Frost and Steketee illuminate the pull that possessions exert on all of us. Whether we’re savers, collectors, or compulsive cleaners, very few of us are in fact free of the impulses that drive hoarders to the extremes in which they live.

For all of us with complicated relationships to our things, Stuff answers the question of what happens when our stuff starts to own us.

via Amazon

As Lily Allen’s ‘The Fear’ goes, “I am a weapon of massive consumption / And it’s not my fault, it’s how I’m programmed to function.” I almost feel that readers can be three steps away from hoarding; I’ve certainly had to force myself to be ruthless when cleaning out my room, my bookshelves, or my closet. The relationship between people and their things, especially in a capitalist society, certainly intrigues me, and I feel that Stuff explores it.

I hate it when I can’t find book blogger reviews for books; it makes me feel suspicious, for some reason. Salon enjoyed Frost and Steketee’s respect for their subjects, especially in light of the TLC shows about hoarding. Carolyn See at Book World also enjoyed it, although she does point out the authors never explore the gender issues inherent in looking at a home as an extension of a woman. I think it’ll be an interesting read.

Stuff was published on April 20, 2010.

3 thoughts on “The Literary Horizon: The Devil in the White City, Stuff

  1. I have had The Devil in White City waiting on my shelves for too long. I have no idea why I haven’t read it yet. Stuff sounds excellent, and yay for the Lily Allen reference. 🙂

  2. LOVE Lily Allen. 😀

    As for Devil in the City, as somewhat of a Chicagoan, I heart the book for its depiction of the city’s architecture. But as a whole? I usually lose interest in nonfiction near the end, as you do, but with this one, I sped straight through. It’s fantastic.

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