What We're Reading July 2015: Recommended Reads from PVN Staff
American Architects and the Mechanics of Fame, by Roxanne Kuter Williamson (University of Texas Press, 2014).
Why does one talented individual win lasting recognition in a particular field, while another equally talented person does not? While there are many possible reasons, one obvious answer is that something more than talent is requisite to produce fame. The "something more" in the field of architecture, asserts Williamson, is the association with a "famous" architect at the moment he or she first receives major publicity or designs the building for which he or she will eventually be celebrated.
Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, by Larry Millett (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
The year is 1896, and St. Paul’s magnificent Winter Carnival is under way when Holmes and Watson are summoned by the city’s most powerful man, railroad magnate James J. Hill. A wealthy young man disappears on the eve of his wedding—and his fiancée suspiciously discards her wedding dress. After a grisly discovery in the carnival’s Ice Palace leads to a flurry of clues, Holmes is on the case. His pursuit of the murderer takes him through the highest echelons of St. Paul society and into cahoots with Shadwell Rafferty, a gregarious saloonkeeper and part-time private investigator. Soon Holmes, Watson, and Rafferty are embroiled in a perilous adventure that takes them from one frozen corner of the city to another and out onto the treacherous ice of the Mississippi River as they trail a cruel and ruthless killer.
Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson (Vintage, 2004).
Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that The Devil in the White City is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison. The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims. Combining the stories of an architect and a killer in one book, mostly in alternating chapters, seems like an odd choice but it works. The magical appeal and horrifying dark side of 19th-century Chicago are both revealed through Larson's skillful writing.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson (Crown, 2011).
In the Garden of Beasts is a vivid portrait of Berlin during the first years of Hitler’s reign, brought to life through the stories of two people: William E. Dodd, who in 1933 became America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s regime, and his scandalously carefree daughter, Martha. Ambassador Dodd, an unassuming and scholarly man, is an odd fit among the extravagance of the Nazi elite. His frugality annoys his fellow Americans in the State Department and Dodd’s growing misgivings about Hitler’s ambitions fall on deaf ears among his peers, who are content to “give Hitler everything he wants.” Martha, on the other hand, is mesmerized by the glamorous parties and the high-minded conversation of Berlin’s salon society—and flings herself headlong into numerous affairs with the city’s elite, most notably the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy. Both become players in the exhilarating (and terrifying) story of Hitler’s obsession for absolute power, which culminates in the events of one murderous night, later known as “the Night of Long Knives.” The rise of Nazi Germany is a well-chronicled time in history, which makes In the Garden of Beasts all the more remarkable. Erik Larson has crafted a gripping, deeply-intimate narrative with a climax that reads like the best political thriller, where we are stunned with each turn of the page, even though we already know the outcome.
The Danger Box, by Blue Balliett (Scholastic Paperbacks, 2012).
Left by his father on his grandparents’ doorstep as a baby, Zoomy has grown up happily with them in a small Michigan town, despite the extreme nearsightedness that leaves him legally blind and the fact that he has no friends. He has never known his cruel, troubled, alcoholic father, who shows up early in the novel and leaves behind a mysterious box, probably stolen, for safekeeping. The box’s contents set in motion a chain of challenging experiences, including an intellectually exciting puzzle, a devastating crime, a perplexing mystery, and a rewarding friendship. Chapters of the story are interspersed with issues of a child-produced newspaper featuring writings from an individual whose identity its readers are invited to guess. With enough story elements to explore in three books, the novel ultimately seems less than the sum of its many parts. Still, Zoomy makes an appealing, original character, and the insightful first-person narration will definitely keep readers involved in his story, right down to the final secret-code letter and the author’s note.
The Magicians: A Novel, by Lev Grossman (Plume, 2009).
Grossman's novel is a postadolescent Harry Potter, following apprentices in the art of magic through their time as students at an upstate New York college to their postcollegiate Manhattan misdeeds, with jaded ennui tempering the magical aura. Mark Bramhall, a smooth baritone with a supple speaking voice, reads carefully, with a slight air of heaviness and sorrow. He pauses frequently and freights the silences with a tenderness well befitting a coming-of-age novel.