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What I Think: Review of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City


Recently, I read Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, which intertwines two separate plot lines: one about the architects who made the 1893 Chicago's World Fair possible, and the other about "America's First Serial Killer," Dr. H. H. Holmes.

I'd first heard about H.H. Holmes when I read Caleb Carr's The Alienist, in which the narrator's grandmother is deathly afraid that Dr. Holmes will escape before he is hung and kill her. A fictional novel is an odd place to first discover a bit of American true crime, but sometimes, information comes to you in odd ways! I've never read much non-fiction (outside of the required textbooks and theory articles in school), but this book convinced me that I've left an entire genre neglected for far too long.

When I checked out Devil in the White City from the library, the librarian told me it read just like fiction, even though the book is 100% true and meticulously researched.

He wasn't kidding. I read the entire thing over just two days--I couldn't find out what happened fast enough. Larson writes in an easy, often humorous style, and thus, the book is accessible to pretty much any reader.

While I originally picked up the book because of the H.H. Holmes link, I found myself quickly becoming interested in the seemingly impossible task set before the architects of the Colombian World Fair (so named as in honor of Christopher Columbus' 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World).

These two seemingly unrelated portions of American history are linked by their collective location--Chicago--and the time period--the 1893 Fair. Holmes actually capitalized on the overwhelming success of the fair by offering boarding house rooms for rent just a few miles from the fairgrounds, and many of his visitors didn't check out.

My complaints about this book are few. The thing that bothered me the most was the desire of the author to occasionally wax poetic on minutiae--menus of the architects' meetings, lists of materials required to complete the World Fair exhibitions, etc. While Larson was trying to show the scope of the building efforts, the inclusion of such slowed down the otherwise entertaining and compelling narrative.

Another complaint: while the book (for the most part) rotated from H.H. Holmes chapter to World Fair chapter, there were instances where there were two or three World Fair chapters back-to-back. I couldn't figure out if this was because Larson was more interested in the World Fair portion of the book, or if he didn't think he had enough material on Holmes to include an equal number of chapters on him.

My final critique? There just weren't enough pictures!

While I may sound like a child who has had to make the jump from picture books to chapter books, I am a visual learner, and found myself searching the internet as I read for a visual portrayal of a building or person being described in the text. Many non-fiction books have a section in the middle of photographs, and I believe this book would have greatly benefited by such an insert.

That being said, the documentary "H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer" provided me with those visual bits of information that helped to fill the holes left from reading the book. Much of the same ground is covered as in the Holmes portions of the Devil in the White City, but hearing the information at the same time as an old photograph was being shown heightened the learning experience for me. If you have Netflix, there is an instant watch version of this film; you might be able to find a copy at your local library as well.

Definitely a must read!

Not what we were expecting...

Though that seems to be our mantra as of late.

We didn't expect to be looking for a house STILL, after five months and four contracts that fell through.

We didn't expect that life after graduation would be so hard (yay for graduating in the worst economy in twenty years!).

These things we can handle--we have each other for support, and the consistent support of our families.

But we DEFINITELY didn't expect to spend Thursday night in the hospital. Landon and I met our realtor during my break between classes on Thursday afternoon to sign the offer on the fifth house; after that, he and I went to eat at a restaurant near the school. We had a great meal, then he went back to work and I went to prepare for my final class of the day.

The next time I saw him--when we both got home later that day--he told me he had horrible indigestion. We both chalked this up to the two (yes, TWO) baskets of hushpuppies he'd eaten at lunch. We sat down to watch a "House Hunters International," and Landon was uncomfortable from the heartburn, but still okay enough to crack jokes. My parents and sister came home, and Landon declined dinner before disappearing upstairs.

I figured he went to lay out, so I began to work on some Crescent Moon Papers Etsy orders for a few hours while the rest of my family bustled around the house. It was only after CSI: came on (at 9PM), that Landon comes down, looking pale, to tell me that he's been throwing up for two hours. TWO HOURS! I gave him some anti-nausea medicine we had, but he kept feeling worse and worse. After helplessly watching him writhe on the floor from the cramps, I told him that this wasn't a normal stomach virus and that we needed to see a doctor NOW. It took us another 30 minutes just to get out of the house because the cramps were so violent that Landon couldn't walk when they hit him.

Landon's one of those people who doesn't like to take aspirin--or any medicine, really--so I knew it was serious when he agreed to go to the Emergency room without a fight. My dad helped me get him in the car, and we head to one of the new hospitals here in Mt. P. I can't say enough good things about the Emergency room staff at Roper St. Francis: they saw Landon immediately, kept me informed about his progress throughout and were just really, really kind the entire time.

Landon was still in major pain when we arrived, so the nursing staff gave him another anti-nausea medication. No relief. Then, they gave him morphine. Still in pain. Then, a third does of anti-nausea medication. Finally, he calmed down enough for the doctor to see him.

The doctor gave him an ultrasound, and was worried enough about his appendix to order a CT scan. While the CT scan came back inconclusive, the doctor couldn't say for sure whether or not the pain was his appendix. So, Landon was discharged four horrible hours later. Either it's his appendix (which has calmed down for the moment, but might flare back up later if this is the root cause) or he had a horrible case of food poisoning.

Either way, I'm glad he's okay. We've spent the rest of the weekend relaxing and he's doing much better.  I hope that's behind us so now we can worry about conquering other things...like finding our future house!

Frustration

We went back to look at the townhouse tonight to make sure we really wanted to put an offer in on it. We still love it.

BUT our realtor found out this afternoon that someone else has entered a contract on the same property since we went and saw the townhouse for the first time this afternoon. SO AGGRAVATING. The townhouse has been on the market since April, with no offers, and the day that we decide to look at it, an offer comes in. Seriously. Do we give off house pheromones when we like a house so that all other potential buyers immediately are attracted to that property? Whatever it is, I don't like it.

So, now we're in the awkward situation that we were in way back in October when we put a contract in on house #1: we're the underdogs, the second string, the second best.

We can just hope that 1) our bid comes in higher than these other people's bid, and 2) the bank doesn't do something weird and ratify these other people's contract before we can get our bid in. The bank knows we're coming with our contract; we just need to sign everything tomorrow make our bid official.

I am so tired of the house hunting game: I know that Landon's pretty exhausted of it, too. If this deal falls through, we're definitely going to focus on renting an apartment or house just to give ourselves a reprieve from the emotional rollercoaster that has become buying a house.

Attempt #5

I just blogged about our current dilemma: to rent or to buy...and complained that Landon and I couldn't find anything we liked. Well, I lied. :)

Last night, we were looking through our Realtor.com selections (for about the thousandth time), and spotted a townhouse that had been reduced in price. "Needs TLC" but "great location!" the posting read.

"Hmm," we said. "We can give a place some TLC. No problem."

So we emailed our realtor and made an appointment for lunchtime today. We were showing the online listing to my parents and sister, and apparently, Amber (my sister) showed us the same listing a while back, but for whatever reason, we didn't pursue it further.


I'm glad we did. The "TLC" that the Realtor.com posting said needed to be done really isn't that much. Everything in the house is in great working condition, and, in many cases, has brand new updates: new hardwood floor, new tile in the kitchen, new paint everywhere in the house, new carpet upstairs and new ceiling fans. The only thing we'd really have to update right away would be the bathrooms, which are functional, but stuck in the 1990s. Still, an ugly bathroom or two doesn't keep us from utilizing them until we can make them our own. (And we all know how much I love a PROJECT!!)

I told Landon that I really, really wanted a place with a fireplace and a garage. If we got this house, we'd have both. The fireplace is wood-burning and has gorgeous detailing on the mantle. The garage has room for one car, but there's additional parking in the driveway, so that wouldn't be a problem. There are two big bedrooms: one would obviously be mine and Landon's, and the other has plenty of room for my office/ library/ guest convertible bed-couch-thing. Lots of closet space in both rooms, too! And to top it all off, it backs up to the marsh, which (around the Charleston area) is like finding a vein of gold in your backyard.

We liked it so much that we're going back tonight after Landon gets off work. If we're still feeling the same way after looking at it the second time, we'll probably put our 5th contract in tomorrow. Wish us luck!

Blast from the Past: London

Sometimes I hope that I'll mysteriously wake up in a flat of my very own in London. Landon and I will both have fantastic, rewarding jobs, and on the weekends, we'll spend hours in the British Museum before grabbing our afternoon tea in the atrium there. We'd go get tickets from the TKTS booth in Leicester Square so we could see all the best of West End theatre on the cheap, and afterwards linger in some warm, cozy tea shop tucked down an alley. We could people watch on King's Road in Chelsea and go bargain hunting on Saturdays at the Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill. We could eat at the long tables at Wagamama's. Wander around the Tate, Tate Modern, the V&A and the Museum of Natural History. Watch the performers in Covent Gardens. Listen to evensong at St. Martins-in-the-Field.

We'd take quick holidays to the Cotswolds, the Lake District, Wales or Scotland. I'd make him pull over on the drive there just so I could explore the crumbly ruins of a castle we happened upon. I would get to use all of my favorite British slang--"ab fab" and "wonky" and all the other things that cause people to look at me like I'm crazy. 

In other words, I'd like to be this girl again:


only with better hair and a MUCH better wardrobe (I was completely confused on the wardrobe front back in 2005) . And, of course, I'd want my husband in tow this time around as well. So many things have changed--personally and professionally--since I lived in London five years ago, but one thing has not: my completely irrational and sometimes obsessive love of this ancient-but-modern, gorgeous, sometimes smelly, yet overwhelming amazing city.

While I wish all of these things, I know that my life is pretty good here on this side of the pond, too. And I also know that I would be cold all the time if I actually lived in London. Let's face it--I freeze from October to April already, and I live in South Carolina...two miles from the ocean. I would miss my family and Landon's family, too. I would crave Ranch Doritos and Outback's cheese fries, two things I ate immediately after coming home from my stint in London in 2005. 

But STILL. Living in London again would be SO COOL. :)

Where I lived: Chelsea
Taking a break from exploring the Cotswolds. Check out those sweatpants--I was OBSESSED with them after I found them at a Lillywhites sale for only 4 pounds.
Outside the house of the man who brought the world Winne the Pooh, A.A. Milne (just 'round the corner from where I lived!)
Proudly displaying our brand new Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix! We went to a midnight release party at our local Waterstone's, and as a gift for waiting in line so beautifully, we got these stylin' (and kiddie-sized) raincoats. Too cool not to show off!
At the Pier at Brighton, just hanging out with some candy floss. And check out that dress! I got it at the Portobello Road Market. Love.
The aforementioned Portobello Road Market with Randi!
In one of the most horrible days of my life, London was bombed on 7/7/2005. I was on a bus when it happened, and people were so scared, they started to pry the closed bus doors open and jump off when the bus slowed to go around corners. The day after 7/7, I wanted to show myself that I couldn't be afraid anymore, or the terrorists would have done their job, so I got on a Tube to Trafalgar Square. I cried the entire way from Sloan Square (in Chelsea) to Charing Cross (near Trafalgar Square).  Yet, standing there in the middle of London once I was off, I was never prouder to be a Londoner. 
And, of course, the requisite Buckingham Palace shot!

On the steps of Abbey Road Studios, where (you guess it) the Beatles recorded their "Abbey Road" album

Blast from the Past: Travelogue

So, my last post--where I answered a questionnaire that included a prompt about my travels--got me to thinking about all of the fun times I've had on my travels.

I have been so fortunate to travel both domestically and abroad: my parents would take my sister and I on a road trip every summer when we were kids, so we got to experience the entire East Coast from the back of our 1992 Volvo! We had the best time on those trips, and my sister and I have both tried to keep the tradition alive of yearly vacations, so matter how small or budget-friendly they had to be.

A few of my favorites:

London, England. July 2005. 
I had the opportunity to study abroad in London during the summer of '05. Still, hands down, the best summer of my life!

Disney World, Orlando, Florida. March 2006. 

Andros Island, Bahamas. March 2007. 
My sister and I went with our Geology class to Andros to study over our spring break. An AMAZING trip to a nearly uninhabited island...and yes, the water really was that blue!

Key West, Florida. July 2007.

San Juan, Puerto Rico. August 2008.

Laissez le bon temps roulez! 
Jackson Square, New Orleans, Louisiana. May 2009.

St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. May 2010. Our honeymoon!

I looked to see if there were any digital pictures from my first trip to England (2003) or France (2005), but I guess we were still stuck in 35mm world at that point. :) 

Where is YOUR favorite place that you'd traveled?



What I Think: Review of Patrick McGrath's The Grotesque

*one of my ongoing series of blog posts that looks at the books I read*

One of my absolutely favorite twentieth-century British books is Patrick McGrath's Spider, which is suspenseful, well-written and shocking. Based on my experience with this book, I decided to branch out into other McGrath novels, and I was delighted to find The Grotesque (his very first novel) in Ed's Editions (an amazing used bookstore that you MUST visit if you live in or visit Columbia, SC).

I had a new McGrath, which was good, but I'd also bought about 8 other books, which was bad because The Grotesque got shuffled to the bottom of my books pile. I put it by my bedstand, where many of my books come and go at times, but this one stayed. And stayed. And stayed. It seemed that I would read about ten pages, get distracted and put the book down for another week. Usually, I'm a voracious reader that can finish an "easy" book (a Michael Crichton, James Patterson, etc.) in a matter of hours if I put my mind to it (I read fast more out of necessity than anything else...going to English grad school kind of drills it into you). The Grotesque topped out at around 200 pages, which would normally fall into the "easy" category for me, yet it was taking weeks and weeks and weeks for me to get through it. Why?

I was originally very excited about this particular title because 1) the author and 2) the title. The grotesque--as in the literary element--is found throughout the Gothic movement, my favorite of all favorites and the topic of my masters thesis. The story line caught my eye, too: eccentric English gentleman becomes completely handicapped as a result of a terrible accident, and then ponders the mysterious disappearance (and, as we discover later, death) of his daughter's suitor. The narrator is convinced that the butler is behind all of the nefarious activities...but could it really be that the pre-accident gentleman is the true culprit?

This book is what I consider "quiet"--there aren't any major surprises or super gory scenes. If this was made into a movie, it would be moody and dramatic with enough ambiguity at the end to keep the audience guessing. Quiet books aren't always bad; in fact, some of them can be very, very good (see The Time Traveler's Wife and Atonement). This book seemed to try to hard to be clever, but, in truth, much of it had already been done. The who-dun-it aspect was never emphasized enough for me, and honestly, the narrator protested his innocence a bit much to truly make the ending ambiguous. McGrath is a skilled writer, but this novel doesn't come close to the chilling atmosphere and richly painted characters of his later works like Spider or Asylum.

If you like this, I would recommend:

  • Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor
  • Patrick McGrath, Spider
  • Patrick McGrath, Asylum
  • Iain M. Banks, The Wasp Factory

Townhouse Update and Other Things

I might as well get the bad news out there: the townhouse that Landon and I put a contract on back in mid-December is no longer going to be ours. While this turn of events is not what we expected, Landon and I were the ones to make the decision to walk away, and (almost 24 hours after we called off the contract) we still feel confident in our decision.

So, what happened? Well, we had everything in order--the home inspection had come back clean, as had the CL-100, and our financing had been approved by the mortgage company. BUT THEN, yesterday morning, the mortgage company got the property appraisal back and discovered that the place we'd believed to be a townhouse (and thus, fee simple...or owning the place, dirt and all) was actually a condo (as in, we only owned the air and a fraction of the common area). Not good for several reasons: 1) Landon and I have been adamant this entire time that we want to own the dirt our house is on and 2) the mortgage company said it would be infinitely more difficult to get us re-approved (mortgage companies around here apparently REALLY shy away from non-fee simple funding). If we'd wanted to go forward with the purchase, the mortgage company would need a minimum of 4 more weeks to investigate the community and approve it for a loan, and then to re-approve us (or not) based on the new info.

When it came down to it, Landon and I decided that we just needed to leave the property. Something just didn't feel good about it after these new revelation. We were really upset that the listing agent, the buyers agent and the mortgage company didn't look into this sooner. Me, with my 1/6 of a law degree, had done some research and found that the homes in that area were subject to the S.C. Horizontal Property Law, which (in legalese) defines them as condos and not fee simple homes. Both Landon and I asked our buyers agent about that, but she never did clarify for us...until it was too late. The entire experience was disappointing, and we were sad to see everything get this far in the process only to have the entire thing crumble for no fault of our own. And, to think, we were getting ready to pack everything up this weekend since the original closing would have been next Wednesday. I guess fourth time wasn't the charm, after all. We'll just pick ourselves up by our bootstraps (again) and see if number five (whatever that will be) is The One.

WHEW! I'm glad to get THAT news off my chest. Other items of note:

  • I had my faculty development and department meetings earlier today. While parts of the first meeting were excruciating (*cough, cough* I'm talking about you, horrible woman speaker), the entire experience was made bearable by the other lovely ladies of the English Department. The entire department is only 4 strong, but we are still a great group. How awesome is it to like the people you work with??
  • I went to the library today to get some books. You might not think this is an item of note, but for me, any trip to the library is a trip worthy of comment! (And in ultimate library nerdiness, I am now the proud owner of a shiny, lovely new library card. The old one was over 15 years old and needed to be retired.)
  • And, in other news, I'm participating in After I Do's Big Sister/ Little Sister Blogging Mentors. It looks like it should be fun, so sign up if you're interested! :)

Highlights from Christmas

Since I was sick for a week after Christmas, I never got to post my Christmas pics. I know you've all been waiting with bated breath--well, wait no longer for they are here!

Amber, Mama and I went to see "The Tourist" as a part of our girls' day on Christmas Eve Eve. And on a side note, I am more than a little obsessed with the scarf I have on in this picture (I got it from Amber on my birthday)!

Ready to go to Christmas Eve Mass. For the first year ever, the children's program involved a live action Nativity re-creation, which (to put it mildly) was a disaster, thanks mostly to one three-year-old who basically danced all over the alter instead of grazing calmly with the rest of the sheep. The people behind me were actually laughing out loud. At church. At my favorite church service of the year. Perhaps I'm turning into an 80-year-old grump before my time, but I think I'm okay with that. At least I looked good while being a grump.

Reindeer Landon!

Masterminding something as we perused Amber's new copy of America's Test Kitchen cookbook

Christmas morning. I think Santa came!