1,000 Days on the River Kwai, by Cary Owtram

35568518To date, most of what I know about the experience of Allied prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East comes from novels like The Narrow Road to the Deep North and A Town Like Alice, movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai, and what I’ve gleaned from assisting two World War II classes. The novels presented the experiences of enlisted men, while The Bridge on the River Kwai is more removed from historical reality. Colonel Cary Owtram’s memoir, 1,000 Days on the River Kwai: The Secret Diary of a British Camp Commandant, however, is a unique look at the particular challenges of a man who finds himself tasked with keeping order among the Allied prisoners and protecting them from the deprivations and cruelty of their captors.

At the time of his capture, Owtram was a lieutenant colonel. (He was later promoted to colonel and even received the Order of the British Empire, though for unrelated reasons.) Because he was often the highest ranked officer on the ground in many of the places he ended up as Japanese officers marched their prisoners to and fro across southeast Asia, Owtram was often designated camp commandant. The Japanese officers issued orders for their prisoners through him, while he did his utmost to secure supplies, negotiate punishments down to the minimum, and keep his men as healthy as humanly possible. Few men, I think, would have had the grit to manage this difficult role. He watched so many men suffer and die while he could do very little to improve camp conditions. Owtram doles out credit to dozens of officers and enlisted men for getting supplies and keeping up morale, but it’s clear that he did a lot to save lives and make life bearable for the British, Australian, American, and Dutch prisoners he was in charge of.

Owtram writes exactly like one would expect from a man who clearly belongs to the old school. Slang terms are written with single quotes. He is very humble, with the stiffest of upper lips, and glosses over the worst of what happened to him and his fellow prisoners. He is also paternalistic toward the enlisted men and casually racist about the Japanese and the Thai people alike. In the afterword written by his daughters, they remark that he had a virulent hatred for the Japanese after the war. Curiously, this intense hatred doesn’t really appear in the memoir; Owtram is more likely to toss around around terms like “little yellow men” and native to refer to Asian people.

1,000 Days on the River Kwai reads like sitting down with a grandparent and listening to what they’re willing to say about their experiences. Owtram hints at the appalling conditions he and his men lived through (with frequent references to tropical ulcers), but he is quick to move on to an amusing (sometimes actually funny but sometimes grim) anecdote or talk about the camps theatrical efforts. As such, it feels like a correction of sorts of the novels I’ve read and movies I’ve seen. Anyone who wants to use it as primary source material should pair it with other nonfiction that takes a broader view of the Allied POW experience during the war, of course. That said, I found this to be an fascinating look at an experience I’ve never seen discussed or portrayed before.


Ivan’s War, by Catherine Merridale

1241678It seems appropriate that I finished this book on the eve of Veteran’s Day. Merridale’s relentless Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 is a powerful narrative of the realities of the experience of Soviet soldiers during World War II. Like American soldiers during the second World War, the “Ivans” have been mythologized in the decades since the end of the war. American kids, like Soviet and Russian kids, learn about the veterans as larger than life heroes. We learn that life as a soldier was bitterly difficult. We learn that, without them, it would have been impossible to defeat the Nazis. But it isn’t until later (if ever) that we learn about the complexities and failures of our heroes. Merridale’s book is sympathetic but unflinching in this respect.

Merridale opens her book with an explanation of how she came up with the idea to write it. She had been interviewing Russians about life during the Stalinist era when she noticed that, whenever she asked about the war, many veterans and civilians were reticent to talk about it. There were some, of course, who would talk about their experiences, but many would repeat old, patriotic slogans or give bland accounts. Merridale dug deeper, traveling from archive to archive around Russia to find a more accurate picture of Red Army soldier life. What she found was astonishing—at least to me.

It is true that between June 22, 1941 and September, 1943, the Red Army was the only national army fighting the Third Reich. In the panic after the Nazi invasion in the summer of 1941, millions of volunteers, conscripts, and prisoners were thrown at the invaders. After successfully defending Moscow in the summer of 1941-1942, the Red Army slowly drove the Nazis back. Over the next almost three years, they drove the Nazis back to Berlin, which fell in late April 1945.

That’s the simple version of the history. Merridale’s research and interviews revealed the terror of life as an Ivan. The myth is that the men signed up to defend their rodina, their motherland. What we usually don’t hear about is that there were battalions of NKVD officers and troops who were more than ready to shoot anyone who deserted. The Red Army soldiers had no choice but to fight. Millions of them died. So many died that I am still surprised that there was anyone left alive between Oder-Neisse line and Moscow. Estimates vary but the number of Soviet military and civilian deaths is probably somewhere around 27 million. It’s impossible to say for sure because records were rarely kept and bodies were destroyed, etc.

Merridale shares the extreme hardships of life in the Red Army: lack of supplies, the weather, poor strategy, fear, and more. It’s little wonder that veterans don’t want to talk about it. Merridale also shares the dark side of the Red Army’s advance across eastern Europe. Hundreds of thousand German and Polish women were raped by Red Army soldiers. Red Army soldiers pillaged German territory; they stole everything they could to send back to the Soviet Union. What Merridale found was a deep sense of vengeance among veterans. At the time, soldiers were told that they were taking revenge for what the Nazis had done to their country, but much of what happened was actively suppressed during and after the war.

Ivan’s War is a harrowing read but, I think, a very necessary one. Unlike the American veterans’ experience, Red Army soldiers were fighting (at least at first) on their own soil against a seemingly invincible enemy. They faced death from all directions. Conditions were so terrible, supplies so rare, and leadership so disorganized (at first), that it’s a miracle that the Red Army succeeded. This book presents that miracle in its full complexity, sharing a truly epic history that might have been lost.

The Butchering Art, by Lindsey Fitzharris

33931044I’ve been following medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris on Instagram for months because, as I’ve probably mentioned before, I am fascinated by the bloody, brilliant history of trying to make people well (and how it frequently went awry). When I saw her book, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine, listed on NetGalley, I leapt to request it. The Butchering Art is full of the kind of medical history that I find perfectly engrossing (heh) because it’s written in clear, honest language with plenty of case histories, and thoroughly documented from primary sources.

Fitzharris begins her book with surgeon Robert Liston performing an amputation using the newest medical innovation: ether. Liston had trained as a surgeon in the years when speed was the best attribute one could have. Liston was able, at the height of his career, to remove arms and legs in a matter of minutes. Ether allowed surgeons to take their time and perform more complicated procedures. Unfortunately, because ether encouraged surgeons to cut more often, the rate of hospital infections soared. Most surgeons—according to this very credible account—shrugged off infection as inevitable. The ones who were willing to experiment were usually reluctant to believe in the new germ theory of disease and would hare off in all sorts of wrong directions. As Fitzharris frequently points out, a lot of surgeons thought there was such a thing as “laudable pus.”

Joseph Lister was very much a proponent of germ theory, based on his own experiments and his reading of the work of Louis Pasteur. Lister had been interested in microscopes from a young age, which might have made it easier for him to believe the wild theory that floating, invisible creatures would cause disease and infection. After studying at University College London, Lister moved to Edinburgh to study at the Royal Infirmary and James Syme.

For the rest of his life, Lister would experiment with antisepsis techniques and wound dressing. His work really did revolutionize the medical world. While his articles for The Lancet and other journals mostly aroused anger and controversy, Lister’s teaching in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London created a new generation of surgeons and doctors who were thoroughly versed in antisepsis.

Fitzharris does a wonderful job of recreating the world of mid-Victorian surgery, with plenty of disgusting and fascinating details about filth, medicine, and innovation. (She is also careful about giving credit where credit is due to other early proponents of germ theory, like poor Ignatz Semmelweis.) The Butchering Art is so well done that it could have been longer and I wouldn’t have minded a bit. I am definitely going to recommend this book to other readers who enjoy reading about the highs and lows of medical history—and can handle the gory stuff.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 17 October 2017.

Death in the Air, by Kate Winkler Dawson

34219897Kate Winkler Dawson’s occasionally overwrought Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City is a parallel history of the Great London Smog of 1952 and John Reginald Christie‘s crimes. Focusing on December 1952 and the aftermath of the Great Smog, Dawson records the vastly different responses of the authorities to the two killers. While Parliament dawdled in studying London’s deadly pea-soupers and finding solutions, British police launched a nationwide manhunt for Christie after his crimes came to light. The lesson of this book is that it’s obviously much easier to deal with a clear and present danger than to deal with a systemic problem.

London has suffered deadly fogs since the medieval era, due to meteorological conditions, growing heavy industry, and the use of coal for everything. Because so many London homes (and homes across Britain) depended on coal for heating and power, it would have cost the nation millions of pounds that it didn’t have after fighting World War II. But in December 1952, a five day fog descended on London that had such devastating effects it was impossible to ignore the human costs of the smog. Police had to guide traffic with flares and flashlights, as well as deal with opportunistic burglars. Hospitals were overrun with people in respiratory distress. Dawson notes that coffin makers ran out of coffins for people who died during and after the fog. In Parliament, the response from Conservative members was that the fog was something that Londoners just had to put up with. Labour members, however, led by Norman Dodds, pushed the majority into investigating the fog. Then, once the reluctantly formed Beaver Committee Report declared that the fog was a deadly problem with feasible, albeit difficult solutions, Dodds and the Labour Party worked to create clean air legislation.


A police officer guides a double-decker bus during the 1952 fog. (Image via CNN)

Meanwhile, John Reginald Christie (who is often described in accurate but distracting pejoratives) had been killing women since the end of the war. Christie’s portrayal here is confusing. To me, he made baffling choices that indicate a lack of intelligence. Dawson gives Christie more credit than I think he deserves. Even though Christie is described as a neurotic, unconfident man, he hid the bodies of all of his victims in and around his house. He wasn’t caught mostly because his victims were people who were not missed and because his crimes were so bizarre no one even suspected he might be up to such ghastly acts. If anyone had investigated the awful smells in his flat, he would have been caught and convicted on the spot. Because no one did, Christie was able to carry on for years. There’s also a chance than one of his neighbors was wrongfully executed for the murder of his wife, who may have been one of Christie’s victims.

I was hooked by Death in the Air even though Dawson’s writing style occasionally irked me. She is prone to using hyperbolic language when talking about Christie and the fog’s death tolls. This may be effective for some readers, but I prefer to let the historical record and contemporary voices speak for themselves. Christie and the Great Smog are more than interesting enough to carry this book; rhetoric is unnecessary and distracting.

If readers can look past this, I think they’ll find a moral lesson in how governments respond or fail to respond to dangers. Both the pea-soupers and Christie were ignored until it was impossible to ignore them anymore. Because Christie was one man, it was relatively easy to “solve” him once he’d been caught. The fogs, however, required Britons to change their attitude towards pollution, enact legislation, and upgrade their infrastructure to use cleaner fuels. The heroes in this book are the people who refused to just deal with the status quo as Londoners and actively worked to end the fogs and bring killers like Christie to justice.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 17 October 2017. 

Red Famine, by Anna Applebaum

33864676For decades, knowledge of the Holodomor was suppressed or dismissed as a hoax. In Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, 1921-1933, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Applebaum was able to take newly available archival and oral material and build on the work of previous scholars’ work to create a throughout history of what Sovietization did to Ukraine. It is a harrowing read because all of the suffering and death could have been avoided if Stalin had bowed to reality and reversed his impossible grain policies.

Applebaum begins her history in the nineteenth century. Her argument in Red Famine is that Russia, and later the Soviet Union, had an established policy of squashing any Ukrainian nationalism, culture, and language. From the 1800s, the Ukrainian language was banned. Russian and Russians were preferred. Ukrainians had a brief chance at establishing an independent republic after the October Revolution. The Soviets, the Black Army, and others, however, had other ideas. After the Soviets won the Civil War, they set about imposing their version of Communism across the country. The early Soviet attempts at collectivism (along with political repression, chaos, and bad weather) caused famines in 1921, 1928-1929, and then another in 1932-1933 that took millions of lives.

Ukraine has been fought over for centuries because of its fertile soil. It’s part of Europe’s breadbasket. Because of this reputation and because of his determination to ramp up production everywhere (regardless of reality), Stalin demanded impossible amounts of grain for export. When party officials were unable to come up with the millions of tons of grains, they began to confiscate grain, livestock, and other food from the peasantry with official approval. Internal and external pressure led the Soviets to reverse their policies in the early 1920s, but nothing stopped Stalin in 1932. Applebaum lists policy after policy enacted that lead to inescapable mass starvation. And yet, even in the depths of the famine, farmers would write to Stalin asking for help. They didn’t know that Stalin not only didn’t care, but that the famine he created was also a tool to make Ukrainians surrender any hopes for independence.

A few months ago, I read A Square Meal about how food changed in America as a result of the Depression. Some politicians fought against direct relief, but the New Deal and other programs gave food, money, and jobs to people who struggled with poverty. The situation was almost the exact opposite in Ukraine. It was as if Stalin and his circle were deliberately trying to starve the entire country to death. As soon as the peasants found a way to make a bit of money or get a bit of food, there would be a policy blocking that route. It’s heartbreaking to read.

Applebaum concludes with a few chapters that discuss how Soviet officials, then, during the Cold War, and Russian officials now, manipulated demographic data and called the famine a fascist hoax. Only after Ukraine became an independent country in 1991 did many Ukrainians openly talk about the Holodomor and its aftermath.

In Red Famine, Applebaum gives voice to so many Ukrainians, Volga Germans, Cossacks, and Russians who haven’t been heard until now. By letting these voices speak for themselves after decades of silence, Applebaum has crafted a very human history of a tragedy in clear, undeniable language.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 October 2017.

The Book Smugglers, by David E. Fishman

34763226Years ago, I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, in which the author argues that there must be something for people to live for in order to survive adversity. That thing might be family, creating art, or even revenge. For the Jewish librarians, writers, and teachers in David E. Fishman’s The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis, the thing that keeps them going in the face of the Holocaust is saving as much of their written heritage as possible from destruction and theft by the Einsatztab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR).

Before World War II, Vilnius, Lithuania was called a Jerusalem by European Jews. It was a center of Jewish culture and learning. It was the home of the first Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut or YIVO, a world renowned center for Jewish research. YIVO, the Vilnius Synagogue, and other centers in the city had thousands of documents and books recording centuries of Jewish life and thought in the city. The city’s cultural and intellectual heritage made it a prime target for the ERR and Nazi pseudo-scientists. When the Nazis took the city in 1941, Jewish citizens were sent to a ghetto and the ERR descended to loot their libraries.

A group of writers, teachers, and librarians was pulled from the ghetto to process looted books and documents. Known as the paper brigade, men and women like Shmerke Kaczerginski, Zelig Kalmanovitch, Herman Kruk, Abraham Sutzkever, and Rachela Krinsky were ordered to identify documents to send either to Germany, to the Nazis’ institute for “Jewish Research,” or be pulped. These heroes did everything they could to hide books and other items from the Nazis so that irreplaceable knowledge would not be lost. They risked their lives to sneak papers into the ghetto, though they were mocked by some of their fellow inmates for not bringing in food or weapons.

After the war, one of the surviving paper brigade members, Rachela Krinsky, explained why they worked so hard to save books:

the books were also, like us, in mortal danger. For many of them, we were their last readers. (Chapter 9*)

In my heart, I too believe in the power of literature and the written word to enlighten, uplift, and transport. And few things sadden me more than the idea that knowledge might be lost and books go unread. Seeing it twisted by agents of the ERR or simply destroyed in a paper mill would have broken my heart. Just reading about this chapter of the Holocaust had me nearly in tears. For the ERR, it wasn’t enough to help murder a people; they had to murder Jewish culture and knowledge, too.

The Book Smugglers documents the paper brigade’s efforts to save as much written material as possible. It follows the surviving members through the war, when it was relatively safe to recover their books and papers. Once it was clear that the Soviet Union was not interested in helping Jewish Vilnius rebuild, the paper brigade shifted gears to smuggling their books (again) out of Europe and to the New York headquarters of YIVO.

I’ve lost count of how many books about the Holocaust I’ve read, but I know that I’ve never read a book on that subject that hit me so hard where I lived before. I am a librarian who works with other librarians and academics, with people just like Kaczerginski and the other members of the paper bridge. The Book Smugglers tells the story of people who did what I hope I would be strong enough to do if I were in their shoes.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 3 October 2017.

* Quote is from an ARC provided by ForeEdge. It is not paginated.

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, by Jack El-Hai

20578508I am not alone in wondering where the evil of the Nazis came from. As a culture, we’ve been pondering the question of how Hitler was voted into power and the German people (with exceptions) either actively built the Nazi regime or allowed it to happen ever since the 1930s. The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of the Minds at the End of World War II, by Jack El-Hai, tells the story of one man who was similarly fascinated with the question. Douglas Kelley was one of the psychological team assigned to the members of the Nazi high command who were captured by the Allies at the end of the war. His job was to monitor their psychological status and determine if they were mentally fit to stand trial, were insane, or were suicide risks. Kelley used his time with the Nazis, especially Göring to try and answer his question.

With a few biographical sections bracketing the ends of this narrative, most of The Nazi and the Psychiatrist focuses on the months before and during the Nuremburg Trials. Dr. Douglas Kelley, a California psychiatrist with a good record for treating American soldiers suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, was assigned to keep a professional eye on 22 members of the Nazi high command. While under Kelley’s “care,” the Nazis were given IQ tests, the Rorschach test, the Thematic Apperception Test, and other psychological tests. (Kelley was particularly fond of the Rorschach.) All of these tests were meant to see if there was such a thing as the “Nazi mind.” Was there a mental illness or personality disorder that could explain why people became Nazis and committed (or abetted) the atrocities of the Holocaust and the second World War?*


Dr. Kelley after the war.
(Via Scientific American)

After all those tests and hours spent interviewing the Nazis, Kelley was unable to identify any such thing as a “Nazi mind.” Kelley’s colleague, Dr. Gustave Gilbert, disagreed. Gilbert found the Nazis to be sociopaths, essentially. Kelley thought that, while most of the men were quite intelligent, the men on trial at Nuremberg were so different from each other that it was impossible to find much in common in their psyches. Rudolph Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Robert Ley were the most disturbed of the group. Others, like Karl Dönitz and Göring, all appeared quite sane. For my part (keeping in mind that I am not any kind of a mental health professional), I thought I saw that many if not all of the Nazis displayed a strong sense of entitlement undercut by inferiority complexes, paranoia, and a complete lack of empathy and ethics.

Kelley’s ultimate conclusions about the Nazi psyche (or lack there of) came shortly after he resigned his post at Nuremberg to return to civilian life. Because he was unable to find anything like a Nazi mental disorder (and possibly because he had empathized quite a bit with the incarcerated Nazis), Kelley later argued that:

“[Nazis] are not unique people…They are people who exist in every country of the world. Their personality patterns are not obscure. But they are people who have peculiar drives, people who want to be in power…I would say that I am quite certain that there are people even in America who would willingly climb over the corpses of half of the American public if they could gain control of the other half, and these are people who today are just talking–who are utilizing the rights of democracy in anti-democratic fashion.” (162**)

Kelley said these words during a lecture in 1946. Given the rise of Trumpism over the last year, I was chilled to read Kelley talking about American Nazis. Gilbert’s diagnosis of the Nazis is comforting. By assigning their actions to mental illness or personality disorders, we can keep them separate. They’re not part of normal society. I side more with Kelley, however, in thinking that anyone could become a Nazi (or whatever name some group happens to be) if their sense of entitlement and lack of ethics and/or empathy is thwarted.

When I picked up The Nazi and the Psychiatrist from the library, I was expecting a psychological history of the Nazis on trial at Nuremberg and the people who studied them. What I found was a deeply disquieting argument that Nazis could (do) lurk in every society. There’s no one type to watch out for. Instead, we have to be on guard for seemingly ordinary people who are more than willing to, as Kelley said, climb over the corpses of others just so that they can be the one at the top of the heap.

* In a curious bit of serendipity, I recently read Dorothy Thompson’s 1941 Harper’s Bazaar article about spotting Nazis, people who might become Nazis, and those who would never “go Nazi” at parties.
** Quote is from the 2013 hardcover edition by MJF Books.

The Man from the Train, by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

32919543A family was murdered in rural Iowa, in 1912, with an axe. While people were prosecuted (one of them hounded for years by a detective running a con) for the murders, no one was ever definitively convicted. The murder of the Moore family is the starting point for Bill and Rachel McCarthy James, a father and daughter team of amateur detectives, in The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery

The Vilisca murders (which are excellently covered by Holly Frey and Tracey V. Wilson on the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast) were organized. Very little evidence was ever recovered. And yet, there are hallmarks of a serial killer in terms of ritualistic behavior with the posing of the bodies and the placement of items the killer touched. These hallmarks and the level of organization led James and James to look for other, similar murders. They found…quite a lot. By the time they wrap up their case, the two had found a string of murders stretching from 1898 to 1912 across half the country.

James and James spend more than 90% of the book (according to the kindle app) linking murders. They combed decades of articles from newspapers, large and mostly small, looking for “The Man from the Train.” The pair also cite books that have been written about one of the murders or another (with frequent criticism about what the authors of those books missed), and the odd police report. Towards the end of the book, they sort dozens of family ax murders into cases they’re certain were the Man, some they’re mostly sure were the Man, some they thing might be the Man, and a few that only have a few of the markers of the Man. Because news coverage is spotty in many of the areas where these murders occurred—sometimes the victims’ names are unknown—I understand the James’ hesitation in ascribing nearly 100 murders in multiple states to one person.

The James also detour into related cases in which people were falsely accused of one or more sets of murders. People who happened to be in the area and/or were of low social status, especially if they were African American, were arrested, forced to confess, and sometimes even convicted. The most heartbreaking stories are the ones in which African American men were lynched by outraged whites. The story of the Vilisca murders, in the James’ version of events, becomes a long story about how Frank Jones was harassed by J.N. Wilkerson, a detective for the Burns Agency, who turned the case into a years’ long con and bilked people out of thousands of dollars.

The James are, I think, quite correct that conditions were probably perfect for the Man from the Train. About half of the murders occurred before journalists made widespread use of wire services to share information. Many of the articles the James cite read like a telephone game—with bonus tidbits that were clearly invented to make the stories more sensational. Because police departments were small and full of untrained officers at the time, agencies like the Burns Agency or the Pinkertons were hired to investigate. Rewards were offered to anyone who could solve the murders, which led to hasty arrests and convictions of innocent people. Fingerprinting and blood-typing were in their infancy. When you throw in people who were either making up stories for attention or were coerced into a confession, the cases are a mess from beginning to end.

The review copy of The Man from the Train I received did not include a bibliography of sources the James’ used. I hope the published edition does. Without that bibliography, I wasn’t able to evaluate the quality of the James’ information on my own. I was bothered by the lack of references (barring one) to police reports or academic sources (again, with one exception). I do agree with their premise that the Man from the Train probably existed and, if he did commit the Vilisca murders, it is likely that the murderer was active for a number of years before that murder. When they accuse the Man of committing the 1922 Hinterkaifeck murders (also covered by Stuff You Missed in History Class*), however, I think that’s several bridges too far.

In addition to my questions about the James’ sources, I did not like Bill James’ voice in the book. He is often sarcastic when he “talks back” to the contemporary people or other amateur detectives who’ve taken on one or more of the murders. Reading the book feels like sitting down with Bill James (rather than both authors) and having him make his case to the reader directly, with plenty of second-person pronouns, colloquialisms, and flourishes of oral speech. (I lost track of the number of times James would end a sentence with, “Okay?” or something similar.) The voice of the book bothered me, but I have a strong preference for more a more academic, serious tone when it comes to nonfiction about history.

I am equivocal about The Man from the Train. On the one hand, I do think the James’ are probably right that there was one murderer who killed people over a long period of time. I’m not sure I trust their sources—mostly because I couldn’t evaluate a lot of them. The tone rubbed me the wrong way and I was occasionally confused by the way the many, many cases were presented. I think this book should be read alongside other accounts of the murder. Basically, I think readers should do their own additional research. (I tend to argue that anyway, being a librarian.) The jury, to use the cliché, is still very much out for me on the Man from the Train.

I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 19 September 2017.

* I tend to trust Frey and Wilson of SYMIHC because they use a wider variety of sources, not just newspaper accounts, and often talk about the problematic issues with those sources.

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

It’s curious that two men lived at roughly the same time, both build their dream buildings, and then became famous for completely different reasons. Of course, this grossly oversimplifies Larson’s parallel biography of the serial killer H.H. Holmes and architect Daniel Burnham in The Devil in the White City. Still, it’s absolutely chilling how similar Holmes and Burnham’s lives were. Larson shows us how much stranger reality is than fiction by putting these two lives into alternating chapters in one book.

Unless one is an aficionado of American architecture or a fan of World’s Fairs, H.H. Holmes is the more familiar figure in The Devil in the White City. Which is probably why Daniel Burnham gets more screen time. Most of this book is about Burnham and his associates’ quest to build Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. We learn about the fierce campaign Chicago waged to get the Fair and about the infighting that almost sank the whole project before it even got started. Larson is painstaking in showing just how much work the Exposition required. I was exhausted just reading about it and I have a lot of sympathy for Sophia Hayden, who designed the Fair’s Women’s Building and had a breakdown before it was completed because of the interference of the Women’s Committee. I’m surprised Burnham didn’t suffer a similar breakdown, considering how much interference he received from just about everyone he had to work with.

In the background of Burnham et al.‘s great endeavor is H.H. Holmes. While Burnham has to fight tooth and nail to make progress, Holmes’ charm deflected attention from creditors and worried family members until well after the end of the Exposition. Meanwhile, he was building what later came to be known as the Murder Castle. (It’s eerie to read about the problems both men had with workers, though Burnham was paying his and Holmes was dismissing them as soon as they completed their small, strange jobs.) The end of The Devil in the White City shows how Holmes was caught, but feels rushed compared to the loving attention Larson gave to the months Burnham and Co. sweated and worried if they would make their deadlines. If you’re looking for a biography of H.H. Holmes, look elsewhere.

The Devil in the White City is clearly a book about contrasts and similarities. The White City of the Fair and Burnham are constantly played off against Holmes and the Black City of Chicago. Remarkably, Larson doesn’t crib from Dickens to write about how the early 1890s in Chicago were the best of times and the worst of times. He doesn’t need do. The parallels are easy to draw from the way Larson writes about the highs and lows of that time and that place. The Devil in the White City was not what I expected, but I was intrigued by Larson’s approach to these men’s stories.

84, Charing Cross Road

Helene Hanff’s collection of letters to her book dealer in London, 84, Charing Cross Road, kept coming up in the various book recommendation lists that algorithms have created for me over the years. I finally gave in and bought a copy of this brief book because, honestly, it sounded delightful. I was not disappointed.

Hanff was a mid-century screen writer who lived in a tiny apartment in New York. Her first letters to Frank Doel at Marks & Co., in London reveal her frustration with bookstores in New York: too expensive, too beat up, or absent altogether. The letters in this collection span twenty years as Hanff and Doel develop a pen-friendship. Hanff also becomes a friendly American Santa Claus to the staff of Marks & Co. in the early 1950s because she keeps sending them food and supplies as rationing in Britain didn’t stop until 1951 or so.

The best aspect of 84, Charing Cross Road is Hanff’s caustic wit. She’s an impatient reader and holds no cow sacred. She “yells” at Frank when he can’t find an obscure book quickly enough and regularly demolishes editors who, for example, cut out her favorite entries in Pepys’ diary.  I find Hanff hilarious when she writes things like:

Savage Landor [referring to a collection of dialogs and essays by Walter Savage Landor] arrived safely and promptly fell open to a Roman dialogue where two cities had just been destroyed by war and everybody was being crucified and begging passing Roman soldiers to run them through and end the agony. It’ll be a relief to turn to Aesop and Rhodope where all you have to worry about is a famine. (Hanff to Doel, December 8, 1949*)

I just happen to have peculiar taste in books, thanks to a Cambridge professor named Quiller-Couch, known as Q, whom I fell over in a library when I was 17. (Hanff to Cecily Farr**, April 10, 1950)

They told [one of Hanff’s friends] to write an essay in Early Anglo-Saxon on any-subject-of-her-own-choosing. “Which is all very well,” she said bitterly, “but the only essay subject you can find enough Early Anglo-Saxon words for is ‘How to Slaughter a Thousand Men in a Mead Hall.'” (Hanff to Doel, August 15, 1959)

I smirked and snorted my way through the whole collection.

Though the letters are short and this collection does not include all of Hanff and Doel’s correspondence, there is enough to see the good-hearted Doel and the acerbic Hanff bond over their shared love of secondhand books. I would recommend 84, Charing Cross Road to fellow book lovers who would like to kill an hour or two with a pair of kindred bibliophiles.

* Quotes are from the 1990 Penguin Books paperback.
** Another employee of Marks & Co.