Like studying history; Mostly fun but sometimes boring

the doomsday book

 

My actual rating of this book is somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. It was an overall enjoyable read but certainly didn’t live up to all the hype surrounding it in the sci fi community. As a history nerd, I also enjoy a well told time travel tale. My two biggest quibbles are that a) the book drags for a hundred pages or so after the inciting incident b) The finale seems a little rushed after slowly building up to it.

The basic premise is this: the book is set about 40 years in the future. Time travel is possible and is used for academic purposes. A young grad student named Kivrin travels back to England in 1320 against the wishes of her mentor professor Dunworthy. Though things seem to go alright at first, the situation quickly goes pear shaped in both the past and the present. Here is one of the things I appreciated as someone who has studied history; as much as we’ve studied history, we don’t actually [i]know[/i] what it was like. Studying history is like shining a dim light on a dark landscape. We take what evidence we have and make our best guess. Despite being very intelligent and having prepared exhaustively, Kivrin can’t even speak the right version of old English when she arrives in the past. Unfortunately the action comes to a bit of a standstill after this as Kivrin tries to get her bearings and professor Dunworthy deals with catastrophes on his end.

Overall I enjoyed this book. Once things got moving I didn’t want to put it down. It was a nice blend of history and sci fi, two genres I enjoy immensely. When it was good it was very good and when it wasn’t, I felt like the guy in the old Dunkin’ Donuts commercial. “It’s time to make the donuts.”

The Real American Horror Story: Hotel

devil in the white city

 

This is actually a reread for me. I originally read it shortly after it came out in paperback several years ago. Since then my tastes have changed a little and I’ve gotten myself a history degree and it’s really deepened my appreciation for this book. Larson’s research is meticulous and his writing is engaging and reads more like literary fiction than a historical text. Word has it that Leonardo Dicaprio has bought the film rights to this book and I am super excited.

The book tells the parallel stories of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect in charge of the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair and Dr. H. H. Holmes, the serial killer who lured fair goers into his specially designed hotel (for you American Horror Story fans, Evan Peters’ character in the Hotel season is based on Holmes). Both Burnham and Holmes were ambitious men for whom the fair would make their reputations. Though it is Burnham’s accomplishments that are move visible in the modern city, it is Holmes’ name and grisly works that people remember today.

What’s striking from Burhman’s chapter is how difficult the building process was in the late 19th century. Today we watch buildings appear seemingly overnight but even the task Burnham and his associates took on was Herculean. From Holmes’ chapters, what’s stunning is how easily he seemed to be able to get away with not only cold-blooded murder but fraud for so long. In fact, it was an insurance fraud case that finally brought the actions of America’s first urban serial killer to light. If you haven’t already picked up this book, I encourage you to do so soon, so you can nitpick the film when it eventually comes out.