Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book Review: Devil in the White City

Note: I've got very minor spoilers in here. I'll call them out before you get there, but just be aware.

The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

: A non-fiction account of the planning, development, building, and execution of the 1898 World's Colombian Fair in Chicago, interspersed with the true story of Herman Mudgett (aka H.H. Holmes), America's first documented serial killer and contemporary resident of Chicago

Thoughts: I chose this book because it's apparently a must-read if you're involved in the planning / architecture / engineering fields (I'm in transportation planning) and it was a bit misrepresented to me as an exciting murder mystery. I love mysteries; this book is not one. It is almost entirely focused on the minutiae of the politics and logistics of the Fair, which actually is a complex and exceptional - but dry - story.

The portions of the book about Holmes were extremely peripheral. I don't know this for sure, but I would estimate that the Fair-focused chapters outnumbered the Holmes-centered chapters 2:1. I read a review by someone else who said (I'm paraphrasing) he had the feeling that Erik Larson really wanted to write a book about the World's Fair, but knew the subject was basically a snooze-fest, so he ham-fisted Holmes's story into the narrative to make the plot sound more exciting. That is an accurate assessment, and it is so clear that the portions about the Fair are what Larson is really interested in.

It's not a bad book and I did enjoy it for what I learned from it, but it's not light reading. I actually listened to the audio version and this probably was the only reason I was able to finish the book. The guy who read it has a really good narrative voice and I was a captive audience when driving, running, and walking my dogs. This meant I couldn't really make excuses for not finishing it, like I almost certainly would have done if I had been reading the text version. Overall, I'm glad I read it, but I wasn't chomping at the bit to get back to it each day.

Favorite part: I was pretty excited to learn about Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture and designer of many, many famous public and private parks. He was from Boston and he designed Forest Park in Springfield, Massachusetts! Growing up in western Mass, I always heard that Forest Park was pretty glorious in its heyday, and I just think it's so cool that it was designed by the creative mind behind Central Park and the landscape architect of the 1898 World's Fair.

Least favorite part: The parts about Carter Harrison and Patrick Prendergast only seemed related to the rest of the story by the thinnest thread and I don't think they really needed to be in there.

[SPOILER] Also, one of the few scenes in the book where Larson takes some creative license and imagines how one of Holmes's killings went down happened when Holmes killed his wife's sister. Reading about her terror at realizing what was happening was heartbreaking.

My grade: B-

Who would I recommend it to: Urban planning and/or architecture nerds, or Chicago history enthusiasts.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Book Review: Shadow of Night and Book of Life

Note: I've got very minor spoilers in here. I'll call them out before you get there, but just be aware.

Shadow of Night and Book of Life by Deborah Harkness
I feel kind of bad writing this negative review because I've seen interviews with the author and she seems really fun and nice, someone I'd like to sit and have a glass of wine with. I should also note that my mother-in-law devoured these books and there is a huge cult following surrounding them, so I may be all alone in disliking the series. But these books, the second and third in the All Souls trilogy, are not for me. I cannot explain why I stuck with and finished them (I read the first book, A Discovery of Witches, over a year ago).

Plot: Diana, a modern witch who doesn't want to use her magic, meets and falls in love with Matthew, a 1500-year old vampire who is super handsome and rich and possessive and has anger issues. It's adult Twilight except the main character is a little less bump-on-a-log (but still pretty ridiculous). There's time travel, a lot of very over-wrought dialogue, and an insane number of near-death experiences. And there are a ton of historical references.

Thoughts: The historical references border on the ridiculous, really. Harkness is an admitted history nerd (and a history professor I think?). It felt like she was worried that she'd never get the opportunity to write another book, so she crammed EVERY.SINGLE. western European and a bunch of early American historical events and characters into these volumes. A lot of it takes place in England and France, which I really like. Maybe that's what kept me going.

Favorite part: [SPOILERS] Meh, I don't know. Maybe the part where Gallowglass tells Diana he loves her, even though that's kind of sad. Or the parts with Chris and Miriam; those are pretty cute.

Least favorite part: Anything involving Benjamin. Or the ridiculous part where she springs on her library colleague that she's a witch and is going to magick some of the priceless, ancient documents she's sorting through. Or any scene involving the awkward and stilted dialogue between Diana and Matthew.

My grade: C+ for Shadow of Night, C- for Book of Life

Who would I recommend it to
: Fans of witch / vampire fiction (Practical Magic, Twilight, things like that) who are also into modern European history, read fast (these books are long) and don't mind really overly dramatic writing. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

San Antonio Sights: The Pearl

The Pearl is an old brewery near downtown San Antonio (they used to brew....wait for it...Pearl Beer). It is now a mixed-use shopping, dining, and residential development along the San Antonio River and it's awesome.


Chris and I went there when we first came down here last year, but we went back in February with Bob and Pam after visiting a couple of the nearby Missions.

We ate at La Gloria, a Mexican restaurant with cool steel sculptures out front, reminiscent of Mexican folk art. The food was ok. I'd like to go back and try a different dish than the "Mexican pizza" I tried that was really just a big tostada loaded down with way too much shredded lettuce. The patio seating is awesome, though, because it's right on the river and it's dog friendly.

We then got delicious ice cream at Lick. It's based out of Austin, but they have a store at The Pearl. The ice cream was extremely expensive, but super tasty. I'd say worth it because you don't have ice cream of this caliber every day.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Hill Country Sights: Bandera

This is a post coming at you almost 6 months late! I've been reluctant to spend time uploading photos, but I finally got a little un-lazy. Way back in October 2015, we went out to Bandera, Texas with our friends Bob and Pam. Bandera, a small town northwest of San Antonio, is the self-proclaimed "Cowboy Capital of the World."

So we saw cowboys (and Bob got to play dress up with them!). Surprisingly (to me at least) there were tons of international visitors. At the cowboy show, we were practically the only people from Texas. There was a family from Sweden and a huge group of Brits, plus Americans from Arizona.

We saw some extremely classy bars...

And even snuck in a bit of culture, passing by their pretty courthouse (Bandera is the county seat of Bandera County) before eating comfort food at the Old Spanish Trail Restaurant.

Oh, and of course, there was a horse "parked" on the street with the motorcycles. Because, Texas.

It was a fun day.