I can't quite remember how or why I picked up this book. It's not the normal type of thing I read. But I picked it up, read it, and loved it.
Larson's...moreI can't quite remember how or why I picked up this book. It's not the normal type of thing I read. But I picked it up, read it, and loved it.
Larson's book has a rather contrasting premise: the tale of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the travails architect and designer Daniel H. Burnham went through in order to build it, and Dr. H.H. Holmes, America's first recorded serial killer who preyed on the fairgoers.
When I initially set down to read this book, I figured that the serial killer stuff would be the most interesting. But as I delved into the world of Gilded Age Chicago, and the dark twisted world of cattle yards, railways, and the surreal contrast the White City made against it, I found myself intrigued not so much by the sinister figure of Holmes and his hotel of horror, but of Burnham and his quest to create a fair that would set America into the Industrial Era.
Larson's book reads like a novel, with pacing and suspense galore. He has a knack for throwing in plenty of interesting background information and shedding light on a somewhat obscure but pivotal era in American history. His book illuminates the entire backdrop of an American period, and shows just how crucial it was to the development of post-Civil War America. Everything comes vividly alive, yet he manages to maintain a veil of mystery of illusion that is quite difficult to hold onto while making the details of history accessible.
In short, this isn't one of those books that, like so many others on my top ten list, makes some kind of point or has some philosophical underpinning to it. This is just a good old fashioned yarn, and a history book with phenomenal storytelling prowess. There's little of a greater message here, except perhaps to show us the dark underbelly of even our most glorious strivings. But this is a damn, damn good book.(less)
I've been something of a "fan" of the Black Death since some time in grade school when I came across a small book on it in our school library. Kelly's...moreI've been something of a "fan" of the Black Death since some time in grade school when I came across a small book on it in our school library. Kelly's account of the infamous event is probably the best I've come across thus far. Kelly delves headfirst into the destruction and devastation wrought by one of the greatest human disasters in history. The book is interlaced throughout with colorful, vivid firsthand accounts of the horror.
Kelly doesn't just chronicle the Black Death, however, but attempts to explain it. One of the more fascinating aspects of the book is his analysis of why the Plague was so virulent. Why did it spread as quickly as it did, against all the odds of distance and population density? He explains that the sheer destructive power of the plague was not some inherent aspect of its nature, but a combination of just the right amount of factors coming to together at just the right (or wrong, as the case may be) time: environment shifts, population spurts, famines in preceding generations, changes in trade relations, and even the political upheavals of Mongol conquest and the Hundred Years War all played a part in ensuring the plague's disastrous effects on humanity. He even throws in a little about plague genetics, and the interplay between rat, flea, and human (and not just in the simple "flea bites infected rat, flea bites human" of previous accounts). Kelly pulls all of this into comparison with the modern era, without coming across as preachy or warning us of impending doom.
On top of this, Kelly provides a detailed understanding of the Medieval world, to put the Plague in context. He discusses Italian trading principles, Catholic political upheavals, Medieval medical practices, and anti-Semitic discourse all in an attempt at understanding just how the plague affecting the world around it, not just in deaths, but in the very fabric of the culture. While the follow-up on the post-plague world is a little glossed over, he makes up for it by giving a firm view of Medieval society throughout the body of the book.
The Great Mortality stands out as perhaps one of the best-researched, best-written accounts of the Plague out there today, and is worth reading for anyone interested in Medieval history, natural disasters, or just morbidly interesting topics.(less)