The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson


Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is the true story of the building of the magnificent 1893 Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago and the sociopath murderer H.H. Holmes who preyed on young women coming to see the fair. In his telling, Larson transports us to the late 1800s from when Chicago first wins the right by Congressional vote to host the fair, beating out rival New York City, through the two years it took to build the White City, to the fair itself, which brought in an estimated 40 million visitors during the short time it was open. Daniel H. Burnham, chief architect of the fair, led the extraordinary effort to build the fair, a feat no one thought could be accomplished in the time given. The fair drew the best engineers, architects, and designers the country had and forever transformed the shoreline of Chicago. The result was such a resounding success, Bernham imprinted grandeur into the minds of visitors who came from all over the country and set the course of American neo-classical architecture for the next fifty years.

A few miles away, in the Chicago suburb Englewood, a more sinister story was unfolding. Dr. H.H. Holmes built a boarding house on a full city block, complete with torture chamber and crematorium in its basement. On the first floor of the building Holmes ran a pharmacy, complete with bogus cure-alls, a restaurant, and several seemingly respectable businesses – fronts for countless fraud schemes.

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Ireland: a Novel – Frank Delaney


Ireland by Frank Delaney is the story of a young boy, Ronan O’Mara, who in 1951 at the age of 9 encounters an itinerant storyteller, who regales Ronan and others with magical tales, blending myth and fiction, of Ireland’s past. Ronan is so taken with the storyteller and his stories that he starts a quest to find him, a difficult undertaking as the storyteller has no address – the storyteller wanders the countryside, staying with people who will feed him and give shelter in exchange for telling stories. Thus starts a life long passion for Ronan – collecting the folklore of Ireland, and uncovering Ireland’s history.

The book’s plot structure of Ronan’s search for the storyteller is a convenient container for the true gems of this novel – wonderful, colorful stories covering the breadth of Irish history, from the making of the 5000 year old tomb at New Grange, the legend and fact of St. Patrick, Strongbow and the invasion of the Anglo-Normans, Daniel O’Connell and the repeal of the penal laws, to the 20th century troubles. In every breath of this novel, the Irish gift of gab is celebrated. I listened to the audiobook version of this book and I must say that this is most captivating audiobook I’ve heard to date. (Available also at author, Frank Delaney, does the narrating. With his various Irish accents he brings the stories alive in a way only possible through the spoken word.

Catch Me If You Can – Frank Abagnale


Catch Me If You Can by Frank Abagnale is an amazing true story of the adventures of a master con artist and check forger. Of all the books I’ve “read” from, this is among the most enjoyable. In his late teens, Abagnale posed as a PanAm co-pilot, getting lifts on airplanes for free to take him all around the country and the world, allowing him to pass bad checks behind the guise of a respectable airline pilot. By the time he was caught, at age 21, he had managed to bilk his victims, mostly PanAm, of over 2 million dollars. At that was 2 million in the late 60s, when the story took place. Posing as Frank Williams, Robert Conrad, Frank Adams, and Robert Monjo, Abagnale also managed to teach sociology at a college in Utah with a fake diploma, pass the bar exam and work in an attorney general’s office, pose as a pediatrician and become a temporary resident supervisor at a hospital in Georgia.

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The Memory of Running – Ron McLarty


Smithy Ide is a 43 year old drunk – overweight, friendless, and when he can think, disgusted with himself. After the funeral of his parents who die in a car accident, Smithy finds an unopened letter to his parents from a mortuary in California. The letter says that the mortuary is holding the body of Smithy’s sister Bethany, an indigent whose identity they’ve been able to match with dental records. Still in a drunken fog, Smithy finds his old Raleigh bike in their garage, and sets off down the road, flat tires as all. Thus he unintentially sets off on a bike journey across the country and in the process comes to terms with his life and the loss of his beautiful sister who couldn’t escape the voices in her head.

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The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich


That Louise Erdrich likes to tell stories becomes obvious from the reading of her novel The Master Butchers Singing Club. She never races through a tale, but takes her time, dissecting every nuance in delicious detail. The book’s central character is Delphine, whom we meet as she is returning home to Argus, North Dakota in the early 1930s with her balancing act partner Cyprian to care for her father, the town drunk. Delphine is a survivalist – a hard working, tough love, feet-firmly-planted-on-the-ground woman. She befriends Eva, the wife of the local butcher, Fidelis Waldvogel, who had immigrated to Argus from Germany after the first world war. Fidelis starts a singing club, the members of which make up many of the contributing characters of the story.

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Skinny Dip – Carl Hiaasen


What a howler. Reminiscent of Mickey Spillane, Carl Hiassen’s Skinny Dip starts with crooked sleeze-ball Charles Perrone throwing his wife off a cruise ship miles away from the coast of Florida. Unbeknownst to Chaz, his wife Joey, was a champion swimmer and athlete in college, and turning her fall into a dive, survives the fall, swims to near exhaustion, eventually latches on to a floating bale of marijuana, and is picked up out of the ocean by a retired cop Mick Stranahan. Joey doesn’t understand why Chaz tried to kill her and spends the bulk of this hilarious story with Stranahan figuring out why and taking revenge by driving her husband crazy. The book is filled with great character sketches – Tool, a pain-killer addicted hired thug who gets reformed by the terminally ill old lady whose meds he tried to steal, Red Hammernut, the agribusiness tycoon who is paying off Chaz to falsify water quality records so he can keep his polluting enterprise up and running, and Karl Rolvaag, the homicide detective who keeps two albino pythons and when they escape is disturbed when the yappy dogs of neighbors go missing.

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