“The Devil in the White City,” Erik Larson’s 2003 nonfiction bestseller, is a strange blend of true stories. The book combines two unlikely tales: the story of a notorious serial killer and the narrative of how the 1893 World’s Fair came to be.
But one of the best surprises of “The Devil in the White City" is the account of how George Ferris designed his famous wheel for the Chicago World’s Fair.
George Ferris, born George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., grew up in Galesburg, Ill., and Carson Valley, Nev.,. He started working on railroads after college and his company, G.W.G. Ferris & Co., which was based in Pennsylvania, focused on ensuring the safety of the metals used in bridges and railroad tracks.
Ferris enters Larson’s narrative when the author discusses the contest held by the organizers of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago (then known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, since it was to be the first held in America). The fair’s directors wanted one of America’s engineers to create a structure for the event that would be grander than the Eiffel Tower. (The French monument was, at that time, something of a thorn in the side of the US architectural community, which yearned to build something more remarkable.)
In response, Ferris designed what would become known as the Ferris wheel and persuaded the directors that the structure would be safe for fairgoers. The wheel underwent a test run on June 9, 1893, and successfully completed a full rotation without anything going wrong. “I could have yelled out loud for joy,” Ferris’s co-worker, W.F. Gronau, said later, according to Larson’s book.
When completed, the Ferris wheel at the Chicago exposition was able to hold 2,160 people, with 36 cars total.
The inventor’s wheel continued to offer rides to the public at the fair’s site until April 1894, months after the Exposition had closed in October 1893. The Ferris wheel was moved for a time to a neighborhood in Chicago, where it operated for the residents until it was moved to St. Louis for the World’s Fair in 1904.
Larson’s narrative combines interesting information about the first American World’s Fair (such as the fact that the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in US public schools began at that time as a way to honor the Fair) with the horrific story of the serial killer H.H. Holmes, who lived in Chicago and confessed to more than 27 murders. (Some historians believe that his death toll is actually even larger.)
"The Devil in the White City" was a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback formats. Rights to the story have been purchased by “Django Unchained” actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who is expected to star in the movie as Holmes as well as serving as its producer. No release date has yet been announced.
Independent bookstores and big retailer Barnes & Noble have reported their holiday numbers, and now the verdict from the US Census Bureau is in: For US bookstores, 2012 was pretty much the same as 2011.
Preliminary estimates from the Bureau indicate a 0.5 percent decrease in sales during 2012, with total sales coming in at $15.21 billion. Sales total for 2011 were $15.28 billion.
The data also shows, however, that sales numbers for December 2012 increased 2.9 percent from the sales for December 2011, with bookstores selling $1.69 billion worth of items over the 2012 holiday month, according to the Bureau.
As pointed out by industry newsletter Shelf Awareness, for the purposes of these numbers the Bureau defines a bookstore as “establishments primarily engaged in retailing a general line of new books. These establishments may also sell stationery and related items, second-hand books, and magazines.”
The overall story of 2012 for US bookstores was more up-and-down than anything. Sales numbers were higher than in 2011 for the months of April, May, June, July, October, November, and December. Numbers fell for February, March, August, and September, while they were even with 2011 sales figures in January.
Jack McKeown, co-owner and president of Books & Books in Westhampton Beach in New York, wrote on the Publishers Weekly website that he thought booksellers should be “cautiously optimistic” about this news.
“Let me get this straight,” he wrote. “The industry loses 12% of its brick-and-mortar shelf space with the collapse of Borders (third quarter 2011); suffers tough comps with the impact of Borders liquidation sales; and endures further encroachment from online and ebooks, and yet bookstores still managed to turn in a virtually flat performance 2012 vs. 2011? And a strong December uptick. Pretty remarkable."
In 2012, independent bookstores reported some of their strongest sales ever for the month of December, with their numbers rising almost 8 percent for the year, also experiencing a 28 percent rise in their online sales. By contrast, Barnes & Noble saw a 10.9 percent drop in retail operations for the holiday season. The retailer plans to close about one-third of its stores over the next decade
It's been more than seven centuries since 1294 got this much attention.
That's the year a hermit named Peter of Morrone became Pope Celestine V, served for a few months, and quit of his own accord. If you don't count the year 1415, when the leadership of the Catholic church went absolutely haywire, not a single pontiff followed his example until this week, when Pope Benedict XVI announced he will resign.
Celestine V didn't go gently into the history books. While he would become a saint, he has a reputation as being a failure. And legend says the author Dante put him in hell because his resignation paved the way for a pope that Dante couldn't stand.
How come popes almost never quit? Can they be fired? And why does the current pope seem to have an emotional connection with the last pontiff who resigned?
For answers, I turned to Jon M. Sweeney, a historian and publisher of Christian books. He tells Celestine V's story in his 2012 book, "The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation."
Q: So last year you wrote a book about the only pope to voluntarily resign. Now your book is getting tons of attention because a pope is quitting. Wow and double wow. What sort of dirt do you have on Pope Benedict to make him quit just so you could reap the reward of publicity?
A: I'm sure he read my book and got the idea to resign!
Q: I'll bet. Seriously, you write that Benedict seems to have a deep personal connection to his predecessor who declared, in effect, I'm-outta-here. How do we know that?
A: In April 2009, there was one of those earthquakes that happens all the time in central Italy. It happened to be centered in Aquila, home to the basilica that holds the remains of Celestine V.
Pope Benedict made a pastoral visit to the people of the province and visited the basilica. When he was there, he took the pallium, the scarf-type vestment that represents his episcopal authority, off his shoulders. He laid it on the tomb, left it there and didn't explain what the gesture meant.
It was strange. I write about that in the book: Isn't it interesting that the current pope feels an affinity toward Celestine V?
Q: When he became pope, Benedict said this: "Pray for me that I may not flee for fear of the wolves." You write that it's impossible to think of those words without recalling Celestine, who made a similar reference. What binds the two of them?
A: For Celestine, it's a reference to all the nonsense you have to deal with as a pope – the papal curiae and the bureaucratic mess. Somebody who probably didn't want the job in the first place, like Benedict, would have said, "Pray for me as I go in among the wolves."
Q: What sets these two popes apart from each other?
A: There are a lot of differences between the two. Celestine's papacy was a disaster, and he was completely unsuited for the life and the role of the pope. He was just a hermit who wanted to pray in the mountains.
By contrast, Benedict was an insider. Those are big differences.
Yet there are similarities, too. Neither man seemed to be very interested in the administrative aspects of the job. Being a pope is like being a huge bureaucratic manager. Celestine was inept by most accounts, and Benedict certainly showed a lack of interest in that aspect.
And both men resigned with a very simple notice that was read aloud to a group of cardinals, priests and officials who were told not to ask questions. Benedict simply announced it and just walked away. That's what Celestine did, too.
Q: We know that popes die in office or, in centuries past, were killed. Can they be fired?
A: No. Whom does the Pope report to? There's no one.
There were many times in history where groups of cardinals got together and made arguments for firing a pope, but the conclusion was that it's impossible. Even if they were awful or evil, the office is higher than the man. There is no one who has authority on earth to fire him.
Q: But that didn't stop officials from ridding themselves of troublesome popes, correct?
A: It used to be in the Middle Ages that when they wanted to fire a pope, they killed him in a Corleone kind of way. There have been 20 popes in history who were likely murdered, and they were probably all cases where they wanted the guy to resign.
Q: Why haven't more popes resigned?
A: The idea is that it's a job for life. When you become pope, one of the first things you do is you walk into the Room of Tears in the Vatican. You're crying with poignancy about how your life is dead now, it's over. You are now a pope until you die.
It's fascinating that it's now changing, and almost in a businesslike way. It's like Benedict gave two weeks' notice. Maybe we will see popes most routinely resign the office.
Q: According to some accounts, the last papal resignation was in 1415, not 1294. What's the truth?
A: That was the Great Schism [also known as the Western Schism], and there were three popes. There was something like a negotiated truce: Two of them resigned. A third disagreed, and they excommunicated him and had him resign against his will.
That's a different kind of animal. It's not someone resigning for personal reasons.
Q: Going back to Celestine: You wrote an entire book about a man who spent just a few months as pope. What makes him fascinating?
A: He was a monk, a very independent-minded monk who never could quite fit into a religious order and created his own. The real fascinating thing is about how he became pope, what happened while he was pope, and afterwards.
Q: Initially, he was upset that the church was taking its sweet time choosing a pope, right?
A: He was an 84-year-old man living as a hermit and wrote an incendiary letter to one of the cardinals saying, in essence, "God will smite us all if you don't act right now, and I can't believe you're dragging your feet like you are."
Then the cardinal announced he wanted him to be the next pope, and in the next 24 hours he was.
Q: So he was really an accidental pope?
A: Absolutely. He actually fled when they told him. They almost grabbed him by the arm and led him down the mountain.
He never went to Rome and was under the thumb of the king of Naples. It was a disaster. He ended up quitting, and the guy who replaced him helped craft his letter of resignation and then had him hunted down and imprisoned because he was a threat.
The idea was you can't have another pope running around. What happens if everybody listens to him?
Q: Is there any chance that Benedict will be a holy pain in the papal regalia for his successor?
A: I would imagine that Benedict has given his last rally, given his last sermon, and that he will lead a quiet life, and we'll never see him again. There might be a book or two published, but only after his death.
That's certainly what he ought to do, and I can't imagine it would be otherwise. But we'll see.
Want to read more Monitor Q&As with authors of recent books about Christianity? Check my chats with religious scholars Elaine Pagels ("Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation"), Bart Ehrman ("Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth"), and Adam C. English ("The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra").
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
Harry Potter’s getting a makeover for his fifteenth birthday.
Scholastic announced that to celebrate the phenomenally popular series’ fifteenth anniversary, the Harry Potter series would receive all-new covers on new trade paperback editions, which will be released in September 2013.
The publisher released the new “Sorcerer” cover as a preview, which you can check out above and to the side.
Artist Kazu Kibuishi, who illustrated the new covers, called those done by artist Mary GrandPré “fantastic and iconic.” GrandPré also drew the pictures that appeared at the beginning of each chapter.
“When I was asked to submit samples, I initially hesitated because I didn't want to see them reinterpreted!” Kibuishi, who is the author and illustrator for the Amulet graphic novel children’s series, said in a statement. “However, I felt that if I were to handle the project, I could bring something to it that many other designers and illustrators probably couldn't, and that was that I was also a writer of my own series of middle grade fiction.” Kibuishi told Publishers Weekly he was inspired by novels by Charles Dickens when drawing the first cover.
The only details Scholastic revealed about the other new covers is that each will “depict a distinctive and memorable moment” from the book, according to the press release.
The novels will be released as stand-alone editions and compiled in a box set. That set will be followed in November by a boxed set of the books known together as the Hogwarts Library series, which consists of the titles “Quidditch Through the Ages,” “The Tales of Beedle the Bard,” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” all written by J.K. Rowling. “Quidditch” and “Beasts” were originally mentioned in the Potter series as textbooks assigned to Harry and his friends, while “Beedle” played a crucial part in unraveling a riddle in the seventh and final book. Proceeds from the sales of the Hogwarts Library will go to the UK charities Comic Relief and Lumos, the latter of which was founded by Rowling to prevent children being institutionalized.
GrandPré’s covers will still appear on the hardcover editions as well as mass-market paperback versions.
Truman Capote’s true-crime classic “In Cold Blood” is coming under new scrutiny after evidence surfaced that disputes aspects of Capote’s narrative.
New findings by the Wall Street Journal question key facts in the narrative. In the book, Capote writes that one Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent went to the farm where one of the suspects lived, but newly discovered KBI documents state that four agents went, according to the Journal. In addition, Capote says that after receiving word of the possible whereabouts of one of the alleged murderers, the KBI sent an agent to the farmhouse right away. According to the KBI files, the bureau waited five days.
The documents were taken home by a KBI agent, Harold Nye, and are now the basis of a lawsuit between Nye’s son, who expressed intent to release them or sell them, and the KBI, who says the papers are their property.
This isn’t the first time the accuracy of “In Cold Blood” has been called into question.
Capote called the book about the 1959 murders “immaculately factual” in an interview with the New York Times, but various reporters and writers have claimed over the years that “Blood” has numerous inconsistencies. In his biography “Capote,” writer Gerald Clarke claims that the last scene in “Blood,” in which detective Alvin Dewey meets a friend of one of the Clutter daughters, was completely fabricated. Changes were also made between the book’s initial publication in The New Yorker and its release in hardcover, including the number of churches in the town and the times of day at which certain events happened.
Former KBI director Larry Welch pointed out that the rigid rules we have today for how factual a nonfiction book needs to be weren’t in place when Capote was writing “Blood.”
“In this day and age, we can't even recreate the proper context for these events,” Welch said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
If an Idaho state senator has his way, high school students in the Potato State will have to read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and pass a written exam on the conservative political novel in order to graduate.
Sen. John Goedde (R), chairman of the Idaho Senate’s Education Committee, introduced legislation earlier this week that, if passed, would require every Idaho high school student to read Rand, reported the Spokane, Wash. Spokesman-Review.
When asked why he chose “Atlas Shrugged,” Goedde responded, “That book made my son a Republican,” according to the paper.
The 1957 novel has recently been the center of much attention and controversy. A book that can be described as “equal parts philosophy, manifesto, and political satire,” “Atlas Shrugged” is considered Russian émigré Rand’s magnum opus. It promotes the philosophy of objectivism, the idea that people should pursue their own self-interest rather than the good of others. The book champions laissez-faire capitalism and rails against government taxation and regulation.
“Atlas Shrugged” today forms part of the modern conservative canon, a book embraced by the Tea Party for its anti-big government message. It’s also loved by such conservatives as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Paul Ryan, who came under fire during the 2012 presidential race for once citing Ayn Rand as his inspiration for entering public service and the philosophical basis for his economic vision for America.
It’s no surprise then that Goedde’s bill has stirred a pot of contention in Idaho – and beyond.
But it turns out Goedde doesn’t plan to pursue the legislation; he introduced it to make a point. The state senator told fellow Education Committee members the bill was introduced to send a message over recent Education Committee decisions he disagreed with.
“It was a shot over the bow just to let them know that there’s another way to adopt high school graduation requirements,” he said, according to the Spokesman. “I don’t intend to schedule a hearing on it.”
Apparently Goedde was unhappy with the Idaho State Board of Education’s decision to repeal a rule requiring two online courses to graduate from high school, as well as its decision to retreat from another planned rule on principal evaluations.
An odd way to send a message, we think. Books, it turns out, are a potent weapon in state education politics.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
It’s doubtful whether many other literary characters are as famous for their physical appearance as is Anne Shirley of “Anne of Green Gables.”
Anne (with an “e,” thank you), the orphan girl who is adopted by stern Marilla and warmhearted Matthew of Green Gables on Prince Edward Island, often bemoans her red hair and freckles. “Now you see why I can’t be perfectly happy,” she says tragically soon after meeting her new guardian, Matthew. “Nobody could who had red hair. I don’t mind the other things so much – the freckles and the green eyes and my skinniness.” (She, in fact, informs him she wishes she had hair of “a glorious black, black as the raven’s wing.”)
Her appearance is later the subject of one of the novel’s most famous incidents, when schoolmate and future husband Gilbert Blythe calls her “carrots,” prompting her to break her slate over his head.
So how did Anne end up blonde and unfreckled on the front of a book cover?
Fans are none too pleased with the new edition of the classic novel released by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform in which a blonde teenage girl lounges in a plaid button-down shirt. According to Amazon’s website, the book was released on Nov. 27.
“Montgomery's iconic Anne is a high-spirited redhead with freckles and a pointed chin, whereas this new Anne is a languid blond with dark roots, a round face and a come-hither look,” Irene Gammel, a Montgomery expert, told the Toronto Star.
Users on Amazon have made their displeasure known.
“This cover art is insulting, and I am actively discouraging friends from buying it,” a commenter named Beth Ann L. Stone from Pennsylvania wrote on the website. “Publisher, I advise you to quickly fire whomever it is that came up with such a cover design.”
A user named Teresa De Grosbois from Vancouver agreed.
“Note to publisher – this is a children's about a red-head girl who's 10!” De Grosbois wrote. “Not a teen romance.”
"Anne" was first published in 1908 and was followed by six other books which chronicled the further adventures of Anne and, eventually, her children. The first few books were adapted into a popular miniseries in 1985 starring Megan Follows as Anne, who would go on to portray her in other adaptations, including "Anne of Avonlea," another miniseries which followed the events of the books, and "Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story," which was an original work.
“A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.”
So begins Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book “Little House on the Prairie,” the second in her series about pioneer living and arguably the most famous of the collection.
By this point, 146 years after Wilder was born, the grandfathers and grandmothers she was envisioning are probably the great- or great-great forebears of those living today. But schoolchildren are still picking up Wilder’s stories about surviving on the frontier, reading her stories about taking part in activities from preserving meat to going to a community dance and even to battling malaria.
“You feel such a strong identification with Laura,” writer and Wilder expert Wendy McClure told The Atlantic. “There's something about the narrative. You feel like you're right there with her, or even that you're seeing it through her eyes…. I love the idea that the history of the American West is kind of paralleled with the lifespan of an American girl.”
Wilder was born in Wisconsin, on Feb. 7, 1867, to Charles and Caroline Ingalls, who are today familiar to readers worldwide as "Ma" and "Pa." (The names of Laura, her parents and siblings were all kept intact for the “Little House” novels.) Ingalls lived in Wisconsin until her father moved the family to Kansas, where he had heard there was land available for homesteading. Later, Charles Ingalls traveled to the Dakota Territory, where he worked on the railroad, and was eventually joined by the rest of the family members.
The years in Wisconsin were the basis for Wilder’s first book, “Little House in the Big Woods,” while the Kansas sojourn makes up the story of “Little House on the Prairie.” The harsh season the family endured in the Dakota territory was the basis of the plotline of “The Long Winter,” and the rest of their time in the Dakotas was chronicled by Wilder in “Little Town on the Prairie” and “These Happy Golden Years.”
It was in the town of De Smet in modern-day South Dakota that Wilder met her future husband, Almanzo Wilder, who later earned his own book, titled “Farmer Boy,” about his childhood. Wilder began teaching at age 16 and also attended high school, leaving both when she married Almanzo Wilder at age 18. Almanzo had staked a claim on land north of De Smet, and they settled there, where Wilder gave birth to their daughter Rose and a son who died soon after his birth.
After their marriage, Almanzo was struck with diphtheria that left him carrying a cane for the rest of his life. The couple and Rose moved to various homes, including one in Florida and another in Missouri, finally settling in Mansfield, Mo.
Besides her famous series, Wilder worked as an editor and columnist for the newspaper the Missouri Ruralist.
The literary community is still uncertain today how much of a role Wilder’s daughter Rose, a writer herself, had in the Little House manuscripts. “Little House in the Big Woods” was first released in 1932, with “Little House on the Prairie” following in 1935 and the subsequent books published every few years thereafter. “Golden Years” was released in 1943, after which Wilder went back and wrote the story of Almanzo’s childhood, “Farmer Boy,” which was released in 1955.
Titles that were published after Wilder’s death include “The First Four Years,” which chronicles the early years of the Wilders’ marriage; “On the Way Home,” which tells the story of the Wilders’ move from South Dakota to Missouri; and “West from Home,” made up of letters Wilder wrote to Almanzo while she was in California visiting Rose.
A new generation of children was introduced to the author's stories when the TV series “Little House on the Prairie” aired on NBC from 1974 to 1982, with actor Michael Landon starring as Charles Ingalls.
Imagine this: After a 66-year slumber, Adolf Hitler finds himself in 21st century Berlin where he enters politics, discovers jeans and email, and becomes a modern-day celebrity complete with a role on a popular Turkish-German TV show.
That’s the premise behind one of Germany’s most popular – and controversial – new books, “Er Ist Wieder Da,” or “He’s Back.” The 400-page debut novel by Timur Vermes capitalizes on Germany’s renewed fascination with the Nazi leader with stunning success as the country marks the 80th anniversary of his rise to power. The book has so far sold more than 400,000 copies and tens of thousands of audiobooks and has beat out novels by Paulo Coelho and Ken Follett to nab the top slot on Germany’s bestseller lists.
“We too often harbor the negative attitude of those who see Hitler only as a monster to make themselves feel better,” author Vermes told AFP. “I thought it was important to show how he would operate and how he would act in today's world.”
In the novel, Hitler rouses and is bewildered to find himself in a modern Germany ruled by a woman and populated by millions of Turks. He enters politics – no surprise – where he crusades against speeding and dog doo. He becomes a talk show star and, in one scene, stumbles across a group of boys in soccer jerseys and mistakes them for members of the military, addressing them as “Ronaldo Hitler youth.”
The satirical wit extends to the book’s cover and even its price. The striking black-and-white cover depicts Hitler’s iconic black parted hair, with its title printed as his mustache. Even its price – €19.33 – refers to the year Hitler became German chancellor.
“He’s Back” joins a bevy of Hitler-inspired art and media in Europe bordering on Hitler-obsession, including comic acts, a burlesque musical comedy, magazine covers, and even a comic film directed by a Jew.
Not surprisingly, the novel’s popularity has some in Germany uncomfortable.
It is the “latest outgrowth of a Hitler commercialization machine that breaks all taboos to make money,” wrote weekly news magazine Stern.
In an almost melancholy air, German newspaper Die Suddeutsche Zeitung wrote, “We laugh, but it’s a laugh that sticks in the throat.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
“Knopf U.S. holds the Canadian rights to the book and due to the tight publishing schedule, a Canadian legal review was not completed at the time of the U.S. publication,” Knopf said in a statement. “Given the differing legal systems in the US and Canada, Knopf decided not to make the book available for distribution in Canada at the present time until such legal review is completed.”
The book was unavailable on Amazon.ca, the Canadian branch of the bookseller.
The Church of Scientology has already panned Wright’s book, calling it “fiction.”
“British and Canadian publishers chose not to print Mr. Wright's book, which speaks volumes about their confidence in its facts and allegations," church public affairs director Karin Pouw said in a statement. "Mr. Wright ignored the real story of Scientology in favor of stale allegations and ever-changing bizarre tales invented by a handful of confessed liars consumed with their media smear campaign.”
Wright contended that he tried to interview church officials but was rebuffed multiple times.
“Canada’s libel laws generally put publishers at considerable risk,” Ziegel said. “They’re seriously antiquated and need to be changed.”