Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Writings of Erik Larson: A Review

I came to love the writing of Erik Larson with his first book, Isaac's Storm.  I'll tell you more about that book in a minute.  Let me tell you first about his style.  His books are works of non-fiction.  What he does is takes two to three story lines, of the same period, and intertwines them.  He has written four books that have all used this technique and all have been best sellers.  Of course, your humble reviewer has read them all.  I've enjoyed all but one. So, let's get back to his first best seller, Isaac's Storm.  I am from Texas.  When I was a kid,  Florida was never a vacation destination but Galveston sure was.  So, every summer our family would stay with my grandmother and drive the short distance from Houston to Galveston.  In 1999 I heard that a new book was coming out about the great Galveston hurricane of 1900. I knew I had to buy it.  What Larson does in this book is intertwines the beginning of the US weather service with the great hurricane itself.  After the civil war and the advent of the telegraph, the US government set up "weathermen" in strategic locations to try and forewarn the coming of bad weather.  One such new weatherman was Isaac Cline, and he was given the position in Galveston.   The only training he got was with the Army Signal Corp.  And they knew nothing about weather forecasting.  Unfortunately for Isacc, this proves devastating.  We learn that Isaac doesn't believe that a big storm will ever hit Galveston because of the where and way it is situated.  We go from one chapter detailing the building of the weather service to the next chapter with Isaac trying to forecast the weather to the tracking of the storm itself. The hurricane is the largest natural disaster in American history.  You'll learn all about this in terrifying detail and of the horrendous aftermath.  Read more...

His second book, Devil in the White City, intertwines the story of a mass murderer with that of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.  It was some fair.  It covered over 600 acres and had over 720,000 visitors.  Some firsts at the fair:  The Ferris wheel, Cracker Jacks, the zipper, juicy fruit gum, and ragtime, just to name a few.  The fair brought all kinds of people to the city looking for work...such as young women from the countryside.  It also brought a devil with the name of Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes.  He built a hotel to house these lovely, young things.  And since they were in such a big city with so many visitors, well, they were hardly missed...The story intertwines that of the architect who is trying to lead the construction of the fair with that of Dr. Holmes and his house of horror.  Devil in the White City won an Edgar Award and was a finalist for a National Book Award. 

Larson's third book is the one I liked the least:  Thunderstruck.  I guess because one of the interlocking stories is about the trials and travails of Guglielmo Marconi and the discovery of wireless radio.  Too much science for me and too much back and forth about rivals trying to steal his invention.  But the other story is about Hawley Harvey Crippen, the second most wanted murderer in Britian behind Jack the Ripper.  Crippen murders his wife, runs away with his mistress, boards a ship to Canada... but wait... unknown to him, the ship is equipped with a new wireless radio.  And Scotland Yard is hot on his trail using this new fangled technology.  Millions of people around the world were listening on their wireless as Scotland Yard closed in.  And Crippen and his mistress were unaware...Will they get their man?  And what about that new fangled gadget, the wireless?  I think we know where the latter went...Thunderstruck

And the latest book from Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin,  is excellent.   During the 1930's, FDR is having a heck of a time trying to find an ambassador to Germany.  I wonder why?  He is turned down by several (which is uncommon considering the prestige and pomp and circumstance that goes with the title) until someone mentions William E. Dodd, a college professor who speaks some German and who had once lived as a graduate student in Leipzig.  When appointed, he is a small fish in a very big, stirred up pond.  He brings his wife and his 24 year old daughter, Martha.  They choose a house in the Tiergarten area.  Tiergarten literally translates into "garden of the beasts".  While Dodd tries to use reason and quite diplomacy with Hitler, his daughter cavorts with the likes of known communists and the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolph Diels. She's even set up for a "date" with Herr Fuhrer.  So, the intertwining here is of the tense diplomacy of Dodd, the cavorting of his daughter,  the infantcy of Hitler's Germany and the beginning of the descimation of Europe's Jews. While Dodd may appear hapless, he proves he is right about Hitler, while his daughter, Martha, is hapless and gets herself into some big trouble.  We know how WWII ends but you don't know what happens to Martha. With this book, like all of the others, you'll know, as Paul Harvey used to say, "the rest of the story".  

No comments:

Post a Comment