Archive for the ‘erik larson’ Tag

Another Look at Churchill and Others   Leave a comment

Erik Larson’s 500+ page look at Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister in The Splendid and The Vile is, no surprise, exhaustive. The author did his homework. Focusing on the time frame of May 10, 1940, to May 10, 1941, is smart. After all, much has already been written about the man who instilled hope in a daunting time.

The work is subtitled “A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz.” Of the three, the sections about members of the family and those who worked closely with the prime minister are the most interesting – especially about his younger daughter, Mary; his daughter-in-law, Pamela; and one of his private secretaries, John “Jock” Colville.

Although there’s little interaction between Mary and her father during this time frame, as Larson chronicles. Yet, her love for her father and her realization of the changes facing her comfortable, upper class lifestyle are compelling as told through excerpts of her diary; she turned 18 in September 1940.

From the beginning, Churchill knew U.S. involvement was necessary for Germany to lose the war. His efforts to maintain calm in his country, while appealing to Franklin Roosevelt for assistance and enduring the devastation of London being bombed is well documented.

Interspersed with accounts from and/or about colleagues and family are brief sections about Hitler and his cohorts in Germany. Perhaps photos are all that’s missing. History buffs and anyone concerned about history repeating itself more than it already has should find this book of interest.

The Splendid and the Vile
Four Bookmarks
Crown, 2020
585 pages, includes sources, acknowledgments and index

Bad Time for a Cruise   Leave a comment

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It takes Erik Larson about 100 pages to finally let the Lusitania set sail from New York City in May 1915. Dead Wake, his account of the doomed luxury liner, is exhaustive in detail and detached in its descriptions of the events leading to its historic sinking. No need for a spoiler alert here; many consider the German sinking of the Lusitania is what ultimately led the United States to join the British and French allies in World War I.

Larson’s research on the subject is thorough (there are more than 50 pages of notes). He addresses everything from the backgrounds of the ships’ captains involved, to the weather leading up to the point the ship left sight of land, to how the dining room was decorated for first class passengers. There’s more: brief bios about passengers, history of submarines, how Cunard came to name its fleet, and even Wilson’s love life as he strove to maintain neutrality for the U.S. even as events continued to escalate in Europe.

While it is heartbreaking to know that a record number of families with children were on board, the concise elements Larson provides about the passengers makes it difficult to have a true sense of their characters. This does not mean the event was less tragic, just that the book offers little except a historic narrative.

As with any tragedy, fingers pointing blame are plentiful; Larson offers numerous what ifs, which, of course, do nothing to change the course of history.

Dead Wake
Not-quite-three Bookmarks
Crown Publishers, 2015
430 pages (including notes and index)

Fear and Ineptitude   Leave a comment

It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely, unqualified person to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Germany as William E. Dodd during Hitler’s rise to power. It’s equally hard to visualize that his daughter’s scandalous behavior never, well, caused a scandal.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of  Beasts chronicles one of the four years Dodd spent in Germany first trying to ignore the problems, later attempting to convince others of the threats, fear and destruction caused by the Third Reich. He was equally inept at recognizing the potential dangerous behavior exhibited by his daughter Martha, who was attracted, it seemed, to any man who looked in her direction.

Larson relies on numerous letters, memoirs, newspaper articles, personal diaries and other accounts to piece together his narrative. The result is a well-constructed look at a fascinating time in world history. Beginning with Dodd as a professor at the University of Chicago, Larson tracks his path to Berlin, with brief stops through his backstory as a son of a poor North Carolina farming family. Although Dodd’s wife and son also moved to Germany, Larson’s focus is on the senior Dodd and Martha. He because of his position and his eventual, ineffective efforts to share his concerns/fears to greater powers; she because of the disreputable manner in which she socialized.

Larson’s descriptions of pre-World War II Berlin are riveting, as are his references to Dodd’s frugality. For example, Dodd insisted on shipping the family Chevrolet to Germany to save costs. Even in the face of the ensuing events, this is endearing.

In the Garden of  Beasts
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Crown Books, 2011
488 pages, including end notes, bibliography and index