NOVEMBER FIELD NOTES SELECTION: DEAD WAKE

Thanks to everybody who showed up for the Field Notes meeting on Saturday, October 26.  Even though many members of the group didn’t like (and didn’t even finish reading) our last book, Fates and Furies, we still had a very lively discussion of the book and the issues it raised.  

We meet again on November 23 from 11:00 to 12:30 at The Field Library (in the teen zone) to discuss the book we’ve selected for November, which is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson.  Copies are available now at the Circulation Desk.

Anyone who’s read The Devil in the White City, an Edgar winning bestseller, knows how skilled a historical writer Erik Larson is, how well he brings to life complex details of the past. His depiction, in this book, of the fateful interaction between the H.M.S. Lusitania and U-Boat 20 in the waters off Ireland in May, 1915, gives readers a vivid picture of the early days of World War I, the conventions of warfare as understood by the Germans and the British.  He paints portraits of all the major players in the sinking of the luxury liner, from the passengers to the captain of the ship to the captain of the U-boat, to the members of the British Intelligence Service who knew what was going to happen but didn’t tell anyone. Too often history is seen with hindsight and everything seems inevitable because this is how events happened; looking at the pivotal sinking of the Lusitania (which was one of the causes for the U.S. entry into the war on the side of the Allies two years later) from the point of view of people experiencing it as it happened makes clear how contingent this (and most famous historical events) was on a multitude of factors, large and small, which could have gone a different way.

Come and get your copy of the book, and then join us for what promises to be a vigorous discussion and our usual good company, coffee and refreshments.

 

MORE THAN A MEMOIR: WORKING

Why should someone read a book about the process of writing biographies, especially if you’ve never read the biographies the author has written?  When the book is Working: Researching, Interviewing and Writing, by Robert Caro, the answer to that question is simple: the book is utterly fascinating, whether you’re a writer or not, whether you’ve ever read his Pulitzer Prize winning biographies of Robert Moses or of Lyndon B. Johnson or not, whether you know anything about him or about his subjects.  As a matter of fact, Working is so well-written, filled with so many fascinating details, that I’m seriously considering actually tackling his massive biographies (the very lengths of which have daunted me in the past).

Caro started out as a reporter on a local New Jersey newspaper and then on Newsweek, and he writes about how those jobs sparked his interest in biography, and how each biography he wrote led to the next.  Winning the respect of his editor on Newsweek, who was originally suspicious of a young reporter who’d graduated from Princeton, by his willingness to dig deep into a political story, Caro learned a principle that would serve him well throughout his career: turn every page. Look at everything, dig deeper, don’t settle for the obvious story or the obvious angle. His nearly obsessive adherence to that rule is the reason his books take so long to write, because his research takes him everywhere, not just through all the archives of famous and less famous people (the Lyndon B. Johnson archives, which he describes vividly, contain millions of documents), but to the places where the subject lived and worked. In the case of Robert Moses, for instance, Caro dug deeply into the reasons why he chose to take certain famers’ lands and skip around the edges of certain rich and connected people’s properties, going to the scene of the expressway and talking to the people who lost their land as a result; he traced down the people who were displaced from one Bronx neighborhood so Moses could build one of his expressways, and he describes those encounters in this book vividly enough that you want to see how he handles these situations in The Power Broker.  When writing his first book about LBJ, Caro and his wife moved into the Hill Country where Johnson was born and raised, to get a sense of what that world was like, to find out how Johnson changed his people’s lives for the better even as a young congressman. 

You can learn, from this book, not only how Caro would work his interviews with various people who were significant in the lives of his subjects, but some tricks of the trade of interviewing in general (you will, for instance, learn the importance of SU in interviewing), how to get people to talk to you, how to nudge them into remembering more details than they might have believed they remembered, how to persuade people to tell the truth, rather than the public story.  I am sure, from reading this, that Caro is an expert interviewer, because he seems to have an infinite capacity for listening and very little ego. 

The book gives a vivid picture of the life of a serious nonfiction writer, from the poverty in which he and his wife lived when he was first researching The Power Broker, to life in the New York Public Library’s research room, to his actual methods of writing the books (longhand? In pencil? Who does that??).

The advantage of reading Working: Researching, Interviewing and Writing is that it’s much shorter than Caro’s prizewinning books, but be warned: it will make you want to dig deeper and maybe even tackle the books themselves.

 

FORGOTTEN HISTORY: THE IMPEACHERS

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have a degree in history and consider myself a history buff, especially when it comes to American history, so it was kind of shocking to me to realize how little I knew about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868. I knew he’d come within one vote of being convicted by the Senate, but I hadn’t known exactly what he was charged with or whether it was a good thing he didn’t get convicted.  If you, like me, have only the vaguest notion of what happened the first time a president was impeached, may I recommend an excellent nonfiction book, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson, by Brenda Wineapple.  And if you think a book about an impeachment that happened in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War couldn’t possibly be interesting, again, I recommend this book, which brings the era, and the questions surrounding the impeachment, to vivid life.

Wineapple is an excellent author, who makes the world of the immediate aftermath of the Civil War come alive and provides quick portraits of all the important characters involved in the impeachment (and what characters they were!  If you think modern politicians are quirky, you haven’t met their 19th century counterparts), illuminating the issues that brought Andrew Johnson to his date with history. While most of the actual articles of impeachment turned on Johnson’s efforts to fire Edwin Stanton in violation of an act of Congress basically designed to protect Stanton from being fired, the last article of impeachment was more general and talked about Johnson’s continuing efforts to defy Congress and refuse to obey the laws.  The book makes it clear that Johnson did in fact have contempt for Congress and felt he was the only person who could make the right decisions about the course of the country. 

As it turns out, the real issues that brought the impeachment to a head were deep questions about what kind of country America would be after the end of the Civil War, specifically what would happen to the former slaves in the South. The Ku Klux Klan was already rising to terrorize African Americans and anyone who was trying to help them be educated or own property or vote.  There were debates in Congress about the extent to which African Americans needed to have the right to vote protected by Constitutional amendment rather than law, there were debates about whether the former officials and officers of the Confederacy should be allowed to reassume power in their state governments. The book describes the debates and the events that led to the debates and informed the reactions of prominent people to the constitutional issues involved.  This is fascinating stuff with obvious parallels to the present, and a keen sense of how decisions made in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War led directly to the era of Jim Crow and current issues of racial relations. Would it have been possible to have charted a different century of relations between blacks and whites in America if the Radical Republicans had won the day? 

If questions like this intrigue you, then by all means check out The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson, for a fascinating look at a critical period of American history. 

NEW HORROR AT THE FIELD

It’s that time of year again, even though the thermometer is not cooperating and is determined to pretend it’s still high summer: October, when leaves change and all the Halloween decorations begin to appear and the candy shows up in the supermarkets (if they don’t already have their Christmas decorations up, which is another matter which we will not discuss here).  What better time is there to find a new horror book and dive into the darkest parts of the season? Fortunately, we have two new horror books (if you haven’t already read Stephen King’s newest, The Institute, or if you’ve already finished it) here at The Field for your chills and thrills.

Perhaps you don’t feel you have the time or the stomach for a full novel’s worth of nightmares and creepy stuff.  Perhaps you’re more of a short story fan in general. If so, you’re going to want to check out Full Throttle, a collection of short stories by Joe Hill.  Hill, the author of Heart Shaped Box, Horns and NOS482, would be well known in the horror world even if he didn’t happen to be the son of Stephen King (and just imagine what bedtime stories would have been like in that household!).  In this collection of 13 (of course) short stories, two of which were co-written with King, Hill shows his mastery of the short form and the conventions of horror.  How about an opening to a beautiful, fairy world that leads to an orgy of blood when a group of hunters find their way through? Or what about some kids finding a plesiosaur corpse on the banks of a lake and discovering that isn’t the worst thing lurking there?  Or (the one that appeals most to me) a grief-stricken librarian driving a bookmobile to deliver new reads to the dead? Full Throttle is a must if you’re already a Joe Hill fan, and it might make you one if you aren’t already.

Stephen Chbosky, the author of Imaginary Friend, is known for his young adult books, especially The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but here he proves he can turn up the suspense and the creepiness as well.  The setup is pure horror trope: a single mother with a young child is on the run from an abusive relationship.  She finds her way to what seems to be the perfect hiding place, Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, a small, close-knit town so isolated there’s only one road in or out.  Nobody could possibly find them here, she believes, and the pair begin to settle in, until one day when the little boy, Christopher, disappears. He’s missing for six days, and then emerges from the woods on the edge of town, physically unharmed, but clearly changed.  Now he’s hearing voices in his head, and the voices are telling him he has to build a tree house before Christmas or else. There’s obviously more to this small town (and the woods outside it) than meets the eye. This book clocks in at over 700 pages, so you need to set aside some time to dive into it and really absorb the battle of good vs. evil that takes place in it.

Prepare for the season with our newest horror offerings here at The Field.