Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Erik Larson at the LIU Post - Sunday, April 23, 2017

If you are familiar with Erik Larson's works (at least his recent works) then you know that he really has a strong ability to make history just come alive!

When you read "The Devil in the White City," you really feel as if you are walking around in Chicago in the days before the World's Columbian Exposition in the late 19th century. You can relate to the problems faced by those who were creating the buildings and grounds of the fair, which came out remarkably well in the end. Unfortunately, it was burned down, and only a very few remnants of the glory days of this "White City" remain, although Larson allows the reader to really appreciate not only the effort in building this, as well as how far it went towards establishing Chicago as truly a world class city, but through his descriptions, you really get a feel for just how beautiful the grounds and the building were. 

When you read "In the Garden of the Beats," you really feel as if you are visiting the city of Berlin in the very earliest days of Hitler and the rise of the Nazis. You feel like you are witness to the radical changes that must have then been taking place in Germany, and particularly in the capital city. You see how people begin to do the straight arm salute of the "Seig Heil." You also feel the apprehension that other governments must have been feeling towards Hitler, as he was seen as an unknown and perplexing figure, as experienced by Ambassador Dodd, the central figure of this book.

Now, I look forward to reading Larson's latest book, “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.” While his last book examined the period of Hitler's ascension as Chancellor of Germany, as he began to grab more and more power, which itself helped accelerate the inevitability of the outbreak of World War II, this one takes us to the relatively early days of the First World War. Of course, war had already broken out by the late summer of 1914, but the sinking of the Lusitania accelerated the inevitability of America's entrance into the so-called "Great War." In this historical book, Larson essentially takes us on board the Lusitania, or at least as close to feeling like we are on board as we are ever apt to get.

Larson discussed the making of this book, including where he initially got the idea of a book on this singular event from, as well as some of the details around it. While most of the remaining collection of items from the sinking of the Lusitania are centered in London, the one item that he felt brought home the true meaning and horror of the event was something that he found at Stanford University, where there was what he called a "modest" collection of artifacts related to the Lusitania. It was a block of wood that one person had and was hanging onto after the sinking of the ship. Larson explained that while this piece of wood was found, the person's body never was. That thought was what brought the reality of the horror of this event home to him, as nothing else that he had seen or read had to that point.

And while I have not yet read this book, Larson surely breathes life into this long ago and far away event. World War II was being fought a century ago now, and in fact, earlier this month, there was the one hundredth anniversary of the entry of the United States into the war. However, this author is able to bring these events back to life, to make them feel not so long ago or far away, by focusing on the every day, and emphasizing those aspects of every day life back then that we could very much relate to in the present age. He has that unique ability to make what might otherwise feel like dry historical material and make it pertinent and fascinating, even gripping!

I have gone to quite a few of these author events in recent years, and have even reviewed some of them here. Rarely have I waited quite as long for one particular author as I have with Larson. I saw dates with him in numerous different areas, but rarely were there locations and/or dates that were manageable from my end. So, it was a real thrill to find out that he would be coming around in my area (relatively speaking) on a date that could work. It meant bringing my son along for the trip, and knowing that ht would likely be bored to tears. But making sure that he brought a book or something, some quiet activity to keep him busy, would probably fix that.

So it was that I finally got to see Larson, and am glad to have done so. He spoke with humor and insight, and upon my brief meeting, he seemed pretty cool! It was a privilege, and so I wanted to make sure to share this experience here.

On Sunday, April 23rd Erik Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City” and “In the Garden of Beasts,” discussed his most recent work,  “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania,” for the Long Island Reads selection for 2017. The reading and signing began at 2 p.m. and went until at least 4 p.m. with the signing, and took place at the Hillwood Recital Hall, Tilles Center, LIU Post, 720 Northern Blvd., in Brookville, New York.

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