Erik Larson. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (2015, Crown/Random House) This author is so good that I literally want him to write everything. I want Mr. Larson to take every book ever that's worth its salt and re-write it in Larson-ish. This man is brilliant. His writing is clear, yet descriptive and evocative. His manipulation of structuring is architectural. This book made the rounds last year on best-of-the-year lists and NPR interviews: every one I heard mentioned how Larson took the sinking of the Lusitania (a story most know the ending to. Spoiler alert: it sank) and made it suspenseful. Yep. That he did. The books I reach for first are always histories and Larson is top-notch: descriptive, exact, with an eye for the human and quirky. With Dead Wake, Larson manages to weave together exhaustive research from both ships (the German's U-20 and the Lusitania), the telegraph records, the archives and both build and unravel a blanket of time, import, memory, and circumstance. The sinking of the Lusitania is generally considered one of the final straws which nudged the reluctant President Wilson into the First World War. In this book, the sinking of the Lusitania becomes a prism for examining the individual lives of the people on the ships and on the land; of the strange interrelations (broken and otherwise) of the early 20th century; of manuscripts and minutiae; of the quiet tragedy of the individuals and the larger themes and movements historically speaking. This book is incredible. I'm going to get a t-shirt that says “I love Erik Larson.” Because I do.
Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune (2013, Random House) By happy accident, I read this book immediately after Larson's Dead Wake. The overlap in time periods here made for a fantastic side-by-side American-European, nearly epic, historical picture. Larson's book covers the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Dedman and Newell cover a 104-year-old passage from 1901 into the twenty-first century. The Titanic, the spiritualist movement, the class-consciousness, the Old World-New World connection figures in both. The subject of this book was quite literally booked on the sister ship of the Lusitania. She held a ticket for the second voyage of the Titanic. And that was just her pre-teen years. If you wanted a history of America from the mid-19th century through the early 21st; if you wanted a mystery story on greed and class and eccentricity; if you wanted a glimpse into the loneliest piece of the proverbial Other Half: this book is all these things. Huguette Clark was immensely wealthy; she lived alone for a huge portion of her life, surrounded by memories, expensive dolls, and seclusion. She spent the bulk of her later years, by choice, in a hospital. When she passed, her nurse walked away with several million dollars. There are times I think history can be best appreciated through the lives of singular case studies; frequently an eccentric woman can be a locus into philosophy, culture, and identity. This book, no less than its protagonist and heroine, is a mystery wrapped in a conundrum; and it's a fantastic gallop through a hundred-year life of an American millionaire. It's also both ultimately sad and frustrating and, if the Internet is to be believed, coming to a movie theatre near you, eventually. Read the book and try to mentally cast this film. I want to see it but I can't even begin to imagine the challenges of production. Because there is no knowing Huguette Clark.