Erik Larson is one my favorite non-fiction writers, probably because he has written on a variety of subjects. Larson’s books first appeared in the early nineties, but the first to become a bestseller was Isaac’s Storm: a Man, a Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (1999). Larson followed that book with best sellers in 2003, 2006, 2011, and 2015 After reading these books, I surmise Larson might agree with Robert Morgan’s statement, “Sinners make the best characters.” Sinners abound in these stories.
The Galveston hurricane of 1900 is the subject of his first bestseller, Isaac’s Storm. That storm killed thousands of people and cut off communication between Galveston Island and the mainland, despite Isaac Cline’s claim that the sea wall would protect the population and property from any storm. When Cuban meteorologists predicted a severe hurricane brewing in the Caribbean was going to follow a westerly passage, enter the Gulf of Mexico, and threaten the south coast of Texas, the West Indies office of the United States Weather Bureau in Havana downplayed the Cubans’ forecast. By the time Isaac Cline, in Galveston, realized what was happening and tried to warn his superiors in the Weather Bureau in Washington of the severity of the storm, it was too late.
Larson’s second bestseller, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, is set in Chicago in the last decade of the 19th century. The city has a successful bid to hold a world’s fair in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. The books focuses on two men: Daniel Burnham and Herman Webster Mudgett, better known by his alias H. H. Holmes. Burnham was one of America’s most famous architects, Holmes was to become America’s most famous serial killer . While Burnham was in charge of transforming Jackson Park on the south side of Chicago in the fairgrounds for the Columbian Exposition, as the world fair was officially called, Holmes was enticing young women to his building nearby and taking their lives. The “White City” was the name associated with architecture and landscaping of the Columbian Exposition and Holmes claimed the Devil was to blame for his killing people; ergo, the title. The way Larson weaves the two stories is the reason the book has been a best seller ever it was published.
Thunderstruck, Larson’s third bestseller in a row, combines the stories of Guglielmo Marconi, who invented the wireless radio, and a murderer who leads the British police in a chase that leads from England to Canada. On one hand the reader is introduced to Hawley Crippen, an American doctor practicing in London who suspected of murdering his wife; on the other, reader meets a young Italian inventor who is trying to win the race to successfully develop the wireless telegraph. Like in his previous book, Larson alternates between the two stories as the reader is trying to figure how he is going to bring them together. This book reads like a fiction thriller.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, the family of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, finds themselves living in the pre-war Nazi society. As Hitler’s political party ramps up its crusade against the Jewish population of Germany and Nazi thugs mistreat America citizens, Dodd gets concerned enough to cables back to the State Department in Washington reporting what he seeing. But his communications are all but ignored. To complicate things, his young adult daughter is carrying affairs with leaders in the Nazi party. As Dodd witnesses Germany moving closer to war, the United States government continues its isolationist policy. This book reminds me of William Shirer’s Berlin Diary.
During World War I, before the United State became involved, the British liner Lusitania left New York on 1 May 1915 bound for Liverpool. The German Empire had earlier issued a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare on ships carrying war supplies to the Allies. This meant that German submarines would torpedo these vessels without warning or without regard for the safety of civilians. Because of this, the German Embassy published ads in the New York papers warned civilians, especially Americans, not to travel on the liner because she was carrying munitions. UBoat 20 fired one torpedo without warning into the Lusitania, but there were two explosions, one following right after the other, and the big liner sunk in only 18 minutes taking nearly 1200 people with her. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, published this spring, is the story of that tragedy.
All the above listed books make good summer reading!