Note: This summer I decided to toy around with the site Goodreads. I am interested in seeing how I might be able to use it with students this year. I am just exploring right now and thinking. I like the idea of students writing reviews of books that they read for pleasure. I often ask them to write low-stakes, freewrite responses to books that we read for class. I am thinking a site like Goodreads might offer an interesting way to expand that idea to include reading students might do on their own, perhaps with a little more polished writing. In the meantime, I am giving it a try for myself.
Having become a fan of Erik Larson’s work the moment I read the then newly published Devil and the White City, I began slowly reading his other titles. Isaac’s Storm is really the first in a sequence of what has become Larson’s signature style. Larson has come to build his books upon the essential set-up of finding an interesting, perhaps unlikely, individual embroiled in a deeply dramatic historical moment. Finding the fascinating pairing is where Larson excels all. For his first venture using his now well-established format, he opted for Isaac Cline, a rising star in the burgeoning United States Weather Bureau, situated in Galveston on the brink of a hurricane that would nearly wipe the city off the face of the Earth.
One of the things Larson does best is his ability to make a history come to life in vivid novel-like detail. The depth of that detail he is able to martial and use to tell a non-fictional story is remarkable. The amount of research he does to recapture the narrative of a situation is impressive. Through his excellent pacing and sequencing, Larson makes what must look initially like mountains of bureaucratic correspondence turn into gripping story. His books always read at times like novels. Yet, he has an extraordinary knack for weaving in the contextual information required to make the circumstances and main players’ vividly real. Perhaps most impressive is his capacity for creating a significant sense of doom despite any reader already knowing the outcome from the reading the inside jacket cover.
This was the third book of this current run of his that I have read. I read In the Garden of Beasts, also excellent, last year. It was interesting to see Larson beginning to establish his style in this early iteration. His use of telegram text as bridges to moments of experience is perhaps most starkly obvious in this title. Perhaps because it was my introduction to Larson or maybe it was just because of the Chicago Colombian Exposition setting, but I still think Devil and the White City is his best work of those that I read. At some point I am sure I will get around to reading Thunderstruck.
For anyone that enjoys historical non-fiction that reads with a novelist’s gift for storytelling, Erik Larson is a must read. I generally recommend his books to any history buffs.