An Evening With Erik Larson

Since I’m a writer, I feel compelled to attend literary events to keep up my street cred. Luckily, Asheville has a storied literary history and is drowning in culture, so thus, I have my pick.

Question for anyone reading: Have you ever joined a book club? I’m thinking I might give that go. I think it could be a good way to meet people here in Asheville, but I’m scared that A) I’ll always hate the books chosen B) the conversation will be so insufferably pretentious I start getting that former-lit major PTSD, or C) I’ll be the only one who can’t maintain a rigorous reading schedule, have to Google my way through the conversation, and get a different type of former-lit major PTSD. I’d love someone to change my mind though. I like the idea of a book club, but just feel there’s too much room for error.

I have found some writer events to start diving into. I’ve signed up for two classes at The Flat Iron Writer’s Room, and attended my very first author discussion hosted by Malaprop’s Bookstore at the UNCA campus. I think it will be my first of many, even if I didn’t find the discussion with author Erik Larson to be terribly insightful.

Erik Larson, for the uninitiated, writes historical nonfiction that reads like fiction, connecting historical disasters/debacles to bigger cultural themes. I greatly enjoyed Isaac’s Storm, respected that he tackled the sinking of the Lusitania in Deep Wake instead of the more obvious ship of dreams, found what’s probably his most well-known book Devil in the White City deeply fascinating, and liked In the Garden of Beasts best.

What I liked most about In the Garden of Beasts was what disappointed me most about Friday’s ruminating on The Splendid and the Vile, his newest book about how Winston Churchill’s family survived “The Blitz” (a historical event I was weirdly fascinated with as a child). In the Garden of Beasts told the story of the last US ambassador to Germany pre-WWII, what one might assume would’ve been a weighty position, but haphazardly went to William Dodd through what was essentially a series of bureaucratic fumbles.  It also addressed how reluctant the US was to help the plight of the people of Europe (aka, the Jews) despite what we were taught in high school about WWII being the greatest generation battling Nazis for the good of the realm. Erik Larson started his talk commenting about how people love WWII because it was the last American war were there were well-defined good and bad guys, but In the Garden of Beasts showed reality was more complex than that. I looked forward to a continuation of that discussion, but realized the conversation would be too polite for that; genteel would be an apt adjective to describe both the conversation and the audience. I’d say staid even, but Larson made several sexual innuendos, the kind that a person of a certain age who wants to pretend they’re edgier than they are eats right up.

I hope I’m not coming across too harsh or negative. I didn’t have a bad time, and still very much look forward to reading The Splendid and the Vile, I just…I think there could’ve been a really interesting talk about the history we learn vs the history that happened, the dangers of complicity, and the deadly effects political maneuvering can wrought, but the cynic in me thinks maybe that would’ve been too uncomfortable for the Whole Food shopping Baby Boomer crowd I spent last Friday with.

Is this what it feels like to be woke?

Despite what I’m saying, I enjoyed some of the insights into Larson’s writing process, but it just didn’t live up to the potential I thought it had, and well…we’re all warriors behind the keyboard, ya know?

I have higher hopes for my next Malaprop’s author talk: Jeff Sharlet. If you need an introduction to him please read this very important Esquire article about Christianity in the age of Bieber, or watch The Family on Netflix. Either way, truly scary stuff.

Update: Jeff Sharlet was cancelled due to even scarier stuff: CORONA.


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