Thursday, October 31, 2013

Robert Klara

Robert Klara is the author of the critically acclaimed 2010 book FDR's Funeral Train, which historian and author Douglas Brinkley called “a major new contribution to U.S. history.” Klara has been a staff editor for several magazines including Adweek, Town & Country and Architecture. His freelance work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, American Heritage, and The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.

His new book is The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what he was reading. Klara's reply:
Before I finished The Hidden White House, I tried to count the number of books I’d consulted about the famed mansion and gave up somewhere around 150. Having digested about as much as anyone can stand about that fine old pile on Pennsylvania Avenue, I’m happy to report that my leisure-reading list has nothing to do with the White House or Washington, D.C. A few of my favorites from the last few months:

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (Viking, 2013) is one of those rare books about a sport that actually appeals to readers who don’t much care about sports at all. Taking advantage of a rare and fleeting chance to interview an ailing Joe Rantz, lone surviving member of the American crew team to take gold in the 1936 Olympics, Brown conjures Great Depression-era Seattle, where eight very poor and very remarkable young men managed to become the greatest crew team in American history. Brown’s writing is rich in anecdote and his treatment of prewar Berlin is chilling. Best of all, he conjures the spiritual, almost transcendent, quality of rowing in open water.

City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center by James Glanz and Eric Lipton (Times Books, 2003) is a work I had to wait 10 years before I could read. I’m a New Yorker: I not only stood on lower Broadway and watched the towers fall on 9/11, I lost someone I loved in one of them. Any authors who take on the subject of these buildings, then, had better do a superlative job on the topic (to keep these eyeballs, at least), while also sparing the reader from excessive emotionality and flag-waving. Glanz and Lipton have done it in spades with this engrossing, comprehensive look at the physical rise and symbolic import of these bombastic but momentous buildings, electing (refreshingly) to focus on the long history that preceded that September day, which goes a long way to explaining why the towers stood, and ultimately why they didn’t.

When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake by Brian Hicks (2006) is a book I picked up from a used-book shop because, for whatever reason, I’m an unapologetic sucker for Naval-disaster stories. The S.S. Morro Castle—a Ward Line “Whoopie Cruise” liner that plied the gin-soaked route from New York to Havana at the height of prohibition—is a paragon of doomed ships: It caught fire in the open sea in the predawn hours of 1934, burning so thoroughly that passengers jumped overboard (134 of them would die) while the ship’s blackened, smoldering hull beached itself astride the Asbury Park Convention Hall. There a number of books about the Morro Castle out there, and in varying degrees they all grapple with the fact that the fire’s cause was never determined. But Hicks has written what I—and many—consider the definitive account by locating and interviewing the last living survivor (a teenage purser from the crew) and pouring over a mountain of FBI and other investigative documents. This is historical investigation at its best—and narrative storytelling at is most affecting. Hick’s prose is vivid, engrossing, and rich as the plush carpets in the first-class lounge.

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, by Dana Thomas (Penguin, 2008) is a book I nearly didn’t read because, as a reporter for Adweek, I write about luxury brands all day. But I couldn’t be happier that I gave this book my time, because Thomas—a seasoned reporter from the old school—deconstructs and explains a curious phenomenon that few consumers consider: How “luxury” goods can possibly be considered as such when they are, almost without exception, marketed to mass audiences and made in Third-World factories. As it turns out, owning a luxury item (usually a handbag) has far more to do with shoppers engaging in a willful game of self-deception, convincing themselves that they are leading glamorous lives by virtue of owning a tiny piece of the glamorous world constructed by marketers and fashion magazines. How else can you explain the bizarre dichotomy of grocery-store cashiers spritzing on Vera Wang Princess in the morning? Orwell wrote that the drug Soma would lull the masses into accepting their disenfranchised lives; obviously, he never felt the rush of buying a fake Louis Vuitton bag.
Visit Robert Klara's website and Twitter perch.

My Book, The Movie: The Hidden White House.

--Marshal Zeringue