Thursday, August 28, 2014

Kevin Baker

Kevin Baker is a novelist and historian, and most recently the author of The Big Crowd, a historical novel based on a real-life mayor of New York City and his wife, the country’s leading fashion model, who had to flee to Mexico over his involvement in the greatest unsolved murder in mob history.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Baker's reply:
I tend to read both fiction and nonfiction at the same time, what I need to read for my work, and what I read for pleasure (all too infrequently), or because I want to satisfy my curiosity about something.

With the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I, I’ve begun reading through the spate of recent books on the subject. I wanted to see if the old Barbara Tuchman thesis from The Guns of August still stood up: that the conflict was caused mostly by putting into place mechanisms for war, that could not be halted once they were triggered.

It does, but this is only part of the whole story, at least according to Sean McMeekin’s July 1914: Countdown to War, which is tremendously well-researched. It makes clear that the full story is even more depressing, that the war was brought on in good part by the bureaucratic maneuverings of obscure cabinet ministers, trying to win petty political points. I’ve just started Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace, which so far promises to be every bit as brilliant as her work on the Versailles Conference, Paris 1919, and I’ll probably push on and read Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914. I expect to be thoroughly despondent about humanity by the time I finish it.

On a more uplifting note, I just finished Brenda Wineapple’s history of America from 1848-1877, Ecstatic Nation, which is a book of incredible scope and intelligence, encompassing literature, technology, the greatest liberation movements in our history, and, oh yeah, the Civil War. It speaks volumes to our situation today as a nation. It’s about how the very idea of compromise became anathema, as all these various factions were swept away by their ecstatic visions of what America could and should be. I was reading it in part to understand how you do something of this girth, since the next book I will be writing is a history of the United States between the world wars, and while I am completely inspired I am now also thoroughly intimidated.

A book I am continuing to read, very slowly, is Henry D. Fetter’s Taking on the Yankees, which is a history of the business side of baseball over the years. I use it as a constant reference while I’m finishing the book I’m writing now on the history of New York City baseball. I’m continually impressed by how fine Mr. Fetter’s brain is, how trenchant and insightful his analyses are. He’s a lawyer who can write.

In fiction, I just re-read Steve Galloway’s novel, The Confabulist, which is a very subtle, sweetly tragic book about a man who believes he killed Houdini. You really don’t get all the nuances of it right away, but it’s quite moving when you do. I’m always very impressed by the range of his work.

I also just read, over a quick weekend away for a wedding, Allen Furst’s latest, Midnight in Europe. His work is a guilty pleasure for me, I can’t get enough of it. Sure, he spins a good spy yarn and there’s plenty of suspense, but what you really read these for are the ambience, so you can know what it’s like to sit in a perfect French bistro in 1938. They’re so beautifully described, and seem so effortless. A weekend off in Connecticut, a train trip with my wife, old friends, young people getting married, and a good read. What could be better?
Visit Kevin Baker's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Big Crowd.

--Marshal Zeringue