Saturday, December 07, 2019

Working by Robert Caro

Working by Robert Caro was an excellent book on his approach to writing from the acclaimed author of The Power Broker on Robert Moses and The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, and The Passage of Power, all on Lyndon Johnson. This latest book felt to have two different main ideas covered in it, what Caro wanted to show in his prior works, and how he went about producing the writing.

Goal of his works

Caro noted how he wrote on Moses as well Johnson to provide a view into political power, how it's gained, wielded, and the impact it has on people, first at a regional level with Moses and then national with Johnson.

Moses shaped New York City and surrounding areas for some four decades as an unelected public official, both for good in spearheading the building of roads and parks, and for bad in displacing hundreds of thousands from their homes. One example written of by Moses was the taking apart of the East Tremont neighborhood to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway, with it's routing not negatively impacting business interests held by powerful allies.

Similar to in his writing on Moses, Caro detailed the positives as well as negatives from Johnson's influence. He as a young congressman helped bring electricity to the rural Texas Hill Country he grew up in, then led the Senate for six years, getting more accomplished there than anyone else ever has, including on Civil Rights, but also winning offices and accumulating power through illicit means and presiding over the Vietnam War.

His writing process

Caro also covered how he went about his work, with early in his career learning from a boss the need to "turn every page" in investigative reporting. This resulted in things including Caro spending seven years, and doing at least 522 interviews, writing The Power Broker, and he and his wife moving to the Texas Hill Country east of Austin for three years while researching Johnson's childhood growing up in the area.

Caro noted the importance of extensive document reading on both Moses and Johnson as well as the effort he put into tracking down interview subjects. Then when doing the interviews, he would dig into areas such as what it was like for the person at a specific time they with either Moses or Johnson, and what things that saw around them... with Caro using this detail to try to help readers visualize a sense to place. He also noted wearing a suit to his office to write, as a reminder that it's a job he's paid to do, having a daily word count goal to hit, and outlining extensively. Additionally covered was his time writing in the New York Public Library and being part of a small community of writers there, and how important it is to have good narrative writing in nonfiction, not something that should only be in fiction.

All of this effort was noted by Caro as being towards the goal of telling the story of where someone came from, what shaped them, and how that influenced the shaping they then did, with the overarching effort being to use the stories of first Moses and then Johnson to explain how things worked.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski was an interesting book by a writer whose work I enjoy quite a bit and have posted on a number of times back to 2009.

Posnanski writes of how Houdini compelling in part because of how he's managed to stay so relevant to this day, with staying in people's consciousness through books, movies, television shows, and simply mentions of him, his name synonymous with escapes, so often in descriptions of how someone "pulled a Houdini." Also covered well in the book was how Houdini had many contradictions in his life, including lying about having been born in 1874 in Appleton, WI, when he born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, and being known as a brilliant magician, rather than the master escape artist, promoter, and all-around performer who gave himself challenges and won at them, but not necessarily magician, that he was.

Posnanski covered how Houdini may not have done the impossible, but he very much did the amazing, and virtually every illusionist, magician, or escape artist after Houdini would have been influenced or inspired by him. To this end, the book covers star performers in the field including the late Ricky Jay, David Copperfield, Joshua Jay, and the duo Penn and Teller, bringing to mind a great 2012 Esquire article on Teller.