How popular was Shirley Temple among Americans in the 1930s? "Within a year of her breakthrough in 1934, hers was the second most popular name in the country," John F. Kasson writes in his upcoming book, The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America (Norton, April). In fact, Shirley Temple was popular not only in America, but around the world, becoming a global sensation on a scale that could make even Justin Bieber envious. From 1935 through 1938, Kasson reports, "she was the most popular star at the box office both within the United States and worldwide, a record never equaled." Among the countless fans who treasured portraits of Temple was Anne Frank, who kept a picture of the child star in the room where she hid from the Nazis.
Shirley Temple Black's death last week at the age of 85 will likely prompt a re-evaluation of her life and legacy, and Kasson's timely volume is a first step in that process. A professor of history and American studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he focuses on Temple's boundless optimism and its effect on the Depression-weary public. Both insightful and filled with interesting details about Temple's career (her "preternatural talents" fostered persistent rumors that she was an adult midget), The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression is a case study of the interplay between celebrity and culture. Look for it in bookstores and libraries on April 14.
2013 brought plenty of literary treasure for readers. While 2014 doesn't have quite as many long-awaited works in store, there are still abundant treats for book lovers, from promising debuts to stellar second acts to new works from established favorites.
Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
Bantam • January 21
Horan's 2007 debut, Loving Frank, starred Frank Lloyd Wright's longtime mistress Mamah Borthwick Cheney. In her second novel, Horan has chosen another overlooked heroine from history: Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, the muse and eventual wife of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose adventure-filled life spanned more than one continent. Horan is a master at blending fact and fiction, and readers will find Osbourne as memorable a heroine as Cheney.
Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore
Knopf • February 25
Fifteen years after the publication of her last book, one of America's most inventive and admired short-story writers returns. Bark is trademark Moore: a collection of tales full of carefully drawn characters who face the difficulties of everyday life with senses of humor intact.
Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li
Random House • February 25
The Chinese-American Li, who moved to the U.S. from Beijing more than 15 years ago, is a MacArthur Fellow and one of the New Yorker's 20 under 40. While her new novel deals with many of her usual themes—assimilation to American life, the lives of everyday people in China, and the damage wrought in the aftermath of China's civil war and turn to Communism—it also contains a suspense element, adding a new twist for her many fans.
Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn
Liveright • March 3
The novelist whose books include Thumbsucker and Up in the Air turns out to have a surprisingly soft heart: He set out in his own car to deliver a shelter dog from Montana to a new owner in New York City. That owner, with whom Kirn would form an unlikely friendship, was Clark Rockefeller, a serial imposter later convicted of murder.
The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait by Blake Bailey
Norton • March 3
The award-winning biographer of such literary luminaries as John Cheever and Richard Yates tells his own story in one of the most surprising and riveting memoirs of the season. Bailey, who's currently at work on an authorized biography of Philip Roth, portrays his eccentric and troubled family with unflinching honesty and considerable humor. His wildly self-destructive brother, Scott—the focus of the book—is a character readers won't soon forget.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead • March 6
In her fifth novel—and yes, she's only 30—Oyeyemi puts a midcentury twist on the Snow White tale. When Boy meets a charming widower and his beautiful daughter, Snow, she is determined not to become the evil stepmother, especially after the abuse she received from her own father. But then Boy discovers the real reason Snow's fair beauty is revered in her husband's family. This ambitious novel fearlessly tackles complicated issues like race and female competitiveness, even as it tells a fascinating story.
The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh
Spiegel & Grau • March 11
Rural life is anything but idyllic in this suspenseful debut novel set in the Missouri Ozarks. Seventeen-year-old Lucy Dane barely remembers her mother, Lila, who disappeared when Lucy was a baby. When one of Lucy's friends is murdered, her search for the killer also uncovers some dark family secrets. McHugh's portrayal of a small-town community's suspicion of outsiders is spot-on, as is the atmosphere she creates; fans of morally complicated thrillers like A Simple Plan and In the Woods should take note.
Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman
Morrow • March 18
The mystery surrounding Michael Rockefeller, youngest son of then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, still lingers more than 50 years after he disappeared without a trace in New Guinea. Hoffman attempts to put the mystery to rest with on-the-scene research and new documents that shed light on what really happened. The combination of a famous family, a young man's quest and rumors of cannibalism should attract plenty of readers to this third-world true-crime story.
New Life, No Instructions by Gail Caldwell
Random House • April 1
Let's Take the Long Way Home (2010) touched the hearts of readers (including many at BookPage) with its moving account of a special friendship that was broken only by death. Those who want to learn how Caldwell bounced back after losing her best friend can look forward to this follow-up, which focuses on her own health struggles (resulting from a childhood bout with polio) and the puppy who helped her find a new path.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown • April 1
Emma Donoghue became a household name for readers after the her 2010 novel, Room, sold more than 1.5 million copies. But Room was actually an anomaly for Donoghue, who was known as a historical fiction writer—or, as she puts it, a "fact-based historical writer." She returns to the past here with a story set in 1876 San Francisco that's based on a real-life crime.
Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes
Crown • April 1
Mayes has written three bestsellers about her life in Italy (Under the Tuscan Sun, etc.) but this spring for the first time, she recounts her coming-of-age in the American South. Will readers be as interested in Fitzgerald, Georgia, as they were in the dazzling Tuscan countryside? Mayes' spirited youth and evocative writing should draw them in.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin • April 1
Gabrielle Zevin, the author of six previous books for adults and young adults, has written a fable-like story for anyone who loves books—and isn't that every reader? Prickly bookseller A.J. Fikry thinks that his life is over after a tragic loss, until a certain sales rep shows up at his store.
The Price of Silence by William D. Cohan
Scribner • April 8
This new account of the Duke lacrosse scandal promises the complete, true story for the first time of the episode that provoked a clash between some of the biggest cultural forces in America. The fact that Cohan himself is a Duke alum who worked on Wall Street should make for an interesting perspective on this complex case.
Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich
Twelve • April 8
A writer who has produced incisive and thought-provoking works on social issues (Nickel and Dimed, Bright-Sided, Bait and Switch) turns her attention to her personal journey in a book the publisher describes as "part memoir, part philosophical and spiritual inquiry." Readers who put books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens on bestseller lists will eagerly anticipate Ehrenreich's look back at her youthful quest to untangle the meaning of life.
Love Life by Rob Lowe
Simon & Schuster • April 8
Lowe's first memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends (2011), was a bestseller, and expectations are high for more of the same with his second effort. "I'm hoping readers will think of the first book as a restaurant where they ate a good meal, and that they'll want to come back and try a new dish," Lowe said when he signed the deal to write a sequel. Publisher S&S promises stories about the girlfriend Lowe lost to a big-time movie star and his surprise visit to a hot tub at the Playboy Mansion, among many others. We're ready to place our order!
Postcards from Cookie by Caroline Clarke
HarperCollins • April 15
After health issues sent Clarke to an adoption agency to investigate her background, she learned the surprising truth: Her birth mother is Carole "Cookie" Cole, daughter of legendary singer Nat "King" Cole. The story of how mother and daughter forged a bond decades after they were separated should garner a lot of attention as Mother's Day approaches.
Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe
Little, Brown • April 22
We like to think of ourselves as mostly immune to the persuasive power of blurbs, but this one from Maria Semple (author of Where'd You Go, Bernadette) got our attention: "Breezy, sophisticated, hilarious, rude, and aching with sweetness: Love, Nina might be the most charming book I've ever read." Already a hit in the UK, Stibbe's book is a collection of letters she wrote to her sister while working as a nanny for the editor of the London Review of Books. But, wait—we know what you're thinking! This is not a repeat of The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada. Instead, just as Semple promises, Stibbe delivers a sweet and charming portrait of a quirky family and their literary pals.
My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer
Algonquin • April 22
What happens when a Southern California girl meets and falls in love with a Libyan-born Muslim? Can there be a happily-ever-after for a bicultural couple raising two kids in the American South? Bremer, an award-winning magazine writer, tells this love story with lyrical style. And, as she notes, "Every single marriage is bicultural" in some sense, so readers everywhere may find themselves unexpectedly identifying with her experiences.
No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald
Metropolitan • April 29
The reporter who broke the story of Snowden's whistle-blowing and the NSA's massive surveillance operation offers an inside look at how he received the leaked documents that rocked the world. Expect Greenwald to display his usual take-no-prisoners style as he details how the scandal unfolded and how NSA's data gathering will effect privacy (or lack thereof) in the modern age.
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
FSG • May 6
Cunningham's lyrical latest is set in 2004 New York City, where Barrett Meeks has a heavenly vision in Central Park and gets religion. Meanwhile, his brother Tyler is on a downward spiral as he tries to write a song that is a worthy tribute to his fiancée, Beth, who is battling a serious illness. As Beth's condition worsens, the divide between the Meeks brothers deepens.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown • May 6
What if someone stole your identity online—and became a better "you" than you were? That's the hilarious premise of Ferris' third novel. Ferris, whose first novel, Then We Came to the End, was a finalist for the National Book Award, is the master at portraying the absurdity of modern life, and we can't wait to see what he does with this tantalizing topic.
The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead
Doubleday • May 6
The acclaimed novelist (and wickedly funny Twitter guy) got a plum assignment from Grantland magazine in 2011: a seat at the table for the World Series of Poker. We can't wait to hear Whitehead's satiric take on how an inexperienced player fared in this high-stakes game.
The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings
S&S • May 13
It has been almost seven years since the publication of Kaui Hart Hemmings' promising debut, The Descendants, which became an Alexander Payne film starring George Clooney. This time out, Hemmings is eschewing the lush setting of her native Hawaii for the ski resort town of Breckenridge, but she's continuing her exploration of family bonds and the weight of grief.
Hillary Rodham Clinton memoir by Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster • June 1
This much-anticipated memoir doesn't have an official title or cover—or even a publisher-provided description—but no doubt it will be a fascinating account of Clinton's four years serving as the U.S. Secretary of State under President Obama. Will it also provide insight into her 2016 plans? We'll have to wait until June 1 to find out.
The Farm by Tom Rob Smith
Grand Central • June 3
Sounds like the author of Child 44 has given us another thrilling summer read. Daniel's parents are enjoying a quiet retirement in rural Sweden—until the day he gets a phone call from his father saying his mother has had a breakdown and has been committed to an institution. Even as Daniel hurries to Heathrow to catch a plane, he gets a call from his mother saying: Don't believe him.
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Scribner • June 3
The prolific King is back, just nine months after the publication of the thrilling Doctor Sleep, with another up-all-night read—although this time, he's trying his hand at a detective novel. Retired policeman Bill Hodges gets an anonymous note hinting that the man who committed an unsolved crime—a mass murder that still haunts Hodges' dreams—is planning another attack.
Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon
Delacorte • June 10
It's been rescheduled twice, but we're crossing our fingers that the latest volume in the Outlander saga will actually be published this time around. At 832 pages, it will probably take all summer to read about Claire and Jamie's new time-traveling adventures.
Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse
Simon & Schuster • June 10
The publisher is comparing this memoir by the PEN/Hemingway award winner to books like The Glass Castle and The Tender Bar. Abandoned by his Mexican father, Skyhorse grew up with five different stepfathers and a mother who tried to reinvent the family as Native American. The story of how he figured out who he really was—30 years later—should be a fascinating one.
A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley
Putnam • June 17
Brierley, who was raised in poverty in India, became separated from his older brother on a train when he was only five years old. Lost and alone in Calcutta, he was eventually adopted by an Australian family, but never forgot his family back home. Twenty-five years later, he used Google Earth to track them down. Brierley's own retelling of this amazing story—which generated worldwide news coverage in 2012—will be available to American readers for the first time this summer.
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai
Viking • July 10
Makkai has been hovering just outside of most readers' radars, but attention and appreciate for her work has been growing—her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories for the last four years. Will this imaginative second novel, set on an estate that formerly housed an arts colony, be her breakout book?
The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman
Viking • August 5
Grossman's Magicians trilogy has sold millions of copies worldwide—and now it's time for the final book in the series. Quentin Coldwater has returned to Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic after being expelled from the land of Fillory. But he can't escape his past, and soon a set of events that put Fillory in jeopardy is set in motion.
Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
Random House •
August 5 July 29
In her first novel since 2007's Away, Amy Bloom gives us a rollicking road story starring two half-sisters in the 1940s and '50s. Eva and Iris meet when Eva's mother abandons her on Iris' front porch, and soon the two girls become everything to each other. When Iris decides she wants to be in pictures, Eva becomes her straight man and sidekick on a quest that takes them across the country.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Knopf • August 12
Translators Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin are probably putting the finishing touches on this book, which came out last April in Japan to the usual excitement and acclaim, as I type. Title character Tsukuru Tazaki is a lonely 36-year-old man whose life hasn't exactly turned out as planned—he's still processing the pain of his high school years.
Consumed by David Cronenberg
Scribner • September 2
Yes, that David Cronenberg, director of Crash and A History of Violence, has turned his hand to fiction. Two journalists uncover a global conspiracy in a twisting tale that includes 3D printing, a rare STD, North Korea and the Cannes Film Festival.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Random House • September 4
The genre-bending author, perhaps best known for the novel Cloud Atlas, has put a touch of magic into his upcoming book, The Bone Clocks, which is set partially in a near-future Ireland after the world's climate has collapsed.
Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín
Simon & Schuster • October
His last book, The Testament of Mary, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Now Tóibín returns with a heartbreaking story of Nora Webster, a single mother trying to provide for her two sons amid the turmoil of 1960s Ireland.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Hogarth • October 28
Faber seems to be veering away from his historical style in the best-selling Crimson Petal to pen a more fantastical tale starring a missionary whose task is to work on an alien planet. "It is an unexpected and wildly original novel about adventure, faith and the ties that might hold two people together when they are worlds apart," quoth the publisher.
Revival by Stephen King
Scribner • November 11
The second 2014 release from this relentlessly imaginative author is a more straightforward horror story dealing with a preacher and a washed-up, drug-addled musician who strike a bargain that is more than a little bit devilish.
More books on our 2014 radar—release dates not yet announced:
Escape from Children's Hospital by Jonathan Safran Foer (Little, Brown)
The American Lover by Rose Tremaine
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (FSG)
The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin (Ballantine)
An untitled release from Nick Hornby (Riverhead)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (Holt)
*release dates subject to change
As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list. Think J.R. Ewing and “Dallas.” Think Lonesome Dove. Think Faulkner. This stunning second novel from Philipp Meyer (following his critically praised debut, American Rust) combines epic storytelling, Texas tragedy and raw, powerful writing. Tracing the rise to power of the McCullough clan—from the birth of patriarch Eli in 1836 to the 20th-century struggles of great-granddaughter Jeannie—Meyer reveals more about Texas and its violent past than any history book ever could. Read our review or interview, or check out an excerpt. To see the full list of our best books of 2013, click here.
Dear Mrs. Kennedy: The World Shares Its Grief
By Jay Mulvaney and Paul De Angelis
St. Martin's Griffin • $13.99 • ISBN 9781250041739
Paperback edition published November 2013
In late November 1963, a young boy who lived across the street in our suburban Nashville neighborhood wrote a letter to Jacqueline Kennedy, sending his childlike condolences after the assassination of her husband. Many weeks later, the older kids in the neighborhood were surprised (and more than a little envious) to hear that little Timmy had received a card in the mail from the widowed first lady:
My young neighbor was one of 900,000 correspondents who received the response cards, a massive effort that required a staff of some 3,000 volunteers. Since Congress had granted Mrs. Kennedy lifetime franking privileges after the assassination, the envelopes in which the cards were mailed did not have stamps, but instead displayed a facsimile of her signature.
Jacqueline Kennedy's determination to respond to all those who wrote is one of many remarkable stories in Dear Mrs. Kennedy: The World Shares Its Grief, a collection of condolence letters from the archives of the Kennedy Library. Compiled and put into context by authors Jay Mulvaney and Paul De Angelis, this quietly touching book is available in a new paperback edition to mark the 50th anniversary of JFK's death.
Those who wrote to Mrs. Kennedy included world leaders (Winston Churchill), political supporters and opponents (Strom Thurmond, Richard Nixon), Hollywood stars and grief-stricken everyday citizens, including one teenage girl from Connecticut:
Jones Tree Farm
Dear Mrs. Kennedy,
Over on the next hill about a mile away there is a monstrous Norway Spruce planted on the day of Mr. Lincoln's death. It is the one remaining tree of twelve that a man planted there a hundred years ago.
On that black day last November I asked my father for two blue spruce to plant in memory of your wonderful husband. Dad gave them to me and I planted them and they lived through their first winter and are growing fine. They are only about a foot tall now but I certainly hope they will grow forever. . . .
How you had and have the courage to face life and the world is beyond me. I believe you are braver than any war hero and its too bad all people couldn't have your virtues.
I know I'll never forget your courage on that day last November. . . . Even 50 years from now when I'm 64, I know I'll remember as clearly as I do this minute the shock, the grief, and how I cried my eyes out, and prayed for you and he.
Very sincerely yours,
Do you recall the tragic events of 1963? Or is it distant history for you? Are you interested in the flood of JFK retrospectives?
Although he became famous as an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein has signed a deal with Henry Holt to write a memoir titled The Washington Star, recalling his beginnings as a copy boy and reporter for Washington's afternoon newspaper in the early 1960s. "The capital and the country during that epoch were roiled by enormous political, cultural, and social changes; journalism was changing too, and Bernstein quickly came to understand that every good newspaperman was part truth-teller, part would-be savant, and, not incidentally, something of a huckster and scamp," Holt said in announcing the deal.
It's not the first time Bernstein—who teamed with Bob Woodward to break open the Watergate scandal—has been described as something of a scamp. He was said to be the basis for the philandering husband in the novel Heartburn, written by his ex-wife, the late Nora Ephron.
Still, Bernstein's look back at the long-gone era of newspapers in their heyday should cover some funny and fascinating territory. Just don't expect the book to be written on a reporter's deadline-driven schedule: The Washington Star isn't scheduled for publication until 2016.
Clive Cussler, who celebrated his 82nd birthday today, has other important things to celebrate this summer—including the 40th anniversary of his start in publishing. Cussler’s first book, The Mediterranean Caper, was published in paperback in 1973 and is being reissued Tuesday in a new hardcover 40th anniversary edition. The Mediterranean Caper launched not only Cussler’s career, but also the fictional adventures of Dirk Pitt, head of the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA) and undersea super-sleuth.
Cussler keeps the original Dirk Pitt series going with his son, Dirk Cussler, as co-writer, and also co-writes FOUR other series, all bestsellers: NUMA Files, Oregon Files, Isaac Bell and Fargo. Zero Hour, the latest NUMA Files novel, was published on May 28, while Mirage, the latest in the Oregon Files series, will be released on November 5.
In addition to being a publishing phenomenon (and collector of classic cars), Cussler is also a grand adventurer. Founder of a real-life NUMA that mirrors the organization in his fiction, Cussler has spearheaded the discovery of more than 75 lost ships, including the Confederate ship Hunley. He was honored for his work in marine archaeology last week at a sold-out appearance before The Explorers Club in New York City.
For more on Cussler and his remarkable career, check out our Q&A with the author.
If you work at BookPage, you’re on one side or the other: You’re either a cat person or a dog person, and there’s not much middle ground. So our ears perked up when we heard that Nashville author Jim Harwell had staged a metaphorical contest between the two pets and written a book about it: Cats N ’Dogs: A Tail of Two Opposites. We asked Harwell for details on one of the book’s comparisons: Which is linked to more place names? Cats or dogs? The answer will leave some of us growling.
Location, Location, Location!
by Jim Harwell
So, what places are on your dream vacation bucket list? How about a European Mediterranean paradise like Cataluna in Spain…maybe an Italian jaunt to Catania or Catanzaro…or perhaps a South American adventure to Catamarca, Catanduva or Catamayo? Yes, those are all real places. Notice a trend here?
One thing is clear: no places with ‘dog’ in the name will be on your list. Unless you want to visit Red Dog Mine, Alaska (pop.: 300), and its hazardous zinc mine. Or Dogtown, Calif., (pop.: 8, not including dogs.)
For my book A Tail of Two Opposites, our committee of cat and dog lovers conducted what we feel is the most comprehensive cat-dog competition series ever, with 70+ contests of all types. The book is a fun, educational and inspirational satire about our two favorite pets.
The results of the contests categorically confirm our general thesis: cat references in our culture are extremely positive, while dog references are very negative; in fact, they’re depressing, onerous and galling.
Yet, it’s all so ironical. We are know that dogs are among the most noble of creatures. Why the antagonism? (rhetorical question).
The Names of Places Contest was one of the most lopsided in favor of cats. The 63+ ‘Cat’-named places (name beginning with ‘cat’) around the world are wonderful, stupendous and spectacular. On the other hand, any place with ‘dog’ in the name—and there are very few—is basically cursed. It’s almost comical.
Reader reactions have been mixed. Cats have seemed somewhat aloof about the results, while dogs don’t seem to mind, though owners of Labradors and Newfoundlands are wondering why ‘dog’ is so avoided.
The ‘cat’ locations are almost from another catosphere! The list is a where’s where of mystical, enchanting areas around the world that most of us only dream of visiting. It’s a categorical (excellent) collection of locales, purrfect for that dream vacation both in the USA and internationally. How about a weekend trip to Catalina Island off the coast of LA or Cat Island in the Bahamas? Maybe that’s what cats dream about when they sleep their 16 to 20 hours a day.
But the places with dog in the name? Oh my God . . . grr, Dog. It’s been a literal dog’s life (wretched existence) for any place named for the dog. There are approximately four areas in the U.S. with ‘dog’ in the name that have people. Only one, Red Dog Mine, is an official census-designated place.
To dogs credit, there have been 24 total ‘dog’ locales in history. However, the sad news is that they have been dogged with every conceivable doggish (dismal, oppressive, glum) existence and dog-hearted (cruel) fate a humble place can experience: slums, abandoned settlements, ghost towns, closed parks, forgotten existences, ignored areas, even death. Dogtown in Arkansas died in 1965, complete with a burial and tombstone.
For some fun reading, perhaps take along A Tail of Two Opposites. Both cats and dogs will enjoy it, too.
Illustrations from Cats N' Dogs: A Tail of Two Opposites by Dean Tomasek.
BookPage contributing writer Alden Mudge was excited to have the opportunity to interview Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Rick Atkinson for our June issue. Mudge had read and admired the first two books in Atkinson’s acclaimed WWII trilogy and couldn’t wait to devour the third. In a guest post, he details Atkinson’s methods for keeping track of the huge volume of material he assembled to tell this complex and riveting story.
Several of my friends are as avid fans of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy as I am. And like me, they marvel at his command of the thousands of details large and small that make his history of World War II in Western Europe such a riveting read. “Ask him how he kept track of all that stuff,” they’d say to me. And so I did.
“When I’m researching, I try to be fairly systematic,” Atkinson told me when I finally got the chance to ask him. “Everything that I find, whether it’s in a book, or at the National Archives, or the Imperial War Museum or wherever, goes into a computer file.”
Atkinson, who calls himself an archive rat and who seems to also be something of a numbers guy, keeps a log about his research and writing. According to his log, for the final volume of the trilogy, The Guns at Last Light, he amassed 1,363 computer files, which amounted to 5,725 pages of notes, not including relevant notes he gathered while researching the previous two volumes of the trilogy.
“You can wander into the woods on a subject like this and never wander out,” Atkinson said, after telling me that the U.S. Army records for World War II—records from just one service branch from one country—weigh 17,000 tons. Being done with the research phase “is part of the art. I set a mark on the wall, usually with strong encouragement from the publisher, long in advance and say OK if I don’t know it by that date, I’m never going to know it and I stop. I stop going to archives. I just stop.”
Then the hard work begins. “I start putting together an outline, and I do that by going through each one of the 5,725 pages line by line thinking OK where does this tidbit go, where does that fact go. It’s excruciating. It starts from nothing but you do it day after day, working your way through all these pages and the next thing you know, you’ve got the whole outline. It’s very tedious but when I get through, everything has been organized.”
The outline for The Guns at Last Light is twice as long as the finished narrative, which Atkinson wrote chronologically, from prologue through to epilogue. The narrative is 641 pages long. Notes and selected sources for this amazing effort occupy another 200 pages.
“Some people think it’s lunatic, but I’ve used this particular system for four books now. It works for me.”
If you have 14,000 messages in your overflowing inbox (like me) you might be a little reluctant to sign up for yet another free e-mail newsletter. We kept that in mind when we created the latest addition to our e-newsletter offerings. BookPage Top 10 offers one (and only one!) email per month, giving readers a quick rundown of the 10 books our editorial staff has selected as the best for the month ahead. BookPage editors evaluate hundreds of books every month, and these 10 books represent our favorites, across all categories and genres. (See a sample of a previous Top 10 e-newsletter here.) We can't guarantee that you'll like every book on our list, but we do hope that every reader will find at least one book that sets his or her reading heart aflutter.
The April Top 10 will be sent to subscribers Monday, April 1. If you'd like to get some fresh ideas for your reading list and keep your inbox clutter-free, sign up today.
My husband can name all 44 U.S. presidents (without cheating)—a feat that never ceases to amaze me, especially when he works his way through Hayes-Garfield-Arthur-Cleveland. The late 19th century stumps me every time. So I'm spending this President's Day brushing up on the "Oval Office All-Stars" with an informative little book from Kingfisher, Basher History: U.S. Presidents.
Each president gets a two-page spread that includes a list of his three top achievements, a first-person description of his tenure ("I started out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" says James K. Polk) and a colorful portrait. The illustrations are by English artist and designer Simon Basher, who gives these somber old guys something of a Hello Kitty look. Grover Cleveland is shown with a baby carriage and a halo (he was known as an honest guy and is the only president to have a baby born while he was in the White House) while John F. Kennedy is surrounded by tiny, colorful nuclear warheads.
Though the book is aimed at kids 10 and up, those of us on the far, far end of that age range will find many items of interest in Dan Green's clever text. Who knew (besides my husband) that James Monroe is the only president to have a foreign capital named after him or that Calvin Coolidge is the only president to have a pet raccoon?
One of our favorite parts of the book is a teaser on the cover that reads "2012 Election Winner Inside!" For those of you who hadn't heard (spoiler alert!) Barack Obama was re-elected and is pictured wearing a lei of Hawaiian flowers and clutching an economic chart. I'll use those as mnemonic clues when I practice naming the presidents for our next family duel.