Robert A. Caro on biography writing

Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing by Robert A. Caro

3 words: first-person, inside glimpse, psychological

Just hearing the name “Robert Caro” makes me happy. I know because it happened just the other evening at the other end of the dinner table at a family gathering. I wasn’t even part of the conversation, but hearing his name gave me a little spark of joy.

(photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve read two volumes of Caro’s multi-volume biography of LBJ, and I look forward to reading the others. His research and his writing make my heart sing.

So when Caro’s book Working was released this month, I dove at it.

In this delightful and fascinating book, Caro takes us behind the curtain and reveals his methods. And he’s wonderfully self-effacing about the way he’s compelled to research a topic for years.

Here he is, in the introduction:

“…in this book I’m trying to show how the material was gathered: the method, if you will. In doing this, I have also provided, I’m afraid, a few glimpses into me.” (p. xxii)

Caro describes the drive he feels to capture the essence of a topic, which sometimes requires extreme measures such as moving to the Texas Hill Country for three years in order to understand the people of the region that produced LBJ.

And I mean, talk about immersive… he slept outdoors in the Hill Country so he could describe the way it sounded. And in Washington, DC, he woke at dawn to walk young LBJ’s path to Capitol Hill so he could describe the exact way it appeared at the hour he would approach.

This part of the book made me shiver with complete delight, because he’s describing the way he researched and wrote one of my favorite passages of nonfiction ever written. (I write about it here.)

Caro also details the way he conducts interviews, and the way he asks again and again for people to describe how things looked and what they heard.

“Interviewing: if you talk to people long enough, if you talk to them enough times, you find out things from them that maybe they didn’t even realize they knew.” (p. 176)

He provides examples of the details he would coax out of people, and it makes me realize this is a large part of what makes his books such an enormous immersive pleasure to read.

And then there’s his writing style. Caro touches on this a little, when he writes about the way he would tell a story and the way he would structure a paragraph for maximum effect.

So here’s the thing. I want him to live forever and write forever. Amen.


Give this book a whirl if you like… “inside baseball,” the story behind the story, how extraordinary nonfiction is written, self-deprecating humor, biographical research, how books are researched and written, a psychological portrait of a biographer

Anyone else a Robert A. Caro fan? If so, please you must talk to me!

Domestic goodness

My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl

3 words: intimate, multifaceted, soothing

Twitter is not my natural home, but this book, along with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s delightful Gmorning, Gnight!, kinda made me wish it were. Both books are filled with some of the best tweets I can imagine. My Kitchen Year is one of those magnificent books that does all kinds of things at once, and it does them all well.

It’s a memoir of Reichl’s difficult first year after losing her job when Gourmet magazine abruptly folded. And that’s a scary thought: job loss. And Reichl doesn’t sugarcoat it, but she also gets on with life. And for her, recovery begins in the kitchen. It’s very soothing to spend time with her as she begins to rebuild after the loss. For a couple of weeks, this was my bedtime reading, and it was perfect — beautiful and creative and calming and bite-sized (each section consists of a short description of the day, followed by a recipe).

It’s a cookbook filled with dreamy food writing. Sometimes I’d just savor the way she described the way to mix ingredients. Reichl knows what she’s doing with food, and she’s creative in the way she writes about it, and we benefit from all of it. (Although I said to the Dear Man: “Clearly I’m over-ambitious about my cooking abilities when I read recipes before bed.” When I looked through the recipes I’d marked, at least half of them seemed 20% more complicated than this lackadaisical cook can handle.)

It’s almost a book of poetry because the tweets that begin each section capture the essence of a day with just a few words. Each tweet reminded me of haiku in its ability to convey a mood and a scene with precious few syllables. It made me want to tweet like that. (As if that’s gonna happen. But a girl can dream.)

It’s a coffee table book that’s more than a coffee table book. The thing is bursting with luscious photos of food and nature. It made me almost want to buy a copy so I could flip through each season as it happens each year. In the Acknowledgments, Reichl writes some glowing words about the photographer who spent months capturing her cooking and some other quiet moments of her life. Lovely.

It’s a book I waited too long to read. This book’s been on my radar ever since Michael Kindness raved about it on the dearly departed Books on the Nightstand podcast a few years ago. And I wonder why I waited, and then I think, Maybe I read it when I was ready for it. Here I am, jubilantly over-reaching in the kitchen and making a happy new home. This book is a celebration of home and cooking and the simple comforts.

Give this book a whirl if you like… reading about cooking, memoir blended with recipes, beautiful books, reading about recovery from a job loss, rebirth, poetic tweets, gorgeous food and nature photography

So, my fellow bibliophiles… Anyone else a reader of cookbooks?

First Lady memoir

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Becoming by Michelle Obama

3 words: engaging, personal, positive

I love books by accomplished women, and I love memoirs of life in politics. So I was really excited when a copy of Michelle Obama’s memoir showed up in my mailbox.

And while I knew I’d find the book fascinating, I was surprised by how quickly I was drawn in to the narrative — and how engaged I remained throughout the entire book.

The first thing that attracted me was that Obama’s narrative voice is very real; it’s like she’s telling you her story out loud. (I’ve heard the audiobook, which she reads herself, is pretty amazing.) Even on the page, her voice is natural and smart and funny and real.

And she begins the book with a scene from her life today — a scene so normal and insignificant that most of us have been there and thought nothing of it. She’s alone at home, and she’s making toast. And she’s reveling in the quiet and the freedom she feels in that small act — because for years, she’d been in a world where making toast while home alone was unimaginable. And her pleasure in that moment made me feel connected to her on a human level.

And I think that’s one of her key gifts — empathy (along with her brain and drive and desire to make a positive difference in the world).

So spending time with her on these pages was a pleasure.

The other aspect I found delightful is the way she describes her educational journey — from elementary through law school. And when she talks about not feeling good enough — again, that resonated. She’s honest about the struggles and the way she overcame the tough parts —  and the loving support she received from her family, friends, and mentors.

And I always love reading memoirs that give insight into the relationships within a First Family. On these pages, Barack Obama is very human but also super impressive (largely because he’s so human).

And there were moments that made me laugh, such as her commentary on an event that occurred when they were dating. She describes him driving a bright yellow Datsun that shuddered to life and had a rusted out hole in the floor. “Life with Barack would never be dull. I knew it even then. It would be some version of banana yellow and slightly hair-raising.” (p. 122)

That’s good, right?

And reading about the emphasis she placed on raising her daughters… it made me like their family all the more.

So if you like reading about the life experiences of strong, smart women who’ve made a difference — or if you like reading about First Families — this is a wonderfully engaging narrative about the unusual experience of ending up in the White House.

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of iconic women, First Ladies, remarkable women in their own right, behind the scenes, memoirs of strong African American women, memoirs of life in the political sphere

Anyone else a fan of memoirs by the First Family?

Educated in pain

 

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

3 words: unsentimental, graphic, dramatic

 

I’m a queasy reader. Anytime there’s cruelty in a book (I struggled with the first parts of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Jane Eyre), I tend to bail out.

And Tara Westover’s memoir almost had that effect on me. I was appalled by the abuse she suffered at the hands of her family. And I mean, appalled.

Her father repeatedly put her in terribly dangerous situations, her brother flat-out abused her physically and emotionally, and her mother stood by and let it happen.

The thing that kept me reading was the knowledge that she’d make it out. Otherwise, I would’ve stepped away. It was just that painful.

Her family claimed to be hardcore Mormons, but there was no godly love happening here.

And while Westover, having escaped via education and strengthened via therapy, appears to have forgiven them, I’m still ticked on her behalf.

But she truly used her talents and worked ridiculously hard to succeed academically. After never having attended school, she started university coursework and eventually earned a doctorate from Cambridge. Darn impressive.

So this book was an emotional roller coaster. Westover takes us with her through her journey, and it’s not an easy one.

I suffered while reading it, but I’m glad I did (even though it’s haunted my dreams).

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of unconventional and violent childhoods, stories of overcoming the odds, memoirs of breaking free from an abusive family, stories of  the importance of education

Romantic memoir

Photo by Michael Nunes on Unsplash

Fifty Acres and a Poodle: A Story of Love, Livestock, and Finding Myself on a Farm by Jeanne Marie Laskas

3 words: humorous, personal, romantic

 

Don’t you love it when you find a book that keeps you reading past your bedtime? For me, this book was one of those.

The words that come to mind: delightful, engaging, romantic, funny, heartfelt, self-discovery, real.

It’s a classic romance, with a farm and a huge poodle. And it’s all true.

It’s also one of those stories I love reading about, but wouldn’t want to experience. I’ve never lived on a farm, and I never want to. Farms are a lot of work, and not the fun kind. The thought of being in charge of that much property—and the thought of needing a tractor… No, thank you. But I adored reading about it.

And there are parts of the story that are completely lovely and that I identified with in the nicest way. There’s a perfectly real and wonderful mid-life love story here, and there’s the story of finding one’s ideal home.

I knew Laskas from her fabulous book Hidden America, which Citizen Reader recommended. She’s a fun writer to read.

For example: “Probably I should pause here and explain the history of this poodle. Because it is important to note that Alex did not have this poodle when I fell in love with him. I did not know that Alex was a poodle person when I fell in love with him. Repeat: did not know. Alex dropped the poodle bomb about a year into the relationship.” (p. 25)

I was reminded of:

    • Amy Dickinson’s Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things because of the love story, the blend of humor and loss, and the sprightly writing.
    • Judy Corbett’s Castles in the Air because it, too, is a memoir about a couple moving into a bit of a wreck and turning it into the home of their dreams

All in all, a perfect delight of a memoir.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of city dwellers moving to the country, mid-life love stories, a light touch of humor, and compulsively readable writing