Laskin, David 1953-
LASKIN, David 1953-
PERSONAL: Born October 25, 1953, in New York, NY; son of Meyer (in business) and Leona (a physician; maiden name, Cohen) Laskin; married Kathleen O'Neill (a law professor), April 17, 1982; children: Sarah and Alice (twins), Emily. Education: Harvard College, B.A., 1975; New College, Oxford University, M.A., 1977. Politics: "Dubious Democrat."
CAREER: Freelance writer, 1979–.
(With the editors of Esquire) Esquire Wine and Liquor Handbook, Avon (New York, NY), 1984.
Herman Melville's Billy Budd and Typee, Barron's (Woodbury, NY), 1984.
Getting into Advertising, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1986.
The Parents' Book for New Fathers, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1988.
Eastern Islands: Accessible Islands of the East Coast, Facts on File (New York, NY), 1990.
The Parents' Book of Child Safety, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1991.
(With wife, Kathleen O'Neill) The Little Girl Book: Everything You Need to Know to Raise a Daughter Today, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1992.
A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship and Influence, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1994.
A History of Weather, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1995.
(With Holly Hughes) The Reading Group Book: The Complete Guide to Starting and Sustaining a Reading Group, with Annotated Lists of 250 Titles for Provocative Discussion, Plume (New York, NY), 1995.
Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1996.
Rains All the Time: A Connoisseur's History of Weather in the Pacific Northwest, Sasquatch (Seattle, WA), 1997.
Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal among the New York Intellectuals, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
(With Valerie Easton) Artists in Their Gardens, photography by Allan Mandell, Sasquatch Books (Seattle, WA), 2001.
The Children's Blizzard (history), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times, Esquire, Seattle Weekly, Smithsonian, Preservation, and Travel & Leisure.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Another novel.
SIDELIGHTS: David Laskin's interest in literary partnerships underlies his two most widely-reviewed books, A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship and Influence and Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal among the New York Intellectuals. The author told CA that A Common Life "is the book I was born to write. It is a group portrait of the friendships between some of the writers I have loved best for as long as I can remember—Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James and Edith Wharton, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty, 'my' fourth pair of friends, were wonderful new discoveries for me, especially Porter's Noon Wine and Welty's One Writer's Beginnings." According to a reviewer in American Heritage, A Common Life is "a deftly written exploration of the professional and personal dynamics that accompanied these relationships and of the necessity of these ties." The reviewer further commented that the "book's success lies equally with his graceful writing and his excellent research." A Publishers Weekly critic claimed Laskin "succeeds in making his point that great artists irritate and inspire one another."
Laskin returns to chronicling the lives of writers in Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal among the New York Intellectuals. The "Partisans" of the title are the group of avant-garde intellectuals who founded the Partisan Review, a magazine that stood at the forefront of literary modernism during the mid-twentieth century. Laskin's particular interest is the way in which the women of this group—including Diana Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Jean Stafford, and Hannah Arendt—seemed oblivious, even antagonistic, to the basic tenets of feminism, which were only beginning to be expressed at that time. According to Midge Decter, a reviewer in Commentary, Laskin "is expressing both awe and a very contemporary puzzlement" that such women "should have managed to get through life without protesting against the condition of women." Although these women were highly intelligent and strongly motivated, they still put the needs of men at the center of their lives, and their own careers were often based on seduction and beneficial marriages. Their relationships with men were marred by infidelity, violence, and alcoholism.
Reviewers were divided in their assessment of Partisans. Some found the narrative to be gossipy and superficial while others called it a commendable work. Kanchan Limaye, a reviewer in the National Review, commented that Laskin takes readers "behind the mythos of their high-minded battles into the squalor of their bedrooms. There we find a bunch of infantile characters engaged in childish and disappointing relationships." Limaye stated that "Laskin has lifted up the rock of political journalism to show us its underside. But the strange and lurid things that we find crawling there have little bearing on the above-ground lives and ideas of this influential, still-impressive group of former friends." Ellen Sullivan, a reviewer in the Library Journal, described Partisans as a "frank and sometimes disturbing group biography" probing "brilliant, troubled lives." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly praised the subdued manner in which Laskin presents his material, stating, "Laskin provides superb, evenhanded and never lurid coverage of the affairs and divorces almost all the Partisan writers endured … adding new light on disputed occasions."
Discussing literary biography, Laskin once told CA that the genre "has come under considerable attack recently, some of it fashionable twaddle, some of it richly deserved. The massive, formless, crushingly detailed authors' lives that burden bookshop shelves these days are the 'loose baggy monsters' of contemporary letters. But the worst flaw of many of these thousand-pagers is, I believe, not their volume but their tone: revulsion masquerading as critical analysis." Laskin mused, "And yet the form itself is by no means doomed to failure or pettiness. The better biographies and memoirs are among the best books being written today. These books begin and end with respect, even reverence, for their subjects. Reverence tempered by deep knowledge and even deeper humility. The four friendships that I was lucky enough to write about (in A Common Life) were also grounded in reverence: in each case, literary admiration was the source of the personal relationship, and this shared love of the work endured the turmoil and combat of ordinary life. I have tried to keep this love of the work to the fore in A Common Life."
Laskin's skill as a prose stylist is also evident in his books about a very different subject: weather. Rains All the Time: A Connoisseur's History of Weather in the Pacific Northwest describes the unique, damp climate of the region, and Braving the Elements: A Stormy History of American Weather relates some of the extreme weather events in American history. Robert Henson, a reviewer in Weatherwise, positively assessed Rains All the Time, saying that, "if you love words as much as you love weather, this book will have you singing the praises of the Northwest's deceptively humdrum climate." Stephanie Zvirin, a reviewer in Booklist, called Braving the Elements "animated" and "fascinating." Commenting on Braving the Elements, a reviewer in the Economist remarked that Laskin "is particularly good on meteorologists and on why people often prefer forecasts from weathermen (and women) to impersonal weather services."
The awe-inspiring and ultimately deadly power of weather is the subject of Laskin's The Children's Blizzard. For the residents of the upper Great Plains states of Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakota Territory, January 12, 1888, started out as a good day. Unseasonably mild, it was a respite from a harsh winter. People could go outside without coats, and many children were sent to school with not even as much as a sweater. In the middle of the day, without warning, a monstrous black cloud swept down across the plains, bringing with it frigid temperatures, hurricane-strength winds, and heavy, blinding snowfall, punctuated by needle-like crystals of ice. The hardy settlers of the upper plains, many of them immigrants from Norway, Germany, and Russia, had never seen anything like this sudden ferocious storm. Caught unaware, and with no warning about what the storm might be like, teachers sent children home from school. Most were engulfed in the blizzard and more than 100 died in what became known as "The Children's Blizzard." The total death toll reached almost 500 people. Laskin recreates the stories of five pioneer families who were profoundly affected by the storm. He also examines the primitive state of weather forecasting at the time and wonders whether quicker communication, or less bureaucratic interference by the nascent forecasting service provided at that time by the War Department's Signal Corps, would have helped preserve lives. He tells of how some children were saved by strong-minded teachers who kept them inside their schoolhouses, burning desks for warmth. Some victims, at first thought safe after a harrowing night outside, dropped dead the next day as the effects of too-quick warming stopped their hearts. Laskin also describes the media fury in the storm's aftermath, and how the blizzard almost stopped the American journey westward and the homesteading of the plains. Laskin's narrative is "a gripping story, well told," commented Judy McAloon in the School Library Journal. Gilbert Taylor, writing in Booklist, called it "an adroit, sensitive drama and a skillful addition to a popular genre." A Kirkus Reviews contributor described the book as "a suspenseful disaster narrative." In an interview on the BookBrowse Web site, Laskin said that the families whose stories he told became "precious parts of my own life. Writing the scenes of their deaths—or miraculous rescues—made the awesome, unpredictable power of America's weather almost unbearably real to me. It's that sense of naked vulnerability to the sky that I hope my readers will experience as they turn the pages of my book."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Heritage, November, 1994, review of A Common Life: Four Generations of Literary Friendship and Influence, p. 123.
Antioch Review, winter, 2001, John Kennedy, review of Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal among the New York Intellectuals, p. 117.
Booklist, December 1, 1996, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Braving the Elements: A Stormy History of American Weather, p. 664; January 1, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Braving the Elements, p. 766; April 15, 2001, Alice Joyce, review of Artists in Their Gardens, p. 1521; October 15, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Children's Blizzard, p.384.
Commentary, March, 2000, Midge Decter, "Missing Mary McCarthy," p. 53.
Economist, June 15, 1996, review of Braving the Elements, p. S11.
Entertainment Weekly, November 19, 2004, Bob Cannon, review of The Children's Blizzard, p. 87.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2004, review of The Children's Blizzard, p. 904.
Library Journal, November 1, 1999, Ellen Sullivan, review of Partisans, p. 81; March 1, 2001, Daniel Starr, review of Artists in Their Gardens, p.122.
National Review, April 3, 2000, Kanchan Limaye, review of Partisans.
Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1992, review of The Little Girl Book, p. 103; December 11, 1995, review of Braving the Elements, p. 64; November 29, 1999, review of Partisans, p. 59; October 25, 2004, review of The Children's Blizzard, p. 37.
School Library Journal, April, 2005, Judy McAloon, review of The Children's Blizzard, p. 164.
Seattle Weekly, January 26-February 1, 2005, review of The Children's Blizzard.
Weatherwise, January-February, 1998, Robert Henson, review of Rains All the Time: A Connoisseur's History of Weather in the Pacific Northwest, p. 76; January-February, 2005, Bryan Yeaton, review of The Children's Blizzard, p. 62.
World Literature Today, autumn, 2000, John L. Brown, review of Partisans, p. 824.
Bookbrowse Web Site, http://www.bookbrowse.com/ (September 5, 2005), "An Interview with David Laskin."
Curled Up with a Good Book Web Site, http://www.curledup.com/ (September 5, 2005), Marie D. Jones, review of The Children's Blizzard.