Open Book with David Maraniss

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As a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist, David Maraniss has unearthed details about the families of some of the 20th and 21st centuries' most prominent figures.

"After writing biographies of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Vince Lombardi, and Roberto Clemente, I came to realize that I was dealing with people who essentially were strangers to me when I started but by the end I knew more about their families than they did," Maraniss wrote in an email to The Eagle. "But most people don't have a biographer going back to find out what really happened, as opposed to the family mythology."

In his latest work, the author of "First in his Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton" and "Barack Obama: The Story" decided to dig into his own upbringing. Published in May by Simon & Schuster, "A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father" is a memoir that explores 1950s paranoia through the harrowing experience of Maraniss' father. Elliott Maraniss was a World War II veteran who was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 on suspicion of being a Communist. Elliott lost his job and struggled for years in the hearing's aftermath.

"My father rarely talked about that difficult period of his life, and never in detail, so it was something I thought I should not write while he was alive, even though in the end I think it honors him," Maraniss wrote.

Maraniss knew that his father lost his job and that he had been blacklisted, but he didn't know everything.

"It was not until I received his FBI files after filing a Freedom of Information Act request that I realized the totality of how the government had been watching him and following him for many years, using some 37 informants and FBI agents to track his movements, however prosaic they were," Maraniss wrote.

A New York Times review by Kevin Baker praises Maraniss' journalistic examination of his past.

"Maraniss has used his prodigious research skills to produce a story that leaves one aching with its poignancy, its finely wrought sense of what was lost, both in his home and in our nation," Baker writes. "It is at the same time a book that, like his family, never gives in to self-pity but remains remarkably balanced, forthright and unwavering in its search for the truth."

On Tuesday, Dec. 3, Maraniss will chat with Thomas Chulak at The Chatham Bookstore in Chatham, N.Y. The event begins at 7 p.m. and is free. In advance of the appearance, Maraniss answered some questions about his favorite books by email.

QWhat is your favorite book about the Red Scare?

AMy favorite books about the Red Scare are "Naming Names" by Victor Navasky and "High Noon" by Glenn Frankel; the first an illuminating study of the politics and psychology of people who named names and those who were named during the Red Scare, and the latter a compelling look at the way that era shaped the iconic American movie.

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QWhat are some of your favorite memoirs?

AThe best political memoirs I've read are the autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant and "Dreams from My Father" by Barack Obama, though Grant's account seems to be closer to the facts and Obama's more literary and evocative.

QWhat is your favorite presidential biography?

AIn terms of presidential biographies, I consider the gold standard Robert Caro's multi-volume account of LBJ ["The Years of Lyndon Johnson"]. Among many others, I also admire John A. Farrell on Nixon ["Richard Nixon"], Doris Kearns Goodwin on FDR ["No Ordinary Time"], and Ron Chernow on Grant ["Grant"].

QWhat is your favorite book about journalism?

AOn journalism, "The Powers That Be" by David Halberstam captures a world that is largely lost now. Still waiting for the next great book on the emerging forms of journalism.

QWhat is your favorite sports book?

AMy favorite sports book is "Strong Inside," a biography of the first African American athlete in the Southeastern Conference, the Jackie Robinson of southern college sports, written by Andrew Maraniss, my son. It is a powerful story, powerfully told.

QWhat books are on your nightstand?

AI've never liked the "what is on your nightstand question" because I rarely read in bed. There are books all over our house, and I read constantly, in the living room, in my office, on airplanes and trains, even while eating, but not very often in bed. I'm sure there are other people like that, though you don't hear much of that when this question is asked. I mostly read nonfiction, but the two best books I've read in the last few weeks are "A Gentleman in Moscow" [by Amor Towles] and "Golden Hill" [by Francis Spufford]. For nonfiction, I've been reading "Games of Deception" by my son; "Plagued by Fire," a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright by Paul Hendrickson; and a prospective screenplay for a movie about Roberto Clemente, the subject of one of my biographies.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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