While everyone knows the story of the Titanic, few people know much more about the Lusitania other than it sunk. That’s about to change as the 100-year anniversary of its sinking approaches this May, and because of a great book by Erik Larson that was just released.
Larson is the master of narrative nonfiction (history written in the style of a novel) who wrote The Devil in the White City, a riveting account of a serial killer in Chicago wrapped around the 1893 World’s Fair. His latest effort is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Larson’s story begins shortly before May 1, 1915 when the British luxury ocean liner, the Lusitania, sets sail from New York to Liverpool. After six days at sea, a torpedo from a German U-boat sinks it on May 7th off the southern coast of Ireland causing the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew. It was the event that turned Americans against Germany, and two years later the U.S. entered WWI.
Larson alternates chapters between the thoughts and movements of the German military, and the events unfolding aboard the Lusitania, in Britain, and the U.S. This technique builds the tension into a page-turning race to get to the end. Not a small feat considering we know how it ends.
As usual, Larson has done meticulous research. He dug deep into archives of telegrams, survivor depositions, secret intelligence ledgers, love letters, films, photos, and more to bring this story to life. Tracking down long buried anecdotes led him to London, Cambridge, Denmark, Virginia, Stanford University, Library of Congress, the National Archives, and other places. He ferreted out details such as what the passengers wore, who they loved, where they worked, and why they were on the ship, as well as the steamy chronicle of President Wilson’s love life. At one point, Larson even boarded Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 for a winter crossing of the Atlantic.
History, and especially WWI, buffs will appreciate Larson’s accounts of the intrigue leading up to the U.S. involvement in the war, including the machinations of the top-secret British war office known as Room 40. Fans of maritime minutiae will be fascinated by the stories of German U-boat strategies, and the accounts of daily life aboard what was once the largest passenger ship in the world.
Larson touches on the many theories and questions regarding why it was unescorted by the military through dangerous waters, why the rescue mission was bungled, and why there were so many coverups by officials including Winston Churchill. Did he perhaps want to provoke the U.S. into entering the war? And how did a single torpedo take down this immense ship? Were there munitions aboard?
I like my history with dashes of intrigue and suspense, and Larson delivers both in Dead Wake. He’s taken a dark moment from our collective past, and brilliantly illuminated it for all to enjoy and learn from.
My only complaint: I would have loved pictures.
I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.
The characters in Skip Horack’s third book, The Other Joseph, would be forgiven if they thought the universe had them in its crosshairs. Eventually it seems all their fates are in the hands of capricious and vengeful gods. Even the legal system is mercurial and ruinous in its random efforts to deliver justice.
Brothers Tommy and Roy are raised on an idyllic farm in a tiny town in Louisiana. Their parents are high school teachers and “almost-hippie types” who love their sons and their way of life. Against his parents desires, their oldest son Tommy joins the Navy SEALs and disappears during the first Gulf War. After this tragedy, the Joseph family spirals into a miasma the likes of which they can never quite recover. Young Roy makes a decision that changes the course of his life forever, and like dominoes, his parents also fall into their own tragic circumstances.
Haunted by the disappearance of his brother Tommy, and tethered to a felony conviction until he turns 30, Roy lives an insular life away from prying eyes. He works on oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana and shares his Airstream with his dog, Sam. Moving quietly among the other disenfranchised, he makes few friends, and suffers alone in a dreamless fog of existence. As Roy nears his 30th birthday though, he begins to awaken. The felony conviction that has branded him for a decade will soon be a part of the past, and a large sum of money that’s been compounding under his accountant’s watchful eyes will allow him to pursue a new life. He hopes.
Either you adore Richard Price, or you’ve never heard of him. I don’t know anyone who’s read any of his nine novels that isn’t a big fan. His new book, The Whites, does not disappoint. It’s gritty New York City, it’s cops, it’s bad guys, it’s good guys meeting untimely deaths, it’s bad guys meeting gruesome deaths, it’s moral dilemmas, it’s broken hearts—it’s everything I love about Richard Price’s writing and more. Except that The Whites was written by Harry Brandt, the pen name Price took when he decided to write something different from his usual fare. When he ended up writing in the same vein after all, he realized the pen name was a mistake. He says he’ll never do that again.
And if you’re wondering if this book is about race because of the title, you can erase that thought from your brain immediately. Instead picture Moby Dick, the great white whale that destroyed Ahab’s ship and severed his leg, and then Ahab’s subsequent quest to get revenge. Apparently, every cop has a white.
Most days I can catch a glimpse of Mt. Hood even though it’s an hour and a half away by car. Its snow-covered peak shows up when I least expect it, and always takes my breath away with its massiveness and other-worldly aura. Over the last four decades I’ve read a lot of books about climbing mountains, and the men who risked their lives to conquer them. It’s been a major obsession in my reading life. Strangely, I’ve never gotten around to climbing to the top of a mountain. I’ve contented myself with casual hikes, though twice I’ve climbed high enough to experience altitude sickness, once in Colorado and another time in Switzerland.
This week I finished one that showed me what most of the other books I’d read had been lacking. Something it turns out I’m very interested in: mountain mythology, the beauty and science of the flora and fauna, and the psychological effect of being in the presence of a mountain. It made me realize that I never wanted to conquer a mountain by reaching its peak; I only wanted to know the mountain. This book is what I’d been looking for all along.
The book is Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime by Stephen Alter. It was written by Alter after he and his wife were the victims of a home invasion in 2008. They were brutally stabbed, beaten, and left for dead. It happened in the Himalayan hill station of Mussoorie, India where Alter was born and raised. Understandably, the event left them feeling shaken and vulnerable.
Mark Wisniewski’s Watch Me Go is a dark punch-to-the-gut story packed with heart-pounding suspense, and glimpses into the corners of humanity where the disenfranchised live. Horses, gambling, and love themes are woven through the fates of both Deesh, a black man from the Bronx, and Jan, a young white woman finding her way in life without a father. Using alternating chapters, Wisniewski tracks Deesh’s and Jan’s seemingly disparate worlds until they eventually collide. Their destinies unfold amidst a background filled with racism and sexism where regrets are plentiful, but where hope occasionally shines a light. Absolutely no one escapes misfortune, but some manage to muster the strength and resiliency to survive and begin again.
Wisniewski’s prose is uniquely powerful, and his story-telling skills are superb. Salman Rushdie described his writing as “Pure, muscular storytelling…irresistible,” and Publishers Weekly gave Watch Me Go a starred review saying, “Outstanding…Wisniewski deftly alternates perspectives and narrative threads…just what fans of literate and nuanced daylight noir will relish.”
If you’re looking for a book that you can’t put down, that is brought alive by intriguing characters you care about, plus is written in beautiful prose, and has a plot that’s obviously been scribed by a master, then look no further than The Remedy for Love by Bill Roorbach.
The story unfolds during a snowstorm, “The Storm of the Century,” worse than any you could imagine, unless you happen to live in Boston this winter. A homeless young woman and a small-town lawyer are the unlikely duo who occupy the pages through all kinds of weather, anger, loneliness, and love. Roorbach entertains, makes you laugh out loud, touches your heart, and maintains a level of tension that will leave you breathless until the last page. His sense of place and descriptions of the weather are so richly detailed that you can see the river and feel the cold in your bones.
“The big window over the river was barely a window anymore, frosted like a Pop-Tart and draped heavily with snow, just a whale’s eye left open in the middle to peer through, a sobering view. The snow out there was deep, very deep, a heavy drift wave like the purest sand dune mounded clear up over the windowsill, eight or nine feet deep off the ledge, maybe more, no color anywhere, only white and black and every shade of gray between.”
This is a dazzling read by a master storyteller.
Rain, rain, rain, and more rain. Last week I was so depressed I considered buying a S.A.D. light. Instead, I read Karen Karbo’s Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life, and voilà, I was instantly lifted out of my black hole.
Karbo dishes up a book on Child that, despite the many volumes written about the woman already, is fresh, funny, and wildly entertaining. This is not a fan book written by a foodie, though it certainly has plenty of food anecdotes, nor is it a Child memoir in the strictest sense, but it is jammed with interesting tidbits about Child’s personal life. What Karbo set out to do was break down Child’s life to figure out how she found fame, fortune, and love despite her Amazon-esque stature, her lackluster performance in college, and her romantically-bereft teens, twenties, and half of her thirties.
The secrets of living life to the fullest and succeeding far beyond your wildest dreams can be found under chapter headings such as Live With Abandon, All You Need Is a Kitchen and a Bedroom, and Every Woman Should Have a Blowtorch. Yes, of course!, there’s lots of wine, sex, and blatant disregard for the opinions of others when it comes to doing what she wants. Wonderful stuff!
The hair on your neck will stand up as you read the stories collected and edited by Sarah Weinman for Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. It’s a tribute to 14 of the women who wrote the great mysteries of yore. Vera Caspary, Nedra Tyre, Shirley Jackson and others paved the way decades ago for the likes of Sue Grafton, Tana French, and most recently, Gillian Flynn. This wonderful collection is full of murderous wives, deranged husbands, deceitful children, and vengeful friends.
Act II (Read Act I here.)
It’s the end of August. The man is measuring the same 2X4 over and over again. The woman is lying on the chaise lounge gazing at the half-built studio. It’s hot and humid.
Him: What huh?
Her: Does the studio look tall?
Her: Weird. It’s bigger than I thought it would be. Can we go this big without a permit? You checked the building code, right?
Him: I used the info you gave me.
Her: But that was for Washington, not Oregon.
Him: Why would you give me the Washington building code? (Gesturing going on.)
Her: Because it’s all I could find. I figured it would be sorta similar. Why didn’t you check? Why would you rely on me?
Him: You’re the professional Googler. You know everything.
Her: You’re the builder.
Him: It’ll be fine. Just don’t tell anyone.
Her: Who would I tell? Read more…
Here’s what reviewers are saying about it:
“Lovely and wry, Moyes’s newest is captivating and bittersweet.” – Publishers Weekly
“Even the most hard-hearted reader will want to know what happens to these women, not just the flesh-and-blood ones but also the bewitching one on the wall. Where will the painting land, and was its subject a casualty of war? In this moving paean to daring, determination and perspicacity, Moyes keeps the reader guessing down to the last hankie.” – Los Angeles Times