Review: Dead Wake

Title: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Author: Erik Larson

Setting: NYC and Atlantic Ocean, May 1915

Story: The RMS Lusitania was one of the top luxury liners of the day, filled with the bright and beautiful (and a bunch of 2nd & 3rd class passengers too.) Millionaires, actors, writers, debutantes and spies all crowded aboard this ship. Besides the passengers, the ship was carrying beautiful paintings by Van Gogh and other masters, editions signed by Dickens and Thackeray, gold bullion, and lots of ammunition. So when it went down, the news traveled fast, and eventually resulted in the United States entering World War I.

Review: I knew a little bit about the Lusitania, but I’d never heard the whole story. I’ve read other books by this author, so when I found this one on audio at the library, I couldn’t wait to check it out.

The numbers are pretty sobering. Out of 1962 passengers and crew, only 764 survived. But what makes it more interesting than the statistics is the way Larson tells the story. By using journals and letters that survived the voyage, he lets you get inside the ship and travel right along with them on their final voyage. I had my favorite people and I was trying not to skip ahead, but I admit that I couldn’t stand it and had to look up who survived and who died.

I have a couple of criticisms about the book though. The first is that he spends all this time talking about President Woodrow Wilson’s courtship of Edith Bolling. Wilson’s state of mind and his love life weren’t really relevant to the story. His reluctance to enter the war was relevant and didn’t get enough discussion.

Also, I was left wondering about the passengers who survived. What percentage of them were first class? Did it matter where their cabins were? How many were women and children? Maybe he answered these questions, but since it was on audio, I could have missed that part.

It did definitely get me interested in the story. It was all so sad and so pointless. Why wasn’t the ship more protected? Why hadn’t Wilson done more to help with the war already? I was totally involved in this story. I’m giving it 4.2 stars out of 5.

 

Review: Mayflower

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Title: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Author: Nathaniel Philbrick

Published: 2006

Themes: immigration, race, war, religion, geography

Format: physical book

Source: favorite author

I remember doing the little Thanksgiving sketch in grade school, the one with Pilgrims and Indians all sharing a nice dinner of turkey and cranberries and shaking hands to be friends. Turns out that wasn’t particularly accurate. For one thing, they probably didn’t have cranberries. For another, that wasn’t the start of a peaceful new era with everyone living Happily Ever After. War was looming over them.

In Philbrick’s book, he talks about how the Pilgrim Fathers and the Native Americans, mainly Massosoit’s tribe, got off to a bit of a rocky start. But they were each committed to peace and were able to work things out. If the story ended there, America would look very different today. But it didn’t. Fifty years later, their children and grandchildren had forgotten what they each owed the other and focused only on what they wanted. What happened next was tragic.

I really liked this book, but it took me a while to read it because I knew how it all ended – with a war. And not a war like the American Revolution, which Philbrick has also written about, one that ended with a new nation and us sending King George’s soldiers packing and rejoicing all around. But one that ended with a virtual genocide.

Parts of this book were really hard to read. There were atrocities on both sides. The amount of racial hatred – on both sides, but especially among the English – was pretty disgusting. But it did help me understand the American character and the military traditions that eventually emerged from this conflict. If you are a history fan, I would recommend this one. It was a solid, if sobering read. Be sure to read it in a physical format at the maps are essential to understanding the story.

 

Book Review: Ashes

Title: Ashes (Book 3, Seeds of America) 

Author: Laurie Halse Andersen

Setting: Virginia 1780-1781, including the Battle of Yorktown

Escaped slaves Isabel and Curzon have been looking for Isabel’s sister for years, and they finally have an idea where she is. Unfortunately, Ruth isn’t as excited to see them, and they’re stuck in the path of a battle. They could ask the Americans for help, but Isabel is still bitter about the way the so-called Patriots have been treating escaped slaves. Curzon doesn’t like it either, but he doesn’t trust the English even less than the Americans.

And that is the central point of this book – for a war of independence, people of color were never treated with equality or fairness. Huge numbers of Blacks fought in the war, and many of them were former and current slaves. But you never hear the story of these soldiers.

Washington, Jefferson, and other American heroes were all slave owners. Both chased down slaves who had escaped during the war and brought them back. At least Washington freed his slaves in his will and has never been accused of fathering any children with them, so I’d say he sort of tried to the right thing. But Jefferson is different story.

Back to the story – Isabel has no interest in getting involved in the war, so she is trying to find a safe place to wait it out. She hopes to go back to Rhode Island and buy her own farm there, one where she can live with her sister in peace. But her sister won’t even speak to her and the only way to get to Rhode Island is to survive the fighting right now. Curzon’s loyalty to the American cause drives a wedge between the friends and Isabel has no one to rely on but herself.

This is a great series. With the popularity of Hamilton, books set in the 18th century are really hot right now. I won’t say that I liked it as well as Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, but it is really good. Recommended for any teen.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Working class look at Elizabeth Bennett

This book has been getting a lot of buzz, and it’s not hard to see why. Jane Austen is still hot, and thanks to Downton Abbey, readers are curious about the split between how the upper crust and the working class. We’re already familiar about the world of Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy. The book is still super popular, with film versions, graphic novels, and so many spinoffs it’s impossible to keep track. You may be wondering if we really need one more.

Yes.

You see, most of the other versions still revolve around Elizabeth and Darcy – new takes on their romance, throwing a zombie or vampire in there, adding some sex, looking at what happens after the wedding, making them spies, and on and on. But what about the other characters in the story? What about some characters that aren’t really even named as characters, but still contribute to the story? Like, say, the servants?

The main characters of the original book are still here, but only at the fringes. In English major terms, this is a Marxist look at Pride & Prejudice.  The real story revolves around the household staff:  Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sara the housemaid, little Polly the kitchen maid, and the new footman, James.  The arrival of James, who clearly has a secret, has upset the household routine. In fact, everyone in the story has a secret, from Mrs. Hill’s past, to Mr. Hill’s romantic persuasion, to the handsome coachman visiting at the Bingley’s estate.

The book starts off with Sara up to her elbows in laundry, scrubbing the dirt once more out of Miss Elizabeth’s petticoats. And that’s just for starters. Someone has to make all those cups of tea the girls keep requesting, arrange those dinners for the neighbors, support Mrs. Bennett’s failing nerves. Someone has to clean up for Mr. Collin’s visit. And while the ladies of the house may be solely concerned with flirting and finding husbands, the rest of the world is dealing with the war against Napoleon, labor unrest, getting in the harvest, slaughtering livestock for the winter ham, starching the laundry, and so on and on.

This book is not for everyone. If you want your Pride & Prejudice to stay just the way the author wrote it, nice and clean and happily ever after, then you really won’t enjoy this book. The characters are not politely repressed gentlefolk – they fight, they swear, they have sex. James has flashbacks to the war. None of this is graphic, but it’s certainly a change from the well-mannered Jane Austen. But if you like learning about how all members of society live, not just the wealthy, then I strongly recommend this book. I listened to it on audio, and the reader did such a good job with the drawing room accents of Miss Elizabeth and the lower class speech of little Polly. I would definitely put this on  your Audible wishlist. 4.5 stars