Huge buzz, decent book

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of
the Lusitania
by
Erik Larson
3 words:
immediate, tragic, anecdotal
I’ve
lived my entire life as a Lusitania ignoramus.
If
you’d’ve asked me what I could tell you about it, I’d’ve said “British ship
sunk by the Germans during World War I. Americans on board, so the U.S. entered
the war.”
Yeah,
sort of right. Partial credit. Actually, it took 2 more years for the U.S. to
declare war. (Who knew?!)
So this
is an Erik Larson book, which often means we’re gonna have dual narratives.
This one’s no exception. Except: Wait—there’s more!
Here
we’re on board the Lusitania; on
board the U-boat that sunk the ship; hanging out in the code-breaking room in
England; and eavesdropping on President Wilson, who’s wooing his second wife. And
there are some side trips to shipping offices, too.
But the
main storyline is, as expected, onboard the Lusitania,
which (didn’t know this, either) had an unusually large number of children and
babies aboard during its last voyage. (Sad, guys. This stuff is sad.)
Larson
did some fine research, so we get to hear the story from several of the
survivors. He paints a detailed picture of life on the ship.
Now,
maybe this is just me, but one thing I expected from this book—since it’s
tragedy and it’s true, and I love that stuff—didn’t actually happen. I thought
I’d become slightly obsessed with the topic, Googling and YouTubing and looking
up other books about the Lusitania
But I find that this book is enough. And I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m not
the ideal audience [pretty sure I am] or because Larson’s narrative didn’t completely
pull me in to the story. Unlike every time I’ve read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, the classic
account of the sinking of the Titanic,
Dead Wake didn’t make me feel like I
was there. I’m beginning to think there’s something about Larson’s style that just doesn’t
jibe with me. 
This is
a fine book in many ways, and I liked it rather much. But I really wanted to
love it.

So *much* not-my-thing

Master and Commander by Patrick
O’Brian
I honestly don’t recall the last time a book made me this darn
annoyed. (Every time I looked at it, I was tempted to snarl. Eventually, I gave
in; this was not pretty.) 
I was railing so much about having to read it that
finally someone said that maybe I could find a summary online
and just stop reading it. I tell you, I was sorely tempted.
The only reason I persevered (sort of) was that this book was
assigned for a genre study. And I agree that it’s the right book to represent
this military/adventure subgenre of historical fiction.
But damn, I hated it.
(hated it, hated it, hated it!!)
And I’m telling you, I’m just plain flummoxed. I have talked with
readers over the years who positively love this book and this series. For
Pete’s sake, Keith Richards loves
this series!
I could barely even read it.
I shall now open the book to a random page and type the first two
sentences upon which my eyes land:
“Merriment, roaring high spirits before this: then some chance
concatenation, or some hidden predilection (or rather inherent bias) working
through, and the main is in the road he cannot leave but must go on, making it
deeper and deeper (a groove, or channel), until he is lost in his mere
character—persona—no longer human, but an accretion of qualities belonging to
this character. James Dillon was a delightful being.” (p. 181)
See?! This is what I’m talking about!
(There are those out there who survived two separate episodes of “I’m now going
to open this book to a random page and read aloud…”)
I tried to skim it, and it’s impossible to skim. But it’s also
impossible to read. (See two-sentence excerpt above.)
In this book, I think there were some battles. And for some reason, at the end,
Jack Aubrey appears to be getting court-martialed, and I have no earthly idea why.
(I know why I don’t know why: because I was skimming
the unskimmable!
)
Patrick O’Brian, we are not going to be spending any more time
together. 
Goodbye, Aubrey and Maturin.
Go and do your thing.
I’m going to go and do mine. (Probably it will involve reading
something plain, stark, and pure. I’m sorely in need of an antidote.)

Two marriages

The Still Point by Amy Sackville
Here’s how we know how big of a liarhead I really am: I say I detest historical fiction because people back then lived in such discomfort, and I Don’t Want To Experience That.
But… I’m nothing but a sucker for the arctic exploration books. Those puppies are filled with suffering, and I mean lots of it.
(image credit: Library of Congress)
This book has that arctic exploration thing happening. And, to add to the suffering… it also has a current-day troubled marriage storyline.
I was entranced.
It doesn’t hurt that the author trots out sentences like this: “She has pegged the washing out on the line, so that the sheets billow fresh white at the edge of her vision like the sails of a ship; she is afloat in the summer morning.” (p. 26 of the eBook)
And, in addition to beautiful sentences, there’s a plot! With two storylines, actually—past and present. Yet the whole story is set up within a single day in the here and now.
The present day has that troubled marriage couple I mentioned: Julia and Simon. She’s the dreamy descendant of a semi-famous failed arctic explorer from the turn of the last century, and she and Simon have moved into her family’s house, which is also home to explorer Edward’s artifacts and journal. Simon’s thinking he just might have an affair.
While he’s contemplating this possibility throughout the day, Julia’s casting back to great-grand-uncle Edward’s life—and his gorgeously romantic marriage to Emily, who waited for his return all her life.
So we get excerpts from Edward’s journal and the story of his ill-fated mission to the Pole, plus the story on the homefront in 1900, as Emily waited.
And deceptions are revealed, and it’s good because you know something’s gonna happen, but you don’t know what. (At least I didn’t.)
And since I love this kind of thing, I’m gonna throw you some read-a-likes:
Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur—has an Antarctic (rather than Arctic) thing going on, but it also features a current-day woman researching a tragically-fated polar expedition. 800+ pages of goodness
The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett—a gorgeous novel about a Victorian Arctic expedition and the women who waited for the explorer’s return. (Love that homefront stuff)
Exiles by Ron Hansen—has a tragedy (a shipwreck) at its heart, but also has the sensitive soul (a poet) who is haunted by it. Has the same sort of emotional pull as The Still Point
On a completely different note, here’s one way the Nook Color may be improving my brain: I actually use the built-in dictionary function (Just touch the word and then touch “dictionary”!) to look up words I don’t know, rather than skimming over them, figuring I’ve picked up enough context clues to get the meaning. In this book, I looked up “nacreous,” “alembic,” and “ambit.” I’m wondering: Am I simply dense not to know those words?

Think: wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald… kind of

Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye
This book snuck up on me. During the first few pages, I was feeling a little bit iggis, and then the really bad stuff started and I was in.
Here’s the bad stuff: Noah’s elderly father, Olaf, is dying, and so Noah returns to northern Minnesota to be with him during his final days.
More bad stuff: Thirty-some-odd years earlier, Olaf was one of only three survivors of a Lake Superior ship disaster. (Oh, I love reading about the ship wrecks!)
So, while it seems that Olaf—once big and powerful—is now weak due to his age and illness, we learn that he has been a broken man for decades, ever since the ship’s foundering.
And that has meant that Olaf has not been much of a father to Noah, who, as a boy, admired his father, anyway—and who, as an adult, has avoided him due to his instability.
But, during the weeks they spend together, Olaf tells his son the full story of his ship’s sinking, and, without anything getting all treacly or nauseating—and mercifully without actually saying the words—they forgive each other for their failures as father and son. Thank goodness it’s all too raw to be at all heartwarming. (I hate heartwarming.)
I discovered this book via the National Reading Group Month list, and I’m glad I did.

It was a dark and stormy night…

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I chose this book for our book club to read, because it was one of those books I’ve long felt like I should have read. And I’m happy to report: I picked a winner! There’s a reason this one has stood the test of time. (Or— maybe I’ve just realized I’m a fan of the gothic novel?!) From the famous first sentence of the book (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”), the reader knows that the narrator and her husband have been cast out of the garden… but the reasons are not yet clear. The narrator, a naïve young woman whose name we never learn (except that she becomes Mrs. de Winter), makes some shocking choices in the face of some appalling circumstances. (Good for discussion, people!) Her new husband, Maxim, is mysterious and brooding. Their housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is straight from the devil himself. Mrs. Danvers still mourns the death of Rebecca, Maxim de Winter’s first wife— a woman who, by all accounts, was darn near perfect. Rebecca was beautiful, she rode horses and sailed with abandon, she threw remarkable parties, and she could decorate a house with the best of them. And then she died in a tragic sailing accident. In Rebecca’s shadow, our narrator feels inferior and unwanted because she has realized that her husband is still in love with his first wife. Then, halfway through the story, everything is turned upside down. The final sentence of one of the chapters made my eyes go wide with surprise. (I love it when this happens.) Wow. Good story.

Reading about the Cold during the Dog Days of Summer

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer by Lynne Cox

I completely expected this to be one of those books where I wonder throughout: How can this person choose this crazy pursuit? Fortunately, Lynne Cox is nearly as good at weaving a tale as she is at swimming at high speed in ice-cold-freezing water – so she tells us how she developed her overwhelming love of swimming in open water, even (especially?) under tough conditions. Her description of being 11 years old and choosing to swim for 3 hours in the midst of a hail storm rather than do 2 hours of calisthenics is just plain beautiful. And the part where she’s crossing a New Zealand strait accompanied by dolphins… I confess I felt a twinge of envy that made me realize all that training could result in some mighty lovely moments. You still won’t find me swimming in water where there be sharks, but Lynne Cox’s writing helps me understand why she would.

A Sad Business, These Shipwrecks…

Exiles by Ron Hansen

A fascinating premise: Hansen takes a real historical event – a shipwreck – about which a famous poem was written, and writes a novel about both the shipwreck and the writing of the poem. While at times it almost felt like a nonfiction novel, the author’s evocation of the tragedy of both the shipwreck and the early death of the poet (Gerard Manley Hopkins) are masterful. The novel alternates between the story of Hopkins, a Jesuit priest who has chosen to keep his poetic skills under wraps in deference to his religious calling; and the story of five German nuns, en route to America, who die in the shipwreck. While the nuns may be the primary exiles of the story, it seems that Hopkins, too, is an exile from his own true calling as a poet. The quiet details about the characters bring them to life, even as we watch them die. Haunting.

Unsinkable

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

The Titanic disaster has been the subject of oodles of books, many of which I’ve read, but I keep going back to this old chestnut. Walter Lord has written the most wonderfully readable narration of the events of April 14 – 15, 1912, on that ill-fated voyage. His writing is clear, concise, and compelling. Best of all, he conveys a sense that “you are there.” (Anyone else remember those Walter Cronkite documentaries we saw in school?) If you read only one book about the Titanic, make it this one.

The Lost Is Found

The Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt

The lost book of my childhood. When I was about 11 years old, I checked it out from the library, loved the book, returned it, and went to the shelf to find it again later – to no avail. I could remember the area of the shelves (near the beginning of the alphabet) where I’d found the book initially, and I made the pilgrimage back over and over again, searching for the “amaryllis” book. I should have asked a librarian! Years and years later, when online catalogs appeared in libraries, I did a title keyword search on “amaryllis” and found my long-lost book. Hooray for technology! The nifty thing is that this little tale – of searching for something that is lost – is also a theme of the book itself. And, wonderfully, when I re-read the book as an adult, the book was as wondrous as I had remembered. Young Jenny visits her widowed grandmother, who lives by the sea. Years ago, her husband, a sea captain, went down with his ship, and now Gran walks along the shore and waits for a sign from her beloved. And as she does so, a mysterious stranger watches her… Love, loss, and longing. Haunting.