Friday, April 17, 2015

DEAD WAKE by Erik Larson (non-fic)

The sub-title of this book is "The Last Crossing of the Lusitania."  As a fan of Erik, I was eagerly awaiting the publication of his latest book, and it did not disappoint. Larson writes very readable and accurate books of events that have a great impact on subsiquent history.  You may read, "The Devil in White City" or "In the Garden of Beasts," which is my favorite.

"Dead Wake" is an accounting of the last ill-fated sail of the Cunard Line's Lusitania from its pier in Manhattan to its destination of Liverpool on the coast of the Irish Sea.  This May marks the 100th anniversary of the her sinking by a single torpedo fired from the German submarine U-20.  Larson begins his tale in a mood of celebration as passengers embark on Saturday,May 1, 1915. The great ship was under the command of Captain William Thomas Turner, a somewhat dour and very experienced sailor.  There was definite concern about this crossing as German subs had been busy in and around the Irish Sea, St. Georges Channel, and the Isles of Scilly which lay off the coast of Cornwall, particularly one very dangerous sub under the command of Capt. Walther Schwieger who had begun targeting neutral liners and cargo ships which dared to make the crossing.  However, it was the general consensus that the Germans would not dare to attack such a large and well known passenger ship, considered the fastest on the sea.  Besides, she would have the protection of the Royal Navy warships as she passed through St. George's Channel.

Larson skillfully introduces us to a number of passengers and follows them throughout the voyage which was largely uneventful as they sailed in fine weather and calm seas.  The reader begins to form a bond with these people and picture them at play and rest. His descriptions of the ship and passengers down to their period clothing and habits presents an endearing picture. There were a number of children on board as well and a mixture of American and British citizens. Larson writes an equally interesting account of Schwieger's character and life aboard the very cramped quarters of the sub where sanitation and ventilation were difficult.

The sense of foreboding intensifies as the ship nears the coast of Ireland. Though the reader is aware of the outcome, it is no less nerve wracking as the two ships near their destiny.  The passengers awoke that clear Saturday morning with a sense of celebration as they neared their destination and began to organized their belonging in anticipation.  What they did not realize, but Capt. Turner did, is the British navy was nowhere in sight for the expected escort, nor was Turner adequately warned of the deadly submarine lurking nearby, that the Admiralty was certainly aware of and deliberately ignoring.

When the torpedo hit the unsuspecting ship, it only took 18 minutes for the invincible liner to sink, bringing to mind a similar disaster on another invincible ship three years before, the Titanic. This time, 1200 lives were lost, 128 Americans among them.  Calling on the accounts of the surviving passengers, Larson presents a grim picture of their last moments.

Mystery still clings to the sinking of the Lusitania.  It seems pretty much accepted now, and there is evidence to back this up, that Winston Churchill deliberately withheld escorts and aid, with the confidence that should an attack occur, America would finally enter the war.  Indeed, it did precipitate America's entry as the previously isolationist country-wide feeling dissipated with the news of the sinking and lives lost. It also turns out that the Lusitania was carrying ammunition and arms for the Allies, and after the torpedo hit, the popular speculation was that the ammunition exploded causing the ship to sink.  Larson holds to the theory that highly combustive coal dust caused the secondary explosion which finished off the mighty liner which otherwise might have made it to the nearest port.

As I read, I was wishing that the book contained photos of the embarking and some of the passengers whom the reader got to know.  However, in the author's notes he directs one to a web site of a wonderful film made of the embarkation on the day the ship sailed out of New York Harbor.  As I watched various passengers leaving taxis and excitedly going aboard, I had a feeling of sadness, knowing their tragic fate.

I highly recommend this book to all readers and book clubs.  It is a terrific picture of history being made.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I am determined to get to the end of the week in this Frieda Klein series and look forward to the Thursday title next.  The husband and wife team, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, have hit upon an interesting mystery formula and their plots are carefully woven and presented.

The usual cast of characters  appear in this story:  Beside Frieda Klein, her long suffering friend, Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson; her love-interest, Sandy; her nemesis Hal Bradshaw; Josef the Ukrainian fix-it man; and, her needy sister-in-law and her sassy niece, Chloe.

People have secrets in this book, especially Ruth Lennox the murder victim and her lover, her husband and her three teenage children.  They are the most realistic characters in the novel. Like the other books in this series, the mystery is skillfully presented and keeps the reader guessing and interested.  Having said this, I did not enjoy this book as much as I did the first two, and it is not because of the story line.  I feel the characters are not as realistically portrayed as in the past.  In fact, Frieda is beginning to wear on me.  She is depressed and frankly not very pleasant.  Her boyfriend, Sandy, is just a caricature.  No one could be at her beck and call as he is.  Inspector Karlsson is too loyal to be real and Hal Bradshaw is just too manipulative and nasty a person to believe in.  However,  I continue to enjoy the mystery and hope the next installment will pick up again where the first two books left off.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

WATCH ME by Anjelica Huston (non-fic)

I wouldn't want a steady diet of it, but every-once-in-a-while, it is fun to be a voyeur into the lives of the rich and famous Hollywood royalty.  Certainly, Anjelica Huston is such royalty.  She is the daughter of the enormously talented John Huston who directed such gems as The African Queen and The Misfits.  This is the second volume of an autobiography by Huston who seems to have written it without the aid of a ghosting hand.  The first volume, "A Story Lately Told" tells of her childhood in the rural and verdant Irish countryside.

I began the book with high hopes of being entertained, knowing Huston's relationship of 17 years with Jack Nicholson was a turbulent one.  He was the great love of her youth, and she was with him through his most prolific and talented years when he was at the top of his game, handsome, svelte, and entertaining.  Unfortunately for Anjelica, whom he affectionately called Toots, he was also an inveterate womanizer and consistently unfaithful to her, though he seemed to care for her as much as it was in his nature to do so.  "He done her wrong!," though why she put up with this and allowed it to go on for so long, is never clearly explained.  Perhaps it was that he was a reflection of her dearly loved father who was also an intensely masculine presence in her life, equally involved with a string of women.  She also had two other destructive relationships, an earlier one with Bob Richardson, the fashion photographer, during her modeling days and another with the actor, Ryan O'Neal, who was physically abusive.

Anjelica and Nicholson broke for good in 1990, but she holds no bitterness toward him.  In 1992, she met and eventually married the great love of her later life, Bob Graham, a well-known and respected sculptor.  Huston and Graham had a loving relationship and enjoyed many of the same activities and travel.  The marriage was seemingly a happy one, until Graham died after they had been together for 16 years.  Huston's description of her life with him, is touching and she does her best writing in this section.

While I enjoyed the parts of the book devoted to Huston and Graham's life together, the earlier section of the book was disappointing.  The reader has to wade through lists and list of famous people without much substance or depth.  For example she was in the house with Roman Polanski the night he was accused of raping a young girl; she glossed right over this with a non-descript paragraph or two.  One wonders where the reflection is during her life with Nicolson.  Did she really jump from party to party listing the famous faces in her diary perhaps and just regurgitating them for us?  Was life really just drugs, sex and rock and roll?  Since she turned to acting during this time and won an academy award for her role in "Prizzi's Honor" there must have been periods of hard work and self-reflection that do not come across in the book.

If you are looking for a read about the Hollywood life of privilege mixed with tidbits from the lives of the famous whose paths cross Huston's, read away.  There is the bonus of the book becoming a better read after Huson marries Bob Graham, who was a well-grounded partner for her.  One thing that does come through is Anjelica Huston is a genuinely nice woman who is not given to whining about the messy turns her life took.