Dead Wake

Friday, February 27, 2015

Dead Wake
The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larson

Whoa, what a ride! Larson’s fourth book is a doozy. After reading but not loving his last work, In the Garden of the Beasts, I was nervous about this one. It more than exceeded my expectations! Larson has a talent for pairing his meticulous research with compelling stories and salacious details. The tale of the Lusitania was ripe for the telling and he timed it perfectly with the 100 anniversary of the sinking.

The author made the voyage and disaster come alive by choosing a few individuals to focus on. We followed them through their entire journey. We see them board, learned their background and the reason why they were traveling. We knew who was waiting for them at home and then we watched the inevitable unfold.

We also learned about the Lusitania’s captain (Turner) and the captain of the U-boat that brought their destruction. Larson took us all the way through the sinking and into the aftermath. We learned who lived and died and what happened in the years that followed. Structuring the book this way put a few faces onto the historical event. It gave the book a depth of emotion that would have been missing if he’d only focused on factual details instead of personal details too. By the time we reach the critical moment you are so invested in the characters that you’ve met that the suspense is palpable.

In the opening chapters we’re introduced to Theodate Pope, a female architect and suffragette, Dwight Harris who carried both an engagement ring and custom life belt on board the ship. Then there was a Vanderbilt who had narrowly missed sailing on the Titanic. There was also a bookseller named Lauriat, carrying a priceless copy of A Christmas Carol that Dickens himself had owned!

A few interesting tidbits:
- Georg von Trapp (he of The Sound of Music fame) was an Austrian U-boat commander and torpedoed a French cruiser, killing 684 sailors!
- Captain Turner testified in the Titanic trial to determine who should receive compensation for their losses. 
- There was a Confederate submarine during the Civil War and three crews were killed just trying to get it to work.
- During WWII the Russians managed to get three copies of the German code book and gave one of them to the British

BOTTOM LINE: Just fantastic. Some nonfiction authors have a hard time restraining themselves from telling readers EVERY single detail that they discovered about a subject. But the best ones leave you fascinated with the subject and even wanting to know more about it. Erik Larson is one of the best and this particular book was a great example of his skill combining with an enthralling story. 

"When Death is as close as he was then, the sharp agony of fear is not there; the thing is too overwhelming and stunning for that." – One of the survivors.

*I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Image from here.

The Sandman Vol. II & III

Thursday, February 26, 2015

After reading Sandman: Vol. 1, I was put off the series. It was too dark for me. The images were too brutal and I just wasn’t a fan, which is surprising considering how much I love Gaiman’s other work. After a bit of encouragement from others who had read the rest of the series I decided to try another volume. I’m glad I did.

The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House
by Neil Gaiman

Volume II begins with a recap of everything that happened in the first volume. There’s a story set in the midst of a barren desert about a queen named Nada. She falls in love at first sight, but she can’t find the man who stole her heart.

Then we move onto Rose the main character in this volume. She discovers her real grandmother is alive and well in England. She returns to America to search for her missing brother Jed. She moves into a boarding house with a collection of strange characters, Gilbert the landlord, Ken and Barbie, and two creepy sisters who collects spiders.

We learn that Rose is actually a dream vortex and her presence is causing problems. While the people in the boarding house all dream very different dreams, but walls begin to break down and Rose's vortex merges their dreams. Meanwhile Morpheus is searching for the missing nightmares who escaped from the dream world while he was imprisoned. We also stop by a horrifying “cereal” convention. Without going into detail I’ll just note that this part was seriously scary.

One of my favorite stories in this volume was about Hobbs, a man who wants to live forever. He meets Morpheus and the two decide to meet up once every hundred years. During that time they run into Shakespeare and other major historical events. I love that Morpheus, who is so lonely and distant, finally has a friend of sorts in Hobbs.

Neil Gaiman always weaves mythology, religion, fables, and pieces of history together in such an interesting way. Nothing is off limits in his writing. I love that he uses all those elements in his stories. It’s the plot, not the illustrations that keep me coming back to these. Although I do love how every character’s thoughts and dialogue has a different font.

BOTTOM LINE: Whenever I read one of the Sandman comics I struggle with how dark some of the content is. But when I get to the end I tend to love the overarching message, depth of character and the well-thought-out plot. I am glad that I got a more balanced taste of the Sandman comics instead of just stopping after the very first one, but I do think they are a bit too dark for me.

"Life as a human contains substance I never dreamed of in the dreaming, Lord. The little victories, and the tiny defeats."

Sandman Vol. III: Dream Country
by Neil Gaiman

The third volume contains four stories. The first is the darkest, containing a tale of Calliope, a kidnapped muse who is kept prisoner by two authors. She is exploited by them so that they can further their own careers. It’s a sad tale, but it has a point. The next tale is about the ambitions and dreams of cats. They dream of a world ruled by their kind who reign over humans. Again it was interesting and not too dark.

My favorite of the four is a Shakespearean inspired bit about Midsummer Night’s Dream. A traveling troupe is performing the comedy in the 16th century and without their knowledge it’s being watched by the real Queen Titania and King Oberon. The real Puck joins in the fun as well, donning a mask and acting in the play.

The final piece is about a woman who has been transformed by the sun god Ra. She is left in a disturbing physical state, but she can’t die. She wears a mask and lives a horrible life, longing for an escape she can’t have. The best part about this story was the appearance of Death, the punk rocker sister of Morpheus.

BOTTOM LINE: There’s no denying that the stories are still incredibly dark, but for me each story had a real message this time. They weren’t dark for the sake of shocking the reader. Gaiman’s talent as a writer came through a bit more and I’m curious about the characters of Death and Morpheus.

I read these as part of Comics February, which is hosted by Debi at Talking to Myself and Chris at Stuff As Dreams Are Made On.

Wordless Wednesday: Koalas and Kangaroos

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sleepy koalas and kangaroos at the 
wildlife park in Australia.
More Wordless Wednesday here.
Photo by moi.