Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage by Hugh Brewster

[A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher upon my request.]

It has been almost 100 years since the Titanic's ill-fated maiden voyage that took the lives of over 1,500 people. Since that fateful night, the story of the Titanic has been told again and again (and again) through books and film and even a successful Broadway musical. The question on many people's minds as the anniversary of the Titanic disaster looms is: Do we really need more books about Titanic?

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster answers this question with a resounding "yes." Although hundreds of studies have been published on the Titanic disaster, Hugh Brewster's newest book is not a rehashing of the same old "Titanic" story that we have heard time and time again. In many books, the story of the Titanic is the story of the ship itself: how big she was, how many people were aboard her, how she struck the iceberg and ultimately, how she sank. Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage avoids making the Titanic center stage and instead thrusts the reader into the world of the most famous and noteworthy of Titanic's passengers. The story of the Titanic presented here is not a cold tally of the dead or a countdown of her lifeboats, but a human story about real people who lived and died and made human decisions that night, allowing the reader to "... place ourselves on that sloping deck and ask, 'What would we do?'"

It's clear from the outset that Brewster has done his research, not only on the Titanic (he has published previous works about the ship) but on the world of its first-class passengers and most remarkably, their personal lives. After all, it is one thing to read about the disaster and see an offhand remark about "Lucile Duff Gordan, a popular designer," or "Frank Millet, a popular artist and writer," who survived and did not survive the disaster, respectively. It is quite another to be presented a history of their lives--their loves, their losses, their passions and their personality--while eventually learning of their actions during the voyage and the impact that their life or death had on their world. Some readers may notice that Brewster sometimes has to rely on speculation, such as remarking that perhaps Lucille Duff Gordon wore a certain dress on a particular evening. Most of his speculations are based on research (in the previous example, Brewster is referring to a dress which was included in Lucille's cargo inventory) and, in my opinion, are simply a necessity of writing about what is ultimately a human story.

Brewster's writing is always engaging, always clear, and a pleasure to read. There are black and white photos related to the narrative included throughout the book, including some more uncommon photos of the passengers and first-class rooms. Included in the postscript of the book is a concise guide to the passengers mentioned in the book, with basic information about their lives, whether or not they survived the sinking, and (when applicable) their fate after the Titanic disaster.

I highly recommended Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage to anyone who has an interest in the Titanic, whether they are picking up their very first books about the incident or have been studying the ship for years. It is definitely a worthy addition to the long list of Titanic studies, and I would say it's one of the most interesting and important newer Titanic books to come out in recent years. I would also recommend this to anyone with an interest in the end of the Edwardian age, especially early 20th century American politics, Edwardian fashion and social history.

Friday, March 23, 2012

History Book Finds: 2012 Titanic Book Releases

With the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking nearly upon us (and a Titanic book review on the way!) I thought it would be the perfect time to share just some of the more interesting and unique new Titanic books released/set for release in 2012... though I did let one 2011 release sneak its way in!

The book descriptions are taken from Amazon.com.

How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson [October 11, 2011]

A brilliantly original and gripping new look at the sinking of the Titanic through the prism of the life and lost honor of J. Bruce Ismay, the ship’s owner ... Accused of cowardice and of dictating the Titanic’s excessive speed, Ismay became, according to one headline, “The Most Talked-of Man in the World.” The first victim of a press hate campaign, he never recovered from the damage to his reputation, and while the other survivors pieced together their accounts of the night, Ismay never spoke of his beloved ship again. ... Using never-before-seen letters written by Ismay to the beautiful Marion Thayer, a first-class passenger with whom he had fallen in love during the voyage, Frances Wilson explores Ismay’s desperate need to tell his story, to make sense of the horror of it all, and to find a way of living with the consciousness of lost honor. For those who survived the Titanic, the world was never the same. But as Wilson superbly demonstrates, we all have our own Titanics, and we all need to find ways of surviving them.

Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived by Andrew Wilson [March 6, 2012]

Although we think we know the story of Titanic—the famously luxurious and supposedly unsinkable ship that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Britain to America—very little has been written about what happened to the survivors after the tragedy. How did they cope in the aftermath of this horrific event? How did they come to remember that night, a disaster that has been likened to the destruction of a small town?

Drawing on a wealth of previously unpublished letters, memoirs, and diaries as well as interviews with survivors’ family members, award-winning journalist and author Andrew Wilson reveals how some used their experience to propel themselves on to fame, while others were so racked with guilt they spent the rest of their lives under the Titanic’s shadow. Some reputations were destroyed, and some survivors were so psychologically damaged that they took their own lives in the years that followed.

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster [March 27, 2012]

The Titanic has often been called “an exquisite microcosm of the Edwardian era,” but until now, her story has not been presented as such. In Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage, historian Hugh Brewster seamlessly interweaves personal narratives of the lost liner’s most fascinating people with a haunting account of the fateful maiden crossing. Employing scrupulous research and featuring 100 rarely-seen photographs, he accurately depicts the ship’s brief life and tragic denouement, presenting the very latest thinking on everything from when and how the lifeboats were loaded to the last tune played by the orchestra.

And the Band Played On: The Enthralling Account of What Happened After the Titanic Sank by Christopher Ward [April 1, 2012]

On 14th April 1912, when the Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage and sank, 1,500 passengers and crew lost their lives. As the order to abandon ship was given, the orchestra took their instruments on deck and continued to play as the ship went down. The violinist, 21 year-old Jock Hume, knew that his fiancĂ©e, Mary, was expecting their first child, the author's mother. A century later, Christopher Ward reveals a dramatic story of love, loss, and betrayal, and the catastrophic impact of Jock's death on two very different Scottish families. He paints a vivid portrait of an age in which class determined the way you lived—and died. This outstanding piece of historical detective work is also a moving account of how the author's quest to learn more about his grandfather revealed the shocking truth about a family he thought he knew, a truth that had been hidden for nearly 100 years.

A Girl Aboard the Titanic: A Survivor's Story by Eva Hart [May, 2012]

'We went on the day on the boat train... I was 7, I had never seen a ship before... it looked very big... everybody was very excited, we went down to the cabin and that's when my mother said to my father that she had made up her mind quite firmly that she would not go to bed in that ship, she would sit up at night... she decided that she wouldn't go to bed at night, and she didn't!'

This is the amazing story of how Eva survived the sinking of the Titanic, how her father perished and the affect it had on her life following the tragedy. The events of a few hours in her childhood remained with her so vividly throughout her life that it took Eva nearly forty years before she could talk openly about the tragedy. A Girl Aboard the Titanic is the only child eyewitness description we have of most famous maritime disaster.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: Secrets of Versailles: The Palace and Beyond by Nicolas Jacquet

(This review was initially published on Reading Treasure.)

[I was provided a review copy of this book by the publisher upon request.]

"May readers understand that, behind the facades and the decors of the most beautiful palace in France, you can still sense the beating hearts of the men and women who once inhabited it and the history that unfolded there.

May they also understand that the palace is neither a dead site nor a placid memorial, but rather a living space which still aims to surprise and amaze visitors and fill them with wonder..."

So ends Jean-Jacques Aillagon's introduction to Secrets of Versailles: The Palace and Beyond by Nicolas Jacquet, a recent publication by Parigramme in partnership with the Chateau de Versailles. True to its title, the book is filled with secrets, surprises and tidbits about the history of Versailles and the people that once lived there.

There are about 200 or so entries in the book. The entries range from buildings to rooms to personal items and effects, such as the library of Madame du Barry, the last staircase ordered to be constructed by Louis XVI, and the "Treaty of Versailles" desk. Each entry also features one or more photographs of the place or item in question, a location for those who wish to visit and an asterisk (or double asterisk) to denote whether or not the entry is available for the public to see. Jacquet's writing is easily accessible in this English translations, and the photographs are well taken and printed nicely.

Some of the entries will be familiar to many, such as an entry for the Queen's village, while others are areas and items only available to those on private tours or not available to the public at all. My favorite entries were those offering those little secrets of life at Versailles, such as a view from the balcony at the Queen's House in the Petit Trianon, and the bathroom of the duchesse d'Angouleme during the Bourbon Restoration. Surprisingly, the book does not limit itself to the chateau of Versailles or its gardens, and extends its surprises to the city of Versailles, revealing many buildings and locations that are often ignored outright in many other books about Versailles. Those who might fear the book focuses solely on Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette need not worry, as the history discussed in the book ranges from Louis XIV all the way to the 20th century.

It's definitely a book I will keep in mind when I take my someday-soon trip to Versailles, and something I recommend for anyone interested in the history of the palace and the city, especially if you might be traveling there. I feel that knowing the history behind any location will make it all the more special. The human history behind locations can so often be lost when you're viewing them behind a computer screen or taking snapshots on a tour, but Secrets of Versailles really brings that history to the forefront, reminding us of the people and events that once passed through the city and palace of Versailles.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Review: Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women's Memory by Marilyn Yalom

Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women's Memory by Marilyn Yalom is an exploration of the memoirs of women from a variety of social positions who, in some way, were affected by the French Revolution. These women range from female soldiers to the wives of prominent revolutionary figures to the only surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The memoirs encompass a range of different experiences during the revolution as well as range of different "memories" of these events which are colored by the context the time period the memoirs were written in and the own personal ideals of the writer. In the book, Yalom not only explores the importance of historical context when reading these memoirs (a book written by a royalist during the Bourbon Restoration will naturally be colored by that context) but argues that the primary drive behind these memoirs - and indeed, many memoirs before and since the 18th and 19th centuries - is to bear witness to events which uprooted the country and resulted in the deaths of family, friends and countless others.

Blood Sisters excels in several ways. Yalom is clearly invested in this subject and her passion for these women and their writing shines in a narrative that is clear, engaging and incredibly hard to put down. The book also benefits because Yalom has chosen to engage the reader in these  memoirs not only from a narrative point of view - explaining what happened to the women and what they wrote - but also from a critical point of view, exploring how these women wrote about what happened to them. Memory and personal conviction can have a great effect on what we write about our lives later in life, something Yalom doesn't hesitate to explore.

The one downside to this book is that I personally wish it was longer! As a side note, Yalom does provide an extensive list of memoirs written by women who were affected by the French Revolution, although this list only contains the French editions of these memoirs.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in women's memoirs, the study of women's history, or the French Revolution.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Quick Reviews: Fasting Girls, Hollywood Monster and Vive La Revolution.

Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacobs Brumberg is an updated edition to Brumberg's critical study on the history of anorexia nervosa which was first published in the 1980s. Fasting Girls traces the history of the modern disease anorexia nervosa as well as the history of food refusal among young women, which dates back at least as far as the 16th century. Brumberg is careful to differentiate between these earlier historical cases of "fasting girls" and our more modern conception of anorexia nervosa. Brumberg argues that anorexia nervosa did not fully develop until the mid-late 19th century when increased social stability and heavy emphasis on mealtime as a sign of status in the growing upper middle class allowed for the development of a mental disorder which revolved around the consumption and control of food and weight.

Brumberg's writing tends toward the academic, but most readers shouldn't have trouble following her linear narrative which begins in the 16th century and continues until the 1980s, with a brief addition that was written at the start of the new millennium. Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa will appeal to anyone interested in the history of this mental disorder as well as the history of "fasting girls" in the 16th through the 19th centuries. The book will also be of interest to students or professionals in the mental health and wellness field.

Hollywood Monster: A Walk Down Elm Street With the Man of Your Dreams by Robert Englund recounts the now famous horror actor's early years in the theater and in Hollywood before landing his most iconic role: that of Freddy Kreuger in the first A Nightmare on Elm Street film and subsequent franchise. Although the memoir seems marketed as a book which focuses on Englund's "career" as Freddy Kreuger, it's actually more of a general overview of Englund's career and personal life. Englund's career before the first Nightmare film, which may be surprising to fans who only know him from the Nightmare franchise, includes classical theater roles, bit parts in plenty of older Hollywood flicks and small roles alongside growing major stars like Sally Field and Henry Fonda. Englund, of course, recounts his time filming A Nightmare On Elm Street and its many sequels as well as his other work during and post-Nightmare, such as his acclaimed role in the mini-series V.

The memoir is very casual but still engaging. The major flaw with this memoir is that Englund does not focus on any particular topic for very long. He briefly mentions roles or events or people but rarely goes into any great detail about any of them. Fans of Englund's portrayal of Freddy Kreuger will enjoy some anecdotes about the behind the scenes hijinks, but may be disappointed that there isn't really much dirt, gossip or secrets revealed in the course of the narrative. I would recommend Hollywood Monster for hardcore fans of the Nightmare franchise or readers who enjoy a casual, if sometimes flighty, Hollywood memoir.

Vive La Revolution: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution by Mark Steel is a casual history of the French Revolution told in a conversational and comedic tone. Vive La Revolution covers the basics of the French Revolution, including its origins, major events and players and the subsequent consequences and results of the revolution. Steel's presentation of the revolution is noticeably sympathetic towards the revolution and most of its supporting figures. Some readers may find this refreshing, considering the glut of books in recent years which are more sympathetic toward the French royal family. However, Steel's argument that negative portrayals of "pro" revolutionary figures are mostly based in biased myth and legend is sometimes lost when Steel relies on legends or myths in his descriptions of aristocratic or royal figures. I would have preferred for the author to point out the inaccuracies of popular conceptions of all figures of the revolution, not just the ones he personally supported. The book also occasionally suffers from a lack of basic fact checking, such as mixing up the sister of Louis XVI with the sister of Marie Antoinette and then later, the niece of Louis XVI.

Despite these flaws, the book does manage to cover the revolution in a way that is engaging, especially for casual readers. I would mainly recommend Vive La Revolution to readers looking for something easy to read about the French Revolution, despite its occasional flaws, or readers who are fans of Mark Steel's comedic writing.