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Titanic 2012
Titanic 2012
by Bill Walker
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.95
30 used & new from $2.94

5.0 out of 5 stars A Blow Against Cynicism, July 7, 2012
This review is from: Titanic 2012 (Paperback)
Recently, I have read several fictional works that have made the Titanic their backdrop. What is surprising is not so much how bad some of them have been (such as Carpathia), but how good some of them have been (like The Company of the Dead).

I am not exactly sure why my I was suspicious of this book: maybe it was because of the low price, perhaps it was other reviewers mentioning the numerous allusions to James Cameron's film. I was certainly not interested in reading a love story, for sure. That said, the book immediately grabbed me--ironically, for many of the very reasons that I almost decided not to purchase it.

Unlike some of the other books I've read, TITANIC 2012 does not generate its suspense by turning the sinking ship into a survivalist adventure; rather, it builds suspense by way of its characters. Why on earth would they volunteer to sail on a reproduction of the Titanic? What are they hiding? And why the melancholy that seems to lurk behind every smile?

Walker does what every good writer does: he gives us characters in need, characters facing inner demons as well as external threats and anxieties. Among them, we get Trevor Hughes, a grief-stricken writer trying to pull himself together as he tries to piece together the story of what happened aboard the modern incarnation of the damned vessel. We also get Harlan, his egregiously wealthy and equally desperate friend. And then there is Maddie....

What makes the book powerful is not the Titanic tragedy so much as the personal tragedy. As is so often the case, the universal is to be found in the particular. This is perhaps why Walker's book does not give us a moment-by-moment account of the water creeping up the stairwells, but rather an account of the vexed narrator's despair in the immediate aftermath, and his work towards recovery.

There is a love story, but it is neither melodramatic nor maudlin. Similarly, the book lacks both heroes and villains. What we are left with are flesh and blood individuals (like ourselves) looking for dignity and a bit of decorum in an age that seems hell-bent on denying both.

At one point in the book, one of Walker's characters says of James Cameron's film that it was "a blow against cynicism." The same could be said of this clever little novel. It is moving, sincere, suspenseful and deceptively simple.

Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived
Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived
by Andrew Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
57 used & new from $3.21

5.0 out of 5 stars The "human, all to human" story of the Titanic's survivors., July 5, 2012
Nietzsche, among others, suggested that art served a psychological purpose--an argument almost ubiquitously affirmed by everyday experience and, ironically, universally denied by politicians, bureaucrats and laymen all too willing to cut arts funding and eager to reduce the Humanities to a series of objective questions on a standardized test. Yet, human beings have the tendency to experience life and remember events in the form of narratives, stories. Only within the context of a narrative can we really understand things. Of course, trauma tends to disrupt our ability to integrate our experiences into a personal narrative, and the effect can be devastating.

Wilson's SHADOW OF THE TITANIC is largely an exploration of the various survivors' attempts to assimilate the events of April 14, 1912, into their life stories. Some of the survivors's attempts are successful, many are not. Regardless, Wilson argues, the Titanic tragedy was the formative moment of their lives.

Overall, Wilson's argument is thoroughly convincing. For most of us, the story of the Titanic ends with the arrival of the Carpathia. Yet, clearly for the survivors the Titanic's marked a beginning, a line delineating a before and after--a fall from from innocence and grace. Only occasionally do Wilson's claims come off as conjecture rather than sound reasoning. One example is the case of Jack Thayer, whose suicide in middle age Wilson clearly wants to link to the Titanic despite the fact that, as Wilson tells us in passing, Thayer also served as a young officer in some of the bloodiest fighting in WWI--another experience that was surely traumatic and just as likely to trigger an existential crisis. This said, the number of suicides and mental breakdowns chronicled in the book certainly deromanticizes what has become a modern myth.

There are plenty of books about the Titanic at this point, quite a few of which have come out in time to capitalize on the centennial of the ship's demise; this is one of the best, written in a narrative style (Wilson calls it "literary pointillism") similar to that of Walter Lord's, whose notes and unpublished research Wilson taps into for the book. The writing is compelling; the stories are suspenseful; and the questions that emerge are important. Again by way of an example, while Wilson's conclusion regarding Jack Thayer's suicide may leave us with some doubts, his suggestion that Thayer's rehashing of the Titanic trauma for his children (in the form of a written document in 1940) may have triggered a crisis should give us some pause. Since Freud, Western culture has taken it for granted that talking about trauma (childhood or other) is the cure for psychological ailments. The Stoic philosophers would have disagreed and, closer to Freud's own time, so would Nietzsche, who argued that "pity brings suffering into the world." Could revisiting the traumatic memories have brought about more suffering for Mr. Thayer than catharsis?

Wilson does not answer the question directly, but implicitly the assumption is Yes. For this reason among others his book should appeal also to readers interested in Trauma Studies (though this book is not nearly as academic as, say, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History, which is probably for the best.)

Highly recommended--an intelligent and moving look at the Titanic's "human, all too human" survivors, with photographs.

A Night to Remember
A Night to Remember
Price: $9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Book to Remember, June 29, 2012
Only occasionally do I find myself truly, inexorably engrossed in a book. Perhaps you know the feeling: the pulse quickens, and at times you are surprised to find you are short of breath (though sitting still in your chair). Walter Lord's "A Night to Remember" has just this sort of visceral effect on you; from the account of crewman Fleet's first sighting of the berg, to the chronicle of media blunders perpetrated in the days following the tragedy, it was as if the book had put a spell on me. I could not put it down.

While Lord's book is a work of non-fiction, he accomplishes here what great works of fiction aim for: he manages to intertwine the life of the reader with the lives of the people in the book. Of course, novels can often get bogged down with details--imagery, say, or background information--but Lord wisely avoids this. Instead, what he gives us is a fast-moving, breathtaking account of the Titanic's sinking and the courage, loss, heroism, bravado, and shame of its (human, all too human) survivors. In short, he tells us about the people only what we need to know, but more than enough to make them living flesh and blood individuals.

A quick look at a couple of the chapter titles, all of which are quotes from survivors, may help to explain the book's drawing power: for example, Chapter Four: "You Go and I'll Stay a While;" and Chapter Ten: "Go Away-We Have Just Seen Our Husbands Drown." These statements alone are moving, and they become all the more powerful when read in context.

Readers of Hiroshima By John Hersey will have a good idea of the narrative style of Lord's reportage, though at a literary level I found Lord's book to be even more thrilling to read. And the questions he leaves us with at the end of the book are as important as the answers he has discovered.

A fascinating read, both suspenseful and educational, sure to appeal to anyone interested in one of the great Western tragedies of the 20th century. Included in the book are timelines and passenger lists.

Finally, for a more recent look at maritime disasters and hazards, check out The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, another book that is as informative as it is riveting.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 9, 2012 6:26 PM PDT

The Company of the Dead
The Company of the Dead
by David J. Kowalski
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.64
103 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fantastic Debut, June 24, 2012
You are clearly doing something right when your first novel earns you comparisons to Philip K. Dick, Stephen Fry and Umberto Eco--all writers of great imagination and intellectual depth. What they also have in common, of course, are their novels of Alternate History. And what these novels teach us is that--in the words of one of Kowalski's characters--"The past [is] to be regarded with a steady eye and never a thought for the 'what if' or 'what might have been'." Why? Because the truth is that things might always have turned out worse.

Had Hitler never been born (as in Fry's "Making History") someone even more nefarious may have lead the Nazis to victory. Had the Titanic not sunk when and how it did.... Well, as Kowalski shows us, the possibilities are endless: small floating cities might have roamed the skies; strange new political alliances may have formed; and a world war might have begun with atomic bombs rather than end with them.

This book is thrilling at so many different levels that it is difficult to outline them all: conspiracy theorists will love the political intrigue and espionage; action enthusiasts will be gripped by the battle sequences; science fiction buffs will be fascinated by the paradoxes of time travel; and, of course, anyone in awe of the mythical tale of the Titanic will find fact and fiction weaved together in such a way as to both entertain and educate.

I know that the novel was marketed in time for the centennial of the Titanic's fatal voyage, but potential readers should know that while the novel starts and ends on the Titanic, the bulk of the tale takes place on dry land, in a world both similar to and different from our own. Some readers found this to be a digression (hence the call for more aggressive editing). I did not. Ultimately, "The Company of the Dead" is first and foremost a speculative alternate history, and only secondarily a work about the Titanic.

In a similar vein, I saw that one reviewer complained about some of the details ("eighty-eights" and "Mausers"). I would argue that these peculiar details help to give the novel a sense of time and place. In context, it is quite clear that "eighty-eights" are artillery cannon and that a "Mauser" is a handgun. Me personally, I like it when a book can transport me to another world, and for that to happen descriptors are needed.

My understanding is that Kowalski is now writing a second novel. I have no idea what it is about or when it will be finished, but I am already putting it on my wish list.

The Osiris Ritual (Newbury & Hobbes)
The Osiris Ritual (Newbury & Hobbes)

3.0 out of 5 stars Familiar Ground, June 3, 2012
"The Osiris Ritual" is not an unpleasant book, but it is a disappointing one, and I found myself rushing towards the end--not because it was suspenseful, but because I wanted to move on to something else.

Mann's books seem to be plot-driven; this was true for "The Affinity Bridge" and it is especially true for this book. The plot itself is fairly simple (and not particularly original): a mad genius has turned killer in order to perform the rites of an ancient ritual that will make him immortal. The story's protagonists, Newbury and Hobbes, must stop him. Everything in between consists of chases and fights.

What makes this book mere second-rate Sherlock Holmes is that there really is little mystery, so no wits are required. Moreover, Mann fails to develop both the setting and the characters. The steampunk ambience is relatively nondescript (exactly what it should not be), and Newbury and Hobbes remain essentially flat characters, though Newbury's drug-addiction is more problematic in this novel.

This said, the book is short (more of a novella than a novel) and might easily be read in a single sitting. Actually, I think that the lack of literary sophistication or psychological complexity might make this book appeal to reluctant readers. There is some descriptive violence and a bit of gore, but it is rather tame by contemporary standards. In recompense, there is plenty of action, and the male and female lead characters, with their intertwining personal and professional concerns, will certainly find readers of both genders who can identify with them.

Not a first choice, but you could certainly do worse than "The Osiris Ritual."

The Affinity Bridge (Newbury & Hobbes Book 1)
The Affinity Bridge (Newbury & Hobbes Book 1)
Offered by Macmillan
Price: $9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Got Holmes?, May 26, 2012
It was my students who first introduced me to the term "Steampunk." Not wanting to be left behind at the dawn of a new genre, I Googled the movement and came up with a list of suggested titles. In the end, however, I did not choose from the "required reading" list, but from a broader selection which included George Mann's Newbury and Hobbes Investigations. On the heels of reading Conan Doyle and watching the new BBC series "Sherlock," this seemed the way to go. Indeed, Doyle is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment, perhaps propelled by the steampunk movement.

In many ways Mann's Newbury and Hobbes are clearly modernized versions of Holmes and Watson, but they are also throwbacks to Doyle's Victorian characters. Hobbes, for example, is a young woman, while Newbury--despite his Victorian manners--is much more physical than Holmes ever was, and in this way he has more in common with Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes. Yet, the book is entrenced in Victorianism--in its prose, in its characterization and dialogues, and in its morality (at least according to the popular stereotypes).

The mystery itself, the plot, is somewhat predictable, so what really kept me reading was the setting, an alternate 19th century England with technology that is both familiar and different. Zeppelins rule the skies; taxis may be horse-drawn or steam-powered; and robots with innards like those of a mechanical watch have begun to delight the Victorian upper crust.

In the end, Mann manages to tie everything neatly together. While there is some graphic violence--a zombie attack or two, and a couple of fights to the death--what I found most refreshing about this book was its, well, Victorian sensibilities. There are no obscenities, no lurid sex scenes or rapes; even the violence is tame by contemporary standards. One cannot help but wonder if (maybe, please, maybe) the interest in steampunk, with its Victorian ethos, may mark a shift, a cultural turn away from the crass vulgarity of reality TV and aesthetic attempts to explore all that is perverse, decadent and nihilistic in human nature. In any case, the setting of "The Affinity Bridge" is certainly a more decorous one than our own.

Like Doyle's stories, Mann's tale is not particularly deep; you will not find any serious psychological studies or profound cultural commentary. It is a fantastical thriller which occasionally manages some nice insights, as in this passage where Newbury reflects upon one of the criminal minds they have brought justice to:

"[He] was an evil man, but he was also incredibly accomplished. In fact, I'd go as far as saying he was a genius, in his own way. And with genius comes a certain amorality that is sometimes difficult to judge. Genius is, in many ways, akin to madness. Both states of mind demand a disconnection from reality, from the real, physical world, an ability to lose oneself in thought."

For readers seeking a similar (albeit benign) disconnection from reality, Mann's book provides an ingenious alternative world to lose ourselves in.

Fragile Things:  Short Fictions and Wonders
Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders
by Neil Gaiman
Edition: Audio CD
Price: $14.10
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not Fragile, Just Broken, May 12, 2012
Neil Gaiman has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, and yet the first time I heard him on NPR I remember being disappointed by what he had to say. Still, when my book group chose FRAGILE THINGS as our next selection, I must say that I was rather looking forward to it. And, if I wasn't initially swept away, I was at least pleasantly amused by Gaiman's retelling of a classic Sherlock Holmes story--the first in this collection. Yet, looking back at my notes, I can see that my amusement did not last long.

Very early on in this anthology one cannot help but notice the constant self-reflection, the self-consciousness. That is to say, far too many of these stories talk ABOUT storytelling instead of just telling the darn story. As a result, just as you find yourself drawn into a tale, the author or his narrator intrude, reminding you that you are reading a story. Now, some authors can get away with this--Italo Calvino, for example--but here the effect is simply disruptive.

Other problems are more difficult to pinpoint. I had already gone through ten or more of the stories before I realized that not a single one of them had left an impression on me. I couldn't remember the characters, the plots. Almost as quickly as I read the stories, I forgot them. Can you imagine saying the same thing after reading shorts by Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, JG Ballard, Joyce Carol Oates?

By the time I had finished "The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch" I was truly frustrated. Violence and perversity certainly have a place in art and literature, but only if they are justified by the plot and characterization. I don't believe in "perversity for perversity's sake" any more than I believe in "art for art's sake" --and for the same reasons that Nietzsche spelled out a century ago. So, when in Gaiman's stories a logical sequence of events cannot be discerned, and when the characters are grossly under-developed, the violence and perversity risk being gratuitous.

In the case of "Miss Finch," we never get to know the character well enough to care what happens to her one way or another. And while the freakshow the characters are subjected to was enough to string me along, by the time I turned to the last page I was shocked to realize that the story had no climax. (Indeed, most of them do not.) Moreover, the story has so many loose ends that it is not so much open-ended as it is unfinished. Who was Miss Finch? What exactly was her wish? Is it important that one of the female performers has track marks on her arms from drug use? Did the cyclist break his leg or not? Should we care?

In a well-written short story nothing is left to chance; every word, every detail should count. Instead, with Gaiman one is left with the impression that he himself is unsure which details matter. EM Forster once said that "the writer expects the reader to have a good memory. The reader expects the writer to leave no loose ends." I really feel as though in many of these short stories Gaiman lets the reader down. The result is not so much a collection of stories, but of moods--mostly morbid, sometimes cynical, generally unpleasant.

In "Keepsakes and Treasures" a young thug procures a mythically beautiful boy for a paternal sodomite; the boy dies. In the story "Other People," a man goes to hell and is tortured. And tortured. And tortured again. Then he does the torturing. In "Good Boys Deserve Favors," a schoolboy discovers that he has an incredible, innate talent for the double bass. Then he quits playing.

Myself, I tend to have a predilection for the macabre, but in the case of this collection by Gaiman, the stories and their characters are not so much fragile as they are, well, broken ... and repugnant.

A very disappointing collection, I am truly sorry to say.

Mutant Chronicles
Mutant Chronicles
DVD ~ Thomas Jane
Offered by Bookzilla LLC
Price: $4.94
80 used & new from $0.01

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Care to take a leap of faith?, April 12, 2012
This review is from: Mutant Chronicles (DVD)
I don't usually write reviews for films, but hot at the heels of having read Paul Fussell's "The Great War" I found myself thinking again about this grossly underrated film, and now I find myself flabbergasted by the numerous negative reviews it has received.

This film was my first introduction to steampunk (a genre characterized by copious use of anachronisms) and I must say that what some reviewers complained was a dull beginning had me me absolutely captivated. I can think of no other recent film which attempts to capture the appalling and gruesome setting of WWI trenches and the concomitant sense of meaninglessness and futility experienced by its protagonists--the soldiers at the front.

Yet, whereas WWI was marked by dramatic distinctions (for example, the surreal landscapes of the battlefield and bodily mutilations were just a short ferry ride away from the vibrant cafes and beautiful gardens of England for British soldiers fighting in Belgium and France), in this film the distinctions collapse as the entire planet is visited by the dark night of war. The first third of the movie explores the collapse of society into what Fussell calls "the troglodyte world" of the trenches, and attempts to suggest its link to myth.

Soldiers in WWI also tried to situate their experiences in the myths and romances with which they were familiar--and often, especially as the war dragged on, failed. The result was a crisis of faith--not merely in God, but in technology, progress and mankind. It is in the midst of this crisis that we meet the film's protagonist. And while some might argue (rightly) that the film is just a modern version of "The Dirty Dozen," it is also true that the film is about faith--or the loss of it. No, not in some silly pop-Christianity feel-good sense that everything will work out if you trust in Jesus. Rather, I would argue that the film is closer to the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Are you willling to take a leap of faith? the film asks. (The question comes up more recently in "Inception.") Not faith in a book, a creed or a Divinity--but in mankind? What about something akin to a benevolent universe?

Or, here is another one: In a world without meaning, is heroism even possible? I think that the film answers Yes, even when the characters say No.

In the end, it's uncertain as to whether or not the protagonist has come to learn faith or believe in heroic causes, but the beauty of the film lies in its characters' continuous wrestling with these questions, from the very beginning to the very end of the film.

Coupled with the strange setting and anachronisms (coal-powered spacecraft, etc.), the questions this film contemplates make this one of the best sci-fi movies of recent years. Hardcore sci-fi fans may disagree, but I would recommend this film to anyone looking for a thoughtful film set in an uncanny world that is both familiar and strange. Ultimately, there is more here, I think, than meets the eye.

The Great War and Modern Memory
The Great War and Modern Memory
Price: $9.09

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars LITERARY CRITICISM AT ITS BEST, April 12, 2012
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
It may have been the length of the book--or perhaps the size of the font--that had led me to put off reading this amazing book for so long. And amazing it is. Indeed, confirming one of the book's primary theses (that we draw from past narratives to make sense of contemporary experiences), my first instinct is to compare it to another book I read: Klaus Theweleit's "Male Fantasies" (2 vols.- link below). Fussell does for the British what Theweleit does for the Germans; that is, drawing from literature and personal correspondence, he paints a portrait of the national psyche--the zeitgeist, if you will.

While Theweleit's book concerns WWII, or more precisely the experiences and fantasies of Nazi soldiers, Fussell's work limits itself to those of British infantrymen stuck in "the troglodyte world" of the trenches of WWI. Both critics take a sort of inductive, post-Freudian approach to their research (though Theweleit is more influenced by Gilles Deleuze, Fussell by Northrop Frye), and in both cases the result is propitious, to say the least.

In his afterward, Fussell says that, were he to write the book again, he would not draw nearly so much from Frye. It's my contention that if this were the case, the book could not be written. Frye's "Theory of Modes" is ultimately what gives structure and unity to Fussell's book, and the result of this applicatiaon of Frye's theory is so rich--not just in teasing out the meanings of many of the most salient British literary works of the 20th century, but also in its revelations about memory and meaning--that I balk at even attempting anything akin to a synopsis.

The book will perhaps appeal most to those whose interests are literary, but there is plenty here for anyone interested in the history of the "The Great War," or even general psychology. With regards to the latter, I would argue that any collection of books on PTSD or Trauma Studies would be incomplete without this text, and that this book is probably the single best argument for the relevance of Bibliotherapy (though nowhere is it mentioned in the book). One can only hope that, with thousands of our own soldiers returning from multiple tours in the Middle East, counselors and VA officials will make reading this book one of their priorities.

Honestly, I cannot speak highly enough of this book: it is lucid, provocative and even suspenseful. I feel as though I have a better understanding not only of the war itself, but of the literature it produced, and the legacy it has left us with--in narratives, language, and popular culture.

Readers interested in the Nazi mindset from the literary and psychoanalytical angle should check out Theweleit's Male Fantasies, Vol. 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History and Male Fantasies: Volume 2, Male Bodies, Psychoanalyzing the White Terror..

Something from the Nightside (Nightside, Book 1)
Something from the Nightside (Nightside, Book 1)
by Simon R. Green
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.99
148 used & new from $0.01

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Tour of the Unconscious, March 17, 2012
Simon Green's SOMETHING FROM THE NIGHTSIDE doesn't ever manage to rise above its genre, but that doesn't mean that this noirish sci-fi thriller is less than a pleasure to read. Only, don't expect anything more than dark, damp streets and a hard-boiled detective trying to rescue a damsel in distress and maybe, just maybe, himself.

If you've read Raymond Chandler or seen "The Maltese Falcon" you know what you are getting into here. Green breathes life into this genre, however, by way of the fantastic setting--an alternate London that exists outside of the law of physics and is closer to Freud's Unconscious than to the mean streets of Gotham. And this is perhaps what makes the book such a fun read.

While the protagonist, John Taylor, must do battle--both physically and psychically--the real tensions are psychological, embedded in the characters and settings which embody the Ego, the Super-Ego and the ID. At times, the book almost reads like a Freudian allegory, one that practically bursts to the surface of the plotline, as when we learn that the one important mystery Taylor has never solved, the case he has never been able to crack, revolves around his mother. In one alternate future he is told: "You should never have gone looking for your mother," said Eddie. "You couldn't cope with what you found. You couldn't cope with the truth."

Don't get me wrong; this is not high-brow stuff, not academic. And it has its flaws: there is a bit too much repetition at times, and the development of some of the relationships moves too quickly and seems contrived. But overall, the book has just the right combination of the strange and the familiar to make it an ideal book for the beach or a rainy afternoon. Alternate London is as bizarre as it is alluring; the same is true for its characters; and Green keeps the plot moving with the action and the dialogue.

SOMETHING FROM THE NIGHTSIDE is not the best book I have ever read--but it is certainly not the last book by Green I will read either.

Recommended to fans of Sci-Fi Noir and Supernatural Mysteries. In addition, neither the language nor the violence would make this inappropriate for YA readers who may also enjoy it.

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