History, Non-Fiction

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Every month, the Modern Readers discuss what types of books we collectively would like to be reading. In February 2016, one of our number mentioned that Erik Larson would be doing a talk in a nearby town, so we figured Dead Wake would make a great book club choice!

5 - April 2016 - Dead Wake

Synopsis

On May 1, 1915, with World War I entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “greyhounds” – the fastest liner then in service – and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game. As the Lusitania made her way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small – hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more – all converged to produce one of the greatest disasters of history.

Review

Novelistic nonfiction is the moniker attributed to Erik Larson’s particular brand of history writing, meaning, he chooses what to write about based on his ability to find a narrative embedded naturally in an historic event, and Dead Wake is no exception. The “narrative” found in Dead Wake is really a blend of about ten narratives, switching between the passengers on the ill-fated Lusitania, its captain, the commander of the U-boat that sank it, the employees of the mysterious Room 40, as well as Churchill and President Wilson.

Through alternating narratives (not to be confused with points-of-view), readers are able to come to an understanding of the intricate details of the sinking of the Lusitania in Larson’s account of the disaster. And therefore, invariable, every reader, regardless of their previous knowledge and study of the event and circumstances, will learn something new. For most, the shocking and new information centers on the Germans and new revelations of The Sound of Music‘s well known male lead, Captain Georg von Trapp, or discovering the existence of the Royal Navy’s Room 40 which decoded German transmissions. However, as a student of German history, of these two narratives I was already aware and it was therefore simpering, lovesick Wilson that befuddled me. The leader of isolationist America was alternatively heartbroken and lovestruck and not particularly focused on the war going on in the world around him, which was news to me. I had always defended the visionary of the League of Nations to his critics, but I need to revisit my position…

I had reservations about Dead Wake, but after reading it, and hearing Erik Larson speak, they were quickly squashed. I highly recommend Dead Wake to anyone who truly enjoys a compelling retelling of historical events.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780307408877 • 480 pages • originally published in March 2015, this edition published March 2016 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 4.06 out of 5 stars • read in April 2016

Erik Larson’s Website

Dead Wake on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Dead Wake

Dead Wake

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

Back in October, when this beautiful tome arrived at the bookstore, my coworkers were debating where it should be shelved. I chimed in by saying they could hold off deciding for a few days, because it was coming home with me! Then again, pretty much any book that comes into the store screaming “female badassery” comes home with me before too long!

Synopsis

Get ready! It’s a long (but good!) one!

Let’s face it: the list of historical women we learn about in school is lacking. It’s safe, it’s censored, it’s short. And even when we learn about a true legend – say, Harriet Tubman – we get half the story (and it’s usually not the half about her as a plantation-torching Union spy-master). This is just the list of women we know about. What about the women we don’t?

In place of complex, real-life heroines, we get sparkly, doe-eyed animated damsels who dominate children’s minds everywhere. Rejected Princesses is here to provide an alternative to that.

In this fully illustrated, deeply researched, and totally entertaining collection, Jason Porath offers 100 women too uncompromising, too untoward, or too uncomfortable to fit the modern princess mold. Gathering together a diverse set of some famous, some infamous, some forgotten, and some virtually unknown figures from history and myth, from all over the globe, this book presents the female role models we never knew we needed. Yes, there are a few princesses, but there are also pirates, spies, journalists, activists, concubines, empresses, ninjas, pilots, samurais, mathematicians, sword-slingers, and warlords too.

These women were rebels and rulers, pioneers in their fields, and fighters for their causes (and sometimes for themselves). In a time when women are still pushing for equal pay and equal opportunity, shouldn’t we be putting brave women like Sybil Ludington, Hatshepsut, Nzinga Mbande, Josephine Baker, Khutulun, Rani Lakshmibai, Harriet Tubman, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Joan of Arc on equal footing with Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty?

Women have always played a key, kick-ass role in revolutionizing our world. The girls of today are the latest links in a long chain of geniuses, warriors, and fearless women. It is the birthright of every woman to have a connection to that history.

Review

Like I mentioned in my previous review of Wonder Women, I love books that are compendiums of stories about different women who have done awe-inspiring things. The biggest selling point of this particular book for me is two fold:

  1. The author worked on my favorite animated movie – How to Train Your Dragon and helped bring one of my favorite characters, Astrid, to life! (the cake topper for my wedding was even Astrid & Hiccup!)
  2. He included Alfhild, a Viking princess turned pirate and the real life inspiration for the novel I’m writing!

In Rejected Princesses, Porath includes women who are princesses and commoners alike, who hail from all over the world, from all walks of life, of all manner of life experiences. The illustrations of each “princess” are exquisitely designed to highlight their uniqueness and specialties. Porath also designed a rating system for all the women, but not the usual misogynistic rating of hotness, but of the type of life they led, more similar to a movie rating from G to R. In this manner, Porath has ensured that Rejected Princesses can be suitable to all ages and for younger children, parents can determine which stories to share with their children.

So many of the women included would make terrific role models, especially given their diverse backgrounds, for any young woman, or man, and I absolutely cannot wait for a second volume! Porath continues to add new women to the Rejected Princesses‘ website and I hope that he will include them together in a a book just like with this volume!

Rating: 10 out of 10

Edition: Hardcover • $26.99 • 9780062405371 • 384 pages • published October 2016 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.54 out of 5 • read in November 2016

Rejected Princesses Website

Rejected Princesses on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Rejected Princesses

Rejected Princesses

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

Wonder Women by Sam Maggs

It is a known fact at the store than any book that comes in that screams “female badassery,” a phrase a coined when telling publishing reps what types of books I enjoy, is to immediate go to me for review and ogling. I first heard of/met Sam Maggs at BookCon in 2015 and I have been a fan of hers ever since. When I found out her sophomore book (her debut being The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy) would be about women in STEM, I knew I had to read it and recommend it to so many of my (former) students and customers.

Synopsis

Smart women have always been able to achieve amazing things, even when the odds were stacked against them. In Wonder Women, author Sam Maggs tells the stories of the brilliant, brainy, and totally rad women in history who broke barriers as scientists, engineers, mathematicians, adventurers, and inventors. Plus, interviews with real-life women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers, an extensive bibliography, and a guide to women-centric science and technology organizations – all to show the many ways the geeky girls of today can help to build the future.

Review

I’m a sucker for nonfiction compendiums that chronicle the lives of interesting people in short digestible vignettes, which is not only evident here with Wonder Women, but with the forthcoming review for Rejected Princesses.

In March of my sophomore year of high school, my stepfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was given months to live, but through a cutting edge surgery that summer, we were able to have another four years with him before he passed away in the spring of my sophomore year of college. His diagnosis led me to consider a future in biomedical engineering – specifically the artificial organ project, being pioneered at Boston University. I made it my life goal to become a medical researcher and was a founding member of my high school’s STEM Savvy group. Lady researchers and mathematicians have always held a special place in my heart, and while I did not fully pursue a career in STEM, I will always look at ladies like Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, and Ada Lovelace as role models and inspiration.

Sam Maggs obviously cares for and respects not only the 25 women she profiles, but also the women whom she interviews regarding contemporary issues with women’s roles in the STEM world. She handles the discussion of feminism and sexism in primarily male roles of engineering, science, technology and mathematics with an understanding of someone who has experienced some of the issues her foremothers did.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $16.99 • 9781594749254 • 240 pages • published in October 2016 by Quirk Books • average Goodreads rating 4.17 out of 5 • read in December 2016

Sam Maggs’ Website

Wonder Women on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Wonder Women

Wonder Women