The Night We’ll Never Forget

My ex-boss and I used to have the same discussion every year on this date.  April the fifteenth was a historic day for both of us for different reasons, neither of which had to do with taxes.  Both were watershed events with long-term ramifications and my boss and I would debate which one had the greater historical impact.  I wish I agreed with my boss: Jackie Robinson’s debut as the first African-American player on a Major League Baseball team is a thing worth celebrating because it marked progress toward real democracy in America.  Unfortunately, thirty-five years before Mr. Robinson walked onto the field, April fifteenth dawned over a flat, cold Atlantic and a handful of huddled lifeboats where a magnificent ocean liner should have been.  Taxes and baseball are national but the world changed with the sinking of the Titanic.

Titanic’s tragedy was a world-wide event.  Although almost half of the souls on her board were either American or British, the rest came from every corner of the globe. Citizens from every inhabited continent set sail in Titanic and when she went down families in twenty-seven countries lost loved ones. (Japan’s sole passenger, Masabumi Hosono, survived the wreck but was ostracized ever after because he did not die).  People of all faiths, walks of life and backgrounds went to sea, trusting their lives to this fabled ship that was supposed to be the acme of beauty and technology.  When she sank, travel regulations around the world changed as well.

After Titanic, every vessel maintained radio operations, 24 hours a day.  Too much can go wrong when communications are shut down.  Afterwards, lifeboats were apportioned by the number of souls on board instead of the ship’s displacement weight and drills became part of each voyage.  When I went on a cruise a few years ago, they gathered us for a life boat drill before we had reached the open ocean.  I watched the holiday makers in their vacation shirts and shorts looking for their boat line assignments and knew this was because of Titanic.  Never again would passengers and crew set sail ignorant of  where to go in case of a disaster.  It was a terrible lesson, but we learned.


For my money, the best book on Titanic (and there have been hundreds) is still Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember.  In simple, plain language Lord recounts the tragedy, capturing the phrases that haunted survivors’ memories.  Guggenheim’s “We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.”;  Ida Straus’s refusal to desert her husband and take to a lifeboat saying, “Where you go, I will go.”  There is the unknown porter saying, “There’s talk of an iceberg, madam.” and the assertion that,”God, himself could not sink this ship.”  It’s a masterpiece of reporting and for many, the first, best account of what happened on that incredible night.  No film with fictional characters can surpass this retelling of what actually happened.  The only drawback to Lord’s book is that it was written long before the wreck was discovered and that is a story to be reckoned with.

In the seventy years between her sinking and discovery, a great many theories about Titanic were proposed.  Only a handful of the survivors insisted that the ship broke before she completely submerged and their words were largely discounted.  People preferred to hope that Titanic was still intact and recoverable somewhere on the ocean’s floor or suspended between layers of water, gliding on an endless voyage with her deadBob Ballard’s discovery finally put the theories to rest and earned him a spot in the history as well as changing the focus of his own life (despite his other accomplishments, Ballard will always be recognized first as the man who found the Titanic).  His accomplishment, along with the story of the sinking is captured beautifully in Titanic: An Illustrated History.  Here is the story of Titanic’s discovery, introduced by Mr. Ballard, along with a series of photos and illustrations that help the ordinary reader grasp the beauty of the liner during her short life and what was discovered by Ballard and his team.  It’s a fascinating resource and the illustrations of Ken Marschall are beautiful and moving if sometimes terrible to look at.  Without gore or extra artifice, he brings the horror of that night home.

Perhaps the true measure of history is when it continues to touch people long after the world has moved onIf so, I hope people remember the achievement and joy that must have been part of Jackie Robinson’s April 15th.  It was another step in a good march that the country need to takeMr. Robinson made the 15th of April a good day.   It just came after a long, cold night.

   

To Make an Elegant Monster

Not all monsters are hideous or born to evil.  From no less  an authority than Wikipedia, the term monster comes from a Latin word that means an aberrant occurrence or creature.  Well, a significant number of people have defied society’s expectations and as a result, were judged as monstrous by their peers and brave by later generations.  One example is Beryl Markham, the subject of Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun.  Beryl Markham is usually remembered as the first aviatrix to fly from Europe to America alone.  Her dramatic crash-landing on the bare edge of the Nova Scotia coast and her tremendous good looks made her accomplishment extraordinarily good copy for 1930’s magazines and newspapers.The interesting point is that Ms. McLain’s story doesn’t dwell on the flying accomplishments that put Markham on the pages of aviation and gender studies textbooks; instead she looks at the events that led to this woman creating history.

McLain’s novel focuses on the Kenyan upbringing that shaped so much of Markham’s character.  As the daughter of a British horse-trainer in Africa, Markham witnessed the European land-grab/colonization drive of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  She knew both the native African tribes-people trying to maintain their culture and the European settlers who transferred some of their civilization’s values while changing others to meet the circumstances.  This meant that when Beryl’s mother left Africa with a man other than her husband and her father brought in another woman as a substitute, gossip ensued but no one explained matters to the daughter who would feel abandoned.  Those feelings would only increase around the end of World War I, when her father lost the family home to bankruptcy and left, encouraging his 15 year old daughter to stay and marry a neighbor almost twice her age.  Given these circumstances and socializing with the “Happy Valley Set” (a collection of settlers known for their spouse-swapping and drug use) it isn’t surprising Beryl’s first marriage collapsed.  Instead, this set the pattern for Markham who left husbands and lovers in her wake and a newborn  in the midst of a scandal for a life of flying and horses, her other great love.  Along with her flying records, Beryl Markham left her mark as the first licensed female horse-trainer in Africa who racked up 46 wins in a single racing season.  McLain portrays Markham as someone who is capable of great devotion but limited in her attention span as she throws herself into training and then leaves behind her livelihood and the African friend who depends on her whenever a new man beckons. 

Beryl’s speeches in Circling the Sun about sexual freedom seem a bit anachronistic but then Markham’s entire history is that of a woman out of her time.  Modern society could tolerate this woman’s ambition more easily than the world of the 1920’s and Ritalin would have been available for her ADD but then she might not have entered the annals of history.  Instead we have a woman of scandal whose flaws are as deep as her charm and that is, perhaps her purpose.  If Wikipedia is to be believed, monsters are a sign something is wrong with the natural order.  As the Europeans upset the natural order with a rigid behavioral code, Markham upset those Europeans and gave restless women everywhere a role model to emulate.  Not every beautiful woman is cut out to be a devoted wife or mother and it’s better to accept that fact.  Forcing the unconventional few into uniform molds will only create elegant monsters.

Circling the Sun will go on sale  July 28, 2015.  My thanks to Net Galley for releasing this review copy to me.

The Intellectual Heavyweight of Stage Musicals

I love stage musicals.  We were raised on a collection of cast albums from classic Broadway shows and my sister and I learned every song by heart.  We’ve  continued the tradition, to the present and both of us admire this form that combines the best aspects of art and entertainment. While we both love being entertained (who doesn’t?) it is the experimental side of this form that really draws me, how directors and playwrights and composers alter or recombine the elements of a musical to tell a new story or get the audience to view an known one from a new perspective.  That’s probably why I admire Stephen Sondheim’s work so much and why I’m glad Meryle Secrest’s biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life is a discerning review of his life and accomplishments.  This composer of cerebral entertainment  deserves an intelligent biography, even if he makes a living in show business.

Some would believe Mr. Sondheim was pre-ordained for a life in theatre, given his New York background, a talent for music and the teacher-student relationship he developed with Oscar Hammerstein II. Ms. Secrest’s well-researched biography suggests otherwise.  Rather than developing a relationship with Mr. Hammerstein because of his interest in music, it appears that the opposite is true: a lonely boy is welcomed by the lyricist’s family as a friend of their son and the boy begins writing music to please the surrogate father who provides the kindness and stability lacking in his own home. Young Stephen benefits both from his exposure to a stable, loving family and from lessons with one of the great experimentalists in the American musical form.
This drive to expand and improve the format of the stage musical by taking artistic risks and the willingness to risk commercial failure were passed from mentor to student; Mr. Sondheim’s built a career on these concepts.  From non-linear storytelling (Company, Sunday in the Park with George) and songs that muddle the barriers between show tunes and opera (Pacific Overtures, Passion) to subjects previously considered unsuitable for the musical stage (Assassins, Company), Sondheim has pushed musical boundaries and redefined the genre but often at great cost.  Follies was misunderstood for years and the failures of Some Can Whistle and Merrily We Role Along cost the composer more than income.  The musical is a combination of high and low art and by appealing to the audience’s intelligence, Mr. Sondheim has often overestimated it.  Yet he remains the surest link between the “great” book musicals of the mid-twentieth century (his first shows were West Side Story, Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum) and the experimentation that continues today.  And, as he was mentored, Mr. Sondheim reaches out to the generation of composers who grew up listening to his music.  The late Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent, had the benefit of Sondheim’s teaching and referenced his teacher by name in the score.

Ms. Secrest follows the story of Mr. Sondheim’s life with great sensitivity, creating a portrait that is knowledgeable and intimate without being gossipy.  An analysis is applied to Mr. Sondheim’s works through 1999 (covering most of the shows and revues except Bounce (aka Road Show) tracing the autobiographical elements in the composer’s life.  The result is a biography that highlights Sondheim without glorifying the man or glossing over his flaws. The only problem is, of course, the book is too short.  Mr. Sondheim continues to work and as long as that is true, this book ends prematurely.

It’s true that Stephen Sondheim has passed the age when most men have put aside their labors.  But, as the book points out, Mr. Sondheim is not most men.  He was a wunderkind, achieving goals before 30 that most of us never attain and he’s come back from failure too many times to count.  So, don’t count him or his biographer out until the fat lady sings.  As long as they both breathe, they may continue to work showing us new ways to think and understand what we see.  Because of this, we are blessed.

Time to start thinking about a Beach Read?

It’s started getting warmer here.  Oh, my poor sister is still in the land of ice and snow but I saw my first bumblebee yesterday, hovering around the forsythia and ready to go into business.  It’s time to start thinking of sandals and sunscreen, vacations and fireworks.  It’s time to start thinking about summer and books to read at the beach.  Beach Lit is, from what I’ve seen , a well-known but under-appreciated genre.  Yes, the book must be light enough in tone and weight to fit with life by the surf and it needs to be entertaining but, most of all, it needs to remind the reader why life and living are precious.  There should be some lessons learned, some perspectives changed and, to be perfect, it should have something to do with the natural world.   Do you want to stretch out on your towel and imagine yourself in the stock exchange?  Of course not!  At any rate, a novel is coming out next month that will fit perfectly into this category.  If  you are looking for a new take on some traditional escapist fare, tuck a copy of Karen White’s The Sound of Glass into your beach tote, next to the sun screen.

Ms. White is one of the host of Southern Women led by Anne Rivers Siddons and Dorothea Benton Franks who write, well…beach books.   The lead characters are women who are casually connected to homes of antiquity or artistic merit (in the South, many women  want to look young and live in a house that’s Older than Dirt) and they have a Challenge to Meet.  There’s usually an upheaval in the woman’s life, a choice that is Wrong and a good-looking man that is Right.  Pure escapism.  Karen White folds a layer of mysticism to her stories which goes awfully well with old houses.  In The Sound of Glass, the mysticism is how damaged women connect through space and time.
Merritt’s Heyward is a widow on the run from Maine and her past when she takes the reins of an old house in Beaufort, South Carolina.  Like Garbo, she  insists she”Just Wants to Be Alone” but none of her new southern friends are listening, from the zealous neighbors who trade casseroles for an inside gawk at her house to the Alabama step-mother who appears, without warning, to visit…well, stay.  Merritt’s tenure in the house unearths evidence of some ugly family secrets and Merritt has to free them (and her own fears) before she can re-engage with the life she lost so many years ago. 
There are a few problems with the plot.    Merritt’s South Carolina home belonged to her late husband’s grandmother who willed it to Merritt’s husband, her dead grandson.  Problem is, the grandson pre-deceased his grandmother which would make the house, in probate lingo, a lapsed gift.  Since grandma didn’t know or make provision for Merritt, a relation only by marriage, it’s unlikely our heroine would inherit that real estate, especially when there’s a blood grandson in the picture.  But the story is built on Merritt needing the house (and vice versa) so forgive the writer her trespasses.  Forgiveness is a lot of what The Sound of Glass is about anyway, the need to forgive ourselves and our pasts so we can go forward and live.  Ms. White is right on that  point as well as the sea glass she uses as a metaphor for the women who live in the house.  Sometimes glass falls into the ocean and bounces around there for years.  The pieces that make it to the shore have been tossed, tumbled, bumped and pounded for years and they are sometimes rough-edged and cloudy.  But they’re strong and beautiful in wind chimes when flowing breezes make them ring.  Merritt Heyward and the other women in her life have endured a long age of pounding and they are like the sea glass.  They may look brittle and cloudy but they’re strong and beautiful, when you see them in the right light.
This story won’t be on the short-list for the Pulitzer this year (although it could work in a Lifetime movie) but that’s not what’s required in Beach books.  Beach books are for fun, for entertainment and most of all to remind us why we work all year for just a few days in the sun.  Because life slips away from us when we’re focused on the job and our vacations remind us how precious and fleeting time is.  So we enjoy our moments reconnecting with life, ourselves and those we love.  Those themes are also part of The Sound of Glass.  That’s why it’s a perfect book for the Beach.

The Sound of Glass will be available on May 12, 2015.  Thanks to NetGalley for giving me an early look at the manuscript.

Time to start thinking about a Beach Read?

It’s started getting warmer here.  Oh, my poor sister is still in the land of ice and snow but I saw my first bumblebee yesterday, hovering around the forsythia and ready to go into business.  It’s time to start thinking of sandals and sunscreen, vacations and fireworks.  It’s time to start thinking about summer and books to read at the beach.  Beach Lit is, from what I’ve seen , a well-known but under-appreciated genre.  Yes, the book must be light enough in tone and weight to fit with life by the surf and it needs to be entertaining but, most of all, it needs to remind the reader why life and living are precious.  There should be some lessons learned, some perspectives changed and, to be perfect, it should have something to do with the natural world.   Do you want to stretch out on your towel and imagine yourself in the stock exchange?  Of course not!  At any rate, a novel is coming out next month that will fit perfectly into this category.  If  you are looking for a new take on some traditional escapist fare, tuck a copy of Karen White’s The Sound of Glass into your beach tote, next to the sun screen.

Ms. White is one of the host of Southern Women led by Anne Rivers Siddons and Dorothea Benton Franks who write, well…beach books.   The lead characters are women who are casually connected to homes of antiquity or artistic merit (in the South, many women  want to look young and live in a house that’s Older than Dirt) and they have a Challenge to Meet.  There’s usually an upheaval in the woman’s life, a choice that is Wrong and a good-looking man that is Right.  Pure escapism.  Karen White folds a layer of mysticism to her stories which goes awfully well with old houses.  In The Sound of Glass, the mysticism is how damaged women connect through space and time.
Merritt’s Heyward is a widow on the run from Maine and her past when she takes the reins of an old house in Beaufort, South Carolina.  Like Garbo, she  insists she”Just Wants to Be Alone” but none of her new southern friends are listening, from the zealous neighbors who trade casseroles for an inside gawk at her house to the Alabama step-mother who appears, without warning, to visit…well, stay.  Merritt’s tenure in the house unearths evidence of some ugly family secrets and Merritt has to free them (and her own fears) before she can re-engage with the life she lost so many years ago. 
There are a few problems with the plot.    Merritt’s South Carolina home belonged to her late husband’s grandmother who willed it to Merritt’s husband, her dead grandson.  Problem is, the grandson pre-deceased his grandmother which would make the house, in probate lingo, a lapsed gift.  Since grandma didn’t know or make provision for Merritt, a relation only by marriage, it’s unlikely our heroine would inherit that real estate, especially when there’s a blood grandson in the picture.  But the story is built on Merritt needing the house (and vice versa) so forgive the writer her trespasses.  Forgiveness is a lot of what The Sound of Glass is about anyway, the need to forgive ourselves and our pasts so we can go forward and live.  Ms. White is right on that  point as well as the sea glass she uses as a metaphor for the women who live in the house.  Sometimes glass falls into the ocean and bounces around there for years.  The pieces that make it to the shore have been tossed, tumbled, bumped and pounded for years and they are sometimes rough-edged and cloudy.  But they’re strong and beautiful in wind chimes when flowing breezes make them ring.  Merritt Heyward and the other women in her life have endured a long age of pounding and they are like the sea glass.  They may look brittle and cloudy but they’re strong and beautiful, when you see them in the right light.
This story won’t be on the short-list for the Pulitzer this year (although it could work in a Lifetime movie) but that’s not what’s required in Beach books.  Beach books are for fun, for entertainment and most of all to remind us why we work all year for just a few days in the sun.  Because life slips away from us when we’re focused on the job and our vacations remind us how precious and fleeting time is.  So we enjoy our moments reconnecting with life, ourselves and those we love.  Those themes are also part of The Sound of Glass.  That’s why it’s a perfect book for the Beach.

The Sound of Glass will be available on May 12, 2015.  Thanks to NetGalley for giving me an early look at the manuscript.