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Friday, September 18, 2015

What I’m Reading: Dead Wake


Back in May, I listened to Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. I know this may sound a bit macabre to some, but I purposely timed my listening of this book to the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the ship, even holding off on getting to the day the ship sank in the story until I was on that day in real life.

I was not alone in this by the way. During the 100th Anniversary this past April and May [2015] from the day the Lusitania left harbor until it sunk, Erik Larson himself live tweeted the crossing here [well "live" 100 years in the future].

For me as a reader, I read this book at the perfect time. My experience was more visceral and intense than if I had read it now or sometime in the future. It was extremely eerie, but at the same time it also felt like a fitting tribute to those who died.

However, I understand that for many, reading the book back in May would have been too intense. In fact, I know this to be true as I brought up my experience with both patrons and librarians and more than a few cringed when I described what I found to be an awesome reading experience.  To them, it sounded like the worst, most heartbreaking experience they could imagine. Many planned to read it still, but later.  I mention this because this example is a testament to the fact that when you encounter a book can seriously effect your enjoyment of it.

Back in 2010 I wrote a much longer post about the issue of Right Book, Wrong Time? I wanted to take this time before my discussion about the appeal of this book to remind all of us of this important point though. Don't forget when we suggest leisure books for patrons that when a reader encounters a book is sometimes more important than what is written in the book itself.

Booktalking Soundbite: Here on the blog, I advocate each and every month for using the Library Reads lists [especially the older lists] to help you to suggest books to readers.  It is a great way for booktalking novices to get started because the list always includes a soundbite from a fellow library worker.  So I am going to practice what I preach here and share the March 2015 Library Reads soundbite for Dead Wake:
In cinematic terms, this dramatic page-turner is Das Boot meets Titanic. Larson has a wonderful way of creating a very readable, accessible story of a time, place, and event. We get three sides of the global story--the U-boat commander, British Admiralty and President Wilson--but what really elevates this book are the affecting stories of individual crew and passengers. -- Robert Schnell for LibraryReads.
With Dead Wake you get the standard Erik Larson style of multiple story lines converging, but in this case they literally converge as the ship collides with the U-boat which brings Wilson around to the US entering the Great War.  This storytelling style allows history to come alive by giving the reader a 360 degree view of large historical events. He connects the dots for us in a way we have not considered before.

As mentioned above, it is the small side stories of the passenger,s both famous and not, scattered throughout the book which allow readers to connect with this story.  For example, for book lovers, there is a reoccurring passenger who is a rare book dealer, taking a priceless volume across the ocean. There are a lot of these people popping in and out of the story. I liked the large cast of characters and enjoyed how I didn't always remember exactly who each of them were when they reappeared because to me it was more realistic. If I were on the ship, they would pop in and out of my life and I might forget who they were one time and then the next time we met, I might spend time having a long conversation with them. But I understand that for some readers this is frustrating.  Again, as the RA librarian, you just need to be aware of these appeals/limiters to point them out and let the reader decide if this book is right for him or her.

The in depth look into daily life on a German U-boat was also extremely fascinating here. As too was the information about Wilson's personal life.

As you can probably tell from what I have said so far, this is a methodical read, something I have heard a few patrons complain about.  But honestly, the only action is the ship sinking, a fact that every reader knows is coming before they even open the book. Everything else is either frame, detail, or context. As a result, the "story" moves slowly toward the moment of impact. So mention this to patrons. If they are reading for the "action" of the ship sinking and the rescue, they should skip to that part (toward the end) or read one of the "adventure" readalikes I have listed below instead. But, if they are reading for the context, frame, and historical detail, they will be very happy with the pacing.

One final point I want to make here was how interesting I found the post-disaster portions of the story as a post-9/11 reader. Larson talks a lot about people said to be saved who were actually dead and vice versa. He describes what it was like for the families whose loved ones' bodies were never found. That entire section felt like it could only have been written in a post 9/11 world. It gave me a whole new level of connection with the past on a personal level.

Narration: This book was narrated by the polarizing but talented Scott Brick.  Look, people either love or hate this guy. The complaint some have is that he narrates every book the same way. While I don't disagree with that statement, I find his consistency a positive. When I see that Brick is narrating a book, I know right away what I am going to get, even before I listen. Then I can decide, for myself, if I think his style will match the story I am about to read. In fact, on audible, there are many comments of this ilk.  Some saying "Brick was as annoying as ever" or "Brick's talents seem suited to this." I fall into the Brick is perfect for this book camp.  He adds enough suspense to the story, even during the less suspenseful, more expository moments. Click here to read and hear more about and from Scott Brick to decide for yourself.

Three Words That Describe This Book: history brought alive, richly detailed, many charcaters

Readalikes: Look, obviously people may want to read more on the Lusitania after reading Dead Wake, but I am not here to help you with the obvious readalikes. [Okay, maybe I am a little since that link on the word Lusitania will pull up some good choice.]

As Larson explains it, the Lusitania and its passengers were the victims of an escalating war-- WWI, the Great War.  Much of the book is about the War itself. Click here to see my review of The Great War by Joe Sacco [scroll down]. I have links to many WWI readalikes in both fiction and nonfiction at the end of that review.

I have heard some readers say there was too much detail here and they would have rather had more of an adventure writing reading experience. To these readers I say try these instead:
However, the main appeal here is in how Larson tells a story of a huge disaster with a 360 degree view allowing us, 100 years later, to connect with the past.  Here are some other books that also do this very well.
And 2 excellent books that recount more recent disasters are Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink and the devastating but beautiful memoir Wave about the 2004 Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala.

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