Monday, July 18, 2011

Book Review: The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the Eight Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic by Steve Turner

The Band that Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic 

Published by: Thomas Nelson
Published on: March 22, 2011
Page count: 256
Genre: Nonfiction
My reading format: Advanced reading copy in Adobe Digital Editions from NetGalley
Available formats: Hardcover

Prior to reading this book, all that I knew about the musicians aboard the Titanic was what I saw in the blockbuster movie version featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Watching them play together on the ship's deck as passengers loaded up in the lifeboats for me was the saddest part, probably because I knew the rest of the story but was learning about these eight men for the first time. I first heard about this book from another friend's reading blog (check it out) and was interested to learn something about these heroes.

The book neatly outlined a review of the Titanic disaster, the men who hired the musicians for the voyage, each of the eight men, what their days on the ship would have been like pre-shipwreck, eyewitness accounts of the men playing while the ship sank, how each of the men's families began to survive without them and investigations into the disaster. In the chapters for each musician, I learned surprising and interesting details about each of the men. Some of the details spooked me out a bit, such as the fact that one of the violinists' prized violin, given to him by his fiancee, went missing for years. The author spent quite a bit of time it seems trying to track it down, and the family of the musician and his fiancee were so tight-lipped about its whereabouts that even Turner was left still guessing. Another interesting fact was that the media was obsessed with covering the Titanic disaster and the focus really didn't shift away from the shipwreck until the start of World War I two years later. Turner also says that had these eight men not died at sea, many of them would have likely been drafted to fight in the war, and may or may not have survived. I thought the two brothers, Frederick and Charlie Black, who acted as placement agents for the musicians and hired them to play aboard the Titanic, seemed pretty slimy and did very little to redeem themselves in my mind after the shipwreck.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I learned a lot of interesting facts and enjoyed the first-hand accounts. It was obvious to me Turner did an exhaustive amount of research to create this book, and I do love to read a book where it seems not stone has been left unturned.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Pat Conroy's My Reading Life

For my recent four year wedding anniversary, my husband bought me a copy of Pat Conroy's My Reading Life, a book I've been looking forward to reading since I heard it was coming out some months ago. If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know he's one of my favorites. I haven't yet read everything he's written, but I'm working on it. So far all I've read have been novels and I was anxious to read Conroy's memoir, which you probably also know is one of my favorite kinds of books to read. I'm so glad I wasn't disappointed. I savored every word of this beautiful book, and spent much longer reading it than I normally spend on a 300-page book. And, when it ended I was sorry.

Conroy devoted once chapter to each book, experience and person that shaped him first as a reader, and then, as a result, shaped him as a writer. Teachers and professors made the list, a bookshop, Paris, a librarian, a book salesperson, an author (Thomas Wolfe) and a book (Gone With the Wind). Each chapter became a thank you letter to each, as he specifically showed the evidence of how he was shaped by each person, place or thing. It made me think about what has influenced my reading and writing, and that list is long.

What books and experiences have made up your reading life?

PS One of my reading buddies just informed me that Conroy will be headlining the Savannah Book Festival in February. As if I didn't want to go enough already!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Author Reading: Ann Napolitano

Last night I went to a reading by Ann Napolitano, author of the brand-new book, A Good Hard Look, which has Flannery O'Connor as its central character. The event was sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book and hosted by First Baptist Church in Decatur. Napolitano talked about her process while writing the book, which is something I'm always interested to hear more about. She discovered O'Connor while in college and read some of her work. Then, she put O'Connor's work away for about a decade before realizing that she needed to write a book about her. Until that point, she'd been working on a book that had Melvin Whiteson as a main character. The story took place in New York City and she said the plot wandered and wandered. She couldn't seem to make it work. She had an epiphany and knew she should stop working on that book and start writing one about O'Connor. The interesting thing she did, though, was bring Melvin over as a character in the new book to interact with O'Connor. Their relationship in A Good Hard Look is what the rest of the novel is built around. It took her seven years to write this book, and it sounds like she wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages that ultimately didn't make it into the final published version.

My favorite thing Napolitano said last night summed up O'Connor's fiction so well, and made me think of my fellow book clubber who was jarred by her short stories. The author said, "Flannery's fiction is abrasive. It knocks you around....You don't curl up with Flannery O'Connor." Indeed.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Write Here Write Now

For my jobs, I've interviewed countless people over the years about one thing or another. Talking to people about what they do and love has always been a lot of fun for me. One of the things I like best is when I learn something unexpected about someone, usually during small talk at the beginning or end of an interview. Aside from job interviews and the occasional meeting with a client where they're deciding who to hire for a certain project, I've never really been on the side of the table where I ask few or no questions, but give all the answers.

I was thrilled and honored to be invited to be on Write Here Write Now, an Internet radio show hosted by Tim Morrison, my boss at Write Choice Services. Each Tuesday morning he speaks to people who have written a book (or more than one), are currently writing a book or are planning to write one someday. I appeared on the show last Tuesday, July 5, with Russ Chapman, a fiction writer (he is absolutely hilarious and writes wonderful, humorous stuff. He's definitely worth a read). Together we talked about the creative process and the differences between writing fiction and creative nonfiction, the genre of my thesis. It's been several years since I worked on and finished that project, and it was fun to remember what that process was all about.

Though there's always the option to listen live to Write Here Write Now on Tuesdays at 10 am, the show ends up on the website after about a day and a half. In case you're interested, here's the interview I did.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

O'Connor Short Stories

I recently mentioned that my book club chose for June the Flannery O'Connor short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, which led to a spirited discussion. Short stories seemed just the right thing to read here at the beginning of summer when our next selection is Gone With the Wind (scheduled for August, and we also gave ourselves July off in preparation). Partly because of our June book selection, I have a particular interest in O'Connor at the moment. The other reason is because a fictional book about O'Connor's life in Milledgeville, Georgia, has just been published. It's called A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano. I read it last week. It fits in somewhat well with other fictional accounts of authors' lives I've been reading lately (see examples here and here). I quickly ordered the book online and read it to prepare for Napolitano's visit to the Atlanta area on her book tour next week. I'm anxious to hear what she has to say on her book and see if she talks about what is complete fiction in the book and what is made up with good, educated guesses on what O'Connor and Milledgeville were like in the 1960s. No matter how she speaks to these issues, it was a great read. I love a good book where characters are intertwined in surprising ways, and this book fits that bill for sure.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Review: Look Away, Dixieland: A Carpetbagger's Great-Grandson Travels Highway 84 in Search of the Shack-Up-On-Cinder-Blocks, Confederate-Flag-Waving, Squirrel-Hunting, Boiled-Peanuts, Deep-Drawl, Don't-Stop-the-Car-Here South by James B. Twitchell

Look Away, Dixieland: A Carpetbagger's Great-grandson Travels Highway 84 in Search of the Shack-up-on-cinder-blocks, Confederate-flag-waving, Squirrel-hunting, Boiled-peanu 

Published by: LSU Press
Published on: March 18, 2011
Page Count: 192
Genre: Nonfiction
My reading format: Advanced reading copy in Adobe Digital Editions from NetGalley
Available Formats: Print (Hardcover) and Digital (Adobe Reader and Mobipocket Reader)

I love a good road trip, especially if it means at least some of the journey can be made off the interstate highway system and on roads and in towns that show you what things are really like. And if you can learn something about yourself or a family member on the journey, then all the better.

James Twitchell must have had a similar idea when he and his wife, Florida residents but native Yankees, decided to explore Highway 84 from its beginning in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia to Coushatta, Louisiana. The final destination was the town Twitchell's great-grandfather, a carpetbagger, inhabited for about a decade after the Civil War. Along the way, the author hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the Deep South, a journey he describes in Look Away, Dixieland: A Carpetbagger's Great-Grandson Travels Highway 84 in Search of the Shack-Up-On-Cinder-Blocks, Confederate-Flag-Waving, Squirrel-Hunting, Boiled-Peanuts, Deep-Drawl, Don't-Stop-the-Car-Here South.

In the book, Twitchell sets up his planned journey, spends one chapter on each state he visited and summed up the trip and his findings, putting a trip that left him with more questions than answers tied up in a neat package. He started with the question, "Can I find a path across the South that will duplicate enough of the world my great-grandfather and his family experienced so that I can have an understanding of what happened to them?" He finished with the answer, "...quests tend to be better in prospect than in result." However, as he hoped, he learned a lot about the Deep South on his journey. More importantly, he learned more about his ancestor and his life as a transplanted Vermonter in northern Louisiana during a complicated time in our nation's history politically, economically, socially, racially and otherwise: Reconstruction.

It sounds like this trip plus three decades of living in north Florida may not have answered every question he has about Southerners and their preferred ways of life. The answer to the question of Southernness is as clear as Mississippi mud to many of us, even Southerners themselves. This book is an interesting and entertaining read, and might be best read on a road trip.