Andrew Wilson's book provides a wonderful expansion of the Titanic story. What he's done is gather and organize a series of lives: what happened to the survivors of the wreck? Some found happiness with new life partners they met in the lifeboats; others struggled to make sense of the tragedy, and more than a few committed suicide.
Wilson does a great job capturing the unique qualities of each person's life and personality. (I do have two criticisms: one is that he sometimes tends to speculate about psychological states that can't be verified; another is the recurrence of the phrase "lay at the bottom of the ocean.") We hear about Jack Thayer, the scion of a main line Philadelphia family; Dorothy Gibson, star of silent film who wrote and acted in her own film about the Titanic within weeks of her arrival in New York; the haunted and reclusive Bruce Ismay, who lost a leg to diabetes; the affable Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon, who spent the rest of their lives trying to justify their escape from the wreck in a lifeboat that held only 12 people; the obsessive Edith Russell, the woman who had a pig-shaped music box, and who was horrified when the film version of "A Night to Remember" showed her wearing a dress she would never have worn; and Millvina Dean, the last survivor of the Titanic, who was only 9 months old at the time of the wreck and who died in 2009.
Most of the stories are of first-class passengers, with a handful from second-class and virtually no one from third-class. Of course the first-class passengers were more likely to survive and more likely to leave accounts in newspapers and books: by percentage, more first-class men survived the sinking than third-class women and children.
There's quite a good account of the wreck as well, obviously much shorter and more selective than Walter Lord's narrative. But as he discusses the lives of the survivors, Wilson returns again and again to the story of the sinking to fill in stray details.
The book is read brilliantly by Bill Wallis, whose gravelly voice sounds like it's been through a few shipwrecks of its own. I found myself holding my breath as Wallis took me through Ismay's appearance before the Senate inquiry in America and the British Wreck Commission inquiry; cringing at the obtuseness of the Duff Gordons during their own time in what became, for them, the dock of public opinion.
I'm usually listening to three or four audio books at a time, switching between them at different times of day or depending on mood. One of the best things I can say about this enthralling listen is that I set aside all the other titles I was working on till I finished this one.
This is a horrifying and depressing story, but an important one. Richard Evans is a careful historian, not given to hyperbole and dramatic flourishes, and Sean Pratt matches his tone with a comfortable pace and even tone. Yet in its methodical way, the book lays out a gripping tale.
One point Evans makes is that the Nazis did NOT come to power democratically; they never won more than about 38% of the popular vote. Their victory was a result of PR, brutal street violence, and "backstairs intrigue," with their participation in the electoral process mostly for show. Once in, they proceeded to infiltrate and dominate every aspect of German society, down to the smallest blue-collar singing club in the smallest rural village. Everything was made to point in the same direction in a massive program of "coordination."
One of the most depressing aspects of this whole dismal saga, to me, is the way the Nazis were able to take over German culture, science, and higher education. Jewish musicians were fired; "non-Aryan" physicists and biologists were forced out of the universities and out of the country, to the great impoverishment of German science; philosophy was dominated by Martin Heidegger, who fully embraced the Nazi program. Gung-ho college students tore through bookshops and libraries, seizing "anti-German" material and throwing it onto a bonfire.
The book stops in the spring of 1933, just after the Nazi revolution and before the brown shirts were decimated in the "Night of the Long Knives." The second volume in the trilogy, "The Third Reich in Power," is available on Audible with the same narrator. (I'm going to wait a few weeks before I tackle that one: I need some time to recover from the first volume.)
"God's Battalions" has the unfortunate subtitle, "The Case for the Crusades." That makes it sound more polemical than it appeared to me as I listened to it. Rodney Stark seems to be arguing, not that the Crusades were a righteous cause, but that the European participants THOUGHT they were a righteous cause, and that we should take their declared motivations seriously. It's not so much pro-Crusades as it is anti-anti-Crusades.
Stark doesn't think the Crusades were a cynical grab for land and power. By analyzing family connections and financial data, he argues that most people who went on the Crusades did so at tremendous cost, sometimes bankrupting themselves in the process, for little or no material gain. He concludes from this that they truly felt they were participating in a "higher cause."
Stark's strong suit is using sociological and economic data to fill in the historical picture. Surprisingly, he manages to do this without turning the book into a dry thesis: he sticks to a strong narrative line, filled with battle descriptions, anecdotes, and extensive quotes from letters and other contemporary documents. Most of all, he tries to be specific: which families were involved, which groups participated in pogroms, which factions (Christian and Muslim) set off the conflict, when did accusations of conquest and colonialism first arise.
The narrative is crafted into a compact and comprehensible outline that makes the book a useful introduction to the subject. Of course, I have to admit, in saying that, that this IS the first book I've read on the subject. I was drawn to it by the liveliness of the writing (and the excellence of David Drummond's narration) more than anything else. Even if Stark's analysis fails to stand up over time, he has included a wealth of information in a concise and very well-organized format.
Ever heard of Nancy Wake? Well, you probably should have. She was an incredible WWII heroine. What guts this woman had. She was a native Australian who became an undercover agent and explosives expert. She did not seem to flinch at facing the most terrifying of circumstances in order to do what needed to be done. She was responsible for helping countless people get out of France before they could be taken by the Germans. She herself was caught at one point, but she never gave up, and after regaining her freedom, went right back to putting it to the Germans.
I was amazed at the courage and determination of this woman, and wonder why I had never heard of her before.