By Megan Hahn Fraser
At 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, Titanic, the White Star Line’s newest ship‚ and the world’s largest‚ hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank in two hours and 40 minutes with the loss of about 1500 lives. The crew and 705 passengers were rescued by Cunard liner Carpathia. As other news took its place, the story faded from public memory, but Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember (1955) recaptured worldwide interest. It remains an excellent read, for the centenary or any other year, and all writers on the topic owe much to Lord’s research.
The works reviewed here include a lavish coffee-table volume, narrative histories of the event in its entirety or in part, and one very personal story. Many of these rise to the challenge of finding something new or provocative to say about a hundred-year-old disaster and will please readers from the generalist to the most knowledgeable enthusiast.
Also marking the anniversary is the 3-D re-release of Titanic, James Cameron’s award-winning drama. Two British television miniseries are in production: Titanic: Blood and Steel (BBC) and Titanic (ITV) by Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, with U.S. air dates to be announced. [See also Megan's Q&A with Shadow of the Titanic author Andrew Wilson and Mike Rogers's roundup of audio titles.‚ Ed.]
Brewster, Hugh. Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic, Her Passengers and Their World. Crown. Mar. 2012. c.352p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780307984708. $26. HIST
This work unabashedly focuses on Titanic‘s first-class passengers, the best-known on the ship, whose lives were the most carefully documented. Among these were the fashion designer Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon; the artist Francis D. Millet; the U.S. presidential military adviser Archibald Butt; the wealthiest man in America, John Jacob Astor IV, and his second wife, Madeleine; the English journalist W.T. Stead; and the prominent Philadelphia families the Thayers, the Wideners, and the Carters. In a departure from his usual focus on history for children, Brewster (Inside the Titanic: 882 1/2 Amazing Answers to All Your Questions About the Titanic) successfully clarifies the complex relationships among these wealthy, privileged, famous, and/or titled folks, many of whom had known or known of one another in business or social capacities for years. He is also careful to explain that some made their fortunes through hard work, not inheritance. The descriptions of the luxuries of first-class accommodations are detailed and evocative. VERDICT This is one of those rare books on the subject that provides information both new and relevant, in a scholarly but readable way. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the social history of the early 20th century.
Davenport-Hines, Richard. Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From. Morrow. Mar. 2012. c.336p. photogs. index. ISBN 9780061876844. $26.99. HIST
Davenport-Hines (Auden) presents a detailed collective biography of practically everyone involved with Titanic, from her most (and least) famous passengers to the sailors to the shipbuilders. Even the iceberg gets a backstory and denouement. Especially poignant are the stories about the passengers emigrating to the United States in search of employment or joining family members already established here. Also of interest is the section on the officers and crew, which describes their work and living conditions aboard the ship, a topic normally overlooked in favor of descriptions of the first-class luxuries. VERDICT Except for a few vexing spots (even after 100 years, some authors still inaccurately state that the Morse code signal SOS is an abbreviation for save our souls), this is a well-researched and appealing read. Recommended for those interested in the personal angles of the story. (Illustrations not seen.) [See Prepub Alert, 9/19/11.]
Eaton, John P. & Charles A. Haas. Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy. 3d ed. Haynes. 2011. c.408p. illus. index. ISBN 9780857330246. $49.95. HIST
An update of the classic reference book first published in 1986, this new edition includes color photographs of the wreck and some pieces salvaged from it, an explanation of the complex legal wrangling over salvage rights, a chapter entitled “Titanic, Today and Tomorrow” with a time line of Titanic-related events since the second edition was published in 1997, and new appendixes. Eaton and Haas also write of their own voyage to the wreck site, an experience of which most Titanic authors cannot boast. The first edition’s subtitle was A Chronicle in Words and Pictures and, indeed, the pictures have always been a major strength of the work, showing more images of people and places related to the ship than any other book. VERDICT A must-have for anyone interested in Titanic; worth updating to this new edition.
Forbeck, Matt. Carpathia. Angry Robot. Mar. 2012. c.320p. ISBN 9780857662026. pap. $12.99. F
Yes, this is fiction. Two best friends and the woman they both love embark on Titanic for a trip to the New World, only to encounter some decidedly Old World monsters aboard Carpathia, their rescue ship. Fortunately, Quincey Harker, Abe Holmwood, and Lucy Seward are uniquely qualified to deal with vampires because of their friendship with “Uncle Bram” and knowledge of his famous story. Mayhem ensues, the likes of which puts the horrific shipwreck itself to shame. VERDICT Forbeck’s (Amortals; Vegas Knights) pacing is mercifully quick, but characterization suffers, with historic figures from Titanic and Carpathia shoehorned into the story, then dropped just as quickly. Titanic buffs are likely to find the anachronistic dialog and errors that pull the reader out of the story (a character compares Titanic‘s length to the Empire State Building, which didn’t yet exist) either irritating or laughable. May be better for horror-lite readers and old-school Dracula fans. [See also "Titanic Fiction" reviews in LJ 1/12, and in "Christian Fiction," LJ 2/15/12.]
LIFE Eds. Titanic: The Tragedy That Shook The World; One Century Later. LIFE Bks: Time Home Entertainment. Mar. 2012. 144p. photogs. ISBN 9781603202138. $29.95. HIST
LIFE’s offering for the centenary of the wreck of Titanic is a slender coffee-table book with many photographic reproductions and relatively little text, which is expanded in font size to take up more space. The book doesn’t break much new ground, hitting the usual highlights of the story, but with some instances of inappropriately breathless prose (e.g., Okay, statistics fans, here we go!), riddled with tiresome asides and cringeworthy pop culture references (e.g., For four days, then, all was extravagant oceangoing bliss…and Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet canoodled in a corner). A chapter featuring stories of selected survivors includes some photographs not usually seen. There is also a chapter on the discovery of the wreck and the salvage activities. Some of the photographic enlargements are not sharply reproduced. There is no index and no bibliography. VERDICT An optional purchase, best for readers with a casual, not overly fussy, interest in the subject.
Maltin, Tim & Eloise Aston. 101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic but Didn’t! Penguin. 2011. c.320p. bibliog. ISBN 9780143119098. pap. $15. HIST
Maltin takes the well-known story of Titanic and divides it into brief sections, each headed with a common belief and then a statement about whether the belief is based in fact or myth, followed by elaboration. The sections are arranged in chronological order and not integrated into a conventional narrative; this approach makes the book more appealing for dipping in and out than reading straight through. Several of the oddest Titanic legends (e.g. Titanic and her sister ship Olympic were switched in an insurance scam; the ship was sunk by a mummy’s curse) are put to rest, and Maltin does a good job of synthesizing sources to give succinct answers to questions about the voyage, passengers, rescue, and aftermath. VERDICT Recommended as a good companion piece to a more comprehensive treatment of the subject.
Maxtone-Graham, John. Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner. Norton. Mar. 2012. c.235p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780393082401. $24.95. HIST
This subject is familiar to Maxtone-Graham, who edited and annotated Violet Jessop’s posthumously published Titanic Survivor. He’s an expert on ocean liners and frequently lectures on cruise ships. He says the Titanic story has captivated him from his earliest research, and he makes his passion for it clear in elegant and engaging prose. He discusses some infrequently examined aspects of the sinking, such as the role Morse code and wireless telegraphy played in the rescue of survivors and how the victims were memorialized. The final chapter is a treat for fans of the author’s friend Walter Lord (A Night To Remember); it includes several letters Lord composed as if he were a Titanic passenger, offering a clever departure from his usual seriousness about the topic. VERDICT Maxtone-Graham’s command of sources is indisputable, but endnotes would have been welcome. Aficionados might be familiar with some of the information here, but should still want this book.
Pellegrino, Charles. Farewell, Titanic: Her Final Legacy. Wiley. Mar. 2012. c.352p. photogs. index. ISBN 9780470873878. $27.95. HIST
Popular science author Pellegrino (Her Name, Titanic; Ghosts of the Titanic), the subject of controversy surrounding claims made in his previous book, The Last Train from Hiroshima, returns to a familiar topic in this final book of a trilogy on Titanic. He describes his dives to the wreck site with Titanic film director James Cameron in 2001 at the same time as the 9/11 attacks. Metaphysical musings about the shipwreck and the World Trade Center are interspersed among scientific analysis of shock cocoons (areas that are undamaged during catastrophic events), the impact of the ship hitting the ocean floor and the surge cloud it produced, and sea organisms deteriorating the wreck. VERDICT The author’s works are frequently described as controversial; the reader might wish to approach this work critically. Best for those interested in exploration of Titanic‘s wreck site.
Riffenburgh, Beau. The Titanic Remembered: 1912‚ 2012. Andre Deutsch, dist. by Trafalgar Square. 2011. 132p. illus. index. ISBN 9780233003320. $75. HIST
This slipcased volume by Riffenburgh (The Titanic Experience; Polar Exploration) is beautifully illustrated with high-quality photographs and artwork. It includes facsimiles of blueprints, letters, tickets, posters, and other documents and a DVD containing audio recordings of actors reading survivors’ stories as well as brief film clips of Titanic and Carpathia. The text begins with a history of the transatlantic shipping industry and an explanation of how the White Star Line came to preeminence, then continues through the disaster and aftermath, up to the present controversies over salvaged items and the repopularizing of the Titanic story owing, in part, to James Cameron’s 1997 film. VERDICT This is not the definitive history, but it is very enjoyable to read. Cased with tissue-lining, this book would make a great (albeit pricey) gift for the Titanic buff or general reader but is not likely to last intact in circulating library collections.
Spignesi, Stephen. The Titanic for Dummies. Wiley. (For Dummies) 2012. c.384p. illus. index. ISBN 9781118177662. pap. $19.95. HIST
The Titanic edition of the popular For Dummies series packs a significant amount of information into easily digestible sections on virtually every aspect of the story, from the ship’s construction, voyage and collision with the iceberg to the discovery of the wreck and the salvage operations. There is even a chapter on the scientifically questionable (or cockamamie, to use the author’s term) plans to raise the wreck from the bottom of the ocean. The chapter on popular culture discusses movies, of course, but also memorials, museums and societies; books, however, are absent. There are black-and-white illustrations throughout and a center section of color photographs of the wreck and recovered artifacts. VERDICT A useful reference work for those new to the subject, but also enjoyable for non-dummies.
Titanic, First Accounts. Penguin. (Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions) Mar. 2012. c.400p. ed. by Tim Maltin. ISBN 9780143106623. pap. $16. HIST
This compilation of survivor accounts reprints several of the most well-known stories, including those of second class passenger Lawrence Beesley, first class passengers Archibald Gracie and Margaret Brown, and Marconi telegraph operator Harold Bride. It also includes passages from the U.S. Senate and British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry. VERDICT Since many of these texts have been widely published or are available online, this volume is rather pointless. Further, it lacks an index which renders it difficult to use for research. The best thing about it is the detailed cutaway view of the ship on the cover.
Ward, Christopher. And the Band Played On…: The Titanic Violinist and the Glovemaker; A True Story of Love, Loss and Betrayal. Trafalgar Square. Apr. 2012. c.274p. illus. bibliog. ISBN 9781444707960. pap. $12.95. HIST
When violinist John Law Hume boarded Titanic as a member of the ship’s band, he left behind a pregnant fianceé, the author’s grandmother. None of the band survived. They were lauded as heroes for playing to calm the passengers until the very end. Hume’s story does not end there, though, and Ward reveals the bitter feelings that emerged on both sides of his family afterHume’s death. VERDICT The author explains that he didn’t set out to write a book about Titanic, but rather a family history for his children; this work succeeds as both. Titanic buffs will be especially interested in the details about how Hume’s family was treated by the White Star Line. Biography readers will enjoy the honest look at a family touched by tragedy.
Welshman, John. Titanic: The Last Night of a Small Town. Oxford Univ. Mar. 2012. c.368p. illus. index. ISBN 9780199595570. $29.95. HIST
Welshman (history, Lancaster Univ.; Churchill’s Children) takes his title from a passage in Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember and focuses on 12 survivor accounts. He aims to build upon and challenge Lord’s book and rebalance the narrative away from men to women, etc., but in fact he uses many of Lord’s sources, and in similar ways. And can the stories of just 12 people stand for a small town? The concluding chapters‚ one on the lives of the survivors after the sinking and another on the ship’s relationship to the city of Belfast‚ are interesting. VERDICT While this work doesn’t entirely succeed in its stated purpose, and the lack of specific citations is frustrating, it is still a good read. Recommended to readers new to the subject. (Illustrations not seen.)
Williams, Julie Hedgepeth. A Rare Titanic Family: The Caldwells’ Story of Survival. NewSouth. 2012. c.208p. illus. ISBN 9781588382825. pap. $21.95. HIST
Williams (journalism, Samford Univ.; Wings of Opportunity) presents a warm biography of her great-uncle by marriage, his first wife, and their son‚ one of the few families to escape intact from the sinking of Titanic. Albert and Sylvia Caldwell had served as Presbyterian missionaries in Siam (now Thailand) for about a year when Sylvia became ill after their son was born. The family desperately wished to return to America, but they first had to battle the Foreign Missions Board for permission to break their contracts. After an arduous journey across Asia and Europe, they felt lucky to secure passage on the luxurious new ship. VERDICT Related with obvious affection for her great-uncle, the author also gives a good sense of the difficulties in piecing together family histories and how even close relatives might not know the whole story. In addition to Titanic buffs, genealogists and missionary history readers will like this.
Wilson, Andrew. Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived. Atria: S. & S. Mar. 2012. c.400p. index. ISBN 9781451671568. $25. HIST
Wilson (Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith) offers engaging portraits of the survivors of the world’s best-known shipwreck and how they lived with (or repressed) their memories of the event. For some, survival inspired a carpe diem spirit and a determination to live life to the fullest; for others, it brought on nervous breakdowns and social ostracism, particularly for the men who escaped in lifeboats. The most poignant stories are those of the survivors who were plagued by additional tragedies, who died young or committed suicide. Conversely, the longest-lived survivors became beloved symbolic figures of minor celebrity. VERDICT The author makes good use of archival and published sources and his own recently conducted interviews. This is a captivating read that begins where most other Titanic books end. (Illustrations not seen.) [See Prepub Alert, 9/22/11.]
Megan Hahn Fraser, head of processing projects for UCLA Library Special Collections, is an LJ reviewer and Titanic expert who named her cat after Carpathia‘s captain