Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cannonball Read #55: The Sinking of the Lancastria: The Twentieth Century's Deadliest Naval Disaster and Churchill's Plot to Make It Disappear

Written by: Jonathan Fenby


In 1940, the British troops were forced to flee from France upon the surrender of the French government. Many of the fighting troops had already been famously evacuated at Dunkirk, however there were thousands still left throughout France--communications officers, mechanics, engineers, supply depot managers, and other support troops--who needed to be moved back to England as quickly as possible. The British used whatever ships were available, including commandeered luxury liners like the Lancastria. On June 17th, 1940 thousands of soldiers, sailors, medical personnel, and civilians aboard the Lancastria were killed when the German airforce attacked and sank the ship. Although the official death toll was listed as approximately 3500, unofficial totals put the number killed at up to 6000, making the sinking of the Lancastria one of the worst naval disasters in history. However, it is virtually unknown because at the time, Winston Churchill decided not to release the news (he felt that public morale was bad enough, and another disaster would be extremely detrimental to the war effort) and then claimed that forgot to ever lift the reporting ban. There is a lot of historical context regarding the fall of France as well as the efforts made by the British to change the course of events in France.

The book is particularly interesting, since the author was able to interview many survivors and get many personal details about the events that occurred. The story is well-told, and it is clear that the author researched carefully. The memories of those who were there really personalize the story and make it accessible--as well as both tragic and funny.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this one and would recommend it.

Cannonball Read #54: The Wreck of the William Brown: A True Tale of Overcrowded Lifeboats and Murder at Sea by Tom Koch

In 1841, the packet ship William Brown, carrying a load of immigrants to the new world, hit an iceberg and sank--mere miles from where the Titanic would sink 71 years later--drowning hundreds and leaving the rest in a death-struggle on the lifeboats. The shocking part is that not a single member of the William Brown's crew perished, and in fact they tossed 14 passengers out of the lifeboats to their deaths for fear of "overcrowding," only to be rescued a day later. The book details both the history of the packet trade, the circumstances that led to the wreck, the wreck itself, and more interestingly, the scramble afterwards by the British and American governments to find a scapegoat to blame who would keep focus off the mutually profitable Irish emigration trade.

The machinations of both governments are nearly as appalling as the actions of the crew members who, in darkness, heaved defenseless passengers out of the lifeboats into the freezing waters of the Atlantic. It's a fascinating book, though it is not nearly as detailed as some other maritime disaster books due to the time period and the fact that the members of the crew and most passengers did not keep diaries or written records. However, Koch has been able to track down many of the legal papers and do an excellent job of covering the trial itself.

On the whole, a decent and interesting book, though nothing particularly spectacular in the genre.

Cannonball Read #53: A Furnace Afloat: The Wreck of the Hornet and the Harrowing 4,300-mile Voyage of Its Survivors by Joe Jackson.

Three shipwrecks for the price of one today! (I have some free time and am trying to catch up again on my blogging.)

A Furnace Afloat is the story of the clipper ship Hornet, which caught fire at sea, leaving its crew and several upper-class passengers adrift at sea in an open lifeboat for 43 days. The tensions between the crew and the passengers that nearly led to mutiny, the desperate fight for survival which included eating shoe leather and contemplating cannibalism, and their miraculous arrival in Hawaii to the delight of then-unknown journalist Samuel Clemens (later known the world over as Mark Twain) are all covered in the book. Jackson does an excellent job with research, aided by the fact that the captain, two passengers, and one member of the crew kept extensive diaries through the experience, and nearly all gave interviews to Twain, who documented the events in a career-making piece of journalism. Jackson also makes a point to explain the historical context of the ship's journey, the science behind the weather phenomenons the lifeboat encountered, and medical facts of the sufferings of the crew. It is a fact-packed and well written book.

Cannonball Read #52: The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower 2) by Stephen King

This second book in Stephen King's Dark Tower series suffers very seriously from clearly being a book in a series. The book feels very unfinished, which rankled me--much as it did with the Green Mile series, which I had to give up on and wait until the finished product was released as one book.

The plot continues the story of Roland the Gunslinger, fighting through a post-apocalyptic wasteland trying to reach "The Dark Tower". In this part, he slips through doorways into other worlds, where he recruits (willingly or not) three compatriots to share his journey. I really liked Eddie Dean, a heroin addict from 1980s New York City. His character is interesting and entertaining, as well as providing an excellent contrast to Roland. The other two new characters are not as successful, though they definitely add something new to the story.

Stephen King's writing style is--as always--very enjoyable to me, though I know there are people who find him overly verbose. If you don't like his style in other books, you probably won't like him here, either.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading the book, though was extremely frustrated that I have to wait until I can get the third book to find out what happens next.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"You wanted a monster? Well, you've got one.": Death Race

Warning: Death Race is NOT a good movie.

If you are looking for quality cinema rife with complex cinematography, a gripping plot, extensive character development, or any sort of "overall message," just pick up your copy of Citizen Kane or something and get the hell out of here.

Then again, if you are looking for a balls-to-the-wall, totally nonsensical, loud, flashy, explody, poorly scripted way to entertain yourself on a long, dull, afternoon while stuffing yourself with cheezy poofs...you may want to check this out.

Jason Statham plays Jensen Ames, a former race car driver who finds himself at Terminal Island penitentiary. In the film, Terminal Island is famous for the "Death Race," a web-broadcast competition where prisoners compete in a vehicular battle to the death in order to win the chance for freedom. Jensen has to navigate life in the prison, preparing for the race with his new friends (including Coach, his mentor, played by Ian McShane) while avoiding both his dangerous competition and the prison warden (Joan Allen) who has plans of her own.

As I said, the plot is fairly stupid, and often sacrifices character and plot for explosions and gun battles. However, Jason Statham takes off his shirt quite a bit and snarls pithy witticisms in his sexy sexy accent, Ian McShane growls his own pithy witticisms in his own sexy accent, and there is a hot chick who doesn't really say much. Some of the car scenes are cool, though the film could probably have easily been stretched out for another half an hour in order to provide a little more context. On the whole, while I probably wouldn't watch this again, I sure as hell enjoyed it.

(I can't say how this compares to the original film, Death Race 2000 with Sylvester Stallone because Netflix has been unable to send it to me yet.)