Time and place: the fateful night of April 14, 1912
First sentence: “High in the crow’s nest of the New White Star Liner Titanic, Lookout Frederick Fleet peered into a dazzling night.”
Verdict: A very interesting little book.
A riveting account of Titanic’s last moments, as seen through the eyes of the people on it. The book was written in the 50s, at a time when many of the survivors were still alive, which means that the author had access to first hand information, the way we no longer can have today. Sure, some people’s memories have blurred in the intervening years, as there a few discrepancies between some accounts of the events and the others, but it is still probably the most comprehensive description of that particular night.
Since this is always mentioned as being the go-to book in all matters Titanic, and as the Titanic centennial was a short while ago, I figured that now would be a good time to read this. Although it is non-fiction it is written in a very easy to read manner, and it was quite a fast read. I don’t think I’ll manage to keep all the characters straight (even now, merely two weeks after I read it, I cannot remember most people’s names), but I do believe I have learned quite a bit about the event, and I am happy it is so.
Steven Biel has described this book as “an imaginative approach to time and space in which hours and minutes prove extremely malleable, [where] the ship itself seems almost infinitely complex, and the disaster assumes order and unity from far away“, and this is, I think, the best way to describe it. The last few hours are chronicled from more than one point of view, as we get to see what each of the people interviewed were doing; it is like being able to see everywhere at once, and it was quite an interesting approach.
The narrative also covers what happened on the two ships nearby, the Californian (the one who could have saved everyone but did not realize anything was amiss), and Carpathia, the rescuer. A bunch of people on board of the latter have been interviewed — usually they and their reactions to the tragedy go overlooked, but it was interesting to find out a bit about how the passengers of Carpathia received the news: how they saw preparations being made and they worried that something was wrong with their own ship, especially as they could not believe their ears when the crew told them the Titanic sunk, and they thought it was just a story to fob them off.
The author then goes on to address the reasons why the sinking of the Titanic was/is considered such an important event: in many ways it was, as they say, the end of an era. The first world war had followed soon after; the class differences began to blur. Soon
Overriding everything else, the Titanic also marked the end of a general feeling of confidence. Until then men felt they had found the answer to a steady, orderly, civilized life. For 100 years the Western world had been at peace. For 100 years technology had steadily improved. For 100 years the benefits of peace and industry seemed to be filtering satisfactorily through society. In retrospect, there may seem less grounds for confidence, but at the time most articulate people felt life was all right. The Titanic woke them up. Never again would they be quite so sure of themselves. In technology especially, the disaster was a terrible blow. Here was the “unsinkable ship” — perhaps man’s greatest engineering achievement—going down the first time it sailed. But it went beyond that. If this supreme achievement was so terribly fragile, what about everything else? If wealth meant so little on this cold April night, did it mean so much the rest of the year?
It was also interesting to see how the maritime regulations have changed after the disaster. Some of the changes were rather obvious ones, such as keeping the radio communications supervised by an operator around the clock, so no distress signals could go unheard; the mandatory number of lifeboats was raised; the most interesting change however I thought was this one:
After the Titanic sank, the American and British governments established the International Ice Patrol, and today Coast Guard cutters shepherd errant icebergs that drift toward the steamer lanes. The winter lane itself was shifted further south, as an extra precaution.
I couldn’t find a confirmation, but I think this means no other ships were sunk by icebergs ever again (well, in that part of the world at least). While it would have been great if those measures have been implemented before the Titanic sunk, the fact that they were implemented at all makes me feel like in a way there was a purpose to the tragedy, you know? Like all those people have not died in vain because their deaths were a trigger for these regulations to be introduced, regulations that presumably have saved countless other lives in return. Although, of course, we will never know for sure.
Recommend it to?
Everyone interested in finding out more about the sinking of the Titanic.
|Genre: Non Fiction
Time and place: 15th and 16th century Europe
First sentence: “The snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada were clearly visible from the high, castellated red walls of the citadel as the slight figure of Boabdil, the last king of Granada, slipped out of its gates for the final time.”
Verdict: Very interesting :)
“They lived in a turbulent age. It was one of religious warfare, of heroism, of family honor, of vast wealth and grinding poverty, of suffering, of ambition, of romance, of beauty, of ideas, of Machiavellian intrigue.”
The book narrates the intertwined biographies of Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile. They both left their native Spain pursuing politically advantageous marriages; later on each of them became queen in her own right. However, their lives have been anything but easy, and each of them was a broken woman when she died. What happened to the young, hopeful princesses of yore to bring them to such a state? This book has the answer.
I didn’t know all that much about Juana, but I find Katherine and Isabella‘s lives quite interesting in general, which is why I requested this book from NetGalley. I expected it to be a fiction book, perhaps a novel having as main characters the two queens, and I was a bit deflated upon noticing it was actually non-fiction. My disappointment did not last though, as the book turned out to be anything than dry. I ended up quite happy to have it this way, because at least in a non-fiction book I don’t have to spend time wondering which parts are true and which of them come straight from the author’s imagination.
I come from a country that formed in the 20th century (why yes, in this sense it’s younger than America :) ). Prior to that there were three principalities, each of them facing outward threats and with sometimes limited independence. We never had a ‘dynasty’ to rule for centuries, like Britain and Spain had, and still have. Which is perhaps why I find royal houses fascinating, and which is also why, while reading, I was utterly amazed to see how many documents (letter and the likes) are still extant from 500 years ago.
This is one of the things I have liked most about this book: the fact that the author tries hard not to impose on her own version of events, what she thinks might have happened. Instead, she offers the reader a glimpse at the writings of the people of the day; most often than not the accounts used are written by people that have witnessed the described events first hand. As for the two great mysteries of that time (Was Katherine’s marriage to Arthur actually consummated? Was the woman who entered history as Joanna the Mad really mad?), the author strives to explore both sides of each story, leaving the reader to form his/her own opinion after seeing the facts.
Politically, the Europe at the time felt very much like a chessboard: strategies being conceived all the time, alliances being formed and broken, wars being fought. The book does not dwell too much on that, yet it does something a bit more interesting: tries to acquaint us with the way people at the time thought, and what they found important. For example, I didn’t know religion was that important then — one of the ways Juana sometimes chooses to protest against her treatment is refusing to hear Mass, which scandalizes everyone who hears of it. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me — after all, these are the years when the Inquisition runs rampant — and yet it does.
Another thing I sort of knew but never stopped to consider was how unfortunate the royals of the time were, family-wise. Princesses were raised inoculated with the idea that their purpose in life is to marry as advantageously for their homeland as possible, and have a lot of children to ensure dynastic continuity. I found particularly touching the way that, whenever she sent one of her daughters abroad to be married, Isabella was aware that there is a high probability she will never see her estranged child again. If I remember correctly, Katherine and Juana have met one single time after Juana left Spain, and then for a few hours. Isabella never got to see Katherine at all after the wedding to Arthur, and neither did Ferdinand, Katherine’s father, although he lived over a decade more than Isabella did. Can you imagine not seeing your child or parent for decades?
Early in the beginning of the book the author paints a picture of Katherine and Juana’s parents: The Catholic Monarchs, who spent many years waging wars against the infidels. Isabella herself was tough as nails; I would have been disappointed to see her daughters turn out to be any different. The author seems to have read my thoughts, as the book points out time and again just how similar to their mother one of the other daughter was, and I liked that.
“Like her formidable mother, Katherine would not flinch from her duty. It is romantic nonsense to imagine her a patient Griselda, a saintly being quietly waiting for her husband to come to his senses while she stoically endured mental torment and anguish. It is also grossly to underestimate her. Katherine was brave, feisty, a ferocious and tenacious warrior for what she believed to be right.”
The part of the book dedicated to Juana is smaller than Katherine’s, which I am guessing is due to the fact that her daily life in Tordesillas was far less documented than Katherine’s. The fact that some of the accounts about her are contradictory — some claim she’s mad, some claim she’s sensible and sane — doesn’t particularly help form an opinion about her personality. I feel very sorry for her though — as the author puts it, “the crux of Juana’s predicament was that the two men who should have been her most devoted supporters were in fact her most deadly opponents. Both wanted what was by right hers“. Which is how she ended up confined within the Santa Clara convent in 1509, where she spent almost fifty years(!!) of her life, until her death in 1555. Poor thing, even if she was completely sane at first, it is a wonder she did not go completely bonkers by the end, especially considering that, although a queen, she had little to no control regarding what happened with her and around her. My mind draws a blank when I try to imagine what that must have felt.
What I liked most
The fact that it’s written almost like a fiction book :)
And let’s not forget the fact that as much as I could tell (which admittedly isn’t all that much) it was very well documented. A pleasure for me to read, on both counts.
What I did not like
I noticed that there’s usually a downside when it comes to well researched books: it is hard for an author to decide to keep stuff back, making at least parts of said books bogged down with too much detail. Luckily, for the most part this particular author has managed to avoid this temptation, however I must admit that there were times I could have done with less description of the ceremonies organized and of the clothing of people involved. Not that I hold it against the book — I bet there are people who will find those particular parts the most interesting ones — but those were the only parts I skimmed, while I devoured the rest.
Thoughts on the title
The full title (“Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives Of Katherine Of Aragon And Juana, Queen Of Castile“) is the very element that caught my attention and made me request this book. Enough said :)
Thoughts on the ending
After discussing Katherine and Juana’s deaths, the book goes on to give an idea about what happened in England and Spain in the next few decades. Its very ending mentioned the creation of the Spanish Armada, and its setting sail towards the British shore. Just like, decades before, some Spanish ships set sail towards England, carrying with them a young princess dreaming of a happy future. Quite a nice touch, and I loved it :)
Recommend it to?
Anyone curious about the lives of Catherine and/or Joanna. I found it a fast, captivating read, so if you’re interested in the topic I encourage you to pick it up. Oh, and it’s also shorter than it seems, I read it on a Kindle and it ended at about 80%, the rest being bibliographies and indexes and the likes.