Thursday, October 06, 2011

How to Survive the Titanic by Frances Wilson

How to Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay
by Frances Wilson
Copyright 2011
Harper - Nonfiction/History
352 pages

How to Survive the Titanic is partly a biography of J. Bruce Ismay --the wealthy former owner of the White Star Line whose reputation was permanently ruined when he left the sinking Titanic -- and partly a fascinating comparison between Ismay's downfall and several works of literature that mimicked his story.

Anyone who has read much of anything about the Titanic will have heard of J. Bruce Ismay, but How to Survive the Titanic goes into greater depth than more general Titanic books. The author delves into Ismay's upbringing, schooling, personality, telegrams sent from the Carpathia, testimony in both the U.S. and U.K. inquiries into the disaster and Ismay's correspondence with a Titanic widow. The author also draws from numerous opinions by literary giants of the time as to Ismay's guilt or innocence and thoughts about whether or not those who stayed behind could be considered "heroic".

As for the language of heroism employed by the halfpenny press, 'There is nothing more heroic in being drowned very much against your will, off a holed, helpless big tank in which you bought your passage than in dying of colic caused by the imperfect salmon in the tin you bought from your grocer'. It would have been finer, Conrad suggests, 'if the band on the Titanic had been quietly saved, instead of being drowned while playing -- whatever tune they were playing, the poor devils'.

from pp. 187-188 of How to Survive the Titanic, Advance Reader Copy (some changes may have been made to the final print version)

I went into the reading of How to Survive the Titanic thinking Ismay deserved a fair shake and came out of it thinking he had a serious case of irresponsible entitlement. The fact that Ismay sent messages using the code name "Yamsi" (Ismay backwards) insisting that a ship should be held so that he and the surviving crew members could immediately return to England whilst he was ensconced in the doctor's cabin on the Carpathia seems damning enough. But then the author carefully brings those messages into question.

I liked the fact that Wilson made me go back to Square One -- Wait just a minute, there, did he really mean to dash away from responsibility? -- and then turns right around and deals out all the vast evidence that Ismay coldly stepped off the boat in full knowledge of how few would be saved from the sinking ship and without bothering to even inform any of the people who worked directly for or with him that the boat was definitely going under. He was not apparently tormented by the disaster and did not accept one iota of responsibility nor was he technically "ruined". Ismay's story is both fascinating and appalling.

Unfortunately, there really wasn't all that much to say about Ismay's post-Titanic life, beyond his testimony, his letters and the raw facts about his retirement and withdrawal to an estate in Ireland. So, the subtitle of the book is a tiny bit misleading. Yet, How to Survive the Titanic is a fascinating addition to the many works about the disaster.

I confess that I got a little tired of the lengthy description of Joseph Conrad's fictional Lord Jim and how closely the downfall of Jim paralleled that of Ismay, but I enjoyed the vast majority of How to Survive the Titanic and definitely recommend it, particularly to those who hold a fascination for the disaster.

The bottom line: An intriguing addition to the many books about the sinking of the Titanic, with focus on one infamous survivor and some interesting literary parallels to his downfall (some of which go on at surprising length). Recommended. There are a few annoying repetitive grammatical errors. Hopefully, changes will have been made to the final copy. I received an uncorrected proof from HarperCollins.

I think I'm going to go back to rating books numerically, at least occasionally. In this case, I'll say 4/5 -- very good; not a book I'd reread but definitely enthralling enough to recommend.

In other reading news:

This past week has not been particularly productive. I've floated from one book to another and put aside too many to even mention, although I'm enjoying The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe. But, yesterday I saw mention of a book that I know I used to own on Twitter in a tweet about German literature and roamed out to the shelf where I kept it for an embarrassing number of years. Apparently, I either moved the book (Homo Faber by Max Frisch) or decided I was never going to read it and donated it. But, I did happen across a different German author and whipped through Demian by Hermann Hesse, last night. While I can't say I really liked it all that much, at least it got me back to reading and I appreciate the sense of completion.

After I finished Demian, I moved on to The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai, which I'm enjoying immensely. Hopefully, that's a sign I've reached the end of my week-long fiction slump.

Recently walked in (in the past few weeks):

Never Been Bit by Lydia Dare - ARC from my friend Melissa
The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma - from Paperback Swap
A Darcy Christmas by Grange, Lathan and Eberhart - from Paperback Swap
Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia by Blake Butler - from HarperCollins
The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar - from HarperCollins
A Man of Parts by David Lodge - from my friend Sandie

Cat news:

I discovered there's a kitty setting on my new camera! Unfortunately, I don't think it's an improvement over the regular automatic setting, which I overuse because the camera seems to do a better job of focusing than I do, now that I'm old enough to have trouble seeing the focusing screen.

Today, a neighborhood cat waltzed up to our window and sent poor Isabel into a frenzy. She wildly scratched at the woodwork, trying to dig her way outdoors to fight him off. That would be quite an unfair fight. Slim is a big, muscular boy and Isabel is tough but she's a featherweight. Fiona was never bothered by Slim before Isabel arrived in our household; the two would just blink at each other through the window when he dropped by our house. But Slim growls at Izzy, which Fi naturally finds a wee bit upsetting. At any rate, Slim's visit is an excellent reminder of why it's good to keep the cats indoors-only.

©2011 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. I wonder why more cameras don't have pet settings? That would make sense because wer are all so into our pets, aka our furbabies.
    This book sounds really good. I have never heard of it before but as a child of the 1990's, I love anything Titanic! I will check it out!

  2. DT & SS,

    I do think it's a great idea having a pet setting. Maybe with a little practice I'll find it's better than it seemed on the first attempt. I'm wondering if it has to do with a lowering of contrast, since animals can have a wide variety of fur coloring.

    Haha! I'm not a child of the 90s, but I do love reading about the Titanic!

  3. Next year is the 100th anniversary of the Titanic - I have a feeling we're going to be flooded with Titanic books.

  4. Kathy,

    I didn't even think about that!! Yep, I'm sure we will. I really like reading Titanic books, so I'm okay with that. ;)

  5. Re what Kathy said: I was on Net Galley yesterday and there were several Titanic related books and then I know a couple more 'popular' authors that have books set on or around it coming out in the next while.

    I have always been interested in the Titanic, so I think I will check this out.

  6. Kelly,

    Very cool! I don't do Net Galley, yet, but maybe some will show up in my library. I've always enjoyed reading about the Titanic, too.

  7. Oh, I didn't even realize that the century mark was coming up. This one sounds interesting even if Ismay sounds like such an unpleasant character.

  8. Jenclair,

    I thought it was a really fun read. I breezed right through it and I'm usually pretty slow when it comes to nonfiction. Ismay was definitely your typical entitled rich son and not a person who really liked people (he actually said that in one of his letters to the widow) so it's plain that he was an easy scapegoat, even had he not been deserving --which he apparently was.


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