Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Caine Mutiny (1951) by Herman Wouk

The Caine Mutiny was published in 1951, only six years after the end of WWII. It was a best-seller on and off for three years and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952. During the war Herman Wouk served on a ship similar to the Caine.

I caught the movie on TV as a kid late one night when I probably should have been in bed. As a book, it's been on my TBR list for a long time and I put it on my Classics Club list in the hopes of finally getting around to it.

While I love seafaring stories and usually enjoy WWII fiction, I was hesitant to pick it up all these years because there were court room scenes. I don't often enjoy court room scenes, which, in my mind, tend read like this: He said this, she said that, guilty or innocent, the end.

That was so not the case with this novel. I was riveted by the court room scenes and those immediately following the verdict had me cheering in my chair.
From the publisher:  The novel that inspired the now-classic film The Caine Mutiny and the hit Broadway play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Herman Wouk's boldly dramatic, brilliantly entertaining novel of life-and mutiny-on a Navy warship in the Pacific theater was immediately embraced, upon its original publication in 1951, as one of the first serious works of American fiction to grapple with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II. In the intervening half century, The Caine Mutiny has become a perennial favorite of readers young and old, has sold millions of copies throughout the world, and has achieved the status of a modern classic.
The story begins with Willie Keith's mom dropping him off for officer's training with the US Navy. Keith is a soft, spoiled Princeton graduate who has been playing piano gigs at night clubs. He joins the Navy only after receiving his draft notice from the US Army. He thinks he'd rather float on a boat for the duration than be Army meat. There's a girl in the background that mom and dad don't know about.

Willie makes it through training by the skin of his teeth and manages to keep the girl hidden from his parents as he ships off for his first assignment. He arrives in Hawaii but misses his ship which just pulled out. He makes no effort to catch up with his ship and instead enjoys months of easy duty, playing piano at evenings parties for an Admiral.

When Willie finally makes it to his ship it's a rusty old tin can with a captain--de Vriess--that seems anything but professional to our young hero. Willie proves himself to be a self-centered, slow study, and is happy to hear a new captain will soon be taking over because his problems cannot possibly be of his own making.

Enter Captain Queeg and his steel balls.
[If you have no desire to read this book, at least watch the movie with Bogart. It's nowhere near as good as the book, but still a good movie.]

Like all good novels that have had steady readership for a few decades, there's so much that can be discussed about The Caine Mutiny: Military culture, life aboard ship, the books and writers mentioned throughout, class issues, race issues, homophobia (there's a glaring instance of it during Queeg's trial), morality, citizen soldiers vs military professionals, readers vs non-readers to name a few.

Ebook and my 1951 Sears Readers Club edition
There's some weird male nudity going on in the book. I asked my cousin, Dave, who served in the Navy in the 1970s, about the nudity he experienced aboard ship and he said it was relegated to the shower room. He read the novel and agreed the nudity was a bit odd.

I bring this up because probing the representations of male nudity would be a fun essay to write. I didn't detect any homoeroticism around the nudity, rather it seems to convey a variety of feelings and attitudes, from urgency to a lack of respect to it simply being too damn hot to wear clothes. There's also heavy-handed comparison of an all-hands strip-search of the sailors to a "German rape of their personal rights," but its an action that's ordered by Captain Queeg "and the fact that they [the sailors] were submitting so tamely was an indication of the way the Queeg regime had weakened the crew's spirit."

Of course the male nudity signifies an absence of women. As is often the case with war novels from this time period (or most time periods), there aren't many women characters, but the two in this novel play important roles in Willie's maturation:

Willie's mom: Willie is a young man, still very much a boy at the beginning of the novel. Mom and the life she represents is what Willie is rebelling against. In an effort to grow up and make his own life, he's pushing against her to figure out what he wants to do both professionally and personally. It's interesting to note that Willie's father also uses his wife, Willie's mother, as an excuse for the choices he's made in his own life. Once the captains of the Caine enter the picture, Willie pushes against them. It's what adolescents do, right? There's much to be explored about healthy adulthood and leadership vs adolescence and developmentally stunted adults. In the end, Mom says something that opens Willie's eyes to how his own assumptions shaped his behavior. Go Mom.

Back of dust jacket, Sears Readers Club edition
Willie's girlfriend, May: This is a classic tale of lovers from opposite sides of the tracks. He's a wealthy Princeton graduate WASP from the suburbs, she's the Catholic daughter of Italian immigrants who live above their shop in the city. She sings in night clubs, is a good looker, and has a hot body. Willie talks a lot about literature and she ends up going to college and reading lots of Dickens. "You talked me into wanting to read," she tells him. Eventually, however, May gets tired of being yanked around by an immature guy. It is in part her decision to disconnect from Willie that eventually helps him grow up and start to figure out what he wants to do with his life after the war.

Other women: WAVES get slammed, but its more of a reflection on the slammer than the slammee (as is almost always the case). One of the guys who chose a safe, soft position in the Navy writes in a letter to Willie, "I could have a harem of Waves, if I cared for big behinds and hairy legs, but I guess I am a little fussy." First of all, wishful thinking, sailor. Second, this is an example of a man who tries to bolster his weakened or guilty ego with imagined sexual prowess. Third and historically, I know woman Marines were often called BAMs--Broad Assed Marines. Some old timers insist this was a term of affection, but I find that doubtful and it's certainly not a polite moniker.

There's the general attitude that whatever a man's position in the military, he could be a hero, whereas a woman has no chance:
"If the OOD should drop dead or fall over the side it was conceivable that he, Ensign Keith, might take the conn, sink a submarine, and win great glory. It was not likely--but it was possible, whereas it was not possible, for example, that his mother might do it." 
This military performance anxiety makes some men despise women in the military and it compels writers like Hemingway bash a writer like Cather for daring to be a woman who writes about war. [Personally, I think he was just bitter that she wrote a novel that veterans of WWI adored, One of Ours. It won the Pulitzer in 1923.]

And I thought the following reflection a fascinating understanding of the psychology of veterans, human memory, and patriotism. It made me think of how the boys who served in WWII came to be called The Greatest Generation:
"He was on his way to fight in battles as great as any in the histories. But these would appear to him mere welters of nasty, complicated, tiresome activity. Only in after years, reading books describing the scenes in which he had been engaged, would he begin to think of his battles as Battles. Only then, when the heat of youth was gone, would he come to warm himself with the fanned-up glow of the memory that he, too, Willie Keith, had fought on Saint Crispin's Day."
I enjoyed reading this novel and will no doubt re-read it someday because although I found myself cheering at the lawyer's post-verdict tongue lashing that he gives the officers of the Caine, I'm not so sure I completely agree with him anymore.

The Caine Mutiny
Herman Wouk
Doubleday, 1951
Source: used hardcover and ebook I purchased

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spring Bloggiesta


It's time for a little spring cleaning, both in my house on here on the blog. This year's Spring Bloggiesta is a whole week long!

Bloggiesta is a time when book bloggers come together to work on the nuts & bolts of our blogs and share tips and tricks of the trade. It's a great resource and wonderful way to meet other bloggers.

My plans for the week:
  • Write some over-due reviews (3-5)
  • Clean up tags
  • Organize Bloglovin'
  • Participate in a few Twitter chats
  • Try a couple mini challenges
Sign up & check out the Twitter chat schedule here.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

I've been on a maritime reading kick again. In the last month I've read three good books in this category:
  • Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson 
  • The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II by Herman Wouk
  • Rowing Against the Wind by Angela Madsen
Dead Wake was just released on Tuesday and, as you may have noticed, there's been lots of buzz.


Larson is one of those writers that I would read if he wrote about drying paint. He is a master of historical nonfiction. Past hits include Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts. Larson deftly weaves in a plethora of facts and events about his subject as well as poignant details of the time period, which mingle and accumulate to create the feeling that you are right there, on the sidelines, watching a historic scene unfold, but with the benefit of hindsight.

Like many Americans, I was taught that the sinking of the Lusitania on May 1, 1915 was the last straw for America. It was the event that finally pushed us into World War I. That's not true. In fact, the U.S. didn't enter WWI for two years after a torpedo sunk the luxury liner.

There were tensions within the German government and military about submarine warfare and its execution. On the morning that the Lusitania was scheduled to steam out of New York for its final voyage, the German embassy had placed a public service announcement in the newspaper warning travelers of the threat of German submarines. This announcement was printed right next to an ad for the Lusitania. 

In England, meanwhile, military officials in a secret spy group knew the exact position and activities of the u-boat that would torpedo the ship. Protections for the Lusitania were not implemented. Communications were muddled.

Passengers on the Lusitania thought their ship was steaming under full power and making the crossing as swiftly as possible to outrun submarines. It wasn't. The ship was down a stack to conserve fuel and the British Navy was not providing protections that many assumed were in place.

Source: Wikipedia page on the Lusitania

There were a shocking number of tiny details and decisions that converged to sink the Lusitania, such as the effectiveness of torpedoes at that time, the weather, and open portholes. Had just one of these factors changed, the ship probably would not have been torpedoed nor would it have gone down so fast (18 minutes).

This is not a simplistic story of bad Germans and noble British or innocent Americans. It's the story of how a new type of war with radically new weapons and weapons monitoring systems were handled by people who were trying to do what they thought was the right thing. 

Larson fans will no doubt already be on top of this book, but if you're interested in WWI or maritime history this is one to check out. Book collectors will cringe at one passenger's story. There's also a storyline about Woodrow Wilson in mourning after his first wife's death and his budding romance with the woman who would be his second wife.

Author website: Erik Larson
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Crown, Random House: March 10, 2015
Source: e-review copy requested from publisher

p.s. You can enter to win a seven day cruise on Cunard's Queen Victoria commemorating the last voyage of the Lusitania. Kinda of creepy, right? But you can bet I entered!

Friday, March 6, 2015

North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo

If you're looking for a good thriller by a new author check out North of Boston. It was the last book I read in 2014 and it's always a pleasure when the first and last book of the year are good ones.
 
North of Boston was on Booklist's 2014 Year's Best Crime Novels: 2014. They described it as, "Dennis Lehane meets Smilla’s Sense of Snow: a big discovery in the world of female suspense, about an edgy young woman with the rare ability to withstand extreme conditions."
 





From the publisher: Elisabeth Elo’s debut novel introduces Pirio Kasparov, a Boston-bred tough-talking girl with an acerbic wit and a moral compass that points due north.

When the fishing boat Pirio is on is rammed by a freighter, she finds herself abandoned in the North Atlantic. Somehow, she survives nearly four hours in the water before being rescued by the Coast Guard. But the boat’s owner and her professional fisherman friend, Ned, is not so lucky.

Compelled to look after Noah, the son of the late Ned and her alcoholic prep school friend, Thomasina, Pirio can’t shake the lurking suspicion that the boat’s sinking—and Ned’s death—was no accident. It’s a suspicion seconded by her deeply cynical, autocratic Russian father, who tells her that nothing is ever what it seems. Then the navy reaches out to her to participate in research on human survival in dangerously cold temperatures.

With the help of a curious journalist named Russell Parnell, Pirio begins unraveling a lethal plot involving the glacial whaling grounds off Baffin Island. In a narrow inlet in the arctic tundra, Pirio confronts her ultimate challenge: to trust herself.

A gripping literary thriller, North of Boston combines the atmospheric chills of Jussi Adler-Olsen with the gritty mystery of Laura Lippman. And Pirio Kasparov is a gutsy, compellingly damaged heroine with many adventures ahead.
Smart tough women and ships are two of my favorite things. This book has both, as well as a good plot and some interesting supporting characters. Perfume is also involved.

One tantalizing aspect of this story is that Pirio's surviving hours in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic draws the attention of the U.S. Navy Experimental Dive Team. They want to study Pirio's physiology and so she goes down to Florida for some tests. I have hopes that in a subsequent story Pirio gets involved with the Navy as a secret agent. It would be refreshing to see some military fiction where a woman kicks ass and isn't in the story as a love interest/liability for the male action hero.

If foreign rights are any indication of an author's rising star, I noticed on Elo's website that there editions of North of Boston in Germany, Spain, France, Israel, Serbia, and the UK. 

 
The interesting characters and solid plot based in, what seemed to me, a realistic representation of the shipping world made this a solid read for me. I'll keep an eye out for Elo's next book. 

P.S. Boston is not covered in snow in this novel.

Goodreads link: North of Boston
Author website: Elisabeth Elo
Penguin, Hardcover 1/1/14, Paperback 12/30/14
Source: review copy from publisher

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