Thursday, June 29, 2017

Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher

Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee. ~ Gordon Lightfoot from The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

If you know anything about the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald you probably learned it from the song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot. However, the song is, in a few points, not quite accurate. This is by no means a criticism. Poets are entitled to creative license and much was still unknown about that fateful night of November 9-10, 1975 when Lightfoot penned his ballad. He filled in some of the blanks. A few items were later disproved – but this in no way diminishes the artistic value nor the labor of love that was Gordon Lightfoot’s hauntingly beautiful tribute to the 29.

My memory of the Edmund Fitzgerald or Mighty Fitz, predates the song. I spent the first 24 years of my life living in Michigan. This tragedy took place in my neighborhood and I remember this story as it unfolded. I’ve long been interested in the greatest shipwreck in Great Lakes history and I finally got around to reading one of the many books on the subject.

In short, I’ll say it’s a marvelous look into this story. It is personal at times, delving into the lives of some of the crew – and those they left behind like captain of the ship that was trailing Fitz when she “disappeared”. It is also technical, but accessible, going into the numerous investigations and commissions that attempted to discover the cause – an issue that will likely never be solved, as this wreck left no witnesses and no survivors. I won’t synopsize further, except with the following: a look at some of the lines from Lightfoot’s song that are correct, and those that are not.

As the big freighters go – Mighty Fitz was indeed bigger than most. The hull was 729’ by 75’, barely able to fit (length and width) into the Sault St. Marie Locks of that time. She was at one time a record holder for largest load to pass through the locks, and largest load for an entire shipping year.

She was bound for Detroit, not Cleveland.

The old cook almost certainly did not come on deck, and he didn’t have time to say “fellas, it’s been good to know ya”. Much is still disputed about the wreck, but one thing is clear: it was a nearly instantaneous catastrophe. Moments before “her lights went out of sight”, Captain Cooper of the S.S. Arthur M. Anderson, trailing a few miles behind, radioed the Edmund Fitzgerald and asked Captain Ernest McSorley “how are you making out?” Captain McSroley responded, “We are holding our own.” – the last words any human soul heard from anyone aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald. No one, not even her own Captain and crew, knew that “the good ship and crew was in peril.”

“Later that night when her lights went out of sight” is a particularly poignant line that I never quite understood before reading this book. Captain Cooper, who was trailing the Edmund Fitzgerald recalled that suddenly the Fitz was just gone from their radar, and that they could no longer see her lights.

They did indeed go down within 15 miles of the safety of Whitefish Bay.

Great Lakes Mariners refer to nor’easters on Lake Superior as “The Witch of November”.

“The church bell chimed ‘til it rang 29 times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Father Ingalls of the Mariner’s Church in Detroit wrung the bell and then offered the following prayer:

“With thanksgiving to God for their courage and strength, for the benefits we have received from their labors and for the blessed hope of their everlasting life, we hereby gratefully remember all the mariners of our Great lakes who have lost their lives.”

I don’t understand the science exactly, but there is something about the frigid temperatures of Lake Superior and the effects it has on gases in the body, that prevents drowned bodies from floating to the surface. Lake Superior does indeed – not “give up her dead”.

Regarding the dead: In 1995 the Edmund Fitzgerald’s bell was removed from the wreck and placed in a museum. A replacement bell was installed on the wreck in the depths of Lake Superior with the names of the 29 lost seamen. It is their tombstone.


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (83 down 17 to go)

…a prodigy of learning, a creature reported to have read the classic authors – in translation. ~ narrative regarding Isabel Archer

This is the fourth novel I’ve read by Henry James and the first time I’ve read The Portrait of a Lady.  This story is a third-person narrative, realist novel set in late 19th Century England and Italy. It is the story of Isabel Archer, a charming and capable young American woman of little means, who is discovered by her wealthy, and slightly eccentric aunt, Lydia Touchett. It is of course then, the story of Isabel finding her place in the world.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge category #1 – A Nineteenth Century Classic.

As I said, this is Isabel’s story, so I don’t want to spend too much time on her aunt – but her aunt’s situation is complicated. She’s an American expatriate splitting time between England and Italy with occasional jaunts to France or other European countries. She is married to a wealthy American expatriate who seldom leaves England. When Mrs. Touchett is in London, she lives under the same roof as her husband, but they do not live as husband and wife. They are civil, but that is all. Mr. Touchett is in poor health …his journeys were over and he was taking the rest that precedes the great rest.

They have a son, Ralph Touchett, who was born and lived most his life in England. He is in poor health as well, but is of a lively and intelligent spirit.

Mrs. Touchett takes Isabel to London. Mrs. Touchett, Mr. Touchett, and Ralph Touchett ALL adore Isabel. Everyone does. She receives two marriage proposals within a fortnight: one from an English Lord and another from a wealthy American businessman. She refuses both. One takes it graciously, but vows ever to love her. The other is less gracious but also vows to never abandon hope.

Mr. Touchett dies and leaves half his fortune to Isabel. This is Ralph’s idea, unbeknownst to Isabel. Ralph wants to be a spectator to Isabel’s life once she has the means to soar. Mrs. Touchett is unsurprised and indifferent.

If Isabel was attractive before, now that she is wealthy, she is of course even more fascinating to eligible bachelors. Her previous suitors who have not given up, are met with new rivals.

After traveling the world, Isabel makes a choice for a husband – but he isn’t everything the reader, or Ralph, or Mrs. Touchett, or some other friends of Isabel had hoped for.

And the rest – you must read for yourself.

I always feel, when I give only 3 ½ Stars, that I need to explain. This is ½ star above the exact center of my scale, and is therefore a good rating. I liked it.

And I liked it WAAAY better than my previous experiences with Henry James. This is one of his earlier novels, and according to some – one of his best. It is certainly much more accessible than his later novels. The prose is elegant, even beautiful at times but always easy to follow.

Such as this dialogue between Isabel and Ralph:
Isabel looked at him with serious eyes. “I wonder whether you know what’s good for me – or whether you care.” 
“If I know depend upon it I care. Shall I tell you what it is? Not to torment yourself." 
“Not to torment you, I suppose you mean.” 
“You can’t do that; I’m proof. Take things more easily. Don’t ask yourself so much whether this or that is good for you. Don’t question your conscience so much – it will get out of tune like a strummed piano. Keep it for great occasions. Don’t try so much to form your character – it’s like trying to pull open a tight, tender young rose. Live as you like best, and your character will take care of itself. Most things are good for you; the exceptions are very rare, and a comfortable income’s not one of them” Ralph paused, smiling; Isabel had listened quietly. "You’ve too much power of thought – above all too much conscience,” Ralph added. “It’s out of all reason, the number of things you think wrong. Put back your watch. Diet your fever. Spread your wings; rise above the ground. It’s never wrong to do that.”

Or Isabel describing the young daughter of one of her suitors:
She was like a sheet of blank paper – the ideal jeune fille of foreign fiction. Isabel hoped that so fair and smooth a page would be covered with an edifying text.

Or narrative regarding a rejected suitor:
Verdi’s music did little to comfort him, and he left the theatre and walked homeward, without knowing his way, through the tortuous, tragic streets of Rome, where heavier sorrows than his own had been carried under the stars.

Or this conversation between a suitor, and the suitor’s advocate. The gentleman was handling a delicate porcelain cup as the two described Isabel:
Please be very careful of that precious object.It already has a wee bit of a tiny crack,

I am certain the “precious object” is a double entendre.

I have only one major complaint with The Portrait of a Lady and it’s the same complaint I’ve had with all my reading of Henry James. The author believes and wants his readers to believe EVERY character is absolutely fascinating. He tries to convince his readers via the assertions of other characters. The superlatives they use to describe one another, to one another, is never ending and in most cases unconvincing and therefore rather annoying. My complaint is less severe with this novel however, because a few of the characters were indeed quite fascinating, including a few I have not mentioned here.

That was meant to tempt you – as this is the first Henry James novel I can recommend. Or, have you already read The Portrait of a Lady? What did you think?

A few tangents:

There is a delightful line regarding an Englishman who visits America:
He appeared never to have heard of any river in America but the Mississippi…
(This made me chuckle…nice to know Americans are not the only ones perceived as having ethno-myopia.)

Synchronicity: Not long ago, I read, for the first time, William Shakespeare’s comedy The Tempest. Since then, I read in Vanity Fair where a character alludes to Caliban [villain in The Tempest] and now James does the same when Ralph makes allusions to Caliban and Ariel.

Funny little Angloisms I don’t really get: Two separate characters, in those superfluous attempts to convince me of the fascinating qualities of other characters, were described as being exceptionally well qualified at “ordering dinner

Really? That’s a distinction? Like I said, I don’t get it.

Finally, just a nice reminiscence of places in Europe I’ve visited. While in Venice, Isabel visits the Bridge of Sighs. (A fitting melancholy name as it connects a prison, with interrogation rooms.) But it’s beautiful – like all of Venice.

Oh and - in spite of the title, and most covers you see, there is no record of Isabel having her portrait made.

Other excerpts:

“I like her very much. She’s all you described her, and into the bargain capable, I feel, of great devotion. She has only one fault.”
“What’s that?”
“Too many ideas.” ~ dialogue regarding Isabel

…it was an Italian fashion to commemorate the occasions of life by a tribute to the muse.

I don’t know whether I’m too proud. But I can’t publish my mistake. I don’t think that’s decent. I’d much rather die. ~ Isabel

Film Rendition: 1996 Star Studded Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Christian Bale, Vigo Mortensen, Sir John Gielgud, et al, and Award Nominated rendition - is a worthy film. True to the book, stunning scenery and costumes, and well cast...except...I didn't care for Kidman as Isabel. She seemed frightened and confused...not the confident and persevering Isabel from the book.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien

Roverandom is a children’s fairy tale about a dog who is turned into a toy dog by a Wizard. Tolkien wrote this story for his second eldest, Michael, when Michael’s toy dog is lost during a family vacation.

The tale begins when Rover bites the wizard Artaxerxes in the seat of the pants. Artaxerxes had it coming as he took a ball that Rover was innocently playing with, but the wizard – known as something of a curmudgeon – is unconcerned with the justice of the situation and spitefully turns Rover into a small toy dog.

Rover experiences a series of adventures as he tries to find Artaxerxes to convince him to change him back into a real dog. Rover is adopted by a young boy, but the boy quickly loses his new toy at the beach, exactly as Michael Tolkien lost his cherished toy dog that inspired this story.

Rover’s adventures take him to live for a season with the man in the moon. The man in the moon, a wizard himself, renames Rover to Roverandom, to avoid confusing him with his own dog Rover. Roverandom is eventually sent back to earth, but now to live under the sea with Artaxerxes who has become PAM – Pacific and Atlantic Magician, and yet another dog named Rover. Artaxerxes seems less annoyed with Roverandom, but usually too busy to listen or help. Eventually however, he changes Roverandom back into a real dog and all ends well.

Rovernadom is beautifully illustrated by Prof. Tolkien.

Rovernadom is nothing like the epic fantasies we are accustomed to from Prof. Tolkien. It is silly, whimsical, never terribly scary, and ever hopeful. If you have children or grandchildren Roverandom, along with Mr. Bliss, would make excellent introductions to Tolkien, before moving on to scarier tales like The Hobbit.