- by Carol Standish
10th Anniversary Book Review
Ten personal favorites from ten years of reviews.
These ten books were chosen not necessarily for their literary excellence, though many of the authors exhibit an evocative dexterity with words, nor were their chosen subjects significantly earthshaking in the great scheme of things. The quality each of these great reads share that I relish most is the degree of passion with which the author both pursues and/or describes his subject or experience.
Making the choices was a difficult exercise partly because, you may have noticed, I don't review work I don't personally enjoy and partly because the 120 books were so varied in genre, style, subject matter-exclusive of the binding presence of an ocean or two-that they don't easily compare with one another.
Suffice to say that if you've missed any of these wonderful books, they're doubly worth ferreting out as the other 110. (They are presented in alphabetical order.)
Bear of the Sea
by Joseph Garland
(Reviewed February 2002)
The subject of this rip-roaring biography, Bear of the Sea, is James William Pattillo, born in 1806 in Chester, Nova Scotia, the son of a Scottish emigre. (Pattillo evolved from Pattillock.) At 19, he was 6 feet tall and weighed in at 230 pounds. With only seven weeks of schooling under his ample belt, he was barely literate but...strong as an ox and smart as a whip. "He could do anything he had to do, and he did it. Stonemason, carpenter, woodsman, lime burner, boat builder, merchant, mariner, farmer, trader, but most of the time he was a highliner in the halibut, mackerel, herring and cod fisheries.
The New York Times observed "The beauty of this book lies in Mr. Garland's complete union with his subject. For one not born and brought up on the New England shore, it is hard to appreciate the intimate feeling for the living past in this seaward-looking region. We have never come across anyone in its literature who has this feeling more strongly than Mr. Garland.
Call of the Ancient Mariner
by Reese Palley
(Reviewed May 2004)
Octogenarian sailor/author, Reese Palley, originally set out to write a practical guidebook on how to be an old sailor. But as he thought about it "there seemed to be much more than guidance needed. Sailor folk, young and old...need not only a 'how to do it' but 'why to do it at all.' " So, tucked in amongst a barrage of practical information, sources and techniques, is Reese Palley's no holds barred philosophy of sailing, honed from very, very long experience. (In his sixties and seventies he made three transatlantic crossings and a circumnavigation.)
"People die these days as much from boredom and irrelevance as from disease...we must put aside the temerity of the young and accept the risk that it is a bit more dangerous to be an Ancient Mariner than a young and nimble one... Once we glance about us...our own handicap of too many decades turns into something akin to pride that we had made it at all... So, sans eyes, sans teeth, sans strength of limb...we have an obligation to our great age to keep putting our ancient asses into the wet and cold and endless tumult of the sea."
by John E. Conway
(Reviewed February 2004)
In ten endearing chapters, Conway relates cat boating adventures, mostly in Buzzard's Bay over the past ten years. His crew variously and singly are his two daughters, Abby and Caroline, son Ned and supportive but scarce wife, Christine. The kids become more involved every year and the adventures become more elaborate. Among the many charms of this book is the family photographs which accompany the text. In a variety of sailing and swimming postures, the children and other family members unvaryingly wear wide grins.
Conway's quirky, self-deprecating humor laces every scene. He calls himself an "addled middle-ager," the boat, "the family-infected woodpile" or "the old bucket." The kids all have nicknames according to their function on the boat. Among the most favorite activities aboard are napping and eating. "Hunger [often] took the driver's seat." In almost every adventure, homage is paid to the food aboard by way of detailed menus. It's a big part of the fun.
by Matthew Kneale
(Reviewed November 2001)
Brilliantly plotted, full of breathless action and suspense, gobs of black humor, a thick layer of clever ironies and written with a delicious verbal skill and grace, this novel is one of the best historical novels ever. It can also be intelligently enjoyed as both a satire of and a polemic for our times.
British author, Kneale tells his tale through the voices of over 20 different characters and several timelines stretching between 1820 and 1870. Among the stand-outs are Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, a wily sea-going smuggler of French brandy (and other taxable sundries) from the Isle of Man, The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, an amateur geologist, Dr. Thomas Potter, a mad scientist of a physician bent on categorizing all human abilities according to nationality, and the English-speaking aboriginal, Peevay. Each of these main voices is piercingly distinctive and compellingly drawn.
The Hungry Ocean
by Linda Greenlaw
(Reviewed August 1999)
In The Hungry Ocean you are on the boat. You have signed on to the 100 foot Hannah Boden sword fishing vessel out of Gloucester, Massachusetts for the duration. The only escape is to jump overboard or slam the book shut and I bet you can't do that even if you do feel a little queasy or claustrophobic.
The fishing starts when the captain finds a "break," an area in the ocean where warm water meets cold. Captain Greenlaw has been taking multi-depth temperature readings for many hours. When she finds the spot, the 40 miles of main line is paid out. It takes an average of 21 hours to set and haul, simultaneously cleaning the fish and packing them in the hold. Crew and captain alike are lucky to get three hours of sleep between sets. Then they do it all over again-for a month.
As for being female...the most skilled and competent men of her crew take the liberty of calling their captain, "Ma." In their culture the title is a reverential compliment. They know why she makes the "big bucks," they know why she stands at the "pointy end" of the boat. Now we all do. Smart woman. Great Book.
by Virginia Thorndike
(Reviewed November 2004)
In the first chapter, "Tugboats 101" the development of the physical attributes of tugboats is discussed in detail. All sorts of shapes, lengths, widths, drafts, power plants and trains, propellers, hawsers and wires, weaves, diameters and tensile strengths of tow line materials and various concoctions of "pudding" (fendering systems) are explained relative to the specific jobs of different types of craft. Most amazing in a maze of extraordinary mechanics and gear are the 90' x 50' ovoid "ship docking modules" powered with azimuth drives both stern and forward. (You'll just have to read Thorndike's description.)
Interviews with tugboat people delve into the many specific tasks of these unique vessels and their crews. They assist larger vessels in and out of tight places. They push and/or pull barges full of every conceivable commodity from garbage to petroleum. They cross oceans, tiptoe down the intracoastal waterway (there are 600 bridges between Virginia and Florida-most of them on bends) and navigate the narrow creeks of harbor cities. On 9/11 working tugs assisted the city fire boats in supplying water to fire fighters and ferried evacuees to New York.
The Ship and the Storm
by Jim Carrier
(Reviewed May 2001)
Hurricane Mitch (October '98) was a storm of surreal proportions, an unpredictable killer which blew for a month. The news sparked a great outpouring of concern and aid to the devastated Central American countries which were hit but there were also many vessels lost.
The aging 282' four masted schooner, Fantome, cruising the Gulf of Honduras was one. Purchased in 1969 by Mike Burke, the founder of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises of Miami who restored her and put her to work. In 1997 the Fantome was relocated from the Caribbean to the coast of Honduras to sail (and motor) her 128 passengers around the Bay Islands in the Western Caribbean.
Mitch makes its first appearance on page 17 as a "dark squall line over West Africa" called in the trade a "perturbation." Interviews with the staff of the Hurricane Research Lab in Miami, including pilots and scientists aboard numerous flights into the eye of the storm, provide Mitch's side of the story. Carrier also mines ham radio operators and users of local and internet sites for additional first hand information. The step by step account of Mitch's development forms the other side of the nerve-wracking cat and mouse game: the ship and the storm.
South With Endurance/The Photographs of Frank Hurley
(Reviewed December 2001)
South With Endurance, is an extraordinary volume of extraordinary photographs. Hurley was a pioneer in the commercial and artistic use of early-and cumbersome-cameras. He was also the masterful photojournalist who served as the expedition photographer on Sir Ernest Shackleton's (1914-1917) failed attempt to cross the Antarctic continent by way of the South Pole.
The existing photographs-all published together for the first time-record every disaster and defeat, every rescue and triumph. Dramatic night shots of the ice-bound Endurance, the heart-wrenching rubble she is reduced to after she is crushed, revealing portraits of the men, football games and sled dog races played out in a frozen white vacuum, the joyous arrival on horrific Elephant Island, and the departure and return of Shackleton with a rescue ship from South Georgia Island are a spectacular tribute to the human spirit and Hurley's talent.
Accompanying the photographs are well-crafted essays on Hurley's technique, tools and esthetic and a poignant biography of the little known Australian photographer. A succinct re-telling of the expedition story neatly sorts out the images, especially their chronology.
Taking on the World
by Ellen MacArthur
(Reviewed June 2003)
Ellen MacArthur the racer (sailing solo around the globe), revealed by MacArthur the writer comes across as one of the most guileless and genuine-not to mention, frighteningly determined person (what she calls "sheer bloody-mindedness")-ever to achieve sports celebrity. In the most matter of fact way, she beguiles us to share her total devotion to her sport.
The balance of the book is a day by day account of her round the world alone experience beginning with the incredible training necessary for any solo endeavor (electrician, engineer, sail maker, doctor). Incidents both sublime and terrifying are frequent. The number of times the woman was compelled to climb the 90 foot mast in a big sea for rigging repairs would make an ordinary person rather live in a cave. She makes no bones about it. There were a time or two she didn't think she'd make it back to the deck, let alone to the finish line.
A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time
by Douglas Whyknot
(Reviewed May 1999)
The book reports on the activity at the Brooklin (Maine) Boat Yard between June of 1996 and July, 1997 but it is much more than a simple chronological narrative. Boatyard owner, Joel White was the son of E. B. White-author of classic children's books (Charlotte's Web, for instance) and many dry and pithy essays for the New Yorker and other national publications. E.B. and Katherine White moved to Brooklin in the '30s and Joel attended the local grammar school. In the first chapter, "Launchings" the author deftly weaves the writings of the elder White into the activities of the boat yard, gently revealing the rich, watery childhood of Joel White and some the reasons he became a premier designer and builder of classic watercraft.
A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time is also an unintentional elegy. The week White and the author met for the first time, White had been diagnosed with cancer. His doctor had told him he was in the clear but over the course of the year of the book White endured all the nightmares of cancer treatment as well as hip replacement surgery with quiet optimism. When he wasn't undergoing "procedures" he was at the shop. He even showed the crew X-rays of his new hip, pointing out the "sheetrock screws" that were holding everything together. "He explained it just like any other repair job."