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On Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea”

24 Feb

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

Certain events in human history become something more than just a popular story or a factoid in a text book. Some events become growing, breathing, pulsing legends that inspire a nation, a world, a host of writers and filmmakers. This is the story of a whale that rejected its role as the prey of men, and the story of men who refused to sink under the brutal forces of the elements. In the nonfiction history In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the true and epic tale of the survivors of the Essex and their battle against an angry whale and the deadly indifference of nature.

Everyone has heard of Moby-Dick. Whether or not everyone has attempted to read Herman Melville’s 700-page book is another matter, but the story of the ship-killing white whale and the Ahab, captain of the Pequod, maddened by his hunt for revenge is as well-known in American lore as George Washington and the cherry tree or Rosa Parks at the front of a Montgomery bus. Few people, though, know about the story that inspired Melville’s literary classic. The story of the Nantucket ship Essex, its destruction at the proverbial hands of a whale, and the struggle for survival of its sailors is told at length in Philbrick’s book, mostly through the two pointedly differing memoirs of the ship’s first mate Owen Chase and the cabin boy Thomas Nickerson.

Philbrick builds the context of our main cast through lengthy descriptions of Nantucket’s singular culture and history. An island off the south coast of Cape Cod and east of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket is geographically isolated and therefore culturally detached from the mainland, and from early on in the history of its of white settlers, developed its living on a foundation of whaling.

The island of Nantucket didn't need to be large to sustain one of the most formidable fleets of whaleships American had ever seen. (Photo from

The island of Nantucket didn’t need to be large to sustain one of the most formidable fleets of whaleships American had ever seen. (Photo from

In the 19th Century, Nantucket’s “living” became an empire in the whaling industry–a veritable force of nature–that put all other whaling towns to shame through a combination of Quaker-based business sense and Spartan-like cultural indoctrination that idolized its whalers above all other professions. A famous Nantucket drinking toast tells all there is about the place of whaling in daily life:

“Death to the living, long life to the killers, success to sailors’ wives, and greasy luck to sailors.”

Not only does the toast speak to the bravado of the sailing profession but also to the conflict that lived within each Nantucketer, especially those of the Quaker religion. Philbrick subtly sets the stage for a whole story about paradoxes: the Quakers’ religion versus their livelihoods (“pacifist killers, plain-dressed millionaires”), and the predatory role of the whalers in stark relief against their utter helplessness at the hands of heartless sea.

When the Essex left Nantucket in 1820, no one was expecting a Disney cruise with an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, but the sailors expected a normal, if rigorous, voyage out into the whaling grounds of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The ship, though, was under command of an easygoing, new captain and therefore crewed by the leftover sailors more experienced and entitled captains didn’t want, and from the outset, the Essex found itself under duress, whether from fluke weather or poor leadership or the combination thereof. Life on a whaleship was nothing close to easy, and the sailors who crewed such a ship put their lives at risk on a regular basis, but the Essex, at the hands of its rookie captain, seemed doomed from the start. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 3,000 miles from the nearest continent, the 240-ton ship fell victim to the very animal on which it was built to prey: a male sperm whale. A single act by this bull whale–colliding head first into the Essex and sinking it–shook the whalers to their collective core, not only because it left them stranded in a handful of smaller vessels in the middle of the ocean, but also because it was a reversal in nature: in one haunting moment, the prey becomes hunter, and the men of the Essex become helpless victims at the cold hands of nature.

Cutting in (Photo by Marion Smith, 1902, from "Curious Expeditions")

Several decades after the Essex occurrence, whalers are here seen “cutting in.” Whale ships were floating factories, always on the move to find their next victims, on which the valuable blubber and spermaceti were rendered. (Photo by Marion Smith, 1902, from “Curious Expeditions”)

In Philbrick’s methodical, nearly scientific tone, he recounts the events after the Essex collapses into so much flotsam. Twenty men in three boats and enough provisions for 60 days set sail for land. The men attempt to stay together against all odds, finding comfort in the company of other human bodies in the horrific vastness of the sea–suddenly much vaster without the shelter of their well-provisioned whaleship. Eventually, though, the ships are separated, and each lonely island of men is on their own with dwindling supplies of bread and water and no GPS to guide them toward safety. The paths they take and the methods they use to survive fall under Philbrick’s careful, balanced scrutiny, but the direction of this story of harrowing survival can only end in one way. It’s inevitable. There’s a reason Philbrick titled it a tragedy, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from one of the greatest and most universal of taboos: cannibalism. All I have to say is make sure you’re not sitting down to a dinner of rare steak while you’re reading this, because you might need to go vegetarian for a while.

Listening to ItHotS on audio book felt a little like listening to a long Radiolab episode. Philbrick makes a commendable effort to integrate the story line of the Essex‘s crew members and their survival story with interesting factoids on the toll of starvation on the human body, or the customs of islanders in the region of ocean through which the Nantucketers sailed, or the speculation of “what could have been” if only one pivotal choice or another had been made.

Later this year, when the Ron Howard film adaptation is released, we will see how much of this graphic and tragic story is shown on screen. Philbrick’s retelling of the Essex story seems to do justice to a history where so much detail may have been lost, edited, or redacted, but he continued throughout the book to ask questions and pry at the story’s chinks and holes. Undoubtedly, with blockbuster names like Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy on the marquee, the film version of In the Heart of the Sea will be much more valiant and much less grotesque.

Read It: In the Heart of the Sea combines the most entertaining elements of Nantucket whalers’ contextual history, the documented events from Essex‘s sailors, and speculation. The book still doesn’t include the artistry of a novel, but most readers will be caught up in this thrilling plot to notice. Readers interested in this era of American history will be totally engrossed and, since the story of the Essex is at heart the story of the human will to survive and the transformation of “civilized” people in the face of an indifferent Nature, most anyone will find something to love in this tale.

Don’t Read It: You should know to steer clear if you’re not a fan of nonfiction or of history books, but you may not know that ItHotS is no jolly cruise or an episode of Gilligan’s Island. The story itself is brutal and Philbrick doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to the graphic detail involved with the sailors’ methods of survival. The prospect of a slow, painful death by starvation and exposure does frightening things to the human body and the human moral code. This book is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

Similar Books: I feel like I recommend this book a lot, and that may be due to my limited list of nonfiction books under my reading belt, but it could also be due to the fact that it’s an awesome book, but David Grann’s The Lost City of Z is a great example of an adventurous nonfiction book that unfolds the mystery of a city of gold and the myth of a legendary explorer. It is a little heavier on the anthropology, and it won’t leave you with Philbrick’s sense of closure. The Revenant by Michael Punke is a novel but is based heavily on actual events. In this story of survival, Hugh Glass survives the impossible in a battle that pitches a fragile human against the ferocity of the American frontier.

Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)


On Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates”

18 Jul

Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates [2008] tells a very different story of the foundation of current day American than the one we're accustomed to hearing.

Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates [2008] tells a very different story of the foundation of current day American than the one we’re accustomed to hearing.

Even having lived in New England for four years, I rarely thought about how this country was founded. The cobblestone in Providence and the patina-covered historical society plaques on every other building foundation in Boston seemed quaint at the time, but I was more interested in hunting for a decent cup of coffee through the forests of Dunkin’ Donuts than studying landmarks. And what little understanding remained of the development of these United States of America, our Puritan forefathers, and the birth of American culture was handily overturned by Sarah Vowell’s quick-witted, nonfiction history The Wordy Shipmates.

Students in U.S. public schools are used to the story of the pilgrims–some of the first English settlers to emigrate to the shores of New England. In elementary school, I understood the pilgrims to be happy-go-lucky explorers, chowing down on turkey cylindrical hunks of cranberry sauce with Squanto, and I spent six years making hand-traced turkeys on construction paper. In high school, I learned that the pilgrims were bunch of evil, racist land thieves who ruined the best parts of this land. Vowell tells a more balanced story. She rightly points out that we in U.S. live in a world created by Puritans, whether we like it or not, and explores the culture and consequences of John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony in a way my third grade teacher and my bland high school text books never could.

Emigrating from England to America was like booking passage on a coffin to leave a cesspool of sin (as Winthrop's folks thought of it) for a wilderness of unknown horrors and certain death.

Emigrating from England to America was like booking passage on a vomitty coffin to leave the cesspool of sin that was England for a wilderness of unknown horrors and certain death. Just another day in the life.

From the beginnings of Puritan unrest in mother England to the voyage of the Arbella, from the seeds of American dissent to the horrors of the Pequot War, Vowell bounces through her research, carried along with her sardonic humor. John Winthrop leaves England for New England on his flagship Arbella, preaching on the long journey across the pond that his people are the modern Israelites, tasked with holy mission of being America’s “city on a hill.” It’s a quote from the Bible, and it’s an image that will follow the U.S. through its history as a nation.

Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was Boston, and the foundation of this colony still influences us today. Vowell’s recognition of this and inclusion of Winthrop’s far reaching touch on American society gives TWS a fun narrative: Winthrop banishes a heretic to Plymouth, and the Reagan administration sells guns in South America; Roger Williams prints some strongly worded pamphlets, and Vowell takes her nephew to a museum; Anne Hutchinson gets tossed out of Boston for leading a Bible study in her home, and JFK becomes the first Catholic elected to the U.S. presidency. Vowell’s begrudging respect for the Puritans is made plain. She identifies with them, she respects them, she finds comfort in their words despite it all:

“… in the weeks after two planes crashed into two skyscrapers here on the worst day of our lives, I found comfort in the words of Winthrop. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant.”

It is, in fact, all about words: the Boston charter, Winthrop’s lengthy sermons, the Magna Carta that laid the groundwork for the impending American Revolution, and John Cotton’s pamphlet war with the notorious Roger Williams. The words of the Bible inspired the Puritans, drove them to become the people who they were with such strength that our ears are still ringing with their passionate sermons. Their words and their books founded Harvard and set the precedent for America’s higher education. Their words made peace and made war. It’s the witty words of Sarah Vowell, though, that wrap up everything–all the historical facts and sermon quotes and droll judgments–in the pretty bow of her understanding of current affairs, and it’s this contextualization and personalization that makes TWS a compelling read.

"It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island ... Rhode Island was purchased by love."

“It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island … Rhode Island was purchased by love.” -Roger Williams, after the Narragansett presented him with the whole state of Rhode Island as a gift.

Read it if … you enjoy nonfiction history, obviously. But also read it if you primarily read fiction, like me, but are looking for something new. Vowell’s snarky prose and winding storytelling keeps TWS interesting throughout, and creates a gently arcing narrative that is easily accessible for novel enthusiasts.

Don’t read it if … you have no interest in early U.S. history. Vowell’s dry humor can only carry one’s interest so far. You may want to steer clear, too, if you’re set on either pedastalizing or demonizing the Puritan settlers. Vowell gives an honest account of their lives and strives to humanize John Winthrop and his constituents. If you are some kind of fervent Calvinist, you may dislike the way Vowell criticizes the Puritan lifestyle of constant fear and self-hatred. If you still hold a multi-generational grudge against the English colonists for ruining everything, you may not like the way Vowell maintains her respect for the Puritans’ resilience, resourcefulness, and occasional compassion.

This book is like … Dean Olsher’s From Square One, a fun exploration of the art of crossword puzzles–both creating them and completing them. While the subject matter is completely different, the execution is fairly similar. And just for kicks, here’s what I wrote in the first line, which apparently still holds true, of my review of Olsher’s nonfiction book that I published in December, 2012:

“I don’t always read non-fiction. But when I do, I read about a topic I love and it’s written by a former correspondent for NPR.”

Sarah Vowell is also a long time commentator on NPR's popular radio series "This American Life." It's no wonder her writing is imbued with that cheeky cadence we're so used to hearing on public radio.

Sarah Vowell is also a long time commentator on NPR’s popular series This American Life. It’s no wonder her writing is imbued with that cheeky cadence we’re so used to hearing on public radio.

What gets you to read nonfiction? Is it your natural state of reading? Do you need inspiration or a gun to your head? Tell me in the comments below!

On Haruki Murakami’s “Underground”

12 Sep
Murakami doesn't delve into non-fiction very often, so take the opportunity to check it out!

Murakami doesn’t delve into non-fiction very often, so take the opportunity to check it out!

Early on the morning of March 20, 1995, a small group of religious terrorists destroyed the tranquility and self-assurance of life in Japan with a deadly attack on the Tokyo Subway. Five members of Aum Shinrikyo, at the urging of their leader Shoko Asahara, punctured bags of liquid sarin in passenger cars during the morning commute. The result among the passengers was panic, loss of vision, seizures, thousands injured, and thirteen dead. These were Japanese citizens killing Japanese citizens in the worst attack on the country’s soil since World War II. The author Haruki Murakami, already famous, returned to Japan after years living in Europe and America to investigate the aftermath of the Tokyo Gas Attack, to learn who the Japanese are, and to find out what went wrong. The result is Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, a collection of lengthy interviews with sarin victims, remaining family members, and members of the notorious Aum Shinrikyo cult.

Murakami’s fiction style tends to be fantastical, fabulistic, highly symbolic–filled with images of dark spaces and disappearing characters. His voice is noticeably toned down in Underground, letting the victims weave a narrative without his influence. After an interview with a victim’s widow, Murakami laments the shortcomings of his words:

“My parting words were pretty lame–‘Please be healthy and happy’ or something like that–I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Words can be practically useless at times, but as a writer they’re all I have.”

The interviewees consist of members of every part of Japanese society–retail workers, company men, doctors–but the story remains: the gas attacks from that day in March made a lasting affect on everyone. It changed the ways people think. It changed the ways people travel (some victims won’t step on the subway again; I know I wouldn’t). One victim lost her memory and ability to speak. After something so horrific, recovery is a long road.

With five different points of origin, the sarin attacks  caused confusion all over Tokyo. First responders were swamped. The city's systems were overwhelmed.

With five different points of origin, the sarin attacks caused confusion all over Tokyo. First responders were swamped. The city’s systems were overwhelmed.

Then there is the prevailing question we’re left with: why? Why did Aum Shinrikyo attack innocent citizens? Why did Aum even exist? Why did this particular attack have such lasting, devastating affects on society? Murakami finishes Part One of the book with musings on just that:  “The Aum ‘phenomenom’ disturbs precisely because it is not someone else’s affair. It shows us a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen.” The members of Aum who participated in the Gas Attack weren’t foreigners waging war. They were Japanese. They existed in the same system as the people they killed and injured. But Murakami sees them as darker reflections of what is considered the moral or positive side of Japanese culture. On one hand, you have a culture based on financial success, familial stability, upward career mobility. On the other hand, you have the renunciates of Aum, who reject materialism, and ultimately rejected themselves in favor of the stronger ideals of their leader, Shoko Asahara.

The Aum cult leader, Shoko Asahara, was described by his followers as being powerful, charismatic, even prophetic. After the attacks, Asahara was arrested and sentenced to death. He is still awaiting his execution today. (Image from The Telegraph)

The Aum cult leader, Shoko Asahara, was described by his followers as being powerful, charismatic, even prophetic. After the attacks, Asahara was arrested and sentenced to death. He is still awaiting his execution today. (In Asahara, I see where Murakami drew his inspiration for his cult leader in the 2009 novel 1Q84.) (Image from The Telegraph)

In Part Two of Underground, Murakami interviews both active and former members of the cult. Many of them grew up feeling alienated from their peers or were drifters even in adulthood, and were drawn in by the confidence instilled in them by this new, powerful movement. People lacking proper egos or who have no egos, Murakami explains, give themselves over to the narratives of strong storytellers. The members of Aum found Asahara. Suddenly, Underground becomes almost a cautionary tale: how not to get sucked in by a cult. It makes you rethink your role as a member of your own society–who you have ostracized, who you push to extremes. I can’t imagine the heartbreak of family left behind or the trauma felt by the victims. Murakami spent months interviewing people and even he is left with a sense of wonder. The Tokyo Gas Attack is a break in narrative, in my book, and it is beyond my understanding, and that’s what makes this event and Murakami’s Underground, so tragic and so terrifying.

“Now a narrative is a story, not logic, nor ethics, nor philosophy. It is a dream you keep having, whether you realize it or not. … And in these stories you wear two faces. You are simultaneously subject and object. … It is through such multilayering of roles in our stories that we heal the loneliness of being an isolated individual in the world.”

On Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City”

13 Aug
Pick yourself up a copy. If you can't find it at your local book store, get it here!

Pick yourself up a copy. If you can’t find it at your local book store, get it here!

My recent phase of reading outside my comfy box (which is made mostly of Victorian novels and 14-book fantasy series these days) has now extended to non-fiction! Specifically, non-fiction about Chicago. I finally picked up a copy of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, upon strong recommendations from a good friend, and I’m glad I did! (I also picked up Sin in the Second City, so look out for Chicago non-fiction installation #2!)

This is the story of two architects, tested on the sooty, soiled grounds of late-19th Century Chicago: Daniel Burnham, an architect of buildings in the age of steel and the director of works of the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; and H.H. Holmes, an architect of manipulation, murder, and the macabre who killed dozens of people while staying hidden from the police, just blocks away from the fair’s entrances–both were equally ambitious and worked incessantly toward their respective goals. At the World’s Fair, they represented the city’s two faces: the White City and the hell hole, the symbol of hope and the harbinger of horror.

The beginning of the book may seem a bit disjointed–jumping from Burnham’s story line to Holmes’s and some seemingly disconnected players–but this simply adds to the fascinating coincidences that summed up to those fateful months in 1893. Larson manages to make me feel that fascination, that awe, Chicagoans must have felt during this time. Out of all the events, in all the cities, in all the world, Holmes has to walk into this one and use it as his murdering grounds.

The fair was a city unto itself. (Image from

Holmes found the bustle of this world microcosm to be the perfect hunting ground. No one would notice if a girl or two disappeared out of the teeming crowd of hundreds of thousands of tourists. (Image from

The Chicago of the late 19th Century was the breeding ground of innovation. Specifically, the World’s Columbian Exposition was the setting for numerous debuts of human ingenuity: Ferris Wheels, spray paint, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Shredded Wheat, and the Dewey Decimal System, to name a few. But first, Burnham and his team of planners and builders had to overcome waves of harrowing obstacles. Everything from rainstorms to unexpected, tragic deaths to funding trouble came close to keeping Chicago’s World’s Fair from being built. After it was built, everything from fires and economic collapse and skepticism came close to keeping the fair from succeeding. The evidence of Larson’s loving research is astounding. The detail he uses in building the reader’s image of the fair is what makes TDitWC worth your while.

The man himself: Daniel Burnham, Director of Works and creator of the impossible. He had his flaws, too, but we don't need to bother with them too much.

The man himself: Daniel Burnham, Director of Works and creator of the impossible. He had his flaws, too, but we don’t need to bother with them too much.

Of course, if you’re a crime fiend like me, it may be the details of Holmes’s blooming psychopathy that makes you fall in love with this book. H.H. Holmes, born as Herman Webster Mudgett, comes to Chicago already an accomplished swindler. In this new city, growing like a weed, Holmes finds room to stretch his wings. Holmes conned his way into accruing wealth and eventually building a three-story monstrosity that many called “the castle.” This gloomy building with haphazard hallways, windowless rooms, and hidden air ducts became the center of Holmes’s web of deceit. He began extending his feelers, laying his traps–his quest to conquer human lives–just as Burnham begins his to conquer the hearts of Americans with the nascent Columbian Fair. It’s strange to see the parallels. Both men want to gain utter control over their prey. They want to enrapture people, gain power over them, control their hopes and quell their doubts. Burnham wants to accomplish this through the artistry of architecture, throwing millions into reverie at what humankind can accomplish in an impossibly short amount of time. Holmes wants to seduce people with his charm and control their lives, and eventually control their deaths.

The man himself: H.H. Holmes. To look at him, you wouldn't suspect him, but that was the point.

The man himself: H.H. Holmes. To look at him, you wouldn’t suspect him, but that was the point.

Holmes finds his perfect setting in seedy Chicago. Larson quotes a madam of the time as saying, “I think Rome at its worst had nothing on Chicago during those lurid days,” and if anyone knows the real meaning of lurid, it would be a woman of the industry. In this younger, nastier Rome, Holmes drew in dozens of women into his confidences (and sometimes into his bed) only to catch him in his web. He luxuriated in his victims’ utter trust and then utter panic at the moment they realized their doom. All this in stark contrast to the game-changing, awe-inspiring fair just a couple of hundred yards away.

The great Ferris Wheel  towers over the White City. In just a single week, tickets to ride the wheel made over $400,00 in today's equivalent. (Image from

The great Ferris Wheel towers over the White City. In just a single week, tickets to ride the wheel made over $400,00 in today’s equivalent. (Image from

The Fair was more than a spectacle of industry or even the spawning ground for innovation, but it truly was a magical land–despite the grime of millions (pre-filtered water! pre-modern hygienic practices!). The White City was a place where people of all classes and ilk could mingle, where the world leaders could stand in awe at the same sights with the poorest of the poor. Holmes himself attended multiple times, bringing some of his victims, and it’s possible he may have run into any number of the era’s sainted inventors, like Nikola Tesla or Thomas Edison or maybe Daniel Burnham himself. I wouldn’t want to give spoilers, but some of the miraculous byproducts of the World’s Fair brought me to tears, and Larson’s incredible juxtaposition of Holmes’s darkness with the Fair’s efforts toward hope and the future just emphasizes where humanity’s true beauty shines through. This isn’t to say Larson is some kind of Humanist or throws an unfair, positive spin on this epic tale, and there were countless negative repercussions of something so grandiose. I know only that I didn’t come away from this reading experience feeling bogged by the fear of serial killers or disgust at heartless capitalism; I have come away satiated, more knowledgeable, and thrilled at reading more Chicago history.

Then I was like, "Oh, I want to see it, too!" And then I was like, "Aw, they burned it to the ground." Goodbye, ethereal beauty. But thank goodness for photography and Erik Larson!

Then I was like, “Oh, I want to see it, too!” And then I was like, “Aw, they burned it to the ground.” Goodbye, ethereal beauty. But thank goodness for photography and Erik Larson!

On Olsher’s “From Square One”

10 Dec

from_square_one.largeI don’t always read non-fiction.

But when I do, I read about a topic I love and it’s written by a former correspondent for NPR.

“From Square One” is a lovely, quick read. It’s more an interesting memoir about a personal relationship with crosswords than an historical account or a philosophical explication of crossword puzzles. Olsher writes like any good radio personality speaks: never overbearing and when humorous is wittily so–those kinds of punchlines that hit you two sentences later and make you chortle to yourself even when you’re in public.

Everyone goes to crossword puzzles for different reasons, the way everyone goes to alcohol for different reasons, but we all have overlapping habits to some extent (for example, Olsher and I both make a personal rule for easier Monday/Tuesday puzzles: we only allow ourselves to solve words attached to the Across-1), the way lots of alcoholics have overlapping extraneous habits (for example, always following one drink with a second drink, or whatever alcoholics do). In any case, Olsher’s personal anecdotes and his interviews/encounters with other crossword enthusiasts comforted me with a feeling of solidarity. They also challenged me to exercise my mind more. They also depressed me with a reminder that there are people like 20-year-old Tyler Hinman who can finish a Saturday “Times” puzzle in just over four minutes. (I think my personal record is thirteen words on Saturday.)

“FSO” reads easily, and if it does anything for you, it will surely make you want to go out and buy a newspaper.