Monday, December 14, 2009
Row, Row, Row Your Book
Boats are the ultimate plot device. The varieties are endless—rowboat, tugboat, eighteenth century schooner, luxury cruise liner. The characters are endless—sailor, stowaway, first class passenger, captain. The dangers are endless too—ocean crossings, mutiny, shipwreck, storms. This means, of course, that the opportunities for excellent books about rowboats, captains, and shipwrecks are endless. Mystery, adventure, historical fiction—boats float it all. Whether you hoist a sail or scrub a deck, a book about a boat makes for a swimmingly good read.
Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!) by Jerome K. Jerome, 2005, Penguin Books, originally published 1889 (Classic Fiction/ Humor)
Boats are funny. Especially when they’re packed full of hampers of food, fishing gear, three lazy Victorian gentlemen, and a dog. This comic travelogue recounts the misadventures of Jerome K. Jerome and his two companions George and Harris (three if you count the dog Montmorency) as they paddle down the River Thames in an open boat. When they’re not falling in the river or getting into scrapes with dogs, swans, and other boaters, Jerome finds time wax poetical about the world around him, making timely, comic, and thoughtful observations that still resonate over one hundred years later. There's an equally charming sequel about another fateful boating down a river, Three Men on the Bummel.
The African Queen by C.S. Forester, 2000, Little, Brown and Co., originally published 1935 (Classic Fiction/ Adventure)
You might know The African Queen as an excellent old movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. This is the book that film is based on, and it’s every bit as good even without Bogie and Kate. They play Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer, a burned-out trader with a beat-up old steamboat and a stern, no-nonsense missionary’s sister. Rose is indignant with anger at the World War I German threat to the British way of life (even in the heart of the African jungle), and Mr. Allnutt is the unlucky fellow who gets roped into her outrageous plan. But first, they have to get their boat, the African Queen, down the river past rapids, waterfalls, malaria-ridden swamps, and German outposts. They also have to get to know each other—alone, in the jungle, on a rickety old boat. C.S. Forester knows boats and adventure, and what’s more, he knows character, dialogue, and human nature. The film’s pairing of Bogart of Hepburn is excellent and the novel has hidden depths that Hollywood left out; together, the book and film are excellent companions. Try them both.
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester, 1998, Back Bay Books, originally published 1948 (Classic Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Adventure)
C.S. Forester decidedly had a thing for adventures on boats. The African Queen is a stand-alone title that has stood the test of time; the Horatio Hornblower series make up his best-known work. Set during the Napoleonic Wars and beginning in 1793, the first novel introduces readers to Horatio Hornblower, here an inexperienced boy but eventually one of the most fondly remembered adventurers in all of western literature. There’s a helluva squall blowing when a gawky seventeen-year-old lad climbs aboard the Justinian to report for duty as midshipman in charge of cargo. It’s a lowly position, but once he gets his sea legs, young Mr. Hornblower is more than ready to prove his worth as an able-bodied seaman of the first class. First, however, he has to survive and thrive through a number of interesting episodes that vary from everyday duties and interactions onboard a ship to full-fledged sea battles for the glory of the British Empire. The Hornblower series continues with this green young man developing into a hard-headed, soft-hearted, beloved hero through eleven novels that detail the grand adventure of life at sea.
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, 1990, W.W. Norton Books, originally published 1969 (Historical Fiction/ Adventure)
Patrick O’Brian’s Captain Jack Aubrey is the direct descendant of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower. Aubrey is another British naval officer during the Napoleonic era with a multi-book series, but O’Brian is writing seven decades later and focusing as much on the development of the friendship between Captain Aubrey and Dr. Steven Maturin as he does on sea-faring adventure and historical detail. Readers love Aubrey and Maturin and their series has been compared in terms of depth and complexity to the works of Jane Austen and Tolstoy. In this first novel, Aubrey has just received his first command onboard the man-of-war Sophie. Along with ship’s physician Maturin, Aubrey sets sail to accompany a convoy of merchant vessels and then to patrol independently for enemy ships from Spain and France. The Sophie is a bit out-of-date, but Aubrey is eager to improve his ship and his crew is determined to prove their mettle. Maturin has never sailed before; O’Brian uses his inexperience to fill in the gaps about life on board a warship in the 18th century for the reader as well. The result is a series of novels in which historical fast is seamlessly intertwined with superior plotting and subtle character development.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel, 2001, Harcourt Books (Literary Fiction)
It’s one thing to be shipwrecked and cast out to see in a small lifeboat. It’s another thing entirely if your only surviving shipmate is a 450-pound tiger named Richard Parker who takes up most of the lifeboat. Yet this is exactly the situation a young boy named Pi Patel faces when his ship, carrying his emigrating zookeeper family and a few select members of their menagerie from India to Canada, burns and sinks. For the rest of the book, we’re left with four characters—young Pi, who has to keep the tiger happy to keep himself alive; the tiger, completely at a loss when it comes to life at sea but still ferociously hungry; the twenty-two-foot boat they live on; and the relentless open sea. Pi is a curious, clever boy who has adopted several of the world’s major religions—Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism—as his own. Pi will need all his wits, knowledge, and faith to stay alive as his boat drifts across the sea, but his ordeal and his bright, sharp observations make the outlandish story real and memorable. Blurring the line between stark reality and wishful thinking, Life of Pi is a modern fable and a storytelling marvel
English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, 2000, Random House (Historical Fiction/ Literary Fiction)
In 1857, Captain Illium Quillian Kewley is a rum smuggler. In order to lend an air of respectability to their escape from the clutches of suspicious customs officials, Captain Kewley and his crew take on three English passengers who are headed down under to Tasmania to find the original site of the Garden of Eden. This is the pet theory of Reverend Wilson; Dr. Potter is looking for supporting evidence for his sinister theories about the races of men. These guys are only slightly less odd than Captain Kewley and his rag-tag crew, who are currently on one of the worst runs of luck this side of the British Isles. Of course, it could be argued that the aboriginal groups of Australia and Tasmania have it really bad—they are being systematically hunted down, rounded up, and “civilized” by self-righteous colonialists. Peevay is one of these aborigines, a young boy whose greatest skill is his ability to endure. Kneale’s characters take turns narrating their stories, and they are distinct characters indeed. Captain Kewley is a clever rascal, Revered Wilson is priggish and sanctimonious, and Peevay has a powerful ability to observe. Author Matthew Kneale won the prestigious Whitbread Award (renamed the Costa Award in 2002) for this novel, and it’s a masterpiece of narrative voice that will make readers laugh and cry. The plotlines of Kewley’s ship and passengers are on a collision course with those of Peevay and the aborigines and settlers on Tasmania; the results of their meeting are the stuff great novels are made of.
The Terror by Dan Simmons, 2007, Back Bay Books (Fiction/ Thriller/ Horror)
In the 1840s, two ships carrying two hundred men disappeared while searching for the Northwest Passage. In The Terror, author Dan Simmons re-imagines what happened to them in a spooky blend of historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and above all, horror. Because what happens to the men of the two ships the Terror and the Erebus is this: They sail farther into unknown territory in their day than ever before; the effects of extreme cold in the far north play havoc on the minds of the men; scurvy, starvation, snow-blindness, and botulism put a real damper on the adventure aspect of the expedition; and a mysterious creature bigger than a polar bear and twice as fierce (the men call it the Thing) is stalking the expedition as the ships lay locked in the ice. Narrated by several characters, including alcoholic-but-effective Captain Crozier, The Terror is an atmospheric novel of suspense that’s supported by meticulous historical research. The frigid wilderness of the barren north becomes as much a character as any of the people (or monsters), and the many mysterious unknowns and stark realities will start to weigh as much on the minds of readers as they do on the sailors in the books. Stay warm while you read this page-turner—it’ll hold you in gripping suspense until the very end.
A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes, 1989, A.A. Knopf Books (Literary Fiction)
It’s amazing how many histories of the world can be conveyed through trips and journeys, but that’s precisely what author Julian Barnes does here in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. Not every chapter is about a nautical voyage, but some of the most compelling include a stowaway’s point-of-view on Noah’s Ark, the hijacking of a tourist yacht by pirate-like terrorists, a desperate woman’s attempt to escape on a raft from a world of radioactive fallout, a meditation on the historical events and painted depiction of the wreck of an 18th century ship called the Medusa, and an American astronaut’s search for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat. The stories are often only connected by apparent chance; the so-called patterns of history are little more than coincidental connections and random links. But the voices from these chapters echo loud and strong, providing a thought-provoking, unconventional, and utterly original set of stories.
Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, 2007, Black Dog and Leventhal, originally published 1937 (Mystery)
Agatha Christie is the queen of the “locked room” mystery, and a boat is the ultimate locked room. Unless you’ve got a murderer willing to jump ship into watery depths, the suspect has to be onboard. This is the situation dapper detective Hercule Poirot finds when he boards a steamer ship to travel in slow luxury up the Nile River into the land of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. His traveling companions include lovely young heiress Linnet Doyle and her handsome new but working-class husband. And shadowing them is Mr. Doyle’s ex-fiancé, Jackie, the girl he dropped to marry wealth and beauty. When Linnet winds up dead in her bed one morning, Jackie seems like the obvious candidate for murder—except that she has an ironclad alibi. Everyone, it seems, has an ironclad alibi, but no one is a match for Agatha Christie’s meticulous, observant Hercule Poirot and his “little grey cells.” This is one of Christie’s best and most popular whodunits and it’s got it all—ingenious plot, suspects a-plenty, exotic locale, glamour, romance, and a boat to boot.
The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander, 1998, A.A. Knopf Books (Nonfiction/ Antarctic Exploration/ 20th Century British History)
In 1914, Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition left port for the South Pole. Led by renowned polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, this crew of twenty-seven men lived aboard the Endurance, a fine ship specially made to withstand the heavy iceberg-filled seas of the southern hemisphere. Their goal was to be the first men to cross Antarctica on foot, a final accomplishment to cement Britain’s reputation and to boost moral when World War I was fast approaching. They didn’t make it. The ice-cold seas of the south closed in and froze solid around the Endurance, eventually crushing the ship to splinters and leaving the crew adrift on the ice floes—until the weather got warmer, and the ice started to melt. Even if the crew reached land, they were still thousands of miles from even the most remote outpost of civilization—with only a couple of barely sea-worthy life boats to their names. Author Caroline Alexander (who also curated an exhibit about the Endurance) brilliantly re-creates Shackleton’s journey through historical accounts, first-hand accounts from journals and expedition records, and lots of striking photographs (previously unpublished) by ship’s photographer Frank Hurley. All the crew members emerge fully-fledged, with personalities, strengths, and weaknesses that make them entirely real characters with whom readers will feel a true camaraderie and sense of adventure.
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord, 2005, Henry Holt and Co., originally published 1955 (Nonfiction/ Titanic/ 20th Century History)
Author Walter Lord was obsessed with the story of the Titanic since the since age ten, so when he grew up, he poured over document, interview, and shred of evidence he could find to put together this riveting account of the most famous shipwreck in history. From how the ship was built (“unsinkable”) and how it looked (complete with a French side-walk café) to first-hand accounts from the Titanic’s first-class millionaires, third-class steerage passengers, and able-bodied crew, A Night to Remember is moment-by-moment drama and suspense—even when we already know the tragic outcome. Lord’s account pays special attention the rigid social class system that existed on the Titanic (and in the larger world) and to the out-dated emergency procedures that kept the number of life boats to a minimum and resulted in the deaths of more half the people on board. There are accounts of heroism here as well as acts of cowardice; millionaires stoically deciding to go down with the ship while hundreds of steerage passengers, trapped below decks, never get the opportunity to make such a decision. That moving contrast is precisely what has made the Titanic first and final disaster so memorable and Walter Lord’s book is still the finest account of the grand ship’s first and final voyage.