Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In the Heart of the Sea

Wow, what a difference a month makes. While I read seven books in January, I'll be lucky if I make even half that this month. So far, I've actually finished ONE book, but I am reading four right now, so there might be hope. I'm giving myself the excuse that February is the shortest month of the year, so in addition to screwing up my budgeting by being only 28 days, bringing next month's bills into this paycheck, it also makes it impossible to live up to January's impressive book consumption.

The book that I managed to finish this month is Nathaniel Philbrick's In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. My biggest challenge I had with this book was not referring to it by the name of the blue diamond from Titanic and calling it In the Heart of the Ocean because, as everyone knows, it all goes back to Titanic. As is mentioned in many reviews, the story of how the Nantucket whaleship Essex runs afoul of a angry sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is like an 19th century Titanic story, only without the Celine Dion bombast and nifty CG.

I wasn't sure I would like this book because I was afraid I would drown in a litany of unfamiliar sea-faring terms, indistinguishable characters and dry prose. I should have known better - it did win the National Book Award after all. Any book that can inspire a story like Moby Dick (no matter how impossible Moby Dick is to actually read) can't be all bad. What I got was a story that grabbed you instantly and really didn't let go of you at all. You learn a lot about whaling in the 1800s, the social system that existed on whaleships, as well as life back on Nantucket - which apparently consisted of plaster dildos since the men were gone to sea for sometimes as long as two years. (If you don't believe me about the plaster dildo, believe me, it's in there. Found hidden in a chimney of a 200 year old house on Nantucket. Truth is truly stranger than fiction, folks.)

The thing I really took away from this book is that no matter how bad you think your job is, being on a whaleship in the 1800s was worse. As if keeping a wooden sailing ship seaworthy wasn't hard enough, the killing of the whales really took the cake. I always thought that the harpoon killed the whale. Heck NO. Once harpooned, the whale had to be stabbed repeatedly, close to a cluster of arteries near the lung. Once these blood vessels were pierced, the blood would start blowing out the spout (referred to by whalers as "the chimney's on fire"), covering the crews in the small whaling boats that pursued the aquatic mammals. Harvesting the blubber and oil from the whale was enough to make your stomach turn.

But what really is at the heart of this book (pardon the pun) is the story of survival - or lack thereof - after the Essex is sunk by the whale. With the crew divided into two small whaling boats, they sailed some 3,000 miles around the south Pacific, with precious little food or water. I will always remember The Perfect Storm's gut-wrenching description of death by drowning, and in many ways, the descriptions of starvation and dehydration matched that in terms of detail. Throw in descriptions of the inevitable cannibalism on top of it and, really, how can you go wrong?

This was one of those books that I picked up on a whim and I sure am glad I did. If you're trying to decide between this and Moby Dick, trust me, Philbrick's book may not be as famous, but it's infinitely better. The only thing it was missing was Celine.


digital_sextant said...

I've really enjoyed Philbrick's other books, particularly SEA OF GLORY. Caroline Alexander's book, THE BOUNTY: THE REAL STORY OF THE MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY is similarly good, and has two very long and very hungry trips across the ocean.

mary35 said...

Anything, anything is better than Moby Dick.