Summer Doldrums? These Nautical Reads Will Put Wind In Your Sails
If books float your boat, we've got just the thing: magical barge battles, the search for the Northwest Passage and a trans-Atlantic cruise that follows in Geoffrey Chaucer's footsteps. Also pirates!
Who needs destinations? This summer, we're focusing on the journey. All these books — some old, some new — will transport you: by train, plane, car, bike, boat, foot, city transit, horse, balloon, rocket ship, time machine and even the odd giant peach. Bon voyage! (Taxes and fees not included.)
I take up my digital device in this year of grace, and go back to the time when a fictional schooner, the Hispaniola, set sail in search of buried treasure. While the journey that narrator Jim Hawkins makes with Long John Silver, Dr. Livesey and the rest of the crew is relatively uneventful, what happens once they reach their destination is anything but. Batten down the hatches and whisk yourself away from a foggy corner of England to a solitary, windswept island guarding a secret or two. Thirty-four short chapters — Treasure Island was originally published in serial installments — make for a quick read in which you'll become well acquainted with fo'c'sle hands, cutlasses, a talking parrot named Cap'n Flint and many (oh, so many) bottles of rum. By the end, even the most dedicated landlubber will smell the sea. (If you want to be truly transported, find a copy with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth.)
-- Mary Glendinning, NPR Library staff
Ship Of Fools
You could say that Katherine Anne Porter's novel is part of the same literary tradition as Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: A group of travelers, strangers to each other, embark on a journey and gradually learn each other's stories. In this case, there are miles of ocean in which to uncover the vanities, prejudices, delusions, illusions and (very occasionally) nobility of the fellow travelers. Porter sets her novel in the years leading up to World War II — specifically August 1931 — on a ship sailing from Mexico to Germany. The anxious passengers all believe they're "bound for a place for some reason more desirable than the place they were leaving." The title says it all: a ship of fools. Ethnicities (Mexicans, Germans, a German Jew, Spaniards, Americans) rub against one another, as do classes (what Porter calls the "white linen class," a Spanish dancing troupe, American honeymooners). Ultimately, when they reach their destinations, they have little awareness of the violence and devastation they'll meet with in the years ahead. But we do.
-- Deborah George, senior editor, Arts Desk
In a touching autobiography, Allen Say takes a clear-eyed look at his grandfather's journey to America. Say's grandfather is a young man when he leaves Japan and sails across the Pacific Ocean, later exploring the country by train, riverboat and on foot. Eventually, he returns home to Japan to marry and start his family. Later, as an old man, he longs to return to the United States, and his favorite place — California. But he never does. Say follows in his grandfather's footsteps and eventually settles in America until he himself is a father. Evocative paintings of muted hues perfectly complement the elegant, spare text that says so much without being oversentimental. No matter what your family history, this Caldecott-winning tale offers a universality all can relate to. (For ages 4 to 8)
-- Lisa Yee, author, most recently of Warp Speed
A Girl Named Disaster
Eleven-year-old Nhamo Jongwe has a hard life. With her mother long dead and her father long gone, she lives under the thumb of her resentful Aunt Chipo, doing chores from dawn till dusk. The only person who loves Nhamo is her grandmother, who delights in passing on the stories and myths of their Shona tribe. When their village is struck by cholera and a witch doctor demands that Nhamo become the third wife of a cruel alcoholic, she steals a boat and runs away. Hoping to reach her father's family in Zimbabwe, the inexperienced Nhamo is instead stranded in the middle of Lake Cabora Bassa. The resulting story of her struggle to survive is beautiful and gripping, rich with myth and lyrical language. Reminiscent of classics like Island of the Blue Dolphins and Julie of the Wolves, Farmer's careful research makes Nhamo's story authentic and informative, while her gorgeous writing makes it unforgettable. (For ages 8 to 12)
-- Margaret H. Willison, book critic
The Man Who Ate His Boots
To counteract summertime heat and humidity, try Anthony Brandt's The Man Who Ate His Boots, a bracingly told history of British explorers' harrowing quest for the Northwest Passage between 1810 and 1860. They imagined a new route that would shave 3,000 miles off the voyage to Asia, but no one knew that the polar sea was frozen year-round. Explorers faced a chain of ordeals: Brandt captures sea journeys stopped by ice, overland sledge expeditions bedeviled by blizzards, and brief, miserable, mosquito-ridden summer interludes. Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated South Pole campaign is often called the "worst journey in the world." But try the 1845 Franklin expedition — a crew of 120, food for three years, packed onto two vessels, soon icebound. After two years aboard ship, survivors tried to walk to civilization. "Their deaths were ugly, a scene of horror out of a Gothic novel," Brandt writes. "There was no trace of dignity in the record left by their bones, which had been broken open by the last survivors for their marrow." Something to consider the next time you feel a vacation isn't going well.
-- Jane Ciabattari, book critic
Elric Of Melnibone
In the long litany of sword-wielding mass murderers that populate the pages of a thousand lesser fantasy novels, Elric of Melniboné is far and away the coolest, grimmest, moodiest, most elegant, degenerate, drug-addicted, cursed, twisted and emotionally weird mass murderer of them all. Elric, though, is nothing without the trappings of the fading and debauched land from which he fled. There are magical swords and Old Gods, evil sorcerers and heroic companions, sure. But the most awesome moment comes when the Melnibonean navy takes to the seas (accompanied, of course, by flights of dragons) in its pyramid-shaped golden battle barges, destroying the fleet of reavers Elric has brought home to punish the corrupt land that spawned him. Why? Because he's a moody little brat sometimes. But when your albino proto-emo hero's hissy fits are accompanied by giant magical boats smashing everything around them to pieces with their awesomeness, I just don't care.
-- Jason Sheehan, author, most recently of Tales from the Radiation Age
Brace yourself — I'm about to recommend the most romantic book you will ever read. Really, make sure there's ice in the glass before you crack this one. Daphne du Maurier's novel contains all the best signifiers of danger and romance — a Frenchman, a headstrong English lady, a choice between love and duty, and above all, a pirate ship. Set along the coast of Cornwall in the reign of Charles II, it concerns the affair of the married Dona St. Columb and Jean-Benoit Aubery, the pirate who's been squatting in her Cornwall estate. What's he been doing there, besides using it as a base for his nefarious burglaries? Reading poetry in her bed. As one does. What follows is a rip-roaring adventure, complete with the Lady St. Columb riding the ship in men's breeches as the pirate goes about his business. And of course — the romance. Here's a tip: When a shy, literary pirate asks you for your earring — that's not all he wants you to take off. The writing is lush, and if you're not in the mood, or the weather isn't hot enough, you might find it ridiculous. But come back to it when your attitude has shaped up. I guarantee you at least one delightful moment where you will crush the book to your chest, sigh deeply, and cast a slightly disappointed eye toward any seatmate, companion or spouse who is not a French pirate.
-- Barrie Hardymon, editor, Weekend Edition
Many of poetry's journeys are historical and allegorical: This is one. In it, Kevin Young retells the story of a group of African captives who, in 1839, overtook the slave ship on which they were being transported, only to end up recaptured, brought to New Haven, Conn., and set at the center of the growing abolition debate. It's heavy stuff for a beach read, but if you're taking a book of poems on vacation, presumably, heavy is what you're after. Though this book takes place in the past, and inhabits myriad voices, its central themes are about the America we have made and live in now: "They learn me a tongue / but no cheek to keep it in." Young's lines engage a conversation that must be ongoing.
-- Craig Morgan Teicher, book critic
The Survival Of The Bark Canoe
For centuries, before wood-and-canvas, fiberglass or plastic boats, paddlers plied our Northern waters in birch-bark canoes crafted by Native Americans. Here, John McPhee profiles Henri Vaillancourt of Greenville, N.H., who as a teen embarked on his life mission to make canoes like the Indians used to — using the same few tools, materials and methodology. Wielding an ax and crooked knife with seemingly casual authority, Vaillancourt fells, splits, carves and shapes the cedar, hardwood and birch bark he scouts in Northern forests. He "sews and lashes" his vessels together with "the split roots of white pine," using "no nails, screws or rivets." McPhee, with similar economy and expertise, captures the monomaniacal, moody craftsman and the arduous 150-mile trip they took with some friends through the north Maine woods in two of Vaillancourt's canoes. Following in Thoreau's wake, they battle nasty head winds, insatiable insects, muddy portages and Henri's questionable leadership. This trim book, packed with enough history, technical information, adventure, wit and unappetizing freeze-dried Shrimp Creole and Turkey Tetrazzini to sink a less adept writer, glides with the elegance and durability of one of Vaillancourt's perfectly proportioned boats.
-- Heller McAlpin, book critic
Sea Of Poppies
The tall-masted old slave schooner repurposed to transport opium and indentured servants from India to British sugar plantations in Mauritius is practically a character in its own right in Ghosh's historical novel. This is no pleasure cruise. The Ibis is at once prison, shelter for the destitute and caldron of ignominy and strife. The ship negotiates the waters of the Bay of Bengal in 1838 on the eve of the Opium Wars with its volatile, mixed load of passengers, including an American octoroon sailor, a young Indian widow fleeing her rapist brother-in-law, an opium addict and a plucky French orphan. The destinies of Ghosh's extraordinary range of compelling characters — and of the Ibis — are as uncertain as that of poppy seeds blowing in the wind. His epic is a marvel of research, adventure and, ultimately, humanity — the kind of read that sends you sailing into new horizons.
-- Heller McAlpin, book critic
If you don't yet know iconic science-fiction author Octavia Butler, it's always a good time to get started. Wild Seed is the fourth book published in her vast Patternist series, but it's the earliest in the chronology, making it a perfect entry to this saga of immortality, gender, culture and politics. Ageless healer and shape-shifter Anyanwu is caught in a codependent relationship with the powerful Doro that sometimes offers kinship but more often trades in coercion — perhaps most crucially when he demands she leave her home with him. Their sea journey proves revelatory in ways interpersonal and geographical, as their time on the ship is both political limbo and romantic time bomb — and that's before Anyanwu shape-shifts into a dolphin. Her travels will continue, and each one is a reaction and a counterpoint to the stasis of immortality. In Wild Seed, travel is a ritual of identity as much as a physical crossing.
-- Genevieve Valentine, author, most recently of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club