“In the Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2000)

The Prequel to Moby-Dick

In the Heart of the Sea

Not enough people have read Moby-Dick, and most people know it has something to do with a white whale and a nut called Ahab – oh yeah, and it starts off something like, “Call me Ishmael.”

All the above information is correct but deceptively vague.  The final scene in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick involves the whale ship in the novel, the Pequod, being struck head-on by the giant white sperm whale.  Some have question whether a whale would be able to do such a thing.  In the Heart of the Sea proves this to be true.

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick is the story about the tragedy of the whale ship Essex, which served as Melville’s research for the climactic final scene in Moby-Dick.  In 1819 the Essex set sail on a multiple-year journey around the world in search of whale, specifically sperm whales and their rich and expensive oil.  Fifteen months later, in the abyssal depths of the South Pacific, a whale rammed the ship head-on.  The hull was crippled and the ship quickly sank; all hands managed to escape on their large whaleboats.

Twenty men in three boats were set adrift in the world’s largest ocean, with little supplies and diminishing hope.  Nevertheless, their captain kept his courage: they debated heading west towards the Pacific islands, but feared cannibalism – gruesome details having been brought back from sailors who had sailed through the islands – instead, they struck out east, heading for South America.  So began their harrowing journey of starvation, isolation, and madness.

Three months later, two boats were discovered, with only eight of the remaining crew.  They were found gaunt and nothing but hanging flesh, the bones of their crew lay in the bottom of the boats, having provided a menial cannibalistic feast for the remaining members.

‘Tis a story of grave irony: a hardy crew set sail in opposite direction to that way which cannibals lie, ultimate suffering the same fate as their supposed enemies, reduced to consuming the flesh, skin and bone of their fellow seamen.  Nathaniel Philbrick does an excellent job of telling this gruesome story in vivid detail and moving narration.

Philbrick’s research features newly discovered documents on the fate of the Essex, featuring an account by Thomas Nickerson, who was one of the cabin boys on the Essex, discovered in an attic in New York in 1981.

The story is shocking, exciting and enthralling – and at the time the reader must constantly reaffirm to themselves that the events within these pages really took place.  Nathaniel Philbrick masters at telling a grand story of the high seas with a different ending that excels in every way.

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Originally published on May 14th 2001 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.


“Now and Forever: Somewhere a Band is Playing & Leviathan ’99” by Ray Bradbury (William Morrow, 2007)

Now and Foreverstarstarstarstar

Now and Forever, the latest book from one of the best writers of our time, Ray Bradbury, brings together two novellas that have never been published in book form before.  While the two have little in common, they show two sides to Bradbury’s incredible imagination, giving you a taste of his greatness as a writer and story teller.

The first novella, Somewhere a Band is Playing, opens with the main character, James Cardiff, getting off a train that barely stops at a tiny station in the middle of nowhere.  But there is something special about Summerton, Arizona that makes Cardiff immediately fall in love with it.  As he enters the town and meets the first person, in the background is the quiet sound of a band playing.  In Summerton Cardiff discovers a quiet, peaceful place where one could settle down and feel very much at ease.  But the longer he spends there, the more mysterious it becomes.  He soon discovers that there are no children here, no one under twenty for that matter, that everyone is an adult, many of them old.  Cardiff then notices that there are no schools; that it seems like there have never been any children here.  Also that there are no hospitals or apparently any doctors, that people simply don’t get sick here.  He finally finds the cemetery but discovers that it is little more than a prop, serving no purpose except to reassure visitors that it exists.  Cardiff finally forces a confession out of the beautiful woman he has befriended who tells him what is going on and what is the true meaning behind Summerton, Arizona.  It is a story that defies belief, and yet makes so much sense.

While the first novella is a masterpiece in its own way, the second, Leviathan ’99, is one also, but in a totally different manner.  It is the year 2099 and the story is Moby-Dick, except characters names are different – of course, not Ishmael – and the ship does not travel across the ocean in search of a white whale, but across the darkness of space in search of the white meteor that has been plowing through galaxies.  The characters of Captain Ahab and Queequeg exist here with different names and are also alien beings.  Bradbury outdoes himself by not only distilling the story of Moby-Dick into a hundred-page novella, but by perfectly imitating the pacing, language and feel of Moby-Dick in his story with the characters’ thoughts and actions.

Now and Forever is a collection of two incredible stories that serve as a perfect introduction to the greatness of Ray Bradbury, not just one of the greatest science fiction writers of our time, but one of the greatest story tellers.

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Originally written on September 8th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.