Recommended books: Adventure and seagoing

I watched a short documentary (11 minutes) titled “9/11 Boat Lift”. It’s narrated by Tom Hanks and it chronicles the largest sea evacuation in history- the lifting of 500,000 Manhattanites desperate to be rescued from terrorized, smoky, ash-laden lower Manhattan on 9-11/2001. All the more incredible is that this rescue was not organized, it occurred naturally as mariners of all stripes- ferry boat captains, tug boat operators, harbor pilots, and recreational boatmen realized that there were many fellow humans stuck on an island needing rescue. Manhattan is an island and no one realized it more than did the Manhattanites the day they closed the bridges, roads and tunnels. There was no way off.

Thinking about seagoing mariners and rescue operations and such brought back to mind some great adventure books I’ve read. These are non-fiction but read like narrative. They’re interesting, factual, and  heart breaking in some cases. Here is my list for you to peruse, in case you’re looking for some good ole yarns to read. The link brings you to Amazon.com and the blurb is also Amazon.com’s.

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

In 1857, the Central America, a sidewheel steamer ferrying passengers fresh from the gold rush of California to New York and laden with 21 tons of California gold, encountered a severe storm off the Carolina coast and sank, carrying more than 400 passengers and all her cargo down with her. She then sat for 132 years, 200 miles offshore and almost two miles below the ocean’s surface–a depth at which she was assumed to be unrecoverable–until 1989, when a deep-water research vessel sailed into the harbor at Norfolk, Virginia, fat with salvaged gold coins and bullion estimated to be worth one billion dollars.

Author Gary Kinder wisely lets the story of the Columbus-America Discovery Group, led by maverick scientist and entrepreneur Tommy Thompson, unfold without hyperbole. Kinder interweaves the tale of the Central America and her passengers and crew with Thompson’s own story of growing up landlocked in Ohio, an irrepressible tinkerer and explorer even in his childhood days, and his progress to adulthood as a young man who always had “7 to 14” projects on the table or spinning in his head at any given moment. One of those projects would become the preposterous recovery of the stricken steamer, and the resourcefulness and later urgency with which the project would proceed is contrasted poignantly with the Central America’s doomed battle in 1857 to stay afloat.

Did you know that Herman Melville’s story Moby-Dick was based on a true story? Here it is:

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea examines the 19th-century Pacific whaling industry through the arc of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a boisterous sperm whale. The story that inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick has a lot going for it–derring-do, cannibalism, rescue–and Philbrick proves an amiable and well-informed narrator, providing both context and detail. We learn about the importance and mechanics of blubber production–a vital source of oil–and we get the nuts and bolts of harpooning and life aboard whalers.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

The astonishing saga of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s survival for over a year on the ice-bound Antarctic seas, as Time magazine put it, “defined heroism.” Alfred Lansing’s scrupulously researched and brilliantly narrated book — with over 200,000 copies sold — has long been acknowledged as the definitive account of the Endurance’s fateful trip. To write their authoritative story, Lansing consulted with ten of the surviving members and gained access to diaries and personal accounts by eight others. The resulting book has all the immediacy of a first-hand account, expanded with maps and illustrations especially for this edition.

Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

September 8, 1900, began innocently in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. Even Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged in a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over six thousand people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history–and Isaac Cline found himself the victim of a devastating personal tragedy. 

Using Cline’s own telegrams, letters, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our latest understanding of the science of hurricanes, Erik Larson builds a chronicle of one man’s heroic struggle and fatal miscalculation in the face of a storm of unimaginable magnitude. Riveting, powerful, and unbearably suspenseful, Isaac’s Storm is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets the great uncontrollable force of nature.

OTHER

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Sounds boring. It isn’t.

Anyone alive in the eighteenth century would have known that “the longitude problem” was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day–and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Thousands of lives, and the increasing fortunes of nations, hung on a resolution.

The scientific establishment of Europe–from Galileo to Sir Isaac Newton–had mapped the heavens in both hemispheres in its certain pursuit of a celestial answer. In stark contrast, one man, John Harrison, dared to imagine a mechanical solution–a clock that would keep precise time at sea, something no clock had ever been able to do on land. Longitude is the dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest, and of Harrison’s forty-year obsession with building his perfect timekeeper, known today as the chronometer. Full of heroism and chicanery, it is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and clockmaking, and opens a new window on our world.

And for a change of scenery: this is one of the most gripping, heart-rending adventure stories I’ve ever read.

Into Thin Air

A bank of clouds was assembling on the not-so-distant horizon, but journalist-mountaineer Jon Krakauer, standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, saw nothing that “suggested that a murderous storm was bearing down.” He was wrong. The storm, which claimed five lives and left countless more–including Krakauer’s–in guilt-ridden disarray, would also provide the impetus for Into Thin Air, Krakauer’s epic account of the May 1996 disaster.

I really enjoyed this slim but fascinating book:

Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

Filippo Brunelleschi’s design for the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence remains one of the most towering achievements of Renaissance architecture. Completed in 1436, the dome remains a remarkable feat of design and engineering. Its span of more than 140 feet exceeds St Paul’s in London and St Peter’s in Rome, and even outdoes the Capitol in Washington, D.C., making it the largest dome ever constructed using bricks and mortar. The story of its creation and its brilliant but “hot-tempered” creator is told in Ross King’s delightful Brunelleschi’s Dome. 

Both dome and architect offer King plenty of rich material. The story of the dome goes back to 1296, when work began on the cathedral, but it was only in 1420, when Brunelleschi won a competition over his bitter rival Lorenzo Ghiberti to design the daunting cupola, that work began in earnest. King weaves an engrossing tale from the political intrigue, personal jealousies, dramatic setbacks, and sheer inventive brilliance that led to the paranoid Filippo, “who was so proud of his inventions and so fearful of plagiarism,” finally seeing his dome completed only months before his death.

The Pillars of the Earth

Historical fiction set in the Medieval times, chronicling both the building of a cathedral and the history behind a little- known time when Empress Maud and King Stephen reigned. It was a time of anarchy, survival, love, and betrayal. Note: some sex scenes.

Happy Reading!

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