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So, here we are in the intellectual section of the site.  Nancy and I have found we do a fair amount of reading on the boat.  It keeps us entertained on watches at sea and soothes us evenings at anchor after a day’s adventures.  Here you will find a wide assortment of literary fare.  Some grueling, some light, and some are educational.  Here is our Zephyr bibliography as we read them.

The Last Days of St. Pierre, Ernest Zebrowski, Jr.

Boy have I been neglectful of my duties and you’ve all been left to read on your own. On 8 May, 1902 Mt. Pelee on the island of Martinique exploded. The pyroclastic blast killed more than 30,000 people in a matter of minutes. This fascinating book recounts the events leading up to the tragedy and the political malfeasance that contributed to the deaths of thousands more after the initial blasts. Told through the stories of the few survivors and observers who watched, horror stricken, from adjacent hillsides. The city today, one of my favorites in the Caribbean, remains but a shadow of its former majesty as the Paris of the Caribbean. You can almost feel the ghosts in the ruins and buildings that have been rebuilt among them. This and the next four are what I read during our stay in Rhode Island, so read on.

Careless People, Sarah Churchwell

A delightful romp through the years 1922-24 with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald as they drank and partied with all the other artists, writers, and general bons vivants who inhabited the new-wealth coves of Long Island Sound. Interwoven is the reportage of a double-murder-of-the-century, which may have influenced the development of The Great Gatsby, which he was struggling to write at the same time. A fascinating glimpse into the early years of what Fitzgerald himself coined the “Jazz Age”.

The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown

The story of how nine working-class students from the University of Washington beat the best rowers from the elite schools to gain a berth at the 1936 Olympics. Their determination and the genius of boatbuilder George Pocock made history in Berlin. Told through the reminiscences of several of the “boys”, it is a gripping tale that’s as they say; “soon to be a major motion picture.”

The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson

The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. From 1915 to 1970 more than six million African Americans migrated from the Jim Crow South to the metropolises of the North to escape persecution, poor wages, endemic poverty, poor education and the distinct possibility of being lynched. This number represents more than half of the Black population of the South before that time! Told in a beautiful historical narrative style focusing on the experiences of six migrants from throughout the region who each, for different of the above reasons, moved to the recieving cities and in turn, struggled and prospered, to varying degrees. A powerful tale of a major event in our history that has been mischaracterized and overlooked for too long. Everyone should read this book. If not for the history, then for the beauty of the prose.

Hero of the Empire, Candice Millard

The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill. The subtitle says it all. Poor young Winston, convinced that he would one day become PM in spite of the fact that he had just lost his first election campaign, at age 24 sets off in 1899 as a journalist to cover the Boer War. One thing leads to another, as can only happen in real life or a Hemingway tale, and he is captured. His daring escape and the tales of hardship suffered by British prisoners made him a household name. The rest, as they say, is history


The Fair at Sokolniki, Fridrikh Nezansky

This book, written in 1983 by a former Moscow senior police investigator, illustrates, in fiction, the vast corruption endemic in the Soviet Union and the methodical struggle by the KGB to gain control of power. It illuminates how the foundation was laid for the rise of former KGB members to become the oligarchs of today’s Russia and the strength of Vladimir Putin. It is a good read in its own right for lovers of police mysteries.

The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio

Boy, this has been the year of the big ones. Ten stories a day over ten days told by a group of ten men and women seeking respite at a country villa from the plague in Florence. Each day with a different theme. What a perfect book for an ocean passage. The themes range from the corruption and lustiness of the clergy to the corruption and lustiness of the laity. Getting away with adultery, getting caught at adultery. Dying for want of love, dying because of love. Then there were the tales of cheating your friend, getting cheated by your friend, and the run-of-the-mill tales of the gullibility and superstition of the populace. Who knew the 14th century was so much fun?

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Make no mistake, this is a big one. It has everything: War; Peace; Drawing Room intrigue; Rural Splendor; A litany of interrelated, unpronounceable characters which you can’t keep straight without a program (which, fortunately this 1942 edition provides). In short; the perfect Russian novel! A truly sweeping drama of the Russo-Napoleonic wars, culminating in the debacle of 1812. The ever evolving philosophies of Pr. Andrew Bolkonsky and his friend Ct. Pierre Bezukhov are at the core of this epic, while the trials and missteps of the poor Rostovs add depth to the social and military complexities of the era. Add in the scheming and treachery of the Kuragins and Drubetskoys, all overlaid on the tapestry of Imperial France and Russia and you have got yourself a barn-burner (or should I say Moscow burner). Tolstoy’s historical accuracy alone is worth the price of admission, but the character drama is equally compelling. I could not put this book down anticipating what came next; even though the heading of each chapter told me what was coming up, duh!

Across the River and into the Trees, Ernest Hemingway

Okay, so this isn’t his best work. It is, however, a fair example of a typical “write like Hemingway” entry. The dialogue is overwrought, truly and honestly. To be fair, it is a delightful reminiscence of Venice as it may once have been and it has made Harry’s a fortune in tourist business. The book was written in 1950 when his best work was behind him (except for The Old Man and the Sea, which was this story, better told), his body was broken, his health was failing, he was bitter about his failed marriage to Martha Gelhorn (he takes a couple good swings at her in the book). Reading it today one can feel the pain and depression he must have been struggling with as he rambles through the last days of a Colonel of Infantry.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil de Grasse Tyson

Talk about Big Bang. This book made my head hurt. But in a good way. The immensity of our universe, or possibly multiverse, is made a bit more embraceable and understood by Tyson’s patient essay format. Each aspect of our cosmos is broken into bite-sized chunks that I only had to read twice to absorb, not to say understand. Captivating and inspiring. I feel my soul is a bit freer after seeing my true place in the universe.

The Wisdom of the Native Americans, Edited by Kent Nerburn

A collection of quotes, writings and speeches of some of this country’s most significant Native Americans from the 17th to the 20th century. Touching, enlightening and at times soul wrenching. A perfect compliment to Astrophysics, the spirituality and honesty of these men and women should make every capitalist wince at their greed and ashamed of their false self-importance. Beautiful.

To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway

Poor Henry Morgan. Trying to do good in a world of bad. It’s enough to make a man cynical. A well told tale of a man’s descent into deception and dishonesty to feed his family and keep his boat. Not necessarily in that order. No Bogartian hero in this tale. Much more than that. I re-read this book from time to time just to remind myself that the haves and the have-nots are closer than you might think.

The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Here it is! The omnibus of Holmes. All of the stories apart from the novels A Study in Scarlet and The sign of Four that captivated the English imagination as told by the redoubtable Dr. Watson up to the tragic “death” of Holmes at the falls while struggling with his arch-enemy Moriarty. These are fun tales although there is quite a bit of Deus ex Machina in the resolutions and often the reader is as puzzled as the poor doctor as to how the clues resolved themselves into a concclusion. But I guess that’s why he’s Sherlock Holmes and I am but a mere man.

Collected Stories of John O’hara, Edited by Frank MacShane

A powerful assortment of stories by one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. This is no hyperbole! O’hara’s grasp of the vernacular settles you into the mining towns of Pennsylvania and the cities of the East as no other writer can. His stories resonate with the realities of life. Frustration balanced with optimism; cynicism with innocence. So emotionally intense you’ll need a cigarette when you are finished.

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver

This sweeping journey of a boy’s interaction with historical figures and events, from Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to Lev Trotsky and the House Un-American Affairs Committee demonstrates how seemingly innocent events can be distorted and corrupted to achieve sinister, fear-mongering results. The power of the press and the pressure of power can distort or even ignore the “truth” to achieve a desirable outcome. No matter who it destroys along the way. As the lawyer Artie states, “Talking is more important than thinking”. This is a good story well worth the frustration I felt at the inevitable outcome.

The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich

A fascinating fictional account of the government’s attempt in 1953 to “emancipate” native tribes by cancelling treaties and selling their land. The argument is that the Indians will be better able to gain financial independence by assimilating in the cities. In reality it is just a land grab and another abrogation of promises. An effort by members of the Chippewa tribe of North Dakota went to Washington to argue their case. The subplots and secondary storylines alone make this a great read.

Second to None, Alexander Kent

So we’ve read all the way to episode 24. Bolitho’s young adopted son is now the focus of our naval attentions as the vaunted Admiral has…. No spoiler here folks. More intrigue. More lust. More revenge. More hyperbole. Fortunately there are only a few more of these and I can put the Bolitho’s to rest.

So Big, Edna Ferber

Wow, a story of a woman at the turn of the 20th century who overcomes her husband’s obstinacy to become a successful business woman on her own while raising a child. Okay, the husband conveniently dies, she gets financial help from long-lost rich childhood friends and the son grows up to be a self-absorbed snob. Other than that Mrs Lincoln, it’s a grand tale of life in Chicago during its burgeoning from a small market town to a mercantile hub. Published in 1924, read today, the future probable outcomes make it even more poignant.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

Okay, now I’m totally depressed. It is a wonder how England survived the 19th century. All this self doubt, double standard, sanctimony, classism and sheer drudgery of daily life would make me want to throw up my arms and give up. But no! Poor old Tess just keeps stumbling into every minefield laid before her. Finally the one she deliberately lays is the one of her undoing. This book caused quite a scandal when it was published in 1891 and it still resonates today. I’ve now finished Tess, Native, and Jude. I’ve only to find The Mayor of Casterbridge to conclude my Hardy pain-fest.

Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell

A gripping narrative of Orwell’s time in Spain fighting the Fascists of Franco. All of the best and worst of being a soldier are artfully described: The boredom, terror, hunger, filth and death, as well as the comradeship, compassion and confusion. He describes the changing alliances and internal political upheavals rampant in the early stages of the war/revolution from the perspective of one who was actually there. Finally, he himself is forced to escape across the border to France as an enemy of the Revolution. A strange and tragic war if ever there was one.

Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury

A touching tale of the summer of ’28 as we follow two young brothers through Green Town, Illinois. A summer of high adventure, mystery and suspense, wrapped up in ice cream, grandma’s cooking and bottling grandpa’s wine. Imaginative and revelatory, if only the good-old-days were really this idyllic. Thanks to Deb for the Bradbury enlightenment!

A Graveyard for Lunatics, Ray Bradbury

A crazy-quilt dash through the inner machinations of a Hollywood studio in the ’50s. No martians or other planets can possibly be stranger than the world that exists behind the wrought iron gates of Maximus Studios. A young script writer is caught up in a 20-year old tragedy which leads him from Calvary to Notre Dame to his childhood home all within walking distance. Strangely comical and hard to put down.

Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton

Written in 1948, this tale of the struggles of blacks and whites in South Africa during the rise of Afrikaans Nationalism before apartheid became the law of the land. A touching, often agonizing search for family, identity and respect among the streets of Johannesburg and the rural villages of Natal. Paton addresses the difficulty of living in a land where the wealth of whites is entirely dependent on the subjugation of the black population. How the “fear of bondage and the bondage of fear” forge an unholy alliance to retard cooperation. How the solutions are all interlinked with the causes. But that small-scale cooperation can lead to the greater good. As pertinent in our time as it was in his.

Silas Marner, George Eliot

Poor old master Marner, kicked out of his community for a crime he didn’t commit. An outsider in his new village, he spends his days weaving and his evenings counting his gold. Until he is robbed and an orphan girl walks through his doorway and life is good again. The end. Really a lovely tale of the isolation of living in rural England at the dawn of the industrial age. Where everything beyond one’s eyesight is a mystery, and even things in front of you are uncertain. The characters of the village alone are worth the price of admission.

Rule Brittannia, Daphne du Maurier

What is it with all the dystopian British Empire writers? This, my first Du Maurier, was a real blast! What happens when a post EU England calls on the US to help it out of its financial mess? Why a “friendly” merger into USUK. The acronym says it all. After the US military “intervention” a bold band, led by an aging stage actress and her adopted children, spearhead a movement to get rid of the invaders. Whom, by the way, with the connivance of the Prime Minister and leading businessmen, plan to turn England into a giant “Merry Olde” theme-park for U.S. tourists. Written in 1972, could it have been foreshadowing?

Elephants Can Remember, Agatha Christie

A who-dun-it-a-long-time-ago. Hercule Poirot teams up with the narrator (a thinly disguised Christie herself) to find the answer to her goddaughter’s parent’s deaths (phew). After many seeming dead-ends with old acquaintances and long-lost friends they come to the same conclusion the reader has reached by page 40. Loyal dogs, crazy twins and pushy, money grubbing step mothers. Like most Christie mysteries this has it all and more

Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, Diana Preston

A comprehensive expose’ of the complacency of the British, the hypocrisy of the Americans and the ruthlessness of the Germans in the sinking of the Cunard liner on May 7, 1917. Preston delves into the lack of protection provided by the Admiralty, the wanton disregard for her own neutrality position by the Americans and the difficult decision to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare by the German high command. Everyone in this saga was culpable for the destruction of, not only the Lusitania, but several other British liners over the same period. She also reminds us that the sinking of the Lusitania did not cause the U.S. to enter the war, despite the urgings of the British and Wilson’s own top advisors. Wilson was savvy enough to understand that outside of New York and Washington people didn’t really care about the fate of a luxury liner. It wasn’t until the Zimmermann Memo two years later that led to our entry on April 6 1917. Touching in its exploration of the lives and fate of many survivors and victims, from rich to poor, Lusitania’s crew to the U-20 submariners, Peston touches every nerve.

The Man Who Loved China, Simon Winchester

The fantastic story of Noel Needham, a well respected Oxford biology Don and his lifelong quest to unlock the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. Needham becomes obsessed with dispelling the conventional euro-centric wisdom that China had always been backward and everything of importance was invented in the West. He decides to write a book about the actual earlier inventions/discoveries made in China. The search has now run to some 14 volumes. From the Abacus to moveable type, the Chinese predate Europe by several centuries. No wonder the Qing Emperor rejected Britains attempts at trade in the 18th century by declaring that England had nothing China needed. Enlightening and humbling. This man, Needham, was a phenomenon to be admired.

The City of Falling Angels, John Berendt

A fascinating look at Venice as it is and was, told through the lens of the events surrounding the catastrophic burning of La Fenice Opera House. From Old World families to American Save Venice campaigners. Eccentric artists to the Guggenheims. Even Ezra Pound is represented, as the tangled web of scammers, snobs, observers and the regular townsfolk struggle to get along in this city of too many tourists. And it is all true. It’s too bizarre to be made up.

Flirting with Mermaids, John Kretschmer

A fun little romp through the (mis)adventures of a delivery captain with lots of no -shit-there-I-was drama. It’s all couched in a romantic tale of lust, love, and babies. It is reassuring to be reminded that I don’t have the only boat that is constantly breaking things

Richard Bolitho Series, 19-22, Alexander Kent

More buckles being swashed and damsels being undistressed. Poor Dick is getting older and wondering if the war with Napoleon will ever end, when he is thrust into the 1812 war with the upstart Americans. Fortunately he has a hot babe back in Jolly Old to take his mind off things. Unfortunately for us he spends more time thinking about her than fighting dramatic sea battles. Kent is getting to be quite the romance novelist.

Myra Breckinridge/Myron, Gore Vidal.

I just don’t know where to begin. This book is hilarious yet confusing. Myra and the sequel Myron takes us through multiple personalities, no, physical changes and eras to explore the power of sexuality and the sexuality of power. Read it twice. Once with a gummy or brownie and see if you can survive the enigma.

We The Living, Ayn Rand.

A reminder that one’s individual spirit is of ultimate importance. No one, no State can conquer it. Also, that while Idealists start revolutions; they are won by crooks, bullies, and worst of all, pragmatists. It is also the story of the evolving shape of the Russian Revolution in the 1920’s. Stirring, frightening, but in Kira, the heroine, tragically freeing.

The Spirit of Gin, A Stirring Miscellany, Matt Teacher.

A romp through 400 years of the most wonderful boozy times and the renaissance in the spirit world of today. No seances necessary. Interesting histories as well as some notable cocktails and a portmanteau of gin distillers of the modern age. Read with a Martini, gin of course, stirred, not shaken.

The World Is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman.

Written in 2005, it is a look at the way technology was and will continue to change the world. For better or worse. Reading it today, one feels as though we should have paid more attention when the book came out. Many companies, such as UPS grasped the benefits of globalization and the significance of the internet. They prospered. Others, like Sears, the original mail-order behemoth (before Amazon) failed to adapt and withered.

Shackleton, The Biography, Randolph Fiennes.

An absorbing look at one of the most tenacious of the antarctic explorers written by a man who has himself trekked across both polar ice caps. Fiennes’ experience provides unique insight into the mindset of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen. His experience using dogs, man-sledges and even ski-doos allows him to dispel some of the myths and criticisms that have developed over the years since these extraordinary feats of endurance captured the imagination of the world. Fiennes’ own struggles with fund raising and team building also give added perspective to the challenges faced by Shackleton, who was always overshadowed by the Royal Geographic Society’s favorite son; Scott. As Sir Raymond Priestley commented, “For scientific leadership, give me Scott. For swift and efficient travel, give me Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

The 13th Disciple, Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

A semi-autobiographical novel about a young Scotsman’s journey of self-discovery. Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, we go from youth to war to love and finally…. Tremendously well-written with a language that is unique to this greatest of Scots writers. Too bad he is so little remembered. The beauty of the prose will absorb you in the life of this complex character. Nancy and I both enjoyed reading and discussing this book.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin.

A delightful tale of the transformation of a man’s life couched in some of the world’s best short stories. If you are a book nerd you will be enthralled and possibly offended by Fikry’s analyses. If you’re not a book nerd; well, shame on you. Nancy enjoyed it as well as I. I read it in the course of two night watches sailing from St. John USVI to the Bahamas.

The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste.

A gripping saga of the Ethiopian guerrilla war fought against the Fascists of Mussolini for five years beginning in 1935. Told from the female warriors perspective. These peasant women were instrumental in defeating the Italians, but of course, their stories are never told. War is for men after all. A very lyrical and heartrending novel which also exposes the vast differences in the class system of the time. Often painful but seldom triumphant.

The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, Robert Asprey.

This came from the Oxford, Md library fundraiser.  I’ve read fairly widely about the French Revolution and Napoleon B., and found this first-of-two volumes  to be enjoyable to read.  Neither a hero or a villain, Asprey shows his subject to be a studious, driven man (possibly suffering from acute SMD*) who was also painfully maladroit with the women in his life.  Nevertheless, a tactical/strategic genius  who, unfortunately overplays his hand.

Richard Bolitho series 5-18, Alexander Kent.  

These also came from the library fundraiser in Oxford, MD before we left in November.  The series follows the eponymous sailor through his career in HM’sRoyal Navy from the American Revolution through the Napoleonic era.  If you enjoyed the Aubrey-Maturin novels, just remove Maturin and replay. He’ll swash your buckle.

Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die, Mark Binnelli.  

What can I say?  S. and V. are anarchists, or are they vaudeville performers turned silent screen stars?  A comic/historical romp through the golden age of film [fake] history.  I was as confused coming out as I was going in.

The Overstory, Richard Powers.

Our crew/friend Mallory gave us this after reading it herself.  It’s a wide-ranging tale of the interconnectedness of humans and trees and the ways they can, and often do, affect each other.  In very powerful ways.  A good read and an eye-opener.  We both read it and enjoyed many conversations afterward.

Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy.

A vain girl and a resigned shepherd meet, separate, reunite, pine, love, and finally…. Meanwhile there is deception, betrayal, and finally…. All set in Hardy’s rural England of the 19th century. Just picture Julie Christie’s eyes!

High Fidelity, Nick Hornby.

Top five all-time list. A great insight into the mind of men. There is music, and laughter, and angst, and love. The dialogue is as good as the movie! Ladies, after reading this book you will no longer hate your partner, but pity him.

Ullysses, James Joyce.

Whew Boy! This is the BIG ONE! Follow the (mis-)adventures of Leopold Bloom as he and Stephen Daedelus wander the streets of Dublin Thursday, June 16th, 1904. Scandalous (if you’re a 17th century Puritan), confusing (if you are not). Nonetheless, get a map and follow the trail. Maybe use hallucinogens for the rabbit-hole through nighttown. And don’t forget the soap in your pocket!

The Artist of the Missing, Paul Lefarge.

An interesting, Kafkaesque transmutation of justice and humanity, when a simple man posts paintings of missing people, drawn from the memories of their loved ones. Touching, confusing, beautifully written. We talked about this one a lot!

A Sort of Life, Graham Greene.

An autobiography of the writer’s early life. And I thought I was screwed up! His books, which I have read all of, now make a bit more sense to me.

A Spy in the House of Love, Anais Nin.

Another book exchange find in Gaudeloupe. Ah, the French. The ramblings of a psycho-sexual savant haunted by her longings and her guilt-by-marraige. Men, after reading this book you will no longer hate your partner, but pity her. (See above)

The Ardent Swarm, Yamen Manai.

An allegory of life in North Africa during the Arab Spring, told through the eyes of a humble bee keeper, confused by the arrival of a foreign wasp which is killing his bees. The similarity to the way foreign interests threaten the peaceful lives of these rural peasants through force and reprisal is not lost on the reader. Beautifully translated from the French. Many good conversations followed this one as well.

Therese Raquin, Emil Zola.

I picked this one up at the harbor master’s office in St. Barth. The scandalous tale of lust, murder, and self-destruction in 1860’s Paris. A study, as Zola himself declares, of temperament, not character. We see how every action of the protagonists are determined by their blood, not by free-will. Depressing and exhilarating at the same time. Tawdry and ugly. I had to take a shower when I was finished.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain.

Just a reminder; this is a story about kids, not for kids. Twain couches this allegory of the sorry state of humanity in a rambling tale of the adventures and misadventures of Huck and Jim. We see people of every stripe being skewered for their obtuseness or pride. Schemers and saints alike are brought down a peg or two. Still a delightful read, for the stretches on the Mississippi are worth the ticket.