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am 26. Juni 2000
"In the Heart of the Sea" is a very good book. Like "The Perfect Storm", to which it will obviously be compared to, the author balances the story with historic and scientific background information. The combination works very well, informing the reader with fascinating tidbits while leaving him or her gripped in the thralls of a great tale.
This is the story of the whaleship Essex, out of Nantucket on a two year voyage to the Pacific in search of the early nineteenth century's liquid gold, whale oil. The unthinkable happens. A usually docile sperm whale, although large enough to sink a wooden ship, does just that. Rammed twice by an 85 foot leviathan of the sea, the crew takes to three whale boats while its ship is crushed and rendered useless. The resulting ninety day journey is a story of hope, discipline, tragic mistakes, and ever present thirst and starvation which leads the men ever closer to having to execute the "law of the sea" in order to survive.
Nathaniel Philbrick weaves first person accounts from survivors, a concise history of Nantucket and the work of catching and rendering whales as well as the physiology of the giant sea mammels and starvation into a first rate book. I read this over three days -- it moves very quickly. The author has a talent for fleshing out his common whalemen so that they are interesting and distinct characters without sacrificing authenticity and fact.
If you liked "The Perfect Storm" or Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," you'll find "In the Heart of the Sea" very much in the same vein. A story of people under terrible physical and mental assault which the reader could not imagine enduring, coupled with a superbly explained telling of the issues at hand that is well set in its place and time.
Highly recommended -- you may want to finish this one all at once.
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am 30. Juli 2000
The first chapter didn't grab me. By the time I finished the second chapter only a "knockdown" could have gotten the book away from me. I read it in a day and then read the notes. Well done, Mr. Philbrick, you brought to life the people of Nantucket who lived as my sea-going ancestors from Maine must have done. You made it so real we could smell the fog, feel the salt and heat, and weep for the decisions made under stress. The weaving of salient facts with the on-going narrative are effortless. This is a never-to-be-forgotten book. Thanks.
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am 14. Juni 2000
This story has to be one of the most astonishing tales of survival in recorded history. Before I say more, let me caution you that this story (and parts of this review) is not for those with weak stomachs.
After their ship is disabled by an attacking sperm whale, the survivors find themselves on three open boats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean over 2,000 miles from their targeted landfall in South America. With luck, they will make it in 30 days. They soon find themselves in a stall as the winds fail to cooperate, except to provide severe storms that threaten to capsize the boats.
Soon, all the food is encrusted with salt and everyone is suffering with severe dehydration. Then things start to get worse! I won't go further, but you have an amazing story of survival ahead of you.
Two of the few survivors of this terrible ordeal later committed their experiences to writing, which provide great resources for this well-researched book.
At another level, the book is also extremely interesting because these experiences were important influences on Herman Melville's writing of the American classic, Moby Dick. The book makes the connection, including how Melville came to learn the story.
At a third level, the book is a fascinating history of whaling around 1920. If you are like me, you will cringe when the whalers devastate island after island. But that's not the limit to their willingness to use nature to their own advantage.
The ultimate irony is that the survivors went the wrong way. Those from Nantucket did not know about Tahiti and Hawaii, and chose not to go in either of those directions -- either of which would have provided more rapid safety and comfort. The primary reason they chose not to go in these directions is because they feared running into cannibals. Soon the survivors were studying the remains of dead shipmates with hunger. And then it gets worse.
So, you have three different kinds of books to read here, anyone of which could be enormously enjoyable to you. Get ready for the trip of your life!
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am 16. Mai 2000
The Penguin Audiobook edition of Nathaniel Philbrick's <In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of Whaleship Essex> (an authorized abridgment) is one of the more fascinating and harrowing tales I have heard in recent years. In fact, not since hearing the recording of "The Professor and the Madman" have I actually looked forward to my next session at my tape player.
Briefly, the book falls into four major sections. There is a marvelous retelling of the rise to power and the customs of those who lived on Nantucket in the 1820s, including such all too human accounts of how the wives had to resort to opium and "he's-at-homes" during the long absences of their husbands. Then comes the events on the whaleship Essex up to its sinking by the 85 foot sperm whale that inspired Melville's Moby Dick. The third part, which many might find very difficult to bear, is how a mere handful of the crew managed to survive for about 3 months at sea. Finally, we hear about the consequences of the ordeal to the survivors and the degeneration of Nantucket into a tourist trap.
The familiar actor Edward Herrmann reads the text with an almost clinical objectivity, a very good idea in that it makes the third section easier to hear. All in all, this is a classic example of reality being stranger than fiction and of the almost mythic drive that keeps some people alive under the most adverse circumstances. I should mention that the inclusion of scientific research into the narrative is most helpful and adds greatly to our understanding of what those men went through.
A highly recommended listen...but be prepared for that third section!
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am 12. Juni 2000
To use an old-fashioned phrase, this is "a ripping yarn"! I plowed through this book in just 3 days and if it hadn't been for work and chores that couldn't wait I would have finished in 2. Mr. Philbrick has a great gift for telling a story. Not only that, the layout of the book was wonderfully conceived. The author gives you some background on Nantucket and explains that although a large part of the population were peaceloving Quakers, that didn't stop them from hunting whales with a vengeance. Mr. Philbrick mentions that everyone on the island, women and small children included, would use seafaring and whaling expressions in their everyday speech, and the youngsters would even go around trying to "harpoon" things as part of their play. Mr. Philbrick gives you great descriptions of the men and the ships and the sea. He includes fascinating bits of information concerning human nutritional needs (at one point in the story the men were down to trying to survive on about 350 calories per day) and also the psychological as well as the physical effects of starvation. Mr. Philbrick explains that right after the "Essex" was sunk the captain of the ship, George Pollard, had to make a decision about which direction the survivors should go. They could have gone west towards the islands near Tahiti. The tradewinds from the east would blow them in that direction anyway, and the islands were not that far. They could have reached them in about a week. But the men had heard rumors of cannibals living on some of these islands, so they decided to go east, towards the coast of South America. This was a much more difficult journey. It meant going south until they were away from the tradewinds blowing from the east and only then being able to turn towards the coast of Chile. Because of the roundabout route this trip would take 3 months and make them cover over 4,000 miles! Another interesting aspect of the tale that Mr. Philbrick covers is that 6 of the 20 sailors were blacks, and that 5 of these 6 men were the first to die. This might seem very suspicious at first but Mr. Philbrick explains that due to a generally poorer diet before the "Essex" even left Nantucket these men were at an immediate disadvantage. The author also states that studies have shown that black people generally have less fat stored in their bodies than white people, and this factor would have also made a difference as once your body runs out of fat to burn it will start to use up muscle. Captain Pollard, who was short and stocky and who was older than most of the crew, and who therefore had more fat stored and also a slower metabolism, would seem a good candidate for survival- and, indeed, he did live to tell his tale of the disaster! In the epilogue Mr. Philbrick mentions that a few months after getting back to Nantucket Captain Pollard was given command of another whaling ship. On his first trip out he was in the Pacific and hit a coral reef and this ship sunk as well! Fortunately for Pollard and his crew, they had been sailing close by another whaler and were picked up the next day. The captain rightly surmised that he would be perceived as being "jinxed" and would not be given another command...
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am 25. Mai 2000
I can't imagine what I'd do if I was placed in the situation described in this book - adrift at sea and casting lots to see whom would be eaten and whom would be spared, but In The Heart of the Sea does a good job of describing the dire circumstances and letting the individual reader make his or her own judgment as to the necessity of the acts.
This book reminded me of two other books that I enjoyed.
First, the detail on the ships and the whaling industry reminded me of The Perfect Storm and its detailed discussion of the swordfishing industry. This historical background information In the Heart of the Sea is helpful because it allows the reader to better understand the culture of the industry and the reasons why workers were placed in such appalling straits.
The second book that is worth reading is The Custom of the Sea, which came out a few months ago. The Custom of the Sea centers on a shipwreck where three survivors killed and ate a fourth crewmember who was already dying of dehydration. In a breach from ordinary legal tradition, these survivors were tried for murder and Custom of the Sea does a very nice job of presenting the societal questions underlying the murder prosecution. In the Heart of the Sea does not explore these issues in the same depth, but both books are worth reading.
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am 31. Dezember 2002
This is a first rate, well crafted work of non-fiction. The author has a gift for putting together a compelling narrative about the unusual ordeal of the whale ship, Essex, which sailed out of Nantucket and was done in on the high seas by an extremely aggressive sperm whale who attacked it. So complete was the damage that the ship sank, its crew of twenty cast adrift upon a seemingly infinite ocean to find their way back home in three small boats. This real life, unheard of attack by a whale was the basis for Herman Melville's classic work of fiction, "Moby Dick".

What the author does is ground what happened to these most unfortunate of men in the historical context of the time. He paints a picture of the milieu in which they lived. Their lives were governed entirely by the whaling industry that was the bread and butter for Nantucket Island, the whaling capital of the world.

Drawing upon narratives by some of the survivors, as well as other historical data, he paints in intricate detail what life must have been like for these men. He weaves a tapestry of early nineteenth century life on the island of Nantucket and the preeminence of whaling in the lives of those who lived there, as well as the role of the Quakers. In essence, he brings the men, who were involved in this most notorious of survival at sea stories, to life for the reader.

It is a balanced narrative. This was to be the first voyage as Captain for the democratic George Pollard, who was teamed up with a very aggressive and ambitious first mate, Owen Chase. This was later to prove to be a poor combination. Nearly a third of the crew was African-American, which was an interesting twist, arising out of the abolitionist views of the Quakers, whose views were the mainstay of Nantucket. Most of the crew was very young, the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, being but fourteen years of age.

When the Essex was attacked while on the high seas by a gigantic, aggressive sperm whale and destroyed in the process, the story of the what happened to the crew makes for one of the most engrossing and amazing stories of survival ever to be told. Against the odds, eight of them survived their ordeal, which lasted for months. Dehydration and starvation were to drive them to a new frontier of human behavior. That threshold, however, once crossed, was one that would forever haunt those who survived. Their agonizing journey and foray into anthropophagy is chillingly chronicled.

This is a riveting and triumphant book. It is a tale richly told by a masterful storyteller, who is able to make this work of non-fiction come to life for the reader. This is simply a great book.
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am 17. Juni 2000
In 1819 the whaleship Essex was rammed and sunk by a very large sperm whale. The ship sank and the crew was forced to sail across thousands of miles of the Pacific ocean fighting thirst and starvation. This was the story that inspired Melville's Moby Dick. It is absorbing, well researched, and reads like a good adventure novel, only it is true. It is elegant from start to finish and I say elegant because of its restraint. Philbrick had every chance to play this one for the bleacher seats, but didn't.
We could have gotten a long saga of castaways dying of thirst and starvation with all of the drama of a potboiler. He could have given us a day by day description of the sea trek, but instead the trek is mercifully taken up in 90 pages. (Don't fret, you will get the anxiety wobblies during this phase of the book.) Philbrick has fully researched the physiology of dying of starvation and thirst and spares us none of the details. To survive, the crew resorted to the drawing of lots, execution and cannibalism. We learn about the history, quite plentiful in fact, of survival cannibalism from the Raft of the Medusa to the Andean plane crash. It is not a book for the squeamish.
It is also a book about Nantucket, whaling, men at sea, celestial navigation, maritime commerce, and more. Never are the facts crammed down us like so many notecards in the author's collection, but are deliciously laid out in the context of the story. It is not a long book, but it doesn't seem to short either. Like most good books, it made me want to learn more about the subject, in this case the fascinating history of whaling.
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am 12. Juni 2000
The modern reader believes in the many-little-men theory of history. He demands the story not of Napoleon or of the French economic climate at the turn of the 19th Century, but of Pierre from Alsace who fought in the ranks. Philbrick has, therefore, found the whaling industry's most interesting Pierre from Alsace: the Essex.
I'll not repeat the tale of that cursed ship here; you can find it in enough other places on this page. But I will note that what I like best about this book is the way Philbrick uses the story of the Essex as a narrative thread to hold together a broader story about the whaling industry as a whole. Since these historical details must necessarily accommodate the narrative thread, we are left at times with a partial picture of the industry -- we watch the crew take a whale apart, but never learn why Nantucket would remain the home base for men who worked in the Pacific.
What emerges is a surprisingly touching tribute to the Nantucket whalers, but little insight into the place that produced the whaling culture. For readers seeking that context, I would recommend Diana Muir's Reflections in Bullough's Pond, a wonderful book that does much to allow the reader to understand the men of the Essex in the context of New England's history.
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am 27. Dezember 2005
This is a first rate, well crafted work of non-fiction. The author has a gift for putting together a compelling narrative about the unusual ordeal of the whale ship, Essex, which sailed out of Nantucket and was done in on the high seas by an extremely aggressive sperm whale who attacked it. So complete was the damage that the ship sank, its crew of twenty cast adrift upon a seemingly infinite ocean to find their way back home in three small boats. This real life, unheard of attack by a whale was the basis for Herman Melville's classic work of fiction, "Moby Dick".
What the author does is ground what happened to these most unfortunate of men in the historical context of the time. He paints a picture of the milieu in which they lived. Their lives were governed entirely by the whaling industry that was the bread and butter for Nantucket Island, the whaling capital of the world.
Drawing upon narratives by some of the survivors, as well as other historical data, he paints in intricate detail what life must have been like for these men. He weaves a tapestry of early nineteenth century life on the island of Nantucket and the preeminence of whaling in the lives of those who lived there, as well as the role of the Quakers. In essence, he brings the men, who were involved in this most notorious of survival at sea stories, to life for the reader.
It is a balanced narrative. This was to be the first voyage as Captain for the democratic George Pollard, who was teamed up with a very aggressive and ambitious first mate, Owen Chase. This was later to prove to be a poor combination. Nearly a third of the crew was African-American, which was an interesting twist, arising out of the abolitionist views of the Quakers, whose views were the mainstay of Nantucket. Most of the crew was very young, the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, being but fourteen years of age.
When the Essex was attacked while on the high seas by a gigantic, aggressive sperm whale and destroyed in the process, the story of the what happened to the crew makes for one of the most engrossing and amazing stories of survival ever to be told. Against the odds, eight of them survived their ordeal, which lasted for months. Dehydration and starvation were to drive them to a new frontier of human behavior. That threshold, however, once crossed, was one that would forever haunt those who survived. Their agonizing journey and foray into anthropophagy is chillingly chronicled.
This is a riveting and triumphant book. It is a tale richly told by a masterful storyteller, who is able to make this work of non-fiction come to life for the reader. This is simply a great book.
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