Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tales of the Whales – May Reading List

"Whaling Voyage Round the World" c. 1848 by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington
This month Book Phantom will be reading about whales and seafaring.  How did I come to this subject?  It’s nearly summer, and time to start thinking about seaside vacations.  However, little synchronicities in my life have been pointing me towards “whale lit”.  First, when I was browsing Books of the Month at Amazon, I came across a recommendation for Galore by Canadian author Michael Crummey.  I was pulled in by the blurb about a strange, pale man cut from the body of a beached whale.  My next sign came as I was reading Swamplandia!.  In the chapters that took place at The World of Darkness theme park, Karen Russell described a ride called the Leviathan in which tourists could slide down into the innards of a great fake whale.  The third sign came when I took my daughter on a field trip to Shackleford Banks last week.  This island was the site of a small whaling community in the 1800’s called Diamond City.  It was abandoned in 1899 after a great hurricane flattened most of the town.  I learned on this trip that North Carolina was the only state south of New Jersey that had a whaling industry of any note. 
My final reason for choosing whale tales is that whaling is in my family history.  My husband’s great-grandfather left the Azores at the age of fourteen upon a whaler and eventually settled in Erie, Pennsylvania in the late 1860s.  In order to give my kids a better understanding of their ancestry, I thought it would be helpful to read some literature about it.
So, the universe was giving me a nudge, and the notion to read about whales emerged from the depths of my subconscious as clear as a tail fin or a spout from a blowhole.  Here are my “Tales of the Whales” reading selections:

1.      Galore by Michael Crummey.  Although Galore is a couple of years old now, it will serve as my New Release/Contemporary read this month.  The book flap was beguiling – I guess I was “hooked” (har, har).  The description offered everything I love in a book – regional flavor (it’s set in Newfoundland), a mysterious stranger, superstitious lore and magic, as well as an epic quality spanning generations.  But we know how cunning those book flaps are, don’t we?  Let’s see if Galore lives up to the publisher’s “bait” (so sorry for that – couldn’t resist).
2.      Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  I suppose it wasn’t too hard to see The Great White Whale looming in the horizon.  When I was in middle school, I participated in a reenactment of Moby Dick for an academic competition.   My fellow students and I tried to read the book, but no one could get through it in time for our contest.  Per our teacher’s suggestion, we leaned on Cliff Notes.  I feel this was a missed opportunity, and now I’m going to take a second stab – or should I say “harpoon” – at it.
3.      Grayson by Lynne Cox.  This is my non-fiction title for this month.  It is a memoir by Cox recounting a day when she was seventeen years old and swimming a couple hundred yards off shore.  During her training swim, she encountered a baby gray whale.  The whale followed her for about a mile.  Already fatigued, she was ready to go to shore, but she didn’t want the calf to follow her and become beached.  When I was seventeen I wouldn’t have had the sense to know what to do in this situation (but then again, I wouldn’t have had the motivation or courage to swim miles in the ocean, either).  I’m eager to see how Cox managed.
4.      Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken.  Aiken is the author of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, a favorite (if not a classic) of modern children’s literature.  The protagonist of Nightbirds is Dido Twite, an English girl, who is found adrift in the ocean by a New England whaling ship.  The ship’s captain, Captain Casket, has a young daughter on board named Dutiful Penitence, who is fearful of the ocean.  The captain asks Dido to help Dutiful Penitence overcome her fears.  Eventually, the girls are left at a farmhouse with Aunt Tribulation, a dour and nasty woman.  The story also features a pink whale, but I have no idea how it fits in. I can’t wait to see the trouble Dido gives Aunt Tribulation or whaddup with that pink whale.
5.      Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. Le Guin.  This is my writer’s choice for May.  LeGuin is best known for her science fiction and fantasy novels, but this book sprang from a writing workshop she taught in the mid-90s.  The first chapter is called “The Sound of Your Writing: Being Gorgeous”.  Gorgeous-sounding writing is my personal “white whale”.  I have good ideas and can develop plots and characters fairly easily, but my lexical arrhythmia belies my “serious writer” status.  In my opinion, sound is what separates the true literary craftsman from the story-telling dilettante.   If Le Guin can help develop my writer’s ear even a little, this will be well worth the read.

NOTE:  I feel it’s important to say that although whaling was a significant chapter in American history, I do not condone the killing of whales.  What’s sad is that these highly intelligent creatures are capable of great compassion towards humankind even though we are collectively responsible for the depletion of their species.  Read here about whales who have rescued people in peril at sea.  It’s not all Ahab and Moby Dick.


  1. I've been meaning to read MOBY DICK since I was in high school tearing through all the classics. Over the years I've gotten so INTIMIDATED by it, this is my white whale of classic lit, all seriousness, might have to go on a whale hunt soon and put this sucker to bed once and for all.

    I love Ursula K. Le Guin. Her short story THE ONES WHO WALKED AWAY FROM OMELAS is one of my top favorite best short stories ever.

  2. MD has been much more readable to me this go 'round. I'm on the early chapters where Ishmael & Qeequeg are bedfellows & become pals. It's really quite the "bro-mance". Given what I know about Melville, I'm surprised by the humor in it. Thanks for the tip on Le Guin's story - I'm pretty ignorant of the SciFi/Fantasy genre, but I plan to change that.