James Webb

Books that endure tell us about lives we can only dream of. Austen, Dickens, and Twain all lived what they wrote about, and what they lived was radically different from what we know today.

Then there's Herman Melville. In my humble opinion, Melville's Moby Dick is the greatest novel ever written. As we learned in English class, Moby Dick is really about man's struggle against death. Well, of course it is. Moby Dick is about death, but first and foremost it is about whaling. We no longer hunt whales; at least most nations don't. This shouldn't preclude readers from enjoying two books that are fascinating explorations into Melville's world.

The first, In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, details the little-known incident that provided Melville with the foundation of his masterpiece. In 1820, the whaling ship Essex, out of Nantucket, was deliberately hit and sunk in the south Pacific by an enraged sperm whale. The ship's stunned crew of 20 was forced to make their way across 3,000 miles of open ocean to the western coast of South America. It took three months, and along the way they faced death, dehydration, starvation, and ultimately, cannibalism.

Philbrick presents this horrifying tale in a direct, deliberate manner, detailing the culture of the New England whalers, how they fit into the wider world of the early 19th century, and why their fate considering what they had to do to survive was not what we in the 21st century would expect. A sailor as well as an historian, Philbrick's richly detailed account of this tragedy stands on its own merits as a narrative; the fact that the story is the basis for one of the great novels of literature only adds to its attraction.

So, Melville had a historical basis for the sinking of the Pequod. What about Moby Dick himself? Was there a basis for this fish tale? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Tim Severin's forthcoming book, In Search of Moby Dick, explores the existence of a white whale from both an historical and a modern perspective. As Howard Schliemann searched for the gates of Troy by following Homer's writings, Severin retraces the voyage of the Pequod as well as Melville's travels through the south Pacific to get to the roots of the story. Was there a white whale? Does one exist today? He finds some surprising answers. Tropical island gods and legends lead to modern-day whale hunters who search for the great beasts much the same as their ancestors; gasoline motors attached to their outrigger canoes are their only modern innovations. Their physical daring is amazing, and their whispered stories will raise goosebumps. The vividness of Severin's writing as well as his careless disregard for his own safety make In Search of Moby Dick compelling reading.

With a major biography of Melville also on the way for summer, this promises to be a banner year for whaling or at least for the examination of it. If you are a fan of true adventure stories, snap up In Search of Moby Dick and In the Heart of the Sea.

 

James Neal Webb doesn't go fishing that often, but when he does, he always throws 'em back.

Editor’s Note: This review has been edited after publication.

So many books these days are like Chinese cooking—they're a great meal, but they don't stay with you very long. Books that endure tell us about lives we can only dream of. Austen, Dickens, and Twain all lived what they wrote about, and what they lived was radically different from what we know today.

There’s a scandal brewing at the 2012 Olympics, and if Stevie Thomas and Susan Carol Anderson are around, you might expect them to be on the trail of the story. In John Feinstein’s previous sports mysteries, teen sportswriters Stevie and Susan Carol have stopped a point-shaving scheme at the Final Four, uncovered doping at the Super Bowl and investigated the disappearance of a tennis phenom at the U.S. Open.

But this time around, Susan Carol isn’t one of the sleuths—she’s at the center of the action. In Rush for the Gold: Mystery at the Olympics, Susan Carol’s career as a high school swimmer takes off when she qualifies for the Olympic Team. Her father signs her up with a sports management team that takes the young swimmer in directions she doesn’t want to go, but the potential rewards are astonishing if she wins gold. When Stevie clashes with the overbearing agents, he starts to smell a rat, but can he reveal the truth if it costs Susan Carol a medal?

Feinstein, a best-selling author (A Season on the Brink) and former sports reporter, gives young readers an up-close view of athletics and deftly blends plot twists with insider details. Appearances by real-life figures like Michael Phelps are much more than cameos—they become part of the action. Good mysteries for kids should be complicated enough to be entertaining and believable enough for readers to identify with the characters. Feinstein succeeds at both; Rush for the Gold definitely wins a medal.

There’s a scandal brewing at the 2012 Olympics, and if Stevie Thomas and Susan Carol Anderson are around, you might expect them to be on the trail of the story. In John Feinstein’s previous sports mysteries, teen sportswriters Stevie and Susan Carol have stopped a point-shaving scheme at the Final Four, uncovered doping at the […]

Children soak up information like sponges because everything is new to them; that sense of wonder we often hear about comes naturally. When it comes to history, a child might tell their parents about the neat new book they’re reading, and the parent will usually smile and nod and go back to what they were doing—it’s history, right? We’ve heard it all before. However, Samantha Seiple’s new book, Ghosts in the Fog: The Untold Story of Alaska’s WWII Invasion, will be an exception to that rule. This nonfiction narrative tells a story that’s totally unknown to most people, one that’s so fascinating parents will be tempted to take the book right out of their child’s hands!

It seems that shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II, American forces engaged Japan on battlefields throughout the South Pacific, but they were also involved in defending this country farther north. As Seiple tells us, not only did Japan bomb the Alaskan Aleutian Islands—a fact that may be known to most history buffs—they actually invaded the remote islands. In a clear, you-are-there style, she recounts the horrific circumstances of war that came to one of the loneliest areas on the planet.

Seiple helps young readers see through the eyes of people like Mike Lokanin, who came to the Aleutians as a seven-year-old orphan, and who as an adult saw his village destroyed and was forced onto to a ship bound for Japan. Then there’s Charlie House, a Navy weatherman who was stationed on one of the bleakest of the islands, and who subsequently lived off the land for weeks following the invasion, almost starving to death before his capture.

War is not a pleasant subject, but while Seiple pulls no punches in her description of the invasion and the bloody battle to free the territory, she makes it as palatable as she can for her pre-teen audience. In many ways, Ghosts in the Fog is the story of the Pacific war in microcosm: the brutality and implacableness of the Japanese (along with the cultural background of their soldiers to put that in perspective), the fear of the civilians, the heroism and mistakes made by the military, even a relocation program aimed at Native Aleutians to rival what happened to Japanese Americans.

Ghosts in the Fog is a gripping look at an obscure part of American history, and at the reasons this episode was deliberately forgotten. Middle schoolers who read Seiple’s account will have a surprising piece of history to share with their parents.

 

James Neal Webb works in the Interlibrary Loan department of the Vanderbilt University Library.

Children soak up information like sponges because everything is new to them; that sense of wonder we often hear about comes naturally. When it comes to history, a child might tell their parents about the neat new book they’re reading, and the parent will usually smile and nod and go back to what they were […]

Look, if you’re some kind of fraidy-cat, you don’t need to read this book. Really. If you’re scared to take on anything new, just forget about this one. Try something else, like that book about the boy and the puppy. What’s the title? It’s Heart of a Samurai, by Margi Preus, but seriously, you wouldn’t like it. I mean, why would you want to read about a kid thrust into a situation that would scare the pants off of most people, when you won’t even try peas?

I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you a little bit about the book, and you’ll see that only someone really brave would want to read it—stop me if it gets too scary. Heart of a Samurai is about a Japanese kid named Manjiro; he’s 14 years old, and he lives in a fishing village, which means that when he grows up, he’ll be a fisherman too. In fact, fishing is what he’s doing when the book opens, but unfortunately for Manjiro and his companions, they’re not doing it very well. They get caught in a storm and are swept ashore on a deserted island, and as the months go by, they are slowly starving to death.

Ok, I can stop now, if you want. Starving is pretty scary. Well . . . if you insist.

Where was I? Oh, yes, starving to death. That’s when the John Howland appears on the horizon; it’s a whaling boat out of Massachusetts, and Manjiro and his friends are terrified when they are rescued. You see, it’s the year 1841, and Japan is a closed society, which has no contact with the West. Manjiro has grown up hearing all sorts of horror stories about what’s out there, far from Japan. Even worse, being taken aboard the American ship means the men will face exile, for once you’re away from Japan, you can never return. Manjiro’s group will have little to do with their rescuers, but he’s a curious boy, and before long he learns a few words of English, and finds himself working alongside the whalers. When they finally put ashore at the Sandwich Islands—what we know today as Hawaii—Manjiro (or John Mung, as he is known to the sailors) is faced with a choice: Try to get back to his native land, or accompany the vessel and its kindly captain to the place known as America.

Oh and there’s one thing I didn’t tell you—even though this is a novel, the story is based on something that really happened!

What would you do? Would you be brave enough to go? Well, no matter; you probably don’t want to read this anyway, right? Way too scary. Just in case, you can pick it up at any bookstore or library—if you have the courage.

Look, if you’re some kind of fraidy-cat, you don’t need to read this book. Really. If you’re scared to take on anything new, just forget about this one. Try something else, like that book about the boy and the puppy. What’s the title? It’s Heart of a Samurai, by Margi Preus, but seriously, you wouldn’t […]

Because he has a secret he wants to keep, Johannes von Brock needs a certain kind of traveling companion—and he thinks he’s found someone perfect for the job. Ten-year-old Ansel is a smart boy, but he’s mute, and has been since his mother died suddenly when he was seven.

When Brock comes through their medieval village, Ansel’s father virtually gives him to the man, and so the lad finds himself serving an ersatz knight on an impossible quest: dragon hunting.

Award-winning British author Philip Reeve takes an old story and turns it on its ear in No Such Thing as Dragons, a beautifully written adventure story with surprising touches of humor and insight. At the heart of this compelling tale is a youngster forced by circumstances to be more than he dreams he can be.

Brock and his silent charge are headed for the village of Knochen, where, so they say, a dragon ravages the countryside. Though Brock has been hired to slay the beast, Ansel learns from his cheerfully honest boss that dragons aren’t real, and that Brock is basically a con artist. When they arrive at Knochen, they are met by an old acquaintance of Brock’s, a friar of dubious morality named Father Flegel. He informs them that the villagers have taken a young girl named Else up to a high pasture and left her there as a sacrifice to the monster. As Ansel hears the tales of the villagers, he begins to wonder if there may be something to the stories after all, and as he, Brock and a reluctant Flegel climb the mountain in search of the little girl, signs point to just one conclusion: Brock may be wrong!

No Such Thing As Dragons is a thoughtful and rewarding story that will tempt young readers—especially boys—to quit those video games for a while and get drawn into the infinitely more vivid worlds of their own imagination.

Because he has a secret he wants to keep, Johannes von Brock needs a certain kind of traveling companion—and he thinks he’s found someone perfect for the job. Ten-year-old Ansel is a smart boy, but he’s mute, and has been since his mother died suddenly when he was seven. When Brock comes through their medieval […]

Guilt is a heavy burden to bear for adults, and it’s doubly so for a child; children don’t have the wisdom that comes with years to discern when events are due merely to chance, and when they are truly due to an individual’s actions; or maybe kids just don’t know how to rationalize themselves out of it. Fadi Sahid certainly doesn’t. The protagonist of N. H. Senzai’s debut novel, Shooting Kabul, is carrying a huge weight on his small shoulders—the loss of his sister Miriam. Born in Wisconsin to Afghani parents, he moved back to his father’s native land while barely in grade school, and now—a middle schooler—he’s escaped with his family from the Taliban-controlled country. In the confusion of the escape, his 6-year old sister Miriam is lost, and Fadi feels like it’s his fault. Now he’s living in San Francisco, coping with adjusting to a new school and new friends, but his heart is half a world away.

While Fadi can’t imagine things could get any worse, they do—a lot worse—for you see, it’s the fall of 2001, and not long after he starts school, the September 11 attack makes his life almost unbearable, with name-calling, threats and physical violence. He perseveres, however, because he has a goal. Fadi’s one passion is photography, and he joins Ms. Bethune’s Photography Club when he hears about a city-wide student photography contest; the prize is a trip to India, and Fadi thinks that from there, he should be able to make it back to Afghanistan to find his sister!

With a little help from his big sister Noor, and his friend (and potential girlfriend) Anh, Fadi will try his utmost to win the contest, bring his mother Zafoona some peace, and try to stop one bully who has it in for him. N. H. Senzai has written a compelling novel for young readers, one that puts them in the shoes of a culture that’s been largely misunderstood because of recent events. And it has an ending that you won’t see coming; what more could you ask for?

Guilt is a heavy burden to bear for adults, and it’s doubly so for a child; children don’t have the wisdom that comes with years to discern when events are due merely to chance, and when they are truly due to an individual’s actions; or maybe kids just don’t know how to rationalize themselves out […]

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