Sea Literature Is a Sight for Shore Eyes

As summer nears, thoughts might turn to cruise ships, sailboats, and other relaxing watercraft. But we’re here to talk about vessels and voyages in literature, where sea things are often more dramatic.

Whether fictional characters are atop an ocean or river, it can mean adventure, discovery, danger, isolation, discomfort, romance, and other stuff that keeps readers glued to a book’s pages. Hopefully, water-resistant glue.

Among the writers who immediately come to mind when discussing sea literature are Homer and Herman Melville. (Homer’s last name was not Melville.) I haven’t read The Odyssey, so I can’t say much about that epic poem, but I’ve read most of Melville’s work — and a huge portion of it takes place off land.

There’s obviously Moby-Dick, but also Typee and Omoo (sailing to and from islands), Redburn (semi-autobiographical chronicle of an educated sailor’s voyage to England amid a rough crew), White-Jacket (an also-semi-autobiographical novel set on a U.S. Navy boat), Benito Cereno (riveting slave-rebellion story), and Billy Budd (unforgettable shipboard court martial). With his frequent emphasis on the sea, Melville certainly differed from many other authors who situated only one or a handful of their literary output amid the waves.

In addition to drawing on his own sailing experiences, Melville might have been partly inspired to write Moby-Dick (1851) after reading Edgar Allan Poe’s only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). Poe also turned to the sea for some of his riveting short stories, including “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom.”

Later in the 19th century came Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (most of which takes place on or near the Mississippi River that Huck and Jim take a raft to), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Alexandre Dumas’ The Last Cavalier (which includes a memorable historical-fiction moment depicting the shipboard death of Admiral Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar). There are ultra-compelling water scenes, too, in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda.

Around the time the 19th century became the 20th, Joseph Conrad wrote The Heart of Darkness (with its eerie voyage up the Congo River that would inspire the film Apocalypse Now) and Lord Jim (starring a young seaman whose abandon-ship cowardice colors the rest of his life).

After 1900, stories with some or many water elements continued to abound. For instance, Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf features a cruel and charismatic ship captain who makes life hell for his crew, and that same author’s Martin Eden stars a sailor-turned-writer who goes back to the sea for a fateful voyage at novel’s end.

There’s also Jim the retired ship captain who figures prominently in Anne’s House of Dreams — one of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables sequels. Another sequel — Jack Finney’s so-so From Time to Time that continues the story of that author’s haunting Time and Again — includes scenes on the Titanic. Speaking of that ill-fated ship, Robert Serling wrote Something’s Alive on the Titanic, a novel with a title that’s kind of hokey but with content that’s pretty absorbing.

A romantic river voyage for the ages ends Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, the title character of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree lives in a Tennessee River houseboat, a ship captain landing in circa-1600 Japan finds all kinds of intrigue in James Clavell’s Shogun, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex depicts a trans-Atlantic voyage of two Greek immigrants — a voyage to America so many immigrants made.

Also in post-1900 lit, a claustrophobic German submarine is the milieu of Lothar-Gunther Buchheim’s Das Boot, a shark wreaks havoc in Peter Benchley’s Jaws, the title character boards a ship to her native Greenland in Peter Hoeg’s mystery thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and a shipwreck puts a boy and tiger in close proximity in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

Speaking of shipwrecks, let’s not forget Daniel Defoe’s 18th-century classic Robinson Crusoe.

What are your favorite literary works containing ships, sea voyages, water themes, and the like?

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157 thoughts on “Sea Literature Is a Sight for Shore Eyes

  1. I haven’t read much sea literature, but I remember reading “Mutiny On The Bounty” in high school. This novel is based on an actual mutiny in the British Navy during the late 18th Century. Except for the fictional protagonist/narrator and a handful of other characters, most of the characters in this novel were actual historical figures.

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  2. The end of Double Indemnity on the steam ship heading to Mexico was rather something despite what was about to happen. Huck Finn and Treasure Island came instantly to mind. Always liked that apple barrell scene in the latter. On the sub of books I read when I was younger, I did like the Arthur Catherall stories set in Singapore aboard a tug. Lots of adventure and I still have some of them. I also loved the Joseph O’Connor book Star of the Sea. about the Irish famine ship heading to New York. But stories at sea or involving a ship wreck, they do have something in terms of enclosed worlds. Great post. Finally getting a chance to read and comment today.

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  3. I enjoyed this post, and your other sea-related posts. Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe were the first books that hit me powerfully. I notice you reference them in other posts. I read Treasure Island perhaps ten times as a kid, and it had a massive impact on my literary tastes and my life. I didn’t go to sea, but Treasure Island introduces something beyond that: an intrigue with adventure and breaking with the ordinary “landlubbing” life. One doesn’t necessarily need to sail the high seas to embrace the ethos of it.

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    • Thank you, damoneramone! Well said! Yes, novels with sea voyages can be very compelling and give readers plenty of vicarious thrills. Perhaps especially those books (like “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe”) written and/or set a long time ago — when ships and other things were so different.


    • “Moby-Dick” IS an amazing novel, Jean. I’ve read it twice, but wouldn’t mind reading it again someday.

      I just looked at the Facebook page for the “Moby Dick Festival Youghal,” and it sounds like a great event!

      Now I’m trying to remember if Herman Melville set part of any of his novels or stories in Ireland. The voyage in “Redburn” did end up in England, but that’s of course not the same thing… πŸ™‚

      Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think he did, Dave. Youghal has the director John Huston to thank for the connection to Moby Dick. It was his and Ray Bradbury’s screenplay that was used in the production of the film in the 1950’s. The scene where Captain Ahab’s ship leaves ‘New Bedford’ was filmed in our harbour. You can see Youghal lighthouse as the vessel sails out to sea and many of the locals played the part of those standing on the quayside to see the ship and her crew off.

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        • Ah, your interesting comment explains it, Jean. Thanks! If I ever watch that movie again, I’ll look at the lighthouse and the locals with different eyes!

          John Huston certainly filmed some great literary works in addition to Melville’s novel: “The Dead,” “The Red Badge of Courage,” “The Night of the Iguana,” etc. And Ray Bradbury was a terrific writer — who, from what I’ve read, had some difficulty with the “Moby-Dick” screenplay because he was accustomed to writing his own work rather than adapting the work of others. But he pulled it off.

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  4. Dave, I’m amazed at how many novels have been mentioned by your followers and well-read fellow book lovers, but unless I missed it, no one mentioned Katerine Ann Porter’s “Ship of Fools”, about a ragtag group of passengers on a German ship going from Mexico to Europe at the time of WWII. I read it decades ago, the characters were unbalanced in various degrees, and if I remember correctly the subtext was the increasing power of Nazism. it was a good read, but not memorable IMO, although it was a best seller at the time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Nope, “Ship of Fools” hadn’t been mentioned. Thanks, Clairdelune! Certainly one of the more interestingly (and perhaps accurately) titled novels. πŸ™‚

      The time period that Katherine Anne Porter book was set in reminds me a bit of another novel, Leon Uris’ “Exodus,” which I have not read.

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          • I remember Plato’s parable from my philosophy classes. A few years ago I found this summary online and saved it because it coincides perfectly with my view of humanity in general, there are so many who behave behaving just like these, especially in government… 😦
            October 11, 2007
            Plato’s Ship of Fools

            In the Republic, book vi, Plato describes the following scene:

            “Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering –every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling. Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?” [Translated by Benjamin Jowett]

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  5. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie, but:

    The Sand Pebbles is a well-written novel about our white man’s burden up the river on a gunboat in China before Mao took all. Richard McKenna, author, was a US Navy veteran who poured much of what he knew and saw over there into his only published novel. Sold the film rights, and died six months later. The descriptions of the engine room and its occupants are especially good.

    ‘Mac’ McKenna was a part of the Chapel Hill writer crowd my parents knew when my father was working on his dissertation at UNC. He also came by our place when I turned six, and gave me a present of a pencil that said ‘Save your Confederate money, boys. The South will rise again.’ I saved the pencil for many years, but somewhere sometime it perished. Sadly, the sentiment has proved evergreen.

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    • I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, jhNY, so thanks for the information. A shame Richard McKenna wrote only one novel and then died not long after it came out. Almost like Lampedusa and “The Leopard,” though Lampedusa didn’t even see his one novel get published.

      Very nice that your family had a personal connection with McKenna! Interesting pencil inscription… πŸ™‚


      • He worked on that book for several years, after a strenuous naval career, which included time on gunboats as featured in The Sand Pebbles. I think he more or less wore himself out.

        His wife was able to live in comfortable retirement, I believe I recall, thanks to his novel’s, and the movie’s, success.

        If you ever stumble on the book, take a look inside. Might find it hospitable.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sometimes one book can indeed wear out an author (especially when another career saps a lot of energy, too). But if Richard McKenna was going to write only a single novel, he made it count popularity-wise and, from what you say, quality-wise. Also nice that he left an “inheritance” for his wife…


  6. Here are a other few boat-centric bits, some riparian (thanks, Hyacinth!), some oceanic, unmentioned by other so far, so far as I noted glancing through:

    The Death Ship, by B. Traven– a reader review I found online called this book something like an unholy pairing of Jack London and Celine, and I think that’s about right. A luckless sailor, without ID or money, winds up on a tottering hulk of a ship more valuable sunk than afloat.

    Iron Coffins– this is not a novel per se, but a memoir with novelistic story arc, written by one of the few u-boat captains to have made it through WWII from beginning to end. A ripping sea yarn told from the other side.

    The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom– a tale taking place between states, where living ends for travelers on deck of a cruise ship, but not before a story.

    The Drunken Boat, by Arthur Rimbaud– a longish poem set on the water, which goes, no hand on the tiller, sans paddle, with the flow all over.

    I would also like to mention Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, which opens with a boy on a river– I like this beginning so much that his eventual coming ashore was a letdown from which my interest in the book never recovered.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, jhNY! I’m not surprised that you came up with several not-super-known-but-sound-great books on this topic! “The Death Ship” sounds especially intriguing. Maybe a little touch of Poe in there along with Jack London and Celine?


  7. Hey Dave and the rest of you land lubbers πŸ™‚ Great post as always glad to see/sea the Patrick O’Brian novels got a plug early ,can’t recommend them highly enough if you’re looking for a fun not too serious but well written exciting story. For sea tales it’s actually a movie that occurs to me first off, Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. If I’m ever shipwrecked in hostile waters surrounded by NAZIs on and off the boat please let it be with the amazingly sexy Tallulah Bankhead !

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    • Landlubbers — nice! πŸ™‚ I plead guilty, though I did see a few rain puddles this evening…

      After reading what you and others have been saying, I look forward to reading a Patrick O’Brian novel!

      Yes, the masterful Hitchcock’s watery “Lifeboat” movie is great — as was the humor in your comment’s last line!


            • Cocaine use, at least according to L. Hellman (though just where I cannot say– it’s been years since I read this stuff)– not an altogether trustworthy source, but one of the few, period.

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              • Thanks, jhNY. Tallulah Bankhead did seem to “burn the candle at both ends,” as they say. Of course, many male actors did/do the same, and don’t get vilified as much. Sexism, as always, from certain men. (But not you!) And not-always-great behavior from certain women when speaking of their fellow women. Lillian Hellman certainly was involved in some serious rivalry stuff.


                • What many no longer know about her, from wikipedia:

                  “She came from the powerful Bankhead-and-Brockman political family, active in the Democratic Party in the South in general and Alabama in particular. Her father was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1936 to 1940. She was the niece of Senator John H. Bankhead II and granddaughter of Senator John H. Bankhead.”

                  I imagine her tendency to outrageousness and her generally liberal politics caused no end of headache for the clan.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Great info, jhNY! Oftentimes in this country, outrageousness can be “forgiven,” but not liberal politics. 😦 Especially if the liberal is from a fancy family that expects their members to be good little selfish conservatives. (Back in Bankhead’s day, as you know, the Democratic Party in the South was as bad in many ways — on race, etc. — as the GOP is today.)


  8. Hi Dave … Great column as usual, and so many interesting comments, also as usual. My offering would be Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi”. I think I mentioned before that I discovered that book, and my love for Mark Twain, in high school. There was a chapter — I think it may have been the first chapter — from the book in our English Lit. textbook. I remember being bored to death by some of the stuff in that book, but when I read that chapter from “Life on the Mississippi”, I became wide awake. Up until then, I had never read anything where the words were put together so wonderfully. I checked the book out from the school library, and Mark Twain has been my favorite author ever since. It’s funny, though, that my favorite author didn’t write my two favorite books — “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Great Gatsby”, or even my third favorite, “Gone With The Wind”. But as Scarlett O’Hara was prone to say, “I won’t think about that today. I’ll think about that tomorrow”. Have a great week, Dave πŸ™‚

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    • “Life on the Mississippi” IS a great book, Pat. Part memoir, part history — and, as you say, SO well written.

      I know what you mean about having a favorite author who didn’t write your favorite novels. I imagine several of Twain’s books are in your top 25, or top 50, or top 100, while Harper Lee has had only one novel published (that will change this summer, of course) and “The Great Gatsby” is by far F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best work (though I think “Tender in the Night,” despite not being written as perfectly, has more of an emotional punch).

      Very funny Scarlett O’Hara ending to your comment — πŸ™‚ — and have a great week, too!

      (Oh, and thank you for the kind words — and I agree that the comments have been terrific, as usual.)


        • You’re right — Twain was such a great observer! He seemed to be fascinated by people, while not always liking them. And he of course found a lot of humor in what some people said and did.


          • Dave, he was an incredible observer and often wrote about “snobs”, for lack of a better word, and their ability to pretend to themselves that they are experts on a language or culture, or location, after visiting it just once and trying to impress other travelers in the group on how much (or how little according to Twain) they know. Maybe I am thinking more of Innocents Abroad than Life on the Mississippi.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Well said! Twain definitely had a radar for snobs (and hypocrites, etc.) he met when traveling (or not traveling).

              As we might have discussed, “The Innocents Abroad” is my favorite travel book ever.

              You certainly have a lot of great experience traveling yourself!


  9. Dave, after I posted my comment in the middle of the night (after finishing an urgent job) and slept for a few hours, I remembered two other novels involving the sea that I liked very much: “Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stevenson, about a young Scottish boy kidnapped by an evil uncle and sold to the captain of a ship headed for the Carolinas; the boy (David, I think) discovers that he is to be sold in slavery. The sea voyage is fraught with violence and murder, then a shipwreck kills nearly everyone. David survives as a castaway on an island, until someone helps him find his way back home to Scotland; he has a few adventures, gets involved in political fighting, and the evil uncle eventually gets his comeuppance.
    Another novel that I read more than once is a philosophical science fiction tale, “Solaris” by Stanislaw Lem: Solaris is a planet entirely covered by a most peculiar ocean that turns out to be sentient and capable of controlling the minds of the astronauts t trying to explore the planet. At times I wonder whether our oceans are upset with the damage we are inflicting on them and the creatures that live in them….
    A couple of movie versions were made of it, both pretty good in different ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Clairdelune, for mentioning two other sea-related books!

      I read “Kidnapped” as a teen, and was enthralled. You wrote a great description of it! Robert Louis Stevenson certainly authored some intense stuff. My favorite novel of his is “Weir of Hermiston,” which unfortunately was unfinished (he died while writing it) but I thought was his most “literary” and polished work.

      From your summary, “Solaris” sounds mesmerizing. Now on my (ocean-sized πŸ™‚ ) reading list. Yes, if the ocean or its creatures could think like humans, they’d understandably be mighty angry at humans.

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  10. I loved the sea since I first caught a glimpse of it from the train at the age of 4. That love eventually extended to all bodies of water: lakes, rivers, puddles… πŸ™‚ So, when around the age of 10 I discovered the 10+ books by the Italian writer Emilio Salgari about the adventures of the pirate Sandokan, the “Tiger of Malaysia”, I spent the next few years immersed in sea voyages and naval battles and faraway places, although they were not written for children. A few years ago I discovered that most of the novels have been translated into English, so I bought them for my young grandson.
    As an adult, I enjoyed immensely the ten novels by C.S. Forester about Captain Horatio Hornblower and his rousing adventures at sea (and his romantic adventures on land). I also liked the three excellent movies made about four years ago, with Ioan “easy on the eyes” Gruffudd as the Captain.
    I loved Loren Eiseley’s poetic/philosophical musings in “The Star Thrower” – he is on the beach where he finds starfish stranded on the sand by the receding tides, and meets a man who saves the starfish by picking them up and throwing them back in the sea – from there he goes on writing beautifully about life, death, the sea, and nature (he was an anthropologist, a natural science writer, and a poet at heart) .
    Then there are the “Stories of Hawaii” by Jack London – although the sea is not the focus of the stories, it is an integral part because it surrounds the islands and pervades the life of the inhabitants. Those stories are the main reason why eventually I spent ten years in Hawaii, after dreaming about the islands since my early teens. I also like his “Sea Wolf” very much.
    Lastly, the obvious tale about the ultimate sea voyage – and much more – is “Moby Dick”.
    By the way, I love water but can’t swim!!
    P.S. Dave, am glad you liked “Smilla’s Sense of Snow”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Clairdelune, for the terrific and wide-ranging comment reflecting your interesting reading life and your interesting “life” life.

      Pirate literature is so exciting to a young reader. Pirates tend to be “bad guys,” but they also are often charismatic and get into all kinds of adventures. Of course, their victims aren’t happy with them… Still, some pirates can be Robin Hood types.

      The novels starring Captain Horatio Hornblower are a great addition to this discussion! I haven’t read them, but have heard good things about them. As for Ioan Gruffudd, the only time I saw him on screen was in his small but great part in “Titanic”; at l least he was in a water setting. πŸ™‚

      “The Star Thrower” sounds amazing, and it’s impressive how an authorial work (Jack London’s “Stories of Hawaii”) can have so much impact that it influences a person’s choice of where to live for a while.

      “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” wasn’t a perfect novel (it could have been somewhat shorter and the ending was perhaps too low-key after the buildup). But the book and its protagonist are VERY original and intriguing. I felt like I was entering a totally different world. And the evil that people in power are capable of to cover up things — ouch. 😦

      Sorry you can’t swim. Smilla certainly needed that skill when escaping that burning boat. But, luckily, most of us do not get in situations like that!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I LOVE books set in/on/and around the sea. And I love this column about such! I think that you, Dave, would love “Letters from Sea, 1882-1901,” which puts photos and text to a family’s years in the merchant sailing business – raising their children on board, dealing with the vicissitudes of business, weather, you name it. It was a bargain on Daedalus Books. I find too many great, inexpensive books there!

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  12. Dave, looking at book about the sea I remember Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a large number of books involving the sea. More recently there are the Dirk Pitt novels and the spin-off NUMA Files by Clive Cussler.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Dave, I’m going to go totally off-topic here, but I am so outraged by something I read today. There was actually an article on Huff-Po that had to do with Jonathan Franzen bashing Edith Wharton (you know how highly I think of her and her books). Franzen’s review was from three years ago in The New Yorker, and he wasn’t necessarily dismissive of her books, especially of “The House of Mirth,” “The Custom of the Country,” and “The Age of Innocence.” but instead made the case that Wharton is not sympathetic. Why? Because (1) she’s not pretty; (2) she’s not charming; and (3) she is just so rich. Since when did reviews of any man’s books be put down to this level? He also didn’t share my love of Lily Bart, because she was so beautiful that she should have just married an idiot with a fortune, rather than hold out for true love. He also is a fan of Undine Spragg, because she was so…I don’t know why. He did make the comment that Wharton’s use of her name (US) showed an anti-American sentiment as she lived many years in Europe. He also forgot to mention Wharton’s philanthropic work, because that would undermine his whole thesis as a rich American who didn’t do anything to help her fellow citizens. Please excuse my rant. but
    Franzen isn’t someone I hold up for great literary values. I started “Freedom” and tossed it out after three or four chapters

    Liked by 1 person

    • Off-topic is fine, Kat Lib, and Jonathan Franzen does seem “at sea” here. πŸ™‚

      I’ve read “Freedom,” and liked most of it, but dissing Edith Wharton because she was allegedly “not pretty” and “not charming” is just plain sexist. As you say, someone reviewing a male author’s work would almost never say something like that or get away with saying something like that.

      As for Wharton being rich, I must admit that I was bothered a bit by that before I read her, but she was a terrific author so her bank account was basically irrelevant. Besides, Wharton often tweaked the ways of the wealthy in her novels (such as the aforementioned “The House of Mirth” and “The Custom of the Country”).

      One major thing that was appealing about Lily Bart was the very fact that she had some integrity — which, in a better world, would have led to good things for her.

      Admiring Undine Spragg? Well, she did have some “gumption,” but was overall a rather loathsome person.

      So, to make a long story short, I understand your anger!


  14. Great topic again Dave…” The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway, What a literature the old man could not catch a fish for 84 days his dear friend “the boy” who would bring food to him. Then with catching this ridiculously big ” Marlin” the game started trying to tame marlin and the story continued..

    On a side note I finished ” Harold Fry” this afternoon..Last night toward the end I learned something that I never anticipated and it put me through a sleepless night Dave. That`s all I could say and not be a spoiler…

    I cant read the second book anytime soon, i`ll return it for the time being and go back to Lee Child and Reacher my security…:)

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    • Thanks, bebe! So you’d recommend “The Old Man and the Sea”?

      Great that you finished “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”! It’s not often that a novel can truly surprise a person, so that’s one very strong reason to read that book.

      Yes, Lee Child and Jack Reacher never disappoint. A nice security indeed! In about two weeks, I’ll try another myself. πŸ™‚

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      • Absolutely, I highly recommend !
        On Rachael Joyce I was totally unprepared..why always the prize winning books pulls your heartstrings I wonder.
        I am planning to go easy for a while Dave.
        Yes as you mentioned Life of Pi an awesome book by Yann Martel another great book. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea have not read but watched the movie many times.

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  15. Hi Dave, I have a vague memory of having to read Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” back when I was in school, but it obviously didn’t make much of an impression on me. Another work we had to read was the long poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” All I could really remember about that was the killing of the albatross that he then had to wear around his neck, and two of the lines of a poem that I still can quote from memory, “Water, water everywhere – Nor any drop to drink.” One of my favorite Agatha Christie novels is “Death on the Nile,” featuring Hercule Poirot. Much of the book takes place on a Nile river cruise, something I used to really want to do (now, not so much). I read a few Tom Clancy novels back in the 1980’s, and I especially enjoyed movies made from “The Hunt for Red October,” which features a Soviet naval captain of a submarine trying to defect to the West; and “Patriot Games,” which concludes with a thrilling boat race and battle down the Chesapeake Bay. While not based on a book. one of my favorite films is “The Abyss,” written and directed by James Cameron. It takes place entirely on or underwater, with a civilian diving team from an oil platform working with a SEAL unit to locate a lost nuclear submarine, as are the Soviets. Then there is a sci-fi element, as well, and I found it to be quite fascinating. The fact that it starred Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio didn’t exactly hurt either.

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    • Terrific comment, Kat Lib!

      I’d like to read “The Old Man and the Sea” one of these days. I have mixed feelings about Hemingway, but did find “For Whom the Bell Tolls” compelling when I read it last summer.

      I also read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” — in a college course that also included other poets of that era in addition to Coleridge: Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Blake. I can’t remember much of “Rime,” either, and hadn’t recalled that the iconic line “Water, water everywhere…” was part of the poem until you mentioned it. Thanks! πŸ™‚

      Thanks, also, for your interesting Christie, Clancy, and Cameron mentions. I know Cameron has taken some deep dives himself, to the Titanic and so on. I’ve never seen “The Abyss,” but did see his “Titanic” movie, and, as hokey as it was in some ways, it was one powerful piece of film-making.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s funny that for the life of me I couldn’t remember the title of Coleridge’s poem, but when I typed “The Albatross” into my search engine, there were quite a few mentions of his poem, as well as the word “albatross” as metaphor. As for Cameron, I liked most of his earlier work better than “Titanic” (“The Terminator,” “Aliens,” “Terminator 2,” and of course “The Abyss”). A friend and I started watching a DVD of “Avatar” and became so bored that we ended up talking through the whole movie — maybe you had to see it in 3D IMAX.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Typing a word or sentence into a search engine often does the trick, Kat Lib! I’ve also done that to identify songs I know just a line or two of.

          The only James Cameron movies I’ve seen are “Titanic” and “Avatar,” so I’m ignorant about his earlier work. Sounds like it was quite good! I did see “Avatar” in 3D, which helped — that movie was a visual and special-effects treat. But I found “Titanic” more engrossing on a human level.

          Liked by 1 person

          • In my memory, I tend to confuse “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” with “The Wreck of the Hesperus”. The former has the albatross and the latter has the captain’s daughter tied to the mast!

            Liked by 1 person

          • Dave, I couldn’t let this column go by without mentioning my beloved Jane Austen. Of course none of her novels take place at sea or on any body of water, but the Royal Navy plays a big role in the novel “Persuasion.” Captain Wentworth was not considered “good enough” to marry Anne Elliot when he was a naval officer with no prospects, but when he comes back seven years later quite wealthy after serving in the Napoleonic Wars, the perception of him changes in the eyes of her family and her closest friend and mentor, Lady Russell. Austen had two brothers who served in the Royal Navy and rose to the rank of Admiral. It’s telling that most all of the best characters in the book are involved with the Navy: Admiral Croft, and his wife who almost always travels with him on board ship; Captain Harville and his wife; Captain Benwick; and of course the dashing Captain Wentworth. Anne is I think the most admirable of all Austen’s heroines, perhaps partly because she is more mature and also suffered heartbreak with calling off her engagement to Captain Wentworth at such an early age. OK, there’s my Austen comment of the week, or nearly every one. πŸ™‚

            Liked by 1 person

            • That’s true about a Navy element in “Persuasion,” Kat Lib! And it has been so many years since I read a Jane Austen biography that I had forgotten about her Navy brothers.

              Anne Elliot is indeed a VERY admirable and likable character, and her presence in some ways makes “Persuasion” my favorite Austen novel — even over “Pride and Prejudice.”

              Another great comment! Anyone reading the comment who hasn’t yet read “Persuasion” might be tempted to read it now. πŸ™‚


        • Thanks, Donny! Another “The Old Man and the Sea” recommendation! Something tells me I may be reading that novel in the not-too-distant future… πŸ™‚

          (I’m also not a huge Hemingway fan but do like some of his work.)


  16. Very appropriate topic. We are ferrying across the Puget Sound this evening to return home after the Memorial Day festival here on the peninsula. Time is limited, so I shall keep this brief.

    (1) When Eight Bells Toll (Alistair MacClean) – this is set in the Irish Sea and involves the investigation into the hijacking, hostage-taking, and murder aboard five cargo ships. The “base” (if you want to call it that) of the lead spy assigned to the job is his own personal yacht called The Firecrest.

    (2) The Log from the Sea of Cortez (John Steinbeck) – personal reflections of Steinbeck during the journey he took with a good friend named Ed Ricketts. Ricketts was a marine biologist who frequently collected specimens in the California waters. John Steinbeck accompanied his friend on one of these specimen collecting trips, and wrote about their experiences as they sailed in Mexico and along the Pacific Coast.

    (3) The Sinking of the Titanic & Other Great Sea Disasters (Logan Marshall) – very detailed book of the events that took place on the Titanic and the rescue ship Carpathia. I read somewhere that Logan Marshall interviewed several survivors, and was able to gain access to a lot of important documents and photos related to the Titanic, which was why he wrote such a detailed book w/first hand accounts of what really happened. And towards the end of the book, there is a roster of all of the passengers who perished on the Titanic. I really liked the survival stories from passengers on Carpathia. The story of the Titanic often ends there with little to no mention of the rescue ship, but Logan Marshall put as much focus on the Carpathia as he did the Titanic.

    (4) Afloat on the Ohio (Rueben Gold Thwaites) – one of my favourite travel books that taps into 19th century American history. Thwaites sailed from Pennsylvania to Illinois, temporarily settled on the Ohio River, and collected folklore along the way. Very charming book on the earlier settlers/explorers/travelers along the Ohio River…how they lived, their personal stories, etc. Thwaites could be described as one of the pioneers who exposed people in the Eastern states to the Midwest.

    I know sea travel was not a theme in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but just mentioning the Ohio River reminded me of that scene where Eliza escaped across the Ohio River by balancing her and her son on the big ice chunks. The slave catcher who was given the order to capture Eliza described her as a wildcat, and said he’d never seen a sight like that before. That was indeed a powerful and memorable scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Great additions to this discussion, Ana! And you will be living the shipboard life this evening. πŸ™‚

      I recently read Alistair MacLean on your recommendation (“Where Eagles Dare”), and he is a VERY exciting writer.

      I’ve never gotten to “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” but, as you know, John Steinbeck depicted a fictional version of Ed Ricketts in his terrific “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday” novels.

      In addition to the riveting Ohio River scene you described in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel has another memorable waterway scene when Tom saves Eva after she falls overboard.

      And thanks for the interesting other parts of your comment, about “The Sinking of the Titanic & Other Great Sea Disasters” and “Afloat on the Ohio”!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I loved John Steinbeck’s depiction of Ed Ricketts in “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday”. My brother had read and had a copy of every book ever written by John Steinbeck, but we could not locate “The Log From the Sea of Cortez” when we were searching through his titles. He must have loaned it and never gotten it back. That is on my “must read” list.

        Liked by 1 person

        • lulabelle, the person who borrowed that book from your brother and never returned it is lucky — and perhaps a bit irresponsible? πŸ™‚

          Ana, who commented above, also has a great Steinbeck collection. I just own a couple of his books; the rest I’ve read courtesy of the library.

          And, yes, “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday” are just wonderful. Not the “epic” Steinbeck of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” but so warm and funny and full of the life of America’s non-“one percent” of the time.

          Liked by 1 person

          • They were so great that I wished that Steinbeck had done yet another sequel called “Finally Friday” or something! I didn’t want to end my association with these characters! It was hard to let them go!

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            • I totally hear you, lulabelle, about not wanting to let certain characters and stories go. And “Finally Friday” would have been a clever, terrific name!

              You’ve just given me an idea for a future blog post (probably in June) — something like “Novels We’d Most Like to See a Sequel To, But the Author Is Dead.” Thanks! I will give you a credit. πŸ™‚

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          • Partial prologue from Sweet Thursday:

            One night Mack lay back on his bed in the Palace Flophouse, and he said “I ain’t never been satisfied with that book Cannery Row, I would of went about it different.

            And after a while he rolled over and raised his head on his hand and he said, “I guess I’m just a critic. But if I ever come across that guy that wrote that book I could tell him a few things.”

            LOL. I love the idea of Mack trash-talking and wanting to criticize “the guy who wrote Cannery Row.” He is easily in my top 5 list of favourite book characters. Mack is that everyday type of great guy that so many of us can relate to.

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            • Thanks for posting that excerpt, Ana! I love it when a character created by an author talks about the author (especially when it’s in a humorously critical way) — and you posted a great example of that. A very nice way for an author to be self-deprecating. πŸ™‚


        • The sardine boat named the Western Flyer that Steinbeck and Ricketts sailed on is located in a shipyard here in Washington state. Plans to restore the boat and move it to Monterey are in the works.

          A former scientist that lives in Seattle wrote “The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries.” It was published in March of this year. When I first bought this book, I only skimmed it because I want to save it for later. What I did read was VERY good, and it was hard to stop.

          Just an FYI, in case this is something you’d like to read that relates to John Steinbeck.

          Liked by 1 person

          • That boat will certainly be a lure for diehard Steinbeck fans, Ana!

            “The Western Flyer” book sounds really interesting, but I suppose I should read Steinbeck’s “The Log From the Sea of Cortez” book first. πŸ™‚


            • It sure will. You already know I’ll be there. I hope it gets developed into a floating museum, something educational to pay homage to the marine science expeditions the boat was used for.

              Sea of Cortez is hard to find. I was lucky to come across it. And btw, I’ll be picking up The Wayward Bus from my go-to bookstore on Saturday, so that’s another Steinbeck book to add to my sizable collection:) Try not to get too jealous…

              Liked by 1 person

              • A floating museum would be excellent!

                I read “The Wayward Bus” a few years ago. Not one of Steinbeck’s top novels by any means, but I still thought it was really good. And, like many other Steinbeck books, it was turned into a film (as you probably know). Jayne Mansfield and Joan Collins were among the cast members.

                Liked by 1 person

  17. I always think of Mutiny on the Bounty plus so many novels by Jules Verne. I am in Narirta airport right now on my way to Beijing. The Tempest also comes to mind. Sometimes, the sea may be a McGuffin, as Roger Ebert used to call any device that tests characters toward development, yet is forgotten about ta the end. Kind of like naval “road trips”, where the reason why they started is all forgotten, but they grow closer together.
    I will try to post more often as I get settled in China.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad your move to China is advancing, Eric! Thanks for commenting during such a busy time.

      “Mutiny on the Bounty” is certainly one of the most famous of sea tales. For whatever reason, I’ve never read it. (Though, not really related to your comment, it just occurred to me that I’ve read some of the “Sinbad the Sailor” tales and forgot to put that in my column. πŸ™‚ )

      Great thoughts about authors using the sea/sea voyages as vehicles to discuss non-sea things: relationships, the meaning of life, and more. Sort of like a watery backdrop.


      • Along the same vein is Huck Finn, in which the river almost becomes a character in the novel being described as majestic and requiring a sense of solemness and respect.

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          • I am now in our school library, after settling in, or trying to, and thinking of The Odyssey, Kon-Tiki and the increible account of Heyerdahl’s Recreation of the voyage. The Old Man and the Sea is also coming to mind plus there is nothing like almost 600 pages of Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle, though ti may primarily be classifies as non-fiction, it carries the weight of great literature.

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            • “Kon-Tiki”! I read that as a teen. Fascinating book. And thanks for naming those other fiction and nonfiction classics.

              So you’ve made it to China, Eric? When does your job start, or has it started?


              • Dave, I start on Monday. Just finished opening up a bank account and getting myself familiar with the city of Ningbo, on the east coast of China. I haven’t looked into Chinese literature yet, but after a year of Murakami, I am more than due for a change in climate and culture. The new environment here is extremely pleasant.

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                • Not long to settle in before you start teaching again, Eric! But it sounds like you’re in a good situation, and change can certainly be interesting and refreshing.

                  I’m trying to recall if I’ve ever read a novel by a Chinese author. I don’t think so. Would be very happy to hear any recommendations from you over the next few months.


                  • Chinse stories are abound in AP English lit class, but right now, my mind is om so many things, I can only think of stories by Amy Tan that are quite popular with students. Though Asian American, born in California, her stories embue a great deal of Chinese culture.

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                    • Amy Tan’s work IS excellent. I’ve read “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” and liked both.

                      Moving and starting a new job do indeed keep a mind VERY occupied. (And it wasn’t that long ago that you went through the same thing with your move from South Korea to Japan.) I look forward to hearing how your new teaching experiences go!


                    • Thanks so much Dave. I will keep you posted on the latest news, if I have any. I did make it here OK, so one small step at a time.

                      Liked by 1 person

  18. Have you ever read “Two Years Before the Mast”, Dave? It is a memoir by the American author Richard Henry Dana, Jr., published in 1840, having been written after a two-year sea voyage starting in 1834. The book is not a novel, but it is an adventure story, nonetheless. I tried to read it, but lost interest after a while. A sailor friend from Mystic, Connecticut loaned it to me. Of course, he thought it was wonderful πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read it, lulabelle. I did just look at the Wikipedia description of the memoir, and it sounds like it has its interesting moments. Plus it appears that Herman Melville was influenced a bit by Dana’s writing, and Melville mentioned “Two Years Before the Mast” in “White-Jacket”!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. I know I repeat myself, but “A Single Pebble” by John Hersey is the most compelling novel about an American engineer who travels up the Yangtze River looking for likely dam sites. The book is haunting in its descriptions of the people, the culture, and the Three Gorges region of China. Although written in 1956, the novel is prophetic of the things that have now come to pass. Hersey’s writing is simply beautiful. It reminds me so much of the writing of Hilton.

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    • Thanks, lulabelle! I know I must have that book on my to-read list somewhere, but I’m adding it again just in case.

      A compelling description (by you) of what sounds like a very compelling novel.

      Any writing that can compare to James Hilton’s writing is GREAT!


      • I also meant to say that I’m glad you mentioned Billy Budd. That novel has haunted me since I read it in my college days. What a TRAGIC story!

        Liked by 1 person

        • “Billy Budd” IS haunting and tragic, while also being beautifully written.

          And the story behind it is fascinating. As you probably know, Melville fell into obscurity by the late 1850s, and didn’t write any fiction other than poetry for many years while working as a customs inspector in New York City. Then he started “Billy Budd” in the late 1880s, and I believe it wasn’t quite finished when Melville died in 1891. The manuscript wasn’t “discovered” for several decades, and “Billy Budd” finally got published in 1924.

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    • Thanks for mentioning that book, lulabelle. I took a history course on Modern China back in college and found it very interesting (of course this goes back to 1971). My first exposure to John Hersey’s writings was his non-fiction book on “Hiroshima,” which depicted the days before and a year following the atomic bomb drop through the eyes of six survivors. It was horrifying to read about, and I suppose is always somehow at the back of my mind when reading about nuclear talks today. He also wrote the Pulitzer-Prize fiction winner, “A Bell for Adano,” which takes place in an Allied-occupied Italian town. Dave, I just learned that he was great friends with Ralph Ellison, and they shared a compound in Key West. “Invisible Man” was one of his favorite books and often used it as a model for his writing classes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Kat Lib! I did not know that John Hersey and Ralph Ellison had been close friends! “Invisible Man” is certainly a great novel — prominent on my someday-to-reread list. The devastating “Hiroshima” is the only Hersey book I’ve read.


    • I’ve got to admit, I’ve forgotten most of it, but the film done not too many years back, was very good. Smilla’s Sense of Snow is an awesome title.

      Reading the article reminded me of the stories told of sea voyages by our Presidents, John Adams, Ben Franklin, and of course the historical stories from our wars where ocean voyages are involved. I am into reading the autobiographical stuff that American leaders are made of. A few at least. All very interesting and well written. Abigail Adams by Woody Holton was amazing.

      Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin-riveting.

      Enjoyed your article, Dave. Have a happy Memorial Day!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi, hopewfaith! Thanks for the great comment!

        I haven’t seen the “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” film, but the novel is fascinating and very different. Smilla is a truly unique protagonist. And, yes, a tremendous title!

        The stories of the “founding fathers” and “founding mothers” are indeed gripping, including the long sea voyages they had to take when serving as ambassadors abroad, negotiating treaties abroad, etc. I used to read biographies as much as I now read novels, and David McCullough’s life of John Adams was among the best ones. I’d love to read that biography of Abigail Adams.

        Have a good Memorial Day, too!


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