Saturday, October 1, 2011

“West Coast Wrecks & Other Maritime Tales”

By Rick James
ISBN No. 978-1-55017-545-5
www.harbourpublishing .com
Herman Melville ends “Moby-Dick” with a line about a shipwreck at sea where suddenly everything falls in on itself, is swallowed by the water, and the sea rolls on as it had for 5,000 years. Wow…
There’s a mystery in the idea of a shipwreck that transcends the TV punchline of people stranded on, and voting each other off, a deserted island. Of course, there’s the cruise ship/paradise aspect of the sea, and all that “Pirates of the Caribbean” silliness for the ADD generation. And unless you’re running for Republican office the sea is that primordial pool from which all life – even sushi! - came. Archaeologist Rick James knows all this and he unpacks an engrossing – that’s right! – treasure trove of 140+ years of maritime disasters, sailing folklore, and finally, definitively explains why British Columbia’s nudist retreat is named Wreck Beach. The book is like a baker’s dozen of Titanics and is as addictive as TV’s “The Deadliest Catch.” The black-and-white pictures are appropriate for the eras (late 1800s and early 1900s) and amp up the little asides that’ll roll around your head for days after reading (like when evacuating a burning ship was hindered because the Chinese employees didn’t speak English).

“Lost Memory of Skin”

By Russell Banks
ISBN No. 978-0-307-40173-1
This novel could be made up of headlines: “Youth Sex Offender Lives under causeway”, “University Professor exploits sex offender youth”, “university professor has secrets of his own.” Then – no spoiler alert here – each of those headlines is rolled out and folded into the developing plot in the same way that modern media “advances” a story: characters are cast, secrets are revealed, lives are redeemed or destroyed. That might seem calculated but given the demands of publishing these days (books need to be topical, readable and, most of all, marketable) even well-established writers are looking to the cultural zeitgeist and publisher’s publicist for their inspiration. Reading this book I kept thinking I was researching a story ABOUT the story in the book. Was this Russell Banks’ intention? (Some of the same themes – albeit litigiously – were covered in “The Sweet Hereafter.”) The only thing that kept reminding me it was a novel – and a good one - was the author’s trademark dour dialogue and drawn-out description. Few serious writers are as seriously talented as Russell Banks.