Wednesday, July 23, 2003

"It was a dark and stormy night" - Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

The results of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for 2003 are now out and, in the interest of preserving the best of purple prose everywhere, here are several of the winning entries:

Grand Prize:
"They had but one last remaining night together, so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavor entwined
string cheese that is orange and yellowish-white, the orange probably being a bland Cheddar and the white . . .
Mozzarella, although it could possibly be Provolone or just plain American, as it really doesn't taste distinctly dissimilar
from the orange, yet they would have you believe it does by coloring it differently
" - Ms. Mariann Simms, Wetumpka, AL

Runner-up:
"The flock of geese flew overhead in a "V" formation - not in an old-fashioned-looking Times New Roman kind of a "V", branched out slightly at the two opposite arms at the top of the "V", nor in a more modern-looking, straight and crisp, linear Arial sort of "V" (although since they were flying, Arial might have been appropriate), but in a slightly asymmetric, tilting off-to-one-side sort of italicized Courier New-like "V" - and LaFonte knew that he was just the type of man to know the difference. " -John Dotson (U.S. Naval Officer), Arlington, VA

My personal favorite:
"They say she carried her own warmth around with her, like one of those thermoregulating arctic mammals, say, a polar bear, or a baby harp seal (though not a penguin, which is antarctic, anyway, and not a mammal, but a bird), but she wasn't fat or blubbery, which makes it all the more unbelievable why anyone would have wanted to club her to death for her fur coat, which wasn't even white, I'm told, but black."- Harry H. Buerkett, Urbana, IL

Bravo, bravo! For more check out the full contest results at the Bulwer-Lytton site.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex - Nathaniel Philbrick

"From the ship's bows, nearly all the seamen now hung inactive; hammers, bits of plank, lances, and harpoons, mechanically retained in their hands, just as they had darted from their various employments; all their enchanted eyes intent upon the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad band of overspreading semicircular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship's starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled. Some fell flat upon their faces. Like dislodged trucks, the heads of the harpooneers aloft shook on their bull-like necks. Through the breach, they heard the waters pour, as mountain torrents down a flume. " - Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

As sea tales go, In the Heart of the Sea covers the gamut.

Written by Nathanial Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea tells the true tale of the whaleship Essex, which provided the grist for Melville's famous salty yarn quoted above. The Essex was a 238-ton Nantucket whaler that set sail in 1819 to hunt sperm whales in the South Pacific in a newly discovered whaling region called the Offshore Ground. In an extraordinary turn of events, the Essex was rammed and sunk by an eighty-five foot sperm whale, sending the ship to the bottom and its 20 crew members on a 3,000-mile dark and epic battle for survival across the empty expanse of the Pacific. Only eight eventually made it back to civilization, and their passage was one marked by terrible tribulation, death and cannibalism.

Philbrick has put together a wrenchingly vivid story that brings to life both the participants and the whaling culture of Nantucket. Loaded with sharp gems of information and observation on topics from whale behavior, the hunting process, the whaling economy, Quakerism, Nantucket culture, the racial make-up of the Essex's crew (7 were African-American, 1/3 of the crew), the history and usage of the infamous "custom of the sea" (or cannibalism as you or I would have it) and many other topics. One of the facts that stuck in my mind was the description of the "trying out" process, of cooking the blubber to extract the whale oil, and how often, when the fetid and noxious process was well underway, the only safe way to move across the oily, slippery deck was to slide on the seat of your pants.

In the Heart of the Sea is an extraordinary and horrific sea tale, but Philbrick's careful research and excellent prose raise it well above the average in both the telling and in the content. Highly recommended.

Here's a Nantucket toast quoted from In the Heart of the Sea which I thought weirdly captured the strange dicotomy between Nantucket's highly religious Quaker roots, and the bloody labor on the waves that kept it's people employed...

" Death to the living
Long Life to the killers,
Success to sailors wives
And greasy luck to whalers."


For more on the Essex, check out the first-hand accounts of The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase (who was the First Mate on the Essex) and The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale by Thomas Nickerson (the Essex's then 15-year old cabin boy). Another read recommended by the author is Stove by a Whale by Thomas Farel Heffernan (the author of Mutiny on the Globe , also reviewed on this site).

If you are interested. Herman Melville's epic (if lengthy) story of obsession, death and the White Whale is available free on-line here. Melville based his tale upon the story of the Essex but politely ended his story with the sinking of the ship rather then dwelling on the darker tale of survival at sea...

For more information on Nantucket and its history of whaling, check out the Nantucket Historical Association. Also good is the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

For more on whale conservation check out The Ocean Alliance and the American Cetacean Society.

Not a believer in whale conservation? - here's some whale recipes for your gastronomical enjoyment (although on the whole I'd rather eat broccali...and I really hate broccali.).

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Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw - Mark Bowden

Somewhere, probably in some dusty back-alley private house in Pesawar or Quetta or some country farmhouse, is a quiet team of Delta Force operatives, patiently and relentlessly running the hunt for Osama Bin Ladin.

You see, they've done it before...

Killing Pablo is not about Bin Ladin, but outlines a very similar hunt for another of world's greatest outlaws. The target was Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin drug cartel and in Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden offers a chilling, gripping and fascinating glimpse into the long and difficult hunt to eliminate Escobar.

Killing Pablo outlines Escobar's rise from a petty car thief in the slums of Medellin to his absolute control over the Colombian cocaine trade, and consequently his eventual rise to becoming an active threat to the fragile stability of Colombia. Bowden paints a disquieting (if fascinating) potrait of Pablo Escobar: By turns Escobar is vicious, charming, cunning, delusional, pedophiliac, a habitual marijuana-user and an indifferent businessman at best who made up for his entreprenuerial shortcomings by being utterly ruthless and coldly practical in the application of violence.

Bowden has penned a well-written, highly readable book, if somewhat disturbing, as it is essentially the tale of the efforts to find and kill one man, albeit one man who had destablized and crippled the government of Colombia and the Colombian justice system (Colombian jurists, police and prosecutors were generally offered one choice: gold or lead - referring to accepting a bribe or a shot in the head. One hell of a lot of them ended up dead....).

The book outlines the extensive involvement of the U.S. government and its most secret assets that were used to help track and hunt down Escobar. It also touches on the highly secretative involvement of the U.S. anti-terrorism unit Delta Force. Bowden, who previously won the Pulitzer (very deservedly, I might add) for his excellent book Black Hawk Down, hints at Delta Force's involvement in the killing of Pablo Escobar and in their involvement in the extra-legal vigilante groups that targeted Escobar's associates, partners and family. Think what you will about the relative paucity of hard evidence supporting the author's theory, but as a result of Black Hawk Down Bowden knows the Special Forces community quite well. Read the book and judge for yourself.

Overall, an excellent read. The only quibble I had was with the cover, which was a photograph of the dead Pablo Escobar flanked by his hunters (Colombian police and, interestingly enough, a CIA guy). I was never able to leave the book lying around anywhere in my house where my five-year wouldn't get a look at that disturbing image, so as a result the book has been shovelled into a storage box instead of gracing my bookshelf....

If you are interested, the Philidelphia Inquirer (the paper that Bowden writes for) has available online copies of the series of articles by Bowden that eventually became the book (they did something similar for Black Hawk Down). Check it out here.

For more about international drug trafficking, check out the DEA. For more on the war on drugs, check out Frontline's Drugwars.

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