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Blue Latitudes

by Tony Horwitz (Henry Holt & Co., 2002)

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic) has done it again in this exploration of Captain James Cook’s 18th-century historic voyages into the “Great Southern Continent,” the Pacific Archipelagos and the Northeast Passage.

Horwitz’ flair for detail makes for one interesting read — the reader, for example, appreciates early on the harrowing experience of simply relieving oneself at sea. Sailors had to climb out on holed planks extended from the bow of the ship “utterly exposed in every way,” Horwitz writes. “These were called heads, or seats of ease.”

More than one sailor fell and drowned.

The author signed up as a working crewman aboard a replica of one of Cook’s ships, The Endeavour, which set out to retrace, in part, the original voyage into the “Great Southern Continent,” the Pacific Archipelagos and the Northeast Passage. Horwitz’s descriptions of having to climb 10-story masts to furl sails as the ship pitched and rolled over the waves is enough to make you grab for your Dramamine. He has the ability to make his experiences the reader’s own, blending in the fascinating history of Cook (a poor farm boy who became Britain’s greatest navigator) and his crew, and the people Horowitz meets, for better or worse, in the South Seas islands.

Horwitz recalls one of his first nights at the helm of the modern ship:

“A 370-ton wooden tub doesn’t shift so nimbly as a modern sailboat. The ship took half a minute to respond each time I moved the rudder, and when it did, I invariably found I’d corrected too much. Then I’d correct the correction. … I felt as though I was steering a poorly aligned truck on an icy highway.”

He thinks he has it bad — the original crew had to sleep fully clothed, in case they were called up on deck during the night. Horwitz catalogues other privations of those early sailors:

“Lice were endemic, maggots and cockroaches, and rats also swarmed the ship. For napkins, sailors used bits of frayed rope which became so greasy that the men recycled them as candles.”

And it just gets worse:

“The human body can store only about six weeks of Vitamin C,” Horwitz writes, “and as the supply runs out the hideous symptoms of scurvy (the scourge of the sea) appear: lassitude; loose teeth; rotted gums; putrid belching; joint pain; ulcerated skin, hemorrhaging … and ultimately death.”

Cook’s crew virtually ran a sailor’s gauntlet, from drowning to disease (including venereal — rampant among the natives) and dropping off the edge of the unknown world.

Horwitz’s book is a rousing adventure from its start to its dramatic conclusion depicting Cook’s violent death at the hands of natives in Hawaii.

Interestingly, if Cook, a lifelong sailor, had known how to swim, he might have saved himself from the enraged islanders. But as Horwitz notes with his signature dramatic irony, “Swimming was a skill that many eighteenth-century mariners lacked. Some had a superstitious dread of the sea. Others may have been discouraged by their superiors from learning to swim lest this enable them to desert.”

Lively tales of island rituals (indeed, the art of tattooing was born in these islands), orgies, human sacrifice and cannibalism ensure the going is never dull in Blue Latitudes. From Horwitz, we not only get the experience of a modern-day adventurer, but an intimate history lesson of the sort not to be encountered in any classroom.

Tony Horwitz will appear at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.) on Friday, Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. to discuss Blue Latitudes. Call 254-6734 for more information.

The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats: A Journey Into the Feline Heart

by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Ballantine Books, 2002)

I’ve always figured if I’m going to own something I have to feed and care for, it ought to come when I call it. A cat will do this — but only when it feels like it.

Jeffrey’s Masson’s new examination of the feline heart may, however, be softening my position. The author bases his work on a study of the five cats he and family adopted into their New Zealand home.

Masson explores what he feels are a cat’s nine primary emotions: narcissism, love, contentment, attachment, jealousy, fear, anger, curiosity and playfulness, devoting a chapter to each. The author is a former psychoanalyst — maybe he grew tired of trying to figure out people and turned to animals, and who can blame him?

Regarding narcissism, Masson posits that, while humans show their egocentricity by how little they seem to care about others, cats act quite the opposite. They may seem to be only concerned with themselves — not so, however. The author believes that cats watch humans constantly, taking in and processing everything they observe about us. How this differs from simple curiosity — Chapter 8 — I’m not quite sure, but it furthers the author’s assertion that, never mind the old saw, the latter trait rarely kills them.

One of the more interesting aspects covered in the book is a cat’s ability to love, and therefore mourn, its owner. The author relates a veterinarian’s tale of treating a cat whose owner jumped from a 10-story window, only to have his cat follow.

Masson claims that cats have an arboreal ancestry that causes them to know where they are at all times in space. He cites a study of cats falling from an average of 50 feet with a 90-percent survival rate. They do this by turning their bodies into parachutes.

This is an intriguing book, very readable (the one exception is the overuse of parenthetical clauses) even if you’re not a cat lover (and especially if you are).

Jeffrey Masson will appear at Malaprop’s Bookstore on Friday, Nov. 8 at 6 p.m. to discuss his book.

[Bill Brooks teaches creative writing at A-B Tech. He is the author of 11 novels. For a complete list of local-author events, see Xpress’ weekly arts-and-entertainment calendar.]

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