Perceptive Travel Book Reviews January 2016
by William Caverlee

In this issue: A comprehensive guide to the Pacific Ocean, a man lost on that ocean for more than a year, and a rough family vacation in graphic novel form.

By Simon Winchester

Pacific is a 492-page history of the planet's largest ocean, with a special emphasis on where most of the region's human inhabitants live—the Pacific Rim.

A spectacular achievement of research, Pacific is also an idiosyncratic gathering of far-ranging topics: the author island-hops his way from nuclear tests at Bikini to cyclones in Australia, to the Hawaiian Renaissance, the founding of Sony, military showdowns between the United States and China, the Pueblo incident, the origins of surfing, the Alvin research mini-sub, the Great Barrier Reef, plate tectonics, the Pinatubo volcano eruption in the Philippines. . . .

Winchester is a first-rate writer, and he can probably be forgiven for seeming a bit breathless at times when recounting the uniqueness of this markedly non-pacific ocean, a thesis he first states on page two:

The ocean beneath is almost unimaginably vast, and illimitably various. It is the oldest of the world's seas, the relic of the once all-encompassing Panthalassic Ocean that opened up seven hundred fifty million years ago. It is by far the world's biggest body of water—all the continents could be contained within its borders, and there would be ample room to spare. It is the most biologically diverse, the most seismically active; it sports the planet's greatest mountains and deepest trenches; its chemistry influences the world; and the planetary weather systems are born within its boundaries.

I found Pacific to be hugely interesting, with page after page of scientific information to process, new facts and people to encounter, anecdotes and mini-histories to mull over. Once or twice, particularly during a long chapter on planetary weather patterns, I had to force myself to press on—but that, no doubt, was more a sign of my own scientific ignorance than Winchester's prose.

Pacific book Winchester

Pacific contains plenty of depressing news about pollution, climate change, death of coral reefs, and reckless military saber-rattling, but you can almost hear Winchester's step lighten when he turns to the Hawaiian ocean-going canoe Hokule'a, which has been making long-distance ocean crossings since 1976. At the time of publication, it was still at sea in the midst of a round-the-world trip. Hokule'a carries its crew across the perilous seas without any form of modern navigational instruments. Its pilots rely solely on the stars, the movements of birds, clouds, and wind, and the ocean itself.

Illustrated with numerous black-and-white photographs, drawings, and maps. Recommended.

438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea
By Jonathan Franklin

438 Days is another book about the Pacific—a terrifying true tale. Many of you may remember a strange news article from 2014. In January of that year, a long-bearded castaway washed ashore in the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific. His name was Salvador Alvarenga and he was a fisherman from a coastal village in Mexico. He had been drifting in a small boat for over a year on the open ocean, traversing over 6,000 miles. An impossibility, everyone said.

Author Franklin spent long hours interviewing Alvarenga, and has written an amazing survival story. When Alvarenga set out on a routine fishing expedition in November 2012, he and his crewman Ezequiel Córdoba didn't know that a storm was bearing down on them. Their boat was a simple twenty-five-foot skiff, loaded with fishing gear and an outboard motor—no below-decks, no protection from the weather. They headed back home in the midst of the storm and were a few miles from shore when their motor conked out.

As darkness shrank their world, the wind ripped straight offshore and drove the men farther out to sea. Were they now back to where they had been fishing a day earlier—a hundred miles offshore? With no GPS and only the stars as guides, they lost any means of calculating distance.

Without a motor, they were helpless. Soon, they were half-dead from lack of water and food. Córdoba, who was a much less experienced sailor than Alvarenga, lasted 118 days until he died of what seems to be a combination of exposure, exhaustion, starvation, and despair. Now Alvarenga was completely alone.

He survived on the fish and birds he could catch by hand and the rainwater he collected during squalls. His only protection from the hellish sun was a 4-foot-by-5-foot icebox meant for fish. He nearly died countless times, experienced hallucinations, and approached madness. When the miracle occurred and his drifting boat ran aground on a tiny atoll half a world away, he was hardly able to walk or communicate with another human being.

Franklin has compiled a fine narrative of those inconceivable months at sea. From time to time, he interjects a bit of commentary from outside experts on survival and psychological stress, but 438 Days moves briskly and never degrades into a tabloid horror story. Franklin's empathic prose honors Alvarenga, who is a different man from the one who embarked from Mexico fourteen months earlier.

Displacement: A Travelogue
By Lucy Knisley

Displacement continues our watery theme, although its format and tone are completely different from the two preceding books: this is a graphic novel, or, more accurately, a graphic memoir. Most readers have heard of Art Spiegelman's Maus, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, all best sellers, all critically acclaimed. No reason, then, that artists and cartoonists should not find rich pickings in the travel biz.

In Displacement, author/artist Lucy Knisley has re-created the true story of a Caribbean cruise she made with her grandparents. At the outset, Knisley may have entertained ideas that the trip would be a genial family-bonding experience, plus a bit of vacation time for herself, but Displacement turns out to be a record of the author's nonstop worry, panic, and anxiety for her grandparents' well-being (ages 91 and 93), each of whom were showing signs of physical and mental disability. On departure, Knisley's parents, aunts, and uncles offer her encouragement, but their unstated sentiments are shared by the rest of us: "Do you really know what you're getting into?"

She doesn't.

Madhouse airports, turbulent plane trips, shuttle buses, three-hour lines to board the ship, daily meds, incontinence, lost luggage, surly staff, asthma attacks (grandpa), obnoxious fellow travelers, insomnia (Knisley) . . . all highlighted by the day Knisley lost her grandparents aboard ship. Now there's a moment for panic, for absolute fear, the ultimate catastrophe that, thank God, has a happy ending when the grandparents turn up on the promenade deck. "They'd just been WANDERING around, looking for something recognizable." In her drawing of that moment, Knisley depicts herself in a state of insane fear, sweat popping off her head, and we all laugh in relief.

Maybe a graphic novel is the best way to depict such comic/tragic straits. Knisley's week with her grandparents is a nightmare of anxiety, which we somehow manage to laugh/groan our way through. And which, in the end, does indeed turn out to be a week of genuine family bonding just as Knisley had hoped.

William Caverlee is a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, Aviation History, Cimarron Review, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:


Buy Pacific at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Sign Up

438 Days

Buy 438 Days in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK


Buy Displacement at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK