BOOK NOTES: Tied to the sea and other mysteries – Wicked Local Beverly

Posted: August 16, 2020 at 9:54 am


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High drama amid furious winds, perilous ocean voyages and murder most yummy

Brief reviews of three books kick off Book Notes return after a bit of a hiatus. Readers, however, have not taken a hiatus. Book lovers of all ages have been busy this summer. Fifteen percent more books sold the first week of August 2020 than sold last year at this time. Juvenile nonfiction saw a 40 percent jump in sales and adult nonfiction saw an 18.9 percent increase in hardcover sales due in part to Mary Trumps book, Too Much and Never Enough.

All the books featured here are written by authors living on Bostons North Shore. Two are nonfiction books on the topics of hurricanes impact on the United States and the engrossing origin story of what is now the Peabody Essex Museum. Both are deeply researched, rich with fascinating detail and first-rate storytelling. The third is a cozy mystery with as much tasty food writing as suspense; happily, recipes for some of the Mexican dishes so lusciously described are at the back of the book.

Collecting the Globe: The Salem East India Marine Society Museum

By George H. Schwartz. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst and Boston. 2020. Paperback, 296 pages, $28.95.

George H. Schwartz, associate curator at the Peabody Essex Museum and teacher of museum studies at Tufts University, has published a fine book about (among other things) how Salem, Massachusetts one of this countrys busiest ports in 1799 came to be the home of the United States oldest continually operating museum.

Schwartz starts off with the dramatic story of sail in Salem. Great risks at sea led to great wealth and also a keen awareness of cultures far from home. Master sailors and business agents known as supercargoes traded around the world. Complex trade schemes involved Japan, Jakarta, Yemen, China, India, the West Indies and ports along the western coast of what is now the United States. The countrys first millionaire, Elias Hasket Derby, was one of Salems captains who traded in the Baltic and Far East. The ports rise to great prominence, with its 40 busy wharves and growing fleet, writes Schwartz, mirrored the rise of the burgeoning nation.

The East India Marine Society was formed in 1799 by 22 of these pioneering sea captains. Membership was exclusive. Candidates had to have sailed the harrowing seas off the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. Among the Societys aims was to form a Museum of natural and artificial curiosities known as the East India Marine Society Museum. This museum, transformed over time, would eventually become the Peabody Essex Museum that still retains much of the original collection.

The book, says Schwartz, demonstrates how the Society used its collection to support a vision of Americas identity tied to the sea. A fastidious researcher, he tells a story of risk and wealth and cunning. In 1795, for example, Salem captain Jonathan Carnes discovered a place to buy valuable pepper directly from local inhabitants of Sumatra. He went back to Salem and found a wealthy merchant to outfit a schooner he then sailed back to Sumatra where he bought pepper that yielded a 700 percent profit. This trip kicked off what was to be 50 years of lucrative trade for Salem merchants.

Fiction writer Arlo Bates (18501918) described Derby Street, along Salems waterfront, as follows: Derby Street was alive with bustle and excitement; when swarthy sailors were groups at the corners, or sat smoking before the doors of their boarding-houses, their ears adorned with gold rings, and their hands and wrists profusely illustrated with uncouth designs in India ink; when every shop window was a museum of odd trifles from the Orient, and the very air was thick with a sense of excitement and of mystery.

The acquisition of items from abroad meant that Salem residents possessed commodities normally associated with large European cities. Captains built elegant homes and owned art and objects from distant cultures. There were two newspapers in the city, 10 churches, along with schools, banks and much more. The community was, according to Schwartz, on the forefront of the American Enlightenment. It also accounted for 5 percent of the nations per capita income.

It was in this time of largess and cultural awareness that the captains built the museum on Essex Street and displayed some of the 6,400 objects they had collected from around the world. A canoe, kayak, a 6-foot, 7-inch sculpture of the Hawaiian god Kukailimoku, portraits, books, busts, spears and much more were exhibited.

Together, writes Schwartz, the vast ensemble was an organized display of the natural, cultural and spiritual world bound by the sea and open to visual inspection through the efforts of the American maritime trade. In so doing, it opened Americas eyes to a world beyond imagination and to relationships between world cultures that continue to this day.

Nacho Average Murder

By Maddie Day. Kensington Publishing Corp., 2020. Paperback. $7.99.

Award-winning author Maddie Day of Amesbury, Massachusetts, has published another of her increasingly popular cozy mysteries. Nacho Average Murder, set in Santa Barbara, is lots of fun despite the inevitable murder. This book is part of Maddie Days Country Store mystery series that is usually set in Indiana.

Amateur sleuth Robbie Jordan, owner of a restaurant and B&B in Indiana, traveled to her hometown of Santa Barbara for her 10th high school reunion. She meets Paul, a committed activist working to ban a prominent agrochemical companys fumigants. He believed the fumigants were a threat to the regions farm workers and animals. He tells Robbie that her recently deceased mother, who worked alongside Paul, may not have died of natural causes. A few days later he is found dead in his apartment. It turns out he died of an aneurysm, just as Robbies mother had. Robbie begins digging into her mothers and Pauls deaths.

Maddie Day does a fine job capturing the specialness of Santa Barbara. Her writing delivers something more than a virtual vacation to a beloved place. She nails the citys charms, with its miles of coast, the vast rolling expanse of foothills, the farmers market unlike any other for all that it has to offer, the delicious Mexican cuisine made with just-picked ingredients, the sweet and tangy perfumes of orange blossoms and gardenias, and that quirky side not everyone notices. Robbie visits a palm reader while out on a stroll. Madame Allegra tells her to pay attention. Danger lurks.

A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of Americas Hurricanes

By Eric Jay Dolin. W.W. Norton & Co., 2020. 393 pages. $29.95.

I happened to have read most of Eric Jay Dolins new book, A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of Americas Hurricanes, while Isaias was busy declaring itself. Reading about hurricanes while knowing one is headed your way is good and bad. We love weather. We fear weather. Hurricanes, a feature of summer and fall, are reliant on a handful of elements scorching desert air, 80-degee-plus ocean water, moist heated air and a low, horizontal wind shear. While landfall or colder waters can seriously alter their might, a hurricane fully manifest is among natures most deadly and destructive forces. You just never know.

And Dolin is not about to sugarcoat the story.

You can rely on this Swampscott author to dig deep, unearth reams of fascinating anecdotes, seek detailed historical records, and then tie it all together with plenty of his signature, edge-of-the-seat storytelling. Like so many of his earlier books on topics like whales, fur trade, privateering, lighthouses and more, Dolin has a special way of filling sentences with information while retaining your full attention. I brought his book with me everywhere.

He writes that a hurricane is the meteorological equivalent of a temper tantrum on steroids, with moods that rank from a Category 1 to Category 5 with winds that equal or exceed 157 mph. He reminds readers that a measly Category 1 rating is a ferocious thing, ripping off house shingles and siding, uprooting trees and tangling power lines. A No 5, however, is akin to catastrophe.

Dolin had to cover a lot of territory to write about hurricanes. We learn about Morse code, the impacts hurricanes had on Americas early settlers and settlements, the geographical configuration of this country, wars, and even the names of places, like Thacher Island off Rockport, Massachusetts coast. He tells the tragic but riveting story of how a hurricane drowned 21 of 23 people sailing from Ipswich to Marblehead. Thacher and his wifes survival was miraculous but horrific for they had to watch their children and relatives wrenched away by the storms roiling waves.

Books about weather are especially nerve-wracking. While reading A Furious Sky I was reminded of Sebastian Jungers Perfect Storm. He wrote about a Gloucester fishing boat that vanished in a late October, 1991, confluence of storms. Junger covered several related subjects including rogue waves, weather forecasting and harrowing rescues at sea. Dolins book is similarly instructive about related topics.

Dolin, with the benefit of hindsight, looks at the heroics and the mistakes made in the face of furious skies. He investigates the countrys most significant hurricanes including the Great Hurricane of 1938, Sandy, Katrina, Andrew, Camille and those that came much earlier in our history. The book is filled with images and meaty captions. And, like George Schwartzs book on the early days of Salems groundbreaking enterprise, the notes in the back of both books are exciting adventures, also.

Rae Padilla Francoeur is an author and journalist. She can be reached at rae@raefrancoeur.com.

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BOOK NOTES: Tied to the sea and other mysteries - Wicked Local Beverly

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August 16th, 2020 at 9:54 am

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