Books reviewed by Paul Talbot

The Penguin Book of the Ocean edited by James BradleyThe Penguin Book of the Ocean

edited by James Bradley
published by Penguin Group (Australia)
RRP $35.00 (496pp; 230mm x 150mm)

James Bradley is an author in his own right, with critically acclaimed works which have been in the running for a number of Australian and international literary awards. His books reveal a fascination that, some have claimed, lean more towards the dark side. Indeed in this latest book there is a smattering of such a leaning.
The Penguin Book of the Ocean is not a book of Bradley’s own work. Rather it is a collection of the best that has been written about the deep blue sea from history’s very best authors. This anthology draws on historians, poets and novelists alike so that James Bradley can pay homage to them and the sea and take us along for the ride.
The contributors, past and present, read like the proverbial ‘who’s who’ of the literary world and the excerpts are from the very best of their works You’ll see what I mean when you take what for me was a trip down memory lane in the first instance. If you are about my vintage, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner will resonate alongside Thor Heyerdahl’s, The Kon Tiki Expedition.
Reading Coleridge’s epic, included in its entirety, had me enthralled, not the least because of the extraordinary collection of everyday metaphors which he bequeathed us. From “painted ships upon a painted ocean” to “water water every where nor any drop to drink” Coleridge left us with quotable stanzas which every headmaster has drawn upon to remind his charges of the beauty of the language. None more so than my own primary school boss who imprinted his favourite in my head: “Oh sleep! It is a gentle thing …”.
And catching up with Thor Heyerdahl again brought back memories of high school with a reminder about the excitement as the Kon Tiki’s crew set off from South America to test his theories about migration and travel in the Pacific. But these are but two among 46 authors whose works capture elements of the sea.
Depending on your particular bent, you will be hard pressed not to find something here to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. One of the significant chapters from Breath, Tim Winton’s most recent work, marks a milestone in the right of passage of his young hero, while Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea sheds light on the trials of a Mediterranean fisherman. These two, a masterpiece and one not far from it (I hope Ernest doesn’t mind relegation), illustrate a the mastery of the sea over man and his efforts – not necessarily destructive, just insistent.
 Authors focussing on positive outcomes are included – Slocum and his lone sail around the world; Darwin and his reflections on the Beagle; Cook and Shackleton on their epic voyages – standing alongside black efforts of Herman Melville and his doomed Ahab; Edgar Alan Poe’s deliciously titled A Descent into the Maelstrom; and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm.
There’s no doubt I have cherry-picked with the titles here, but among 40 or so authors it is hard to know where to begin. Bradley is nothing if not eclectic in his selections. Nam Le’s story of exodus, The Boat, warrants inclusion, as do the other excerpts not mentioned. Bradley’s opines that “all speak to the way in which our encounters with the ocean are also, perhaps inevitably, journeys inwards ...”
While Coleridge’s wedding guest was left reeling from the Mariner’s long tale to be “a sadder and a wiser man”, Bradley’s collection stirs the soul to allow the reader to revel in the very best of literature’s musings about the sea. A must have!