Review: The Log from the Sea of Cortez

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The Log from the Sea of Cortez
by John Steinbeck, Read by Joe Barrett
11 hours, 54 minutes

I’d been wanting to do some non-genre reading for a while. My family was in Monterey a few weeks back to check out the aquarium, and I got to wondering where those humpback whales had disappeared to, and what would Ed RickettsĀ  and John Steinbeck have made of a spaceship facing off against whalers? I enjoy Steinbeck quite a bit, and had never read this non-fiction book, so the idea of him and his best friend taking an expedition down to the Sea of Cortez/Gulf of California was about as appealing as drinking a cold beer in the sunshine.

Just before America’s involvement in World War II, John Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts (a marine biologist), charter a ship and travel down the coast with a crew to collect samples of tidal life, which is what Ricketts specialized in. (Ricketts’ old lab on Cannery Row in Monterey is one of the very few things from that day and age still standing there – the rest has been completely revamped.) Like most things Steinbeck, it’s more than just some guys drinking beer and collecting specimens – although there’s plenty of that. There’s a lot of ruminations on humanity, especially mankind’s connection to the rest of the world. This is particularly fascinating as it’s set to the backdrop of a group of men disappearing down to Mexico while a war brews in the rest of the world. Steinbeck sums up at the end of the book, “It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars, and then back to the tide pool again.”

What I didn’t expect was all the references to monsters, mythologies, and superstitions which pretty much made this book for me (and here I said I wanted to step back from genre reading for a moment? Hmmmmm). But the chapters where Steinbeck and his buddies were talking about werewolves (only to have the scruffiest of the crew appear in the galley after they’d jokingly decided he must be a werewolf) and philosophized about the importance of sea monsters just completely hooked me. “Men really do need sea monsters in their personal oceans,” he wrote. Naturally!

Perhaps the one issue I had with the book is more of a fault of my own than the writing – as it’s written to be a log of an expedition, and somewhat academical, the story is told primarily from the “we” perspective, and I wish there had been more time getting to know the crew. But that’s a fairly mild complaint.

Maybe the standout of the book is the Appendix: About Ed Ricketts, which is essentially Steinbeck eulogizing his friend. It’s sad, and poignant, and it’s easy to see why Ricketts was so beloved by Steinbeck, and such a huge inspiration to him.

This is the first time I’ve heard Joe Barrett read a book, and he did an outstanding job, capturing the everyman attitude and philosophies of Steinbeck. His voice made me feel like I was sitting down next to him, having a conversation about humanity and nature over beer, with the sounds of the waves lapping at the beach and the gulls crying out in the background. He was a big spot of sunshine for what I found to be a thoroughly interesting book, and I hope to hear more from him.

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