"Around America: A Tour of Our Magnificent Coastline" by Walter Cronkite (W. W. Norton, $14.95)
"There are nearly five thousand miles of it. Almost half of us Americans live well within a half-day's drive of it. Much of our history belongs to it. Almost all those who came to settle this country of ours landed upon it." Thus begins the compelling introduction to Walter Cronkite's "Around America: A Tour of Our Magnificent Coastline."
Cronkite, who died in 2009, is known to millions as the venerated former CBS News anchorman, journalist, author and sailor. In "Around America," he blended a keen reporter's eye with his passion for sailing. The result is a splendid summer read packed with personal anecdotes, little-known historical facts and the author's unabashed love for his country.
While the book is of great interest to boaters, especially sailors, the sailing references are enjoyable reading even for those not nautically inclined: "All the sails are set and they are pulling nicely, the big genoa, the staysail, the main, and the little mizzen balancing it all."
Divided into four chapters by geography, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Gulf Coast and the West Coast, "Around America" offers such spicy nuggets as the backstory of the all-but-forgotten Revolutionary War hero Colonel James Swan, who envisioned an empire of prosperous Maine islands of which Swan's Island would be the hub -- but financial prudence not being his forte, his scheme failed and he fled to Paris to elude his debts, soon landing in prison from where, financed by funds forwarded by his wife, he lavishly entertained his French cohorts outside. "He asked only that an empty chair be held for him at the head of the table and that a toast be drunk to him."
Hadley Harbor, just off Woods Hole, is an open secret among the boating fraternity but little known among the landlubbin' public. A picture-perfect hurricane hole, protected on all sides from the sea, Hadley is owned in trust by the Forbes family who have built two grand Tudor-style mansions on Naushon Island, one the largest of the Elizabeth Islands chain that stretches westward from Woods Hole and culminates in tiny Cuttyhunk. Once inside the harbor, boaters are free to drop anchor but are not allowed to go ashore. The tree-lined shores slope to the water's edge where the Forbes' stable of Arabian horses graze peacefully outside their paddock. It is an idyllic setting just off the frequently roiling waters of Woods Hole itself and the aptly-named Buzzards Bay infamous for it's "square waves." Cronkite succinctly captures the essence of the place: "a scene of bucolic bliss."
Cronkite next turns his attention to the Intercostal Waterway and to good effect. "Navigation down the Waterway is from pillar to post ... Woe awaits the sailor whose attention strays." He sketches the waterfront villages from Norfolk through the Great Dismal Swamp to the Carolinas and Georgia and, ultimately, Key West. Extolling Cayo Hueso's sunset celebration, Cronkite writes: "Lying offshore, the yachtsman exults with the city in a sight that for most of a thousand miles down history's waterway has been hidden behind the continent called America."
The Gulf Coast -- "one of the nation's great sportsfishing grounds" -- and the West Coast -- "so inhospitable to sailing but be a delight ashore") --each receives Cronkite's meticulous yet often bemused scrutiny. The Gulf's most notorious pirate, a "murderous and ruthless" Jose Gasparilla, as well as the Northwest's Capt. Thomas Coupe, the only skipper who ever "dared bring a full-rigger through Deception Pass," are both given their full five minutes of literary fame.
This is Cronkite at the top of his form, writing about his great obsessions, America and sailing. What stories he has to share and, as he so elegantly understates, "each of our coasts is unique unto itself."
by George Fontana
"Wonderland" by Ace Atkins (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $26.95)
Robert B. Parker, author of the 40-book Spenser series, died of a heart attack in 2010. His estate asked Ace Atkins to take over the writing of this very popular series of novels. Atkins, a most talented American journalist and author on his own, did a commendable job with his first Spenser novel, "Lullaby," and continues to meet the challenge in his second Spenser novel, " Wonder-land." Parker's character is very much alive and well, thanks to Atkins.
He did not write strictly to emulate Parker but to capture the essence of an extraordinary series, including its wisecracking dialogue.
Wonderland is the name of a former dog track in Boston, where Spenser is drawn into an investigation by an old friend, Henry Cimoli. Henry has received an offer to sell his condo at the Ocean View Condominium complex but, while the offer isn't bad financially, he does not want to sell. When other owners at Ocean View, including Henry himself, get beaten up by goons, the residents need help. Spenser tracks the thugs back to a Las Vegas casino mogul, Rick Weinberg, who's purchased Wonderland and is trying to acquire adjoining properties like the Ocean View condos in order to expand a planned gaming complex in Boston.
When confronted by Spenser, Weinberg is honestly not aware of the brutal tactics on the Ocean View residents. He fires the person responsible (Jemma Fraser) and makes a higher offer to the residents at Ocean View. The situation seems under control as Spenser and his girlfriend, Susan Silverman, dine with Weinberg and his wife of 40 years, Rachel. But these moments of closure are fleeting with the brutal death of Weinberg. Local and Las Vegas thugs show up dead and alive as competing factions within and outside of Weinberg's organization attempt to win the casino rights. Corruption erupts among city and state politicians.
In the midst of all this we meet Spenser's friend, Z (full name Zebulon Sixkill) plus his police and newspaper contacts as well as past characters from the Spenser novels set in Las Vegas. Spenser uncovers some startling information regarding who in this has most to gain from the situation and, to say the least, "Wonderland" has a surprise ending. Parker would be proud of Ace's latest contribution to his series.
Atkins, by the way, a man of the South, lives with his family on a farm outside of Oxford, Mississippi.
-- Reviewed by David and Nancy Beckwith, authors of
the Will and Betsy Black adventure series.