"In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex," by Nathaniel Philbrick (Penguin, $14): Winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction, Philbrick's accessible history tells the true story of the whaling disaster that inspired Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." In November of 1820, the whaleship Essex out of Nantucket was attacked and staved by a whale in the middle of the Pacific. The ship sank, and the crew, in small boats, headed for the coast of South America rather than closer islands because they feared cannibals. But by the time their grim journey ended, the sailors had themselves become cannibals. Not a book for the squeamish.
Call him Ahab
"In Search of Moby Dick: The Quest for the White Whale," by Tim Severin (Da Capo Press, $13.50): An explorer-writer who has retraced the journeys of Sinbad, Ulysses and Jason and the Argonauts, Severin sailed to the islands of the South Pacific to find any evidence of Melville's mythic white whale. He finds fishermen who jump on whale sharks with grappling hooks, discovers legends of white whales and, on the island of Lamalera, hunters who still go after sperm whales with harpoons. Says one, "Sometimes the white whale is there. But we cannot see him. He does not like to come to the surface often. He likes to stay down for a long time."
"Barrow's Boys: A Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude and Outright Lunacy," by Fergus Fleming (Atlantic Monthly Press, $15): This is not one story but many, the common element being John Barrow, who as Second Secretary of the British Admiralty in 1816, rounded up a bunch of bored sailors at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and sent them off on exploratory expeditions.