Customer Reviews: The Last Fish Tale
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on June 28, 2008
As I read the book, and as I sit here writing this review, my windows are open to the sea air and the shouts and cheers of crowds on Pavillion Beach as they watch the Greasy Pole Competition here in Gloucester, the competition that Mark Kurlansky writes about in the opening chapter of "The Last Fish Tale". "Viva San Pietro!" The cry goes up over and over. "Hooray for Saint Peter!" But these days the local fishermen here need more help from St. Peter to keep their way of life alive than to save them from dangers of the sea.

With his usual wit, elegance, and deep intelligence, Kurlansky has crafted a book that is fascinating on many levels. He begins his tale with an early history of Gloucester, including how the town got its name, and moves gracefully through the centuries salting his story with anecdotes about people that may seem like colorful characters to most readers but are friends and neighbors to me. Kurlansky talks about "Gloucester Stories". Those stories abound and flourish --- stories about fishermen and artists and writers and inventors --- each with their own particular perspective on America's Oldest Seaport. I came to Gloucester some 15 years ago because I was writing a book steeped in the maritime history of the Great Lakes (The Old Mermaid's Tale). I fell in love with a Gloucester fisherman and am still here. That is my Gloucester Story. It could be the same for many of the people Kurlansky tells of, the fishermen who came from Sicily in search of a better life, the artists who came because of the beautiful light, the writers who came because of the peace of the sea. For every story Kurlansky tells I can think of a dozen more but the reader will be given a delicious taste --- and no shortage of delicious recipes --- as they read this small, but richly varied book.

The final chapters of the book are the most poignant. What is to become of Gloucester and all that is Gloucester? Using examples of other fishing towns in England and France, Kurlansky offers possibilities and hope that Gloucester can stay Gloucester but one has to wonder for how long? In a nation that is so hungry for authentic experience that we have spawned and entire industry of "reality entertainment" (sounds like an oxymoron to me) Gloucester and its working waterfront seems too precious to be lost but with an economy in decline and a desperate need to broaden the tax base it seems that Gloucester could well turn into a parody of itself --- a working seaport theme park or, worse, just another Boston bedroom community.

"The Last Fish Tale" is an important book and Kurlansky has offered us much to think about. To Gloucesterites it might seem to only scratch the surface but there are other excellent books written by Gloucester fishermen, like Peter Prybot's Lobstering Off Cape Ann: A Lifetime Lobsterman Remembers or Mark S. Williams' F/V Black Sheep, to fill that gap. I hope that Kurlansky's book will find a much wider audience than just here on Cape Ann and that, in reading it, people will realize that, as he says in the final paragraphs of the book, "every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes the possibility of life."
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Walking the fine line between those who want to preserve the renowned fishing industry of Gloucester, Massachusetts, long into the future and those who see that industry as already nearly dead, NY Times reporter Mark Kurlansky examines the history of the community, its ties to the sea, and its very uncertain economic future. At the same time, he also worries about the future of the Atlantic Ocean itself as a resource, one now so endangered that unless the federal government institutes "overall eco-system management," and not just quotas on specific catches, it will soon die. The government has wasted too much time on short-term "remedies," he believes, and has done no comprehensive long-term planning for the eco-system on which the industry depends. Ultimately, the "scientists" responsible for the health of our ocean have made too many mistakes, and fishermen in Gloucester and elsewhere are paying the price.

Kurlansky describes Gloucester (pronounced "GLOSS-ter") from its earliest discoveries by the Vikings to its first settlements, emphasizing its colonial fishing industry, a time in which people would routinely catch cod that were four or five feet long and halibut weighing 200 - 400 pounds. Between colonial times and 1991, when the unexpected Perfect Storm struck, the city has lost six thousand Gloucester fishermen and many hundreds of vessels at sea, yet the fishing industry persists. The evolution of large trawlers and draggers, and the arrival of mammoth ships from Japan and Russia to fish just offshore, led the local industry to try to protect itself by getting exclusive fishing zones and the two-hundred mile limit established, but "[continued] stern dragging has endangered two-thirds of the world's fish stocks," and the prospects for the future look bleak.

Waves of Jewish, Sicilian, and Portuguese immigrants have kept the city socially vibrant, and the fishing boats filled with willing workers. Their cultural contributions and festivals, especially St. Peter's Fiesta in July, described in detail here, are part of the fabric of society and a fully-attended joy for the entire community. The city also has a long history as an art colony, with Fitz Hugh (Henry) Lane, Winslow Homer, William Morris Hunt, Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman, Emile Gruppe, and even Edward Hopper taking advantage of the special light reflected off the sea to give luminosity to their paintings. T. S. Eliot vacationed in Gloucester, Rudyard Kipling wrote Captains Courageous  while living in Gloucester, and NY playwright Israel Horovitz has produced his plays in Gloucester for almost forty years.

Still, the community sees itself almost exclusively as a fishing port and wants to remain one. In the 1980s, the fishing community convinced the city to zone the entire waterfront for commercial maritime activities only. "Someday fishing will improve," they believe, and then they will have the land they need to expand. "Otherwise it will turn into Newport." With these zoning regulations in place, there's no possibility that that will happen or that tourism will become an industry to fill the economic gap left by the decimated fishing industry. There are no docking facilities for pleasure boats, and the extensive waterfront is a weedy wasteland with no new building and no hotel. In 2008, the battle continues to rage between the "preservationists" who want to preserve the fishing industry and its control of the waterfront and those who believe that a mixture of uses might better serve both the community and the economy. So far the fishermen are hanging tough, hoping for a renewal of their fishing stocks. n Mary Whipple

Bear of the Sea : Giant Jim Pattillo and the Roaring Years of the Gloucester-Nova Scotia Fishery by Joe Garland
North Shore Fish by Israel Horovitz
North Shore Fish, film with Tony Danza
Captains Courageous, with Lionel Barrymore, Spencer Tracy
The Perfect Storm [Blu-ray] with George Clooney
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on July 4, 2008
Anyone with a passion for coastal United States will appreciate Mark Kurlansky's portrait of Gloucester. He captures the essence of Gloucester and at the same time the challenges of its fishing community. While most news journalists simply write off this great working port, Kurlansky leaves us with an appreciation of not only Gloucester's robust past but its link to today. The Last Fish Tale is tough to put down once you start.The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town
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The author, in writing about the history of Gloucester, captures the feel of the city and its inhabitants well. Beginning with the discovery of the town, and progressing through the history, the author demonstrates well some of the ups and downs that have occurred in Cape Ann over the past several centuries.

From the history of the city, the author slips gently into the reasons that fish stocks are declining and discusses the animosity found between government regulators and the people who earn a living fishing. While not detailed, it does present an easy to understand look at the problems associated with fish stock management.

In addition, the book compares similar towns in other countries to allow the reader to realize that this is not a problem that exists strictly within the northeast portion of the US or with a single port. He also examines the effect of tourism on the towns and the problems tourism can create in working fishing villages.

This book is a good general look at the history of Gloucester, as well as fish depletion. It is a recommended read to anyone who is interested in the life style in a fishing community as well as how the fishing industry is in trouble.

For people who are interested in more detail on the plight of the New England fish stocks, and the views of both government regulators and the fishermen, I would highly recommend "The Great Gulf: Fishermen, Scientists, and the Struggle to Revive the World's Greatest Fishery by David Dobbs. It is a detailed look at the problems from both sides and goes into detail on the subject.
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on August 5, 2015
Perhaps the most accurate presentation of the past and future of Gloucester, MA - America's oldest fishing port. It is hard to read this work and not come away convinced that something should be done to preserve this culture. For the folks still living and working here, the culture remains firmly present in the DNA of their day-to-day living. But for the rest of the world - and most importantly, the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, only the environment and significant economic interests have a voice.

As Kurlansky points out, there is no commitment anywhere to preserve the centuries-old fishing culture; and unlike Native American interests, the fishermen have no right to preservation.

One would hope that persons with the power to make a difference read this book and consider Gloucester as an opportunity to demonstrate that government policy can actually deal positively with unique opportunities to enhance our cultural environment.
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on May 8, 2015
Mark Kurlansky has made quite a name for himself writing popular histories centered around a commonplace theme; the importance of cod, of salt, of oysters. In The Last Fish Tale, he applies his viewpoint to the fabled city of Gloucester, the oldest fishing port in the United States. While the book is well written, I personally, as the descendant of Nova Scotia fishermen, would have preferred a bit more focus on the fishing industry in Gloucester and the artists who immortalized it and less on the "summer people" who, while part of the story, are not as central as the painters and especially the fishermen who "went down to the sea in ships" and truly made Gloucester what it was, is, and may be again.
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on February 5, 2014
A brief history of the decline of the fishing industry with special emphasis on Glouster, MA.

Its really more than that and Kurlansky ALWAYS tells the tale well. I've been working my way through his books for several years since I hit "The Big Oyster" (also worth reading). This book is not as good as most of Kurlansky's other writing, but still worth reading. Part of this may be due to the brevity (for Kurlansky) of this story. Most of Kurlansky's books are fish themed or have to do with the fishing industry through the centuries.

What can make a non-fishing male who did not grow up near the ocean care about a fish tale? It's Kurlansky's way of relating it. He can take the several hundred year history of a subject and interweave the well known facts with little tidbits to 1) give you deep insight into the whole picture of the subject and 2) make you care significantly about a topic for which you had previously given very little thought.

This is actually a good book of Kurlansky's to start with. It gives you a reference to start with concerning his other books and its relatively short. Thus, if you don't like his writing style or topic, you won't be in for a long hall like "Salt" or "Cod", two of Kurlansky's other books. I give very few 5 star book ratings, and have over 200 book reviews on Amazon. Kurlansky always hits 4 or 5 stars. You may not be into fish, but I doubt that this book or any other by Kurlansky will make you sorry you read it.
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on June 17, 2008
Do people in Gloucester run around saying, "That's Gloucester" whenever something the least bit provocative or odd happens as Mark Kurlanksy says they do in his, moving and rambling The Last Fish Tale to which he adds the sub-title " The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival of Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town." Maybe so, but I doubt it. Indeed, the saying reminds me of an equivalent saying --- "That's Bisbee" --- in Richard Shelton's Come Back to Bisbee (1992). The history, situation and future of the former copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona parallel that of Gloucester, In this case, however, the town in question is an inland town surrounded by copper-toned hills a short distance from the life-threatening and life-giving Mexican border. Kurlansky's book cannot, however, be dismissed lightly for while some of his statements are exaggerated or veer toward the ridiculous, they are also provocative because they challenge readers, particularly readers who have lived in Gloucester, to weigh them carefully, in which case there is enough substance in them to provide nourishment of an ample, digestive character. (Digestion, or the culinary part of it, is a prominent sub-theme in the book.)

During the Depression years when I grew up at the very edge of a damp, foul and smelly Gloucester inner- harbor before the Fish Pier, built in 1938, obliterated Five-Pound Island, I was aware of a "Gloucester spirit." Part of this had to do with the fact that within my own family and within the families of my neighbors there were direct ties to the sea and to fishing and to the knowledge that came from experiencing the loss of people who had drowned while wresting for their's and their families livelihoods from the tumultuous and, treacherous sea. But death is a fact of life, whether on land or sea, in the ocean, in the mines, in bed, or in the trenches.

As in so many towns in the United States, the "Gloucester spirit" had a lot to do with the feats of local high school football, baseball, and basketball players. (In the 1940's it was mainly football) It was these players who were, for a season at least, the city's heroes. But regardless of whatever was first in public conversation or in newspapers, the fickle and haunting presence of the sea was always in peoples' minds, shaping their thoughts and fears and hopes. More than Lord Byron and Walt Whitman, who were fascinated by the sea's tidal comings and goings, the poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling, in his book Captains Courageous, sensed the challenge and the response the sea evoked. Kipling's tribute to manliness and egalitarianism was in the "Gloucester Spirit." In as much, as people need art to understand themselves, Kipling gave them what they needed. Other artists also expressed the "Gloucester sprit," most notably the sculptor Leonard Craske who gave Gloucester its most well-known icon, the Man at the Wheel who looks steadfastly out to the ocean and steers his and mankind's ship into the unknown and infinitesimal beyond.. In recent years, poets Charles Olson, in an obtuse (he would say "archaeological") fashion, and Vincent Ferrini in a more down- to the-water manner have kept the "Gloucester spirit" alive.

The painter Fitz Hugh Lane was a native son of Gloucester who acquired fame outside the city. His paintings are best seen on walls rather than in books as they do not reproduce well. The settings tend to be placid and, carefully composed, though there are exceptions in which brigs, schooners and yachts appear to be responding to wind and wave. Unlike Fitz Hugh Lane, artist Winslow Homer was not a native son; yet he sensed the drama of the ocean and of fishing in a more intense manner than Fitz Hugh Lane. (Somewhere Charles Olson, Gloucester's best-known if not best poet, takes an opposite point of view.) Ironically, Homer's dynamic paintings of waves crashing against rocks were not painted in Bass Rocks, Gloucester, but in his family's compound at Prout's Neck, Maine. But summer people in Gloucester, like Winslow Homer and the young poet T. S. Eliot, were, in the main, interlopers. A few were so insulated by their money and taste that they contacted local people only when they were buying goods at local stores. The exceptions were beachgoers, in Good Harbor and Niles Beaches in Gloucester, where interchanges took place between young summer people --- principally girls --- and local Lotharios.

Summer was an exciting time in Gloucester for families, who, having been isolated by cold and inhospitable winters, found an exhilarating opportunity for social interaction. A similar person-to-person interchange occurred in public schools where the mingling of so many ethnic groups fostered assimilation even while parents of the students --- immigrants from Greece, Italy, the Ukraine, France, Nova Scotia and elsewhere --- fought against it.

All generalizations are wrong, but, at the risk of being wrong, I maintain Portuguese who lived on "Portagee Hill" were the first twentieth-century ethnic group to assimilate.. After the third generation, many descendants could not speak Portuguese. Sicilians and Jews maintained their insularity for longer periods. Here again in third and subsequent generations divisions had softened but had not altogether disappeared. It is comforting to know that Gloucester people, from whatever stock they came, have adhered to and perpetuated their heritages.

Sunday has always been an important day in Gloucester for it meant a respite from the toils of other days, and, as with the beaches and summer, an opportunity to meet others, even if worship of God was the ostensible reason for the getting-together. Insular and provincial as local people may have been, there was a sense of pride in being part of a community. Even while this community had its minorities, these divisions were often complementary and inter-dependent.

When Kurlansky is not giving recipes of dishes which people in Gloucester made from scratch with whatever was available --- mostly fish --- he recites a harrowing tale of the dangers of fishing. . Much of what he has to say is well-known due to similar re-counting by Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm and accounts in the media of disappearing fish, It's a distressing story, but , whether or not individually shocking, depends on how it affects one's family and one's people nutrionally and financially. On a broader scale, the extinction of predatory fish from the ocean --- sharks, tuna, swordfish, marlin, skate, flounder, halibut, and cod --- allows small plankton-eating fish, such as anchovies, herring and mackerel, to expand, destroys an existing ecosystem, and deprives consumers of protein, a building block of life.

To say that Gloucester is changing does not make it special, nor does it make it "America's Most Original Town." This is Kurlansky's greatest solipsism. Nevertheless Gloucester exerts an appeal on residents and visitors that is only partially shared by other coastal communities like Boothbay Harbor, Boston, New Bedford, Nantucket, Monterey and San Diego. Kurlansky devotes his next-to-last chapter to trying to place the microcosm Gloucester within a greater macrocosm. He makes comparisons and connections with conditions and metropolises in Canada and Europe. He found the Cornish fishing village of Newlyn to be the most like Gloucester, not only in its "picturesque" blue-collar character, but in its coping with problems caused by over-fishing and the institution of governmental quotas. In recent years Newlyn has become a major supply source for fish and shell species for the rest of Europe and, to date has held the encroachments of tourism and non-fish related industries at bay.

This placing of Gloucester's concerns in a larger context provides a helpful service for Gloucester is an island in only a metaphorical sense. The fish it ships, once caught in large and now in small quantities, went out to markets all over the world. Even Charles Olson, the alien tenant in Gloucester's cheap-rent Fort district, knew that Gloucester included the mainland. The polis he admired had both metropolitan and metaphysical dimensions. Olson praised the settlers on the land that they called Cape Ann in 1623. Unlike the pilgrims who came to the New World to serve God and themselves, the practical-minded White Anglo Saxon settlers of Gloucester came together to form a cooperative and self-sufficient community. In a sense, "that is Gloucester" today as it is in so many cities in the United States who have not altogether lost their pioneer moorings and who have not become suburbs of a sprawling megalopolis.

More people leave Gloucester than stay. Each high school class produces a crop of expatriates. Some of these wipe the soil of Gloucester from their feet and the spray from their skins.. A few look back disdainfully at the squalor and dirt of their grubbing pinch-penny town. These escapees come from the poorer classes who did the menial and backbreaking work on the wharves and in the canneries that kept the collars of so many better-paid and educated people clean. One of the many fascinating tidbits gleaned from reading Kurlansky, is the notion that fishermen who brave the Stellwagen, Georges and Grand Banks enjoy fishing and find other occupations "boring." I know of a schoolmate who, upon being resuced from the sea after the boat he was on sank, gave up commercial fishing for a more secure vocation on land (a vocaton he had acquired courtesy of Glouester High School.) My brother-in-law, a tuna fisherman in Gloucester and San Diego, took classes in chemestry at a Community Colllege, with the result that he secured a job in a defense industry. HIs life thereafter was insulated from prospects of phycial maiming and from fears that his "stake" would not be enough to support his family. When I worked on the Gloucester wharves in 1942, my foreman encouraged me to take nightly classes in Boston so that I would not be chained to a life of stupefying drudgery. Sebastian Junger mentions the alcoholism, the caterwauling and one-night sex. Neither he nor Korlansky mentioned the high incidence gf mental illness among misfits and rejects.

In the 1930's and 40's fishing Captain Ben Pine and financier Roger Babson were Gloucester's most famous citizens. Its all-time hero was, however, Howard Blackburn, a doryman from Nova Scotia, who in 1883, while lost in a fog rowed his dory one-hundred miles from the Burego Bank to the shores of Newfoundland, his fingers, which he lost, being frozen to the oars. A living legend, in 1901 Blackburn, his arms changed to stumps, sailed in a specially designed sloop from Gloucester to Lisbon in thirty-nine record days. As time is not static others names are now or will be added to the list of luminaries.

Among all of Gloucester's re-settled and re-located people, there is something about roots. As Sicilians at the Fort remember Sicily, as the Portuguese on the "Hill" remember the Azores, as Jews remember the Ukraine, so ex- Gloucesterites look back on their native city as a collage of scenes --- from Stage Fort Park, from Bass Rocks, from Eastern Point, from Rockport, from Annisquam, etc. --- Gloucester is a place its distant children return to in memory, if not in fact - a city of contrasts and conflicts, of meager resources and occasional animosities, but also a city that has grown from its soil and waters, from its rocks and trees and shrubs, from its local animal and close by aquatic life and has so ramified that it has become a beacon of courage and love. It is these positive attributes that Kurlansky found in his interviews with Jews, Italians, Portuguese and Wasps and, as in my case, French Canadians. I heartily recommend The Last Fish Tale as a primer that presents most of the facts one needs to know to begin to understand the reason why Gloucester has maintained a steady and now worrisome place in the imagination of the American people and why it has become the source of so much poetic and pictorial description and praise.
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on August 9, 2013
As a young boy growing up in Honolulu, I was fascinated at the hustle and bustle at what we called "Fisherman's Wharf" where Star Kist and Del Monte, cooked and canned tuna. The smell of cooking fish was enjoyed by the local folk but hated by the tourist.
In the early 70's I moved to Southern California and worked in Long Beach Harbor for over 20 years. The canneries in San Pedro had tuna, herring and anchovies to process. In both instances, tourists now dominate the harbors and fancy condo's and apartments proliferate.
Gloucester should have been a warning to fishermen everywhere about what could happen to their harbors. Mark Kurlansky paints a great picture of what happened on the East Coast of America. As an ardent fan of his, I could not put the book down.
Well done!
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on February 4, 2013
I've been hooked on Mark Kurlansky's storytelling style since I picked up "The Big Oyster." "The Last Fish Tale," like all his others, are not academic in technical research--but he gives a good seasoning of characters, history, facts, recipes, and when his subject "flows" (rather than fragmented), you really get a good story with fun facts about the history of a food through a town's growth. This was better than "Cod," which was great but I felt was too fragmented and tried to cram too many milestones without a cohesive flow.

I hope Kurlansky considers writing more! He has that distinct magic storytelling pen. His creative style is unique and is a treat--especially when one's daytime work is comprised of alot of serious and technical writing (armed violence, conflict, cluster munitions, etc.). Kurlansky's writing is a treat. I'd read his books even if he were to write a 5,000 page on the history of lobster, pasta, rice, beef, chicken, beer, fish, the pomegranate,etc.
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