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About George Michelsen Foy
George Michelsen Foy was born on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. He has worked as a commercial fisherman, a magazine editor, a first mate on British tramp ships, and chief cream-puff transporter in a pastry factory in London, England. (Other jobs held in the course of a checkered career: investigative reporter, construction worker, political cartoonist, news photographer ...). He was educated at University of Paris, the London School of Economics, and Bennington College. His latest non-fiction book, RUN THE STORM: A SAVAGE HURRICANE, A BRAVE CREW, AND THE WRECK OF THE SS EL FARO, is NOW OUT with Scribner / Simon & Schuster in MAY, 2018. A previous non-fiction book, Finding North: How navigation makes us human, was published by Flatiron Books/Macmillan in May, 2016; Zero Decibels, an essay on silence and sound, came out in 2010. His latest novels are Mettle and The Art & Practice of Explosion (University Press of New England); Enquête sur Kamanzi, a novel in French, was published by Editions Globophile in Paris, France, in May, 2016. Foy's short fiction has appeared in Ep;phany Journal, Washington Square Review, Notre Dame Review, Monkeybicycle, American Literary Journal, et al.: long-form essays in Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, et al. He was awarded an NEA fellowship in fiction. He lives with his family in Southeastern Massachusetts and in New York City, where he teaches creative writing at NYU.
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On October 1, 2015, the SS El Faro, a massive American cargo ship disappeared in Hurricane Joaquin, a category 4 storm. The ship, its hundreds of shipping containers, and its entire crew plummeted to the bottom of the ocean, three miles down. It was the greatest seagoing US merchant marine shipping disaster since World War II. The massive ship had a seasoned crew, state-of-the-art navigation equipment, and advance warning of the storm. It seemed incomprehensible that such a ship could sink so suddenly. How, in this day and age, could something like this happen?
Relying on Coast Guard inquest hearings, as well as on numerous interviews, George Michelsen Foy brings us “the most insightful exploration of this unthinkable disaster” (Outside), a story that lasts only a few days, but which grows almost intolerably suspenseful as deep-rooted flaws leading to the disaster inexorably link together and worsen. We see captain, engineers, and crew fight for their lives, and hear their actual words (as recorded on the ship’s black box) while the hurricane relentlessly tightens its noose around the ship. We watch, minute by minute, all that is happening on board—the ship’s mysterious tilt to one side, worried calls to the engine room, ship-to-shore reports, the courage of the men and women as they fight to survive, and the berserk ocean’s savage consumption of the massive hull. And through it all, the pain and ultimate resilience of the families of El Faro’s crew. Now with a new afterword, this “tour de force of nautical expertise” (Ocean Navigator) is a masterwork of stunning power.
Navigation is the key human skill. It's something we do everywhere, whether feeling our way through a bedroom in the dark, or charting a ship's course. But how does navigation affect our brains, our memory, ourselves? Blending scientific research and memoir, and written in beautiful prose, Finding North starts with a quest by the author to understand this most basic of human skills---and why it's in mortal peril.
In 1844, Foy's great-great grandfather, captain of a Norwegian cargo ship, perished at sea after getting lost in a snowstorm. Foy decides to unravel the mystery surrounding Halvor Michelsen's death---and the roots of his own obsession with navigation---by re-creating his ancestor's trip using only period instruments.
Beforehand, he meets a colorful cast of characters to learn whether men really have better directional skills than women, how cells, eels, and spaceships navigate; and how tragedy results from GPS glitches. He interviews a cabby who has memorized every street in London, sails on a Haitian cargo sloop, and visits the site of a secret navigational cult in Greece.
At the heart of Foy's story is this fact: navigation and the brain's memory centers are inextricably linked. As Foy unravels the secret behind Halvor's death, he also discovers why forsaking our navigation skills in favor of GPS may lead not only to Alzheimers and other diseases of memory, but to losing a key part of what makes us human.
“ I don’t know at what point noise became intolerable for me,” George Michelsen Foy writes as he recalls standing on a subway platform in Manhattan, hands clamped firmly over his ears, face contorted in pain. But only then does Foy realize how overwhelmed he is by the city’s noise and vow to seek out absolute silence, if such an absence of sound can be discovered.
Foy begins his quest by carrying a pocket-sized decibel meter to measure sound levels in the areas he frequents most—the subway, the local café, different rooms of his apartment—as well as the places he visits that inform his search, including the Parisian catacombs, Joseph Pulitzer’s “silent vault,” the snowy expanses of the Berkshires, and a giant nickel mine in Canada, where he travels more than a mile underground to escape all human-made sound. Along the way, Foy experiments with noise-canceling headphones, floatation tanks, and silent meditation before he finally tackles a Minnesota laboratory’s anechoic chamber that the Guinness Book of World Records calls “the quietest place on earth,” and where no one has ever endured even forty-five minutes alone in its pitch-black interior before finding the silence intolerable.
Drawing on history, science, journalistic reportage, philosophy, religion, and personal memory, as well as conversations with experts in various fields whom he meets during his odyssey, Foy finds answers to his questions: How does one define silence? Did human beings ever experience silence in their early history? What is the relationship between noise and space? What are the implications of silence and our need for it—physically, mentally, emotionally, politically? Does absolute silence
actually exist? If so, do we really want to hear it? And if we do hear it, what does it mean to us?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 30 million Americans suffer from environment-related deafness in today’s digital age of pervasive sound and sensory overload. Roughly the same number suffer from tinnitus, a condition, also environmentally related, that makes silence impossible in even the quietest places. In this respect, Foy’s quest for silence represents more than a simple psychological inquiry; both his queries and his findings help to answer the question “How can we live saner, healthier lives today?”
Innovative, perceptive, and delightfully written, Zero Decibels will surely change how we perceive and appreciate the soundscape of our lives.