24 January 2009

1. Master & Commander by Patrick O'Brian

It was with a great deal of anticipation that I opened the first book of the new year, Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander.

I have been reading sailing books, sailing magazines, sailing websites, and sailing stories for years now and have passed by many many references to O'Brian's books and each time I read mention of O'Brian's series I thought, I should get to those. I begin this year by beginning to get to them. The final push to finally pick them up was Olman's excellent review, here.

My anticipation and excitement was also mixed with some fear that I would be disappointed. To my great relief, I was not disappointed at all. As Olman says the writing is excellent. The descriptions of the sea, the sea battles, and the maneuvers are rendered poetically. I felt very drawn into the world. There were a few moments when I felt I had mismanaged the field of battle, so to speak, but that was a more lapse of my attention than O'Brian's description. Sometimes I wasn't sure where the wind was coming from, who was upwind/downwind, or even sometimes, the basic layout of the geography (in particular the battle where the go into that cove and fight under the guns on the cliffs).

I've also seen the movie about half a dozen times, so I couldn't help but picture Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, which is fine, since I find RC kind of studly. But I should shut up about this or it'll be what drives the comments instead of O'Brian. (The movie, by the way, covers some of the action in this book and some of the action in another.) (Also, check out the obvious use of plywood in the movie ship's captain's quarters, when Aubrey/Crowe is talking about how tough the Surprise is.)

More confusing to me than what happened at sea was what happened on land: who are all of these ladies, and what exactly is their relationship to the officers of the fleet? And who is hooking up and whose husband cares and doesn't, and so on. I could have used a bit more description or explanation about the political situation with the Royal Navy's upper crust and the social politics that always mean so much in these hierarchies.

One of the subplots I particularly enjoyed was the uneasy friction cause by the lack of communication between James Dillon and Commander Aubrey. Dillon is some kind of Irish ex-Revolutionary who, at one point, is tasked with going aboard an American ship in search of an escaped convict. Of course, the ex-convict is one of Dillon's former freedom fighters and so Dillon must choose between his official duty to the Navy and his homeland and former comrade. His plight very much reminded me of the cop in The Rising of the Moon. And it reminded me agin that we all have that decision to make: do I do what's good for me or what's good for the union? Or the relationship? Or the family? Or the team?

And so after his decision is made, Dillon can barely live with himself, and hates Aubrey for putting him in that position. It's also interesting, to me, that Aubrey only sent Dillon because he thought the mission was a waste of time, that, of course, there was no way the guy was going to be on the American ship.

I read this book solely with the aid of the internet and the good dictionary on my desk at work, but I highly recommend two companion books. I mean, you want to do it right, right? First is A Sea of Words, edited by Dean King (who also edits the Heart of Oak series of which you will be hearing more of very soon), and the second is the coffee table book Patrick O'Brian's Navy, edited by Richard O'Neill. This is great for getting a look at what the ships look like (good guys and bad guys). I also have a few sailing encyclopedias around that I looked at, but for the remaining 20 1/2 books I'll be relying on these two.

And, in an example of how things generally work out for me in the rest of my life, I was in San Diego recently, reading this very book while I was there. When i got home and had a more regular access to the internet I found out that the ship used in the movie version is docked in..wait for it...San Diego. We drove by it, saw it, marked it down as something to return to check out; then we ran out of time before we could get back. I thought it was a whaler or some merchant ship (all I could see from the driver's seat was miles of standing rigging) like those at South St Seaport or Mystic Seaport. I kind of feel like a dufus.

And like Olman has already told us, the writing is excellent. What amazes me about this, beyond the description, is the reality it represents. This kind of thing happened all the time. Ships would purposely try to line up next to each other so they could fire cannons at each other. Like the Redcoats lining up to fire volley after volley into lines of men across from them. I can't imagine the fear and the stress of the gunners and captains. They were tough. I get annoyed that my car won't warm up fast enough in the morning; these guys are firing cannons at each other miles and miles from home. I get stressed when my boss comes to observe a lesson about poetry I'm about to teach; these guys were prepared to board an enemy ship and take it over by rapier and pistol. And yes, sure, I was on a submarine once, and went far away, and would have done my damned best to sink any other submarine who messed with us, but, to me, firing a torpedo or two and then melting away into the great, big ocean is a little different than taking a huge man-of-war bristling with cannon and lining it up next to another huge man-of-war bristling with cannon to fire a whole mess of cannon balls at it. Yeah, just a little.

I leave you with this section from one of the fights:

"The first of the Desaix's shot whipped through the topgallant-sail, but the next two pitched short. There was still time for manoeuvre - for plenty of manoeuvre. For one thing, reflected Jack, he would be very much surprised if the Sophie could not come about twice as quickly as the seventy-four. 'Mr Dalziel,' he said, 'we'll go about and back again. Mr Marshall, let her have plenty of way on her.' It would be quite disastrous if the Sophie were to miss stays on her second turn: and these light airs were not what she liked - she never gave of her best until there was something of a sea running and at least one reef in her topsails.

'Ready about...' The pipe twittered, the sloop luffed up, came into the wind, stayed beautifully and filled on the larboard tack: her bowlines were as taut as harpstrings before the big seventy-four had even begun her turn.

The swing began, however; the Desaix was in stays; her yards were coming round; her checkered side began to show; and Jack, seeing the first hint of her broadside in his glass, called out, 'You had better go below, Doctor.' Stephen went, but no farther than the cabin; and there, craning from the stern-window, he saw the Desaix's hull vanish in smoke from stem to stern, perhaps a quarter of a minute after the Sophie had begun her reverse turn. The massive broadside, nine hundred and twenty-eight pounds of iron, plunged into a wide area of sea away on the starboard beam and rather short, all except two thirty-six pound balls, which hummed ominously through the rigging, leaving a trail of limp, dangling cordage. For a moment it seemed that the Sophie might not stay - that she would fall impotently off, lose her advantage and expose herself to another such salute, more exactly aimed. But a sweet puff of air in her backed headsails pushed her round and there she was on her former tack, gathering way before the Desaix's heavy yards were firmly braced - before her first manoeuvre was complete at all."

That's the stuff!

04 January 2009

2008: A look backward

Well, I just managed to exceed the 2007 total, but still didn't make 30, the goal I had in mind last January.

Looking back I see that of the 28 books, only six of them were of my own choice, and two were because I was teaching them (I don't count the other books I teach that I have read a million times, like Mockingbird, or Othello.).

I'm satisfied with what I read, but most of it was assigned and that's no way to live. I do like the mandate a class provides - a set list that must be read and deadlines - but I much prefer to live by interest-based choice.

Looking forward I am excited by what 2009 promises. I've started the Patrick O'Brian series (20 books plus another unfinished), a class on Herman Melville in the Autumn, and a group project among the book bloggers I know.

(We're reading Lolita by V Nabokov by 1 February. Then I'm posting my review here. Each participating blogger posts a review both on their own blog AND in the comment section of this blog. Then we'll have a conversation in the comment section. Please join us! Read this classic by 1 Feb and then post your review on your blog and here in the comments, on Sunday 1 Feb.)