O’Brian, Patrick. The Nutmeg of Consolation. NY: Norton, 1991.
This fourteenth novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series begins where the last one left off, with Jack, Stephen, and 157 crew members cast away on a not-quite-desert island in the South China Sea, attempting to build a schooner from the remains of the wrecked Diane. After time out for a game of sand-lot cricket (these are Brits, after all), they find themselves holding off a concerted attack by predatory Malays. O’Brian certainly knows how to start his story off with a bang! With a little fortuitous assistance, they make their way back to Batavia, and Gov. Raffles supplies them with a recently raised Dutch ship — which Jack renames Nutmeg. They set off to rendezvous with the Surprise, with adventures and single-ship action along the way, and eventually make it to the penal colony at Botany Bay. O’Brian has some pointed and highly critical observations to make on the British governance of early Australia, and he also maintains his high standards of character development, wit in describing the relationship between the captain and the doctor — their personalities are extremely differenent in many ways — and beautifully painted pictures of life and weather at sea. This is one of the best so far of the latter part of the series. (12/29/02)
Chicken: Over 60 Simple Recipes for Great Home Cooking. NY: Time-Life Books, 2000.
For health reasons, I eat a lot of chicken, so I’m always on the look-out for interesting new ways of fixing it — new to me, anyway. I also have, and still use, a number of the old Time-Life “Foods of the World” series, so I was predisposed to like it — but apparently this one was simply acquired from Hamlyn/Octopus, a British publisher. The book is divided into “Small Courses” (finger foods, salads, and appetizers), “Quick & Easy,” “Coast to Coast” (international recipes), and “Entertaining,” which includes more impressive and time-consuming projects, such as Chicken Galatine and Indian Spiced & Roasted Chicken. I tried Chicken & Orange Shells, which was quite good, and Jamaican Jerked Chicken, in which I made a number of substitutions off the shelf (such as for the allspice berries, which I’ve never even seen) and it came out quite good anyway. There’s also an odd version of Jambalaya, which includes white wine and mussels instead of shrimp, and chorizo instead of tasso; I don’t believe my culinary friends here in south Louisiana would countenance those changes! The photography is good (always a help when you’re thinking about a new recipe) and ingredients and measurements are given in their U.S. equivalents rather than British. (12/23/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Thirteen Gun Salute. NY: Norton, 1989.
In terms of delineation of character and pure description of the sea — at both of which O’Brian excells — this thirteenth novel in the series is one of his best yet. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin are off, finally, on their quasi-diplomatic voyage to South America — but wait! The Admiralty suddenly needs them for a mission in one of the Malayan sultanates! Jack gets his commission and seniority back, he’s given the Diane (which he captured in the last book), and he takes aboard another envoy (who rates thirteen guns, hence the title). The French are in Pulo Prabang, too, in the persons of the traitors Wray and Ledward, and Maturin has his hands full, but they come to a delightfully bone-chilling end under the doctor’s scalpel. And then there’s that uncharted reef. . . . (12/22/02)
Gonick, Larry. The Cartoon History of the Universe III: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance. NY: Norton, 2002.
Gonick is a highly trained mathematician who more or less left academe to become a cartoonist, and has won several awards in that endeavor. He’s also a very fair general historian, especially in the way of multi-everything synthesis. This volume comprises Vols. 14-19 in the series as they were originally published, covering the back-story to and rise of Islam, the post-Roman history of Africa, the further development of China and India, and all the complexity of events taking place in Central Asia. Oh, yeah — Europe, too! Actually, most of us with professional historian’s training are still apt to think in European and North American terms, for which Gonick’s work is a great antidote. He also puts paid to any notion of Islam being a “peaceful” religion — no more than Christianity, certainly — and readers with a knowledge of Jewish history also will be nodding at his witty but pointed renderings. And how many comic books have you read that include an index and an annotated bibliography? (12/19/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Letter of Marque. NY: Norton, 1988.
Frankly, I didn’t have very high expectations for this twelfth installment in the saga of Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin; turning the Surprise into a privateer seemed to be merely scrambling for a plot twist. But, however (as they say), I was mistaken. O’Brian takes the opportunity to point up the significant social and operational differences between the national and private man-o’-war, the superior attitudes of the “real” navy toward those not in blue and gold uniform, and the real advantages sometimes enjoyed by the privately financed operation. And he sensitively explores Jack’s deep depression at being separated from the service. Moreover, we all know Jack’s estrangement, the result of his engineered conviction on trumped-up charges of rigging the stock market, cannot last. And, indeed, his sobriquet of “Lucky Jack” comes to the fore as his first cruise, intended only as a two-week shakedown exercise in preparation for a surreptitiously government-backed diplomatic and intelligence-gathering expedition to the Pacific coast of South America, quickly turns into a triumphant procession of Franco-American prizes back to Plymouth. There are also several interesting sub-plots, including Stephen’s reconciliation with his departed wife, Diana, and his gradual but unintentional weaning from his extreme opium habit via his Irish servant. I’m pleased to recommend this yarn as one of the best in the mid-part of this series. (But if you haven’t read the previous four or five, you’ll have no idea of what’s going on.) (12/17/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Reverse of the Medal. NY: Norton, 1986.
Jack Aubrey falls upon hard times, beginning with the apparent failure of his luck when a long, long chase across the Atlantic from the West Indies after a privateer ends with the quarry slipping into port just ahead of him. The old Surprise is for the knackers — she’s been living on borrowed time for the past two volumes — and Jack seems headed that way, too, after falling into a cunning trap that ends with him being roasted in a political show-trial for trying to manipulate the stock market. Stephen Maturin’s fortunes, on the other hand, seem to be rising. He has found himself unexpectedly wealthy and he comes into information that answers the disturbing questions arising in his recent intelligence operations. As always, O’Brian shows himself a master of the details of early 19th century British society, language, and general style, . . . but his plotting is unfortunately becoming almost pro forma. A pretty good story, but far from his best. (12/14/02)
Fussell, Paul. Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
Having grown up in an army family, I’ve always been aware of the subtle distinctions among military uniforms, while at the same time I was for a long time semi-unaware of them because they were so fundamental to my world as a kid. In his urbanely witty but sharply observant way, Fussell identifies much deeper distinctions: The Russian love of large shoulderboards, the 20th century German fascination with black, the Italian thing for plumes, and the different perception and philosophy between British class-conscious khaki and American egalitarian olive drab. And the essential reason army and navy uniforms are so very different: until the Cold War, the army and its uniforms were made up anew for each new major conflict, while the navy continued to exist much the same in peacetime as in wartime. But “uniform” means more than the military — witness the ubiquity of blue jeans in the United States and, eventually, all over the world. Fussell also asks the questions most of us wouldn’t have thought of, like why do British and American cops tend to dark blue uniforms, quite unlike the tradition in Continental countries? Why do commercial airline pilots wear uniforms at all? (The early ones didn’t.) Why are UPS men considered sexy while FedEx guys aren’t? And what was it with Elmo Zumwalt and Richard Nixon when it came to frankly bizarre uniforms? This isn’t a very long book, nor is it scholarly in style, but it’s a lot of fun. And you’ll find yourself looking at all the uniformed people around you with a new eye. (12/10/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Far Side of the World. NY: Norton, 1984.
As O’Brian admits in his Introduction to this tenth volume in the Aubrey/Maturin series, he’s beginning to run out of history; had he known the first novel would even become a series, he would have begun much earlier in Capt. Jack Aubrey’s career. The result is that, where each of the earlier volumes was a self-contained narrative, with a few months, or even a few years, of dead space between it and the next, each of the most recent stories ends with a cliffhanger and seques directly into the next yarn. This one is also much more a story of maritime life and its hardships than a naval adventure, with Jack taking the Joyful Surprise out of the Mediterranean, down to the South Atlantic, around the Horn, and into the vast and still largely uncharted mid-Pacific in pursuit of the U.S. Navy’s Norfolk, sent to harrass the British whaling fleet. It’s a long, hard, generally uncomfortable trek, with Aubrey and Maturin being marooned — twice. There’s also more of the soap opera element in this one, with a parallel story of onboard adultery and murder. For me, the most interesting episode is the pair’s encounter with the feminist crew of a South Seas double-hulled ocean-going canoe. This volume is a lot of fun for the experienced reader of O’Brian’s novels, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for a reader new to the series. (12/9/02)
Tartt, Donna. The Little Friend. NY: Knopf, 2002.
It’s 1969, and the small town of Alexandria, Mississippi, is not a great place to grow up. The town itself is dying, the families who used to have money have it no longer, and 11-year-old Harriet Cleve Dufresnes has decided to solve the mystery of who murdered her brother a decade before when he was the same age she is now — and to punish the killer. I read Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, when it first appeared a decade ago. Bits and pieces of its scenes and characters have stuck with me — always the sign of a good book — so I was looking forward to this one . . . and it was largely worth the wait, but the slow pace can make it rather hard going in places. Again, her characterization is flawless, especially as regards the criminal Ratliff clan, with their drug-dealing and snake-handling. Actually, my only complaint, except for the book’s snail-like pace, is Tartt’s tendency to have Harriett behave in ways that seem more appropriate to a seven- or eight-year old than an adolescent. She often seems even younger than her ten-year-old male buddy, Hely, who idolizes her. Finally, I would be interested to see what Hollywood might so with this; it seems made for the silver screen. (12/6/02)
Bon Appétit Keep It Simple: Easy Techniques for Great Home Cooking. NY: Clarkson-Potter, 2002.
I’m a pretty fair cook, but in the country style. If the cookbook has “gourmet” in the title, or the recipe has a French name, it’s probably not for me — so this book was a very pleasant surprise. I have a feeling the editors have somewhat dumbed down more sophisticated recipes in order not to scare off people like me, but that’s okay: I’ve found some really good dishes here. The “Split Pea Soup with Bacon and Rosemary” was a very tasty variation on an old favorite of mine, and the “Cider-Brined Pork Chops with Leeks and Apples,” which I fixed recently for a family birthday, got a lot of compliments. Some others, like “Macaroni and Cheese with Red Peppers” and “Stir-Fried Chicken with Onion and Hoisin Sauce” are definitely on my to-do list. Of course, there are quite a few things here I’m not ever going to fix, but the percentage that appeal to my tastes is pretty high. (11/29/02)
Better Homes & Gardens Bread Machine Cookbook. Des Moines: Better Homes & Gardens Books, 2001.
I love hot, freshly baked bread, but I seldom have the time for kneading, proofing, and all the rest, so several years ago I acquired a bread machine. Last Christmas, someone decided I needed to expand my baking repertoire and gave me this book. It starts with the real basics — white bread, egg bread, whole wheat, rye — and works up to more complex recipes like “Maple-Pecan Cornmeal Bread” and “Roasted Garlic and Stout Bread” (made with dark beer). Many of them use the machine for only part of the process and still require you to punch down, etc — and, frankly, I got a machine so I wouldn’t have to do that stuff! Nevertheless, there are some really good machine-only recipes, especially “Pepper-Parmesan Sourdough,” “Poppy Seed-Cranberry Bread,” which is great for brakfast, and “Garlic and Dried Tomato Bread,” which is perfect with homemade minestrone. The instructions are easy and assorted helpful tips are scattered throughout. (11/28/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. Treason’s Harbour. NY: Norton, 1983.
Captain Jack Aubrey was known in the Royal Navy as “Lucky Jack” in his earlier career, but he hasn’t been so lucky of late. This ninth novel in the series, which continues immediately after The Ionian Mission (and appears to be the middle installment of a mini-trilogy), is a satisfying mix of naval adventure, set mostly in the Red Sea, and spy story, set in Malta and revolving around Stephen Maturin’s befriending of the young wife of a captured naval captain who is working, semi-unaware for the French intelligence services. He’s much better known to his enemies now than in times past, which has increased his personal danger greatly, and — while we all know he’s going to survive — it’s interesting to see how he does it. As always, O’Brian shows himself a master of early 19th century slang and jargon, and also of droll wit. The extra fillip this time is the pair’s adventures crossing the desert between the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Suez, combined with Maturin’s acquisition of a massive brass diving bell. And the account of the pellmell journey down the narrow passage in pursuit of a galley hopefully filled with French gold is one of the author’s best extended scenes yet. (11/27/02)
Gourmet’s Casual Entertaining. NY: Condé Nast Books/Random House, 2001.
Okay, say the editors, it’s Saturday and some friends are coming over, and you decide to just “throw something on the grill, make a salad, and buy a pie at the bakery.” Hah! You can do better than that, they say. Just whip up some Belgian Endive Spears with Fontina & Walnut Filling as a “last-minute dinner.” Gimme a break! And under “Lazy Sundays,” they suggest Port-Poached Figs with Butter-Toasted Rosemary Almonds and Prosciutto. Now, I’m a pretty fair cook, but this is not the sort of thing you can do with one hand tied behind your back. And while some of these dishes — the few that actually are illustrated — look tempting, the title of the book is extremely misleading, because there ain’t nothing “casual” about it. (11/25/02)
Wright, Jeni. Le Cordon Bleu Quick Classics. London: Cassell, 1998.
I’m a pretty decent cook, but in the country style. If a recipe involves smoked breast of duck or goat cheese, I’ll look for something else. Those ingredients, and similar, figure in a number of the admittedly tasty-looking dishes featured here, but there are also a number of others that are surprisingly simple and quite good — at least, those I tried. Rather than the usual division into chapters by primary component, this book is organized into “Appetizers,” “After Work,” “Weekend Entertaining,” “Vegetables, Salads, & Accompaniments,” and “Desserts,” plus a final section called “The Basics,” which covers roasted garlic, pesto, basil coulis, bouquet garni, etc. I made the Argula with Sautéed Potatoes & Bacon, which was easy and excellent, and the Pasta alla Diavola, in which I included rather more dried chiles than called for, with great success. About one-third of the recipes are pictured (mouth-wateringly), and nearly all are accompanied by Chef’s Tips and suggested variations. Except for the editors’ somewhat boorish assumption that anything cooked in French fashion is better than anyone else’s version — even Corn & Potato Chowder, which is about as American as you can get — this is an above-average cookbook which I shall return to regularly. (11/24/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Ionian Mission. NY: Norton, 1981.
This is the eighth in the naval action adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin, and, except for the last twenty pages, there’s a surprising lack of action. Jack is doing a turn commanding a seventy-four-gun ship of the line in the blockade of Toulon on the French Mediterranean coast, a mostly cold, dreary, boring, enervating sort of warfare. The admiral he admires is wasting away from overwork and the vice-commander, Jack’s old nemesis, tries to use him in a diplomatic feint which turns into a debacle, damaging his reputation among those of his crew who don’t really know him and even making him doubt himself. Stephen is busy behind the scenes, sharing the secret limelight with Prof. Graham, an expert in all things Turkish. Finally, in a narratively somewhat disconnected incident, they are sent off to the Turkish-held Greek islands to undermine the French among the local beys and pashas. While it makes for interesting reading in depicting another, rather less dashing, side of the naval war against Napoleon, this volume is uncomfortably episodic and not at all one of O’Brian’s best. I would definitely not recommend this as one’s first novel in the series. (11/22/02)
Cornwell, Bernard. The Archer’s Tale. NY: HarperCollins, 2001.
I had tried to read a couple of Cornwell’s “Sharpe’s Rifles” series about the British infantry during the Napoleonic wars, but didn’t much care for them. This one, however, is far better! It’s 1362 and young Thomas of Hookton, bastard son of priest, is lucky to have escaped the destruction of his village by French sea raiders. A trained bowman (against his father’s wishes), he ends up with the armies of Edward III in Brittany, and then Normandy, and finally takes a violently active part in the battle of Crécy. Along the way, he learns something about his true family heritage, commits a poorly thought out murder, gets involved with a flinty French countess with the heart of her merchant forebears, gets himself inexpertly hanged, and finally meets the right girl by saving her from casual rape in the sack of Caen. Cornwell does an excellent job of putting the reader fully into the real carnage of warfare in the late medieval period — because, as any working historian knows, the whole chivalry and courtly love thing was mostly the invention of the jongleurs, and few ransom-hungry knights with a crew of men-at-arms to feed had any time for such things. The 14th century was definitely not a nice place, and the author cuts you no slack in that regard. Thomas isn’t really a hero, either — just a young guy trying to survive without losing too much of his self-respect. We get a close look at the strategy behind King Edward’s invasion of France and the tactics of the longbow, and a sold feel for the social milieu of the period. And some amusing hagiographies of little-known saints. Frankly, though, I wish Cornwell had omitted the Cathar mysticism and the Grail quest themes — and if only he could control his tendency to end every section and chapter with a needlessly complex and overly dramatic declarative sentence.
Subsequent Note: Don’t worry, I re-thought my reaction to Richard Sharpe a couple years later. (11/19/02)
Rubel, David (ed). The Reading List: Contemporary Fiction. NY: Henry Holt, 1998.
I’m an avid reader of books about books, especially other people’s annotated lists of books to read, and this is one of the very best I’ve seen. It’s subtitled “A Critical Guide to the Complete Works of 110 Authors,” and it’s an excellent introduction for even the most serious reader of modern literary fiction to those authors and books one inevitably misses. Some of my favorites are here, including Steven Milhauser, David Lodge, and Jane Smiley, but I was also made to think again about Mian Kundera, Barbara Kingsolver, and a few others by whom I had not been particularly impressed. The biographical notes will also give you some clues to where an author’s work comes from, and the annotations on individual books are uniformly excellent — even when I disagree with them. This is one for making marginal notes in! (11/18/02)
Sauer, Patrick. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting a Reading Group. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2000.
Some in the Idiot’s Guides series are pretty good, some are pretty dreadful; this one falls somewhere in the middle. Not all of his advice on locating an existing reading group is sound — library-based groups are necessarily as open to the general public as those sponsored by chain bookstores — nor is his advice to buy multiple new copies of books rather than used ones. He’s much better on what makes for a successful new group — how to choose members, how to choose which books to read, how to pace a discussion, and how to make sure everyone is included. And most of his thematic lists of books to consider are quite reasonable, except for the very short shrift he gives science fiction. (He seems to think “genre” fiction means primarily mystery novels.) My main complaint about this book is the cutesyness common to the whole series, but if you can ignore that there’s some pretty good stuff here. (11/17/02)
Lethem, Jonathan. Gun, with Occasional Music. NY: Harcourt, 1994.
Newsweek called this a marriage of Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler (actually, I think they meant Dashell Hammett), and that’s pretty close. Conrad Metcalf is a gumshoe in the old noir mode, but in this near future — or parallel present — he’s a “private inquisitor” in a world in which it’s not only very rude but aggressively antisocial to ask questions, a world in which “evolved” animals have begun to fill the lower social niches (from a kittenish kitten and a P.I. gorilla to a dangerous kangaroo gunsel), a world in which an addictive psychoactive drug is not only tolerated but encouraged, and in which the karma credits on your card had better not run down to zero. All of this, frankly, is far more interesting than the somewhat lame murder plot, involving gangsters, addicts, crooked cops, and innocent bystanders who get vacuumed up. The concluding section, however, set six years later — or three days, depending on your viewpoint — shows that no matter how dark things may get, they can always get worse. Despite numerous recommendations of his work, this is the first novel I’ve read by Lethem, and even with the caveats given above, it’s good enough to lead me to try more of his stuff. (11/16/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Surgeon’s Mate. NY: Collins, 1980.
This volume is the third in a mini-trilogy within the larger Aubrey-Maturin series, and it’s rather more given to personal and political rather than purely naval affairs. Again, it opens where the previous volume closed, with the victory of Shannon over the Chesapeake and the arrival of both at Halifax. While they’re being fêted by local society for the victory, Jack, in a peke over his lack of mail from home, gets carried away in an indiscretion with a local fortune-hunter, which haunts him for the rest of the book. Diana Villiers, meanwhile, has a parallel problem as a result of her liaison with Johnson in the previous volume. The three finally leave Canada for England on the packet carrying the great news, but are hotly pursued by a couple of American privateers apparently in Johnson’s employ; he wants both his papers and his woman back. When they reach England, Steven’s own intelligence coup leads to his being sent on a mission to the Baltic, where he must convince a Catalan contingent to desert the Napoleonic cause, and this whole episode is one of the most interesting I’ve read yet. In the latter stages of the mission, however, Jack and Steven find themselves in the clutches of the French, and then in prison in Paris, and Steven’s talents are called for again. This one is more a spy adventure than a sea story, but it’s very enjoyable for all that. (It took me an embarrassingly long time to catch on to the title, though.) (11/12/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Fortune of War. NY: Norton, 1979.
The previous volume ended with the orchestrated escape of Mrs. Wogan and Michael Herapath from Desolation Island in an American whaler, and the reader knew that “the horrible old Leopard” was about to forge on, too, having managed to replace her destroyed rudder. This volume begins in late 1812, with the Leopard limping into harbor in the East Indies, with only a sentence or two given to the fate of Gov. William Bligh in Australia — which didn’t strike me as quite fair. The historical Bligh is a very interesting personality. However. The Leopard is good now only as a transport, and Jack Aubrey has been told of a nice frigate awaiting his command on his return to England, so he and Dr. Maturin and their followers take passage aboard the homebound La Flèche with Captain Yorke, an old acquaintance of Jack’s. It’s a lovely voyage as far as the mid-Atlantic, but then events catch up with them, and they find themselves in a small boat struggling to reach the coast of Brazil. They’re rescued by the Java — which is then taken by the Constitution, the third British frigate to fall to the small U.S. Navy in a very short time. Very depressing for our heroes, but O’Brian doesn’t hesitate to laud the abilities of the American seamen and commanders. Stephen and the wounded Jack end up as prisoners of war in Boston, where Maturin’s intelligence activities against Napoleonic France come back to haunt him, and where he joins up again with Diana Villiers, Herapath (father and son), and Louisa Wogan. The focus is more on Stephen Maturin in this book than in most of the others, and he shows himself to be quite cold-blooded when necessary in pursuit of his covert objectives. Escape from Boston becomes necessary when it becomes obvious that no exchange is contemplated for them, and they make their way to the Shannon, under Philip Broke, which is maintaining the blockade of Boston Harbor, and which sends in a gentlemanly challenge to the Chesapeake to come out and fight — all of which is historically accurate, though strange to modern notions of warfare. And that brief but epic engagement is where this volume ends, with an obvious segue into the next. The earlier volumes were generally self-contained narratives, with a period of unremarked time passing between them, but the present novels cover too great a series of events to be dealt with properly in a single volume. And the greater the impact they have on history, the more Jack tends to recede into a secondary position — which is only fair, since O’Brian didn’t want to perturb the historical record too greatly. I enjoyed this volume in the series rather more than the last one, perhaps because I’m more knowledgeable than most about the early National period in the U.S. and the War of 1812 in particular. O’Brian does an excellent, balanced job of describing the local political situation in New England, and his powers of characterization are as strong as ever. (11/10/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. Desolation Island. NY: Norton, 1978.
I’ve been reading the Aubrey-Maturin series straight through, from the first volume. While it has one of the most exciting battle scenes and some of the absorbing problems to be solved I’ve yet encountered, this is also, untimately, the most frustrating of the first five volumes. Jack Aubrey, having given up his commodore’s pendant at the end of the Mauritius campaign, is back to being a post captain, this time commanding the slow, aging Leopard on a voyage to relieve the embattled Gov. William Bligh in Australia. For reasons of state security, he must also transport a batch of convicted felons, among whom is an American women strongly suspected of spying for the United States, and he must deal with an intellectual young man who has stowed away aboard to be close to Mrs. Wogan. Virtually the whole story takes place aboard the one ship, so the author has the opportunity to investigate his characters in great depth — always one of his strongest points. The only real naval action, a prolonged stern chase in horrible weather, in which Leopard must flee from the much stronger Waakzaamheid, a Dutch 72-gun ship, is absolutely riveting, as is its sudden and tragic resolution. Then there are the icebergs. But when the book ends, Leopard is still a thousand miles or more from New South Wales and Bligh is nowhere in sight. This had better be a two-parter because it annoys me greatly not to know what happened in the rest of Aubrey’s commission. (11/05/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Mauritius Command. NY: Norton, 1977.
This fourth novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series shows more narrative unity than the first three, which is partly a function of Jack Aubrey’s now-exalted rank. As a newly promoted commander in a small sloop, and even as a post captain, he was at the beck of more officers. Now, as commodore in command of a squadron of several ships-of-the-line and lesser warships, plus a small herd of transports and Indiamen crowded with troops, he has reached a position of high command, with orders to capture the French outpost islands of Mauritius and La Réunion in the Indian Ocean. As Dr. Maturin privately notes in his diary, Jack was probably happier as a junior officer, with only his own ship and men in his direct responsibility; now he must manage other ships’s captains at one remove, deal diplomatically with the Army, and oversee the installation of a new British governor. O’Brian hews closely to historical fact in narrating this little-known but complex campaign, and he also delves more deeply into the psychology of the supporting characters — especially Lord Clonfort, a not unintelligent but very unhappy young commander apparently afflicted with bipolar disorder, who constantly seeks the approval of his own subordinates as well as his seniors. As true historical fiction, this volume is, for me, the most enjoyable in the series yet. (11/02/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. H.M.S. Surprise. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1973.
This is the third novel in the Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin series, and the story just keeps rolling right along. It’s difficult to maintain the pace and the reader’s interest for more than the first couple of volumes in any sort of fiction series, but O’Brian certainly has the knack. This time, the newly-posted but still heavily indebted Captain Aubrey is detailed to ferry a diplomat to the court of an Indian prince . . . having been the unknowing beneficary of Maturin’s leverage at the Admiralty. He’s impatient at being out of the principal theater of the war with France, but happy to have any ship at all — especially the frigate Surprise, in which he had served as a midshipman. Besides helping his friend, Dr. Maturin has his own reasons for visiting India — Diana Villiers has gone there in the company of a wealthy merchant from the City and the East India Company. For O’Brian spends as much time on the details and development of his characters’ personal interrelationships as he does on naval maneuvering and battles. And the descriptions of rounding the Cape of Good Hope are mesmerizing! (10/29/02)
Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. NY: Knopf, 1978.
I recently made a lengthy automobile trip through a boring section of the country, and I spent much of the drive listening to the audio version of these stories. Of the sixty-odd pieces in this collection, almost all of them first published in The New Yorker, I’d previously read maybe one-third, especially the more famous and heavily anthologized ones like “The Swimmer.” But my favorites are those in which Cheever experimented with style and content, like “The Enormous Radio” and “The Country Husband” and “The Wrysons” and “Goodbye My Brother.” Cheever invented the “New York story,” in which the characters are ordinary people living generally ordinary lives, but by whom the reader becomes fascinated. And the last paragraph always seems to tie up the narrative in a neat surgical knot. Amazingly good stuff. (10/27/02)
Hornby, Nick. About a Boy. NY: Riverhead Books, 1998.
I haven’t seen the movie, and I’m not sure it would be possible to *make* a good film from this terrific book, since so much of it is third-person-omniscient. In fact, Hornby’s dry and droll style is almost the epitome of English humorous fiction. Will Lightman, whose father wrote a classic pop Christmas tune and set up his son for life, is devoted to a life of idleness, coolness, and the pursuit of women. Will’s not really an unlikable person — merely a shallow one. He decides that single mothers are a target group he hasn’t tried yet and invents a son so he can join a support group. This leads him to an acquaintance with Marcus, a rather nerdish twelve-year-old whose mother has made him a vegetarian and Joni Mitchell fan, and who has no idea who Kurt Cobain is (the story is set in 1990). Marcus adopts Will as a role model who can teach him all the things his depressive mother cannot. And Will eventually falls in love — but not (surprisingly) with Will’s mother — and finds it necessary to change his life in important ways. This is a delightfully witty, sweet, and insightful book about the London middle class, the teenage world of the early ‘90s, and the relationships between men and women of all ages. (10/25/02)
King, Dean. A Sea of Words. 3d ed. NY: Henry Holt, 2000.
Subtitled “A Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O’Brian,” this is an absolutely marvelous book, the Third Edition of which includes references to all twenty of the Aubrey-Maturin novels. It scores high in the first test given any alphabetically organized reference book, viz., in looking up an entry, you will be become interested in the cross-references, and then in adjacent subjects, and then your whole afternoon will be shot as you turn through subject after subject until you’ve absorbed the whole thing! There’s a wide variety of nautical jargon, period medical terminology, the characters’ references to natural history and music, and the foreign words and phrases that crop up in the novels. O’Brian describes a large number of real personages, too, all of whom are succinctly biographed. There’s also a pretty detailed timeline for the period 1793–1818, a narrative essay on the ins and outs of the Napoleonic wars, a most illuminating discussion of naval medicine and surgery in Maturin’s day, and a nice series of period illustrations of ships and boats for those who can’t tell a frigate from a corvette, nor a barge from a launch. This is definitely a book to keep at hand while you work your way through the series. (10/23/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. Post Captain. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972.
This is the second in the Aubrey-Maturin series and it’s a far more broadly painted picture than the first; also, a great deal more of the action takes place ashore. Jack finds himself out of a command due to the peace, but having come into a large sum of prize money, he rents a country place and takes up riding to hounds. He also meets Sophie and her family, and the Doctor meets Sophie’s cousin, Diana. Relationships become interestingly complicated, but then Jack’s prize agent defaults and two of his prizes are ruled invalid, and he suddenly finds himself deep in debt. The two go abroad to escape a debt judgment and they’re visiting Spain when war breaks out again. After a period disguised as a trained bear accompanying its trainer, they reach Gibralter and take ship, only to be captured. And so it goes, with Maturin having taken up his additional avocation by this time as an intelligence agent for the Admiralty. In fact, his connections are about the only thing that keeps Jack in his series of commands against the competition, and after a particularly gallant action, he finally gets made post. All in all, this is a far more interesting book, with a great deal more character development, than the first book. Young Sophia is especially nicely drawn, and Jack himself (as Stephen notes) has begun to mature in important ways. In fact, my only complaint is in respect to the wretched cover illustration in the original hardcover edition! (10/21/02)
O’Brian, Patrick. Master and Commander. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969.
It’s interesting to compare Commander Jack Aubrey to Horatio Hornblower and Richard Bolitho, whom I have long considered the most successful fictional naval heroes of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Actually, Aubrey is only nominally a “hero,” being a much more human individual than the other two. In fact, while a notable seaman and a resourceful tactician, in many other respects he can be a thoughtless and blundering dunderhead, down on Whigs and Catholics, and with a tendency to be led by his own bowsprit where the ladies are concerned. But O’Brian certainly has invented a fully rounded character and put the reader inside his head. Even more interesting, though, is Dr. Stephen Maturin, a creature of the Enlightenment, reared in Catalonia — physician, natural scientist, Irish ex-revolutionary, and, in the later books, secret intelligence agent for the British government. Maturin is worldly, liberal, and fearless in expressing his opinion, though he also has his narrownesses. He also is an absolute naif when it comes to marine matters, which makes him an excellent foil for whose benefit (as well as the reader’s) everything must be explained. The greatest difference between O’Brian and his predecessors, perhaps, is this author’s narrative style which (not even counting the nautical jargon) makes much heavier use than most of the idiom and cant of the day. It never becomes un-understandable, though. But I do have a small complaint: Now that O’Brian is gone, we shall never know the details of Aubrey’s earlier career, to which some fascinating and intriguing references are made here. (10/15/02)
Kent, Alexander. In Gallant Company. NY: Putnam, 1977.
This is the first Richard Bolitho novel written, and the fourth in the series’ internal chonology. Bolitho begins the spring of 1777 as Fourth Lieutenant in the eighty-gun Trojan lying in New York harbor. Because of the death in action of one of his superiors and the capture of another, he ends as Second Lieutenant and then, to his surprise, as prize master of a captured American brig — during the operation of which he manages to grab yet another enemy ship, which is more than enough to give him his step to Commander in the next book! Bolitho is an officer in the Hornblower mode — self-possessed, self-critical, and sometimes prey to self-doubts — which is to say, he’s closer in some ways to a late-20th century man than a true denizen of the 18th century (like O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey). The chracterizations are carefully done and the action is clearly described without being overly technical (also a difference from O’Brien). Note: I personally find series like this more interesting when the characters are younger and lower in rank, fighting smaller vessels. Flag rank tends to remove the officer — and the reader’s viewpoint — too far from the “front lines.” (10/12/02)
Kent, Alexander. Stand into Danger. NY: Putnam, 1980.
My father introduced me to Horatio Hornblower when I was in junior high and I’ve been a fan of Napoleonic-era sea yarns ever since. C. S. Forester is still the standard against which I measure later creations, and Alexander Kent (nom-de-plume of Douglas Reeman) stands up very well in that regard. I always try to work out a birthdate for the main character in such a series, so I’ll have some idea of the future course of his history and what real events he’s likely to bump into. Hornblower was born in 1776, Jack Aubrey around 1770 or ‘75 (I think), and Richard Bolitho in 1756 — which pretty much takes him out of the later Napoleonic period except as a very senior officer (the last book in the series is set in 1806). Things were quite different at that relatively early period as regards press gangs, construction of ships, international politics, and lots of other factors, which adds to the interest. Specifically, Bolitho is eighteen years old and a newly-appointed Third Lieutenant aboard the Destiny, a frigate armed for war during a time of peace, whose captain is frothing to lay hold of a would-be revolutionary hiding out in the Caribbean. Which provides plenty of room for Bolitho to develop his naval and leadership skills, to become infatuated with another man’s wife, and to acquire friendships that will last a lifetime — especially with Stockdale, who will later become his cox’n. The prose is workmanlike and the author spends almost as much time delineating the characters of Captain Dumaresq, First Lieutenant Palliser, and Second Lieutenant Rhodes, all of whom are interesting, and which greatly increases the reader’s enjoyment. (10/02/02)