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The Real Master and Commander

Chances are you’ve already heard of Horatio Hornblower, Jack Aubrey, even Frank Mildmay. But how about Thomas Cochrane, the real life British naval officer upon whose life and career all of these fictional characters are at least in part based?

That’s what I thought. Don’t worry, David Cordingly’s Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander has got you covered.

The best biographies illuminate not only their title character but the time and place in which that character lives, and this book does that in spades, with some eye-opening revelations. For one thing, I had no idea that the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars were on the whole, well, pirates.

Oh yes, they were, and I’ll tell you why. The British Navy was essentially a money-making proposition in those days. Whenever a British ship caught an enemy ship, it would be sent back to England where it would be assessed by the Admiralty and assigned a value, one-eighth of which was then shared among the officers and crew of the capturing ship. The more enemy ships they captured, the more prize money they made, and Cochrane, whose improvident father had cost the family the hereditary estate, was forever in a row with whoever was in charge about getting full value for the ships he captured.

An eye ever to the main chance Cochrane may have had, but he was also by everyone’s account, even his enemies’, of which he made many, a master mariner. Cordingly writes that some of Cochrane’s actions, described in full in you-are-there prose, are still cited by naval historians as the best of their kind. He was his own worst enemy on land but at sea he was unsurpassed. He wreaked havoc with Napoleon’s navy up and down the coasts of France and Spain, and not for nothing did the French call him “le loup de mer,” or the Seawolf.

Ashore, though, he involved himself in radical politics and made enemies of people in power, especially in the Navy. He was intemperate and mouthy, which, allied with a burning and fatal desire to achieve better pay and conditions for his officers and men, started the downward spiral. The British Admiralty just wasn’t there yet. When, inevitably, he made England too hot to hold him, he went to South America, where as, sequentially, chief of naval operations for both countries he was instrumental in Chile and Brazil’s wars of independence with Spain, and later and less gloriously in Greece’s war of independence with Turkey.

He had a keen scientific curiosity and the patience for experimentation which caused him to spend a great portion of his aforesaid prize money on experimenting with, among other things, lamps, steam engines and bitumin (aka asphalt). He was a passionate and faithful husband to his not always worthy wife, and what money he didn’t spend on scientific experimentation and petitions for reinstatement in the British Navy was employed to bail their worthless children out of hock.

This book is beautifully produced, with many detailed maps, marvelous cutaway illustrations of two of Cochrane’s ships so you can practically walk the decks at his side, three sections of contemporary paintings of friends and colleagues, including many portraits of Cochrane himself at every age, ships of his time, seascapes of sea battles and ports of call and scenes of engagement. There is even a glossary at the back to teach you the difference between bombarde and bumboat, and more illustrations throughout, such as a reproduction of the recruiting poster Cochrane had made up to entice a ship’s crew to the Pallas. “My lads,” says the poster, “The rest of the GALLEONS with the Treasure from LA PLATA are waiting half loaded at CARTAGENA…Such a Chance perhaps will never occur again.

That was appealing to their better natures, all right.

Cordingly’s Cochrane is a rousing tale, all the more astonishing because it’s all absolutely true. A wonderful read.

Coffee Table Books for December 14

These are all (I hope) of the books mentioned on the air during Coffee Table this morning. For Christmas gifts for friends and family, as follows:

Tom likes Alcohol Can be a Gas by David Blume.

Amy likes The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Samantha loves her new cookbook, Fish Without a Doubt by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore.

Pam likes Diapering the Devil by Jay Hammond (So do I. If you want to know how and why you get a PFD every October, start here).

Mark likes Simple Food for the Good Life by Helen Nearing and is also reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the one about the Great Game, aka covert ops between Russia and China in the late 1800’s.

Mike made Bill Moyers’ The Conversation Continues sound like a must-read, and the perfect bedside book.

Caroline recommends local author Dottie Cline’s children’s book, Raven Paints the Birds, and the coffee table book Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds That Built Them by Sharon Beals, which she says is gorgeously photographed. I went and looked, and she’s not lying.

photo by Sharon Beals

Trish likes Mary H. Perry’s Onward Crispy Shoulders, and I must say she had me at the title.

Mike likes Alaska fiction, in this case Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kanter and 2182 Kilohertz by David Masiel.

Al recommends Charles Brower’s autobiography, Fifty Years Below Zero, another great title.

Dave likes John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar.

Host Aaron is reading The Hunger Games, and both he and engineer Terry read Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander at my instigation (she said proudly) and loved it.

More Terry picks:
A Voice in the Box, the autobiography of Bob Edwards, a voice you will recognize if you’re a long-time listener to NPR.
The Colorado Kid by Stephen King, a departure Terry says from King’s usual weird scary stuff.
A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester (big thumbs up from me here, too).
Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, and
The Thousand-Mile War by Brian Garfield, which Terry says he got from the list of Alaska history books at the end of Though Not Dead. Yay, somebody read it!

My recommendations:

The Chrysalids by John Brunner. Classic dystopian if-this-goes-on science fiction. Substitute global warming for a nuclear holocaust and it reads as prescient today as it did sixty years ago, and it has a couple of strong female characters that could be taken as models for Katniss Everdeen.

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker. A chief of police in rural France deals with wine, cheese, drug dealers and Nazis. A marvelously realized setting, terrific characters, an interesting plot that doesn’t cheat, and my new favorite crime fiction series.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. A sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with murder thrown in. Turns out Mr. Darcy was James’ model for Adam Dalgleish.

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man by Christopher Hitchens. Irascible author and essayist gives Tom Paine’s manifesto a biography. Anything either guy writes is pure gold, Hitchen’s historical context is matchless, and it’s only 133 pages long.

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. Vividly detailed recreation of a woman, a place, and a time. I’d travel in time back to her Alexandria, so long as I’d had all my shots.

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel. Harvard government professor explores the answers to questions like “What wounds deserve the Purple Heart?’ and “Did those A.I.G. executives deserve their bonuses?” Where headlines and philosophy meet. This would make a great book club book. I may choose it for mine.

Inside the Sky by William Langiewiesche. A collection of essays on flight and flying. Topics include what’s going on inside the tower, meteorology, storm flying (on purpose!), and the last chapter is a mesmerizing examination of the Valujet crash in Florida. The perfect gift for the pilot in your life, and let’s face it, what Alaskan doesn’t have at least one of those?

Oh, and a recommendation I made last year for Aaron’s mom: Great Maria by Cecelia Holland. A strong woman in medieval Italy goes after what she wants and gets it. Aaron’s mom, if your son forgets for the second year in a row, buy it for yourself, it’s a great read.