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.
In Barbara Kingsolver’s collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson, the title piece refers to Buster the hermit crab, who hitched a ride to Arizona from the Bahamas and takes up residence in the desert. “He is in every way the perfect housemate,” Kingsolver writes, “quiet, entertaining, and willing to eat up the trash.” In “Making Peace,” javelinas invade Kingsolver’s home and garden, which leads to a discussion on private property versus territoriality. “Ownership,” she writes, “is an entirely human construct.” In “Confessions of a Reluctant Rock Goddess” she sings backup for Stephen King and Dave Barry in the Rock Bottom Remainders: “You have to picture the whole thing: in our jitters, the men have turned to alcohol and the women to makeup.”
“Postcards from the Imaginary Mom” is her account of a book tour. “Four days out,” she writes, “and I’m hard pressed to remember where I’ve been.” The tour ends with her locking herself out of her hotel room, dressed only in T-shirt and cowboy boots, and receiving aid from a dignified, silver-haired matron in the hallway, who then, of course, appears in the front row at that evening’s event.
The most haunting essay is “In the Belly of the Beast,” when she takes a tour of a decommissioned atomic missile silo. “For years I have wondered,” Kingsolver writes, “how anyone could willingly compete in a hundred-yard dash toward oblivion… Throughout the tour I kept looking…for what was missing in this picture: some evidence that the people who ran this outfit were aware of the potential effects of their 150-ton cause. A hint of reluctance, a suggestion of death. In the absence of this, it’s easy to get caught up in the internal logic of the fuel capacities, circuitry, and chemical reactions. One could even develop an itch to see if this amazing equipment really works, and to measure success in purely technical terms.”
Later? She goes to Hiroshima. “What they left out of the Titan Missile Museum was in plain sight in Hiroshima,” she writes. “I looked at things a human being can understand: …The pink dress of a girl named Egi-chan, whose blackened pocket held a train ticket out of the city. The charred apron of Mrs. Sato, who was nursing her baby.”
Alarming, amusing, always interesting and very well written, Barbara Kingsolver's High Tide in Tucson sets the standard for the personal essay.
I was too young and also incredibly lucky to have been raised by a mother who never said "You can't do that, honey, you're a girl" to be paying enough attention to the women's rights movement. So it's lucky Collins wrote this definitive history, so I can read about Lois Rabinowitz getting thrown out of a NYC courtroom in 1960 because she's wearing slacks, and about Tahita Jenkins, fired from her job as a New York City bus driver in 2007 because she wouldn't wear pants.
The greatest irony of the celebration of forty years of suffrage was that it seemed that once women had gotten the right to vote, they never got anything else.
writes Collins, and takes us into the lives of women like Lorena Weeks who after an interminable, impoverishing legal battle forced Southern Bell to stop being a company where the lowest-paid man made more than the highest-paid woman, and other women who were fired and laid off for working while female, or ignored because they were female and black. It was, of course, all about the money.
After the war [WWII], the economy didn't just improve. It exploded. Americans were producing half the world's goods in the mid-'50s, even though they made up only 6 percent of the world's population...In the 1960s, as the economy was constantly creating employment, two-thirds of those new jobs went to women...That year  President Johnson urged employers to consider hiring women (along with teenagers, the handicapped, and immigrants) to fill their openings. Large firms such as IBM and Texas Instruments targeted stay-at-home moms in recruiting campaigns...The fact that the percentage of married women in the workforce kept quietly going up was really the key to women's liberation.
The nation's ability to direct most of its college-trained women into the single career of teaching was the foundation upon which the national public school system was built and a major reason American tax rates were kept low.
I can say, wow, I didn't know that, and then I remember Laura Ingalls' first teaching job, which paid twenty dollars a month and board.
Young unmarried women did not have widespread access to the Pill until the early 1970s--which not coincidentally was the same time they began to apply to medical, law, dental, and business schools in large numbers.
And still are. The ability to have children in one's own time, or not to have them at all, is a hard-fought right of American women and one to be cherished and protected, and it's never more clearly explained than in this book.
One of the most eye-opening stories is that of Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-women's rights activist who nearly singlehandedly caused the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. "I'd like to burn you at the stake," Betty Friedan told her to her face, I must say with some justification, because, Collins writes, quoting Robin Morgan, in private Schlafly
readily admitted that without the doors opened by the women's movement, she would never have been able to achieve so much. "But she would never repeat that in public," Morgan said.
Toward the end Collins illustrates where we are now with a matter-of-fact narrative of the 2008 election, using Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin as her models, with the best defense of Palin's vice-presidential candidacy I've yet seen:
...the failure of her candidacy [Palin's] was not a failure for women. At the very minimum, it was a triumph that voters did not seem to regard her floundering as a commentary on anything but Palin herself. On a more positive note, she won over many voters who had tended in the past to be hostile to the whole concept of a woman in the White House. She had a special affinity with younger working-class men. They liked the way she talked about hunting and hockey, and introduced her husband as first dude...Younger men with no college education were the people who had always been most threatened by women in the workplace and often the ones most resistant to any idea of being bossed by a woman anywhere. In a somewhat roundabout way, Palin made many of them converts to a new way of thinking. "They bear us children, they risk their lives to give us birth, so maybe it's time we let a woman lead us," a former truck driver told a reporter during a Palin rally in North Carolina.
A book that should be required reading in every American high school history class, along with its prequel, Collins' America's Women. Both highly recommended.
The whole experience was so famously uncomfortable that a master once threatened his disobedient slave with a visit to the Olympic Games.
I remember when I got to the end of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma thinking, "Well, what the hell CAN I eat, then?" Although the mental image of that potato farmer covered in fertilizer did stick, to the point that I started growing my own potatoes, I was pretty much done with Pollan lecturing me on how everything I buy in a supermarket contributes to the destruction of Planet Earth, and will probably give me cancer besides. I can handle bad news, but not with every mouthful.
So I skipped Food Rules when it first came out in 2009. Then came this edition two years later, which is illustrated by Maira Kalman, whose work I know from her marvelous illustrated blogs in the New York Times. I, too, am in love with A. Lincoln. How could I not at least look at a book she illustrated?
I didn't just look, I bought, and I'm glad I did, although, I must say, Pollan almost lost me on page 20:
Food Rules distills this body of wisdom into eighty-three simple rules for eating healthily and happily.
Eighty-three rules? Eighty-THREE? Are you KIDDING me? I have to memorize eighty-three rules to eat well? What, I'm supposed to take an 83-item checklist with me every time I go to the store? I don't care how simple the rules are, there is no way I'm going to be able to remember, let alone follow eighty-three of them.
Maira's illustration of mom-and-daughter cooks standing on a porch kept the book in my hand instead of flying across the room. I turned the page. Pollan writes
I've collected these adages about eating from a wide variety of sources.
which is a vast understatement. Evidently many people took the first edition of Food Rules seriously to heart. The adages contained therein had propagated themselves spontaneously into the wild. Nutritionists, dieticians, mothers, grandmothers wrote in with more sayings. The result is an updated version with the aforesaid, and brilliant, illustrations of Maira Kalman, which make the whole endeavor much more, uh, palatable, at least to me.
Still. Eighty-three rules. Come on. Although he does redeem himself a little by saying
There is no need to learn or memorize them all...Adopt whichever ones stick and work best for you.
The book is divided into three chapters, with subheadings from his now-famous saying. I extract the ones that mean most to me below.
I. Eat Food
2. Don't Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn't Recognize as Food
I think it was my great-great-great grandmother who traveled the Oregon Trail. Pretty sure she wouldn't know a bag of Cheetos if she saw one.
7. Avoid Food Products Containing Ingredients That a Third-Grader Cannot Pronounce
I went immediately to the cupboard and pulled out the Triscuits, my favorite cracker. "WHOLE GRAIN SOFT WHITE WINTER WHEAT, SOYBEAN OIL, SALT." No more than two syllables per word. Whew.
11. Eat Only Foods That Will Eventually Rot
The vegetable drawer in my refrigerator is filled with plants that can rot. Too many do. Not only should you buy foods that will eventually rot, you should also eat them. Preferably before that happens.
22. It's Not Food if It Arrived Through the Window of Your Car
I haven't been to a McDonald's since my niece Esther graduated from high school. I'm covered here.
II. Mostly Plants
30. Eat Animals That Have Themselves Eaten Well
My freezer is filled with moose and deer meat, salmon, halibut, scallops and shrimp, all of it hunted or fished in Alaska. Covered.
37. Sweeten and Salt Your Food Yourself
Have you ever eaten a Hot Pocket? I tried one once and it was so salty I literally couldn't swallow it. Sweetened yogurt makes me gag, you might as well be eating cotton candy. Processed foods are so heavily saturated with salt and sugar that I find them inedible. If you don't notice this, it's because you've dulled your taste buds eating too much of them. I'm a hundred percent with Pollan on this.
40. Make Water Your Beverage of Choice
Always has been. Seldovia had the coldest, clearest, best-tasting water in the world.
III. Not Too Much
53. Pay More, Eat Less
Support your local farmer's market. My only problem here is, well, winter.
54. ...Eat Less
57. If You're Not Hungry Enough to Eat an Apple, Then You're Probably Not Hungry
One of the seminal memories from my childhood is of my mother eating an apple a day. She had dentures, so she'd quarter and core it, but not peel it, and eat it before she went to work in the morning. Mind you, these were horrible apples, one of only two or three fruits that made it all the way to the grocery store in Seldovia, arriving mealy and dry and tasteless. But she ate one every day. I try to.
I didn't start cooking until I was in my thirties. It's not only good for your body and for the environment, it's good for your soul, a creative endeavor that pays off the very same day. Or not. I regard anything that comes out well from my oven as a minor miracle. I do better on top of the stove.
83. Break the Rules Once in a While
Salvation. My life wouldn't be worth living if I couldn't have a Dare Maple Leaf cookie now and then.
Larry and Nancy Goldstone sort of back into collecting modern first editions, by way of a hilariously extended effort for Nancy to find Larry a birthday gift for $20 or below. They have a bet on; he is to do the same for her. In the end, Larry gives Nancy a bath brush. She gives him a copy of War and Peace. It's a Heritage edition, the Maude translation, has maps of battles, fold-out illustrations and its own slipcase. Nancy found it for $10, and they spend three weeks talking about it. (She totally wins the bet, in case you were in any doubt.)
From that $10 copy of War and Peace Nancy and Larry embark on a grand tour of used and rare book stores, first in their west Massachusetts county and then expanding their territory to include neighboring states, New York City and Chicago, and then step up into book auctions. Along the way they meet a lot of characters, both in and out of books.
A bookseller tells them
Today, the autographs that are collected, the books that are collected...these are the authors that the collectors read in high school. They've always remembered them, they have a fondness for them*...of course, the people who were read in, say the forties and fifties are different than those who are read in high school today. Then we read Steinbeck and Hemingway and Faulkner. I don't know what they read today."
We did. It comes from having a succession of high school babysitters dragging their bookbags into your living room.
"They read Margaret Atwood," we said.
George stared at us. "That's appalling," he said.
Which gives you a pretty good idea what century most of the booksellers Nancy and Larry meet are inhabiting.
There are extended riffs on Anthony Trollope and Booth Tarkington and Sinclair Lewis and Charles Dickens and John Dos Passos, and for a book published in 1997 some jaw-dropping prices. Their education and expenditures proceed apace, until eventually they buy a copy of Bleak House for $700, with no second thoughts or buyer's remorse.
Reads almost like a novel. Thoroughly enjoyable and very informative, and I might actually get all the way through War and Peace if I owned an edition like theirs. I don't think I'd get through it on a Kindle.
*True. The only firsts I would even consider buying would be Shute, Heinlein and Heyer. I just checked Alibris, where I found a first edition of The Rolling Stones in a "fine" dust jacket for the bargain basement price of $2000. On the other hand, I found a first with dust jacket of The Unknown Ajax for twenty bucks. Couldn't find a first of Trustee from the Toolroom. I didn't have as much fun as Larry and Nancy did, though.
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If ever there was an author whose works cried out to be instantly uploaded to Kindle, Michael Gilbert is him. Fear to Tread is one of four or five (or six, or seven) of my favorites of his novels.
Wilfred Wetherall, headmaster of the South Borough Secondary School for boys in post-World War II London, is beset by small problems both professional and personal. His favorite restaurant is going out of business. The father of a promising student appears determined to avert every effort of Mr. Wetherall's to find his son a job that will further his artistic ability. A former student is now a member of the Metropolitan Police Force, lost his wife to thugs he was investigating undercover, and seems on an irreversible downhill slide.
The Ghost Map in question is the one made by Dr. John Snow to plot the deaths caused by the 1854 cholera epidemic in London, which proved for the first time that cholera was a water-borne disease and not, as was generally acknowledged at that time, air borne. There is a ton of riveting (and sometimes really disgusting) historical detail, as in
...in 1326, an ill-fated laborer by the name of Richard the Raker fell into a cesspool and literally drowned in human shit."
The night-soil collectors, the men who emptied the cesspools at night and then took the waste out to the fields around London to be used as fertilizer, were generally tipped with a bottle of gin. This is perfectly understandable when you learn that the very streets of London smelled badly enough to convince generations of intelligent, educated people who Johnson indignantly declares should have known better that the smell was the problem, not the water. The smell of the bottom of a cesspool was probably a lot easier to take with a skinful of gin.
People emptied their chamber pots out the window, into their cellars and into cesspools, and then the cesspools cracked and leaked into wells not a yard away and then into River Thames, which was where London's drinking water came from. There is a horrifying account from a newspaper in 1849 that describes a back yard full of human waste floating in water, with small boys bathing in it and a little girl carefully dodging the solid waste to dip out a tin cup of water. They let it stand, of course, before they used it, to let the solid particles settle down to the bottom.
I was washing a load of clothes when I read that part, and I stopped reading to listen to the sweet sound of that washing machine for a minute. We take so much for granted.
Johnson describes the cholera bacteria in terms that will give you a healthy respect for its reproductive abilities, as well as have you washing your hands every five minutes for the rest of your life, and he draws a straight narrative line between Dr. Snow's map and the fact that sometime soon after the book was written fifty percent of the people on earth will be living in urban communities. He makes a good case for urban living being green (better health and social services for more people) but he also points out that urbanization also provides bigger targets for superbugs and terrorists (9/11).
Dr. Snow's map eventually causes the construction of the first major sewage system, that is then used as a model for other cities around the world. It will no doubt enrage you as much as it did me to learn that it took years for the establishment to come around (helped along by an event delightfully named The Great Stink), and Snow did not survive to see it.
When Dr. Snow presented his case to Board of Guardians of St. James parish and asked that the handle of the Broad Street pump be removed, he wrote in his journal, "In consequence of what I said, the handle of the pump was removed on the following day." Johnson continues
This last sentence is now memorialized on a pin worn by members of the John Snow Society.
(Which of course I immediately had to google and here's their website.)
The removal of that pump handle, writes Johnson, "marks...the first time a public institution had made an informed intervention into a cholera outbreak based on a scientifically sound theory of the disease."
This is a really interesting read. I'd recommend it to any book club as a great discussion book, to any parent trying to get their kids to wash their hands, and any teacher who wanted to wake up their classroom.
“...They were a very nasty couple. Bad type. Superstitious, like most crooks. She was the worst of the two, in my opinion. Tried to fix the job so’s it’d look as if the servants had done it. Do you recollect that, sir?”
“Yes,” said Alleyn slowly, “yes.”
“Mind,” said the constable warming a little, “I reckon if he hadn’t lost his nerve they’d have got away with it. No finger-printing in those days, you see. And you know how it’d be, sir. You don’t expect people of their class to commit murder.”
“No, you don’t. And with the weapons lying there beside these grooms or whatever they were, and so on, well the first thing anybody would have said was: ‘Here’s our birds.’ Not that there seemed to be anything like what you’d call an inquiry.’
“Not precisely,” said Alleyn.
“No, sir. No,” continued the constable, turning his back to the wind, “if Macbeth hadn’t got jumpy and mucked things up I reckon they’d have got away with it. They seemed to be well-liked people in the district. Some kind of royalty. Aristocratic like. Well, nobody suspects people of that class. That’s my point.”
My friend Kerri forced me to get Stephen King's On Writing. I almost never read books about writing any more because it's just too much like work, and besides, after Strunk and White, what more needs to be said?. I was in no hurry to read it, but after a year and a half guilt finally moved it off the to-read pile.
Started it. Enjoyed his life story. Liked Bill Bryson's better.
He reveres The Elements of Style, okay, he's showing me something.
He thinks adverbs are the mark of a lazy writer, me, too.
His life story went fast, and now I'm bogged down in the how to write part. Too much like work. I'm going to stick to it at least until the scene where he's laying on the side of the road thinking, "OMG, I've been run over by one of my characters," which of course I've heard about, as who hasn't.
Two days later:
Okay, time to stop whining. This is a good book. It is in fact (oh, he'd smack my hand for that phrase) three good books, or novellas, if such a term may be used to describe non-fiction. The first is his life story, the second is a primer on the craft of writing, and the third is the account of his close encounter of the van-crazy-guy-and-Rottweiler kind. The first is entertaining as hell, the third is entertaining and scary as hell, and the middle section, the section on craft is honest, practical and hard-nosed as hell. And also entertaining.
I like everything he said about craft because I agree with all of it. "The best form of dialogue attribution is said." "You should avoid the passive tense." "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs." Simple, direct, absolute, I'd go farther than King and say that these are rules that should be tattooed backwards on the foreheads of all beginning authors so they see them every time they look in the mirror.
What I really like here is that he takes craft so seriously, because he loves it. He is in love with writing, with storytelling, with the written word, in love even with the way it looks on the page. He cares that we do the best job we can. "I don't believe a story or a novel should be allowed outside the door of your study or writing room unless you feel confident that it's reasonably reader-friendly."
What he said. Thanks, Kerri.