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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.

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“Ownership is an entirely human construct.”

high-tideIn 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.

atlasThe 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.

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It was, of course, all about the money.

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the PresentWhen Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins

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 [1966] 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.

and

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.

and

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.

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The Ultimate Pagan Festival

The whole experience was so famously uncomfortable that a master once threatened his disobedient slave with a visit to the Olympic Games.

Unless you’re Mitt Romney, I’m not sure that threat would work today. Let the Games begin!

And begin them here, with Tony Perrottet’s hilarious history, which will among other things make you wonder what all the fuss is about women Olympians’ uniforms. The heck with skirts on female boxers, let them just wale away at each other in the nude.

The original Games, writes Perrottet, were held under the terms of the sacred Olympic Truce:

This Olympic Truce was one of the ancient world’s most extraordinary traditions. It imposed an armistice across the land–an almost enchanted ban on the Greeks’ incessant feuding–whose terms were enforced by Zeus himself. During this sacred peace, no military attacks could be made, no judicial cases conducted, nor death penalties carried out…Its terms had originally been defined in 776 B.C. for the first Games and inscribed in concentric circles onto a hefty golden discus, which still hung in pride of place in the Temple of Hera at Olympia. And despite some notorious exceptions, the truce was honored.

In the “Countdown” chapter Perrottet goes into fascinating detail about the labor and expense of hosting a Games 2700 years ago. One example, translated into 2004 USD: Digging and rolling the practice running track in the Gymnasium: $814 (Paid to Agazalos). I think Agazalos stuck it to the organizers, a practice that continues to this day.

Then there was the Olympic boot camp, which trained such luminaries as

Theagenes of Thasos was revealed as Olympic material at age nine, when he heaved a giant bronze statue in the village market onto his shoulder and carried it off. Instead of having the boy executed for impiety, the village elders sent their superboy off to wrestling school.

Those little girl gymnasts don’t look so young now, do they?

The association of spectator sport with heavy drinking has a long pedigree, writes Perrottet. Greek wine aficionados could be encouraged by the teachings of a doctor named Mnesitheus, who argued that binge drinking had positive, purgative effects on health. He helpfully suggested how to avoid vicious hangovers: Don’t drink bad wine, don’t eat dried fruit or nuts, and don’t go to sleep until you have vomited.

London Olympics fans, take note.

There is a whole chapter on the chariot races, which allowed women to circumvent the ban on their participation in the Olympics. This feminist breakthrough was made by a Spartan princess named Cynisca, who won with her chariots twice, in 396 and 392 B.C. She erected a lavish memorial thanking Zeus for her triumphs; in the centuries that followed, other brash noblewomen followed her example. I think we ought to bring back the chariot races, myself.

There is something delightful and informative on every page of this wonderful little history. And it’s available on Kindle.

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Eighty-three rules for eating well? Eighty-THREE?

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.

illustration by Maira Kalman

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?

illustration by Maira Kalman

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.

Okay.

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.

illustration by Maira Kalman

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.

illustration by Maira Kalman

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
Sigh.
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.

illustration by Maira Kalman

82. Cook
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.

Dare Maple Leaf Creme Cookie

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Backing into Book Collecting

Used and Rare: Travels in the Book WorldUsed and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence Goldstone

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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“…a quiet, inoffensive, persistent obstinacy.”

Fear to Tread by Michael Gilbert

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.

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