Category Archives: Books

‘Sherlock’ jumped the shark some time back

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The series started out promisingly enough.

In the first season, I found “Sherlock” fun, clever and refreshing.

Normally, I look askance at efforts to “update” perfectly good stories, unless they are exceedingly well done. For instance, give me Franco Zeffirelli’s temporally faithful 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet” with the perfect casting of Olivia Hussey as Juliet (a girl actually almost young enough for the part — and what young Romeo would not have fallen for her?), not the execrable (right down to the title) “Romeo + Juliet” of 1996.

On the other hand, give me Ethan Hawke’s brooding young updated “Hamlet,” with his usurping uncle being the head of “Denmark Corporation,” over the versions with the absurdly ancient Kenneth Branagh (36) or Mel Gibson (34) in the title role. OK, Hawke was 30, but didn’t look it. And his characters’ obsession with shooting avant-garde video of himself and the other characters worked perfectly with Hamlet’s introspection.

Despite what I say about Branagh and Gibson, I can even overlook demographically creative casting, such as the Nigerian-Jewish Sophie Okonedo in the recent “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses”… when they pull it off. I thought she was scary good as Margaret of Anjou.

But enough Shakespeare; back to my topic… At the outset, I thought the “Sherlock” update worked. The folks who made it did fun things with Sherlock’s use of his smartphone and Watson’s blog, and the Guy-Ritchie-style cinematographic gimmicks were more fun than distracting.

The early episodes, from “A Study in Pink” through “A Scandal in Belgravia,” are true to the essence of the Holmes canon (and sometimes even to the letter — I was startled, when I went back and read “A Study in Scarlet,” that the original Watson actually was an Army doctor trying to get over his experiences in Afghanistan), while introducing 21st-century elements that work, and freshen up the formula. And as the story wore on, I was delighted with the wonderfully idiosyncratic Moriarty created by Andrew Scott.

But then… the writers of the show started running out of legitimate ideas. This was fully evident in the first episode of the third season, with the explanation of how Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock wasn’t really dead. Something was just… off about it.

This offness really went over the Reichenbach Falls when we learned Mary Morstan’s big secret. That, as much as anything, was the moment when the shark looked up and saw the Fonz’s motorcycle flying over the tank.

This was insulting to the plot, to the characters and to viewers’ intelligence for a number of reasons, such as:

  • The basis of Watson’s relationship with her — and therefore the explanation of her role in the protagonists’ lives — was that he had fallen for the person she had seemed to be. And now she was an entirely other person — an unrealistically sinister person. And yet the relationships continue on their merry way.
  • This was a fantasy character, and not in the Sherlock Holmes mode of fantasy (a cerebral sort of fantasy, in which we pretend we believe that an eccentric genius actually could deduce those facts from such thin, subtle clues without erring), a sort of fantasy that works in a Victorian/Edwardian drawing room. This character sought to out-Bond James Bond, and folks, there is no such person out there as James Bond to begin with — or Jason Bourne, either. What real spies do is George Smiley boring. (At least, boring to adolescents. I find Smiley fascinating.)
  • She’s not some super-athlete, but a middle-aged woman, who is just barely young enough to have a baby. Nothing about the actress or the character speaks to “superhero.”

Yeah, I realize I’m running up against the feminist imperative here. The original Mary Morstan, in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, was a realistic young woman of her era, a former governess, a damsel in distress very much in need of our heroes’ aid. And feminists hate that kind of character, which means the entertainment industry hates that kind of character. So she becomes a superwoman. And ta-da!, the men are no longer driving the action.

Fine. But make it semi-believable. Make the next Luke Skywalker a girl rather than a boy, but make it work (all things are possible with the Force). Sell it to me. I fully believed in the deadliness of the original “La Femme Nikita.” That worked. But stop and think a bit before you do it. I wouldn’t believe Watson as some sort of super double-naught spy/assassin. So why do you think it works with his wife?

But this wildly unbelievable Mary Morstan isn’t the problem — she’s just a dramatic illustration of the problem.

The problem is perfectly seen in the moment, in the new episode aired Sunday after months of hype, when a group of super-assassins dressed like ninjas (one of them being Mary, by the way, although that’s not important to my point), come rappelling down from the rafters into a hostage situation, spraying automatic-rifle fire in all directions.

Yes, there was violence in the original Holmes stories. This sort of violence: As they hastily left the flat on Baker Street in response to the game being afoot, Holmes would suggest Watson slip his ancient revolver into the pocket of his mac, just in case — a revolver Watson would produce and train on the villain in the denouement, causing the baddie to become completely passive while Holmes explains how he figured it all out.

The “action” was civilized and human-scale. It was about what went on in Holmes’ head, not “Fast and Furious”-style whizbang.

In other words, more Smiley than Bond.

The makers of “Sherlock” seemed to understand that at first. Then they lost their way…

Please, Sherlock -- lose the ninjas.

Please, Sherlock — lose the ninjas.

Anton Lesser would (almost) be perfect as Stephen Maturin

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OK, so he’s showing a little too much age. But the face, and its expressions, are perfect.

WARNING: Only about two of my regular readers will find this interesting, but it really interests me and it’s my blog, so…

Awhile back, Bryan brought my attention to something in The Atlantic saying what I’ve said many times myself: One could not find better fodder for a high-quality television series than Patrick O’Brian’s series of historical novels set in the Napoleonic Wars:

The Next Great TV Show (If Someone Will Make It)

The case for Aubrey & Maturin

Fifteen years ago, when I finished reading Patrick O’Brian’s magisterial 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series for the first time, I remember thinking, damn you, Horatio Hornblower. C.S. Forester’s renowned nautical protagonist was at the time enjoying the starring role in the British TV series Hornblower, and given the close similarities to O’Brian’s oeuvre—both concern the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era—it seemed unlikely bordering on inconceivable that anyone would try to adapt the latter for television.

That was, of course, at a time when it almost went without saying that a project of such scope and pedigree would have to be British. But the televisual times have since changed immeasurably for the better on this side of the Atlantic, and now it’s easy to envision O’Brian’s books—which The Times Book Review has hailed as “the best historical novels ever written”—being adapted by any number of networks: HBO, obviously, but also AMC, FX, Netflix, USA … the list grows longer by the month.

Which is a very good thing, because if someone would merely get around to undertaking them, the Aubrey-Maturin novels could easily provide material for exquisite television, offering the action and world-building scale of Game of Thrones, the social anthropology (and Anglo-historical appeal) of Downton Abbey, and two central characters reminiscent of (though far more deeply etched than) Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in the first season of True Detective. Someone really needs to make this happen….

Absolutely. Each of the novels could fill a full season with riveting television, and we wouldn’t face running out of material for two decades, since there are 20 novels. This would be bliss.

These books qualify, collectively, as the greatest work of historical fiction ever. Not just the action, or the amazingly detailed description of everyday life at sea and on land in the early 19th century. O’Brian truly makes you feel like you are there. You know how, when you’re wondering whether you’re dreaming, you might reach out and touch something to persuade yourself of the reality of the experience? O’Brian’s novels pass the test, as you touch aspects of a life alien to the 21st century, but completely familiar to you after the first few pages.

But the greatest thing is the way the books hold up as literature, period — never mind the history or the adventure. The relationship between Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, physician/naturalist Stephen Maturin, has been compared to Holmes and Watson, but it goes far deeper than that, and is much more perceptively nuanced. The relationships among all the characters offer insights into the richness of human experience seldom rivaled in anything I’ve ever read.

The trick, of course, is casting.

The film, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” was well done and enjoyable. It got a few things wrong. For instance, it showed officers and midshipmen dressed in full uniform, as though for an admiral’s inspection, on ordinary days at sea. Which anyone who’s read the books knows is unrealistic.

Here and there, the casting and performances were inspired. David Threlfall was wonderful — he was Preserved Killick (although the bit where he was whining about saving grog for Saluting Day was off — wine would have been more believable). James D’Arcy made a creditable Tom Pullings, with just the right mix of diffidence and command competence. And as small as the part was, I could believe the hulking John DeSantis as Padeen, the loblolly boy.

Others were wildly off. Billy Boyd (you know, Pippin from “Lord of the Rings”) didn’t work at all as Barrett Bonden. Bonden was a big, strapping man, a fleet boxing champion and the very model of the perfect fighting sailor — not a hobbit. He tried, but he just didn’t have the right presence.

But what really mattered, of course, was the two leads — Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Everything depends on them.

I thought Russell Crowe did a good, workmanlike job as Lucky Jack. But Jack Aubrey is a complex character, with two very different poles to his personality. There’s the kind, openly friendly, jovial, seemingly none too bright, corpulent English gentleman who so thoroughly enjoys bad puns that his face turns red and his blue eyes turn to slits as he laughs, and who is completely helpless on land, an easy mark for con men looking to relieve him of his prize money.

Then there is Captain Aubrey at sea, an imposing, confident, godlike creature who causes subordinates and adversaries to quail when they behold his countenance. As Maturin observes of his friend as he prepares to go into action:

‘Dear me,’ thought Stephen as Captain Aubrey came on deck, buckling this same sword, ‘he has added a cubit to his stature.’ It was quite true: The prospect of decisive action seemed to make Jack grow in height and breadth; and it certainly gave him a different expression, more detached, remote, and self-contained. He was a big man in any case… and with this increase in moral size he became a more imposing figure by far, even to those who knew him intimately well as a mild, amiable, not always very wise companion….

You’d think the latter persona would be harder to play, but it’s easy for Crowe — that’s his type. He has more trouble with the friendly, seemingly harmless, side of Jack. There are a couple of scenes when he bravely attempts it — when he springs a pun on Stephen, and when he plays the fool after a good bit of wine at dinner with his officers. But he never seems quite as harmless, as endearing, as my good friend, the character in the books. Crowe’s just way better at being intimidating.

But Crowe is perfect casting compared to Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin. The doctor is Jack’s opposite — a perfect lubber at sea, but a genius at every other aspect of life. And Mr. Bettany, of whom I am normally a fan, does well at portraying him as a bookish man of science who is indignant that he is part of a purely martial expedition that won’t stop to let him study the zoological wonders of the Galapagos.

SPOILER ALERT, in case you haven’t read the books: But Maturin is something other than a brilliant physician, naturalist, gifted linguist (the foremast hands, and Jack himself for that matter, marvel at his ability to rattle away, “talking foreign twenty to the dozen”) and lover of music. He’s also an intelligence agent for the Admiralty, unpaid in that capacity because he does it entirely out of indignant hatred of Napoleon. He is often described as having a cold, “reptilian” look in his eye that puts people who see it on their guard, which he generally hides by wearing colored spectacles. And when violence is called for, he acts with a calm efficiency that is as different as night from day from the joie de combat that seizes Jack when he’s on an enemy’s deck with sword in hand.

But except for a brief moment at the end of the film, when Bettany picks up a sword and joins in the fighting against the French enemy — something for which the filmmakers have in no way prepared you — you’d think he was a pacifist, one who conscientiously objects to doing battle with the French or anyone else.

So, ever since I’ve first thought of how wonderful the Aubrey/Maturin books would be as a TV series, I’ve wondered who could play Stephen. And I think I’ve settled on someone, if the makeup people can make him look a decade or two younger.

He’s Anton Lesser, a British actor whom you see everywhere, but may not know by name, since he so effectively buries himself in his characters. He’s Qyburn on “Game of Thrones,” Chief Superintendent Bright on “Endeavour,” Thomas More in “Wolf Hall,” and most recently, Exeter in “The Hollow Crown,” that collection of Shakespeare’s history plays that I enjoyed so much on PBS.

Like Stephen, Lesser's characters often can't be bothered to shave.

Like Stephen, Lesser’s characters often can’t be bothered to shave.

Every time I see his face, I think, “There’s Stephen!” His face, his expressions, his physicality, just embody the character. He could don Maturin like a well-worn suit.

If only he’d been born about 20 years later. Maturin, fortunately, is sort of an ageless, crotchety, wizened character, who from the beginning, I gather from the books, looked older than he was, and acted older still. In fact, in some ways Lesser’s maturity adds to his resemblance to the character. But I admit, that loose skin in Lesser’s neck would look out of place on the young, penniless physician who meets Jack Aubrey in Port Mahon in the first book. (Yet, if he filled out to tighten his skin, he wouldn’t look like the nine-stone Maturin.)

Maybe he has a son who looks just like him and is also a gifted actor. Or maybe, as I said before, the makeup people can do wonders. But I have seldom ever found such a perfect match of type between an actor and a beloved character in fiction.

See, I told you you wouldn’t be interested. But I was sufficiently pleased at my discovery that I thought I’d share it with the one or two who might appreciate it…

As Thomas More in "Wolf Hall." There's the kind of joke Jack would love: Lesser as More.

As Thomas More in “Wolf Hall.” There’s the kind of joke Jack would love: Lesser as More.

What am I, if I’m not a reader of books?

A few of the books I have either bought for myself, or received as gifts (most of those being ones I ASKED for), but have not finished reading.

A few of the books I have either bought for myself, or received as gifts (most of those being ones I ASKED for), but have not finished reading.

Back when we were first married, my wife gave me a coffee mug that I deeply appreciated, to the extent that I never drank out of it, wanting to preserve it. It had a picture on it of a young boy sitting with his back against a tree and his nose in a book, with the caption, “The sky above and a book to love.”

That really described me as a kid, which I was touched by because she hadn’t known me then — she could just tell. That’s who I was.

But lately… I feel like I’m less myself.

Recently, I Tweeted out (with unintentional irony) an essay in the WSJ about how we all need badly to turn back to reading books:

We need to read and to be readers now more than ever.

We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy. We shop endlessly for stuff we don’t need and then feel oppressed by the clutter that surrounds us. We rarely sleep well or enough. We compare our bodies to the artificial ones we see in magazines and our lives to the exaggerated ones we see on television. We watch cooking shows and then eat fast food. We worry ourselves sick and join gyms we don’t visit. We keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends. We bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages. We even interrupt our interruptions….

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page….

This brought to the fore one of the many perpetual guilt trips I live with: All the wonderful books I already possess — as a result of telling people I wanted them as gifts, and my loved ones acting upon that stated desire — and have not read.

Recently, I confessed that I still hadn’t read Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow — although I’d had it ever since Fritz Hollings insisted I must read it 12 years ago, and I put it on my wish list and received it soon after, and put it on the shelf.

Well, I’ve started it now, and have been reading it for several weeks, and it has all the ingredients of the kind of book I love — I keep stopping to read aloud good bits to my wife — and I’m all the way up to… Chapter 5. Hamilton has just joined Washington’s staff in the midst of the revolution.

Obviously, as fascinating as it is, I can put it down.

Awhile back — more than 18 months ago, I see — I confessed to y’all that while the First World War is one of those areas I really, really feel that I should learn more about, and I had started on it several months earlier and written about how awesome it was (especially that first chapter, which sets the scene), I still hadn’t finished The Guns of August.

Well, I still haven’t. I bogged down somewhere around the time that it shifted to the Eastern front (although I read enough of that to conclude that Tsar Nicholas’ government was too incompetent to run a lemonade stand, much less such a vast country).

When I mentioned that and several other things I needed to read more about at the time, some of y’all very kindly suggested some books to check out. And I was grateful, but at the back of my mind was this awful, nagging doubt that I’ll have the discipline to get around to reading them. The shelves of unread books that I really, really wanted and already possessed groaned with the combined weight of the books themselves… and my guilt.

And I was right. I still haven’t read them.

Sitting around my house and on my iPad, begun but not finished, are the Hamilton book and The Guns of August; The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of M16 — Life and Death In the British Secret Service, by Gordon Corera; The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, by David McCullough; The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo, by Roy Adkins; Trotsky: Downfall Of A Revolutionary, by Bertrand M. Patenaude; A Tale of Two Cities; The Grapes of Wrath; and Moby Dick. That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more.

All of them, with the possible exception of the Trotsky book (I’ve officially given up on that one), started with great promise.

It’s not that I don’t read. I read — or at least skim and dig into the stories that interest me — at least three newspapers a day, plus all the many items that social media draw me to. I suspect I read more news and commentary each day than at any time during my long newspaper career — because so much is immediately available.

And it’s not that I don’t read books. I obsessively reread Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, and occasionally some of my favorites by Nick Hornby, John le Carre (his early stuff, from The Night Manager back), Martin Cruz Smith and, yes, Tom Clancy. I can pass a pleasant moment with them and put them down, because I know that happens next. Ditto with faddish stuff from my youth, such as Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land.

And I occasionally finish a new book, the most recent being, let’s see… Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, by Anthony Beevor. Months and months ago, I now realize.

Why can’t I seem to commit to a new book, and see it through? I suspect it’s because of a number of factors, starting with all that time spent with ephemeral stuff via iPad.

It’s other things, too. I’ve gotten so obsessed with genealogy that I actually spend huge amounts of time on the weekends building my family tree. Several months ago, I had fewer than 1,000 people on it, now I’ve more than 2,600. And just this weekend, I’ve made some surprising discoveries: For instance, one of my apparent ancestors — who rebelled against King John and was declared an outlaw — may have been one of the inspirations for the Robin Hood legend. Really. So I find it hard to tear myself away from that stuff. I’ve learned a lot about dim corners of history I did not know before, just reading context on ancestors. But that reading, so far, has seldom gone deeper than Wikipedia.

The most humiliating reason of all is that, well, there is so much compelling television these days, sucking up my leisure hours. That is something I thought I would never write, especially as a reason for neglecting books, my lifelong love. But while broadcast television (with the exception of ETV and PBS) is a more wasteful wasteland than ever (with some exceptions — I enjoy “Bluebloods,” and don’t forget “The West Wing” was on broadcast), Netflix and Amazon Prime have almost enough offerings to occupy my evenings completely. And I just can’t seem to get around to canceling HBO NOW, despite my best intentions.

Still, I’m almost sure I watch less than most people. Nielsen reported a few months ago that the average adult American consumes media — using tablets, smartphones, personal computers, multimedia devices, video games, radios, DVDs, DVRs and TVs — a total of 10 hours and 39 minutes each day.

Read that figure again, and think about it. It’s not a typo.

This is embarrassing. It’s actually worse than that. It’s an identity crisis. Who AM I, if I’m not reading books? Maybe the Internet has retrained my brain, making it less patient. For whatever reason, an occasional long-form magazine piece, in The New Yorker or some similar venue, is about as long as I go. And most of what I read is no longer than a newspaper column.

I don’t know what’s happened to me. But it’s disorienting. And I need to do something about it…

Some of the books I've lazily read and reread over the years, rather than read something new.

Some of the books I’ve lazily read and reread over the years, rather than read something new.

On Al Capone and you-know-who: What’s the appeal?

Capone following his arrest on a vagrancy charge in 1930.

Capone following his arrest on a vagrancy charge in 1930.

Yesterday, Bryan Burrough reviewed a new book about Al Capone in The Wall Street Journal.

The writer, himself an author of a popular book on criminals of that era, confessed he was somewhat at a loss to explain why Capone remains such a favorite subject of readers: “I’ve read my share of books devoted to his life and legend, and I must admit, his appeal eludes me.”

The best bit of the review was this paragraph:

The portrait that invariably emerges is of a rank outsider, a Brooklynite making his way as a “businessman” in Chicago, a grandiose bloviator handed much of his empire in his 20s by his mentor, the retiring Johnny Torrio. When Capone encounters difficulties, he whines about his persecution by the press and a legal system “rigged” against him. Half the country thinks him a monster; others view him as the common man’s champion. Wait: This is beginning to sound familiar. I guess this isn’t the first time I’ve underestimated the appeal of such a man….

Yeah, I know the feeling.

No doubt there are a lot of voters out there — a lot more than most people had supposed — who would be interested in reading about such a man…

Capone's FBI rap sheet -- which seems oddly blank.

Capone’s FBI rap sheet — which seems oddly blank.

TV had better do Stranger in a Strange Land RIGHT!

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Y’all may recall that several years back, this item topped my list of Top Five Books that Should Have Been Made Into Movies by Now:

  1. Stranger In A Strange Land — … Definitely number one. An entire generation would buy tickets to see this, if it were any good at all. The sex stuff toward the end might have been a barrier in the 60s, but not now. I remember once in the early 70s hearing that it was being made into a movie starring David Bowie, but that turned out to be something else. Since nobody else seems interested, I’ve thought about trying to write the screenplay myself, but only if Hollywood would let me be in it. I would have been a natural for Ben Caxton when I was younger, but now I’d probably have to audition to be Jubal Harshaw. Of course, the soundtrack would have to include the Leon Russell song of the same name.

And today, just days after the death of Leon, I get this news:

Robert Heinlein’s Scifi Classic Stranger in a Strange Land Is Coming to TV

True to its name, the Syfy channel has made a habit of adapting science fiction and fantasy literature both established (Childhood’s End, Hyperion) and contemporary (The Expanse, The Magicians). Now it seems there’s another much-beloved property on the network’s list: Robert Heinlein’s 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land.

According to a press release, this is the first TV adaptation of Stranger in a Strange Land—very broadly, the tale of a Mars-born man who travels to Earth and experiences human culture for the first time; it influenced the counterculture and won a Hugo en route to becoming a classic. No further details on the proposed TV series were announced, but we’ll be keeping an eye on this one….

OK, first, this had better be good. I’ve been waiting for it for 46 years. Not a long time at all from an Old One’s perspective (they’d be content to wait another century or two), but quite a stretch for those of us who have no immediate plans to discorporate.

And in that time — especially most recently — we have become accustomed to a level of quality in TV series that we couldn’t have dreamed of back when I first read the book.

So when I say this needs to be be good, I mean like “Sopranos” good, or “Band of Brothers” good. I want it to be better than “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.” Merely making it better than “Dune,” The Worst Movie Of All Time, won’t even get you into the right universe of how good this needs to be.

So yeah, we’re ALL gonna keep an eye on this one. If they don’t grok the fullness, if we sense a wrongness in the result, the Old Ones will know, because they’re monitoring.

You grok what we’re saying, TV people?

Oh, also, I’d still like a part in the series. Ben Caxton would be best, but as I say, I’m too old. And I’m much, MUCH too young to play Jubal — he’s supposed to be so old, people are amazed to find him still walking around, much less as spry as he is. He’s like at least in his 90s.

I’d settle for something minor. How about James Oliver Cavendish, the famous Fair Witness whose services Ben engages to go interview the fake Man from Mars? I think that’s in my range.

Now, let’s discuss who will play the other parts….

It better be THIS good. We'll be watching. Capisce?

It had better be THIS good. We’ll be watching. Capisce? (That’s Italian-American for “grok”…)

Finally taking the time to get into Hamilton

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Roughly ten years ago, I was sitting at my desk in my office at The State, talking on the phone with Fritz Hollings. This was shortly after he had left office, and we frequently had occasion to talk. I don’t know what we were talking about, or who had called whom. It might have been about one of several op-ed pieces he wrote for us in that period — he was still having trouble letting go of policymaking. Maybe it was the conversation in which I called him to ask a favor — his good friend Joe Biden was going to be in town, and I wanted him to drop by the office if he had time so we could get acquainted, before he ran again for national office (Fritz came through on that).

Anyway, we got off the subject, whatever it was. Fritz had just read Ron Chernow’s book, Alexander Hamilton, and he started singing its praises, saying I must read it. I took his advice — almost. I put the book on my list for family members looking for gift ideas for my birthday or Christmas, and someone promptly gave it to me. And… it has sat on my shelf ever since, until this weekend.alexander-hamilton

I really, truly, meant to read it. I’d always been interested in the Founders. On my way to sort of inadvertently getting a second major in history, I concentrated to a certain extent on that period. And I came away convinced that had I been alive and in politics at the time, I’d have been a Federalist. That was the party Hamilton had founded, and I knew he was brilliant, and that he provided most of the arguments that sold the Constitution to the country among other startling achievements, but… I was less attracted to him than to the others, and I knew that as a result I had neglected him. Which is why I had dutifully put the book on my list. But still, I kept my distance. Maybe I had absorbed some of the propaganda put out about him by Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, but it seemed to me that there was a reason why Hamilton wasn’t ever president, and I thought that if I was a Federalist, I was more of an Adams Federalist than a Hamiltonian. I mean, the guy was so into money and all…

So there the book sat. And during the years that I failed to read it, a young man named Lin-Manuel Miranda picked it up, and it set his mind on fire. He was inspired to write a musical based on the book, and it became the biggest hit on Broadway in a generation.

So, I missed a big opportunity there.

I kept hearing about the play, and seeing video clips from it, and I thought it was really exciting that someone had made a hit out of one of the Founders (and, to my mind, the Founder least likely to inspire a hit musical), but I had some Clueless White Guy questions: What did hip-hop have to do with the guy who had founded banks and our whole financial system? And why were most of the actors on the stage black — or at least, seemingly nonAnglo-Saxon? I didn’t object to them being black — I just wondered why. It seemed that there was a point being made, but I didn’t understand what the point was. I wondered whether it had to do with Hamilton’s obscure origins. All I knew (thanks to Jefferson’s folks) was that Hamilton was a bastard out of the West Indies. Was Miranda saying that, coming out of the ethnic richness of the Caribbean, he was of mixed race, so it was fitting to have actors of color fill the stage?

Well, on Friday night, I saw “Hamilton’s America,” the fascinating documentary about the creation of this play, and suddenly I got it. I saw what people were so enchanted with. I understood why, when Manuel was reading Chernow’s book on vacation, he thought, “This is a rap!” And I was deeply impressed by how everyone involved in the production was thoroughly immersed in Hamilton and the other Founders and what they were all about, and why they are important today — and not just to pasty-faced people of English extraction.

I was really impressed by that part. Decades ago, when I did some community theater back in Tennessee, I met a lot of talented people. And I was shocked to find that people who were brilliant musicians — something I could never be — and really gifted amateur actors were nevertheless… how shall I put this… not well read. They might do a play based on history — say, “The Lion In Winter,” which I acted in — and they’d get their lines and the intonations perfectly, but they wouldn’t really know the history or the cultural context of what they were pretending to be.

In this documentary, not only Miranda was able to speak fluently and inspiringly about Hamilton and his world, but the other actors as well. They went on and on about it, and you could learn a lot by listening to them.

And as I listened, I — who was last attracted to musical theater when Andrew Lloyd Webber came out with “Evita” (another sort of history I sorta kinda concentrated on in college was Latin American) — started really, really getting into the music. And that’s really, really saying something, since the only rap numbers I’m familiar with and like are the ones from “Office Space.”

So here’s the irony: Hip-hop helped get those young actors into history. And now history is getting me into hip-hop. As I type this, I’m nodding my head to “I am not throwing away my… shot!

OK, OK, Lin-Manuel! You got me! I finally picked up the book yesterday, and started reading. Slow reader that I am (the book’s 800-plus pages of small type pushed me away as much as anything), I’m on the third chapter now, and wow! He was right: This is a rap. I’m still in young Alexander’s shockingly difficult childhood in the Indies, and there’s nobody who ever came from meaner streets than he did. What a story.

So I’m really into it now. Fritz was right. So was Lin, who gave me the swift kick I needed…

DOT wants to put an Interstate in front of my house, I have not been notified, and today is the last day to comment

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Here’s the notice that was brought to my attention — not by the government, but by my daughter — this afternoon.

Actually, that headline pretty much states the case, but I’ll elaborate a bit.

I’m a big Douglas Adams fan. But I’d always thought what he was writing was satire, outlandish situations that couldn’t possibly be true-to-life, which were grossly distorted for comic effect.

For instance, take this passage from the start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which our loser hero Arthur Dent has just lain in front of a bulldozer that is trying to knock his house down in order to build the bypass he has just learned about:

piece-1piece-2

Funny, huh?

Well, today I learned that Adams wasn’t writing a comic novel. He was writing journalism. Predictive journalism, I suppose you’d call it. He was describing the very situation in which I find myself today.

Today, I forgot to bring in the lunch I had prepared, so I drove home to eat it there. Good thing, too. As I walked in, my wife was on the phone expressing amazement and alarm, and saying things like, “Nobody told ME!!!…”

She was on the phone with my daughter who lives in Shandon, who had discovered, quite incidentally, through a mutual acquaintance’s social media post, that the state of South Carolina had rather specific plans to build an Interstate more or less through our house (as I initially heard it in that moment of shock), and that today was the last day for comments.

And no, no one had told us. No one had walked down our street to knock on doors and tell us (assuming they had the courage) or left little fliers on our doorknobs (assuming they didn’t, which seems the safer bet). No one had sent us anything via snail mail. Or emailed us. Or sent us Facebook messages, or Tweets, or texts, or called on the phone, or left a comment on my blog, or used any of the bewildering array of communication methods available in the Year of Our Lord 2016.

In other words, I’d have been no worse off if the notice had been on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard.”

Nor had I seen any news coverage of the plan, which is one of three potential routes the state is considering for addressing the “problem” called Malfunction Junction.

Of course, I must confess, I had seen stories in the paper about that process, and hadn’t read any of them. You know why? Because I wasn’t interested. You know why? Because it had never struck me as a particularly compelling issue. Because why? Because I live less than a mile from the much-cursed interchange, and people have been griping about it ever since I moved back to South Carolina in 1987, and I have yet to fully understand what they are whining about.

I’ve passed through that intersection coming from every direction and going in every direction, at every time of day on every day of the week, and yeah, it gets backed up somewhat during peak drive times. You know what I call that? Living in a city. You know how to deal with it? Adjust your route, or your drive time. Or just live with it. Try this: Go live in the District of Columbia for a month and come back here, and you’ll get down and kiss the pavement at the very knottiest point of the intersection of Interstates 20 and 26. Just kidding. Don’t do that. If you do, people will start whining about you causing traffic to back up, and next thing you know, I’ve got the bulldozers at my door…

Oh, but wait — I do anyway. Almost.

But, upon closer examination, there’s good news: Once I took a careful look at the proposed connector, I saw that it wasn’t exactly, technically, going directly through my living room. No, when I zoom in as much as the website will let me (which isn’t much), it looks like it’s going down the SCE&G right-of-way that runs directly behind the houses across the street from me. That’s a good 50 or even 100 feet from my house. All it would do is cut me off from the only ways out of my subdivision, aside from swimming across the Saluda River.

Whew. And to think I was worried.

But let’s calm down a bit. Let’s get informed. Let’s go read the news coverage we’ve been ignoring, shall we? Such as this story in The State last week, which gets specific:

If the Department of Transportation decides improving existing intersections and widening roads is the way to go, the bulk of the properties affected will be along Broad River and St. Andrews roads. Those two commercial thoroughfares parallel either side of I-26 in the heart of the busy corridor.

Widening Broad River would affect 999 sites, while another 705 would be affected on St. Andrews, according to plans outlined at an update on the massive road project at Seven Oaks School….

Ummmm… I didn’t see anything there, or elsewhere in the story, that in any way indicated that there was something to which I needed pay attention!!!!

Did you? I mean, I live on the opposite side of the river from all of that. And it sounded like they had no intention of disturbing residential areas.

Here’s the map. The crudely drawn yellow star shows you where my house is:

my-house

Apparently, there are two alternatives to ripping through my subdivision under consideration. Both are on the other side of the river from me, are cheaper, and would disturb far fewer people that the one cutting through my neighborhood.

Here’s the comparison:

choices

The one called “Directional Interchange” is the one that goes through my neighborhood. The two above it seem to go mostly through some woods. Although… there is slightly greater wetland impact.

So obviously, since we live in a rational universe, I have nothing to worry about, right?

Oh, wait. I just remembered: Donald Trump is a major-party nominee for president of the United States in this universe. And there’s no guarantee he’s going to lose.

OK, I’m worried.

Wait — I just remembered: Today is my last day to comment. OK, here’s my comment:

Don’t do it. Don’t do any of these. Save the money. Or, if you must address this problem, choose one of the options that cost less and cause less disruption.

That, by the way, would be my recommendation if this didn’t come anywhere within 100 miles of my house. It’s sort of my default position.

Oh, and one other thing, which may sound personal, but also fits with my beliefs about sound public policy: Next time, how about giving a guy a heads-up?

Thanks.

Now, could someone please hand me something that says, in large, reassuring letters, DON’T PANIC?

(Below you see the other two routes under consideration.)

woods

woods-2

Shakespeare, he’s in the alley, but Dylan’s got a Nobel Prize

bob-dylan-square

Dylan at the Civil Rights March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Finally, the Nobel Prize for Literature goes to a writer whose work I both know and appreciate:

Bob Dylan was named the surprise winner of the Nobel prize for literature in Stockholm today “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Speaking to reporters after the announcement, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said she hoped the Academy would not be criticised for its choice.

“The times they are a’changing, perhaps,” she said, comparing the songs of the American songwriter, who had yet to be informed of his win, to the works of Homer and Sappho.

“Of course he [deserves] it – he’s just got it,” she said. “He’s a great poet in the English-speaking tradition. And he is a wonderful sampler, a very original sampler. He embodies the tradition and for 54 years now he has been at it, reinventing himself constantly, creating a new identity.”

Danius said the choice of Dylan may appear surprising, “but if you look far back, … you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, performed, often together with instruments, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it. Same thing with Bob Dylan – he can be read and should be read. And he is a great poet in the grand English tradition.”…

Trying to remember the last time this happened for me, I looked back at the list of past winners.

Let’s see: There was V.S. Naipaul in 2001 — I’ve been meaning to read something by him, but haven’t gotten to it….

Ah, William Golding in 1983! Pass me the conch, and I’ll tell you what I know about him.

I’ve read one book by Gabriel García Márquez (1982). Didn’t like it. Even though I thought it would be awesome, being about Simón Bolívar, whom I had been taught to revere in history classes in Ecuador. Instead, it was just… unpleasant… wearying.

1976 — Surely I’ve read something by Saul Bellow… nope. But I have read Bernard Malamud and Chaim Potok, in my defense.

1969-1971 — A three-year streak! I mean, I’ve read “Waiting for Godot,” The Gulag Archipelago and at least one poem by Neruda.

Steinbeck in 1962! Now we’re talking…

1957 — I’ve read The Stranger by Camus. Didn’t like it.

We’ll stop with Hemingway — the one person on this list I have really read avidly — in 1954. That covers my lifetime.

As far as my being able to relate, Dylan blows all but Hemingway away. (And yes, I’m embarrassed to admit this way that no one will say to me, “you’re very well-read, it’s well known.” But this is a blog where we tell truths, is it not?)

This is amazing. Something is happening, and I don’t know what it is. No, wait: I do. Boomers are finally truly in charge. Yay, us! It’s gear, it’s fab, it’s boss, it’s tuff, it’s righteous. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand, etc….

The Old Man and the iPad

Prisma Mosaic

When Burl Burlingame and wife Mary were here last month, we took them with us to check out First Thursday on Main. While we were strolling about in Tapp’s, Burl shot a picture of J and me and processed it through the app Prisma before showing it to us. It was pretty cool.

So tonight, while we were playing a game of Words With Friends across the kitchen table with our iPads — a bit weird, as you wait for your opponent’s move to bounce off a satellite or something and come back down to the table where it originated so you can make your move — J took a picture of me, downloaded Prisma, and chose the “Mosaic” filter.

You see the result above. The really awesome thing about it to me is what it did with our wild kitchen wallpaper — made it look a lot cooler than real life. I’d like to have wallpaper like that.

Anyway, she posted it on Facebook, and Kathryn Fenner responded, “The Old Man and the iPad.”

Indeed.

He was an old man who played alone on a tablet in the Web Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without winning a game.

A man can be destroyed but not defeated. So it is in Palabras Con Amigos.

A thumbs-up from Chuck Yeager!

Chuck Yeager X-1

OK, technically it was Mike Fitts whose Tweet got a “like” from the Man at the Top of that ol’ Pyramid. Not me.

But my name was mentioned!

Mike sent this to my attention this morning:

Which I of course immediately reTweeted. After which I saw this, to my delight:

yeager tweet

All right! I have been in contact, however indirectly, with the man with the most righteous stuff in the Twitterverse

Yeager Twitter

Brits are at their most creative when describing bad tea

Arthur Dent, yearning for a true cuppa...

Arthur Dent, yearning for a true cuppa…

This is something that I just realized.

All who have read Douglas Adams are familiar with this gem:

After a fairly shaky start to the day, Arthur’s mind was beginning to reassemble itself from the shell-shocked fragments the previous day had left him with.

He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea….

That one never fails to delight.

But recently, rereading Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortune of War, I was struck by the height of creativity to which he rose in describing Stephen Maturin’s suffering upon the occasion of his being served tea by Americans:

tea 1tea 2

… which, while drier, I found almost as delightful as Adams’ characterization.

Apparently, there is something in the experience of drinking bad tea that kicks the brains of British writers into a higher gear….

 

A gram is better than a damn, ma’am

Soma ad

Sometimes Google Adsense makes, well, sense — such as the Ancestry.com ad I’m seeing in the rail at right — I’ve really been into building my family tree lately.

Sometimes I am mystified. That’s the case with the “Soma” ad you see above.

Doubly mystified. To me, “Soma” means:

  1. The therapeutic and recreational drug of choice in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where “A gramme is better than a damn” is axiomatic. It is used to keep people in that creepy utopia from feeling disagreeable emotions. Life is tough? Take a soma holiday!
  2. The muscle relaxer I have used at times over the years — generic name “carisoprodol.”

I don’t associate it with ladies in swimsuits. But apparently, that’s a thing now.

I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s that their products are meant to fit women’s physical forms, since “soma” means “the body as distinct from the soul, mind, or psyche.” You know, as in “psychosomatic.”

But it caught my eye…

Soma

Trigger warning: This may insult your intelligence

And it also might give you stressful flashbacks to some really maddening conversations you had during your college days.

So you are warned. This is not a safe space.

So much has been written about the newer sorts of ideological correctness on the campuses of American universities, mostly by haughty old white guys such as George Will and Bill Kristol, just harrumphing away.

51xdxNQIQ1L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Or for that matter by Kim R. Holmes (don’t worry! even though the name is “Kim,” it’s another oppressor white guy, refusing to check his privilege!), the author of The Closing of the Liberal Mind, which was was reviewed this morning in The Wall Street Journal.

So unless academia is your milieu, you’ve probably only heard such terms as “trigger warnings,” “safe space,” “cultural appropriation” and “microaggressions” within a disapproving context.

So it was kind of a nice idea to give the kids themselves a say in the matter, and over the weekend The Washington Post did that with a story headlined, “The new vocabulary of protest: What students mean by terms like ‘safe space’.”

Trouble is, while I feel for the student who says she doesn’t think the desire for a “safe space” or concern about microaggressions “makes me a stupid, naive child,” most of the quotes in the piece… how shall I put this?…

Basically, they read like the quotes a satirist would construct in creating fictional students who espouse the notions that The Closing of the Liberal Mind criticizes. A satirist who know nothing about these terms other than what he read by the critics.

If you’re likely to harrumph along with Will, this piece isn’t going to change your mind a bit.

These kids are sensitive. Just ask them; they’ll tell you. Like hothouse flowers. And they talk just like people who have a worldview that is entirely rooted in that sort of sensitivity.

So, stereotypes are not dispelled. Some samples:

Fadumo Osman: When I wear my traditional clothing I’m a foreigner and I’m criminalized for it, but when you wear it you make money off of it, and it’s cute….

Liam Baronofsky: One microaggression is like one paper cut, so it’s something small but it hurts the person at the core of their identity level. But it happens so often, you come home every day with like 15 paper cuts … and it really hurts….

But perhaps you’ll disagree. Go read the story, and let me know what you think.

 

Trump envisioned as the Baron Harkonnen

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Apparently, I’m not the only one to draw an analogy between Donald Trump suddenly seizing control of the Republican Party and the Harkonnens crushing the Atreides and taking Arrakis.

My son-in-law brings my attention to the above — which I appreciate even though I think David Lynch’s “Dune” is the Worst Movie Ever Made. Or at least, the Worst Movie Ever Made That Should Have Been Awesome. Which was why, on my previous post on the subject, I used a picture of Germans taking Paris rather than something from the movie…

The Don, unlike The Donald, did not utter threats

The Don: Man of Reasonableness who never utters threats.

The Don: Man of Reasonableness who never utters threats.

Don’t you hate it when people use pop-culture analogies and get them wrong? Check out this one, from an editorial in The Wall Street Journal today:

But the Republican Party is not one of his golf courses for which he can determine who has what tee times. A political party is an alliance of people who share enough principles to unite to win elections and run the government. They can’t be ordered around by Don Corleone-style threats. They have to be persuaded and mobilized. Are Mr. Trump and his campaign going to require loyalty oaths of every Republican officeholder who wants to attend the convention?…

No, no, no! It most assuredly was not the Don’s style to make threats! He was way too cool, too smart, too self-contained — and therefore dangerous — for that.

Sonny made threats. Neither the Don, nor Michael, ever would. Some screenshots from the book, in case your memory is flawed:

threat 1

threat 2

threat 3

See what I mean? Case closed. Be more careful in the future, WSJ.

Yeah, there was that time he was rumored to have threatened the bandleader on his godson’s behalf. But even if that was true and not just a story people told about him, it’s the exception that proves the rule.,,,

The Donald: Man of Bluster who does little else.

The Donald: Man of Bluster who does little else.

Insight into our modern polarization over guns

The Wall Street Journal today published an excerpt from a interesting-sounding book called The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture, by Pamela Haag.

After asserting that in the early part of our history, guns were not so much romanticized as seen as tools that a lot of people needed, the account gets to the point when marketing came into play:

BN-NR025_guns_JV_20160421123914Though some Americans always loved their Winchesters and Colts, many others saw guns as dowdy, practical tools. They would shop for them by perusing advertisements in farm-focused periodicals like the American Agriculturalist or the Rural New Yorker.

As the frontier was settled and U.S. cities grew, fewer Americans even needed guns as tools. By the turn of the 20th century, the industry had embraced the emerging science of marketing. Gun companies began thinking about how to create new demand for their products. In this respect, their business was no different from the stove or soap business.

Having started with customers who needed guns but didn’t especially love them, the industry now focused on those who loved guns but didn’t especially need them. In the late 1800s, gun companies were innovators in advertising, among the first merchandisers to make extensive use of chromolithography, an early technique for producing multicolored print. Their calendars and other promotional materials were works of art, depicting exciting scenes in which gunmen faced off with bandits or beasts….

I like that bit about how “the industry now focused on those who loved guns but didn’t especially need them,” which helped encourage many people’s emotional attachment to these items.

The piece concludes:

Gun-industry advertisements began to invoke the “natural instinct” to own a gun or a “real boy’s” yearning for one. A 1920 ad in Literary Digest neatly summarized this spirit: “You know [your son] wants a gun. But you don’t know how much he wants it. He can’t tell you. It’s beyond words.” Gun marketing had moved from describing how guns work to describing how guns make their owners feel.

This period, before the outbreak of World War I, saw the birth of today’s American gun culture. Within a few decades, as guns became more prominent in criminal activity and suicides, an antigun culture also began to rise. Many Americans recoiled from these new forms of everyday violence, even as others increasingly cherished their firearms and the personal meaning they found in them. The U.S. was on a slow spiral toward the modern, polarized politics of guns.

And here we are, a nation split between people who are appalled by the existence of guns and others who would rather die than relinquish them.

 

Halcyon days, when Americans were Americans

By that I mean, when Americans were Americans first, as opposed to seeing themselves as Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives or Tea Partiers or what have you.

This fit of nostalgia was prompted by reading a book review in The Wall Street Journal today, of a book titled Harry & Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg and the Partnership That Created the Free World. After noting that upon the death of FDR, many (including the new president himself) doubted that Harry Truman was up to the job, the review continues:

Watching from the Senate, Republican Arthur Vandenberg wrote to the new president with words of encouragement. “Good luck and God bless you,” he said. “Let me help you whenever I can. America marches on.” In his diary, he was more pensive: “The gravest question-mark in every American heart is about Truman. Can he swing the job?” To which the optimistic answer came, “Despite his limited capacities, I believe he can.”download (2)

Those words seem extraordinary today. The Republicans had not won a national election since 1928. Roosevelt had ridden roughshod over them in Congress with his New Deal, broke the tradition of serving only two terms and fashioned a liberal Supreme Court. After 12 years of humiliation and defeat, FDR’s death could have provided Republicans with an opportunity to get on the front foot, to take advantage of an inexperienced and uncharismatic new president. And yet here was Vandenberg, one of the leading Republicans in the Senate, saying not only that he believed the man could overcome his limitations but also that he would do everything he could to help him.

Lawrence J. Haas’s “Harry & Arthur” is thus a story of bipartisanship at work. The subtitle, “Truman, Vandenberg and the Partnership That Created the Free World,” seems at first sight hyperbolic, at least concerning Vandenberg, but Mr. Haas makes an excellent case that Truman’s worldview could not have been implemented without the senator from Michigan. The two men shared a vision for America in the world and over the next six years, until the senator’s death from lung cancer in 1951, set about putting it place. Even a short list demonstrates the revolution in global strategy that would take place during the Truman years: the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, NATO, the U.N. Charter, not to mention the creation of the CIA, the Defense Department and the U.S. Air Force.

Those were indeed the days, when such alliances were possible…

Bryan enjoyed Master and Commander, and you would, too

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Bryan Caskey, having read the first book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series of historical novels, has posted a glowing review on his own blog, Permanent Press.

As he wrote to me upon finishing Master and Commander:

I enjoyed it immensely, even with having to wade through the nautical lingo. It was sort of like reading Shakespeare in that it’s sort of confusing at first, but if you keep plowing through, you get used to the writing, and eventually you don’t have to focus so much on figuring what the heck is going on. One nice thing about the Kindle is that you can touch any word, and the Wikipedia entry for it comes up, so it’s a breeze to look up all the odd words. This was also my first time reading a Kindle, and I’ve enjoyed the lightness of not carrying around a heavy ol’ book. The one-touch lookup also saved me from dragging around some sort of Royal Navy dictionary.

The end battle was sort of odd, with JA not participating. The battle against the Cacafuego was shorter than I hoped, but I enjoyed how afterwards Harte tried to minimize the action by complaining about all the supplies that JA needed from the yard after the battle. Hopefully, JA will not continue to sabotage his career with these sorts of personal indiscretions.

I liked the Court-martial bit toward the end in addition to all of JA’s interaction with higher-ranked naval officers. Throughout, the descriptions of the ocean and how ships cut through the water are wonderful. I now understand the title of the second book Post Captain, as it’s a rank – not something to do with the mail. I’m guessing he makes the rank of Post Captain near the end of the book, setting him up to really “let every stitch of cloth fly” in the next book – to use the vernacular.

I’ll try to get through Post Captain before I go on vacation so I can enjoy HMS Surprise while I’m actually on vacation in the Dominican Republic.

All in all, a wonderful read that is a nice easy transition from all the non-fiction I’ve read. While this is fiction, it has a decidedly non-fiction tone about it.

The most non-fiction thing about that first book is that it is based so faithfully upon the early career of Lord Cochrane, upon whom Jack Aubrey is in part based.

In reality, the astounding Sophie-Cacafuego battle depicted in the novel was between Cochrane’s real-life Speedy and the Spanish xebec-frigate Gamo — down to the smallest detail, including the parts you assume must be made up.

As for JA being sidelined during the battle of Algeciras — well, that’s what happened to Cochrane, so it happens to Lucky Jack as well.

But as to Bryan’s hope that “JA will not continue to sabotage his career with these sorts of personal indiscretions…” Well, Jack is a lion at sea, a man perfectly in his element. But he has a lot of trouble knowing how to behave on shore, which will cause further problems. Just so you’re forewarned. Dr. Maturin is the opposite, a lubber who will never lose his land legs. Which is good, as Bryan notes: “O’Brian nicely uses the device of explaining everything to Maturin (who knows nothing about sailing), as a way of explaining everything to the reader.”

Folks, if you haven’t read these books, you’re missing out. There’s no better historical fiction anywhere. But aside from literary merit, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin will become two of your best friends. Their world, that of Nelson’s Navy, will become yours, and you’ll want to spend all your time there.

Fortunately, there are 20 novels in the series. I envy Bryan that he still has all but one still before him. I envy him, but wish him joy nonetheless…

sails1sails2

I’m on my quarterdeck attending to duty, I assure you, sir…

Commander182-580x250

Bud, and then Bryan, raised the alarm yesterday over my absence. Bryan wrote:

No, I haven’t heard from him at all. I even asked him for a book recommendation on the Aubrey-Maturin series, and he never responded.

I hope he’s okay.

That sounds alarming, indeed. But come on, y’all know that I frequently fail to post on the weekend, and yesterday I had business in my hometown of Bennettsville and didn’t get back to the office until 4:30 or so — at which time I promptly gave y’all an Open Thread with more topics than ever before.

But yeah, there was a lot going on over the weekend in politics, so it seemed weird for me not to be commenting, but I assure you I was attending to duty, for the most part, and am now back aboard, pacing the quarterdeck and scanning the horizon for a suitable prize.

Oh, and as to Bryan’s question:

I’m picking out my beach reading in advance. I’m thinking about starting the Aubrey-Maturin series. (Yeah. I’ve never read those books. Hangs head in shame.)
Which three would you recommend starting with, and in which order?

Here’s my response — and I hope others among you will be interested as well, because I’m always glad to have someone else to discuss the books with:

Start from the beginning. They are chronological and sort of like one super-long novel, although O’Brian didn’t intend it when he started out:

  1. Master and Commander — Nothing at all like the movie, which was actually based very loosely on the 10th book, The Far Side of the World. It starts with Lt. Jack Aubrey being assigned to his first command, the 14-gun sloop Sophie, and meeting his soon-to-be best friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin. The actions that sloop engages in track closely with Cochrane’s with the Speedy, including the memorable fight against the Gamo, renamed in the book the Cacafuego. Which you’ll recognize as scatological if you talk foreign, which Maturin does and Aubrey doesn’t. (O’Brian would later say that if he had known the series would go on so long he would have started earlier, with Jack as a midshipman. It apparently didn’t occur to him to go back and write prequels after the series gained a following. He was scrupulously careful to keep to a realistic time frame from the first book to the final fall of Bonaparte.)
  2. Post Captain — This one is in parts weirdly like Jane Austen, in which our heroes, stuck on shore during the brief peace with France, try their hand at being country gentlemen and become romantically entangled with a family of young ladies reminiscent of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, but with interesting variations. But don’t worry, lads — there’s still a good bit of action here and there — and quite a lot of character development important to later books. This and the first book are the two longest, and if there’s one in the series that will seem perhaps a tad too long, it’s this one, but be patient — the pace quickens after this. And the good bits are very rewarding. Be advised that the relationships with the ladies severely test Jack’s and Stephen’s friendship. (A constant theme of the books is that Jack is far better off at sea, well out of the sight of land and away from such complications — while Stephen, ever the lubber, is least at home aboard ship.)
  3. HMS Surprise — For the first time Jack commands the frigate he will love the most for the rest of his career. You also learn more about Stephen’s secret life — he is something more than an accomplished physician and respected naturalist. This is one of my very favorites in the series, chock full o’ action and human drama from Port Mahon to Bombay.

So, there you have it. Get busy reading — quick’s the word and sharp’s the action.

I’ll expect a full report upon your return. Before you have your clerk write it out fair, have Stephen look it over — he’s a learned cove.

Hereof nor you nor any of you may fail as you will answer the contrary at your Peril…

WWII: The experience that everyone shared (and yeah, I know that’s a huge cliche)

Everyone, that is, except me, people around my age and of course, those much younger.

And yeah, I know the ubiquity of the war experience is pretty much a cliche, but I keep getting reminded of it in ways that make the notion seem fresh.

My history classes in school never got around to the war, even when it was right there, near the end of the textbook. I always sort of figured it was a low priority for my teachers because in their minds, well, “we all lived through it, right?” So I had to read about the events that most immediately shaped the world I grew up in on my own.

In typing my mother’s childhood memoirs, I’m reminded yet again of how the war shaped the lives even of those who never went overseas.

So I know all that, and have known it since childhood, but every time I run across by-the-way mentions of the war experiences of various famous people, I’m reminded that, unlike Vietnam and definitely unlike the War on Terror, pretty much everyone who was eligible did go.

61t3in9FBcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Last night, I started reading one of the books I received for Christmas, Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, by Anthony Beevor. (It was sort of an ironic experience, opening that present and seeing on the cover the beleaguered soldier in the snow — on a Christmas Day in the 70s.)

On the second page, I had another of those “Wow, everybody was in this” experiences. The author was explaining how, in August 1944, things were still unsettled in newly liberated Paris, which is why Eisenhower was pretty much ignoring FDR’s wishes and showing support for de Gaulle, who he believed could stabilize things in his rear while his troops moved on to Germany.

Within that context, I read this, in the middle of a paragraph:

…Together with a comrade, the writer J.D. Salinger, a Counter Intelligence Corps staff sergeant with the 4th Infantry Division, had arrested a suspect in an action close to the Hôtel de Ville, only for the crowd to drag him away and beat him to death in front of their eyes….

I mean, think about it: This guy was a famous recluse my whole life. We all knew two things about Salinger: He wrote The Catcher in the Rye, and he was a recluse. You didn’t see him anywhere. And yet here he is popping up in the middle of things in Paris during the war.

Ex-Sgt. Salinger

Ex-Sgt. Salinger

Months later, in the battle that this book is about, Kurt Vonnegut would be captured, along with my father-in-law — both soldiers in the ill-fated 106th Infantry Division, that new unit of green troops who had been placed at the center of the line, where things were supposed to be quiet.

I’m not a student of Salinger — if I were, I’d be well aware of his extensive experience in the war — but it immediately occurred to me that maybe experiences such as that one in Paris help explain why he turned into such a hermit. And sure enough, I see that he was hospitalized for a few weeks with “combat stress reaction” — although he waited until the Germans were defeated to have his breakdown.

Anyway, it’s just a small thing, a footnote, but such things interest me….