Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Commodore by Patrick O'Brian

Source of book: I own this.

This book is number 17 in the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels about the British Navy during and after the Napoleonic Wars. I have read all of the previous books, and reviewed the last few for my blog. Because I do not duplicate all of the background information in each post, it is probably best to read them in order. And by all means, read the books in the correct order, as a particular adventure will often be stretched across several books.

            The Nutmeg of Consolation
            The Truelove
            The Wine Dark Sea

This book picks up at the end of the fairly disastrous South American campaign in the last book. The Surprise returns to England, where both Stephen and Jack have family issues to deal with. 

Stephen’s wife, Diana, has given birth a few years back - Stephen hasn’t yet met his daughter Brigid. However, Diana, apparently overstressed by parenthood, has run off to goodness knows where, leaving Brigid in the care of Clarissa Oakes (a fascinating character from The Truelove). Brigid also appears to be autistic, unable to speak.

Jack, meanwhile, finds he has offended his wife Sophie by using some of the fabric intended for her to make a wedding dress for Ms. Oakes. (As I said, a really fascinating story…) So all is not well at the Aubry home, and Jack is predictably eager to be off on his next adventure.

If that wasn’t bad enough, one of Stephen’s enemies in Parliament has decided to make trouble for him. Technically, Clarissa is a criminal, having been transported to Australia, where she managed to stow away on the Surprise. Likewise, Stephen’s loyal assistant, Padeen, was transported a few books back for an incident involving Stephen’s laudanum. Basically, they both need an official pardon before they can legally be in England. This would be forthcoming in light of the circumstances (and Stephen’s influence), but for this enemy.

Fortunately for all concerned, a new mission is at hand. They will spend some time off the coast of Africa suppressing the slave trade while they wait for news that a French fleet has left for Ireland. They are to intercept this fleet and prevent it from inciting rebellion there.

So much for the basic setup of the plot. I won’t reveal the rest.

However, there are some great lines and passages worth mentioning.

Preserved Killick is one of the great characters in the series. Jack’s steward, he is described in this book as a “lean, cantankerous, and out of work ratcatcher.” And of course, plenty more of “Which I was already doing, ain’t I?”

Also interesting on the psychological side in this book was Jack’s response to female sexuality - both in theory and in practice. Anyone who is familiar with this series knows that Jack - particularly the younger Jack - slept around a good deal. He has an illegitimate son he fathered with an African woman, and spent a portion of the first book in bed with the wife of a fellow captain - an act which came back to bite him big time.

In a conversation with Stephen, Jack discusses a fellow captain who just came home to find his wife pregnant by another man. Jack notes that the captain “has never set up for chastity any more than I have,” and Jack reminded him of that. Of course, the captain responded with the double standard: “Oh, it is different for women.” At this point, Jack actually asserts that fair is fair.

And it is. But the problem is that Jack’s emotions do not follow his logic, and later in the book, when he believes (probably incorrectly) that Sophie is cheating on him, he cannot just let it go as “fair is fair.” Ah, such a difficult thing in practice when men are used to the entitlement to sow their oats when and how they like, but woe to the woman who does likewise.

The issue of slavery is front and center for the middle part of the book. O’Brian does not gloss over the horrors of the trade, and there are some very difficult scenes to read. (For what it is worth, I am concurrently reading Homegoing by Yaa Gayasi, which centers around the slave trade and its consequences over the ensuing centuries. Stay tuned for a review on that one.)

At one point, a particular sailor who has been stymied in his advancement is promoted by Jack, who, having a black son, understands that the “African great-grandmother” is the reason this competent seaman has been unable to become a lieutenant despite passing the test.

Another harrowing chapter in this book is the one where Stephen nearly dies of Yellow Fever. Poor Stephen has had a bad run of late, suffering greatly for his love of nature and attempts to collect specimens. Of course, back then, they didn’t know mosquitoes spread the disease, so prevention was difficult at best.

However, Stephen does manage to obtain a Potto, which is a cousin of the Loris. O’Brian manages to sneak some fauna into most of his books, and this is a particularly cute one. 

It isn’t just questions of sex that disquiet Jack in this book. There is also that of the captains he commands. For this mission, Jack is a Commodore and has several ships under his command. However, he mistrusts two of the captains greatly. One of them is a disciplinarian, intent on having the ship look good. But his seamanship is sloppy, his crew ill trained, and their gunnery is unspeakably bad. Another ship has a different problem. The captain is openly homosexual, and has a series of young men in and out of his cabin - men he then favors in front of the other sailors. Jack’s objection to this isn’t the sexuality per se: he likens it to keeping a hooker on board - it destroys morale and discipline, particularly since the captain is involved. He will not be respected if he doesn’t show respect to all his crew. So Jack is uneasy, because he does not have confidence in his captains. The one may face mutiny, and the other may not fight well at all.

Predictably, this leads to serious tension, particularly when the crews of each of the two ships get into it under the influence of adult beverages. One lieutenant insults another, and as noted in Commandment One (see below), if offense is given and no apology is forthcoming, then a duel is inevitable. Sadly, the young men forgot the 11th Commandment - shoot in the air - and they end up killing each other.

(And yes, that was definitely a good enough excuse to link “Ten Duel Commandments.”)

There is a great line before the climactic scene, where Stephen and Jack, each worried for their own reasons, exchange sympathy.

Stephen looked up, and after a moment said, “To a tormented mind there is nothing, I believe, more irritating that comfort. Apart from anything else it often implies superior wisdom in the comforter. But I am very sorry for your trouble, my dear.”
“Thank you, Stephen. Had you told me that there was always a tomorrow, I think I should have thrust your calendar down your throat.”

That’s just outstanding. And true.

One final humorous bit. Jack and Stephen are string players. (The large Jack on violin, the scrawny Stephen on cello.) Many evenings on board are wiled away with duets - and the pieces mentioned are often fun. In this book, Jack asks Stephen (again…) to borrow his rosin.

“I wonder - I have my own reasons for wondering - that a man of your I might almost say wealth, and of your standing, a member of Parliament, high on the post-captain’s list, and well at court, cannot or rather will not afford himself a piece of rosin.”

“You are to consider that I am a family man, Stephen, with a boy to educate and daughters to provide a dowry for, and clothes - half-boots twice and sometimes three times a year. Tippets. When you come to worry about Brigid’s fortune, and Brigid’s tippets, you too may economise on rosin.”

As the guy who always has extra strings, rosin, and a pencil, I sympathise with Stephen. At least my colleagues are great about paying me back.

Anyway, this book was another solid entry in a truly epic series. Unfortunately, I am nearing its end. If you haven’t discovered O’Brian, I do indeed recommend these books. But definitely read them in order.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Mountain Interval by Robert Frost

Source of book: I own this.

It was definitely time to read some Frost, who remains my favorite poet. What can I say? I’m a bit of a traditionalist, with a love for nature, and he speaks to me.

I own the complete Frost, a gift from my wife long ago. (I honestly cannot remember if it was before we married, or just after.) This is his third collection. You can read my thoughts on A Boy’s Will and North of Boston if you like.

Mountain Interval has a surprising number of dark poems in it. I have found that many people familiar only with Frost from their American Literature classes in high school or college tend to know only his “happier” or merely melancholy poems, and not the ones with a real edge. This is too bad, as it has meant Frost has a reputation as being pleasant but not deep. This is a huge mistake, in my opinion. Frost has a wide emotional range, and some of his most psychologically devastating poems are the dark ones. A good case in point in this collection is the long blank verse narrative “The Bonfire,” or the multi-part poem “The Hill Wife.” But there is so much more treasure to be found here.

The collection opens with “The Road Not Taken,” rightfully one of Frost’s best known poems, and one of my all time favorites. It has that characteristic melancholy feel, and a meaning which is both apparent on the surface, and deeper if you think it through.
The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I’ll also note that this is a great example of Frost’s use of a five line stanza.

Another poem in this collection is “Christmas Trees,” which I used for one of my Christmas posts.

I also should mention “In the Home Stretch,” another narrative poem in blank verse. It is obviously too long to quote, but it tells of a young(ish) couple moving into a home in the mountains on some land. As they settle in, they have an intriguing philosophical conversation about beginnings and endings and their complex relationship.

Another poem I loved, also about a relationship of sorts, is “Meeting and Passing.”

Meeting and Passing

As I went down the hill along the wall
There was a gate I had leaned at for the view
And had just turned from when I first saw you
As you came up the hill. We met. But all
We did that day was mingle great and small
Footprints in summer dust as if we drew
The figure of our being less than two
But more than one as yet. Your parasol
Pointed the decimal off with one deep thrust.
And all the time we talked you seemed to see
Something down there to smile at in the dust.
(Oh, it was without prejudice to me!)
Afterward I went past what you had passed
Before we met, and you what I had passed.

I have mentioned a few times how much I love the sonnet form. This is a good one, in the Italian form. I also love the way Frost understands introversion - that bit about smiling at the dust - but don’t take that to mean she disliked me - is great.

Another poem that I really loved is this one:

Hyla Brook

BY June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)—
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat—
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

That last line is outstanding, as is the picture of the seasonal stream, so well known to us in the western part of the country.

While “Hyla Brook” is close to a sonnet, it has one extra line, and isn’t quite in the right form. The next one is a true sonnet, again in the Italian (rather than English) pattern. The rhyme scheme of the final six lines differs from “Meeting and Passing.” I like this one for its attention to small, seemingly insignificant details within a larger story which is only obliquely alluded to.


The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird's nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.

On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O'ernight 'twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.

The battle referred to is probably one from World War I - a counterpart to “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae.

Two more poems deserve mention. The first is this one, which really speaks to me. There are two sounds I could listen to all day: the sound of the surf, and the wind in the trees.

The Sound of Trees

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

Just a brilliant and delightful poem.

I’ll end with one of my all time favorite Frost poems. Every time I read it again - aloud, of course - I am thrilled with the melody of the words, and with the subversive themes. Enjoy.


When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

There isn’t anything that needs to be said beyond that.

I could mention a number of other fine poems, both shorter and longer. I highly recommend Frost, and particularly recommend reading an entire collection as a unit, as the poems are often related and build on each other. And, as always, read them out loud! Poetry is meant to be heard, and the music of the sounds is part of the thrill.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Voice is All by Joyce Johnson

Source of book: I own this.

My wife’s brother is the reason I have read Kerouac. For whatever reason, he wasn’t one of the authors we studied in high school (presumably too modern for the curriculum to take seriously…), and I never ended up reading him later.

My brother-in-law recommended I read The Dharma Bums, in significant part because he duplicated the epic hike to California’s Matterhorn (not to be confused with the one in Switzerland) described in that book. Then, to top it off, he gave me this book a couple of years ago. I have put off reading it at least until I finished The Dharma Bums, as it seemed odd to read a book about an author I hadn’t read. 

The Voice is All was written by Joyce Johnson, who was one of Kerouac’s many lovers - she came fairly late in his life. The book, while a biography, does not deal with that relationship at all. (Other than a couple of asides at appropriate places.) The main reason for this is that the story of Kerouac in this book ends in 1951, at the point when Jack figures out how he wants to re-write On The Road. We all know that he will eventually (1957) find a publisher for the book, and make his reputation as a writer.

Two things stand out in Johnson’s approach to Kerouac’s life. First, she emphasises his French-Canadian heritage, and the fact that he spoke Breton French before he learned English. She believes that this was one reason Kerouac never felt truly part of America. He was always an outsider as an immigrant, and as a French speaker.

It sounds weird to us now, but back in the 1920s, French Canadians were looked down on as uneducated, dirty immigrants. They were hated even by other immigrant groups, as their religious beliefs kept them from joining in strikes, and they were perceived as driving wages down by working for less than anyone else. Hey, like Latinos today, right?

The other emphasis in this book is on Kerouac’s struggle to write. While the other events in his life are mentioned, his writing process takes center stage. 

 The original draft of On The Road, which Kerouac typed on a scroll of paper, so he didn't have to interrupt his thoughts to change paper.

Johnson relies heavily on the voluminous correspondence between Kerouac and his friends and family. These documents are quoted throughout, and painstakingly listed in the endnotes. Johnson did her homework well.

Don’t get the impression that this book is dry, however. Johnson is an excellent writer, with compelling prose that makes the detail of what is hardly a short book flow by painlessly. I found the book to be a delightful read, even if the subject matter is often less than pleasant.

It is no mystery why. Kerouac struggled with substance abuse and (more likely than not) some form of mental illness. (Bipolar certainly comes to mind after reading this book.) He and the rest of the Beats, in addition to their legendary drunken benders, sure seemed to be in and out of each other’s beds a lot. It is amazing they ever got any writing done, in some ways. Not the lifestyle I would like to imitate, clearly. I’m good with a stable monogamous marriage and no hangovers, thank you very much.

On the other hand, it was rather fascinating to see the dynamics of the Beats from their early college days in New York. The kind of gruesome and sad episode where Lucien Carr ends up killing the man who was both a mentor and a sexual predator was one I hadn’t heard before. (And really, Lucien is mostly notable because of this incident - Kerouac help dispose of the knife, and ended up marrying his first wife so that he could get out on bail. Also, because Allen Ginsberg was madly in unrequited love with Lucien.)

Allen Ginsberg was intimately involved in the story throughout, both as Kerouac’s friend and as a character in many of his books. I have mixed feelings about Ginsberg both personally and as an artist. I have had a hard time getting into his poetry for the same reason Whitman leaves me cold most of the time: it feels more like lists and rambling than poetry to me. I know that is an aesthetic issue, and I guess I like what I like. (At least I enjoy poetry, which is pretty rare these days…) I also had a negative impression of Ginsberg because of his connection with NAMBLA, which I find morally loathsome (see Kevin Spacey) and believe has been a major hindrance to the gay rights cause. On the other, Ginsberg as a young man seems more pitiable and sensitive than the others of the Beats. He spends a lot of this book trying to come to terms with his homosexuality, his horrible childhood with a mentally ill mother, and his unrequited crushes. In addition to Lucien Carr, Ginsberg ends up obsessed with Neal Cassady, who was likely bisexual, but also a narcissist incapable of giving back.

Also apparent in this book was the sexism of the Beats. They really expected the women they were involved with to do everything from the cooking and cleaning, to working to support them. Yet another reason I personally find the lifestyle unappealing. But as with most artists, you have to separate out the person and the art to some degree. It is difficult, for example, to find much of anyone without sexist beliefs a few hundred years ago - or even 60 years ago. It is what it is, but I am glad to live when I do.

One more thing that comes to mind in this context is the sense of sexual entitlement - and not just of the Beats. Kerouac’s parents were fairly devout Catholics. Particularly his mother. But that didn’t stop his father from sleeping with prostitutes throughout their marriage. It was amusing that they were horrified that Jack cohabited with his future first wife - his father had no problem if Jack had just gone for a hooker, but cohabiting with an (otherwise) respectable girl? Horrors! But that was the way of it then. And the Beats weren’t any better, treating women as disposable and expecting them to be sexually available whenever - and to whomever. This is also a reminder to me that our current moment when a bunch of creepy old men are being outed as predators isn’t really a tale of men being worse than before - but one of social mores changing to make predatory and assaultive behavior no longer acceptable.

Another interesting thing about Kerouac - and his portrayal in this book - is his essential restlessness (perhaps from his peripatetic childhood) and constant seeking of epiphanies which were out of reach and short lived when they finally came. As Johnson describes one of the early quests, “Jack seemed to be hoping that the voyage would be a cleansing and transformative experience from which he would emerge renewed like a character in a novel.” This is a common refrain, both in this book, and in The Dharma Bums. It seems like Kerouac had epiphany after epiphany, but nothing lasted, and he was off to find the next high. This is why I suspect he was bipolar. It also is likely a primary driver of his alcohol abuse.

One final thing that stood out to me is just how revolting I find Neal Cassady as a person. He never accomplished anything of note, abused women, toyed with the affections of everyone he knew, and acted like an entitled narcissist. The only reason anyone remembers him at all was that Kerouac and Ginsberg were obsessed with him. Ginsberg for sexual reasons, and Kerouac for, well, for being some sort of a non-sexual soulmate? It is hard to know what to call it - but it was definitely a crush. And I guess Cassady had the same charm to women too. Was he a heartthrob? I am the wrong person to ask, as I am strongly heterosexual. I guess he - and Kerouac - had that kind of James Dean look going. So maybe. If so, that makes him even more annoying. As a short man without good looks, I strongly dislike those people who get by on good looks and charm (whether male or female.) So, Neal Cassady, I dislike you already, and I haven’t read On The Road yet. Maybe I can yell at the book when I do read it.

The Voice is All is definitely an interesting book - there is so much more I haven’t even mentioned. Johnson tells the story well, and there is a lot about Kerouac’s life that is fascinating. This is a time in history that has tended to be venerated and sanitized. The narrative is that everything was great in the 1940s and 50s, before the 60s ruined everything. That is just the rose-colored glasses, though. History has always been messy, and the worst we can do is meet our heroes. This book is a reminder that there really never was a golden age without bad behavior. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys Kerouac - and also for those who don’t, but would like insight into his life and times and what the fuss is all about.


Just a fun connection: Back in September, my brother (who plays fiddle in an Irish band) put together a night of oddball music in the greater folk tradition. As part of that, he and I performed a couple of French Canadian fiddle tunes - a “Breton” set, as he called it.  The two tunes we played were Le Reve du Queteux Tremblay (Beggar Tremblay’s Dream) and Le Bedeau de l’Enfer (The Deacon from Hell), a couple of “crooked reels” with shifting time signatures and jarring rhythms. In other words, dances only the Devil himself could dance. Fitting, since we fiddle players have always been suspected of being in league with the Devil.