Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O'Brian

As usual, I won't delve into the summary of the book.  Thanks to Wikipedia, there one can already read finely written summaries of these novels.

I won't lie - this one was a bit tough to follow.  Jack is a temporary Commodore in this novel.  As such, both he and the reader must keep tabs on all the captains and ships under him as well as the enemy abroad.

Overall, it was another classic Patrick O'Brian novel.

I finished this one about a month ago, but am now just getting around to posting it here.  I've almost finished Desolation Island too.  I should be writing that one up here in a week or so.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Harry Potter: HBP & DH

In the background of my normally scheduled reading, I've been indulging in the last of the Harry Potter series.  It all started as bedtime reading for the kids each night.  But after finishing the Goblet of Fire and then the first several chapters of the Half Blood Prince, I ended up reading the books on my own.  Just at lunchtime today, I finished reading the Deathly Hallows.

The last two books are my favorite in the series.  I really enjoyed reading HBP and DH.  For me, there are two factors that made these books so enjoyable.  First, the uncovering of a mystery (ie Dumbledore showing Harry all those memories and teaching him about the quest to destroy the Horcruxes) and second the actual quest to find and destroy the Horcruxes.  And along with that quest, the discovery of the Deathly Hallows and the uncovering of the mystery of Albus Dumbledore.

The fact that so much is uncovered and revealed makes these last two books exciting.  On the flip side, what made the excitement about the flood of information in these last two books possible was the slow dripping of information in the several books prior.  The tension and piquing in interest those first books created, allowed for the unrestrained pleasure of reading the last two books.  Rowling did a fantastic job managing and releasing that tension.

Although it all seems a bit hoaky, I still felt affected by the themes of the books: love, courage, loyalty and knowledge.

Love is all over the place - Lily's love for Harry, James and Severus; Harry's love for his parents, Dumbledore and his friends, Lupin and Tonks, Ron and Hermione, Dobby's love for Harry, the Dumbledore family and on and on and on.  But time and time again, people in the story do things that don't quite seem logical - and they do those things in the name of love.  I whole-heartedly agree with this theme of love - it is indeed a deep, strong and unexplainable magic.

Courage - the characteristic of Gryffindor.  Harry and most of his friends have it.  Harry shows it over and over again.  Of all the things I learned from Harry Potter, courage would be at the top of the list.  Sometimes he jumped in to things head first without giving it much thought.  Sometimes things didn't work out, but persistence and courage eventually won out.  Harry eventually began to uncover the big picture and once he was armed with knowledge, his courage didn't fade.  In fact, it made his courage even all the more admirable.  I kind of see this same type of courage with Jack Aubrey - he'll sometimes run headlong with a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants plan.  Other times he'll plan more carefully - but always he's ready and willing to engage.

Loyalty and knowledge - I don't have a whole lot to say here.  But the theme of loyalty is obviously tied closely to his love for his friends.  As for knowledge - the whole series takes place in a school!  But those 1 on 1 lessons with Dumbledore and the whole uncovering of the mysteries of the Hallows and Horcruxes underscores the need for knowledge.  When you first read about what a Horcrux and Deathly Hallow is, you can't help but feel this yearning to go searching for some mystery.  All the books seem to bring that desire out.

In summary - Harry Potter is a fantastic series and the last two books are simply amazing and entertaining.  It is amazing to think how easily and quickly I read those monster books - but that is a tribute to the author who makes reading them so easy.

Monday, November 1, 2010

H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian

I finally finished the 3rd book in the Aubrey-Maturin series.  I actually finished it a couple of weeks ago and am now just getting to the review.  It took me a little over 6 weeks to finish.

As usual, you can read a very fine summary of the book on Wikipedia.

In this book, Stephen gets knocked around quite a bit - both physically and emotionally.  At the end of the book, I felt quite sorry for the guy.  Yet his resolve is very admirable.

There were a lot of memorable parts in this book.  O'Brian's description of the doldrums and then crossing into the Indian ocean were vivid.  I can still see the image he described as the crew fought the winds and storms of the south Antarctic and Indian oceans.

The other part that is emblazoned in my mind was the stunning and rapid turn of events that led to the duel between Canning and Stephen.  I had to read those few paragraphs a few times (so nonchalantly written) to really understand that Canning and Stephen were going to draw pistols and fire on each other.  Reconciliation was attempted, but Canning was too proud to acquiesce.  The duel occur ed; Stephen survived after being hit and performing a surgery on himself to remove the bullet; Canning died at the deadly aim of Stephen.  What balls it takes to duel.

I'm taking a brief break from Aubrey-Maturin to finish reading a couple of Harry Potter books.  I had been reading The Half-Blood Prince to the kids and then I ended up finishing reading it on my own.  The movie and book differ quite a bit - both for good and bad.  I then picked up The Deathly Hallows since the movie for that book is coming out November 19 - at least part 1 of that movie.  The 2nd part will come out next year in July (I think).  I've only read Deathly Hallows once when it first came out 3 years ago.  I've fogotten so much, it's like I'm reading it for the first time.  I'm half-way finished with it and am enjoying it quite a bit.  I should be done either this or next week.  Then I'll begin The Mauritius Command.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian

As I said previously, I had bought the first seven books of this 21-book series - really to see if I'd like them or not.  I am exceptionally pleased to report that I now own all 21 books including to extremely helpful books entitled A Sea of Words and Harbors and High Seas both written by Dean King and John B. Hattendorf.  These books were exclusively written to help the lubber reader like me to understand all the sea-jargon and old world geography.  These books arrived just a few days before I finished reading Post Captain.

Obviously Post Captain was even better than Master and Commander else I doubt I would have bought the rest of the books.  When I was on the last chapter, I was curious to see if these books related to real battles during the Napoleonic War.  So like most common idiots, I googled around and eventually landed on wikipedia.  There, I found myself reading the summary of Post Captain.  It was a very well written summary that gave solid broad strokes without revealing too much detail.

One thing I found interesting was how the plot became a bit clearer and less mysterious after reading the wiki summary.  O'Brian has a way of writing in "off-hand" or in "understatement" form.  And what I mean by this, is that he could write one sentence that changes the whole plot, but he writes it in such a way that the change in plot is not explicit - the reader has to take it on the uptake - think about it a bit.  So for example, in the book I recall someone making a comment to Jack (I believe it was Admiral Harte) along the lines that the captain is expected to sleep aboard his ship.  Jack denies that he has been sleeping off-ship.  Well, as it turns out - after reading wikipedia - Jack was having an affair with Diana.  Funny - the same thing happened in Master and Commander in that the way O'Brian described Jack going on-shore all dressed up nice and then returns 'defeated', we never are explicitly told he had an affair with Harte's wife.  The reader has to read into the words a lot.  Now that I'm used to his writing, I'm beginning to pick up on it a bit.

I won't go into the plot summary - you can find it on wikipedia.

I really got into this book.  One morning on the bus, I read the part where Jack and the Polychrest are chasing the Bellone and instead of taking her (or her merchant ships) he manages to only run her aground.  When he returns to port, instead of a congratulations from the admiral, he is berated for coming out of the chase with nothing.  He is assigned channel duty - which essentially is a slap in the face and reprimand.  I felt utterly sorry for Jack - I closed the book at that point and really felt his sorrow.

On the flip side, I was quite elated to read of the raid on the French fort - Harte having virtually sent the odd Polychrest and Jack to their death among the fort's guns and the dangerous shoals.  Instead of dying, Jack pulls off a fantastic raid despite the Polychrest having run aground.  Jack and his crew captured a French ship and used her to pull the Polychrest off the sandbank.  They then managed to wreck havoc on the fort and capture two French ships.  This victory seals Jack's promotion to post.

The sub-plots with the women and Stephen's spying and even their escape from France are also highly entertaining.  The sub-plots with the women read more like Pride and Prejudice than a sea novel.  So much more is coming back to mind and I really loved everything about it.

As I said before, I bought these two reference books on the Aubrey-Maturin series.  I'll be reading them for the next few days - getting familiar with them - and then use them as reference.  Perhaps the picture O'Brian paints will be a bit more clearer for me with this background information.

PS - as far as I could tell, these books' backgrounds are against the Napoleonic Wars, but they don't re-create the battles in them.  The battles and ships may have been based on non-related historical facts, but there is no one-to-one match to the historical record.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

The bug got in me a long time ago - maybe around 1986 when we visited California for Christmas one year.  It lay mostly dormant for over 20 years and would only inflame every once in a while - especially when we went to the Oregon or California coast.  Then, out of the blue and not even being near a coast, the bug sprung to life.  Now that I think of it, fog seems to be another trigger besides visits to the coast.  Between 2006 and 2009, the bug seemed to manifest itself more frequently.  In early 2009, I developed this constant itch to be by the sea - the ocean.  Along with that itch came a yearning for things Old Worldish.  A few months after the symptoms emerged, our family moved to Houston.  I started watching more pirate movies - becoming nearly obsessed with Disney's Pirates franchise.  Even stronger were the urges to watch Russell Crow's Master and Commander Far Side of the World.  I found myself constantly gazing at pictures of the sea and beaches.

A few months after we moved to Houston, I learned that Master and Commander was not only a movie, but it was a whole series of books.  The desire to read that series became constant until I finally gave in and bought 7 books of the 21-book series.  I finally was able to begin reading the first book just over a month ago and just this morning, I finished the last page as my bus stopped at my bustop.

I had high expectations before I began this book and I am extremely happy to report that I was not let down!

The first few chapters were difficult to get through - mostly because of the sea-jargon the characters were using.  I endured for a bit, but eventually gave in and started jotting down words I didn't know into a notebook and then looked them up latter.  This side-exercise helped out a lot and I enjoyed the reading a little bit more.

The book begins with Jack Aubrey meeting Stephen Maturin.  The two discuss music and thus begins a long relationship between the doctor and Jack.  We also read of Jack's promotion to Captain and being assigned to the Sophie.  From there, we are taken on many voyages accross the Mediterrean - stops at ports, sea battles and races.  The zenith of the book is when the much smaller sloop manages to outgun and take the much larger frigate Cacafuego (which I believe means "shit-fire" in Spanish).  In the taking of the Cacafuego, his lieutenant James Dillon dies.  There is a whole sub-plot throughout the book which deals with Maturin, Dillon and Jack - but it is a little too tough to descibe - in fact, I'm not sure I understood the full extent of the sub-plot. After this fantastic victory, Jack is let down by having to perform a somewhat menial assignment.

En route on this menial assignment, Jack and his crew attack port and then consequently are followed and outrun by a few French ships.  They try to escape, but fail.  While being graciously held captive, several British ships engage the French and are defeated.  But they put in port and begin repairs and re-engaged the French, this time, taking out two of the biggest frigates in exceptional fashion.

The book ends with the court-martial of Jack - to see if he really did do all that he could to escape the French.  The book ends with his acquittal.

Obviously, I can't do the book justice, but I really enjoyed reading it and am anxious to begin the next book Post Captain which I assume is the title of Jack's next rank and the which he was desiring throughout the first book.

As a side note - we were at Half Priced Books again last week and I came across a book which I will absolutely love.  It is called Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy.  I have just now looked up the book at Amazon and found it has a whooping 4.5 stars out of 5 rating based on 105 reviews!  So that book will be put in the queue list.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Father of Us All by Victor Davis Hanson

I was very excited to read The Father of Us All.  As expected, it was fairly easy reading and extremely educational.  Hanson's ease of words makes it smooth for the reader.  His vast knowledge inspires the reader to learn more of military history.  I was very appreciative of the comprehensive list of books on war that he provided in the first chapter.  There is a lifetime of reading and learning in that list alone.

There were two main points that I got out of this book.  The first was the explanation of why we need to study war.  The old adage still holds true when it comes to war.  Those who do not know their history on war are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.  Hanson also laments the fact that Military History as a study has declined considerably.  He comments how few people know names and places of outcomes of battles.  One particular comment brought a stark realization to me - that I do not know much of past battles and sacrifices.  He said, "Military History has a moral purpose: educating us about past sacrifices that have secured our present freedom and security.  If we know nothing of Shiloh, Belleau Wood, Tarawa, and Chosin, the crosses in our military cemeteries are reduced to just pleasant white markers on lush green lawns."

The second point was about the pressures put on modern America to fight clean, flawless wars and how this has made it very difficult for America to "win" wars.  In her luxury, America wants quick victories with no losses.  Old School Americans scoff at this idea as they know that all wars are downright tragic and never perfect.  As Hanson repeats oft in the book, each warring side makes mistakes and therefore victory goes to the nation that learns from its mistakes more quickly than the other.

The rest of the book is commentary on these two points as well as the state of modern warfare.  One comment about modern warfare ... decisive warfare where the losing nation is outrightly defeated and humiliated is shunned upon in today's society.  Instead, the pervading notion is that we must simply put down the other nation without the humiliation.  It is a simple notion, but as I write this, I remember thinking as a kid that Germany, Italy and Japan were much better off losing outright to the Americans than if they had settled for peace.

Hanson also provides a lot of commentary on the current state of war in our world.  His insights to past and present wars rings a bell of warning to all those who would listen.  Sadly, however, many do not listen and instead choose to blindly believe that war can be outlawed or unlearned by people.  This dangerous line of thinking has not only been the demise of past nations but will prove to be the demise of current nations (especially those in the West) if they do not turn from this false reasoning.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ripples of Battle by Victor Davis Hanson

Ripples of Battle is another one of those books by VDH that can be read again and again because there are so many gems in it.

In this book, he details the ripples of effects of three battles: Okinawa, Shiloh and Delium.


Kamikazes ("divine wind") were first seen on a large scale in October 1944.  Six months later, the Americans were beginning to invade Okinawa in preparation for invading the mainland of Japan.  In the battle of Okinawa, Kamikaze attacks continued on an even larger scale then when they had originally started six months previous.  "The Japanese were planning something on a scale entirely unforeseen in preparing some 4,000 planes for suicide attacks, commencing their sorties immediately after the initial landings [by the Americans]."  The large-scale Kamikaze attack is what prompted the unleashing of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Additionally, we continue to feel the reverberations of the Kamikaze attacks today in that our world will never be the same since 9/11.

"What those who crash airplanes in the past and present alike failed to grasp was also the nature of the deadly repercussions that arose from their explosions.  Suicide bombings strike at the very psyche of the Western mind that is repelled by the religious fanaticism and the authoritarianism, or perhaps the despair, of such enemies - confirming that wares are not just misunderstandings over policy of the reckless actions of a deranged leader, but accurate reflections of fundamental differences in culture and society.  In precisely the same way kamikazes off Okinawa led to A-bombs, so too jumbo jets exploding at the World Trade Center were the logical precursors to daisy-cutters, bunker-busters, and thermobaric bombs in Afghanistan - as an unleashed America resounded with a terrible fury not seen or anticipated since 1945.  The Western world publicly objected to the Israeli plunge into the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002 and it purported destruction of the civilian infrastructure - but much of it also privately sighed, "Such are the wages of suicide-murderers who blow up children in Tel Aviv."  If it is true that moral pretensions at restraint are the ultimate brakes on the murderous Western way of war, it is also accurate to suggest that such ethical restrictions erode considerably when the enemy employs suicide bombers." (p. 45-46)

The entire chapter is a fascinating read on kamikazes and the ripples of effects it had on America and our world today.  This chapter also had a personal effect on the author as the uncle he was named after was killed in the battle of Okinawa.  Reading of the effects this battle had on his life and his family's life is very fascinating and heart-wrenching.


I'm not a Civil War expert, but I have read a few books on Lincoln and the war itself.  But after reading this chapter, I was quite surprised at how many ripples Shiloh made on our culture.  I can't recall all the details, but I will try to note the ones that impressed me.

William Tecumseh Sherman was, for all intents and purposes, a nobody before the battle of Shiloh.  After the battle, he was a national icon and would go on to lead the Union to victory over the Confederacy.  In one battle, his and the nation's entire fate was changed.  In that same battle, he was wounded twice and had three horses shot out underneath him.  Had any one of those bullets strayed a few inches in another direction, those same fates would have been significantly different.

The whole concept of Lost Opportunity arose from this battle.  The South had virtually won the war, but with the death of General Johnston, the South did not pursue the North and the North was able to regroup and mount an counter attack.  From then on, the Southern culture has viewed the battle as the lost opportunity.

Brig General Lew Wallace's life was changed dramatically that same day and with it the culture of America.  His "lost" division, whether because of misunderstandings or lack of competence, caused controversies for years.  With this blunder, his military career was over.  The rest of his life was dedicated to seeking redemption.  In that process of seeking redemption he wrote Ben-Hur which would change American culture forever.  The book became a best-seller and then a stage production and then a big-screen movie several times.  It laid the foundation for books-to-movies for generations.

Lastly, Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest would become the thorn in the side for the Union for many years.  He not only survived Shiloh but became the icon of the South and would forever be associated with the Ku Klux Klan.


The Battle of Delium introduced to the world the unique idea of preemptive attacking for defensive purposes. The Athenians had essentially terrorized the Boeotians.  No battle broke out and both sides were about to return to normal life.  The Boeotian council debated and voted and were about to return home when one of its members spoke up.  "A single boeotarch resisted - the Theban Padondas, son of one Aoelidas, a gifted commander in his sixties and do doubt a veteran of the Theban triumph twenty-three years earlier at Coronea.  Through sheer force of personality and fiery speeches to the assembled rank and file, he convinced his colleagues to recommit the entire army and pursue the Athenians.  Quite remarkably they were won over and agreed immediately to break camp and march after the Athenians."  Delium ensued and the Athenians were routed and ripples were sent through Greek and even American military strategy.

The chapter also goes on to discuss the lives of Alcibiades, Socrates and other people who survived Delium and went on to have tremendous impacts to Western culture.

Overall, it was a really good read.  On a personal note - I started reading this book toward the end of April and beginning of May and as such, Memorial Day was on my mind.  The several passages the author used to discuss the uncle he never knew and his family's thoughts on this tragic loss brought tears to my eyes as I read them on the bus while going to work.  My heart swelled with tremendous gratitude for all those men and women who have served our country and died to defend her.  I don't have many regrets in life, but I do wonder occasionally how much different it would be had I acted on my youthful desires to join the military.

I only have the deepest respect for all those who sacrifice for our freedoms - from the 19-year old high school graduate serving in the Army to the 35-year old father of 4 who serves in Afghanistan who's wife reads reports on the Internet about a bombing near his base and can only sleeplessly worry if he is still alive or not for several hours before she finally gets an email from him.  God bless them all.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly

This book seemingly has it all when it comes to Pirate lore.  It feels as though no stone was left unturned in revealing (if at least anecdotedly) the broad scope of the history of piracy on the high seas.  Where possible, the author goes into much detail.  But with a few of the stories, he can only offer what history has uncovered which can be very little when it comes to the topic of Pirates.

When this book was first written in 1995 (the edition I'm reading), the Information Age was just barely picking up steam.  Today, however, much of the information found in this book is also logged in wikipedia or other sites.  But without this book, learning about such a broad topic via wikis would be time-consuming and dis-organized.  Cordingly's book, therefore, provides a nice one-stop shop to get the bulk of information on Pirates.

Below is a list of links I've found as I read the topics covered in the book.  I've placed an asterisk next to those topics I partcularly enjoyed.

*Sir Francis Drake; John Hawkins; The History of Buccaneers in America by Alexander Exquemelin

Sir Henry Morgan (entire chapter in book, very detailed)

John Rackam (Calico Jack); Mary Read; Anne Bonny (the wikipedia entry on Anne gives additional information about her post-trial disappearance, which is not included in the book); A General History of Pyrates by Daniel Defoe / Captain Chales Johnson; Alwilda; Grace O'Malley; Mrs. Cheng (the book has a lot of details on her);

Sam Bellamy; Whydah; Edward Low; Charles Vane; William Dampier; A nice list of Pirate authors; *Bartholomew Roberts.
Chapter 6: Into Action Under the Pirate Flag is a really fascinating chapter which delves into how pirates tortured, attacked, and lived at sea.  I highlighted one section of this chapter which describes Bartholomew Roberts.

"It is curious that Bartholomew Roberts has never acquired the fame of Blackbeard or Captain Kidd, because he was infinitely more successful than either of them, and was a considerably more attractive figure.  He was tall and dark, 'of good natural parts and personal bravery,' and adopted a magisterial air.  He dressed in some style, and was apparently fond of music.  Unlike the vast majority of his fellow pirates, he abstained from heavy drinking, and he discouraged gambling on his ships.  He was born near Haverfordwest in the southwest corner of Wales around 1682.  He joined the merchant navy and eventually became second mate of the ship Princess of London.  In November 1719 the Princess under the command of Captain Plumb, set sail for the west coast of Africa to collect a cargo of slaves for the West Indies.  On her arrival at Anaboe on the Guinea coast, the Princess was captured by pirates led by another Welshman, Howell Davis.  A few weeks later Davis was killed and Roberts was elected as pirate captain in his place; in a remarkably short time he had impressed an unruly bunch of men with his abilities as a seaman and navigator, and was chosen above several other candidates for the post.  Captain Johnson tells us that Roberts accepted the post, 'saying that since he had dipped his hands in muddy water, and must be a pirate, it was better being a commander than a common man.'

"Not only was Roberts a natural leader, but he also proved to be absolutly ruthless.  His attacks were swift and savage, and he had no qualms about resorting to torture and murder to achieve his ends.  During the course of the next three years he caused havoc among the merchant shipping on both sides of the Atlantic.  In 1721, at the height of his career, Roberts commanded a squadron of four vessels.  His flagship was the Royal Fortune of forty-two guns, a former French warship.  His consorts were the thirty-gun brigantine Sea King, the French ship Ranger and a small ship of sixteen guns which was used 'as a store ship, to clean by.'  The total number of men under his command at this time was 508."

Another section from chapter six describes a little of red flags and their meaning.

"There was an alternative meaning tot he plain red and black flags.  A French flag book of 1721 includes hand-colored engravings of pirate flags, including a black flag with various insignia, and a plain red flag alongside a red pennant.  Under the red flags is written "Pavillon nomme Sansquartier" ("Flag called No Quarter").  The idea that a red flag could mean no quarter is confirmed by Captain Richard Hawkins, who was captured by pirates in 1724.  He later described how "they all came on deck and hoisted Jolly Roger (for so they call their black ensign, in the middle of which is a large white skeleton with a dart in one hand, striking a bleeding heart, and in the other an hourglass).  When they fight under Jolly Roger, the give quarter, which they do not when they fight under the red or bloody flag."

*Alexander Selkirk (marooned on an island for 4 years).

The last few chapters about how pirates were caught and tried and died and how England squashed piracy all together in the Caribbean were quite fascinating.  It is interesting to note that as soon as England put it's mind to it and began focusing on destroying the pirates, they were able to do so quite easily.  The main reason piracy went on for so long was because there was no force large enough to take the pirates on.  Once the Royal Fleet began engaging the pirates, piracy quickly came to an end.

If I ever get the chance, I'd like to read the book entitled The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard.  It sounds like it delves deeply into the history three pirates (Bellamy, Blackbeard and Vane) and the man who brought an end to piracy in the Caribbean (Woodes Rogers).

Why such an interest in Pirates?

Honestly, I think it was the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that really piqued my interest.  Those movies seem to wrap all the pirate lore into 460 minutes of action, romance and intrigue.  Is it the free-nature, open-seas adventure of pirates?  Maybe it's the allure of striking it rich and living a life of ease that makes it appealing.  Cordingly does a good job of summing why we are enamored with pirates, "They were expected to be bold and decisive in action, and skilled in navigation and seamanship.  Above all they had to have the force of personality necessary to hold together an unruly bunch of seamen.  The pirates who operated in the West Indies were drawn from a number of seafaring nations and many were black salves, so there was no sense of national identity to unite them.  Most pirates were by nature rebellious and lazy.  They came together in an uneasy partnership, attracted by the lure of plunder and the desire for an easy life." (p. 12)

Indeed this was a fascinating book with lots of history in it to soothe the pirate of any of us.