You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Bounty

I received The Bounty, by Caroline Alexander, as a gift, and quickly delved into it. The book is a detailed account of the mutiny on the Bounty. Alexander pored over tons of documents, including original logs, letters, newspaper accounts, and naval records.

William Bligh was a lieutenant in the British navy when he was selected by Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, to lead an expedition to bring breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies. Bligh was an officer who did not like to use corporal punishment, and was glad at having avoided it for much of the first leg of the voyage until he finally had to use some discipline. There were no other commissioned officers on the ship. Bligh was prone to fly into rages, though he would forget his passions and act friendly with his crew. He had to deal with crew members and warrant officers who didn't follow orders and talked back. Some of the crew stole, and some deserted on Tahiti and had to be brought back.

There are many different accounts of the mutiny given during the court-martial. It was Fletcher Christian, the master's mate and acting lieutenant, who Bligh had taken under his wing, who led the mutiny. Bligh was taken out of his bed one morning and held by Christian with a bayonet in his hand, while they readied first one boat, and then another larger one after the first one proved to be leaky and others pleaded for the captain and his companions to have a larger boat. Bligh was cast off with eighteen shipmates, nearly half the crew of the Bounty, in a boat twenty-three feet long and overloaded with the weight of the men and a few supplies. Bligh sailed the boat for over forty days, through the Endeavor Straight, one of the most treacherous stretches of water. They only lost one man, when natives attacked them. When they landed in a port, they were hungry and weak, but still had several days of food left.

After Bligh and his officers were exonerated at the court-martial, the Pandora is sent after the mutineers. They pick up most of them on Tahiti, and spend weeks looking for the rest in nearby islands. The prisoners are kept in harsh conditions in a jail on the Pandora. The Pandora strikes a reef in the Endeavor Straight and sinks. The crew and most of the prisoners make it off and sail to nearby lands in boats. It is the second such voyage for Lieutenant Peter Hayward, who was also with Bligh on his historic voyage.

There is a long account of the court-martial of the mutineers. Four are exonerated, for they were kept on the Bounty against their will for their skills. Three are executed, and three are pardoned. The rest of the mutineers sailed away from Tahiti one night when they cut the anchor while their companions were ashore. Eventually Christian got them to Pitcairn island, where they made a settlement with some Tahitian women and men.

The book is an A+, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in sailing ships or the age of sail. The author takes and interesting course by narrating the events out of order. It got a little confusing, though the effect was strong. The voyage in the open boat is frightening, full of storms and dangerous reefs. The court-martial is a classic courtroom drama. The characters come alive through their actions and words, and it turns out to be a fascinating and varied crew, from the drunk ship's surgeon to the disgruntled master to the capable and literate boatswain's mate. Life on the ships really comes into focus in the story.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Treason's Harbor

Treason's Harbor is the ninth book in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. Most of the action takes place in the city of Valletta in Malta, an island nation south of Sicily. There are French agents everywhere. Jack and Stephen befriend an Italian woman named Laura Fielding, who gives Italian lessons to the English sailors and has an English husband sailor who has been captured by the French. The French agents have used her imprisoned husband as a way to get her to turn against the English and supply them with information about the movements of the English navy.

Stephen Maturin eventually finds all this out and is convinced he must help Laura. He is carefully watched by the French spies. Also, one of the English intelligent agents is also a French spy, and is reporting on his activities to the French. Lips are loose all over the island, and it is common knowledge that the English are planning a mission to the Red Sea.

Jack is chosen for the Red Sea mission, and he and his men take the Dromedary, a transport ship, across the Mediterranean to Port Said, to cross the Suez to the Red Sea. Stephen brings a diving bell, a great brass structure that enables two men to go below the surface for extended periods of time. They take another ship into the sea, facing strong winds and then dead calm. When they finally reach their destination, the galley they are after races for a port and is sunk by a shot from the ship. They use Stephen's bell to bring up a chest, which is found to contain not gold, but lead. It seems that news of their plans had reached the enemy and they had tried to lay a trap.

They travel back to Suez and cross to the Mediterranean, Stephen and his friend Mr. Martin enjoy the flora and fauna. Soon, Mrs. Fielding's husband turns up, and Stephen's suspicions are confirmed: he had escaped, and the letters she had been receiving were forged. He knows that if news of her husbands rescue reaches Malta, she is as good as dead. And when the ship reaches Valletta, he finds other ships have reached the port ahead of them. A tense scene follows, where Stephen hides in her house and waits as two French spies enter and plot to kill her. Finally they leave and when Mrs. Fielding arrives he takes her to the Surprise. She travels with them on the way to Gibraltar, but before they reach their destination, they are attacked by French ships. The admiral's ship is destroyed, and the Surprise makes a narrow escape.

The story is exciting from the start to the end. The intrigue in the port keeps the tension from the first chapter. We get to see a good bit of both Stephen and Jack in this installment. They travel to interesting places, and it's great to hear about Malta and Said and other places in the Mediterranean. There are also fun chases and battles, and of course lots of nautical terminology. I'll give it an A-, and I am looking forward to the next installment.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Prodigal

I finally read Derek Walcott's The Prodigal this month. It's a book length poem. I haven't read a long poem (or hardly any poetry) since reading The Iliad a couple of years ago. I don't know if I'm qualified to comment on it, but I will go ahead and get down my thoughts.

The poem is free verse, broken up into several sections, each of which is broken up into "scenes." It tells of the narrator--switching between first, second and third person views--as he travels through parts of America in the beginning, then for most of the of the poem through Italy and other parts of Europe. Finally he returns to his native island, feeling welcomed and comforted. He mentions lost loves, and they are entwined with his memory of places.

The poem was somewhat hard for me to get into; I don't know if this is a comment on its difficulty or my lack of experience reading poetry. I do know that several parts were memorable. I don't know what kind of grade to give it, since I haven't read much comparable literature. I feel like it could use a second reading, though I'm not planning on reading it again.

The ultimate question is: Would I recommend it? Only for someone who is into poetry or Walcott. For the average reader like me, it's not as engaging as other works.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Astronomy: Earth, Sky, and Planets

Astronomy: Earth, Sky, and Planets is one of two astronomy courses in the Modern Scholar series. The lectures cover the Earth and its satellite, the Moon; how the planets revolve around the sun; the other planets and how they were formed; and gravity and Kepler's laws.

I enjoyed that there was an historical background given on all the planets, listing when they were discovered and their impact. I learned a lot about the zodiac and the ecliptic. There was also a good bit about the stars and how they are oriented, including Polaris.

There are a lot of interesting facts about the planets and moons. The gas giants have dozens of moons. Some of Jupiter's moons are in a harmonic orbit. Io's orbit is half as long as Europa's, which is half as long as Ganymede's. Each body has an effect on the other. What's more interesting is that our Moon is locked, its same face always turned toward Earth, due to the slowing down of Earth's gravity on it. Likewise, the Moon is slowing down the Earth's rotation, and the Earth will eventually be in a locked orbit, the same side always facing the Moon.

I also learned much about comets and the outer reaches of the solar system.

The series is an A. There is much more to the planets than we learned in grade school. I look forward to the next astronomy lecture, about stars and galaxies.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Once and Future King

I had read part of T. H. White's The Once and Future King years ago, and decided to read the whole thing. It's a retelling of King Arthur and the Round Table, told in four parts.

Part One, "The Sword in the Stone," is the story of young Arthur, nicknamed Wart, in his education under the magician Merlyn and his foster father, Sir Ector. He lives with his foster brother, Sir Kay, in the castle. They have adventures in the forest and learn about falconry and jousting and other knightly activities. When Merlyn arrives, he turns Wart into different animals so he can learn lessons. He turns into a fish and learns about power; turns into an ant and learns about communism; and turns into a swan and learns about peace and living among different people. When King Uther dies, they go to the tournament and Wart pulls the sword from the stone, proving himself the king of England.

"The Queen of Air and Darkness" tells the story of the family of King Lot of Orkney, specifically Queen Morgause. Their sons are cruel and spiteful, though Gawaine has a good heart and tends to get carried away with his emotions. Agravaine in particular is a foul person. They kill a unicorn for their mother, who beats them for it. Meanwhile, she is flirting with Arthur's friend King Pellinore, and her children are jealous. Arthur and Merlyn are planning how to defeat King Lot and the rest of the Celtic rebels. After they do, Morgause seduces him with her magic. Arthur does not realize at first that Morgause is his half sister. Mordred is born and lives with his mother while his brothers go to join Arthur at the Round Table.

"The Ill-Made Knight" tells the story of Lancelot, and ugly but powerful knight who becomes Arthur's commander in chief. At first he doesn't like Guenever, but soon they fall in love. They fight it, and Lancelot runs away in a fit of madness for years. He does not sleep with Guenever until he is seduced through more magic (and wine) by Elaine, a young woman whom he saves from a boiling cauldron. They carry on their affair for decades, even through gossip in the court. With Merlyn gone, King Arthur tries to turn the strength and aggression of his knight to chivalry and courtly manners. When that is not fully successful, he send them out to find the Holy Grail. Many of the knights do not return. The king and queen hear stories from the knights who return. Percivale and Galahad, Lancelot's son with Elaine, as well as Bors make it to the grail, never to return. Lancelot goes through a confession and an ordeal to be able to get close to the grail.

"The Candle in the Wind" is the final part. It is the story of the falling apart of the Round Table; the exposure of Lancelot and Guenever; Agravaine and Mordred's forcing Arthur to condemn his wife and best friend under the law as traitors; Lancelot's rescue of Guenever and murder of Gaheris and Gareth, Gawaine's brothers; and Lancelot's retreat to France. Gawaine pushes Arthur to fight Lancelot, and Mordred seizes the throne and Guenever while he is out of the country.

White builds on Malory, and in fact mentions Malory and La Morte d'Arthur several times. There is a strong theme of actions and consequences. Arthur builds his doom when he sleeps with his half sister, albeit unwittingly. And Arthur's troubles tem from his father's behavior. There is also the thread of Normans conquering the Saxons, who conquered the Celts, and the old feelings that fuel new wars. There is resonance in White's time (the 1930's) as well as today.

White touches on many other themes, such as communism and the lot of the serfs. Arthur and Merlyn talk a lot about the use of force and try to tame it for good instead of chaos. War starts off as a sport for the nobles, where only the commoners are harmed, and Arthur tries to make it a serious affair, so that it will not be so popular. His efforts are thwarted by Mordred and others.

The women in the story are either weak (Guenever), deceitful (Morgause), or both (Elaine). Guenever starts off as a crazed harpy, driving Lancelot away in a jealous rage. She tempers her moods in the later years. It is her unwillingness to let Lancelot go, when he has a woman and son, and later when he finds God, that drives the biggest conflict in the story.

I felt that the middle of the story got a little bogged down while reading about Lancelot's and Guenever's long affair, but it got more interesting before the end of the third book. The big themes of the story, the Orkney's and their old grudges, Arthur's son Mordred returning to haunt him, the queen's affair, and Arthur's attempt to make a peaceful kingdom by imposing rule of law instead of rule by force, all come together in the end to bring down his kingdom. Merlyn, the wise counselor, has disappeared, leaving Arthur and the Round Table to make their own mistakes. Lancelot is a central tragic figure. He is torn between his love for the queen, his love for his friend Arthur, and his duty to the kingdom and the Round Table. In many ways it is more his story and Arthur's, for the king is on the sidelines often. Lancelot is more human, with human concerns about his appearance and honor, and human failings. Even when he returns from the grail quest he can't avoid the queen forever. In part the book is an affirmation of fate, of the unavoidable consequences of history. A-.