Post Captain, by Patrick O'Brien

Post Captain is the second book in this famous series which I never got around to reading until this summer. Actually, I listened to it in the car, narrated by Patrick Tull. I found the first book, Master and Commander, rather slow going. It starts at a concert in Port Mahon, Minorca where Jack Aubrey gets so excited by the music that he beats time—not entirely accurately—to the consternation of the man sitting next to him, Stephen Maturin, a doctor of half-Irish, half-Catalan heritage.

Despite this inauspicious beginning the two become friends, and Jack invites Stephen to join his sloop, the Sophie, as ship surgeon. Stephen, who is in some financial difficulty, agrees. Thus they are launched on their adventures, protecting British vessels and tracking down French and Spanish ships during the Napleonic Wars.

Jack treats is all as a great adventure, coming off as a rather simple fellow most of the time. However, he shines in battle where he comes up with daring and ingenious ploys to outwit the enemy. Stephen's mind has a more serious cast. Interested in natural history, he collects and studies specimens during their travels and deplores not only the carnage of battle but also some facets of sailing life, such as the regular consumption of rum and the occasional flogging.

Much of the tedium of the first book for me lay in the long expositions on sailing craft, as Stephen is instructed by his kind crewmates. While I see how these sections might be fascinating to some, I know too little to be able to picture what was being described. The two characters speaking were looking at the ship's masts, sails, rigging, etc., so of course had no need to describe them to each other, leaving me somewhat at sea. Perhaps knowledge of such things as what a topgallant might look like is assumed, but more narrative description would have helped me. Anyway, I'm always more interested in the relationships between characters and the conflicts that arise between them, and there were enough of these to send me to this second book.

Post Captain starts during the Peace of Amiens when commanders and common seamen have been thrown out of work. Jack takes a house in the country, and he and Stephen become friendly with a nearby family that includes several young women. However, this Austen-like interlude is abruptly terminated when two reversals of fortune leave Jack not only bankrupt, but on the run lest he land in debtors' prison. While he and Stephen are in Europe, war breaks out again, catching them unaware and placing them in great danger isolated in enemy territory.

I liked this second book tremendously. The storylines related to the young women continue through the book while the relationship between the two men deepens and becomes more complex. And the battle scenes are stunning. O'Brien braids in sensory details—the taste of powder in the air, the booming of the guns—without diluting the suspense and excitement. I understand from O'Brien's introduction and Wikipedia that the author based these scenes on the real exploits of Lord Cochrane and other naval heroes. Writers steal people's stories all the time. For example, Faulkner frankly confessed that his stories were based on family tales and the shenanigans of his neighbors in Oxford.

In both these books I also enjoyed the interplay among the crew. Only a few emerge as individuals, but O'Brien manages to convey shifting tides of relationships between individuals and the crew as a whole in just the briefest of scenes. There are some promising—indeed tantalising—storylines here that I hope will be followed up in future books.

Writing a series like this gives a writer huge scope for developing his characters. I wonder how much O'Brien plotted out the series before he started. J. K. Rowling says that she had the out line for the whole Harry Potter series before she started writing. Other writers stumble into it, meaning to write only one book and ending up with many, such as Agatha Christie who famously bemoaned having stuck herself with a Belgian detective. These stories have the air of plunging ahead, the author discovering along with us what happens next, but that could just be good writing.

The Cabinet of Curiosities, by Preston & Child

In the midst of a rather trying week, I selected this mystery to read. Mysteries not only absorb me into another world, but also fill most of my available brain-space with a puzzle to be solved.

Nora Kelly is an architect at the New York Museum of Natural History, where much of the story takes place. I went there for the first time a couple of years ago and was entranced. I wish I'd known about it earlier, when my boys were young. So I was delighted to plunge into descriptions of the museum's public areas and exhibitions, as well as the nether regions where scientists pursue research and archives collect dust.

Nora is approached by Special Agent Pendergast, who carries an FBI identity badge although his actual position within the FBI is unclear, who captures her attention by presenting her with a skull. He ropes her into investigating a construction site where the giant excavator has broken through to a foundation from the 1880s and discovered a cache of human remains.

Together they try to untangle the ancient crimes, with the assistance of Nora's sometime boyfriend, who is an investigative reporter, and the policeman assigned to Pendergast as a liaison. Although initially Nora doesn't want to get involved, being preoccupied by squabbles with her boss back at the museum, a small clue found at the site suddenly brings home to her the humanity of these relics, that these bones were once people, young people, with their own dreams and responsibilities.

The emotional journeys undertaken by all four of these major characters combined with the puzzle make for an absorbing read. One of the parts I liked best was the historical context of the cabinets of curiosties assembed by 19th century amateur naturalists. I've long been interested in that period's gentlemen-scientists, when untrained men with money and leisure pursued an interest in natural history or exploration or military science, sometimes with tragic consequences such as with Shackleton and Scott whose mistaken ideas led their Antarctic expeditions into danger, or the military officers whose inexperience and incompetence contributed to the grievous casualty lists in the Great War.

I call them amateurs because, unlike today, there were no educational programs in these fields to train potential scientists in an established curriculum, no gatekeepers to validate a self-proclaimed authority's credentials. Even the word “scientist” didn't exist before 1840, according to the OED. Granted, the military had training programs, but becoming an officer had more to do with social class and longevity than with leadership ability or military expertise.

Naturalists of the period assembled their own quirky collections, as described in some of A.S. Byatt's novels. Many went on to exhibit them as cabinets of curiosity. As part of a recent renovation, the Walters Art Gallery (itself based on the collection of Henry Walters) opened a series of rooms they call the Chamber of Wonders which is a recreation of such a personal collection, combining Etruscan artworks, coins from ancient Greece, and rare specimens of birds, to name just a few.

It's a fascinating exhibit. I was reminded of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and the Barnes Foundation outside Philadelphia, both eccentric personal collections left intact for public view. According to the account here, the Museum of Natural History got its start buying up local cabinets of curiosities as their owners were forced into bankruptcy after the museum opened with free admission.

Another feature of this book that interested me was the partnership of authors. While reading, I found myself wondering how they divided up the work. Did they write alternate chapters? Or did each pursue a different part of the story? Slate is currently running a series on the creative potential of partnerships as opposed to the stereotype of the lone struggling genius. It makes for interesting reading.

Since horror and the paranormal/supernatural do not interest me, I confess I just ignored those aspects of the story. The mystery alone was sufficient suspense for me and distracted me from my trying week just as I'd hoped. At a writing workshop I was leading, I met a young woman who said that when she was sad or upset, she would lie down on her bed, pull up her favorite quilt, and lose herself in a book—exactly what I did with this mystery. Whatever else this book may be, it is a most effective transportation device.

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

This 2009 novel, winner of the National Book Award, was chosen by my book club for this month’s selection. The story follows a number of characters, each narrating his or her section of the book, all linked by the day that Philippe Petit (unnamed here) made his famous walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. It was more than a walk; it was a dance, a gloriously daring and joyful performance, captured in the film Man on Wire which I highly recommend.

Although the book is truly a portrait of New York City, the first narrator is an Irishman, Ciaran, describing his childhood and his younger brother, Corrigan, whose idea of helping Dublin’s bums is to find common cause by getting plastered with them, an idea which seems likely to lead him either to the priesthood or the gutter. Eventually Ciaran follows his brother across the ocean to South Bronx where he finds Corrigan ministering to prostitutes. Other sections are narrated by a nurse, a photographer, a Park Avenue housewife, a single Black mother, a prostitute, a judge, among others. Most of their stories interconnect, some only glancingly, but all circle back to the day the man walked the wire.

Their stories are of grief and loss, inevitably, I suppose, since these are the dramatic moments of our lives, the moments when we feel most cut off from others. Yet, in this cross-section of the city at a particular moment of time, McCann gives us moments of redemption, though they are not easy, and of connection.

The reactions of my book club were mixed. Some people liked the book a lot, feeling that it represented the New York that they knew, saying that the book may be messy and uneven but you could say that about the city as well. Others found the book boring and the characters flat and their voices indistinguishable. My reaction was influenced by the medium: I listened to the audio book, in which each narrator was played by a different actor, all them excellent, bringing the characters to individual life. With their voices in my head, I cannot go back and look at the words on the page and judge whether they by themselves are sufficient.

Back in college, I took a course called Oral Interpretation taught by the inestimable Esther Smith, where we learned to go inside a piece of writing—play, poem, prose—and create and perform our own interpretation of it. We dissected nuances of body language and intonation. While I cannot say I ever excelled at the art of oral interpretation, the course did make me aware of what an actor brings to the performance—it is more than just a reading—of an audio book. I cannot tell how much of my reaction to each section is mediated by the actor’s performance.

Each of us in the book club liked some sections more than others, though not the same sections. For instance, one person liked best the part about the nascent friendship between the Park Avenue housewife and the single Black mother, which I thought too much of a stretch, while others didn’t believe the section that moved me most, the one in which a woman believes the distant figure on the wire was her son, who had been killed in Vietnam. The lawyer among us found the judge’s section true to life. And we all liked the very short section of the book narrated by the unnamed acrobat describing his training and the walk itself.

The book has been described as a 9-11 novel. Although, the story takes place in the 1970s and the future destruction of the World Trade Center is never mentioned, I too found it impossible to read this book without thinking about that horrific day. In 1974 when Petit made his famous walk, the towers had only recently been opened and were considered “the ugly stepchild of New York’s skyscrapers” as Jonathan Mahler put it in his New York Times review. With this book I felt that I held within my hands the birth and death of the towers as well as the lives of the characters and, indeed, those of my friends who died there that day. I began to understand the proposition that time is not linear after all, but folded in upon itself, our future encapsulated within our present.

The Devil in Music, by Kate Ross

Actually, I want to talk about all four of Ross’s mysteries, featuring Julian Kestrel, a fashionable young man in 1825 London. Although moving in the best circles, Kestrel is not the usual well-to-do fribble, but a man whose background—his aristocratic father married an actress and was cast off by his family and all of society—lets him look at that world slantwise. Having grown up on the Continent, Kestrel has been able to establish himself in society as a leader of fashion without revealing his background or his shaky finances. Kestrel reminds me of Selden in Wharton’s House of Mirth in his ability to stand to one side of society and critique it even while being a part of it.

In Cut to the Quick, Kestrel goes on a weekend visit at Bellegarde, country home of the Fontclairs. He finds a murdered woman in his bed and is forced to solve the crime in order to exonerate himself and his valet, a former pickpocket known as Dipper for his facility at his trade. In A Broken Vessel, Kestrel becomes embroiled in the world of prostitutes and reformers. Whom the Gods Love is the third book, in which Kestrel investigates the murder of Alexander Falkland, a man universally admired for his charm, intelligence, and artistic talent.

Over the course of the series, Kestrel comes to value the intellectual challenge of crime-solving and the meaning that it gives to his formerly rather aimless days. At the same time, he struggles with the consequences—of the crime, certainly, but even more interestingly, of the revelation of long-held secrets, an inevitable consequence of his investigations.

These are wonderful novels, with complex and well-drawn characters, satisfying puzzles, and a wonderfully conjured world of high and low society in Regency England. Sadly, there will be no more books in the series. Kate Ross died in 1998 at the age of 41.

Ross had been a trial lawyer, living in Brookline, Massachusetts. I feel as though I mist have known her. Maybe I brushed past her on the Brookline sidewalks as I went to visit friends. Perhaps we casually nodded to each other as we examined the treasures at the Gardner museum. I’m betting she was one of the spectators when my morris team danced the sun up on Maydays. She certainly knew about morris dancing; several times in the books she uses “morris off” as slang for “leave”.

I talked a bit about immortality last week. For a writer, as for any artist, any parent for that matter, our creations give us a chance of living on for a bit. Here I am, twelve years after her death, thinking about this woman whom I did not in fact know, wondering about the shape of her life, and feeling grateful that these four books keep her name alive.

On this Labor Day, it seems appropriate to think about the role of work in our lives. I remember the first time I visited the Tate, walking through room after room of Turner’s paintings with their huge splashes of light, and thinking: This is a man’s life. There can be no greater satisfaction than to be able to look around and say: I did this. I thought about visiting my friend, Susan, on her dairy farm. After I had regaled her with tales of my travels, my sons, my dancing and writing, she took me for a walk through the fields, pointing out one cow after another and telling me their names, laying a sun-browned hand on a flank or rubbing a dipped head. Now I think too of Stoner, that modest novel that has stayed with me over the months. At the end of his life, a life that would have left most men bitter, Stoner lies in bed holding the one book he has managed to write and believes that he has had a good life.

We all want—I believe—work to do that we can be proud of, that at the end of our lives we can point to and say: I did this. I reread these books every few years because I enjoy them, but also to celebrate Kate Ross and be glad that she had this accomplishment to be proud of at the end.