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message 1: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new)

Bentley | 44126 comments Mod
Here is the syllabus for the upcoming historical fiction discussion beginning May 2nd for the book Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian. This is a group selected book.

Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin Book 1) by Patrick O'Brian Patrick O'Brian Patrick O'Brian

Elizabeth has indicated that the copy she will be using for this discussion is ISBN 978-0-393-30705-4

Please note that there seems to be some variations between editions and different published copies that folks might obtain. Some editions have 18 sections with the first one being the Author's Notes and the remaining being the chapters with Chapter Twelve divided up into a number of sections. The edition that Elizabeth is using has a short Author's Note at the beginning followed by twelve unnamed chapters.

The chapters range in length from 22 to 53 pages long.

Here is the syllabus for Master and Commander which will be discussed over a period of three months (May, June, July).

Elizabeth S will be leading this discussion and when she is on vacation for a week or two, Aussie Rick will be your guest moderator. He will keep things going for that time period until Elizabeth's return.


Week One: May 2 - May 8 -> Author’s Note and Chapter One, pages 11-41
Week Two: May 9 - May 15 -> Chapter Two, pages 42-94
Week Three: May 16 - May 22 -> Chapter Three, pages 95-134
Week Four: May 23 - May 29 -> Chapter Four, pages 135-170
Week Five: May 30 - June 5 -> Chapter Five, pages 171-200
Week Six: June 6 - June 12 -> Chapter Six, pages 201-222
Week Seven: June 13 - 19 -> Chapter Seven, pages 223-271
Week Eight: June 20 - June 26 -> Chapter Eight, pages 272-308
Week Nine: June 27 - July 3 -> Chapter Nine, pages 309-335
Week Ten: July 4 - July 10 -> Chapter Ten, pages 336-372
Week Eleven: July 11 - July 17 -> Chapter Eleven, pages 373-420
Week Twelve: July 18 - July 24 -> Chapter Twelve, pages 421-459

message 2: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (last edited Mar 02, 2010 08:41PM) (new)

Bentley | 44126 comments Mod
This is the New York Times Book Review of Master and Commander written by Richard Snow and published on January 6, 1991: (divided into two posts) - Snow describes how he first became acquainted with the series.

January 6, 1991

An Author I'd Walk the Plank For


During the late 1960's and early 70's I spent much of my time reading about wars, and the rest trying to keep out of one. I was in college then, and the war I wanted to avoid was, of course, Vietnam; I liked reading about any conflict remote enough to be harmless. I found particularly absorbing novels about the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars when -- much as during the early days of World War II -- all Europe had fallen to a seemingly invincible conqueror against whom England fought on alone. In 1940 the Royal Air Force stood in the breach; in 1800, it was the "wooden walls," the fleet of Lord Nelson.

Those were big times, and they have produced a steady stream of literature that began to be published not so very long after the wars ended. By the 1830's Capt. Frederick Marryat was writing about frigate actions and cutting-out expeditions in "Peter Simple" and other brisk, lively novels that remain readable to this day. Marryat knew what he was talking about (he had joined the navy as a 14-year-old midshipman in 1806), and his works were drawn upon in this century by the best-known of all naval novelists, C. S. Forester, whose shy, self-doubting, indomitable Capt. Horatio Hornblower will last as long as the genre endures.

A good many other writers have followed in Forester's wake. There is Alexander Kent, with his robust hero, Captain Bolitho, and Dudley Pope with Captain Ramage, and a dozen others -- all of them producing burly, straightforward action stories, full of deadly peril, high courage and warmhearted Cockney understatement. And then there's Patrick O'Brian.

I first came across O'Brian 20 years ago in my local library. The book was called "Master and Commander," and its cover bore the reassuring image of a blue-coated officer standing beside a cannon, shouting defiance and waving a sword. But from the first page, I felt something was wrong. The people spoke oddly. There was a strange, allusive, parenthetical quality to the writing. One of the officers in the book composed poetry. There were some good battles, to be sure, but the whole thing made me uncomfortable. I returned to the bracing predictabilities of Alexander Kent.

And yet, something about the book stayed with me, because when I found a copy at a street fair a few years later, I bought it at once. By then I was working for a magazine of history, and perhaps my sensibilities had been somewhat sharpened by that; or perhaps it was simply that I was older; but in any event, this time I understood what I was reading. For one thing -- and I had managed to miss this completely on my first go-around -- it was funny; every page shone with humor, sometimes mordant, sometimes wise, and always growing naturally out of the situations it illuminated.

But behind the humor, behind the storms and the broadside duels that I had understood on my first encounter, loomed something larger: the shape and texture of a whole era. Without ever seeming antiquarian or pedantic or showy, O'Brian summoned up with casual omniscience the workaday magic of a vanished time. The furniture of life was all unobtrusively here: clothes, curtains, the sauce on the fish, the absent-minded politeness of daily intercourse with grocers and friends, everything whose inconsequence insures its almost immediate oblivion, and which is so hard to retrieve without an ostentatious show of "research." In fact, the story was told with such scrupulous respect for every nuance of the world in which it unfolded that I might have been reading the prose of Jane Austen's seafaring brothers (two served in the Royal Navy), had they shared her gifts. Before I finished the book, I was convinced it was the best historical novel I'd ever read.

"Master and Commander" ended happily; was there a sequel? Yes. I was delighted to find the story picked up in "Post Captain," and continued splendidly in "H.M.S. Surprise." Shortly after I finished this last, a complex and fascinating successor appeared -- "The Mauritius Command" -- and after that, "Desolation Island." Each seemed richer, funnier and more humane than its predecessor. And then they stopped publishing them in the United States!

O'Brian, who lives in France, has written contemporary novels, published several volumes of short stories and has translated many modern French writers into English. Through the past 20 years ("Master and Commander" was published in 1970), along with all of his other work, he has kept turning out sequels in his saga and successfully publishing them in England -- but he couldn't find anybody to issue them here. It puzzled and frustrated me, the more so when an American editor friend of mine explained why he had turned down the American rights to "Desolation Island." Here was a wholly gripping, beautifully written book that offered treachery, sexual tension, shipwreck at the very bottom of the world, an exploration of natural science that was at once historically illuminating and highly interesting, and a murderous pursuit in a gale that made the hair stand up on the back of your hands. Or so I thought. My friend described it this way: "Oh, they sail all over, and there's a sort of a fight in a storm, and then they hit an iceberg or something -- it was all kind of boring."

I was somewhat comforted later to find that even in his homeland O'Brian is occasionally met by this curious opacity. The British critic Peter Wishart has written, "The relative neglect of Patrick O'Brian by both critics and the book-buying public is one of the literary wonders of the age. It is as baffling as the Inca inability to invent the wheel; or conversely, it is as baffling as the Inca ability to possess an ordered, sophisticated society without the wheel."

But this vexing situation may be coming to an end over here. After more than a decade, O'Brian's novels will once again be available in America. This fall W.W. Norton brought out in hard cover a recent addition to the series, "The Letter of Marque," and at the same time began issuing its predecessors in handsome paperback editions. Sooner or later they are bound to find the audience they deserve.

"Master and Commander," the first installment in O'Brian's epic, opens during a musicale at the Governor's House in Port Mahon, Minorca, off the Spanish coast, with a beefy lieutenant listening so raptly to "the triumphant first movement of Locatelli's C major quartet" that he is unaware of his actions until the weedy little man next to him whispers, "If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead."

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Part II of Snow's Book Review:

Annoyed and rather hurt, the officer sinks back into the music until, beating time again, he feels an elbow jab into his ribs. "A nudge, a thrust of that kind, so vicious and deliberate, was very like a blow. Neither his personal temper nor his professional code could patiently suffer an affront: and what affront was graver than a blow?" So it is to be a duel. As the concert ends, the two men grimly introduce themselves: the lieutenant is Jack Aubrey; the little man in the rusty coat is Stephen Maturin.

Jack Aubrey goes off into the night brooding not only about the encounter, but about all the frustrations of being an officer without a command, on half pay and deep in debt in a foreign port. Then, back at his lodging, the world changes, for he receives word that he has been given command of His Majesty's sloop Sophie. In the ecstatic hurry of errands the next morning (the first being to "pledge his now elastic credit to the extent of a noble, heavy, massive epaulette, the mark of his present rank") he runs into his newfound enemy. " ' -- Maturin. Why, there you are, sir. I owe you a thousand apologies, I am afraid. I must have been a sad bore to you last night, and I hope you will forgive me. We sailors hear so little music -- are so little used to genteel company -- that we grow carried away. I beg your pardon.'

" 'My dear sir,' cried the man in the black coat, with an odd flush rising in his dead-white face, 'you had every reason to be carried away. I have never heard a better quartetto in my life -- such unity, such fire. May I propose a cup of chocolate, or coffee? It would give me great pleasure.' "

Jack, discovering that Maturin is a physician, quickly recruits him to serve as his ship's surgeon. Thus begins a friendship and -- in effect -- a partnership that endures and deepens through a hundred triumphs and calamities across every ocean, in the fever-ridden jungles of the tropics, in the streets of Boston and the dungeons of Napoleon's Paris. The two men could not be more different. Jack is sanguine, open-hearted, merry, a perfect fool ashore and a superb and dauntless commander afloat. Stephen Maturin, half-Irish, half-Catalan, is brooding, sardonic, subtle and brilliant. A "scientific philosopher," he is an ardent naturalist who collects specimens of the local fauna wherever he goes (to his disgust, his three-toed sloth becomes addicted to Jack's navy grog), a gifted physician -- and a highly effective spy dedicated to the overthrow of Napoleon. It is in this last capacity that he serves with Jack, although everyone else aboard knows only that they are fortunate enough to be sailing with the finest ship's surgeon in the Royal Navy.

Maturin is given to bouts of despair, but through the worst of his woes keeps intact a sharp, deadpan wit. When a windy colleague remarks, "You might say that Duns Scotus stands in much the same relationship to Aquinas as Kant to Leibnitz," Maturin replies, "Sure, I have often heard the remark in Ballinasloe" -- a market town in County Galway known for its cattle fair -- then goes on to declare, "But I have no patience with Emmanuel Kant. Ever since I found him take notice of that thief Rousseau, I have had no patience with him at all. . . . Gushing, carefully-calculated tears -- false confidences, untrue confessions -- enthusiasm -- romantic vistas. How I hate enthusiasm and romantic vistas."

There is not a chance in the world that Jack Aubrey would ever have heard of Emmanuel Kant. The only intellectual common ground the friendship enjoys is the mutual love of music that almost proved fatal at the outset. Yet the two men's understanding of each other is warm and instinctual.

A scene from "The Letter of Marque" (which was reviewed here by Newgate Callendar in October) suggests the subtlety and depth with which O'Brian renders their relationship. Aubrey and Maturin, both amateur musicians as well as men of action, indulge their love of music in occasional duets of cello and violin. One night as they sit talking, an astonished Aubrey asks Maturin if he is picking out the tune of the "Marseillaise." "Stephen had his 'cello between his knees and for some time now he had been very quietly stroking two or three phrases with variations upon them -- a half-conscious playing that interrupted neither his talk nor his listening. 'It is not,' he said. 'It is, or rather it is meant to be, the Mozart piece that was no doubt lurking somewhere in the Frenchman's mind when he wrote it. Yet something eludes me. . . . '

" 'Stephen,' cried Jack. 'Not another note, I beg. I have it exactly, if only it don't fly away.' He whipped the cloth off his violin-case, turned roughly, and swept straight into the true line. After a while Stephen joined him, and when they were thoroughly satisfied they stopped, tuned very exactly, passed the rosin to and fro and so returned to the direct statement, to variations upon it, inversions, embroideries, first one setting out in a flight of improvisation while the other filled in and then the other doing the same, playing on and on."

On the foundations of this friendship, O'Brian reconstructs a civilization. The Royal Navy at the beginning of the 19th century was a world of extraordinary breadth and complexity. Its hundreds of ships, the larger of them regular floating cities with close-packed populations of 1,200 souls, allowed Britain first to survive and then to prevail in a struggle whose cost and size would have been unimaginable only a generation earlier. These sailing ships -- today reduced to quaint and soothing images on wall calendars -- were in their time the most complicated machines on earth, and the deadliest.

Patrick O'Brian presents the lost arcana of that hard-pressed, cruel, courageous world with an immediacy that makes its workings both comprehensible and fascinating. All the marine hardware is in place and functioning; the battles are stirring without being romanticized (this author never romanticizes); the portrayal of life aboard a sailing ship is vivid and authoritative.

But in the end it is the serious exploration of human character that gives the books their greatest power: the fretful play of mood that can irrationally darken the edges of the brightest triumph, and that can feed a trickle of merriment into the midst of terror and tragedy. O'Brian manages to express, with the grace and economy of poetry, familiar things that somehow never get written down, as when he carefully details the rueful steps by which Stephen Maturin falls out of love.

These are peculiar precincts for an adventure novelist to visit, but O'Brian comes to the job with unusual credentials. He is, for instance, the translator of both novels and memoirs by Simone de Beauvoir, and perhaps something of her clear-eyed account of the years with Nelson Algren has seeped into Maturin's disentanglement from the brave and reckless Diana Villiers. O'Brian's interest in Catalonia is reflected in his going ashore for long enough to write "Picasso," a book considered by no less an authority than Lord Kenneth Clark to be the finest biography of that artist. And his understanding of the temper of Jack and Stephen's Gallic foes is suggested by the fact that he translated Jean Lacouture's recent, highly acclaimed biography of Charles de Gaulle.

There are 14 Jack Aubrey novels in print in England, and the latest to be released over here, "The Letter of Marque," is a self-contained and satisfying story. But begin with the first of them, "Master and Commander," and there's a good chance you'll find yourself at the final installment all too soon. You will have read what I continue to believe are the best historical novels ever written. Along the way you'll not only have witnessed the unfolding of a tremendous story, but the very beginnings of the world we inhabit. In one of the books Maturin nearly propounds a theory of Freudian psychology; in another he falls just shy of the immense implications of evolution. His is the kind of questing mind that made the late 18th century such an age of revelation; his counterpart Jack Aubrey personifies the raw energy that fueled the epoch. On every page O'Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don't, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives.

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The Image Top 100 Books of the Century:

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Lawyers, Guns and Money:

Book Review: Master and Commander
I knew that nothing good could come from my purchase of Master and Commander, the first book in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. I would either hate it, making the book a waste of time and money, or love it, consigning myself to read the next 19 in the series. The series had some appeal for me, as I've been interested in naval matters since I was a small child, because I rather enjoyed the Weir film, and because that film had inspired a number of intelligent responses from the blogosphere, indicating that reasonable people take the series seriously. The most fascinating response, of course, came from Christopher Hitchens, whose central complaint about the film is that it gave too little credit to the contrarian intellectual. . .

For good or ill, I quite liked the first novel. Aubrey and Maturin are both rich, complex heroes, each having great virtues and occasionally devastating faults. The relationship between them grows perhaps a trifle too quickly, although I can understand why O'Brian felt it necessary to push forward. I doubt that he knew he would be writing another 19 books on the same characters, after all. The action is genuinely compelling, as is the historical context. As O'Brian notes in the forward, most of the events in the novels are taken from reports of actual Royal Navy engagements, and these engagements were often nothing less than magnificent.

The battle sequences reminded me, not surprisingly, of the Trafalgar chapter in John Keegan's The Price of Admiralty. In The Price of Admiralty, Keegan tries to do for naval warfare what he did for land warfare in The Face of Battle, which gave a soldiers perspective on the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. The Price of Admiralty isn't nearly as successful, except for the Trafalgar chapter, which does manage to bring the spirit of 19th century naval warfare to the reader. For those not familiar, a Royal Navy squadron led by Lord Nelson destroyed a French and Spanish squadron of similar size in 1805 at Trafalgar, although Nelson lost his life in the battle. If you've ever been to Trafalgar Square and wondered who the guy on top of the pedestal was, now you know.

The debate between material and skill has most typically concerned itself with land warfare. In short, the question comes down to whether material (numbers and technology) or skill (tactical training and experience) is most decisive in combat. Both, of course, are necessary, but the general idea is that as technology has advanced, material differences have become increasingly important to outcomes. The role played by material is never, however, as important as the advocates of technology claim; witness the skillfulness of our Al Qaeda opponents in Afghanistan in using the surface of the earth to avoid US air strikes and eliminate our technological advantage. The exception to this last may be in the case of naval warfare, where material really does seem to have taken a critical lead over skill. Compared to the land, the sea, at least for modern vessels, is a relatively uncomplicated battlespace. This means that the differences between skilled and unskilled opponents are relatively smaller than on the land, and therefore that material should carry more decisive weight.

Largely, this formula held true in World War II. Although you can identify a number of engagements in which skill really did make a difference, including several night actions off Savo Island near Guadalcanal where Japanese skill made up for material deficiency, or various carrier actions during the war, in which American repair skill saved ships that the Japanese would have lost, or a few engagements between the Royal Navy and the Italian Navy, the side with material advantage tended to carry the day. This holds true for World War I, as well. At the Battle of Jutland, probably the most boring cataclysmic naval engagement of history, the German and British navies simply rubbed up against one another until the Germans decided to go home, with both sides taking casualties proportional to the material they brought. The exception to this might be anti-submarine warfare, a battlespace whose complexity rivals that of the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, and where the differences in skill between Americans, Japanese, and the British had an important impact on outcomes.

None of the above, however, holds true of naval warfare in the Napoleonic Wars. The sea is a simple battlespace if you don't need to concern yourself with using the wind for propulsion. When you do, skill becomes absolutely essential for victory. At Trafalgar, the British prevailed by understanding and being able to manipulate the wind to good effect. The material equivalence between forces was rendered irrelevant by superior Royal Navy skill. Royal Navy ships could move faster, turn faster, and fire faster than their opponents. Indeed, a typical RN ship could fire three broadsides to two for a Spanish or French ship, with greater accuracy, simply because of the discipline, skill, and training of the British.

What's the punch line? Novels about Napoleonic naval warfare are inherently more interesting than novels about modern naval warfare, because they deal with people, personalities, and relationships. Aubrey wins engagements because of the way he treats his crew and the way they feel about him, rather than because he has some sort of super secret silent propulsion system. Combat effectiveness depends on the establishment of a social universe in which everyone plays a role. Establishing a social universe, whether that universe is a single ship or the entire Royal Navy, opens the door to countless interesting stories about people, their problems, and their relationships. This makes an O'Brian novel inherently more interesting than, for example, a Tom Clancy novel. It also doesn't hurt that he can write.

So, now I'm stuck. I plan to finish the twentieth novel sometime in 2007.

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