Monday, January 30, 2012

Five Thousand!

Some time since yesterday, the number of page views for The Journal of Blue Lou Logan passed the 5k mark.  This may not seem like a big deal, but I'm kind of astounded that that many people have dropped by in less than a year.  Perhaps it's just probability--more time, more posts, thus more likely to be found--but there has been a steady rise in the graph.  There have been over 1,000 views just this January.

There are also trends.  My most popular post thus far is easily my original "The Real Thing Is So Much Scarier" post on Somali pirates, with 309 views.  A lot has happened in that world and my understanding since then, but it's good to know that one of my favorite topics is getting readership.  Interestingly, and half of the hits have happened in the last month, at 190 views my second most popular piece was "Ethics of a Sinking Lifeboat" on the Case of the William Brown.  That's pleasing, because it was a post that was really fun to research and write.  Perhaps this is the pattern:  Is it the pieces where I kinda get scholarly on maritime history that form the backbone of the Journal?  If so, I'm cool with that.  My original intent for the blog was to capture my experiences ON the water, but those just aren't what's been happening.  I'm not a complete armchair sailor, yet I do feel that my strength comes from my academic background.  So if it's a thinkin' man's pirate ye be lookin' fer, I'ze be happy to serve.

Even Somali pirates say, "Logan, you're Number One!"

Thank you to all of those who have passed through:  the regulars, the seekers, and the accidentals.  And if you have any feedback on the past, present, or future of the Journal, gimme some feedback.  I'm listening!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Aubrey-Maturin in Brief 5: Desolation Island

Maybe it was the snow and ice that have still not completely loosened their grip on Seattle which made a voyage to an icy rock in the far southern ocean resonate.  Maybe it was the fact that this weather has kept me indoors since Wednesday, which gave me lots of time to read.  Or maybe it was the fact that Desolation Island was just that good.  SPOILERS, beware.

I devoured this one.  Two things made the fifth book especially good for me, which conveniently fall, again, between the sea of Aubrey and the intelligence of Maturin.  Like I said before, the problem with The Mauritius Command was that its was sort of a game of Naval chess:  Néréide moves to intercept Bellone, Boadecia moves to intercept Astreé, and so on.  That's enjoyable...for a while.  Desolation Island, however, is more strictly a sailing adventure, Aubrey and his crew alone on the ocean overcoming perpetual challenges.  And there are lots of problems to be overcome:  storms, disease, a Dutch ship-of-the-line, and finally a collision with Antarctic ice that nearly sinks Aubrey's ship.  It was very refreshing to me for O'Brian to have the action based on the toils of the trip rather than the moves of opposing fleets.  But then, I'm in it for the sailing more than for the war.

Maturin meanwhile, is busy with his own mental games.  He competes with a new character, a beautiful American spy named Wogan.  He competes with numerous medical challenges, not the least of which is an epidemic that nearly wipes out the crew.  And he competes with himself:  his pining for the impossible Villiers, his laudanum addiction.  Since the voyage takes Maturin from the warm Cape Verdes to the freezing Kerguelens--originally called "Desolation Islands" by no less than Captain James Cook--there is plenty to keep the naturalist Maturin, and us, occupied.

It is too broad to say that Aubrey is the brawn and Maturin is the brains.  Yet there is something to be said of the balance that O'Brian obtains in Desolation Island between the life-and-death events of HMS Leopard and the cunning espionage (and self-flagellation) of its physician.  Between the two, Book Five is simply a rollicking good yarn.

"Thatched Cottage, Ringwood, Hampshire" by T. Noelsmith

(1) Captain Aubrey and his family are living in fair comfort at Ashgrove Cottage, the wealth of his success from the Mauritius campaign allowing them to improve their home.  Stephen Maturin comes to observe the physicians attending to the elder Mrs. Williams.  Aubrey excitedly tells his friend about his next command, the two-deck, fourth-rate Leopard, recently rebuilt and not the horrible boat of old reputation.  His task is to sail to New South Wales and look into the situation of Governor Bligh, once Captain of the famously mutinous Bounty.  Aubrey then reveals to Maturin the scheme he has entered into with a man named Kimber, who has promised to turn the dross of an old Roman mine on Aubrey’s property into profitable silver.  In spite of his compatriot’s spirits, Maturin is low:  He has lost a patient, he has lost a folder of confidential papers, and he is pining for Diana Villiers.  The two ride to Portsmouth, and Maturin watches as Aubrey gambles at cards.  Returning to Ashgrove by starlight, Aubrey tells Maturin that the Leopard will be crewed by old friends, including Pullings and Babbington.  Later in the week, they meet with Pullings and Captain Heywood, who was a Midshipman on the Bounty during the mutiny, but his reminiscences offer little information about Bligh.  Although he is drawn to join Aubrey on his voyage, Maturin’s duty to British intelligence forces him to decline.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Yesterday, as I was at work, I was keeping an hour-by-hour log of the weather here in Seattle and waiting for the year's big snowstorm.  The situation was especially critical as I needed the storm to wait until I picked up my mother in law ("G'Ma") and my daughter from the airport.  That worked out fine.  As I finally went to bed at midnight, there really seemed to be no visual signs of the forecasted 8 to 14 inches.  Lo and behold, only about five hours later, there it was:  white landscape, big flakes falling, and a phenomenal silence.  Our little car was buried, and the roads had not been cleared at all.  My employer's emergency line said all locations were open, but I stood no chance of getting out of the neighborhood.  I called my manager and went back to bed.  So here I am on a snow day in my Star Wars pajama bottoms, Admiral Benbow shirt, and Huskies hoodie, listening to Spanish guitar, drinking a Black Butte Porter from the 'deck cooler,' and writing about an unexpected pleasure, a book G'Ma had given me over the holidays.

Captain Alatriste is the first of what is currently half a dozen books about the eponymous protagonist by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.  The time is the seventeenth century.  The place is Madrid.  Our antihero is a veteran soldier of the Catholic-Protestant conflicts who is reduced to hiring out his blade to anyone not willing enough to fight his own battles.  In this book, the "Captain" (he is, in fact, only a sergeant) finds himself in over his head with a job that entangles him in intrigue involving the Court, the Inquisition, and the fate of Spain itself.

It's all in a sort of Three Musketeers mode, and the author evens allows some of his plot to dovetail with the later events described by Dumas.  There is more to Captain Alatriste, however, than swords, pistols, and clandestine rendezvouses.  The main character is Spain.  Pérez-Reverte spends a lot of time on the arts of old Madrid:  poetry, painting, drama.  It is a paean (I love that word) but also a lament.  The author describes a world of rich culture and creativity but also of rampant corruption, abysmal poverty, and tacitly accepted violence.  This is where I, the pirate historian, gets especially tickled.  This is the Spain in which the Hapsburg monarchy and its perpetual religious wars are barely propped up by the gold of the distant New World, when the Sea Dogs have recently defeated the Armada and are pecking at the Treasure Fleets.  It is the Spain of a grandeur that is in fact rotting both at the royal core and at the peasant surface.  This is personified in the titular protagonist, a fatalist who at once fights for Spain, has been discarded by Spain, and bemoans what Spain has become.  The book is thus a sort of baroque noir.  The fate of the powerful yet powerless Captain is always hanging; there is no question that he will meet his downfall, it is only a question of when.  Captain Alatriste thus captures--and puts into historical context--the pathos that is the soul of Spain.

It begged for cinematic interpretation...and, by George, it was done in 2006.  Alatriste is one of the largest, most expensive movies ever made in Spain.  The Captain is portrayed by the only non-Spaniard in the main cast, Viggo Mortensen, who by Aragorn alone has proven he's very good at acting and swinging a sword at the same time.  The trouble is that the film still doesn't have a U.S. distributor.  Yet--ha ha!--by, means only known to the Brethren of the Code (I made that get it, right?), I currently have a PAL copy, in Spanish with English subtitles (which is as it should be), on my hard drive that the Apple DVD Player has no trouble showing.  So over this past weekend, after first finishing the book, I settled in with my rum, my new flintlock replica, and my laptop.  It is a beautiful movie, and it definitely keeps the tone I have just described.  Mortensen plays the antihero well.  The fight scenes are on par with the Musketeers but with the tired, practical viciousness that makes the Alatriste universe unique.  My only problem with the movie is that it basically takes all of the Alatriste books in existence when it was made and smashes them into a single storyline.  The first book is out of the way within maybe half an hour.  It is thus crowded and rushed, which works against the languid feel of the novel and, for that matter, the Spain it portrays.  Did they think they couldn't make sequels?  Or perhaps it's just the rule of thumb that a movie can never hold up against the book that inspired it?

I will, nevertheless, heartily recommend both Captain Alatriste and its adaptation.  I'm ready for more, and especially since the latest in Pérez-Reverte's series is Pirates of the Levant, which finds Alatriste a mercenary aboard a galleon in the Mediterranean.  That will have to wait, but in the mean time G'Ma has today handed me Pérez-Reverte's The Nautical Chart, which is neither an Alatriste novel nor a purely period piece but instead combines three of my favorite flavors:  history, pirates, and underwater archaeology.  This, too, will wait, as I'm half way through O'Brian's Desolation Island.  What can I say?  It's a very wintry winter here in Washington State right now, and, unless I want to imagine myself as Shackleton, it is not time for sailing.  If you're looking for another good book while its time to snuggle up indoors, try Alatriste.

Please note that this blog post has no links, in deference to Wikipedia, Google, and others that are protesting SOPA and PIPA and the risks they pose to the Internet and freedom of speech.  Consider this my little pistol shot:  Imagine not being able to find the information on the WWW we have come to assume and rely upon.  In the words of Captain Jack Sparrow, "We must run away!"  Click HERE to learn more, and to join in.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Somalia Update: Perspective

Somali pirate dhow captured by the Royal Navy on January 13th

I will be the first to admit that my reporting and analysis of the ongoing saga of piracy in Somalia is based on trolling online articles.  I track Google News, check the Guardian page on piracy, and keep up on Jay Bahadur's blog.  Again I will confess I am no expert.  Yet by watching the news, it is easy to observe that something has changed.  What is unclear is whether the change is actually a shift in events or simply in how the press covers them.  Three themes have taken over lately.  One, the Somalis may have shifted their focus from large commercial vessels to private yachts, and possibly even to tourists ashore.  Two, naval action in the Gulf of Aden appears to be more successful in averting pirate attacks.  Three, the these two factors, among others, may be indeed be indicative of the beginning of the end of Somali piracy.

Kiwayu Safari Village, Kenya

My last post on Somalia, August 22, 2011--nearly five months ago!--was on Bahadur's book.  We have some catching up to do.  Let's start on September 7, 2011, when The Guardian reported on the release of Jan Quist Johansen and family, who had been held hostage since their 47-foot yacht had been taken in February.  It has been suggested that a $1 million ransom was paid for their release.  Only four days later, there was a big news splash when a British couple, The Tebbutts, were attacked at Kiwayu Safari Village, a resort in Lamu, Kenya, not far from the border with Somalia to the north.  The husband was shot protecting his wife, and she was bundled off in a speedboat.  Somali gunmen had attacked across the border before, but the use of the speedboat immediately brought "pirate" to the lips of many.  The suspicion that the Somali pirates had a new modus operandi was strengthened on October 1, 2011, when an elderly woman was kidnapped by speedboat from her beach house near Lamu.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Aubrey-Maturin in Brief 4: The Mauritius Command

Part four of my summaries.  The Mauritius Command brings O'Brian's series to a grander naval scale and our co-protagonist Aubrey to new levels of rank and responsibility.  In the three preceding books, Aubrey took his first command, fought hard to gain the status of post captain, and gained his most famous ship and sailed it to India.  Now he is saved from his disappointing domestic life by his friend Maturin and given not just a ship but a squadron.  The large action--whole fleets in motion, islands invaded--is matched by large characters.  Aubrey's chief nemesis is, in fact, not the French Admiral he has been sent to defeat but a captain under his own command:  Lord Clonfert strives for, above all else, status and recognition, and he is driven to beat his old shipmate Aubrey.  Clonfert is also at odds with Captain Corbett, who has a reputation for disciplinary cruelty and is not exactly well loved by his crew.  In short, while Aubrey must manage a campaign to control the south Indian Ocean he must also manage the officers who make up that campaign.  He finds this to be much more of a burden than he expected.

The heart of the series remains Dr. Maturin.  His observations, especially of Aubrey and Clonfert, give emotional depth to a book that might otherwise be little more than Navy reports.  He does not, unfortunately, have much time for natural history, because the mission to control Mauritius and its neighboring islands requires as much political maneuvering as military maneuvering.  Maturin's abilities as spy and, now, of negotiator and propagandist, make him critical to the campaign.  As a character, Maturin brings to the novel both humanity and complexity.  It kinda needs it; without Maturin, the book would be all militial tension.

O'Brian brings this all together with a huge amount of historical accuracy, or at least historical inspiration.  Aubrey's earlier exploits were based on the real Thomas Cochrane.  In The Mauritius Command, Aubrey is taking the role of the real of Josias Rowley.  Names of officers, names of ships, and the unfolding of events are all drawn directly from records, climaxing with a telling of the disastrous Battle of Grand Port.  This level of detail also made this book the hardest to summarize so far.  In other words, SPOILER ALERT of the strongest order.

"Portsmouth" by Joseph Mallord William Turner

(1) Captain Jack Aubrey is living with no assignment and on half pay in a small, drafty home called Ashgrove Cottage with his wife Sophie, his daughter Cecilia, twin baby girls, and the always aggressively dominant—and now bereft—Mrs. Williams, his mother-in-law.  It is not the domestic bliss he had always hoped for.  Even as he tries to learn of gardens, livestock, and servants, he spends his time looking out to the fleet of Portsmouth through a telescope in a small observatory, both made by his own hand.  He is ecstatic to be visited by his old friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin.  Over dinner at the nearby Crown, Aubrey admits to Maturin that, however much he may love Sophie, he had the wrong idea of marriage.  The next day, Sophie begs Maturin to get her husband a command.  Maturin secretly reveals to Aubrey that four French ships under Admiral Hamelin, the new heavy frigates Vénus, Manche, Bellone, and Caroline, are making mischief around Mauritius.  Aubrey’s friend has also pulled strings for Aubrey to replace the ailing Captain Loveless aboard the frigate Boadicea, lead a squadron against the French, and install a British governor.  Aubrey can barely contain his excitement at having not only a command but also a Commodore’s broad pennant.  He listens to Maturin’s initial briefing until a Marine arrives with official orders.  Lady Clonfert, the wife of Lord Clonfert—soon to be one of Aubrey’s captains—arrives, having already heard of the mission by rumor, and asks to be transported to the Cape of Good Hope and her husband.  Aubrey, however, is in a happy rush to get to his ship.