Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Under the Black Flag" by David Cordingly (1996)

Pirates! Argh!

Wait... did pirates really say "Argh"? I don't know. Maybe I should read a book about them.

I did already? DANG IT! I'm so bad at remembering what I've read...

"Under the Black Flag" is about the history of pirates. Well, it is a history of your stereotypical pirates; the "Pirates of the Caribbean, sailing some 500 years ago, very European" type of pirates; not the "poor kids from Somalia who take over oil tankers and who sometimes get shot by Navy SEALs" type of pirates (although you did read a book about this modern version a few years ago, but you've forgotten the coolest parts).

You found the format of the book a little off-putting. Cordingly organized his chapters by topics and categories, so the book does not adhere to any kind of linear timeline. Consequently, some stories are told out of order and characters who were killed off in previous chapters often reappear in following chapters. This robbed the book of a nice narrative arc and you kind of like the narrative arc thing, it's what makes history books accessible. Good historians are really just good story tellers, and this book missed that mark. It ended up feeling more like a collection of facts than a good story. That does not mean the book was without any redeeming stories at all though, or that you weren't interested in each individual isolated storyline; it was just that they all lacked a coherence that would have given "Under the Black Flag" a much needed boost.

The farther you got into the book, the more you began to realize that these pirates were really a kind of parasite who fed primarily on Empires. Empires that were hard at work massing piles of treasures and boat-loads of slaves. As these Empires fought war after war with one another, they quite literally created more pirates who would turn around and feed on their creators. The vast majority of pirates came from merchant ships or had been trained in one of these Empire's navies, and as soon as those wars between Empires stopped, even for a brief time, piracy along Atlantic shipping routes inevitably skyrocketed.  Sailors with nothing to do and no sources of income who had only two life skills (sailing and fighting) turned to the only thing they knew... Violence on the seas.

"Under the Black Flag" also reminded you that the world was much much more brutal 500 years ago. The casual violence practiced by some pirates needs to be remembered in the context of the extraordinary violence of the times (again, history without context is hollow). Merchant captains were brutal to their men, lording their authority in truly sadistic and cruel ways. Naval officers and courts of law were vicious to their enemies, crushing the air from prisoners' lungs or tearing off fingers to obtain confessions from the accused, both men and women alike. Torture seemed to be the default setting for most people involved in sailing the high seas. It's no wonder that many sailors preferred to escape to the relative freedom of piracy rather than suffer under the yoke of barbarous merchant captains for scant pay.

And there was freedom in piracy. Pirate crews were remarkably democratic. Captains were elected by vote and the treasure they looted was shared equally amongst all the crew members. Ships' destinations were voted on, and if a crew disapproved of a captain's leadership, he was replaced. This freedom proved a powerful temptation for many sailors, a far cry from the iron-fisted and ruthless tyranny of service aboard the merchant ships.

In light of this culture of violence and brutality, you were surprised to discover that most of the victims of pirates actually surrendered at the first sign of a black flag. Pirates worked hard to maintain a reputation for brutality, so that they wouldn't have to fight as much. Fighting threatened the goods they were out to steal in the first place. Why kill and maim, when simply running up a Jolly Roger would inspire your prey to come to and give up their treasures peacefully? In addition to their fearsome reputations, pirate crews were far more numerable than merchant crews. A merchant ship might be manned by 10-15 hands, while the same sized pirate ship would be crewed by 30-40 hands (some of the bigger ships up to 150-200!). Reading this part, you could easily see yourself on a merchant ship facing a fight against a force 3-4 times larger than yours, and against men who were running out of food and supplies 3-4 times faster than your ship. The pirates were far more desperate for a merchant ship's cargo than the merchant crew were to defend it. It is no wonder that the merchant ships gave up without a fight more often than not.

Even though their victims usually surrendered without a fight, pirates still had to be well-versed, not only in the art of sailing, but also in the art of war. They used trickery and subterfuge to evade or defeat their enemies. Some would fly false flags to lure their victims in closer, only to swap them for the pirate flag at the last second and open fire. Others would sail with full sails while dragging pots, heavy chains, and mattresses to slow them down, making their ship appear to be a heavily-laden merchant rather than a fast and well armed pirate. Entire ships were stolen without any fight by daring pirates as the ships lay at anchor, often right under the very noses of the ships' captains. Pirates would use their intimate knowledge of the small islands around the Caribbean Sea to play hide and seek with their would-be captors, often raiding ports on the exact opposite side of the island from the sips who were hunting them.

You were glad to learn that many pirate stereotypes hold true. They did enjoy parrots and they were often missing limbs. They cussed like... well, like sailors, and were fluent in the language of sailing large vessels. "Avast" and "leeward" actually have nautical definitions, they aren't just modern day piratical nonsense. Blackbeard went into battle with his fearsome beard smoldering and pistols slung from ribbons around his shoulders. But pirates weren't always what we think of when we imagine them nor how they are portrayed in movies. Sometimes their greatest exploits took place on land, not on the sea (Captain Morgan was famous for capturing the Spanish treasure city of Portobello, the greatest amphibious invasion of the 17th century).  The second ship to circumnavigate the globe was the Golden Hind. The first captain to achieve this feat was not Magellan (he died during his voyage, remember?), it was Francis Drake, captain of the Golden Hind. Francis Drake was a privateer raiding Spanish treasure ships; in other words... he was a pirate. Pirates were crafty, capable sailors. They were smart, creative, and generous with their treasure, as many a wealth Jamaican prostitute could have testified.

Sometimes pirates had the backing of kings and queens. These sailors were called privateers, not pirates. Whereas pirates attacked all shipping, privateers were commissioned by a nation to attack shipping from specific other countries.  Privateers could legally sell the ships they captured while pirates could not. Privateers were a cheap, quick way for nations to conjure a navy quickly and whenever they needed. Privateers fought for their country of origin, whereas pirates were seen as criminals. You doubted, however, whether the sailors who were being pursued on the seas and relieved of their lives and their cargo, cared much what their murderers called themselves.

Cordingly is clearly an expert on pirate movies, plays, and novels and devotes an entire chapter to them. You thought this was fun, but a little distracting from the history that was supposed to be the point of the book. If the book hadn't been written before Johnny Depp and Disney partnered up for their take on the topic, you were sure Cordingly would have included a whole chapter dedicated to the entire "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

Maybe the best chapter in the book included the fascinating appearances of an assortment of women in the world of pirates. There were women who pretended to be men, and there were those who fought as women. In fact, the greatest pirate in history was a woman. Mrs. Cheng was the Commander in Chief of an entire pirate Confederation, comprising hundreds of ships, who ruled the South China Sea in the early decades of the nineteenth century. For a decade or so, she was able to defeat every naval force various Asian governments threw at her. Only when the Chinese joined with the Portuguese and the British and offered her amnesty, did Mrs. Cheng abandon her piratical ways.

Also, this book taught you that you love the word 'piratical'. God, that is a great word.

There should be a word for when you feel both sympathy and jealousy for someone. Whatever that word is, that's what you ended up feeling for the pirates you read about in "Under the Black Flag". You gave them your sympathy because they so often lead short lives of uncertainty and violence, and were so often faced with the impossible choice of embracing a path of lawless piracy or a life of brutal and monotonous suppression at the hands of their superiors, knowing that either path was likely a dead end. But you were jealous of the freedom these men tasted, even if for a brief time; the freedom to choose their destination and to sail on warm winds seeking fortune and adventure. Their lives embodied what you and everyone long for, to be free of the shackles of society and repression, to be responsible for your own fate. You were jealous that whenever these pirates looked at the horizon, they only thought of what possibilities lay beyond, they only thought of adventure, and the whole world was accessible to them.

Argh! indeed.

On to the next book!


Friday, October 12, 2012

"An Abundance of Katherines" by John Green (2006)

See, man? You CAN read fiction!

Let's clear one thing up right off the bat: The only reason you read this book is because you've become a tiny bit obsessed with the vlogbrothers channel on YouTube. John Green is one of the brothers and he writes Young Adult Fiction. This is his second book, and you will most likely read his other ones in due time because you really are a little bit obsessed. There... I'm glad we cleared that up.

Your love of non-fiction (specifically war) books makes it easy for you (and other people) to forget that you do enjoy novels occasionally. In fact, when you get a novel in your hands, you usually read it faster than you do non-fiction books. Maybe that's one reason you don't read as many novels. You like to savor the experience but you tend to burn through novels too fast to do that. Or maybe you're just a big nerd. Either one works...

"An Abundance of Katherines" is the story of two boys, Colin and Hassan, fresh out of high school, on a road trip to help mend a broken heart who end up in a tiny town in Tennessee. Colin is despondent because his girlfriend recently dumped him, although he shouldn't really be shocked. He's dated nineteen girls and they have all dumped him, never the other way around. Oh, and they are all named Katherine. Every one. Thus, the title of the book.

All of the characters in "An Abundance of Katherine's" are quirky and weird, but very charming and capable of moments of brutal honesty and wonderful insight. You know... kind of like real people. Colin is a former child prodigy and his best friend, Hassan, is more of a smart ass than a smarty pants. The two best friends speak to each other in a familiar "best friend code" of inside jokes and random phrases that perfectly reminded you of being in high school and immediately brought you inside their world. Both boys are outsiders. They're nerds. Colin is a nerd for being a child prodigy who could read the newspaper at the age of two, and Hassan is an outsider for being fat and for being Muslim. And when Lindsey was introduced, sitting behind the counter of the General Store, she seemed so familiar... like, you were pretty sure you'd met that character in real life before. You might even be related to her.

The boys' road trip lands them in Gutshot, Tennessee, of all places, and they quickly come to know several of the inhabitants very well (Lindsey, Katrina, Hollis). The boys are hired to chronicle the history of Gutshot through personal interviews with the town's older citizens. While this main plot unfolds, Colin is also feverishly busy trying to create a mathematical theorem that will accurately predict when any given relationship will end and who will do the breaking up with whom. He hopes that this theorem will finally allow him to "matter" in the world, thereby escaping the curse of child prodigies who so often fade into adult obscurity.

"An Abundance of Katherines" is written the way John Green talks, with a lot of shorter sentences punctuated by very long and profound ones. It makes the book quite readable. The book also has one of the funniest fight scenes you've ever read (pg 177), especially when you consider that it takes place on the grave of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (whose assassination started the First World War).

Colin's persistent heartache (and other characters') reminded you of how catastrophic everything can feel when you are young. That's a good thing to remember, because you are a parent. Being empathetic with your boys when "catastrophes" hit will help you be able to guide them, or at least it will keep you from being alienated by them for being so callous and uncaring.

The book also reminded you that being a child prodigy isn't really that great. In fact, it's usually kind of tragic (or at least anti-climactic). So, if Nico isn't a prodigy, that might not be something to lament, it might be something to celebrate. And it also reminded you that Linc is going to be just fine in this world even if he has no chance of ever being a genius. And man, that is always a good reminder.

The whole book has a positive feel to it, an unembarrassed optimism that you couldn't help but be infected by. Lindsey's realization that she had always been wearing the personalities that she thought would best please the people around her reminded you that that living a more authentic life, one that isn't concerned with pleasing or impressing others, is a worthy goal. It reminded you that you truly believe that if being a nerd means that you are a more authentic human being (and it usually does), then you'd rather be a nerd every day of the week.

Your only real complaint about the book was the recurring use of the word 'retard'. Yes, it was only ever in dialogue, and yes, it was only to show that the characters in the book talked like kids in the real world, but it still bothered you. In the same way that black people (and the rest of society too) don't want to read or hear the slur 'nigger', parents of children with Down syndrome don't want to read or hear the slur 'retard'. In a way though, the N-word being in books like "Huck Finn" shows us how far American society has come from the bad old days. If this book taught you one thing, it was that the future isn't written and it is not predictable, and that gave you hope. Hope that maybe ten years from now, the use of the R-word in "An Abundance of Katherines" will seem so out of place that it too will illustrate how far we've come as a society.

On to the next book!