“An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic”

Daniel Mendolsohn

This is an engaging memoir about a classics professor and his father. The father takes the son’s class in “The Odyssey” and they subsequently take an Odyssey-themed Mediterranean cruise. Mendelsohn presents his relationship with his dad in counterpoint to that of Ulysses and his son Telemachus.

Mendolsohn’s refusal to use quotation marks is an irritating affectation. Despite that, I liked the book, both as a memoir and as a book about Homer’s epic.

“Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea”

Robert K. Massie

I like battleships. The older the better. I really enjoyed Massie’s previous book on the subject, “Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War” So this book should be right in my wheelhouse (or conning tower). But it was a huge disappointment.

The book plods, it relies way too much on participants’ self-justifying after-war memoirs (especially Churchill’s), and it barely mentions anyone below the rank of captain. It reads like a book that was written to fulfill a contract rather than because of the author’s passion for the subject (unlike “Dreadnought”).

“The Devil to Pay”

David Donachie

This is book eleven of Donachie’s John Pearce series. Since I’m reading a bunch of them in sequence…

OK, enough, it’s time to say something about this series.

I read a lot of naval historical fiction, especially novels set in the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic Era. I admit, I like them all. This series, however, really stands out.

For starters, Doncahie’s protagonist, John Pearce, starts out as a pressed man. Though he shares this with Julian Stockwin’s Tom Kydd, more of this series is devoted to the life of the common sailor and even when Pearce is — somewhat undeservedly — promoted, his seaman friends remain part of the story. Moreover Pearce is illegally pressed, and his quest for justice — and to get out of the navy — provides the narrative drive of the series. Pearce’s eduction in the navy is an interesting part of the story.

Another thing that distinguishes this series from others in the genre is that not all the men of the Royal Navy are heroes. One of two bad apples isn’t too unusual in this sort of book, but the Pearce books have barrels of them: there are cowards and money-grubbing officers, not to mention admirals more interested in politics than in their duties. But Donachie’s villains have their reasons and their backstories, which makes them both more interesting than cardboard baddies and more believable.

The morals of the era are respected. Which isn’t to say people don’t stray, but there’s always the risk of social consequences. Also, the poverty and hardships of the era are graphically portrayed.

One thing about that could use improvement: Donachie, though he knows and describes ship-handling very clearly, isn’t as good as some authors in describing naval battles. It takes a little effort to follow the events once the guns are run out.

(I don’t think I’ve ever commented on book covers in this blog, but I have to say: the ones for this series are really awful.)

“Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe”

Kapka Kassabova

This book is about the border region where Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey meet. It’s more reportage than travelogue and though I prefer the structure of the travelogue (e.g., “Where the West Ends” on a similar topic) I learned a lot from the book even if I didn’t care for Kassabova’s impressionistic/anecdotal approach.

These borderlands are an interesting area with a bloody, tragic history where refugees mix with people holding on to rural ways of life in the face of urbanization and assaults on the environment and where former border guards live with the memories of people they killed or captured who were trying to escape Communism. It’s also a region whose population has been churned by various forced migrations, ethnic cleansing, and coerced religious conversions.

(Hat tip and thanks to Homer’s Travels for making me aware of this book.)