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A reader tries to convince his significant other of the virtues of historical novelist Patrick O'Brian.

Kirk and Spock On The High Seas, Dear?


I am trying to convince her to read Patrick O'Brian. She has not bitten; not yet, but she will. How can she not?

Here after all is his latest munificence, Blue at the Mizzen (Norton, $24). I leave the glowing reviews about (new and old, such as the one in The New York Times that called O'Brian's now 20-volume series "the best historical novels ever written"), leave them where she will see them, like so many lures. I talk about the quality and grace of O'Brian's writing, here as present as ever; the edifying and immensely pleasurable experience of spending time with his characters, the main ones two great friends, Jack Aubrey, a Royal Navy captain, and Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon, naturalist and intelligence agent, during the Napoleonic era. In this episode, with Bonaparte extinguished at long last and the calamity of idle peacetime looming, they are ordered to sail for Chile, and to help liberate it from Spain.

She grimaces, so I find reasons to compare O'Brian to Homer, Austen, Tolstoy, anybody who comes to mind; I am shameless. In moments of desperation I make analogies: This is "Star Trek" on the highest seas, the most literary levels, I say; this is the tidal force beneath everything from extreme sports to Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm" to SUVs. (She likes SUVs.) In moments of keen frustration I point out O'Brian's popularity among women; the strong female characters in his stories; the window his books afford onto the male soul. In moments of abject moral squalor I mention what a lovely older gentleman he seems, a kindly Irishman living in the South of France, tending his vineyard, writing his books, living without television or cynicism or irony or affectation. To the mortal peril of my very soul I say he is nearer 90 than 80 and that it will not be my fault if she does not begin to read him now, out of native curious intelligence, rather than gross faddish enthusiasm when, God forestall the dark day, he writes no more.

Here is progress: She knows "Master and Commander" is the first book in the series, the only place to begin; and perhaps, too, that on the day she reads page 93 of "Blue at the Mizzen" she still may share the reaction of a young new midshipman whom Jack Aubrey, now well-advanced in years and rank, has helped high aloft, Nelsonlike, to give the boy his first full view from atop the ship and sea: "Sir, thank you very much indeed for taking me: I have never seen anything so beautiful in my whole life. I wish it could go on forever."

Heads-Up: If you like science fiction and adventure stories — and if you enjoyed "Airframe" — you may enjoy Michael Crichton's "Timeline" (Knopf, $26.95). Here, he combines quantum theory with medieval history for a gallop through two wildly dissimilar eras. Readers seem to be divided into two definite groups: those who look forward to a Crichton book and those who think his stories too much resemble "The Hardy Boys." I am afraid I am in the latter group.

Fortunately for those of us who love words and don't mind that a plot seems almost imperceptible, Northwestern University Press has published Kathleen Hill's "Still Waters in Niger" ($24.95). In this little book, a mother returns to Niger where she spent her early married years; this time she comes to visit her daughter who works in a medical clinic there. The story is a gem with its quiet descriptions of the landscape and life in desperately poor Niger, and for its revelation again of something we all know: The relationship between mothers and daughters is much the same the world over, and it is often problematic. — Rozanne Epps

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