Saturday, March 28, 2020

Something Deeply Hidden by Sean Carroll

Lately I have been reading several books on the subject of quantum physics. I had previously posted commentary on Kenneth W. Ford’s The Quantum World here. Unlike that general work, Something Deeply Hidden by Sean Carroll tries to make the case for a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics known as the many worlds or Everett theory. I found this book to be interesting and worthwhile. The information here is fresh as this was first published in 2019. It is essentially for laypeople and Carroll is a good writer and a good explainer. However, like all the books that I read on this subject, I found some of the science here difficult to understand. 

When approaching this book, it makes sense to start with what many call quantum weirdness. That term refers to the fact that what is observed on the subatomic level, seems to defy what we think of as everyday reason. Basically, subatomic particles often show wavelike characteristics, that is, they seem to be in multiple places at one time, just like a water wave in the ocean. Despite this, at other times these subatomic phenomena do not act like waves but act and appear as particles that can be pinned down as existing at a particular place. When scientists do pin down these particles as being in a particular place, the wave “collapses” and stops existing in multiple places at the same time.  There are many other strange aspects to quantum mechanics. Sometimes a pair of subatomic particles are tied in an odd way. For instance, changing the direction of spin of one particle changes the spin of the particle that it is paired with even if the particles are at great distance from one another. Another odd phenomenon is known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This means that two properties of a particle can never both be known.  If one of the properties becomes know through observation the other property then becomes impossible to determine. For instance, if a position of a particle is found, its velocity becomes undefined, if its velocity is measured then the opposite happens, its position becomes undefined and undetectable. Carroll does a good job at explaining this mind - bending stuff. It is important to understand that even though some observations seem bizarre, there is a mathematical basis to quantum mechanics and these strange observations are supported by the math.

As per Carroll, many physicists just accept what is going on without digging too deeply. Instead, they just use these quantum rules as something of cookbook as to how the universe works. However, some physicists try to dig deeper and try to figure out if there is a more logical explanation or more concrete meaning behind this strange stuff. Carroll writes,

We have a recipe that we can safely apply in certain prescribed situations, and which returns mind-bogglingly precise predictions that have been triumphantly vindicated by the data. But if you want to dig deeper and ask what is really going on, we simply don’t know. Physicists tend to treat quantum mechanics like a mindless robot they rely on to perform certain tasks, not as a beloved friend they care about on a personal level.

I think that the above quotation illustrates that Carroll is a very eloquent science writer. 

The Many Worlds approach is not the theory that the majority of scientists believe. Currently a majority of experts in the field favor something called the Copenhagen Interpretation. My understanding of the Copenhagen Interpretation is that subatomic particles do not have defined properties. The oddness that is observed in then subatomic world is just a reflection of reality. Things work differently in the subatomic world. 

Another, somewhat less popular interpretation of known as hidden variables. There are various subsets to this theory but it basically says that there are all sorts of hidden phenomena going on that connects particles and waves under the surface. These unseen phenomena would provide a logical explanation as to why all these odd things are happening if we could only observe them. 

The many worlds interpretation is different. At times, when a subatomic particle acts in a wavelike manor it shows signs of being in many places at once. But when scientists try to pin it down the particle it sometimes appears in a particular place. It then stops being a wave or it stops being in multiple places at one time. Many worlds advocates argue that at the moment that the location of the particle becomes defined, the universe divides in to multiple universes, each universe containing the particle in a different place. Theorists believe that an astronomically high number of universes have been created this way. 

To a person unfamiliar with all this, many worlds may seem far - fetched. Indeed, based upon this book and my other readings on the subject, most physicists do not concur with this interpretation. However, some very prominent scientists think that it is the most likely explanation of all this. It is also not a theory attributed to cranks. Even the majority of scientists who disagree with it seem to take it seriously. Furthermore, it seems supported by the math, is considered elegant and relatively simple comparted to other interpretations, which, when one digs into them, seem to twist logic. Many scientists find the other interpretations incomplete.

Many world theory has been around for a long time. It has become a popular subject for science fiction writers. Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber series and Robert Heinlein's Number of the Beast are just a couple of examples are books that have been influenced by these ideas. The various Star Trek series are filled with stories based on this theory. Carrol's work is very science orientated and does not explore these cultural aspects however.

My take is that Many Worlds is probably not what is really going on. As Carl Sagan once commented “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". The extraordinary evidence has not yet been produced by the many worlds advocates. However, based upon everything that I have learned from my readings, I believe that this is all possible. As a good scientist will do, Carroll acknowledges that this interpretation has not been proven and may not be the true.

Though this book focused upon one particular theory, it helped me to understand the subject in general. Ford is a good writer and explains things well. He goes beyond the theory that he is advocating and explains the basics of quantum physics here too. Furthermore, he does a good job of laying out multiple competing interpretations, he explains both their strengths and weaknesses. Despite all that, quantum physics can be a very difficult subject. Like other books on this subject, there were parts of this that I did not understand.

This is the third book on the subject of quantum physics that I have recently read. Since this book deviates from an introductory work, I would not recommend that someone not familiar with the subject start here. In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat by John Gribbin may be the best introductory book that I have read. I think that someone who is already familiar with a little bit of this subject will find this an educational and a worthwhile read. Quantum physics is a subject that digs into the nature of reality itself. It is worth trying to understand. This book helps one to understand while exploring  some intriguing possibilities. 

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I found The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins to be a lively and fun read. First published in 1859, this book is often credited with helping to develop both the mystery and thriller genres of literature. The novel is fairly long and the plot takes a lot of twists and turns. It is told by alternate narrators, sometimes in the form of diaries. It is also full of colorful and engaging characters. 

The story opens with Walter Hartright narrating. Hartright is a young artist who is just making his way in the world. One evening, when walking home from his mother’s house, the young man has an enigmatic encounter with a mysterious woman all dressed in white. It turns out that this is Anne Catherick, a young woman who has recently escaped from a mental institution. 

Later, when Hartright goes to live with his new employer, the hypochondriac, vain and weak Frederick Fairlie, we are also introduced to Laura Fairlie and her half - sister Marian Halcombe. Laura is engaged to be married to Sir Percival Glyde. The marriage is more or less an arranged one that Laura looks upon with trepidation. Though Laura and Walter fall in love, both realize that social considerations must keep them apart. Despite her misgivings the young woman goes ahead with the marriage to Glyde. In an effort to forget about her, Walter goes off on an archaeological adventure in Honduras.

After the nuptials, Glide shows himself to be cold schemer who just wants to at Laura’s considerable fortune which still has some legal protections placed upon it despite the marriage. We are also introduced to Glyde’s friend, Count Fosco who is a charismatic and smart villain who assists Glyde in his nefarious plans. It turns out that Marian is strong, competent and intelligent while Laura is relatively weak. It is Marian who engages in a battle of wits with Glyde and Fosco as she attempts to thwart their machinations. Anne Catherick, who is connected to Glyde and was wronged by him, also becomes involved. Eventually Glyde and the Count manage to have Laura committed to a mental institution as they steal her money. However, the ever - resourceful Marian breaks her out of the institution. When Walter returns to England, his adventures have left him mentally stronger and more confident and our hero and heroines join forces as they continue fight Glyde and Fosco in an attempt to restore justice. There is a lot of plot here and the story also involves revelations of old secrets, conspiracies and secret societies. Things are not always realistic as there are a fair number of implausible coincidences and plot holes. 

As mentioned above,  book has been called a precursor to the typical mystery story as much of the plot involves Marian and Walter’s attempts to discover secrets of Glyde’s past. There were also a lot of elements here that seemed to influence modern thrillers. Though not realistic, I thought that his novel was very entertaining. The plot was fun and suspenseful and held my interest through every page. The characters, though generally not too complex, were lively and fun to read about. Marian is vivacious and smart. Hartright’s toughening up, is well portrayed and interesting. My favorite character was Count Fosco. He is portrayed as overweight, egotistical and incredibly magnetic. He is sure of his own abilities but lavishes praise upon Marian’s skill and intelligence. Even though she opposes him, he becomes smitten with her. A short part of the story is narrated by him and told from his point of view. At one point during their battle he writes about her,

The tact which I find here, the discretion, the rare courage, the wonderful power of memory, the accurate observation of character, the easy grace of style, the charming outbursts of womanly feeling, have all inexpressibly increased my admiration of this sublime creature, of this magnificent Marian… I lament afresh the cruel necessity which sets our interests at variance, and opposes us to each other. Under happier circumstances how worthy I should have been of Miss Halcombe— how worthy Miss Halcombe would have been of ME…

The above quotation is characteristic of the Count. He almost never is rude to his adversaries even as he is attempting to destroy them. He is a very charming villain. 

The prose here is also well crafted and adds to the entertainment factor. Collins manages to believably portray the various voices of the different characters as part of their segments. They are very well differentiated and they are interesting and amusing. Collins is skilled in creating distinctive voices for his characters. There are some underlying themes here involving identity as well as the unfair way that women are treated in marriage, but the strength of this book lies in its entertaining and energetic characters and plot. 

This was my first Collins novel. I liked it a lot. It was a very enjoyable read. Though not terribly deep, this book worked very well within the bounds that Collins set for it. I will likely give more of his books of his a try.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Quantum World by Kenneth W. Ford

As I have done before, I read The Quantum World by Kenneth W. Ford in order to prepare me for another book. I wanted to read the recently published Something Deeply Hidden by Sean CarrollCarroll’s book goes beyond a general introduction and argues for some specific theories regarding quantum physics, thus I wanted to firm up my understanding of the subject before taking it on. I have always been interested in quantum physics. However, my knowledge of it, that of a layperson who is interest in the subject, needed a refresh. Over the years, I have read articles and books that covered the subject in varying detail. Previously books that I have read include John Gribbins’s In Search of Schrodinger's Cat. That book was very good and may be the best general source of information on this subject. In fact, after finishing Ford’s book, I snuck in a reread of Gribbins’s book. However, as it was first published in 1984, the older work does not cover the latest discoveries and theories. Years ago, I also read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, but aside from also being older, I found that book very difficult to understand. I wanted to read a book that was aimed at a layperson, that coved the entire subject somewhat comprehensively, and that was fairly up to date.  A little online research indicated many folks felt that The Quantum World was the best basic and fairly current introduction out there. First published in 2005, I found that the information here still current enough to be very useful. At several points, when the author indicated that new discoveries were being made at the time of the writing of the book, I googled for more up to date information. 

This work is a solid and fascinating. It provides an  explanation of all the main concepts relating to quantum physics. Though aimed at a layperson, I did find a lot of this technical. As I mention above, I had a basic, but hazy knowledge of much of this science going in. If I did not have this knowledge, parts of this book would have left me lost. There were some parts of this work that I struggled to understand and some parts that I just did not understand. Therefore, I am not sure if I would recommend this to someone who knew nothing about the subject. 

Why do I find quantum physics so fascinating? There are a couple of reasons. First, quantum physics concerns itself with the building blocks of the Universe. It is what makes reality real. In addition, I am generally interested in science. Finally, certain theories and observations related to what is referred to as “quantum weirdness” or “spookiness” are mind boggling and seem to defy common sense as well as our basic principles of reason. The author writes,

In fact, the physics of the past hundred years has taught us that common sense is a poor guide in the new realms of knowledge. No one could have predicted this outcome, but no one should he surprised by it. Everyday experience shapes your opinions about matter and motion and space and time. Common sense says that solid matter is solid, that all accurate watches keep the same time, that the mass of material after a collision is the same as it was before, and that nature is predictable: sufficiently accurate input information yields reliable prediction of outcomes. But when science moves outside the range of ordinary experience- into the subatomic world, for instance-things prove to be very different.

Quantum physics is the study of the very small. It is the study of atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, etc. The basic tenets of quantum physics are all covered in this book. They include, the fact that many numbers and quantities that exist on the subatomic level come in discrete, measurable packages. For instance, the charge of all electrons is exactly the same.   

Also, many of the most important laws and concepts are based upon the laws of probability. For instance, sometimes it is impossible to determine the precise location of a particle, instead, only the probably that the particle is in a particular location can be stated. This is in contrast to other branches of science where things are more deterministic.

In addition, all subatomic things have a duality to them, in that, they exhibit characteristics of both particles and waves. Depending on how and when they are measured, sometimes things like electrons appear to more like ocean waves, in that they seem to exist over a large area that is moving and changing. At other times they appear to be definite points. 

Along the way of explaining all this Ford takes the reader through a tour of a virtual zoo of particles, such as protons, electrons, photons, quarks, bosons and many more. The history of discoveries and scientists is also covered. This includes information on the careers of scientists such as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck and many others. Ford, who is currently 93 years old and knew some of the giants in the field. 

What many call quantum weirdness is the most fascinating part for me. My understanding as well as my explanation of it all is incomplete and murky at best. However, examples include the fact that certain particles and phenomena are changed and effected by the that fact that they are observed or the fact that particles separated in space can affect one another instantaneously. This is mind bending stuff. 

I found reading this book both worthwhile and enjoyable. I learned a lot. It helped me to organize my knowledge of the subject. With that, I think that this is good book for the layperson who already has some knowledge. Having also reread In Search of Schrodinger's Cat, I thought that book was better basic introduction. However, it was less up to date. In addition, as mentioned above, this book thoroughly covered the plethora of subatomic particles that have been discovered in the previous hundred years or so better then any other source that I have read.  This fascinating catalogue was only touched upon in Gibbons’s book. Quantum Physics is a difficult subject to grasp so a layperson might actually want to try more then one introduction. This book is certainly a worthy introduction.  I will be reading at least one more work on this subject and posting about it in the future. 

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Adam Bede by George Eliot

Adam Bede by George Eliot is the story of the title character, his family and his friends. I found this novel to be excellent. It is an interesting tale populated with interesting characters that has a lot to say about life. The more that I read of Eliot, the more I am liking her work. I had previously read Middlemarch,The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner.

Though the novel was first published in 1859, most the story takes place around 1799. It is set in the fictional English town of Hayslope and centers on several characters. Adam is a carpenter who is principled, sensible and stoic. His brother is Seth Bede. Seth is younger and is more of an abstract thinker then Adam. Dinah Morris is a Methodist preacher of strong faith who is very charitable, both materially and emotionally. Hetty Sorrel is a girl from a middle - class farm family. Hetty is shallow, self- centered and is a simplistic thinker. Arthur Donnithorne Is a member of the lower gentry who is generally kind and amiable but who also shows great character weakness. Parson Irwine is the local vicar who takes a pragmatic and down – to – earth approach to religion.

Much of the early plot involves romantic entanglements. Adam falls in love with Hetty. However, unbeknownst to the other characters, Arthur and Hetty begin a clandestine affair. Though Arthur seems to have genuine feelings for Hetty, he realizes that their social situation to be an unsurmountable obstacle to marriage, he breaks off the relationship under pressure from Adam and leaves with his military unit for Ireland.  For her part, Hetty is more interested in the increase in social status that a union with Arthur would bring her. Unknown to Arthur, after he leaves for Ireland, the reader becomes aware that Hetty is pregnant. Adam does not know of the pregnancy and he proposes to and becomes engaged to Hetty. Serious complications and tragedy eventually ensue. Many pages are devoted to Hetty’s and Adam’s mental anguish. In the meantime, Seth has fallen in love with Dinah who gently rebuffs his offer of marriage in favor of a life devoted to God and charity. 

Later, Hetty runs away in an attempt to find Arthur and hide her pregnancy. When the child is born on the road Hetty eventually abandons it and the child dies. Hetty's subsequent trial for murder and its aftermath is the subject of the later parts  of the novel. 

There is a lot to this book. Many of the characters are marvelously drawn. Adam  is portrayed as strong and competent. He is religious while at the same time he shies away from the more outward and public side of religion such as preaching. When it comes to Hetty however, he seems unable to see through her narcissism. The pain that he feels as the situation deteriorates leaves him emotionally helpless. This contrast with his otherwise strong and wise nature is so well done.

I found Arthur’s character to be the most interesting. He initially is shown to be a man who tries to do the right thing.  He treats those of lower social class fairly and behaves benevolently toward them. He wants to be liked and is indeed liked by both his peers as well as those who are on the lower social scale. However, he ultimately shows great flaws. Though he develops a strong romantic attraction for Hetty, he is unwilling to buck social conventions and marry her. Thus, he breaks of his liaison with her much too late. Aside from his actions in regards to Hetty, Arthur is a character that is easy to like. However, his actions towards Hetty are certainly questionable. He seems to genuinely fall for her, but through it all, he knows that he cannot, or will not, marry her. Thus, he leads her on. He realizes that what is doing this but cannot help herself. Throughout Hetty’s crises, he is away in Ireland and unaware of dire situation that she finds herself in. In the end he tries to make amends for a terrible situation. 

One of the themes here is how outward appearance can be deceiving. Hetty is portrayed as beautiful and able to give the impression that she is a person of depth, while in actuality she is a superficial person. In contrast, some physically unattractive characters are shown to be virtuous and substantive.

Hetty’s alluring beauty is described,

but there is one order of beauty which seems made to turn the heads not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women. It is a beauty like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief— a beauty with which you can never be angry, but that you feel ready to crush for inability to comprehend the state of mind into which it throws you. Hetty Sorrel's was that sort of beauty….It is of little use for me to tell you that Hetty's cheek was like a rose-petal, that dimples played about her pouting lips, that her large dark eyes hid a soft roguishness under their long lashes, and that her curly hair, though all pushed back under her round cap while she was at work, stole back in dark delicate rings on her forehead, and about her white shell-like ears; it is of little use for me to say how lovely was the contour of her pink-and-white neckerchief, tucked into her low plum-coloured stuff bodice, or how the linen butter-making apron, with its bib, seemed a thing to be imitated in silk by duchesses, since it fell in such charming lines, or how her brown stockings and thick-soled buckled shoes lost all that clumsiness which they must certainly have had when empty of her foot and ankle— of little use, unless you have seen a woman who affected you as Hetty affected her beholders, for otherwise, though you might conjure up the image of a lovely woman, she would not in the least resemble that distracting kittenlike maiden. I might mention all the divine charms of a bright spring day, but if you had never in your life utterly forgotten yourself in straining your eyes after the mounting lark, or in wandering through the still lanes when the fresh-opened blossoms fill them with a sacred silent beauty like that of fretted aisles, where would be the use of my descriptive catalogue? I could never make you know what I meant by a bright spring day. Hetty's was a spring-tide beauty; it was the beauty of young frisking things, round-limbed, gambolling, circumventing you by a false air of innocence— the innocence of a young star-browed calf, for example, that, being inclined for a promenade out of bounds, leads you a severe steeplechase over hedge and ditch, and only comes to a stand in the middle of a bog. And they are the prettiest attitudes and movements into which a pretty girl is thrown in making up butter— tossing movements that give a charming curve to the arm, and a sideward inclination of the round white neck; little patting and rolling movements with the palm of the hand, and nice adaptations and finishings which cannot at all be effected without a great play of the pouting mouth and the dark eyes. And then the butter itself seems to communicate a fresh charm— it is so pure, so sweet-scented; it is turned off the mould with such a beautiful firm surface, like marble in a pale yellow light! 

I think that the above is so well written. The point about how some things, such as a bright spring day, a lark, a calf, Hetty’s beauty are indescribable in words, is effectively and artfully communicated. I also think that the false air of innocence is important, as Hetty is far from innocent. This takes on increased meaning in light of the fact that Hetty has ensnared several ethical men by her charms. 

Another important underlying thread here seems to be the comparison between the practical and pragmatic as compared with the theoretical and emotional. Dinah is a preacher. She has lots of ideas about her religion and expresses them in her preaching. She also puts a lot of emotion into her words and actions. In contrast, Adam and Parson Irwine are also religious people. However, their religion is more practical and down - to - earth.  Adam sees God’s will as being expressed through his carpentry. He also does not talk a lot about God. Instead he tries to just do what is right and remind others to do the same in private conversation. Likewise, Parson Irwine also eschews passionate religious fervor. He tends to believe in practical applications of religion and charity. Both types of people are portrayed as virtuous in this book. Both types effect good throughout the narrative. It may be that Eliot is trying to say that it takes both types to make the world go around. 

One other interesting point is that by the time that this book was written, Eliot had left any organized religion and had become an atheist. However, her treatment of religious people in this book is thoughtful and mostly  positive. My understanding is that Eliot was very much interested in morality and ethics and was very committed to living a moral life. It may be that Eliot was trying to make a bigger point about morality, practicality and theoretical thinking in general. Perhaps she thought that the point she was making transcended religious belief or the lack thereof. 

I rate this book very high as classics go. I thought that it was almost as good as Eliot’s Middlemarch, and better then The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner. I found the plot and characters very interesting and thought provoking. The themes were also worthwhile. I would recommend this book to readers who liked Middlemarch as well as Nineteenth Century literature in general. 

Saturday, February 1, 2020

They Were Her Property by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers

They Were Her Property by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers is an examination on the role that free white women played in the institution of slavery in America’s Antebellum South. The book was first published in 2019. There is a little bit of a story as to why I read this work that relates to some of my thoughts on its content as well as my thoughts on some of the social and historical debates going on these days.  

An online friend of mine was reading this book in her book club.  My friend had read almost no history before. Certain things about this book led her, and myself, to consider the possibility that this book might be agenda driven and not based upon serious scholarship. Because I am someone who reads a fair amount of history, my friend asked me if I would like to also read the book and assess what I thought about it. Why were such concerns relevant to this work? Lately there has been some revisionist history, partially driven by a social and political theories. The most prominent example of what I am talking about is something called the 1619 Project. The project is a series of articles accompanied with educational materials that seeks to reassess slavery within the context of American History. The creators of the project have been accused, I believe with some justification, of biased scholarship that is agenda driven that looked to find evidence aimed at proving points that are not based upon truth. Several prominent historians who are experts on American History have been critical of that project. The subject of this book could possibly be viewed as having a tangential connection to the 1619 Project and other agenda driven interpretations of history that have recently been popping up.

In addition, this book is obviously critical of the actions of many white women in Antebellum America. Unfortunately, among certain quarters of what I have been referring to as the postmodern left, white women are currently being stereotyped and assigned a kind of collective guilt. The reasons and the history for this is beyond the scope of this post. However, a book such as this will set off alarm bells for folks who are paying attention to the current discourse.

If these concerns had merit it would mean this work would be too biased to take seriously.  In addition, a postmodern reasoning disregards many ways that are traditionally used to determine truth and sets up all sorts of truth finding mechanisms that are not based on reason or objectivity. At the very least, this means that works written from a postmodern point of view need to be approached differently from other works. 

I should note that I have no professional qualifications to assess the quality of history scholarship. What I have is an amateur’s interest. I do hold a bachelor's degree in history. I once took a graduate level class in historiography. I read a lot of history. I read a lot of American history. However, the Antebellum South is not my prime area of interest.  In terms of postmodernism I have read a fair amount of the theory and arguments behind it. This includes postmodernist takes on history. I have also read a fair amount from the critics of postmodernism. I have followed the debate over the 1619 Project closely and have read its controversial parts as well as content written by its critics. Thus, my evaluation of this book is not a professional one, just my own views based on my own reading and interests. 

With all that, having read the book as well as looking through what others are saying about it online, I feel good about giving it a clean bill of health. First of all, its main premise, that is that white, free women in the pre – Civil War America were active participants in almost all aspects of slavery, is a worthy topic that is worthy of examination. There is a narrative that has sprung up both with some historians and in popular culture that free women of this period were more or less innocent bystanders and were also an oppressed group. Reexamining that narrative is a legitimate line of inquiry.  

More importantly, this seems to be a serious work of history. It is heavily researched. Almost every fact and account presented is footnoted. Conclusions and opinions are supported by facts. It contains  none of what I would call postmodernist reasoning nor is there what I would call postmodernist rhetoric. I did think that the book had a couple of flaws, which I will touch on below, however, I do not believe that these flaws relate to the above concerns. There is also the question of whether the current debates on these issues led to the writing of this book in the first place. I cannot say if this is the case or not, however, I do not believe that is important as the book itself is a solid work of history. 

The question arises, should I even bring any of this up? Most history books that I write about, unless I mention some kind of bad scholarship or bias, are assumed to be good works of scholarship. The reason that I have devoted some words to this is that, as I mentioned above, a superficial look at the subject of this book is going to lead to many people connecting it to the current debates on these issues. I thought that it was important to address these issues so that they do not distract from the content of the book itself. 

As mentioned above, in this book the author looks at the role that white free women had upon slavery and enslaved people in pre – Civil War America. She also contrasts what she found to what she considers a false narrative that has sprung up around the topic. 

While Jones-Rogers uses a variety of sources including newspaper articles, letters and public records, she also relies heavily on interviews conducted as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). This project took place in the 1930s and conducted numerous interviews of formally enslaved persons as well as a few free people who lived in this time and place.  Obviously, these interviews are of great interest to anyone interested in this topic. 

As a result, this book is full of accounts of women who actively participated in the slave trade and who owned slaves. A picture is drawn of a society where many women owned slaves. The author points out that some past historians have depicted a situation where women owned slaves on paper and with the real control exerted by male their relatives. However, Jones-Rogers shows that often, women exercised day to day control of slaves, and at times sought, through legal means, to keep the slaves from falling under control of their husbands. Furthermore, the book is full of accounts of women actively participating in the buying and selling of slaves. Unsurprisingly, the actions of women varied, with some women slaveholders eschewing punishment and cruelty while others acting in cruel and brutal ways. 

In regards to crueler Mistresses, the author writes, 

Formerly enslaved people also remembered their female owners as powerful disciplinarians who used a variety of techniques that resembled those of male slave owners . Addy Gill was enslaved in Millburnie , North Carolina , and she recalled that her mistress Louise Krenshaw “ done the whuppin on Mr . Krenshaw’s plantation an she was mighty rough at times . ”

Some of the worst behavior was committed by free women who were brothel owners who forced female slaves into lives of sexual slavery and prostitution. An entire section of the book is also dedicated to the use of slave women as wet nurses for white women who could not breastfeed their own children. This trade was almost exclusively conducted and controlled by free white women. 

The biggest issue with this book is that is does not contain enough statistics. This makes it difficult to build a comprehensive picture. In defense of the author, I am not sure that such statistics exist from this time and place.  The book is filled with hundreds of individual cases. These cases are almost all footnoted and tied to what seem like good sources. There are so many individual accounts that it is clear that the author is on to something. In addition, many of the individual accounts seem to illustrate situations that were considered to be usual occurrences. While this kind of evidence will always lead to gaps in our knowledge, it is valuable.  Because of the lack of these statistics however, a book like this can only advance knowledge so far. Jones-Rogers has convinced me that a lot of women own and exercised control of slaves. Many participated in the slave trade. Like male slave owners, some were crueler then others. Furthermore, the narrative that white women were almost exclusively innocent bystanders is questionable, at least in a lot of cases.  However, we really can only approximate the extent of all this and we do not know how, on a large scale, it all this compares to the actions of men. The biggest flaw in the book, is that sometimes the author generalizes a little too much based upon this insufficient evidence. At one point the author writes, 

Southern slave-owning women had existed in a world in which slavery and the ownership of human beings constituted core elements of their identities.

I thought that this was a very worthwhile book. It offers an valuable look at  gender, human nature and the differences and similarities between the behavior of men verses women.  It sheds light on an important and little talked about subject. It is extremely well researched. It is also very interesting and will likely keep a reader’s attention. Though a book confined to a fairly narrow subject, this is a good read for those already interested in slavery, or gender roles throughout history.  

Monday, January 20, 2020

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez was reread for me. First published in 1967, this novel has become very famous. This book is probably the most widely known example of the writing style  known as magical realism. During this go around I found the novel  to be very deserving of all the accolades that it has received over the years. I read the English translation by Gregory Rabassa. This may be the only English translation of this book as it was approved by the author.

This novel is a multigenerational story of the Buendía family who live in the fictional town of Macondo. The narrative of the tale actually runs for more than 100 years. Some sources indicate that the events of the novel run from 1790 to 1940. This seems about right. It is a bit difficult to write about the novel as it is filled with so many characters from the many generations. One aspect of the book that can be confusing is that many character names are repeated, or are similar, down through the generations. I found that having a list of character names and descriptions handy while reading.  This fits in with the book’s theme of things repeating themselves over the course of time. Much of the book is also episodic making it challenging to describe a coherent plot. 

Macondo  is founded in a South American wilderness by José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Úrsula Iguarán. Ursula is the most important character of the book. She lives to be approximately 130 years old and is present for most of the narrative. She is both enterprising and energetic in the early years. She is a moral center for the family as she is often trying to move people and events into moving the right way. The family begins to fall apart when she dies.

Melquíades is a gypsy who has a lot of technological and spiritual knowledge. He lives with the Buendía’s and leaves behind an enormous volume of prophecies that, because they are in code, no one can decipher after he dies. 

Amaranta is Ursula’s daughter who spurns several men throughout her life and becomes bitter over time. 

Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who is Ursula’s son, is a rebel commander who initiates a seemingly endless series of wars against the government. 

Remedios The Beauty grows up to be breathtakingly beautiful. She develops a personality that is removed from the world and it completely detached from life’s imperfections and the evils of the universe. 

Aureliano II is one of the last of the Buendía line. He attains great knowledge.  He also devotes much of his life to deciphering Melquíades prophecies which he finally does at the book’s end.

This style of magical realism here is characterized by a relatively traditional plot that is filled with seemingly supernatural or magical occurrences. The characters in the story take these occurrences as normal. The occurrences just happen within the narrative are not treated as  extraordinary in any way. These amazing events are not few and far between. Rather, they come at the reader very quickly, sometimes on every page. These occurrences range from Remedios The Beauty ascending to heaven on the wings of angels to a disease that creates insomnia for all of the  residents of Macondo to a rainstorm that lasts for over four years. Remedios's ascension is described, 

she said, “I never felt better.” She had just finished saying it when Fernanda felt a delicate wind of light pull the sheets out of her hands and open them up wide. Amaranta felt a mysterious trembling in the lace on her petticoats and she tried to grasp the sheet so that she would not fall down at the instant in which Remedios the Beauty began to rise. Ursula, almost blind at the time, was the only person who was sufficiently calm to identify the nature of that determined wind and she left the sheets to the mercy of the light as she watched Remedios the Beauty waving good-bye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o’clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.

The above passage is characteristic of much of the book. Though this is a translation, it seems so well written. The ascension is marvelously described, it seems absurd yet the characters are not amazed by it. The beetles and dahlias that are mentioned seem to be stand ins for the everyday doings of the world that most people experience. 

A lot of these amazing events are described in some detail and they sometimes seem to be symbolic of real life issues historical events. A fair amount of this symbolism went seemed to go over my head but I picked up some of it. 

While the style of the books seems to be playful, tragic things sometimes happen to characters and at time the brutality of the world is illustrated in executions and other forms of cruelty. One gets the feeling that Márquez is trying to comment upon the entire spectrum of life including the good and bad aspects of it all. 

There are several themes coursing through this work. As the book’s title suggests, solitude is explored. Almost every character is isolated from others in some way, some try to break out of this isolation with varying degrees of success. For instance, Aureliano II starts life out as a scholarly hermit, but he eventually gets out into the world develops a meaningful relationship. However, complications and tragedy ensue.  Amaranta spurns suiters her entire life and ends up bitter and resentful. It seems that Márquez is playing with this theme and exploring it in its many permutations. It is interesting that through much of its history, Macondo is isolated from the rest of the world. 

Repeating history also seems to be an important theme. Similar events seem to happen over and over the years. This includes the tendency for several characters to almost commit incest. Other people, often separated by generations, become rebels and run afoul of the government. As noted earlier, characters with similar names abound in this book through the generations. 

There is also a political theme. Throughout the story, the conservative authorities are shown to be brutal and corrupt. However, while the liberal rebels sometimes start out with good intentions, they are shown to descend into the same corruption and brutality engaged in by the government. This slippage characterizes the life of Colonel Aureliano Buendia. American imperialism is also examined and is shown to be harmful. As exemplified by both the plot and themes the Buendia family and Macondo are microcosms of the world at large.

This is an extraordinary book. The magical realism bursts from nearly every page and it is both creative and entertaining. This novel is alternately fun, serious and tragic. Though this style is at times strange, it does not get in the way of complex character development. Though generally episodic, the story is also creative and holds a reader’s attention. I am glad that I reread this, it is a book that deserves its reputation as a modern - day classic. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia by Willa Cather is the third book in author’s The Great Plains Trilogy. I found that this was another near brilliant novel that had complex characters and magnificently described landscapes. Though Song of the Lark was my favorite book of the three, I thought that this novel was almost as good. These books are called a trilogy but there no connection between the plots or characters.

This story is told in first person by Jim Burden. Jim is a New York lawyer. The vast majority of the book is supposedly a manuscript written by Jim detailing his youth growing up in and around Black Hawk, Nebraska in the late 1800s.  Jim is living with his grandparents who are initially famers living outside of Blackhawk but who eventually retire and go live in the town. Jim is intelligent and thoughtful. He befriends a Bohemian immigrant girl named Antonia Shimerda. Like the women characters in the other Cather books that I have read, Antonia is high spirited and shows a degree of physical toughness. She does heavy farm work including heading cattle and seems to enjoy doing so. She is also intelligent and tends to be very optimistic. 

The book chronicles the early life of both Jim and Antonia. We initially see them as children. As they move through adolescence the story portrays how they make friends with and socialize with their peers. The story takes Jim through his collage years and through some rough times for Antonia. The young woman becomes pregnant from the man who she is supposed to marry who runs off on her. Later Antonia marries someone else. Throughout the story there is a little romantic tension between Jim and Antonia but they never pair off together. The book ends twenty years into the future when Jim and Antonia renew their friendship. 

Both Antonia and Jim are very well - crafted characters. The story is also populated by interesting minor characters that range from colorful farmhands and malicious businessmen. Jim is a great storyteller and he likes to integrate all these diverse personalities into the narrative that centers upon himself and Antonia. Throughout the tale he observes that even though he has not seen these people in years, their memories continue to influence him.

The issue that is still debated by critics and regular readers of this book is the real nature of the relationship between Antonia and Jim. A few times in the narrative they seem to edge towards a romantic connection but then back off. During Jim’s collage years it seems that he would actually ask Antonia to marry him. Instead, he realizes that he is becoming a cosmopolitan person who will spend his life in the big cities, Antonia is very much tied to the land of rural Nebraska. 

When Jim and Antonia reestablish contact years later he tells her.

‘Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister— anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.’

Like Thea Kronborg in Song of the Lark, Jim becomes a person who goes beyond small town plains life. As noted above, also like Thea, at several points he mentions that throughout this time he is reminded of his younger days on the plains. He takes rural and small - town Nebraska with him wherever he goes.  Throughout the book Antonia is tied to the land. Thus, it is no surprise that thoughts of Antonia have also stayed with him. 

Throughout the story Jim is a very passive person. He is not passionate. He is not the kind of character one would find in an emotional love story. He never feels an intense love for Antonia. Yet he feels a lifelong connection with her, even after he has not seen her for years. As mentioned above, at several points in the book he does seem like he will try to initiate a relationship with Antonia but he just does not do it. At the end he seems very satisfied with just the reestablished friendship. He shows no jealousy towards Antonia’s husband who he genuinely befriends. 

Despite this, I think that Cather meant this to represent a missed opportunity. A clue to what she was trying to get at comes fairly early on the book. A young Jim and Antonia are told a story by a dying Ukrainian. The story seems to be implausible in a realistic book of this type. The story goes as follows: After the nuptial celebrations, a wedding party is traveling home on multiple sleighs through the Ukrainian countryside. The party is heading back to their native village when wolves descend on the sleighs. In an effort to fend off the wolves the bride and groom are thrown off one of the sleighs and to their deaths to lighten the load and allow the others to escape.  A Google search shows that there is no consensus as to what this story means in the context of this book.  However, some suggest that this tale is symbolic of Jim throwing away his chance to marry Antonia. This seems plausible to me. 

Like in O Pioneers! This work is filled with wonderfully crafted prose describing natural features and phenomena. In the below passage a thunderstorm that Jim and Antonia experience as children is described,

Antonia and I climbed up on the slanting roof of the chicken-house to watch the clouds. The thunder was loud and metallic, like the rattle of sheet iron, and the lightning broke in great zigzags across the heavens, making everything stand out and come close to us for a moment. Half the sky was chequered with black thunderheads, but all the west was luminous and clear: in the lightning flashes it looked like deep blue water, with the sheen of moonlight on it; and the mottled part of the sky was like marble pavement, like the quay of some splendid seacoast city, doomed to destruction. Great warm splashes of rain fell on our upturned faces. One black cloud, no bigger than a little boat, drifted out into the clear space unattended, and kept moving westward. All about us we could hear the felty beat of the raindrops on the soft dust of the farmyard.

It is not surprising that as Jim gets older and travels the world, he feels that the locale and experiences of his youth are always with him. As the above passage indicates, Antonia is connected to these experiences. 

This book is a great read. Though not a lot of dramatic things happen, both the characters and their interactions are fascinating. The descriptions of landscapes are sublime and meld very well into the story. I have just recently discovered Cather but look forward to reading a many more of her books.