Monday, October 8, 2018

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy was first published in 1878. The story takes place in the fictional Egdon Heath, a picturesque area of moorland in rural England. The tale centers around several characters and their romantic entanglements. The book also puts great focus upon Egdon Heath itself. Some have called this geographical area an additional character in the novel. 

The native of the title is Clym Yeobright. Clym, always known to be bright and different, has gone off to Paris, where he is pursuing a commercial career. When he returns home, presumably for a holiday, there is a lot going on in Egdon. Damon Wildeve is bouncing between two women:  Thomasin Yeobright, who is Clym’s cousin, and the mysterious and exotic beauty Eustacia Vye. After several near marriages, elopements and rejections, Wildeve eventually marries Thomasin. Clym and Eustacia are also attracted to one another and eventually wed.  Mrs. Yeobright is both Clym’s mother and Thomasin’s aunt. She opposes both of their marriages. Another character, Diggory Venn, known as “The Reddleman,” is both odd and virtuous.  He also wants to marry Thomasin and spends a lot of time wandering the heath at night trying to prevent the unscrupulous Eustacia and Wildeve from hurting and betraying others. 

To the dismay of everyone, Clym, who loves Egdon Heath, announces that he will not return to Paris but will instead stay in Egdon to start a school. This dismays Eustacia, who wants to escape Egdon and live a glamorous life in Paris. When an eye injury forces Clym to take on physical labor in the countryside, he actually embraces the work and takes it on with joy. This brings further consternation to Eustacia. 

The book is full of magnificent descriptions of nature. Egdon Heath, as well as animals, plants the moon, the stars, etc., are described in fantastic language.  Hardy also embodies nature with all sorts of human characteristics.  I love Hardy’s prose style. The opening description of the heath is famous but parts of it are worth quoting here. 

The most thoroughgoing ascetic could feel that he had a natural right to wander on Egdon— he was keeping within the line of legitimate indulgence when he laid himself open to influences such as these. Colours and beauties so far subdued were, at least, the birthright of all. Only in summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the level of gaiety. Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. Then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend. Then it became the home of strange phantoms; and it was found to be the hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flight and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream till revived by scenes like this.

And a little later, 

It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man's nature— neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have long lived apart, solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.

The above contains a suggestion of melancholy, mystery and profundity that typifies the heath throughout the novel.  It is both surprising and ironic that the heath is, in some ways, drab and subdued, a place that an ascetic would feel comfortable in,  yet at the same time lending itself to such powerful description.  As the passage indicates, the intensity of Egdon lies in its solemnity. The above is also full of connections and similarities between the heath and humanity. Both human life and Egdon are “lonely” and full of “tragical possibilities.”  The landscape is more connected to the shadowy aspects of the human psyche as the above references to phantoms and dreams indicate.  I quoted just two paragraphs of description and allusion. There is much more throughout the novel. 

So much has been written about Egdon Heath. I have read a little bit online, and the consensus of opinion is that the heath is a symbol for the universe, and that the book’s characters see it as they view the universe as a whole. These views ring true to me.

A little research on my part indicates that while such heaths do exist in England, at no time was there one as large as Egdon Heath seems to be. Thus, like the human characters in the book, Egdon is a plausible but fictional creation. I would also argue that, like a well-crafted human character, Egdon Heath is a complex creation. 

Many other characters in this book are complex and interesting. Eustacia is self-centered, fickle and dishonest. Yet she is not completely malevolent, and at times the reader genuinely feels empathy for her.

Clym is an impressive figure. Though he is virtuous, he also shows some flaws and makes some serious mistakes. The Reddleman, though not really complex, is interesting because of his unusualness. “Reddleman” refers to the fact that he is a seller of red chalk to farmers for their use in the marking of sheep. The Reddleman has taken on a red complexion due to overexposure to the substance that he peddles. His behavior, though honorable, at times borders on the bizarre as he interferes in the affairs of others during his night time expeditions. 

On a personal note, I grew in a rural area. When I was young, I spent a lot of time wandering around isolated places at night. Much of the narrative also involves characters doing the same. The atmosphere that these passages exude seems realistic and comforting to me. If I lived in Egdon, without a doubt I would also have loved the place, and I would have found a lot of enjoyment in nighttime forays. 

This book is worthy of its classic reputation. It has a compelling plot, and it is filled with superbly drawn characters. At the same time, this story and character development all take place under the grand backdrop of Egdon Heath. This amazing, fictional landscape, is one of literature’s greatest creations. 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Independence Lost by Kathleen DuVal

Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution by Kathleen DuVal was first published in 2016. The author is a professor of early American history at the University of North Carolina. The subject of this work is Spain’s war with Great Britain in the Gulf of Mexico. This conflict was part of the American Revolution. Over the last couple of years, this book has gotten a lot of buzz among those who read and talk a lot about the American Revolution. DuVal has taken what is, on the surface a military history, and turned it into a study of people, culture and long term historical impact. In the end, she draws an unusual combination of conclusions. 

A little background on the situation in the Gulf of Mexico during the American Revolution helps one to understand what this book is about. The thirteen rebellious colonies that formed the young United States were not the only European colonies in the region. Over the course of decades, European colonies in the Gulf of Mexico had been traded with some frequency, as a result of war and diplomacy, between Great Britain, France and Spain.  At the time of the American War for Independence, Louisiana and Cuba were Spanish colonies. East Florida and West Florida were British colonies that did not join the rebellion against Great Britain. 

This book is about the Spanish invasion, launched from Louisiana and Cuba, into British West Florida and its aftermath. Adding to the complexity of the situation was the fact that the British had native American allies that played a major part in the conflict. The book also covers the years after the war. Peace saw the emergence of the new United States as well as a resurgent Spain, which controlled large parts of North America, including Florida and New Orleans. Spain attempted to set up a system of alliances with Native American tribes in an attempt to prevent the United States from further expansion. DuVal argues that this strategy actually worked until instability in Napoleonic Europe weakened the Spanish Empire. 

Though the subjects involve military and political events, this book is very much a social history. Duval focuses on individuals. Many residents of the region are put under the microscope. These include natives and immigrants from Great Britain, France and Spain, the first Cajuns who settled around New Orleans, slaves and Native Americans.  The region was a hodgepodge of these groups. Individuals and families needed to choose which side to take and how they would participate in the conflict. 

The lives of some fascinating people are explored. For instance, Amand Broussard was a settler living in Louisiana. He was an Acadian of French ancestry whose parents had been exiled from Canada and treated harshly by the British in what was known as the Great Expulsion. He and his fellow exiles thirsted for revenge against Great Britain and enthusiastically volunteered for military service with the Spanish to fight against the British. The descendants of Broussard’s people are today called Cajuns. 

Another person highlighted was Alexander McGillivray. His father was a slave-holding plantation owner in Georgia. His mother was a Creek woman from a prominent family. McGillivray grew up in both Native American and Colonial American worlds. When the American Revolution broke out, his father chose to stay loyal to Great Britain. McGillivray went on to lead the Creeks in support of Great Britain against the Spanish and later allied himself and his people with Spain against a young United States. 

Many other men and women are the subject of the narrative. DuVal points out that records and sources on women are sparse but she tries to paint a picture of some individuals. 

The author tends to focus on motivations. She argues that few people in the region were concerned with theoretical concepts of liberty and were generally not debating independence. Instead, relationships and interdependence were valued by many. She writes,

“For most, advantageous interdependence was a more logical goal. Leaders of all kinds of polities struggled to establish a balance in which they might have more control over dependent relationships. Sovereign states involved networks of dependency. Families and individuals measured their freedom according to how much less dependent they were on others than others were on them.”

Lately, I have read several books on Spain’s role in the American Revolution, including Brothers at Armsby Larrie D. Ferreiro. My commentary on that work is here. I have also read Gibraltar, The Greatest Siege in British History by Roy Adkins and Lesly Adkins. My commentary on that work is HERE.  These books have filled in a lot of gaps for me. For instance, over the years I have encountered many sources that acknowledged that Great Britain was very generous towards the new United States in ceding large tracts of land east of the Mississippi River after the Revolution. I always wondered why that was the case. In this book, DuVal contends that the British did so to keep the territory from being taken over by the Spanish. The British were more concerned with Spain’s empire than they were with the new United States. 

DuVal tries to make several points in this book and takes some surprising twists in her conclusions. She successfully shows the American Revolution and its effects from the point of view of groups that had in the past been neglected. That is, slaves, Native Americans and women. In recent years, many authors who write about the Revolution have begun to highlight these groups, as they have been neglected in the past.  In this spirit, this work is a very effective and interesting examination of a whole host of diverse people and groups.  

Next, DuVal tries to show that the foundation of the United States was, in the short to medium-term, harmful to women, slaves and native Americans.  She points out that the Revolution really meant liberty for white men. However, she does acknowledge that the ideals embodied and codified in the American Revolution eventually contributed to the concepts of equality and freedom for a diverse group of people. Ultimately, however, this book is highly critical of Revolutionary America and the early United States for excluding the majority of people from its concept of liberty. 

Whenever issues such as this are touched, we enter the territory of the cultural debates, or what some call culture wars, that are going on today. Up to this point, DuVal takes a course that is characteristic of a certain ideology that is popular in quarters on the left. That is, she highlights groups that in the past were unrepresented, and is negative about the young United States for being dominated by white men. However, DuVal next takes a very unusual turn. The author goes on to contend that women, nonwhites, slaves, Native Americans and other groups were better off under the imperial colonial powers of Great Britain, France, and Spain than they were under Republican America. Championing colonial powers is anathema to the historical criticism that I referred to above. Thus, I was surprised that the author made this argument. 

DuVal points out that Republican America bestowed most of its benefits on white men. It went on to virtually destroy numerous native American societies.  Furthermore, she argues that while all these societies - the United States, the Colonial Empires and Native Americans - had slaves, that the slavery in the United States was particularly brutal and did not allow slaves to buy or earn their freedom as the other systems did. She also argues that women had more rights under the colonial systems. Furthermore, the author maintains that the empires had developed an interdependent system of commerce and alliances with Native American groups that would not have involved the overrunning of these groups as the United States eventually did. 

This is an unusual mix of contentions. Duval initially takes what is a left leaning position and mixes it with what seems to be a take that is pro-colonialism. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the author, it cannot be said that she is afraid to go out of the box and take on controversial positions that do not all fall within a particular ideology. I should also note that Duval’s controversial conclusions only comprise the concluding pages of the book. The majority of the work is more or less straight history. This is not uncommon with a lot of history books. 

My take on all of this is as follows: the American Revolution was indeed centered on white men and involved a lot of hypocrisy. It goes without saying that slavery was a source of terrible injustice and misery and represented a terrible hypocrisy at the heart of the American Revolution. Many of the founders, such as Alexander Hamilton, recognized this themselves. The expansion of America was also a cataclysm for Native Americans. It is important that historians like DuVal point these wrongs out and examine these issues. For all this, the American Revolution was a vital advancement in human progress. It laid the groundwork for so much progress and liberty that eventually provided enormous benefits to many groups. DuVal does point this out. In  my opinion, while not completely dismissing them,  she does not give enough credit to these positive aspects of the Revolution. 

I also think Colonialism was morally wrong. However, as much as imperial systems were oppressive, DuVal makes a persuasive point, that the systems that the empires set up in North America, similar to the systems that were set up in India and Africa, did not involve Europeans overrunning the entire continent and this wiping out entire cultures. Thus, Native Americans of North America would likely have fared better under these colonial systems. This is a point that Fred Anderson also made in The Crucible of War.

Finally, DuVal does seem to minimize some of the terrible things that both the empires and the Native American tribes did. She downplays their systems of slavery. She ignores many violent and repressive things that the empires, especially the Spanish Empire, engaged in. This may be the biggest flaw in DuVal’s argument. 

Though its subject is fairly narrow, this is a terrific history book. The way that it focuses on individuals as well as social history, while not ignoring the political and military, makes this work a very compelling read. Whether one agrees with Duval or not, she is not afraid to challenge convention.  At the very least, she encourages her readers to think. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in the American Revolution, as well as seventeenth-century history in general. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Mrs. Hurtle in Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now

My general commentary on Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is here.

About half of Trollope’s important characters are women. He has created many imaginative and dynamic personas in the novels that I have read. His female characters have been varied. While most are virtuous, mentally and emotionally strong, a few notable ones have exhibited questionable integrity. Lizzie Eustace of The Palliser Books was thoroughly immoral. Mrs. Proudy of The Chronicles of Barchester was a force to be reckoned with and mostly malicious as she waged social war on a large  host of characters over the course of a series of books. Yet, in the thirteen other Trollope books that I have read, no female character showed physical prowess and aggression in the way that men do and as Mrs. Hurtle does.  Though some of his female characters participated in fox hunts, which are common in Trollope books, none engaged in aggressive action the way that Mrs. Hurtle does. 

Coming from the American West, Mrs. Hurtle is described as being comfortable with both guns and knives. It is eventually revealed that she shot and killed an attempted rapist in Oregon.  She describes English women as “dolls.” At one point, she writes to Paul, who has broken off an engagement with her. The following is like nothing else I have ever read in a Trollope novel, 

"You shall suffer retribution. I desire you to come to me,— according to your promise,— and you will find me with a horsewhip in my hand. I will whip you till I have not a breath in my body. And then I will see what you will dare to do;— whether you will drag me into a court of law for the assault. Yes; come. You shall come. And now you know the welcome you shall find. I will buy the whip while this is reaching you, and you shall find that I know how to choose such a weapon. I call upon you to come. But should you be afraid and break your promise, I will come to you. I will make London too hot to hold you"

Other Trollope heroines have lamented the loss of those who they loved, but no others threatened to attack their lovers with a horsewhip!

Mrs. Hurtle is not just capable of violence. In fact, she is a mostly sympathetic character. She is complex and shows many virtues. She exhibits real pain over Paul’s rejection of her but eventually more or less forgives him. In fact, she eventually does the right thing and chooses to be truthful in a moment where she could have ruined him. She also tries to help Ruby Rubbles, a young woman who is being terribly misused by the vile Felix Carbury. In addition, the above letter seems to be a bit of venting. While it is revealed that she has used physical force in the past, it was in self-defense against violent men. 

Mrs. Hurtle displays something else that is rare in a Trollope book, that is, she is a big thinker. Like Jane Austen, Trollope tends to fashion characters who are mostly concerned with everyday life. He tends not to write about philosophical people. When his characters do share observations about life in general, it tends to be in relation to a specific life situation that they are dealing with. Mrs. Hurtle is a little different. She thinks about life itself as well as its big issues. 

At one point, she is sharing her observations about the apparently successful businessman, Augustus  Melmotte, and how great men do not necessarily need to be bound by the same code of ethics as others, 

“commerce is not noble unless it rises to great heights. To live in plenty by sticking to your counter from nine in the morning to nine at night, is not a fine life. But this man with a scratch of his pen can send out or call in millions of dollars. Do they say here that he is not honest?…Of course such a man will be abused. People have said that Napoleon was a coward, and Washington a traitor. You must take me where I shall see Melmotte. He is a man whose hand I would kiss; but I would not condescend to speak even a word of reverence to any of your Emperors."

It is clear from the plot and text that Trollope does not share the sentiments expressed above. At the same time, Mrs. Hurtle is a mostly decent character who is flawed. My point here is that this philosophizing about the nature of greatness and ethics is a rare thing for a Trollope creation to engage in. The only other Trollope character that I can think of that philosophizes like this is John Neverbend of The Fixed Period. That work of dystopian fiction is a very different Trollope book from the start. 

It is of course significant that Mrs. Hurtle is American. It seems clear that Trollope would not portray an Englishwoman in this manner. This does seem to reflect some measure of reality. There is no doubt that some Englishwoman of the time passed physical prowess and could take care of themselves in violent situations, however, Mrs. Hurtle's style is distinctly American. As such she is  freer and much less inhibited then her British counterparts. The fact that Trollope does not view all American women like Mrs. Hurtle is apparent in The Duke's Children, where he portrayed several American woman in ways that were much closer to traditional gender roles. 

Like many Trollope works, this book is full of interesting characters. I could devote a post to all of them. One thing that struck me about Mrs. Hurtle is just how different she is from the typical Trollope female protagonist. In the end, The Way We Live Now is another Trollope novel filled with intriguing and compelling people.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope was first published in 1875. It is a stand-alone novel in that it was not part of Trollope’s two big series. I have heard a fair number of people call this the author’s best book. Though I thought a few of his other books were better, I thought that it was excellent and one of his best.

The plot of this book is fairly complex and involves a lot of characters. One center of gravity involves Augustus Melmotte. A British citizen who has recently returned from France, Melmotte is apparently fabulously wealthy. There are rumors that he has gained his money through disreputable means. Because of that, and because he displays vulgarity, he is initially shunned socially. However, as he gains power, people begin to fall in line and even established aristocrats begin to behave obsequiously to him. 

Lady Carbury also plays a central role in the story. She is a widow entering middle age. Though she tends to be deceitful and manipulative, she has redeeming qualities. One such positive personality trait is that she is enormously self-sacrificing toward her son. She has also survived a difficult past with an abusive husband.

Marie Melmotte, Augustus’s daughter, is essentially being put up for sale by her father. He wants to marry her to a member of the aristocracy. One of her suitors is the wretched Sir Felix Carbury, Lady Carbury’s son. Felix Carbury, like most of Marie’s suitors, is only interested in her money.

Paul Montague, a flawed but complex young nobleman, is vying for the affections of Hetta Carbury, who is Lady Carbury’s daughter. His life is complicated by the reappearance of his former fiancé, the American widow, Mrs. Hurtle, as well as the fraudulent machinations of Augustus Melmotte.

A common theme that cuts through various families is the changing social situation that is going on in Great Britain at the time. The old aristocracy is for the most part broke. Family properties are mortgaged as everyone falls deeper and deeper in debt. There is a lot of new money around. The new money families have gained their wealth through commerce. Though the aristocracy formally looked down upon the new mercantile class, the older members of the old families are desperate to marry their children into this new wealth as a way to stave off insolvency. For their part, the new money families are eager to marry their children into aristocracy because it will bring aristocratic titles into the families. Amidst all this, Trollope portrays the young, aristocratic sons as spoiled, narcissistic spendthrifts whose behaviors are further burying their families into debt. 

The ultimate example of this is Sir Felix Carbury. Though he is a baronet, he has squandered the modest fortune that his father has left him. Along the way he has ruined his military career. He lives a parasitical life draining his mother of her modest income as he continues to lose money gambling. Throughout the narrative he dishonestly courts Marie Melmotte in an attempt to get his hands on her fortune while simultaneously carrying on a dalliance with the lower class Ruby Ruggles. He is initially described as follows, 

"He had given himself airs on many scores;—on the score of his money, poor fool, while it lasted; on the score of his title; on the score of his army standing till he lost it; and especially on the score of superiority in fashionable intellect.  But he had been clever enough to dress himself always with simplicity and to avoid the appearance of thought about his outward man.  As yet the little world of his associates had hardly found out how callous were his affections,—or rather how devoid he was of affection.  His airs and his appearance, joined with some cleverness, had carried him through even the viciousness of his life.  In one matter he had marred his name, and by a moment's weakness had injured his character among his friends more than he had done by the folly of three years.  There had been a quarrel between him and a brother officer, in which he had been the aggressor; and, when the moment came in which a man's heart should have produced manly conduct, he had first threatened and had then shown the white feather.  That was now a year since, and he had partly outlived the evil;—but some men still remembered that Felix Carbury had been cowed, and had cowered."

Add to this the many characters who are corrupt and greedy who populate this work, many of whom are in the orbit of the ultimate conman Augustus Melmotte. . 
All of this has led many to call this a cynical work by Trollope. I found it in many ways similar to his The Eustace Diamonds. I wrote about that novel here.  Both of these books are filled with unethical and narcissistic characters. Thus, these novels are darker than typical Trollope. However, Trollope still presents a world where good people act in contrast to the bad. Like The Eustace Diamonds, this book has a moral center of virtuous people such as Hetta Carbury and Paul Montague. In addition, at the work’s end, Lady Carberry turns away from vacuousness and narcissism when she accepts a marriage proposal from a man of decency and substance.  Though much more cynical than the usual Trollope book, I find that this virtuous core, in the end, prevents this from being a truly cynical work.

There is so much more to this novel. It is filled with fascinating characters and situations.  I will be posting at least one more blog on one particularly intriguing character. This is one of my favorite Trollope books. Though I liked Barchester Towers, The Last Chronicle of Barset and Can You Forgive Her? a little better, since this book is a standalone, it would be a fine introduction to the author. 

Monday, August 27, 2018

Gibraltar, The Greatest Siege in British History by Roy Adkins and Lesly Adkins

Gibraltar, The Greatest Siege in British History by Roy Adkins and Lesly Adkins was first published this year. The subject is the Spanish and French siege of British controlled Gibraltar that occurred between 1779 and 1783. This book is a military, social and political history. Though I think that the title is a little sensationalist, this is well written and researched. It tells a fascinating story. The writers are a husband and wife team. They are both historians and archeologists. 

Such a large event involving all sorts of history that occurred in Europe during this time period is in and of itself of interest to me. However, I also wanted to know more about this siege because it was part of the world - wide conflict between Great Britain, France and Spain that The American Revolution was also part of. In fact, many sources classify this siege as being part of The American Revolution. The authors of this book even write, 

"Although the Great Siege has no other name, it was in reality part of the American War of Independence. The actions and ambitions of France and Spain had caused that war to spill across the Atlantic into Europe, and the war zone would extend from Britain to Gibraltar, Spain and Minorca."

The conflict actually spanned the entire world. Personally, I think that this war needs another name. It encompassed both The American Revolution and what was known as The Second Anglo-Mysore War in India. It does not have one however. 

It turns out that, to a great extent, Spain, joined France and the rebellious American Colonies in a war against Great Britain because it wanted to take Gibraltar from The British.  One theme that I came across in  this work as well as in Brothers at Armsby Larrie D. Ferreiro was that in a way, Great Britain sacrificed America for Gibraltar. In diplomatic wranglings before Spain went to war with Great Britain, it demanded that Great Britain cede the fortress as it had been Spanish territory in the past.  Had Great Britain acquiesced, Spain would have stayed out of the war. This world have increased the chance of a British victory that would have led it to retain America. 

Later, as this work illustrates, enormous resources were diverted to hold Gibraltar. These resources would have made a great difference in America. In fact, a fleet that Great Britain sent to relieve Gibraltar was diverted from intercepting a French Fleet that played a decisive part in Great Britain’s loss at Yorktown. That defeat cemented the American victory against Great Britain.

The authors cite multiple sources to illustrate this point. They write, 

“In 1783 the Scottish politician and prolific writer Sir John Sinclair anonymously published a booklet in which he expressed the opinion that Spain had only supported America’s bid for independence in the expectation of gaining Gibraltar: ‘the possession of America has been sacrificed to the retention of Gibraltar. That darling object could alone have induced Spain to countenance the independence of our Colonies, and without her assistance that event could never have taken place.’ “

Once Spain declared war, both the British garrison as well as civilian population were besieged on Gibraltar. The Spanish cut off land access and tried to enforce a sea blockade. Initially the Spanish just tried to cut off supplies. Though some ships with food and provisions got through, there was hunger and depravation amongst the besieged. While there were no actual famine deaths some did die of scurvy and other diseases.  Thrice, large convoys made it through the blockade providing months of food and supplies. 
Later, an artillery bombardment, that lasted for years began.  This caused great hardship for soldiers and civilians alike. Several large sea battles took place as well as fighting on land as the Spanish tried to dig trenches and build fortifications closer and closer to the Gibraltar garrison. 

Toward the end of the siege, The Spanish, along with newly arrived French forces, went all out. Ten huge ‘Floating Batteries” were constructed. These were old merchant ships that were highly modified. One side was of each vessel was heavily reinforced with layers of protection. These ships were also filled with cannons. The goal of these unwieldy and lopsided  vessels was to serve as indestructible gun platforms that would destroy Gibraltar’s considerable defenses and artillery emplacements. An army of 50,000 was also assembled for a final assault on the fortress. Over the course of a single day and night, Gibraltar’s formidable artillery, using red hot cannonballs, designed to set these ships on fire, engaged in a massive firefight with these vessels. I have read a fair amount of military history, but I never before read about a battle like this one.

The book celebrates heroism and courage but does not glorify war. The authors’ pull no punches at the horrors that occurred. The deprivation and disease that both the garrison and the besiegers is detailed. Deaths caused by battle are also described realistically. When the Spanish and French launched their large - scale assault on the garrison, people on both sides died. But the Spanish sailors suffered terribly. Thousands perished in the infernos that the floating batteries became as the searing - hot English cannon balls took their toll. 

This book consists of extremely long quotations from the diaries and journals of those who participated. In fact, I do not think that I have read a history book before with so much first - hand material. I would estimate that these quotations make up approximately twenty five percent of the book. Though I found this a bit excessive, I also found that this gave a sense of authenticacy to the work. 

One negative about this book is that it is almost entirely told from the British point of view. Spanish and French strategy as well as what that side experienced is presented almost as an afterthought. It seems that the authors’ intentionally set out to tell this history in this fashion. However, I think that this would have been a much stronger account had it been balanced. 

This is an extremely well researched history book. It tells, what for me, is an intriguing story. It describes an important and unique event in history. However, it contains a lot of it is military history and descriptions of battles. Thus, those not interested in such might not care for this work.  If that is not an issue for the reader, this is a book that will appeal strongly to those interested in this period of European and American history. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Talking About Book Series

Book series have been around for a long time. It is safe to say that they have never been more popular than they are today.  Lately, I have been thinking about how some books that are parts of larger series do not work as stand-alone novels. This leads me to ask additional questions. Are there are some books that should not even be considered individual novels?  When a book series comprises such novels, is it more accurate to consider the entire series as one work? Are some books so incapable of standing alone that they are really only half books, or one-third books, or one-quarter books? 

Books that are in series or connected books go back to ancient times. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad are connected stories. There are many more Greek and Roman myths that can be considered as part of larger mega-tales that contain shared characters and situations. Similarly, the Bible as well as the Hindu Holy Books tell connected stories. 

Many consider François Rabelais’s The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, originally written in five books, to be the first series written in the modern style. A little later, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixotewas comprised of two separate books written years apart.

Later came Author Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, which pioneered a lot of concepts and was enormously influential in terms of what followed. Many other mystery series followed. Fictional detectives created by writers such as Agatha Christie were featured in multiple books. Some mystery series have expanded into dozens of books written over the course of decades.

Since the 1980s, the number of series in science fiction and fantasy genres have exploded. Recently, while looking through recent Hugo and Nebula award winners, I had trouble finding books that were not part of larger series.

JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of The Ring Seriesis a good example of a series composed of books that cannot really stand alone. To make any sense, they really need to be read together. It can be argued that they were originally separated because the length of the series was so long. Many people really look at The Lord of The Rings as a single work anyway. 

There are many other series where the answer to the question that I raised is not clear cut, however. Frank Herbert’s Original Dune can clearly stand as an individual work. However, its sequels really cannot abide an independent existence. With examples such as this, it gets tricky. Many people consider the Dunesequels inferior works. For the record, I like the Dune sequels written by Herbert himself a lot, though they do not match the original. I would not suggest that they be included in the science-fiction masterpiece that is the first book. Yet, I believe them to be very good science fiction that just cannot stand on their own. 

Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire gets really interesting. Most of the books in the series can exist as stand-alone novels. However, the last two books, The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset, are really not independent books. The Last Chronicle of Barset is a mixture of threads connected to the earlier works. In my opinion, it is a very high-quality work.  I think that it was the second-best book of Barsetshires. Trollope himself thought that it was the best of the series. Yet, a reader just jumping into this book might be befuddled and miss much of its emotional impact. How can this novel be evaluated? I would also add that while Barchester Towers, the second book in the series, can work fine as a stand-alone, reading its predecessor, The Warden,first, strengthens its artistic merits. I use Trollope’s series as an example, but similar issues arise withy many series. 

One can say that all of this does not matter and that one should just read and enjoy books. This is true, but I think that all this is relevant when discussing and reviewing books. I also find the topic very interesting. 

Thinking about all this, I conclude the following: Series comprising of books that really cannot stand independently, such as The Lord of The Rings, should just be considered as one single book.  In addition, a stand-alone work is a stand-alone work, thus books like Dune should always be considered stand alones.  The same is true for the first four books of the Chronicles of Barsetshire; they are stand alones. However, when a book is connected to others in a series, the entire series should also be considered one work, even if the series contains individual stand-alone novels. No matter their artistic merit, books looks likeThe Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset do not work as independent novels. 

No system of classifying books and book series is perfect. There are also countless variations on the examples that I have mentioned that raise their own questions. Nor is it critical that books are looked at in such a systematic way. I think that this is an interesting thought exercise though. Despite the thoughts that I outlined above, some of the questions that I raised here really do not have answers. 

Sequels to human stories are almost as old as stories themselves. Only one thing is for sure, and that is that people will continue to create sequels and series, regardless of how they are classified.  We cannot get enough of great stories and great characters. We keep wanting more.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, though set in the seventeenth century, was first published in 1719. It is the story of the title character. This book is a very famous work, yet this is a first time read for me. I found it to be a fun adventure story that was filled with concepts about religion and society. 

The novel starts out telling us about the young protagonist’s life. Early on, Crusoe defies his father by running off to live a life of adventure at sea. He begins to establish a trading business involving commerce with Africa. While out on a commercial voyage, his ship is captured by pirates, and he is enslaved by Moors. Several years later, he steals a boat to escape. After a few adventures along the coast of Africa, he is picked up by a Portuguese ship and brought to Brazil. There, he becomes a successful plantation owner. A few years later, the ever-restless Crusoe embarks on a slave-trading expedition. However, the ship he is on never makes it out of the western hemisphere and is wrecked on a deserted Caribbean island. Crusoe is the only survivor. 

Most of the narrative concerns itself with Crusoe’s decades-long stay on the island. Luckily, he has firearms and many other resources that he is able to salvage from the wrecked ship. He is able to hunt goats, turtles and birds as well as harvest wild grapes and limes. He eventually plants and harvests corn and barley from seeds that he finds on the wrecked ship. A lot of the narrative consists of descriptions of how Crusoe fashions and builds various things both for both survival and for some comfort. Detailed descriptions of his making of shelters and storage places, boats, clothing, agriculture implements, etc., are included. I must admit that I found some of these descriptions a bit dull. The story is not always realistic, like when wild cats swim out to boats to attack their passengers or when Crusoe manages engineering, agricultural, nautical, and other feats with no prior experience. Prospective readers should also be aware that there is a lot of killing of animals, for those who are faint at heart when it comes to this. Some of this involves Crusoe needing to eat to survive, some does not. 

There are a few interesting things going on in this book. Crusoe starts off as a mostly unpleasant person. He is contemptuous of good advice, and he seems cold. He fails to form any emotional human relationships. Later on, as a castaway, he experiences a religious epiphany where he comes to realize that he has lived impiously. At one point, he has a dream in which he imagines an angel coming down to chastise him. The description seems to me reminiscent of similar passages in the Old Testament. 

“and that I saw a man descend from a great black cloud, in a bright flame of fire, and light upon the ground. He was all over as bright as a flame, so that I could but just bear to look towards him; his countenance was most inexpressibly dreadful, impossible for words to describe. When he stepped upon the ground with his feet, I thought the earth trembled, just as it had done before in the earthquake, and all the air looked, to my apprehension, as if it had been filled with flashes of fire. He was no sooner landed upon the earth, but he moved forward towards me, with a long spear or weapon in his hand, to kill me; and when he came to a rising ground, at some distance, he spoke to me— or I heard a voice so terrible that it is impossible to express the terror of it. All that I can say I understood was this: “Seeing all these things have not brought thee to repentance, now thou shalt die;” at which words, I thought he lifted up the spear that was in his hand to kill me.” 

The balance of his stay on the island, which lasts decades, he faces with acceptance and in peace. He prays and talks to God. Some sources that I read see this book as exposition of the Protestant concept of an individual’s personal relationship with God. That interpretation rings true to me. In fact, I found this theme to be the overriding idea underlying this book. With only a Bible, Crusoe becomes a deeply religious person and even fashions something of a personal theology. I am a nonbeliever, but I can appreciate how eloquently this picture is painted. Many works since have told similar stories. I also find it interesting how such ideas are presented, even when I disagree with those ideas. These works are often preachy, unimaginative and seemingly derivative of this book. 

The novel was written in the age of Colonialism. Yet, there seem to be contradictions for the modern reader on this subject. Early on, Crusoe participates in slave trading. Also, the native people of Africa and South America are described over and over again as ignorant, violent and savage. The people who live near Crusoe’s island are revealed as bloodthirsty cannibals. However, Defoe has some surprises in store. After years of living alone on the island, Crusoe begins to see some aspects of colonialism as evil. At one point, he compares the violent and inhuman behavior of the locals to that of the Spanish conquest in the western hemisphere. He even engages in a bit of cultural relativism, He comes to think that some behaviors engaged in by the local people are the result of a culture that he has no right to judge, having come from a completely different culture. 

“How do I know what God Himself judges in this particular case? It is certain these people do not commit this as a crime; it is not against their own consciences reproving, or their light reproaching them; they do not know it to be an offence, and then commit it in defiance of divine justice, as we do in almost all the sins we commit. in war than we do to kill an ox; or to eat human flesh than we do to eat mutton.” 

And later,

“these people were not murderers, in the sense that I had before condemned them in my thoughts, any more than those Christians were murderers who often put to death the prisoners taken in battle; or more frequently, upon many occasions, put whole troops of men to the sword, without giving quarter, though they threw down their arms and submitted.” 

I found the above passages to be very surprising in light of when this book was written. It sounds very much like arguments that folks have made over the last several decades. I actually do not agree with this level of cultural relativism. 

What to make of this seemingly odd mix of pro-colonialist and seemingly pro-slavery ideas and the questioning of some of these concepts? This book was written at a time when colonialism was in full swing. To expect Defoe to exhibit completely modern sensibilities is not realistic. The fact that he challenges many of these conventions and history to the extent that he does is pretty remarkable. It adds a lot of complexity to this book. 

I should add that despite the very interesting plays on ideas within this book, Crusoe's character is not well fleshed out. Aside from his feelings about religion and colonialism, we rarely get a glimpse into his complex emotions or thoughts about things beyond the practical. This is despite the fact that the reader gets to spend decades of Crusoe's life with him. 

In addition to all this philosophizing and ruminations on the divine, this is such a very engaging story of survival. The book is very readable. It is often fun. This novel works very well as an adventure story as well as a work of ideas. A few laws aside, this is an engaging and entertaining classic.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Silas Marner by George Eliot

Silas Marner by George Eliot was written in 1861 but is set in the early 1800s.  It is the story of the title character.  This novel is a tale of redemption and hope. As such, I think that it has had a great influence on similar stories down through the years. Despite a few flaws, I also found it to be an outstanding book.

Silas is a member of a socially isolated Calvinist Congregation. Early on, he is framed by his best friend for a theft that he did not commit. Silas loses his social standing in his congregation, his fiancé and his reputation. Due to this terrible unfairness and misfortune, he also loses his faith and he flees to the far-off village of Raveloe. There, he establishes himself as a weaver. Silas lives the life of a hermit and is looked on with a strange mix of suspicion and distrust, but also with a grudging acceptance by the community. Years go by. Over these years, as his weaving business is fairly lucrative and he lives extremely frugally, Silas accumulates a fortune, which he hoards in his cottage. He also becomes a miser who worships money. 

Another character, Dunstan Cass, is a young and immoral member of the local gentry. His brother, Godfrey Cass is good natured but morally weak and is bullied and manipulated by Dunstan. When Dunstan steals Silas’s hoard, the miser is devastated. However, this event is a turning point in Silas’s life. The local community begins to feel pity for him. More importantly, he begins to connect with his neighbors. 

One night, a young child wanders into Silas’s cottage. The body of her mother is found nearby. The reader is aware that this is Godfrey’s clandestine wife and child. Godfrey had secretly married when he had gotten the lower-class woman pregnant. Silas connects to the young girl and adopts her. This act of charity further endears him to the community. As more years go by, he becomes a respected member of society as he raises his adopted daughter who he names Eppie. There are additional developments as Eppie’s real father eventually tries to assert himself.  

Though many have described this as a simple story, there is a lot going on in this book. My understanding of Eliot was that she was a nonbeliever who nonetheless admired some religiou ideas. There seems to be a lot of comparison between different versions of Christianity in this tale. The Calvinists, who believe in predestination but are not portrayed as very forgiving or rational, are treated harshly in the text. In contrast, the Anglicans are shown to be easy going, committed to charity and generally portrayed in a positive light. This reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s or Charlotte Brontë’s depictions of harder, less charitable manifestations of Christianity versus more charitable and forgiving versions.

One thing that stands out here is how common this kind of a story has become. Over the years, in both books and film, we see a lot of cynical or grouchy single individuals who end up taking a child into their custody. After some rough patches, the child subsequently brings great joy and improvement to the previously alienated adult. These stories are often overly sentimental. Eliot’s tale is very well balanced between real and poignant emotions and some serious philosophy and ideas.

There are so many meaningful and well written parts to this short book. One example is how Eppie comes to displace the gold that Silas has lost.  The fact that she has golden hair fits in so well with this concept. Eliot’s wonderful prose also helps to highlight this idea. Early in the narrative, Silas’s love of his hoard is portrayed as a great character deficiency. This deficiency reaches a crisis when the gold is stolen. However, Silas’s love and devotion for Eppie heals him.  The moment when Silas first finds Eppie sleeping in his cottage exemplifies this and is so well written,

“to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth. Gold!— his own gold— brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away! He felt his heart begin to beat violently, and for a few moments he was unable to stretch out his hand and grasp the restored treasure. The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft warm curls. In utter amazement, Silas fell on his knees and bent his head low to examine the marvel: it was a sleeping child— a round, fair thing, with soft yellow rings all over its head.”

This work is not perfect. It seemed a bit too short. I thought that some of the ideas seemed too undeveloped. I would have liked to have move philosophy and more character development. Nevertheless, I found the plot and the characters interesting.  At times Eliot's prose style soars into greatness. I liked this book better then Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, but I did not like it as much as Middlemarch. In the end however, I found this novel enjoyable, meaningful and, thus, well worth the read. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Brothers at Arms by Larrie D. Ferreiro

Brothers at Arms by Larrie D. Ferreiro was first published in 2016. It is a chronicle of French and Spanish involvement in the American Revolution. I found the book to be well written, informative as well as very interesting. 

Both France and Spain provided a great deal of aid to the American rebels during the revolution. Later, both declared war on Great Britain. Land and sea battles, some of them fairly large, were fought throughout the world between these world powers. This work is primarily a political, social and military history. 

I would only recommend this book to those who already have at least a basic understanding of the American Revolution. The subject matter here is a little esoteric.  However, I think for those who do have such knowledge and are interested in the subject will get a lot out of this book. 

For me, as someone who has read about the revolutionary period throughout my life, the book covered a combination of material that I have some familiarity with as well as material that was new to me. Early American diplomatic efforts aimed at France are covered. The massive aid that France provided to the United States is detailed. 

France and Spain eventually declared war on Great Britain. Later, The Dutch Republic and the Indian Kingdom of Mysore also went to war.  Thi conflict involved fighting throughout North America, the West Indies, Central and South America, Europe and India, as well as on the oceans of the world.  I have been reading about the American Revolution for most of my life. Information about the conflict throughout North America and, to some extent, the West Indies is easy to come by, but beyond this geographic area, not so much. In India, the conflict was called Second Anglo-Mysore War. 

Calling all of this part of the American Revolution strains logic a bit. I think that it would make more sense if this worldwide conflict had a single name like the Seven Years War does. However, there is no real nomenclature that encompasses it all. 

Ferreiro covers all sorts of angles in this book. For instance, he argues that the Declaration of Independence was aimed, at least in part, at France and Spain in order to persuade those nations that American Independence was a cause worth supporting.  The author writes,

"The document that emerged from under Jefferson’s hand, clearly stating that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States,” was in fact an engraved invitation to France and Spain asking them to go to war alongside the Americans. The document that was agreed to by the Second Continental Congress on July 4 became known, of course, as the Declaration of Independence, but it was also in a sense a “Declaration That We Depend on France (and Spain, Too)…"

Another one of the intriguing subjects covered was the Battle of Yorktown, which ultimately convinced the British that the war in North America was lost. Ferreiro details how the Yorktown Victory was the result of French strategic planning and was only possible with French ground and navel support.

Marquis de Lafayette, the young Frenchman who volunteered to assist Washington and become one of his most important generals, is covered extensively here, as are many other notable French and Spanish citizens who were involved in the conflict.

The above are just a few examples of the many intriguing subjects that this work covers. This is a chronicle of history that is too often not told. I think that anyone who is interested in the American Revolution will get a lot out of this book. I found it fascinating and well written. I found it to be a treasure trove of hard to find material. For those interested in these I subjects, I highly recommend this one.