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Thursday, November 14, 2019

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol was first published last year and has won multiple awards. Despite a few flaws, I found this to be an excellent book that incorporated many innovations and at times approached brilliance. Apostol touches upon colonialism, different perceptions of reality, the ways in which our personalities are constructed and more. She infuses all this with interesting and complex characters and plot threads. Apostol was born in The Philippines but now lives in America. She infuses a lot of American and The Philippine history and culture into this novel.

The plot of this book is difficult to describe because of its many layers. The story takes place in multiple time frames. Some of the timeframes exist within the book’s reality, other timeframes exist as film scripts that exist as part of the primary plot. The scripts are, in part, based on historical events but are, in part, fictional. The movie scripts also contain doppelganger characters that are kind of like fraternal twins existing between the realities. This all sounds confusing, but reading the book was not as confusing as all of this sounds. However, the threads were sometimes a little difficult to follow and I am glad that I read this book on a Kindle so that I was able to search for character and place names and go back and refresh myself. On one hand, this intertwining of realities often was interesting and innovative and fit into the novel’s theme perfectly. On the other hand, I did think that all this muddled book a little and that it marred some good character and plot development. 

The main plotline takes place in 2018. Two women set out on a trip across the Philippines from Manilla to Samar, in order to conduct research for a film. Chiara Brasi is the filmmaker and Magsalin is a translator and writer. Chiara is the daughter of the deceased art film maker Ludo Brasi. Ludo and Chiara are kind of stand - ins for Francis Ford Coppola and his daughter Sophia Coppola. Years earlier, Ludo made a Vietnam War film in Samar, a large island in The Philippines, called The Unintended. This all parallels Coppola’s Apocalypse Now which was also made in The Philippines. In the world of this novel, Coppola and Apocalypse Now also exist, but Ludo’s The Unintended is known as another, less commercially successful Vietnam War film. 

Magsalin is a woman born in The Philippines but who is now living in America who travels and lives in intellectual and cosmopolitan circles. She is hired by Chiara to assist her in the filmmaking. 

There are two scripts for Chiara’s film, one written by Chiara and one written by Magsalin. One script, or at least part of it, as is told throughout the course of the book, takes place in the 1970s and is about Chiara’s father Ludo, her mother Virginie, and his father’s mistress, a Filipino schoolteacher named Caz. Ludo’s suicide is a major point of the film.

The other script, takes place in 1901. It concerns events that occurred during The Philippine–American War. This conflict occurred after America seized the Philippines from Spain. Philippine rebels, fought the American military for years in an attempt to gain independence. During the conflict, an incident known as the Balangiga massacre occurred. During that time a unit of 48 Americans soldiers were ambushed and killed by villagers in the town of Balangiga in Samar. In the ensuring months the Americans retaliated and burned Philippine villages and killed thousands of innocent Filipinos. There is not a lot of controversy about these events, the United States Army official account acknowledges that atrocities occurred and multiple American officers were and court martialed and found guilty of committing war crimes. The movie script centers on the American unit and the Filipino villagers involved in the initial attack. 

The book is in some ways written in a postmodernist style. That is, cultural references, both highbrow and lowbrow are constantly being thrown at the reader. References to great literature, art, the Bible, etc., abound. The story is also infused with popular culture and history. References and commentary on topics such as Elvis Presley, Mohamed Ali, the war in Afghanistan, etc. abound. All this ties into the book’s themes. The rapid fire throwing all of these elements into the mix reminds of the novels of Thomas Pynchon or Salmon Rushdie. I generally like this style when done well and I thought that it was well done here. 

There is a lot going on in this book. There is a moderate amount of political and historical undertone. Events about the Philippine – American War and the Balangiga massacre are tied throughout the narrative to other American actions especially during the Vietnam War. The underlying message is that the United States has acted like an imperial power throughout history to the detriment of much of the world. This brings up a few issues. First, I think that if a literary work, and I think this book can claim literarily status, becomes too in -your - face political, it detracts from the work. On the other hand, I think that a moderate amount of political and social commentary do not mar a novel. In fact, some great fiction, dating back centuries, has incorporated this kind of underlying theme. I find that while this novel may skirt the line a little bit, Apostol keeps it subtle enough not to distract from her art.

The second issue is the politics themselves, I cannot tackle the entire broad subject of American foreign policy over the past one hundred and twenty years within this post. However, I will mention that I think that American actions on the world stage need to be examined and at times criticized. There have clearly been times, such as during the Philippine - American War, that American actions have been unconscionable and atrocities were committed. Likewise motives for American intervention throughout the world have not always been entirely pure. However, the United States and other democracies have also had an enormously positive impact upon the world. I believe that the positive effects have far outweighed the bad stuff. It is hard to pigeonhole the precise political beliefs that Apostol espouses as this is fiction, but I sense that Apostol’s message is a little too simplistic in reference to these issues. With all that, one gets the sense from this book that Apostol loves and is fascinated by American culture. It brims over in almost every page. In addition, Apostol does not demonize individual Americans, for instance American soldiers at Balangiga are flawed but generally humanized. 

I would describe the primary theme of the book as postmodernist. I should note that I have criticized postmodernism when it is applied to politics, ethics and social issues. The postmodernism here is more about commentary on the human experience. I actually like books that play with these concepts in this way. What I mean by postmodernism is that the novel is full of different and malleable points of view as symbolized by the two film scripts. Also the tendency for Apostol to throw out a plethora of cultural and historical references at every turn supports the postmodern themes. We are reminded on multiple occasions that there are conflicting historical claims about the Balangiga Massacre. Different characters living in different times seem to have doubles.

Chiara’s film is described as,


It will be set in 1901, or maybe 1972, or maybe 2018, in any case not quite her father’s ’ 68 — no one will be the wiser . There will be unapologetic uses of generic types, actors with duplicating roles. Anachronisms, false starts, scarlet clues , a noirish insistence on the pathetic pursuit of human truths will pervade its miserable ( quite thin ) plot , and while the mystery will seem unsolved , to some it will provide the satisfaction of unrelieved despair.

I think that the above quotation encapsulates very well the picture of life that this novel tries to build and is key to understanding the book’s themes. There may be as reality out there, but everyone perceives it differently. The reality is also often bewildering as it consists of so many different things. 

Apostol also seems to be suggesting that people are constructions of the kaleidoscope culture and experiences that they live through,


It is not an uncommon condition, this feeling of being constructed out of some ambient, floating parts of a worldwide emporium

This is a thought - provoking and enjoyable novel. I found almost every page to be interesting. I thought that it was a bit flawed as the characters and plot were often developing and headed toward interesting places but seemed to get sidetracked by the disjointed nature of the story. Nevertheless, I found this to be a satisfying read. It was also fun despite some of its tragic plot points, I would recommend book to anyone who likes modern literature.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Women of the Republic by Linda Kerber

Women of the Republic by Linda Kerber is an examination of the legal and social changes that a certain group of women experienced in The American Revolutionary era. I read this book because I had heard that, along with Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin, this was the best source on women’s roles during The American Revolution. My commentary on Berkin’s book is here. Folks who are familiar with my blog know that The American Revolutionary era is a lifelong interest of mine. This work was first published in 1980. I found that this book was very different from Berkin’s work. I thought that it was less engaging but well researched and informative. 

I noted above that this book only covered a certain group of women because, unlike Revolutionary Mothers, Kerber only covers white women living in Continental, and later independent America. There is nothing here about black, or Native American women.

Kerber first covers the role that these women played in colonial and early American society as well as during the Revolution. Women, before the Revolution, were considered apolitical and were expected to follow their husbands’ lead but stay out of all public debates and discussions. Starting in the years before the Revolution, this began to change. Women began to participate in anti - British boycotts and took part on campaigns to produce goods in America instead of importing them from England. Once the war started some women began to be more  involved in politics. Women also took over the management of property, farms and businesses when their husbands went off to war. 

According to Kerber, before the Revolution, if women engaged in political conversation it was frowned upon. The author details how even political themed letters between Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren were derided and caused a bit of a scandal.

Kerber spends some pages exploring Coverture Laws. These laws viewed married couples as one person. Though interpreted differently in different colonies and states, these laws basically had the effect taking any property that a woman brought into marriage and, with some limitations, gave control of it to the husband. If the wife outlived the husband, control of the property was supposed to revert back to her. Other laws only allowed a wife to inherit about one third of a husband’s property, or what today would be considered joint property, after his death.

Kerber goes into great detail explaining these laws and exploring multiple legal cases that led to their evolution during The Revolutionary Era. She concludes that the situation become less advantageous for women during this period. Though I usually find interest in most things I read, I must admit to finding this part of the book a bit tedious. 

Kerber also explores divorce during this era. As local governments were mostly in the hands of the rebels, local politicians wanted to encourage women who sympathized with the rebellion to divorce their loyalist husbands.  This helped to loosen up divorce laws and customs in some places. 

An important concept that is explored is the idea of The Republican Mother. During the years of the Revolution and afterwards, the idea developed that women can have political opinions and that they should be educated. This was so that they could raise good sons and keep their husbands’ worst impulses in check. Though this represented some progress for women, this idea also perpetuated the concept that men’s and women’s spheres were different and that women’s roles was still restricted to the home. Kerber makes honest arguments, while she points out this lack of progress she also speculates that deeper social change might have actually opened the door to the negative outcomes that occurred during the French Revolution. She writes,

Women could be encouraged to contain their judgements as republicans within their homes and families rather than to bridge the world outside and the world within. In this sense, restricting women’s politicization was one of a series of conservative choices that Americans made in the postwar years as they avoided the full implications of their own revolutionary radicalism. In America, responsibility for maintaining public virtue was channeled into domestic life. By these decisions Americans may well have been spared the agony of the French cycle of more blood and produced a political system more retrogressive than had the American war. Nevertheless, the impact of many of these choices was to inhibit the resolution of matters of particular concern for women. 

Another interesting concept was the debate as to what women should actually learn. There was a particular concern that reading fiction was bad for both sexes but particularly bad for women. Some beloved that fiction, even when it had a moral behind it, led to sloth and debauchery. Many advocated that women should instead read history. Kerber explored various angles to this debate. 

This book is somewhat scholarly and is detailed and theory driven. I would say that those who are very interested in the evolution of women’s rights in both social and legal spheres during this era would be interested in this. The book is nothing like Berkin’s work, which explored very diverse groups of women as well as individual women. 

This book has a fairly narrow range. It digs into a lot of detail within that range. At times, even for a reader who is interested in these subjects, it might get a little dull. Thus, Revolutionary Mothers will be better choice for many readers. With that, this book is educational and sheds a lot of light on the subjects that it covers. It also seems to be well researched. I recommend this to this who are very interested and who wish to go deep into to these subjects. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South is the first Elizabeth Gaskell book that I have read. I found this to be wonderful story that contained interesting characters and explored both personal relationships as well as larger social issues. In a way, Gaskell’s books are like a combination of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens with a little bit of Leo Tolstoy thrown in. 

This is the story of Margaret Hale. The book opens as the nineteen - year old Margaret is preparing to attend her cousin’s Edith’s wedding. Margaret has spent much of her adolescence living with her cousin’s rich and somewhat frivolous family. We are also introduced to Henry Lennox, who tries to unsuccessfully to woo Margaret throughout the book. At the point that Edith is married, Margaret returns to live in the country community of Helstone where her father, Mr. Hale, a is pastor. Initially, Margaret enjoys the bucolic and country life during which time she assists her father as he brings charity and succor to the local inhabitants. However, due to Mr. Hale’s schismatic views, he decides to step down as pastor. The family is forced to move to the industrial city of Darkshire, where Mr. Hale will earn a living as a tutor. There, the family interacts both with the mill owners and the poorer mill workers. John Thornton is a strong willed but principled mill owner that Margaret’s father is tutoring. Much of the book concerns itself with the romantic attraction between Margaret and Thornton. At first, Margaret spurns the businessman, but as the story progresses, her attraction for him increases. Nicholas Higgins is a mill worker and union leader. Labor tension bring Thornton and Higgins into conflict. This strife also opens the door to lots of philosophizing and debate  between the major characters about economics, capitalism, personal freedom, and more.

Later, Margaret’s brother Frederick comes into the picture. Several years earlier, Fredrick was an officer in the Royal Navy. While standing up to his abusive captain he becomes involved in mutiny and was forced to flee England under penalty of death. At one point in the plot he sneaks back into the country to see his dying mother. During the remainder of the story Margaret engages in efforts to clear Fredrick’s name. 

A lot of words in this book are devoted to debates and discussions between Margaret and John Thornton. Margaret’s views can best be described as a Christian based liberal, social reformist with a tinge of aristocratic paternalism thrown in. Thornton is a laisse fare capitalist with a strong sense of personal ethics. Though it seems that Gaskill favors Margaret’s positions, she puts strong arguments into Thornton’s mouth and shows that his point of view is not completely invalid. This all intertwines with Nicholas Higgins’s pro - union and pro - labor views. It is also clear that Gaskell is somewhat well versed in these theories as well as economics in general.


What I found distinctive about this book is that it combined an interesting story and well - crafted characters with philosophical and social discussions and debates about social issues, economics and religion. Here, I am reminded of the Russian novelists such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Anthony Trollope also played on this ground a little with political issues but not to the extent that Gaskell does here. 

In addition to the philosophizing the work is filled with interesting characters. I found Thornton’s portrayal to be intriguing. He is originally shown to be a tough businessman who was raised by a tough but still loving mother. He displays a strong ethical code based on personal responsibility. However, early on he reaches out to Mr. Hale in order to advance is education and immerse himself in culture. In what I think is a wonderful passage, he talks about the industrial machine known as a steam hammer and its inventor using colorful language and literary analogy,

so thoroughly was he occupied in explaining to Mr. Hale the magnificent power, yet delicate adjustment of the might of the steam-hammer, which was recalling to Mr. Hale some of the wonderful stories of subservient genii in the Arabian Nights— one moment stretching from earth to sky and filling all the width of the horizon, at the next obediently compressed into a vase small enough to be borne in the hand of a child. 'And this imagination of power, this practical realisation of a gigantic thought, came out of one man's brain in our good town. That very man has it within him to mount, step by step, on each wonder he achieves to higher marvels still

Later Thornton grows. He genuinely falls in love with Margarite. While he does not become pro – labor he takes innovative steps to reach out to his employees, tries to make their lives better and eventually earns their respect.

Mr. Hale is also interesting. He is very principled and ethical. However, he shows a lot of weakness. When he makes his decision, based upon religious convictions, he places his family in a position where they will endure hardship. Yet when it comes time for them to relocate, he is paralyzed with inaction and leaves the emotional and logistical work to Margaret who is only a teenager.  Later, when it comes time to tell a woman that her husband is deceased, he once again is unable to act and leaves the task to his daughter.  This combination of principles and weakness seems a fairly unusual thing in literature. 

Margaret is obviously the center of the book. She is charismatic young woman. She earns great esteem from both lower and upper - class men and women that she encounters. She is calm and at times stoic. She is intelligent, she is a reader, and is easily able to hold her own ion all kinds of discussions that delve into philosophical and social issues. 

Another theme here is the contrast between people who hold different philosophies, religious beliefs and partake in different lifestyles. This is inherent in the title of the book, the North of England representing industrial, capitalistic bustle and the South representing a more laid back, rural agricultural and aristocratic lifestyle. As Margarete and her family are displaced from this southern world, they are made keenly aware of these contrasts. At first Margaret faces the industrial Milton and its factories with dread. As the book progresses however, both she and the reader begin to see that both the North and South ways of life have their merits and drawbacks. Margaret connects with all kinds of people in the industrialized town. Towards the end of the story, when it comes time for Margaret to leave Milton she is struck with melancholy as she has to leave people and a place that she one looked upon with dismay. All this is intertwined with the growing attraction between Margaret and Thornton. Alongside this attraction, both Margaret and Thornton begin to moderate their philosophical ideas and move towards each other. Throughout the story various characters’ differences on religious issues also come to light. The story flows in a direction that indicates that social interactions work best when people tolerate one another and look to bridge gaps. All this reminds me of the novels of E.M. Forster. In many of Forster’s books, the theme of connections between different social groups, philosophies and cultures is explored. This is the first Gaskell novel that I have read so I do not know if these are reoccurring themes in her work. But as far as this book goes, it seems to have influenced Forster’s ideas. 

This is an excellent book. Gaskell has managed to combine the strengths of Victorian novel with some very interesting philosophical musings. The novel is full of compelling of characters and relationships. In this way I thought that this combination was fairly unique for British literature of the time. I recommend this work to fans of Victorian literature. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik

A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik has been an examination of the belief system known as liberalism.  The book, first published this year, has gotten a fair amount of attention among those interested in political and social issues. Gopnik is a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1986. Despite a few quibbles that I have with the author’s presentation of definitions, I found this work to be well thought out and coherent analysis of its subject.  Regardless of one’s views on liberalism, it is a set of ideas that has an enormous impact on humanity.  Thus, I think that this is an important book.

Before saying anything about this book, it is necessary to define a few terms both in regards to general meanings and in regards to how the author uses them. The term “liberalism” has several meanings. For the most part Gopnik is using the universal definition. That is, liberalism is really neither right or left on the political spectrum.  It is the belief in tenants such as democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, secular government, science, racial and gender equality, capitalism, globalism and more. It is the rejection of both right and left extremism.  However, this definition gets muddled as in some countries and places liberalism refers to something else. In the United States and elsewhere, liberalism often refers to a belief in all the previous mentioned values plus a moderately activist government that provides social programs and that implements at least a moderate level of regulation. Gopnik calls this left – liberalism. Making things even more confusing is that fact that in some countries the term liberal is actually tied to a more right - wing belief system and in still other places it is tied to libertarianism. Gopnik lays this out early in the book. The definitions that the author uses are more or less in sync with my understanding of these terms as well as the technical definitions of these terms.  I find his labels to be accurate and useful and will use them for this balance of this post. This work is primarily concerned with the universal definition. However, a curious quirk creeps into Gopnik’s reasoning relating to all this.

The first chapters of the book present a history of liberalism. Though not a comprehensive account, Gopnik covers the lives and beliefs of many scientists, philosophers, artists and writers who have advanced liberal ideas. A large group of individuals is touched upon including Michel de Montaigne, George Henry Lewes, John Stuart Mill, George Eliot and more. Of particular interest to me, the author talks a fair amount about Anthony Trollope’s Pallister novels. Those who are regular readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of Trollope’s books including the Pallister series.  He sees these novels, I believe correctly, as an examination of liberal change and the government of Britain during the Nineteenth - Century.

Most of the balance of the book consists of Gopnik’s philosophical ponderings on the virtues of liberalism. He argues that liberalism is a key driver of progress. He contends  that liberalism has been instrumental in the reduction of poverty, increased life expectancy, the reduction of violence, the expansion of freedom and equality and more. The author paints a picture of liberalism taking the middle ground between the extremes of both the right and the left. He identifies right wing populism, right wing authoritarianism, Marxism and an extreme form of leftist identity politics (what I have been calling postmodernism in previous posts) as being diametrically opposed to liberalism. 

Throughout the book Gopnik tries to provide genuine arguments that come from both the right and left against liberalism.  He does a very good job here and tries to present some anti – liberal arguments fairly. Furthermore, he even grants that sometimes there is a point to these arguments. 

One of Gopnik’s points is that liberals often talk about concepts like reason, individual freedoms, pragmatism, democracy etc. While these are key tenants of liberalism, compassion and empathy also to play a vital part in liberalism. 

Another important theme is that liberalism rejects both utopian and radical ideas. Liberalism recognizes that the world is messy. It tries to use a combination of reason and compassion to make the world better. However, liberal philosophy acknowledges that there are no perfect solutions, that gradual change is better than revolution and that persuading people through democratic means is always better then compelling people. Gopnik writes,

Liberalism accepts imperfection as a fact of existence. Liberalism’s task is not to imagine the perfect society and drive us toward it but to point out what’s cruel in the society we have now and fix it if we possibly can . An acceptance of fallibility and , with it , an openly avowed skepticism of authority — these are core liberal emotions even more than concerns about checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches

The author compares other ideologies as idealized and unrealistic visions of the future in contrast to liberalism which is not about idealization, does not look for magical solutions and is unromantic. He uses a rhinoceros metaphor below because Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill were two key liberal thinkers who were also involved romantically and who used to meet at the rhinoceros cage at the London Zoo. Gopnik writes, 

Most political visions are unicorns, perfect imaginary creatures we chase and will never find. Liberalism is a rhinoceros. It’s hard to love. It’s funny to look at. It isn’t pretty but it’s a completely successful animal. A rhino can overturn an SUV and—go to YouTube!—run it right over, horn out.

The author digs deeply into religion’s role in all this. Like me, he sees religion as a mixed bag, sometimes people have used religious beliefs to effectively advocate for liberal values but at other times these beliefs have been used to oppose liberalism. He delves into this issue in some detail in the ways that religion and liberalism interact.

Gopnik also brings up other important issues. He believes that in the long run capitalism and globalism, a key part of liberalism, benefit humanity as a whole. However, sometimes on the local level, for limited periods of time, these systems have contributed to human misery.  Gopnik ponders some liberal responses to this dilemma. Once again, I agree with the author’s reasoning here.

Up until this point I agree with almost all the prepositions that I have mentioned.  However, at some points the author seems to get a little fuzzy with the meaning of liberalism. Despite clearly differentiating between universal liberalism and left – liberalism early on, Gopnik starts to mix the concepts later in the book and seems to place some clearly left – liberal ideas into the liberal basket. He seems to insert government social spending and regulation policies into his conception of universal liberalism. This might be attributable to the fact that these are not set definitions and everyone has a slightly different interpretation of all this.  I should mention that I am a left - liberal myself. I believe in universal liberal concepts but I also believe in a mixed system economic system that includes a fairly robust mix of government social programs and regulations. In fact, on the vast majority of political and social issues I am in agreement with the author. However, I think that this kind of government activism is not a part of universal liberalism. Liberals, in the universal sense, include people with moderate - right views and libertarian views that are opposed to left - liberalism. I may be nitpicking here, and perhaps I am getting a little bit into an arcane argument, but I think that universal liberalism is a vitally important set of ideas that needs to fit in people that I disagree with on some of these left/right issues.

One other quibble that I have about this book is that I think that it ignores non - Western sources of liberal ideas. Gopnik focuses heavily upon enlightenment figures. He also mentions Christianity. The Enlightenment was of course vital. It was the greatest explosion of liberalism is history, at least up until that point. However, the more I delve into these issues I realize that some liberal ideas did come from elsewhere in the world, the Islamic Golden Age, Chinese Civilization, some Native American Groups, particularly when it comes to gender, are just a few examples of what I am referring to. I wish that Gopnik talked about these influences just a little. This is a bit of a controversial issues and I realize that not everyone agrees with me on this. 

Despite a few qualms I have on principle with Gopnik’s drift on the definition of liberalism, I agree with most of what is presented here. I concur that liberalism has been the great force in human history that has made things better for people in almost every corner of the Earth. As they have been in the past, liberal systems and values are under pressure from both the far right and the far left. I am very much on board with concepts such as slow and careful change, democracy, basic freedoms, the value of reason matched with compassion, the rejection of both far right and far left radicalism, and more that is here. 

I liked this book and I thought that it is valuable. This is an important piece of political and social philosophy that is very much relevant to the world today. Even if one disagrees with Gopnik’s premises, he is a fair writer who brings both knowledge and understanding to this topic. If one does not agree with all the precepts of liberalism, as a system and a belief system it has had a profound influence upon the world. This book is an excellent source for anyone who wants to understand that system. I highly recommend this book to those interested in these topics. 

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad



This post contains spoilers.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad is a dark tale of spying, radicalism and family strife. Like other Conrad books that I have read, the prose and characters are masterly crafted. First published in 1907, the story seems to take place in the 1880s. This is the fourth Conrad book that I have read. I had previously completed Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and Nostromo. Though I found this novel to be nearly great, I thought that the ideas and some characters could have been developed more. This also seemed like darkest Conrad novel that I have read so far. 


This is the story of Adolph Verloc. The protagonist is currently living in London and is covertly employed by a foreign embassy, possibly Russian. Verloc has spent his life infiltrating anarchist and other radical circles with the intent of monitoring and disrupting these organizations on the behest of various governments. Mr. Vladimir is Verloc’s new supervisor who hatches a plot that involves the incitement of violence. The theory is that if the anarchists set off a bomb, it will rouse the British government and public to take more vigorous action against radicalism. Thus, Verloc is set into motion to set off a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory.


In the non - covert world Verloc runs a shop that sells all kinds of shady wares including pornography. He lives with his wife Winnie, his mother - in - law and his brother - in - law Stevie. Verloc’s young brother – in – law is someone who in our present times would likely be diagnosed with autism. Over the course of the book it is revealed that Winnie and Stevie’s father had been abusive. Even after he died, Winnie’s family faced a world of abusive men and a future that would probably see Stevie institutionalized. Winnie married Mr. Verloc because he showed himself to be a financially stable, outwardly good natured, non - abusive man who would tolerate Stevie. Her actions are almost entirely motivated by her desire to take care of and protect her brother. For his part, though easy going, Mr. Verloc is emotionally detached and exhibits almost no ethics. Though the characters that he surrounds himself are disreputable, it is not to Verloc’s credit that he spies upon and betrays them. 

Verloc’s radical friends are portrayed as a combination of immoral and ridiculous people who advocate terrible theories. A few, like the bomb  -   making “Professor” are willing to commit or at least assist in the perpetuating violence and are horrifying people.

In an effort to carry out the bombing of the observatory Verloc enlists Stevie to assist him. After procuring a bomb from The Professor, Verloc sends the trustful and naive Stevie to plant the explosive at the observatory. Unfortunately, in route to place the device, Stevie trips on a tree root and blows himself up. The book ends on a bleak note as both Verloc and Winnie fall into personnel catastrophe. 

I think Stevie’s character is key here. Though he has difficulties with the world, Stevie spends a lot of time thinking about topics such as morality and suffering. He shows a great deal of empathy for others. At one point he becomes aware of the difficult and painful lives of both a carriage driver and his horse, 

“Poor brute, poor people!” was all he could repeat. It did not seem forcible enough, and he came to a stop with an angry splutter: “Shame!” Stevie was no master of phrases, and perhaps for that very reason his thoughts lacked clearness and precision. But he felt with greater completeness and some profundity. That little word contained all his sense of indignation and horror at one sort of wretchedness having to feed upon the anguish of the other— at the poor cabman beating the poor horse in the name, as it were, of his poor kids at home. And Stevie knew what it was to be beaten. He knew it from experience. It was a bad world. Bad! Bad!

The above is just one example in the text where Stevie’s character manifests itself. He also creates artwork through which one gets the sense that he is trying to makes sense of a very chaotic universe,

innocent Stevie, seated very good and quiet at a deal table, drawing circles, circles, circles; innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric; a coruscating whirl of circles that by their tangled multitude of repeated curves, uniformity of form, and confusion of intersecting lines suggested a rendering of cosmic chaos, the symbolism of a mad art attempting the inconceivable.

Stevie’s views are contrasted with the motley crew of anarchists who operate on all kinds of social theories that purport to make the world better. These men are nihilistic, egotistical, callous to suffering and are willing to hurt people. Like Fyodor Dostoevsky did with his portrayals of radicals, Conrad seems to anticipate the mass murders and genocides of the twentieth century as The Professor talks about plans for mass extermination of people. One of these anarchists label Stevie as “degenerate”; the irony being that it is actually the accuser who shows degeneracy. The radical world eventually kills Stevie, further heightening the contrast. 

Of course, Stevie’s morality is also at odds with Mr. Verloc’s narcissism and the embassy official’s callous disregard for ethics and human life. At the end however, Stevie’s conceptions of justice have their day to some extent.

There is a lot more going on in this book. There are multiple characters, including police officials and criminals that Conrad digs into. One flaw in the narrative manifests itself as some of these characters seem only partially formed. The author spends a fair number of pages developing some of the police officials and their stories but seems to leave them hanging in the end. 

Winnie is also explored in great depth. She shows great selflessness in her devotion to Stevie. By the story’s end, her understandable decisions lead to disastrous consequences for herself. I could devote an entire post to her. 

Like the other Conrad books that I have, the prose here is very dense. The description of places and people are filled with words. I found myself rereading passages often. Others have observed that Conrad tends to construct long sentences that go in circles. I tend to agree with this. I do not consider these things drawbacks however, in fact, I love Conrad’s style. It is unique, interesting to read, and bursting with meaning.

Despite a few flaws and despite the fact that it is very dark, this is a suburb novel. It is filled with interesting and complex characters. The plot and themes are fascinating. It is also filled with Conrad’s unique but wonderfully crafted prose. With that, I thought that the ideas here might not have been as complex as Lord Jim or Nostromo. Still, this novel deserves its reputation of being a classic.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

Song of the Lark by Willa Cather is considered the second of the author’s Great Plains Trilogy. However, though it takes place in the American Midwest as did O Pioneers!, the two stories are unconnected. I found this to be great character study. Along the way, Cather adds in a lot of ponderings on the things that make a person an artist. In addition, the novel is filled with musical references ranging from American and Mexican folk music to the operas of Richard Wagner. These references greatly enhanced my reading experience.

This is the story of Thea Kronborg. Thea is born into a Swedish - American family that resides in the fictional town of Moonstone, Colorado. She grows up in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Thea is special. The is smarter than most of her peers. She loves books. She has enormous musical talent. She seems to exude a charisma, even as an adolescent, that draws men to her. These men invest time and effort info promoting Theas’s future, as she slowly emerges as a successful and gifted opera singer. 

Perhaps the most important male supporter of Thea is Dr. Howard Archie. His interest in her strikes one as a little odd. Though never overtly romantic, one gets the sense that there is a subtext of attraction as Thea gets older. Late in the book, Dr. Archie himself thinks back on the relationship, 

He realized now that she had counted for a great deal more to him than he knew at the time. It was a continuous sort of relationship. He was always on the lookout for her as he went about the town, always vaguely expecting her as he sat in his office at night. He had never asked himself then if it was strange that he should find a child of twelve the most interesting and companionable person in Moonstone. It had seemed a pleasant, natural kind of solicitude. He explained it then by the fact that he had no children of his own. But now, as he looked back at those years, the other interests were faded and inanimate. The thought of them was heavy.

Dr. Archie supports Thea in her early years, helps her get set up in Chicago where she goes to study music and eventually finances her journey to Germany to properly hone her skills as an opera singer. There are many others in Thea’s hometown who are drawn to her including Ray Kennedy, an intelligent railroad brakeman who intends to marry Thea when she gets older but who is killed in a train accident. Her charisma and her musical interests lead her to the form bonds with several other adults including members of the Mexican – American community.

While studying music in Chicago Thea meets Fred Ottenberg. Fred is the son of a wealthy parents. Thea and Fred begin to fall in love until Fred is forced to tell Thea that he is actually married to woman that he has come to hate. 

Later Thea travels to Germany to study opera. The narrative then jumps forward ten years when Thea returns to America to be greeted by both Dr. Archie and Fred. Thea is becoming something of a diva and the two men are entranced by her. 

I thought that the prose here, while very good, did not reach the nearly sublime level that they reached in O Pioneers! There may have been a few passages that came close to the earlier work, but only a few. Instead, the strength of this book lies in the fact that it is a superb character study. This book is a classic and successful example of a bildungsroman. 

Thea is complex and nuanced. In some ways her development is a study in talent and the formation of an artist. As mentioned above, she exhibits enormous talent and intelligence when growing up. She is tomboyish as she is not afraid of the outdoor elements or the rougher nature of life. This roughish part of her nature reasserts itself at various points on the plot throughout Thea’s life. 

When she goes to Chicago to study music she exudes confidence, self – reliance as well as enormous drive. To Cather’s credit she has endowed her literary creation with flaws. Thea goes through a period where her detachment, calmness and confidence begins to trend into coldness and arrogance. As it sometimes happens in real life, this period seems to pass naturally. Later when she learns that Fred is married Thea is hurt but not devastated, indicating just how self - reliant that she is.

There is a duality to Theas's character. There is a contrast between the fairly tough girl who grew up on the plains and cosmopolitan woman who is honing her considerable musical talent. At one point, Thea is present at a concert where Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 "From the New World” is played and it reminds her of her youth. Later some of Wagner’s operatic works are performed presaging the life that she in entering. 

Toward the book’s conclusion Thea comments on how her ties to Moonstone has buoyed her as an artist. She tells Dr. Archie, 

Nearly all my dreams, except those about breaking down on the stage or missing trains, are about Moonstone. You tell me the old house has been pulled down, but it stands in my mind, every stick and timber. In my sleep I go all about it, and look in the right drawers and cupboards for everything. I often dream that I'm hunting for my rubbers in that pile of overshoes that was always under the hatrack in the hall. I pick up every overshoe and know whose it is, but I can't find my own. Then the school bell begins to ring and I begin to cry. That's the house I rest in when I'm tired. All the old furniture and the worn spots in the carpet— it rests my mind to go over them.”

I found this to be an excellent book. Thera’s character and her development is at the heart of it all. She is not just complex and interesting but she is unusual. Though I did not find the prose to be as soaring as Cather’s effort in O Pioneers!, the character development makes up for it. Cather’s exploration of artistry and music is also fascinating. This novel is a fine example of American literature.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Empire by Niall Ferguson

Empire by Neil Ferguson is a history of the British Empire. The book also presents several of the author’s arguments about that empire. First published in 2012 this work has garnered some controversy. I found this to be a compelling history book that could have used more detail. I agreed with some, but not all of Ferguson’s contentions. Either way, the author is a lively thinker who is not afraid of going into all sorts of directions and who presents evidence to support his conclusions. 

Those who have been reading my posts over the past several months know that I have been reading books that cover the subject of colonialism. I started off by reading a series of books that fit within the category known as postcolonialism. This ideology can be described as left wing. I am now moving on to more conservative, and moderate writers. Thus, I read this book.  Ferguson is often called  a conservative. With that, though some of Ferguson’s views fit into the realm of conservative thought, to characterize this book as purely conservative seems to be an oversimplification. As I will try to highlight below, there is a lot of complexity here.

This work falls short of being   a comprehensive history. Ferguson tends to drop into a region and examine a time period or certain events. He then jumps into another time and place, leaving some gaps along the way. My version of this book was 380 pages long plus notes. Another 80 to 100 pages would have filled in the gaps and painted a more comprehensive picture.

Ferguson traces the early days of English colonization. He asserts that during the Seventeenth Century the British basically operated a piracy campaign aimed at stealing the gold that was being transported on Spanish ships. The British needed bases for these operations and thus established colonies in places like Jamaica. Later these colonies grew, and became economic engines in and of themselves. Colonization throughout the world, from Ireland to the West Indies to Africa to India and elsewhere is covered.  

The colonization of America and Australia is also explored. I want to mention some of Ferguson’s arguments regarding these places. Colonization in these regions was different as it involved settler colonization. That is, Europeans actually moved in and displaced indigenous societies. This involved murder, genocide, various forms of oppression and the taking of lands. Ferguson pulls no punches describing these facts and commenting upon the lack of morality on the part of the Europeans.  However, he does contend, that these trends would have happened with or without the presence of the British Empire. In fact, in the case of North America, most of the continent was subjugated by an independent United States.   I agree with him that these things would likely have happened regardless of the British. I think that this particular argument is important as it relates to Ferguson’s summing up of the Empire that he commences toward the end of this work.

Some of the book is aimed at providing evidence to support the author’s contentions. To Ferguson’s credit, he often presents both sides of an argument. He does not straw man and he presents evidence to support even arguments that he opposes.  

One of his main contentions, in fact, the most important contention of the book, is that despite the terrible things that the Empire did, it was also very beneficial to humanity. This contention also opens an entire series of issues that the author delves into. First, as mentioned above, Ferguson clearly makes the point that the British Empire did unconscionable things. Furthermore, he goes out of its way to innumerate and analyze these things. To name just a few terrible events perpetuated during the time of empire that are explored here: the Tasmanian genocide, the brutal suppression of the Indian Mutiny including the murders of civilians, forcing the Chinese government to accept the importation of narcotics, the outright stealing of native lands, are among the outrageous detailed.

Despite all this the author contends that The British Empire brought benefits to humanity. First, Ferguson details how, in the Nineteenth Century the Empire, at prompting of both Evangelical Christian and Liberal movements, engaged in a mostly successful campaign to eradicate slavery throughout the world. 

The author goes on to detail how the Empire spread free trade, communications networks, competent civil service, legal systems and parliamentary democracy throughout the world. He engages in economic and political analysis that I admittedly cannot really evaluate. However, he concludes, that despite problems, on average former British colonies are more democratic, and more prosperous, then the rest of the developing world. I agree these things have been beneficial to humanity and that to some degree the British spread them. I think it is not clear however, just how far these trends would have grown and advanced without the Empire. 

Ferguson contends that the Empire bestowed another benefit to the world in that it was instrumental in destroying much more harmful empires of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. Furthermore, he argues that Great Britain choose to confront these empires when it could have simply coexisted with them.

The book goes on to contend that the strain of fighting two world wars were what caused the empire to dissolve in the twentieth century. Ferguson writes, 

What had been based on Britain’s commercial and financial supremacy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and her industrial supremacy in the nineteenth was bound to crumble once the British economy buckled under the accumulated burdens of two world wars. The great creditor became a debtor.

The author goes on to argue that much of Britain’s debt was owed to the United States which opposed the continuation of Empire. The United States proceeded to use its leverage to undermine the Empire. 

Ferguson believes that the movements for national liberation that spread throughout the Empire were not as strong as assumed. He argues that they were similar to movements that were defeated in previous centuries. However, an Empire that was weakened by fighting the Axis could not contend with them. He writes eloquently in this passage,  

Yet what made it so fine, so authentically noble, was that the Empire’s victory could only ever have been Pyrrhic. In the end, the British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs. Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s other sins?

I think that the contention that the Empire would not have unraveled had it not been for the world wars is questionable. It seems far - fetched to contend that, but for the lack of resources, that the British would have hung on to the colonies. The drive toward self - determination was, and still is, a world - wide one that was greatly accelerated during the twentieth century. It manifested itself in places well beyond the British Empire. Nationalist self - determination movements were also usually successful. 

As for Britain being weakened by fighting two world wars, Ferguson, who was initially an economic historian and makes a seemingly strong case. However, I do not really know enough to have a strong opinion on this one.  I had previously read Ferguson ‘s War of the World. That book was also history book where the author laid out several contentions. It turns out that the arguments that Ferguson made in that book are related to the arguments that he makes here. In that book, the author also contended that the stress of two world wars was what caused France and England to lose their empires. 

I want to note that Ferguson is very much at odds with the postcolonial writers that I have recently been reading. In fact, a few moths ago, I read Colonialism/Postcolonialism in which Ania Loomba was specifically critical of Ferguson’s views. Loomba and several other writers tend to be highly negative about capitalism, free trade and globalism. Ferguson champions these things. In addition, arguing that the Empire was in some ways beneficial seems like anathema to postcolonial thought. 

I commented in a previous post that I had perused several postcolonial academic reading lists.  I thought that these lists represented an echo chamber with little diversity of thought with a lot of emphasis on anti – capitalism, Marxism, intersectionalism, critical race theory, etc.  It seems to me, that books such as Ferguson’s should be included as part of postcolonial readings. Even if most professors and students disagree with these more conservative contentions, it is important to consider differing views. 

Though I thought that this book could have been more comprehensive, it is a very good book.  It is interesting and informative, I learned a lot about the British Empire. I agree with some of Ferguson’s contentions but disagreed with others. However, he is a sharp and coherent thinker who presents his arguments well. He is also not hesitant to present evidence that might support both sides. In the end, this was a very worth - while read. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope



Orley Farm is the fifteenth Anthony Trollope novel that I have read. I decided to give this one a go for several reasons. Though a little less known then some other Trollope books, Harold Bloom included this on his Western Cannon list. Trollope himself also considered this his best work. I was not disappointed as I found this novel to be up there among the Trollope books that I liked best. It may have been as good as The Way We Live Now, which is often considered the author’s great standalone novel. In addition to the usual Trollopian strengths, I thought that this book’s characters displayed a special emotional intensity that tied into the book’s themes in ways that surpassed the author’s other works


At the center of the story is Lady Mason. Twenty years before the main events of this narrative, Lady Mason was married to the much older and wealthy Sir Joseph Mason. The elder man had a family from a previous marriage. Upon his death, an amendment to his will is found indicating that he left a valuable fraction of his property, known as Orley Farm, to Lady Mason’s and his infant son Lucius. The will is contested by Sir John’s elder son, Joseph Mason the younger. Though Lady Mason wins the first round of legal battles and gets to keep control of Orley Farm, twenty years later new evidence is discovered by the vengeful ex - tenant of the Masons, Samuel Dockwrath.

The fate of Orley Farm is once again in question, and Lady Mason is accused of forgery. The plot takes us through her trial. I am not giving too much away in saying that as that fairly early, it becomes apparent to the reader that Lady Mason did indeed forge the will. She did it to avoid a situation where her son would grow up penniless. Adding to the drama are additional characters. There is the now grown – up, headstrong but ethical Lucius trying to interfere in the legal battle. Mr. Furnival is Lady Mason’s lead attorney who is very attracted to her and who has his own familial complications. Sir Felix Graham is another attorney whose ethical dilemmas and romantic attachments could fill a short novel in and of themselves. The stately, chivalrous and emotional Sir Peregrine Orme, an elder aristocrat who falls in love with Lady Mason, becomes temporarily engaged to her and tries to assist her. 

As alluded to above, outside of the main plot there are multiple characters and plot threads that run concurrently and interact with one another. These threads are so numerous and complex it is impossible to summarize them in a single blog post. These threads involve friends and relations of the Masons as well as members of the opposing legal teams. They mostly involve romantic entanglements. Several critics have tallied characters and found that this book contains more major characters and plot threads than anything else that Trollope wrote. As he has done in other novels, the author has given us a complex world peopled by nuanced characters. 

Major themes here include ethics, guilt and loyalty. Trollope manages to interweave these themes with character development in a brilliant way and in many permutations. Lady Mason, in her forgery of the will, has committed an unethical act. Based on the conventions of Trollope’s time, this crime is considered more severe both legally and socially then it would be today. As her friends come to the realization of what she has done, they begin to agonize as to what to do and how to treat their friend. 

Many factors come into play. First there is Lady Mason’s personality and charm. Trollope loves complexity. Lady Mason is shown to be a decent person who committed one unethical act. Yet she still has a few flaws. She is worthy of friendship and loyalty. Several friends, who become aware of and condemn her crime, nevertheless still try to emotionally support her. At the same time, she is described as charming and still beautiful and able to use these attributes to her advantage. This makes her attractive to men who are some, but not all,  of the people who support her. She is described as follows,

Lady Mason was rich with female charms, and she used them partly with the innocence of the dove, but partly also with the wisdom of the serpent. But in such use as she did make of these only weapons which Providence had given to her, I do not think that she can be regarded as very culpable. During those long years of her young widowhood in which nothing had been wanting to her, her conduct had been free from any hint of reproach. She had been content to find all her joy in her duties and in her love as a mother. Now a great necessity for assistance had come upon her. It was necessary that she should bind men to her cause, men powerful in the world and able to fight her battle with strong arms. She did so bind them with the only chains at her command,— but she had no thought, nay, no suspicion of evil in so doing…She did wish to bind these men to her by a strong attachment; but she would have stayed this feeling at a certain point had it been possible for her so to manage it.

The above quotation is typical of Trollope at this best. First Biblical references, in this case about the innocence of doves and the wisdom of serpents, is something common with this author. Trollope’s books are filled with both Biblical and mythological references such as this. I think that this particular reference fits seamlessly fits into his description of Lady Mason. The entire passage encapsulates the complexity of people and the complexity of life. Lady Mason’s behavior could be described as manipulative. However there a lot more to it as her views and aims are tempered by other factors. Elsewhere in the book she is described as a loving and dutiful mother. She is not motivated by malice and tries not to do harm. I would also point out that unlike many other writers, Trollope, despite creating characters endowed with subtlety, tends to dig into his characters without subtlety on his part. His omnipotent narrator unashamedly analyzes and judges his creations. Some readers might consider this a flaw. However, I find that Trollope does this in a way that is both unique and effective. Finally, Lady Mason is simply a complex and great character.

There is a lot more exploration of these themes. Both Sir Peregrine Orme and Mr. Furnival are entranced and infatuated with Lady Mason. Both wrestle over what to do when they learn the truth about the forgery. As a result, Orme acquiesces to break his engagement. However, he otherwise sticks by her. At the same times he encourages her to make amends for what she has done by encouraging her son to return the property gained by fraudulent means. 

Felix Grahamis a young lawyer who is on Lady Mason’s defense team. He has a reputation of only taking cases where he believes he is in the right. He initially joins the defense team because he believes that Lady Mason is innocent. As he realizes the truth, he encounters a moral dilemma as to how to proceed. Other attorneys in the team could care less that she is really guilty. This relates to another related theme of the book involves corruption and lack of ethics in the English legal system. 

For her part Lady Mason is wracked with guilt and is described as having shouldered the burden of her act for twenty years. She seems to want to genuinely return the property and make amends as her friends encourage her to do. However, this would involve telling her son what she has done, and also depriving him of all his property and his home. The emotional turmoil that she experiences is both realistic and effective beyond anything else I have read in a Trollope novel. All old these characters and  their predicaments all intermix beautifully with Trollope's themes. 

I found this book among Trollope’s best. Though not my number one favorite, it compares well to all his other works. He did some things here better than in the other books that I have read by him. The book is full of complex characters and has an engrossing plot and interesting themes.  I highly recement this to fans of Victorian literature and of Trollope.