Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Night by Elie Wiesel

I read the version of this book translated by Marion Wiesel, who was the author’s wife.

Night by Elie Wiesel was first published in 1956. This is the author’s account of how in 1944, when he was 15 years old, he and his family were shipped off to Auschwitz. This is a short book. In it, Wiesel tells of nearly unspeakable brutality directed against him, his family and his fellow inmates. This is a harrowing book. It is not an easy book to read, it pears into some of the darkest aspects in humanity.

Wiesel recounts how his entire family was murdered. Only he survived. He tells of beatings, torture and starvation. There are accounts unimaginable brutality and cruelty by The Nazis that I will not describe them or quote. This book should only be read by those whop are prepared to read of such things.

There is almost nothing positive within the actual text of this work. Even Wiesel’s own thoughts exude the darkest negativity and despair.  The author starts out very religious. In fact, recounts how he began studying The Kabbalah at an early age. However, as he experiences horror after horror after horror he begins to question God in an extremely bitter way,

“Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?

My version of this book was only 120 pages long. I get the impression that it is short and concise in order to show the horrors of Wiesel’s experience in a basic and stripped down way. That said, I did hunger for more details.

My edition of this book included supplementary material.  A forward by Wiesel, written years later, as well as his 1986 acceptance speech for The Nobel Peace Prize were included. These materials show a man who has found meaning in life. Wiesel became committed to anti – violence and combatting oppression and bigotry throughout the world. He also seems to acknowledge God. However, there is no indication of this in the text of the book itself. It is simply a chronicle of darkness. I am left feeling that I need to read more of the author’s works to understand what came next and how he became the humanitarian that he became. Wiesel passed away in 2016 but left numerous writings behind.  A glance at his bibliography indicates that many answers might be found in these writings. 

I have read a few other first hand accounts of the Nazi concentration camps and have heard a lot about others. Many similar accounts often incorporate parts about survivors finding some sort of meaning to life. This work, at least the original text, does not provide such optimism. I believe this book, the way it is, has it place. Sometimes the horror of the world just has to be shown as is.  With that, knowing that Wiesel did find meaning, and seems to have chronicled it in his later writings makes this book just a little easier to take. Ultimately this is a vitally important work. It is a look into the worst aspects of existence. Sometimes books need to do this.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen is the story of Catherine Morland. This is another enjoyable Jane Austen novel filled with all of the things that make Austen a great writer. It is both an engaging read and a meaningful book. Though I found this work to be a little underdeveloped, it is more than worth the read.

Catherine is young woman who, though inexperienced in society, is outgoing, principled and relatively confident. Early in the novel, she becomes romantically interested in Henry Tilney, a perceptive and intelligent young man who has a cynical sense of humor. She also develops a friendship with several members of the Tilney family, including Henry’s father, General Tilney, and his sister, Eleanor.

Catherine is eventually invited to stay at Northanger Abbey. The old abbey is owned by the Tilneys and is used as their home. 

Throughout the narrative, Catherine is reading Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. She becomes somewhat obsessed with this book as well as other gothic romances. Her stay at Northanger is characterized by her imagining secret passages in the walls, sinister plots and various dark doings influenced by her literary tastes. 

This book was the first book that Austen wrote. However, it was not published until after her death. Many of Austen’s ideas and techniques, such as her biting social commentary, dynamic characters, well written prose, etc., are all present here but seem a little underdeveloped. The ending also seemed to be rushed. I felt this work could have used more pages to develop these ideas and to shore up the plot.

I want to share a few thoughts about this novel’s connection to the Radcliffe book and gothic literature in general. It is not necessary to read The Mysteries of Udolpho before reading this novel. However, doing so will decode some of the humor of this book. The main thrust of this work is not the connection between the two books. However, the impact that gothic literature has upon Catherine is emblematic of one of Austen’s recurring themes that appear throughout her novels. The theme is perception versus reality. In later Austen books, this theme is more relationship centered. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’ s perception of Darcy’s character seems skewed throughout much of the book. Here, we see Catherine influenced by gothic novels, drawing real life conclusions that turn out to be incorrect. When she is first invited to Northanger Abbey, Catherine assumes that it is dark, labyrinth-filled fortress similar to Udolpho castle. When she arrives, she is disappointed to find that it is a more modest structure.

"An abbey! Yes, it was delightful to be really in an abbey! But she doubted, as she looked round the room, whether anything within her observation would have given her the consciousness. The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste. The fireplace, where she had expected the ample width and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford, with slabs of plain though handsome marble, and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china. The windows, to which she looked with peculiar dependence, from having heard the general talk of his preserving them in their Gothic form with reverential care, were yet less what her fancy had portrayed. To be sure, the pointed arch was preserved— the form of them was Gothic— they might be even casements— but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone-work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing."

In the above quotation, Catherine is actually distressed that the building is not dark and gothic as she imagined that it would be!

Later, though General Tilney does show himself to posses questionable character, she assumes that he is a villainous murderer along the lines of Montoni, the chief antagonist of Radcliffe’s book. This preposterous assumption almost damages her relationship with Henry. Throughout the book, Catherine makes other false assumptions that spring from her overactive imagination that is cultivated by reading too many Gothic novels.

I find this personality trait in Catherine interesting and amusing. However, I think that this exposition of faulty perception is less subtle and less well crafted when compared with Austen’s later forays into serious perceptual misunderstandings. I think that this is another area where the early nature of this work shows itself. This is a very good book. The typically brilliant Austen plot, characters and prose are present here. However, I found this to be a little less satisfying than other Austen novels. In some ways, this book illustrates how Austen’s skills improved over time. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable Austen book that is full of wonderful things. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power by Naomi Alderman was first published in the United States this year and The United Kingdom last year. The book is getting a lot of buzz and it is generating a lot of online discussion. This is a dystopian tale that explores the issues of gender, violence, oppression and religion. 

Over the past year or so I have read several books that take place in fictional matriarchies. This book fits in with that reading. The links to my commentary on the other novels that I read on this subject are below. 

I found this novel to be outstanding. The plot is gripping. The characters are interesting. The themes are fascinating. It is full of ideas. It is imaginative and inventive. 

The book is framed as a historical novel written by a writer named Neil who lives in in the distant future. The story begins in the present time. One day, teenaged girls find that they have gained a new ability. They can administer electric shocks to others. Later they learn how to pass on the power to older women. Women and girls can control the intensity and effect of shocks. Thus, most women gain the power to easily cause minor discomfort, paralysis, great pain, serious injury, or death. The new - found power gives women enormous physical advantage over men. In most cases, males are essentially helpless if assaulted by a woman. Most of the narrative of the book takes place over the ten - year period that follows the change. During this time radical transformations occur throughout the world.

Initially, in some places, there are enormous benefits. Abused and exploited women overthrow their oppressors. Women who are the victims of sex trafficking, physical abuse, oppressive laws, etc. are liberated. In Saudi Arabia for instance, women quickly overthrow the repressive regime and free themselves from male domination.

Things quickly go awry however. Chaos and war break out in many places as revolutions spiral out of control. Much of the narrative takes place in Moldavia. There, a repressive and violent female supremacist regime takes power. Men are reduced to a status of near slavery. Males are brutalized, raped and murdered on a large scale. Lest anyone think that there is no equivalent to this in our world, this part of the book reminds me of ISIS's treatment of women. The regime also institutes laws that are very similar to Saudi Arabian Male Guardianship Laws, but in reverse. The narrative, as told by the writer in the far future, makes clear that this is a pattern that will repeat itself in many times and in many places in the future. 

In places like The United Kingdom and the United States, change is less chaotic but still dramatic. Violence committed by young girls skyrockets. In schools girls and boys are segregated for the protection of the boys. Men and boys fear being out alone and need to be cautious around girls and women. Domestic violence and murder perpetuated against men by women becomes much more common. Men begin to be displaced from leadership roles in both business and government. Men begin to be objectified and sexually harassed. 

In one passage, the President of Moldavia and her entourage is described,

Tatiana is followed into the room by two well-built men in fitted clothing: black T-shirts so tight you can see the outline of their nipples, skinny trousers with noticeable crotch bulges. When she sits— in a high-backed chair on a dais— they sit beside her, on somewhat lower stools. The trappings of power, the rewards of success.”

Alderman has created scenario, where a major change in the physical balance of power between men and women brings about massive social change in a wide variety of areas. The author puts a lot of imagination into the role reversal aspect of the story.

The narrative alternates between several main characters. Allie is an abused foster - child who goes on to lead a new worldwide female - centric religion. Margot is a rising American politician who uses her power to project strength. Tunde is young Nigerian man who is a journalist and who travels the world reporting on the great changes occurring.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is full of graphic violence. There are numerous accounts of murder, torture and sexual assaults. Nothing is gratuitous however. Alderman is clearly trying to show the terrible aspects of violence.

This book explores so many issues that it is hard to choose what to focus on. My commentary on several other books that centered on matriarchal societies focused on the nature/nurture debate and gender differences. Thus I will write a few words on those issues. Alderman raises what I think should have been an obvious, but somehow overlooked point here. That is, she attributes much of the gender differences relating to violence, sexism, reproductive strategies, etc. to the difference in raw physical strength that exists between most men and women. In a short Twitter conversation I had with her, she emphasized that she thought that the ability to inflict pain was a big factor. It is surprising to me that that this point is not brought up more often.

The main point of the book is that the consequences of this change in physical power would drive fundamental changes in multiple levels of society. The novel makes a somewhat convincing case and makes me wonder how much gender differences relate to physical strength.

I think that if such a transformation occurred a lot of things would change. However, I also think that evolutionary psychology drives a lot of the differences in the behavior of large groups of men and women. I think this is true in regards to the propensity to be violent, and in reproductive strategies. In other words, it is more likely, due to genetics, that men will be violent. It is also more likely that men will act in certain ways when it comes to choosing mates, objectifying people in sexual ways, tendency to rape, etc. 

I do think that Alderman in on to something. I agree that the disparity in physical strength and the ability to inflict pain is at the root of a lot of gender differences. But I think that there is more to the story. If such a dramatic change happened, as envisioned in this book, violence committed by women would surely rise. However, I do not believe it would rise as high as it does in this story. More women would harass and objectify men. However, I do not believe that the mirror imagine world that the book portrays would come to be. Women might exploit and oppress men for sexual and reproductive reasons, but I think that if they did, it would be in different ways. In regards to rape, I think that more women would commit rape against men (a small number do so now) But I do not believe that they would not do so on the level of the mass rapes depicted on this book.

I wrote much of the above before I finished the book. To my surprise, I found that before the story closes, Alderman presents a fascinating, counterargument to the evolutionary psychology type arguments that I mention above. She clearly anticipated such objections. As mentioned above, the entire story is framed as a historical novel by a writer in the far future. The supposed writer is a man named Neil, living in a society where men are clearly face sexism citizen and discrimination, but that may be slowly moving towards equality. “The Power” has indeed changed the world forever. Neil exchanges letters with another writer who is a woman named Naomi. In her letters Naomi makes an evolutionary psychological argument as to why women are more violent then men. She writes, 

“Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women— with babies to protect from harm— have had to become aggressive and violent. The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places. “ 

Neil writes back,

“I… don’t think much of evolutionary psychology, at least as it relates to gender. As to whether men are naturally more peaceful and nurturing than women… that will be up to the reader to decide, I suppose. But consider this: are patriarchies peaceful because men are peaceful? Or do more peaceful societies tend to allow men to rise to the top because they place less value on the capacity for violence? “

I think Neil is speaking for Alderman here. I also think that she is leaving it to  "the reader to decide" here.

The counter argument, presented in this way is simply brilliant. At the vary least, it illustrates how easy one can create a narrative based on evolutionary psychology, that sounds convincing, but that is simply untrue. With that, I am still convinced that evolutionary psychology plays a major part in relation to these issues. In my opinion, a change in relative physical strength between the sexes would make a big difference in our society but such a change would not create a mirror image society.

I am quibbling a little here. These are complicated issues that almost no two people would agree on everything about. Despite my own beliefs, this book is an extremely compelling narrative. It is extremely imaginative and it is bursting with fresh ideas. Alderman is, at the very least, raising many compelling questions. 

I have also only scratched the surface. The book has so many other things to say about people and society. In particular, the book delves deeply into the subject of religion. I could devote an entire, long blog post on that issue. The work also tries to explore the root causes of violence and oppression. 

I found this book to be fascinating. I found it to be brilliant in parts.  The plot and themes are intriguing. The characters are interesting. Throughout the book there is a sense of tension that shows Alderman’s skill as a writer. I think that this book belongs alongside some of the best works of work of dystopian fiction. Due to a lot of graphic violence this book is not for everyone. However, for those interested in this kind of story and themes, this is a must read.

My commentary on The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent is here.

My commentary on The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper is here.

My commentary on Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is here.

My general commentary on fictional matriarchies is here here.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock

Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock is an examination of the American Revolution through the lens of violence. Specifically, the author looks at non-battlefield violence, such as mob attacks, violence directed against civilians, violence and mistreatment of prisoners of war and similar events and incidents. Though I disagree with some of the author’s contentions, this is an important and riveting history book. 

Early on, Hoock makes an assertion that is, in my opinion, questionable. He argues that there exists a pattern of underplaying and whitewashing of the violence that occurred during the American Revolutionary War. He cites several historians and books. He writes,

"For over two centuries, this topic has been subject to whitewashing and selective remembering and forgetting. While contemporaries experienced the Revolution as frightening, messy, and divisive, its pervasive violence and terror have since yielded to romanticized notions of the nation’s birth. In painting an unvarnished portrait of Revolutionary-era violence, violence, we can shed new light on how participants understood their struggles and how survivors and subsequent generations have remembered and mis-remembered the conflict."

I find this contention unconvincing, at least in terms of contemporary history and popular accounts. I have read somewhat extensively on this subject. While there may be some tendency in popular culture to see the Revolution through rose-covered glasses, and some histories to not touch upon the negative aspects of the event, anyone who reads or otherwise explores the history of this era in any detail will be familiar with the bad stuff. Violence against civilians, mistreatment of prisoners of war, mob violence, etc., are commonly chronicled and sometimes analyzed in history books. Works such as Fighting For the King in America's First Civil War by Thomas B. Allen, Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by Willard Sterne Randall, and His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis, are just a few examples of books that I have read over the past few years that examined these terrible events. Even the recently aired television series Turn depicted a lot of violence that was part of this trend. 

Despite my above objection, this is a very worthwhile book. It is a fair account of the dark side of the American Revolution. Though other books and accounts do delve into these things, by focusing on this kind of violence, Hoock is able to paint a coherent picture of this aspect of the revolution. He also provides important insights and analysis. Violence committed by both armies as well as by mobs and bands of citizens is detailed. The horrendous actions of both sides are well illustrated. This is a balanced history.

The British army perpetuated rape and general violence against civilians as well as pillaging. American prisoners of war were treated horrendously and endured starvation, disease, exposure to the elements and filth. Hoock gives credit where it is due. For instance, with a few notable exceptions, the Americans treated British prisoners of war much more humanely. 

There are plenty of things that Hoock calls the rebel side to task for. For instance, an American force in upstate New York carried on a brutal campaign against mostly noncombatant members of the Iroquois nation. The Loyalists in particular were subjected to terrible violence and often endured mob attacks and torture. Their property was often destroyed or confiscated.

Hoock succeeds not just in organizing this violence and crimes, but also in illustrating the causes as well as some of the implications of these events. For instance, he attributes the better treatment of British prisoners to two factors: first, George Washington had a strict code of honor that impelled him to ensure that prisoners were humanely treated; second, the rebels had a lot more physical room at their disposal to house prisoners. The author explains how this difference in available space made an enormous difference in the quality of life of prisoners of war. 

Another interesting, insight: Hoock explains how brutal mob violence aimed at Loyalists was a major consideration for the British to deploy troops in America as well as to continue the war even after a series of defeats.

The above are just a few examples of the many insights contained in this book. It is filled with close examinations into the circumstances as well as the underlying causes of both questionable actions by both sides of the conflict. 

This is a really good book for anyone interested in the American Revolution or in American history in general. Though not as groundbreaking as the author maintains, it is a solid work of history that builds a coherent picture of some of the worst things that happened during The American Revolution.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

This post contains spoilers. 

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray is the story of two young women, Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp. Set during and in the years following the Napoleonic Wars, the narrative covers the marriages and social interactions of these two women. The book is a biting social satire of people and norms. 

Becky is a cynical schemer and very manipulative. She lies, cheats and uses her sexuality to manipulate others. Amelia is a depressive who is innocent and mostly virtuous. Early on, Becky marries Rawdon Crawley, who is irresponsible, not very bright and often behaves unethically. Crawly worships Becky and is easily controlled. Despite his flaws, Rawdon does show some decency. For instance, while Becky is scornful and neglectful of the couple’s son, Rawdon clearly loves the boy and shows him kindness.

Amelia marries George Osborne, who, though not without some good points, is irresponsible and neglectful of her. Many of the male characters are British officers and some of the narrative centers upon the Battle of Waterloo. When George is killed in that clash, the pregnant Amelia plunges into even deeper depression. 

William Dobbin is a friend of George who waits in the background and tries to protect the widowed Amelia and her son Georgy. When he is transferred to India Amelia’s family slides into financial ruin, and Amelia is brought down with them. Eventually the two are reunited. Amelia and Dobbin represent the moral center of the book. 

One striking thing about this novel is the point of view and narration. The narrator refers to himself or herself (At one point the narrator seems to undergo a gender switch) as “I” and occasionally refers to visiting locations in the narrative and meetings with the characters. A Google search of the point of view of this work indicated that this is called first person peripheral.

The narrator is also extremely cynical, sarcastic and may be unreliable. People and conventions are skewered on page after page. Sometimes the attacks are humorous. Sometimes they are serious and sad. People’s vanity, greed, hypocrisy, etc. are all fair game. All of this seems to come naturally because the book is full of vain, greedy and pompous people. Everything, from wealth, aristocracy, the upper classes, the middle classes, the lower classes, men in general, women in general, the legal system and so much more are satirized and/or picked apart. At one point, the hypocrisy within families is examined when going through the Osborne family portraits.

“There was a picture of the family over the mantelpiece, removed thither from the front room after Mrs. Osborne's death— George was on a pony, the elder sister holding him up a bunch of flowers; the younger led by her mother's hand; all with red cheeks and large red mouths, simpering on each other in the approved family-portrait manner. The mother lay underground now, long since forgotten— the sisters and brother had a hundred different interests of their own, and, familiar still, were utterly estranged from each other. Some few score of years afterwards, when all the parties represented are grown old, what bitter satire there is in those flaunting childish family-portraits, with their farce of sentiment and smiling lies, and innocence so self-conscious and self-satisfied.”

This book is full of such passages. The work is thus a sardonic indictment on the foibles of people and society. 

However, all is not negative within these pages. I think that Thackeray provides a clue as to his own worldview when we consider who he does not tear to pieces. The characters and actions of Amelia or Dobbin are never once mocked or criticized. On the contrary, they are talked about in almost reverential tones. Both are shown to possess some flaws, but these flaws are never ridiculed or described in a harsh light. 

At one point Georgy’s upbringing under Amelia is observed,

He had been brought up by a kind, weak, and tender woman, who had no pride about anything but about him, and whose heart was so pure and whose bearing was so meek and humble that she could not but needs be a true lady. She busied herself in gentle offices and quiet duties; if she never said brilliant things, she never spoke or thought unkind ones; guileless and artless, loving and pure, indeed how could our poor little Amelia be other than a real gentlewoman!”

Such passages are common within the novel concerning both Amelia and Dobbin. I think that in these words, Thackeray is telling us what he finds moral and decent in the world. In a book filled with arrogant and prideful characters, I think that it is significant that Amelia’s humility is championed. In the end, the book is illustrating a terribly capricious world full of greed, hypocrisy and lies. A few good people, who seem to be almost beyond reproach, exist as an island against these ills. 

There is a lot going on in this book. I have barely scratched the surface above. There are major characters and subplots that I have not even mentioned. It is full of interesting ideas and themes. It has much to say about the world. It is also full of interesting characters. The plot is often engrossing, and the writing is excellent. The prose ranges from the hilarious to the poignant. This novel deserves to be called a classic.