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 fiancĂ© 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 BrontĂ«’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. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The Pickwick Papers was Charles Dickens’s first novel. It tells the story of Samuel Pickwick and the other members of the Pickwick Club. The group is comprised of members who journey around England with a goal of studying human nature. Hence, the narrative is episodic and anecdotal. 

Over the course of their very amusing travels, the Pickwickians encounter all sorts of colorful characters, experience many adventures and mishaps, and consume lots of food and drink. They are an affable but pretentious group. This creates plenty of opportunities for humor. The book reminded me in many ways of Don Quixote. 

The Pickwickians include: Nathaniel Winkle, who claims to be a sportsman, but who generally makes a fool of himself whenever he engages in any sport and Augustus Snodgrass, who is a man who claims to be a poet but who seems to write no poetry. Also included is Tracy Tupman, who is a self-proclaimed ladies’ man but is clownish and overweight. Sam Weller is Mr. Pickwick’s loyal servant. His smart aleck sense of humor and charm makes him, for me, the most entertaining character in the book. For his part, Mr. Pickwick is overweight and good natured but bit silly and pompous. There are numerous additional colorful characters, including drunken medical students and malevolent attorneys. 

There are also many side stories. Often, the characters, both major and minor, tell tales ranging from accounts of everyday events to the fantastical. There are also several underlying plot threads that pop up throughout the novel. One is the misunderstanding and subsequent legal battle between Mrs. Martha Bardell and Mr. Pickwick. Mrs. Bardell is a widow who is Mr. Pickwick’s landlady. She mistakes Mr. Pickwick’s naturally friendly and courteous disposition for romantic interest and a marriage proposal. This leads to not only hurt feelings but to a legal battle that resurfaces at various points in the narrative. Another subplot involves conman Alfred Jingle and his servant, who vex the Pickwickians at several points in the story.

The narrative is, with occasional exceptions, light, funny and entertaining. At times I found myself laughing out loud. Pickwick and his associates are often silly and buffoonish. With that, they all display a sense of decency and act charitably towards others. 

In this early Dickens effort, many of the themes and plot devices that will appear later are present here in a less developed form. Dickens’s contempt for the legal profession, fully developed in Bleak House, manifests itself in this work. Attorneys involved in his legal proceedings are shown to be inefficient, cruel and unethical. The side story of Gaberial Grub, a sexton with a nasty personality, is a precursor of A Christmas Carol. Grub is confronted on Christmas Eve by an army of goblins who excoriate him for his malicious disposition. Motivated by fear, Grub eventually reforms his ways. Like later Dickens, the book is full of colorful and over the top characters. 

I also think that the way that Dickens portrays the world throughout his books can be partially seen in this one. Though the tone of most of this novel is light, something dark in the universe manifests itself from time to time. At one point, Mr. Pickwick is in conversation with “The Dismal Man,” a philosophical but depressed character that the Pickwickians encounter in their travels. 

"‘Did it ever strike you, on such a morning as this, that drowning would be happiness and peace?’ ‘God bless me, no!’ replied Mr. Pickwick, edging a little from the balustrade, as the possibility of the dismal man’s tipping him over, by way of experiment, occurred to him rather forcibly. ‘I have thought so, often,’ said the dismal man, without noticing the action. ‘The calm, cool water seems to me to murmur an invitation to repose and rest. A bound, a splash, a brief struggle; there is an eddy for an instant, it gradually subsides into a gentle ripple; the waters have closed above your head, and the world has closed upon your miseries and misfortunes for ever.’ The sunken eye of the dismal man flashed brightly as he spoke, but the momentary excitement quickly subsided;"

Having read a fair amount of Dickens over the years, I find that the way that he describes the dark aspect of existence to be somewhat similar throughout his writings. Dickens clearly shows that there is a good side to existence. However, this gloomy aspect is always there. 

I also think that it is interesting that Dickens often shows the good side of humanity in the form of charity and compassion for others. In this novel, Mr. Pickwick does show much of that. The positive angle to existence is also shown here in the form of good cheer and fellowship. 

On a related note, Dickens’s social consciousness, which manifests itself so strongly in his later works, also appears in this book. When Mr. Pickwick loses his legal case, he refuses to pay the damages on principle. He voluntarily goes to debtor prison. There, he encounters human suffering and injustice that appalls him. One of many people that he encounters is a man whose life has been ruined after twenty years of imprisonment.  

"The Chancery prisoner had been there long enough to have lost his friends, fortune, home, and happiness… Mr. Pickwick surveyed him with a painful interest. He was a tall, gaunt, cadaverous man, in an old greatcoat and slippers, with sunken cheeks, and a restless, eager eye. His lips were bloodless, and his bones sharp and thin. God help him! the iron teeth of confinement and privation had been slowly filing him down for twenty years."

The above quotes are not representative of this novel as a whole. As stated above, the book is mostly humorous, upbeat and extols the virtues of good cheer and friendship. 

I enjoyed The Pickwick Papers a lot. I found it to be very funny and entertaining. This book was pleasant to read. It also contains Dickens’s signature prose as well as multiple over the top characters.  I also found it interesting how so many ideas that the author used later on seem to originate in this novel. Though this would not be the first Dickens that I would read, it is a fine book for those who have already read and liked the famous author.