Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the second book of the Harry Potter Series. My commentary on the first book,Harry Potter and the Philosopher's  Stone is here.  In this novel, Harry returns to Hogwarts and some other magical places for his second year of school. This time around, an ancient and secret chamber of Hogwarts has been opened and a mysterious creature that dwells inside it is menacing the students. Harry’s best friends Hermione and Ron are back along with the nasty Draco Malfoy, Headmaster Dumbledore and gamekeeper Hagrid, just to name a few. In the end, while flawed, and not as groundbreaking as the first book, this was still enjoyable for a lot of reasons

Like the first series entry, I found that this book was entertaining and fun. It is also full of Rowling’s creativeness. It is also very funny. 

I should also mention that I found  these first two books weak on characterization. Many of the characters, such as Hagrid, are fun to read about but are not even a little complex. There are hints that there is some depth to Harry’s persona as well as the persona of seemingly malevolent professor Severus Snape. However, these are only hints and I would have liked this second book a lot better had the characters been further developed. With all that, this lack of characterization is no worse then is exhibited by other "genre writers" that I have read and enjoyed  such as Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or Larry Niven. Yet the works of all off these authors are often called classic. I think that when it comes to a certain type of fantasy and science fiction, this flaw is fairly widespread. In the end, it is not stopping me from enjoying and getting a lot out of books by Rowling or these other authors. 

Once again, I am not going to try to do a complete review or analyses of this novel; I am instead going to write a few words about one aspect of the book and the Harry Potter phenomenon that I find interesting. In my previous blog, I talked about how I thought that many readers related to The Harry Potter Series because it depicted a young person who was special but unrecognized and who eventually found recognition for his specialness. After reading this book, another reason that this series is so loved comes to mind. It is something exemplified in this second novel. Several people, all adults, have told me personally that they wanted to attend Hogwarts. In addition to the colorful characters that populate it, there is something about the physical description of the structure and surrounding areas that draws readers in. 

Hogwarts itself is described as an enormous castle. It is so large that students who have attended it for several years sometimes still get lost. It is filled with secret rooms, passages and multiple dungeons. There is an elaborate banquet hall where dozens of students and professors sit to eat lavish meals. There is a library filled with ancient and mysterious books on magic.  Adding to the appeal, Harry and Ron often sneak around at night exploring. This is a place that I, too, would love to explore. 

At one point, Harry enters a mysterious hidden room, the Chamber of Secrets of the title, 

“He pulled out his wand and moved forward between the serpentine columns. Every careful footstep echoed loudly off the shadowy walls…The hollow eye sockets of the stone snakes seemed to be following him. More than once, with a jolt of the stomach, he thought he saw one stir. 

Then, as he drew level with the last pair of pillars, a statue high as the Chamber itself loomed into view, standing against the back wall. 

Harry had to crane his neck to look up into the giant face above: it was ancient and monkey-like, with a long thin beard that fell almost to the bottom of the wizard’s sweeping stone robes, where two enormous grey feet stood on the smooth chamber floor”

As the above quotation illustrates, Rowling's description of rooms and passages tend to be interwoven with the characters' physical movements through these places. She also describes the character’s feelings and physical reactions, as Harry’s “jolt of the stomach” highlights. I find this technique to effectively put the reader into the scene itself. I credit this with much of the popularity that this series has garnered.  I would quibble just a bit, however. In the above passage as well as throughout the first two books, I find the description to be a little too sparse. I would prefer more detail. This lack of detail can be found throughout the first two books. 

The area around Hogwarts is just as appealing. Near Hogwarts is the Forbidden Forest. Students are warned away from the place as being extremely dangerous. It is indeed filled with both malevolent and benevolent creatures, including unicorns, centaurs, giant spiders and evil wizards. It was introduced in the first book and greatly elaborated on in this novel. Once again, it is a place that I would love to explore. 

Rowling has a special imagination. She creates places that touch many people. She combines descriptions of tunnels, old and mysterious rooms, trails, woodlands, mythical and fanciful creatures and objects, etc.  that creates a certain tone and atmosphere. The feel that she generates when describing these places is mysterious and even when she depicts seemingly frightful situations, that feeling is strangely welcoming. I think that these fictional places touch the psyche of many people. Thus, this seems to be another reason that these books appeal to so many people.  At the same time, all the pictures of all these fun places that the author builds are somewhat marred by thin descriptions. Nevertheless, Rowling has built a wonderful world here. 

Thus, I like this book a lot while not being unaware of its flaws. I still plan to keep reading the novels. It seems that continuing through the series will be well worth it. I still think that I may read them straight through if I do not become too fatigued with the series.  Thus far, despite some shortcomings, I have very much enjoyed the first two books. 

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James was first published in 1881 and revised by the author in 1908. I read the later version.  It is the story of Isabel Archer, a young American woman who travels through and eventually settles in Europe. James’s book is a deep character study exemplified by a unique prose style that is heavy on words but that often soars to great artistic heights. 

Isabel is young and vivacious. Above all, she values her freedom as well as the benefits of exploring the world and of people. She is surrounded by male admirers, several of whom propose marriage. Lord Warburton is a rich nobleman who seems to respect Isabel’s freedom and is willing to accept that she be given a wide berth to explore; Caspar Goodwood is an intense and willful American who exhibits his intense love for the book’s heroine. Ralph Touchett is Isabel’s sensitive and wise cousin who is hobbled by serious physical illness. 

Isabel has other interesting friends and family members. Mrs. Touchett is her independent aunt and Ralph’s mother.  Though she is often abrasive, Mrs. Touchett is also honest and a good judge of character. Henrietta Stackpole is likewise overbearing and judgmental but shows herself to be a loyal friend. Madame Merle is controlled and proper but is later shown to be a manipulative schemer.

Isabel eventually marries Gilbert Osmond, an American living in Italy. Isabel sees Osmond as a man of great taste who is portrayed as appreciating beauty in a unique way. She believes the fortune that she recently inherited will be put to good use by him. After a year or so of marriage, Isabell realizes that she has made a terrible mistake. Osmond turns out to be cold and stiffening. He has an image of beauty, perfection and propriety that he insists Isabel live up to.  He eventually comes to hate Isabel. Isabel realizes that she has traded a happy life for one of misery. Isabel’s true complexity is revealed. She is much more than just a woman who values freedom and now finds herself trapped. At this stage of the story, she chooses to act in a very specific, ethical way that even some readers might question as being detrimental to her own self-interest. 

The strength of this book is in characterization and prose. Isabel is a brilliantly wrought character as are her male admirers and friends.  Evan Osmond, a very unsympathetic character, is portrayed in interesting detail. I could devote an entire blog post to any one of these personas. James’s writing style is dense with description and analysis of his subjects. The plot moves slowly, however. The reader gets the impression that James is in no hurry to move things along. I often say that I appreciate novels that are light in plot and heavy on characterization, strong prose, etc. However, I found myself wishing that this novel would move a little faster at times. Perhaps this is because James is good at setting up interesting situations that whet the curiosity. I wanted to know what was going to happen faster than the novel was furnishing answers.  Thus, the glacial pace of the plot became a little frustrating at times. 

At other times, the dense and descriptive prose becomes sublime. At one-point, Isabel realizes that her marriage was essentially a scheme between Madame Merle and Osmond with a primary intention to get at Isabel’s money. Isabel is plunged into a kind of philosophical despair, 

“Isabel took a drive alone that afternoon; she wished to be far away, under the sky, where she could descend from her carriage and tread upon the daisies. She had long before this taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet still were upright; she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed angle on a winter’s day, or stood in a mouldy church to which no one came, she could almost smile at it and think of its smallness. Small it was, in the large Roman record, and her haunting sense of the continuity of the human lot easily carried her from the less to the greater.”

I find the above passage to be both terribly sad and wonderfully written. It is also full of meaning that is presented in a literate and moving way. First, the desire to tread upon daisies, a symbol of true love and purity, seems perfect given Isabel’s mood.  Next, I find that the way in which Isabel’s personal catastrophe is compared and contrasted with the ruin of Ancient Rome is so well written. Her realization that, in the grand scheme of things, her personal tragedy is small is very much in line with her humble character traits. In a way, this turns a very personal story into something much bigger. It also magnifies the despair that Isabel experiences. 

Another important current flowing through this book is that, to some extent, it looks at the relationship between Americans and Europeans from a somewhat unusual direction. All of the major characters, with the exception of Lord Warburton, are Americans living in Europe. How they interact and talk about the Europeans, and vice versa, is worth a blog post in and of itself. 

I would not recommend this book to someone who was looking for a novel with a lot of plot developments or a fast-paced story.  It is best read patiently, as it is mostly about characters and writing style. As such, it often moves into the areas of greatness. I recommend this book for those prepared to appreciate its low-keyed brilliance. 

Saturday, December 8, 2018

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

I have finally read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. One can say that I am late to the party on this one. However, the fact that I rarely read very new books and that this book was written within the past 25 years means that this novel is practically a new release for me. Like many others, I found this book entertaining, enjoyable and well worth the read. 

If anyone is unfamiliar with the plot, infant Harry Potter is left orphaned when his wizard parents are killed by the evil Lord Voldemort. Harry is raised by ignorant and repressive family members until his eleventh birthday. At that time, he is taken to Hogwarts, a boarding school for wizards. Here he meets a host of new characters, both friendly and no so friendly. Fellow students include his best friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley as well as the nasty, bullying Draco Malfoy. The professors include Albus Dumbledore, a great wizard and headmaster of the school, the large, imposing but friendly gamekeeper Hagrid and the dark and seemingly hostile professor Severus Snape. Harry encounters all sorts of wonderous and magical objects, creatures and adventures at Hogwarts and eventually confronts Lord Voldemort.  Rowling has created a wonderfully imaginative world and written a novel that is very, very fun and pleasant to read. 

There has been so much said about this book that it seems redundant to write a conventional review or analysis.  Instead, I want to share a few thoughts on one the things that I believe make this book so popular.  Harry Potter has generated enormous fame. In addition to the books, the phenomenon has expanded to films, amusement parks, plays and more. Tens of millions of people love this series. People have told me that the only books that they have read in the past ten years are the Harry Potter books. I should mention that I have a kind of instinctual suspicion of things that are this popular and this commercialized. However, I can say that in my opinion, at least the first book is excellent and the films are very good. The story also manages to avoid many of the clichés that characterize modern trends that I have come to dislike such as snarky and cynical young people. There are also corporations that are making a lot of money from all this, but there are many cultural trends that are a lot worse than Harry Potter that people are making a lot of money off of. 

It all started with this book. There are many reasons for its popularity. The world that Rowling has created is magical and would be a fun place to visit or even live in. I could list a lot of other reasons why people love the series and this book in particular. There is one interesting reason that struck me that exhibits itself in this first book. It gets to Harry Potter’s childhood. For the first ten years of his life Harry is raised by the Dursleys. Though at times they are portrayed comically, this is a family of bullies and abusers. They constantly put Harry down and heap excoriation upon him. Their son, Dudley, meters out physical abuse upon Harry as the Mr. and Mrs. Dursley all but egg him on. What is more, the family is not just intellectually Harry’s inferior, but they have no imagination. In fact, they are hostile to the concepts of wonder and creativity. Dudley never touches the books that he is given as gifts. The entire family hates the magical world that Harry and his parents are a part of. When Harry shows some glimmers of magic, they react with hostility and use this as an excuse to further bully him.

Early in the book, it is observed that the Dursleys are ashamed of their magical relatives, The Potters, 

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn't think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters. Mrs. Potter was Mrs. Dursley's sister, but they hadn't met for several years; in fact, Mrs. Dursley pretended she didn't have a sister, because her sister and her good-for-nothing husband were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be. The Dursleys shuddered to think what the neighbors would say if the Potters arrived in the street. The Dursleys knew that the
Potters had a small son, too, but they had never even seen him. This boy was another good reason for keeping the Potters away; they didn't want Dudley mixing with a child like that.

Later Mrs. Dursley comments about her deceased sister, 

"my dratted sister being what she was? Oh, she got a letter just like that and disappeared off to that-that school-and came home every vacation with her pockets full of frog spawn, turning teacups into rats. I was the only one who saw her for what she was -- a freak! But for my mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the family!" 

Thus, Harry is special. But he is a special person raised by people who are unable to understand his specialness and are in fact hostile to it. I believe this is a feeling that many bright and gifted young people have. I think that such people often fantasize about other special people showing up and whisking them away to another world where their gifts are appreciated or are at least useful, just like what happens to Harry.  Often such feelings last until adulthood. Obviously, all this represents a desire to escape from the real world. I think that having occasional thoughts of this sort are as normal as they are common. I also think these that fantasies touch a lot of people, both young and old, in a special way. 

The Dursleys have no redeeming qualities. They are purely driven by ignorant viciousness.  Sadly, at least outwardly, some people like this exist in the real world. Thus, I will not say that this family is entirely unrealistic. Furthermore, there surely have been folks who have experienced such abuse, and worse, who relate to Harry Potter’s predicament. However, for many fans, though they were not raised by people like the Dursleys, this family represents everything in the world that is mean, nasty and hostile to people who are imaginative and creative.  With that, I think that if the Dursleys were portrayed with more nuance, this part of the book might have been stronger. If they had shown some humanity, along with their bad traits, I think that Harry’s plight might have been more interesting. 

I have praised this book and I have talked about the popularity of it and the cultural trends that have grown up around it. I should note however, that not everyone loves Harry Potter. Several literary critics, including Harold Bloom, have criticized Rowling for being an unskilled writer and being derivative of other authors. Not everyone that I know loves the books or the films. With that, the great popularity of these stories is undeniable and no matter how ones feels about it, it is worth asking why so many people love it. 

Like so many others, I enjoyed this book immensely. I will likely go ahead and read the entire series. My memory of the films leads me to believe that there are a lot of threads between the books that can get confusing if the novels are read with too much time in between. Thus, I might try to read them straight through. I am not sure if I will need a break between them, however. Either way, I will update my progress here.  

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz was written in 2007. It won the Pulitzer prize for fiction and numerous other awards. It is included in several lists of best books of the 21st century. At least one list rated it as the best.

I loved this book but it may not appeal to some readers as it is full of references to both popular and obscure science fiction and related genres. In addition to these references, there are major connections to Frank Herbert’s Dune, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings and the comic book series The Watchman. I have read both the Herbert and Tolkien books. I read the Wikipedia entry on The Watchman to help me with this book.

Much of the narrative covers the life of Oscar de León. Oscar is a young Dominican man growing up and going to college in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. These parts of the book also concern themselves with Oscar’s sister, Lola, and her boyfriend, Yunior. Some chapters cover Oscar’s mother, Beli, growing up in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, and still others cover his grandfather, Abelard, a doctor in the Dominican Republic during the 1940s and 1950s. 

Oscar is a social outcast who is obsessed with science fiction, fantasy and other speculative books, film and television. Oscar has a terrible time adjusting to society. The depiction of him is detailed, complex and believable. At one point, his school years are described, 

“High school was Don Bosco Tech, and since Don Bosco Tech was an urban all-boys Catholic school packed to the strakes with a couple hundred insecure hyperactive adolescents, it was, for a fat sci-fi–reading nerd like Oscar, a source of endless anguish. For Oscar, high school was the equivalent of a medieval spectacle, like being put in the stocks and forced to endure the peltings and outrages of a mob of deranged half-wits, an experience from which he supposed he should have emerged a better person, but that’s not really what happened—and if there were any lessons to be gleaned from the ordeal of those years he never quite figured out what they were. He walked into school every day like the fat lonely nerdy kid he was, and all he could think about was the day of his manumission, when he would at last be set free from its unending horror”

There is a lot more to Oscar. He experiences love, rejection, terrible bouts of depression, and he sometimes acts surprisingly. He philosophizes a great deal and develops a lot as a character. His family members and friends, especially Lola and Yunior, are also very complex and believable. 

The parts of the book that focus on Oscar’s grandfather, Abelard, are tragic. Rafael Trujillo was the real-life dictator of the Dominican Republic during Abelard’s time. As per the book and some other sources that I have read, he was more brutal and controlling than the average dictator. According to this novel, among his outrages was the fact that he had a habit of personally raping young girls throughout the Dominican Republic. In an effort to protect his daughter from Trujillo, Abelard brings destruction to himself and to his family. 

The chapters that describe Beli’s adolescence in the 1960s paint the picture of a rebellious but naive young girl whose affair with a government operative draws the wrath of the powerful man’s wife. Beli is beaten and terrorized by the police and thus forced to flee to America.

The dialogue between characters ranges from funny to profound to heart breaking. The parts that take place in the later twentieth century contain a fair amount of Spanglish as well as a lot of profanity. 

Most, but not all, of the chapters are told in first person by Yunior, who is a multifaceted and nuanced character in his own right. Diaz has included his character in other books and stories that I have not read. Yunior also seems to be interested in science fiction/fantasy and comic books, so he fills the entire narrative with such references as well as references to some classic literature. Other chapters are narrated by Lola. There are also a lot of footnotes where the author chimes in about both the real world and the fictional story. 

There is something odd going on throughout the book. This peculiarity seems to be similar to magical realism. However, the magical realism in this book seems different from any other novels that I have read that incorporated the technique. This oddness seems to dig into the way that the author sees some basic human truths about violence, despair, gender, colonialism and more.

Early on it is mentioned by the narrator that Oscar’s family has a curse hanging over it. We learn in the book that in Dominican culture, this kind of curse is known as Fukú. The narrator, usually Yunior, takes a mostly ambivalent attitude as to whether he believes in the curse or not. However, at one point, he makes the case for it as he points out that throughout the years, the de León’s have had terrible fortune that seems to go beyond mere coincidence. This bad luck has led to terrible violence and death. Luckily there is a counterforce in that throughout the narrative, characters, especially the women, seem to use a kind of white magic. Some of them have a power of their own. This positive force is called zafa in the book, and according to Yunior, it is part of Dominican culture. 

Diaz takes this even further in a very unusual way. As mentioned earlier, the book is packed with references to science fiction, fantasy, comic books etc. The characters that exist in the 1940s and 1950s seem to be familiar with Frank Herbert’s novel Dune as they make several references to it, even though Dune was written in 1965. Furthermore, Oscar’s aunt La Inca and other women in the book seem to have zafa-related powers that are strongly connected the powers that some female characters had in Herbert’s book. With these important references to Dune, I might recommend that a reader try that book before reading this one. 

There is more. After the story of Abelard is related, an alternate version of events is told. In this version, Abelard is writing a book that exposed Trujillo as a nonhuman, evil creature from another world. When the dictator discovered Abelard’s plans to publish his expose, a curse was put on the entire de León family. 

In an hour of darkest peril, Beli believes that she was helped by a talking mongoose that was a messenger from God. Though the reader is not sure if this is a figment of imagination or not, years later, Oscar is helped by the same mongoose when he is near death. Both Beli in her time and Oscar encounter a malevolent faceless man. Thus, there seems to be a mystical conflict going on between the forces of violence and chaos and the forces of nonviolence and benevolence. As I mentioned above, there is a strong connection between these benevolent forces and the feminine powers. Perhaps the author seems to be saying that it is women who play the predominate role in opposing violence and chaos in the world.

I read just a little bit online about the symbolism behind fukú, and the consensus is that it relates to colonialism. I agree that there are indications in the narrative that this is the case. However, I think that it is also representing something more universal, that is, the propensity for people to be violent and cruel. 

As I alluded to earlier, I read a few reviews and a little commentary on this book. Some have suggested that all the references to Dominican-American culture might lead those unfamiliar with that culture to be confused or at least to miss a lot in this book. I did not find this to be the case. The parts of this novel that take place in Patterson, New Jersey actually reminded me a lot of Philip Roth’s accounts of growing up in Jewish communities of New Jersey decades earlier. However, I think that those who are unfamiliar with science fiction/fantasy/comic book culture will miss a lot in this book. As per above, these references are all over the novel. In addition to the Dune connections, the dark forces and light forces in this book are connected in an important way to both The Lord of The Rings as well as to The Watchman. Growing up around the same time as Oscar and being a fan of science fiction and having ties to its “community” helped me to understand and relate to a lot of what is going on here. 

The government of the Dominican Republic is shown to be brutal and it perpetuates a great deal of cruelty and violence aimed at the de Leóns and others. Some readers might find these parts of the book disturbing. 

I immensely enjoyed this book. With that, I think that someone unfamiliar or uninterested in science fiction/fantasy culture might miss out on a lot and become bored. Thus, the book may not be universally admired. There is also a fair amount of disturbing brutality in this novel. However, the plot is compelling, and the characters are interesting and complex. It also offers an interesting look at Dominican-American culture as well as Dominican culture and history. It is full of odd things that contain a lot of underlying meaning. The right reader will find this a very worthy book. Some may also love it. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstadter

I am A Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstadter was written in 2008 and is the author’s follow up to Gödel, Escher, Bach, also known as GEB. My commentary on that book is here.

In this book, Hofstadter observes that due to the attention that other aspects of GEB garnered, the main point, that of strange loops being the origin of the human concept of self, got lost. He wrote this book to specifically hone onto those ideas. The author writes,

“And yet, despite the book’s popularity, it always troubled me that the fundamental message of GEB (as I always call it, and as it is generally called) seemed to go largely unnoticed. People liked the book for all sorts of reasons, but seldom if ever for its most central raison d’être! Years went by, and I came out with other books that alluded to and added to that core message, but still there didn’t seem to be much understanding out there of what I had really been trying to say in GEB.”

This book is much more comprehensible than Gödel, Escher, Bach. It is still technical in parts, but the author delves less deeply into hard to understand intricacies. He also hits upon fewer issues and goes off on fewer tangents, which allows him to stay on point. This work is a much more conventional book. It is less whimsical as it lacks the parable-like introduction to chapters that GEB offered. It is also less adventurous. 

What exactly is a strange loop? Roughly, it is a situation in which a loop is created, and the loop seems to jump between different levels. However, as a loop must do, it ends back in the same place that it started. The author goes on to explore strange loops that occur naturally, in mathematics, in art and in technology. The most easily visualized example of a strange loop is M. C. Escher’s Waterfall, which can be found here.

Hofstadter delves into how he believes that strange loops relate to human consciousness. He argues that animals, including humans, are equipped with both senses and brains that evolved to observe and analyze the world around us. When we turn these senses and cognitive mechanisms back upon ourselves to look and analyze ourselves, a strange loop is created. Hofstadter contends that this is the origin of our sense of self and our sense of “I.” He writes,

“I begin with the simple fact that living beings, having been shaped by evolution, have survival as their most fundamental, automatic, and built-in goal. To enhance the chances of its survival, any living being must be able to react flexibly to events that take place in its environment. This means it must develop the ability to sense and to categorize, however rudimentarily, the goings-on in its immediate environment (most earthbound beings can pretty safely ignore comets crashing on Jupiter). Once the ability to sense external goings-on has developed, however, there ensues a curious side effect that will have vital and radical consequences. This is the fact that the living being’s ability to sense certain aspects of its environment flips around and endows the being with the ability to sense certain aspects of itself. “

The book goes on to explore many of the debates and issues that scientists and philosophers who are exploring consciousness grapple with. As Hofstadter believes that the human mind is entirely the product of biological and physical processes, he argues against the opposite view, which is known as “Dualism.” 

This work is very personal. The author describes how after the death of his wife, he continued to develop ideas about how memories of other people, particularly of loved ones, are indeed aspects of those other people residing in the minds of others. These sections of the book are very emotional.

This book tries to make some of the same points as GEB. However, Hofstadter uses new examples and explores similar concepts in new ways. He also reaches a lot of new conclusions. Though less inventive, this book is a lot more coherent and understandable than GEB was. It can be read on its own as it provides a good overview of strange loops as well as Hofstadter’s views on the human mind. In fact, a reader may want to give this one a try first. As I wrote in my commentary on GEB, I actually put that work down in the middle and read this one. I found this unusual reading pattern to be helpful as this book helped me better understand what the author was trying to get in GEB.

My take on Hofstadter’s ideas here is similar to my take on GEB. That is, strange loops do occur both in the natural and human made world. They are interesting phenomena worth studying and thinking about. They do come into play within the human mind. I am not certain, however, that they play the primary role in the human sense of self that Hofstadter contends. 

This book is a neat and somewhat detailed look into strange loops. It covers a wide variety of subjects. It is coherent and interesting. It can be read as a follow up to Gödel, Escher, Bach or as a standalone. I recommend it to anyone curious about big, scientific and universal concepts and of human consciousness. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, also known as GEB, by Douglas R. Hofstadter was the most challenging nonfiction book that I have ever read. Not including notes, my version of the book contained 737 very dense pages. The book was not only difficult, but its structure and content, though based on real science and technology, was very unusual. This work has something of a cult status with people who are interested in human consciousness, mathematics, computers, general science and popular philosophy. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for General Literature in 1979. 

Even describing what the book is about is challenging. Hofstadter looks at multiple natural and human-made processes involving loops, self-reference and copying and then relates these concepts to the human brain, thinking, our sense of self and consciousness.  He ultimately contends that loops and self-reference are the keys to human consciousness. Along the way, he examines loops, copying and self-reference in terms of mathematics, art, music, physics, DNA, computers and more. He delves into each of these subjects in great, and sometimes bewildering, detail. The mathematical sections are the most intricate. There are many pages that are heavy with formulas and number theory. The author actually gives the reader problems and puzzles to work on to help him or her to better understand it all. There are also very complex sections on the other subjects mentioned. 

Hofstadter is particularly interested in Kurt Friedrich Gödel’s Mathematical theorems, the artwork of M.C.Escher and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach as they relate to the topics explored in this book. It turns out the works and discoveries of all three are heavy with loops and self-reference. There are also a lot of words devoted to other mathematicians, scientists, philosophers and classical composers. 

Each section of the book is prefaced within an allegorical story involving the characters Achilles and the tortoise.  Hofstadter explains in the text that these characters were first used by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea and later by Lewis Carroll in "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles". These segments become longer and more intricate as the book progresses. These stories seek to explain the concepts of each section in parable form. I found these sequences to be charming and whimsical, but they also became complicated at times. 
The book is not all technical. In addition to the above-mentioned parables, there is a lot of philosophizing. The author tends to throw out curious ideas and concepts and not actually take stands on them. He is also a good writer who is usually very lively despite the technical nature of much of it.  Here, he ponders what it is to be human and our sense of self. 

"What is an "I", and why are such things found (at least so far) only in association with, as poet Russell Edson once wonderfully phrased it, "teetering bulbs of dread and dream" -- that is, only in association with certain kinds of gooey lumps encased in hard protective shells mounted atop mobile pedestals that roam the world on pairs of slightly fuzzy, jointed stilts?"

Hofstadter is also an exuberant writer. His love of math, science, Classical Music, art and more exudes through the pages of this work. 

When I say that I have read a book, I usually mean that I read every page and every word. However, with this work, I skipped sections. In particular, I passed over much of the math. I tried to read the early and late paragraphs of these sections in order to get the point that the author was trying to make. I read most, but not all of, sections on physics, biology and music theory. I know a little bit about all these subjects as I have taken classes and/or read about all of them. With that, all of these sections were challenging, and there was a lot that I did not understand. I think that had I given it a more comprehensive read, I would have spent the better part of a year on this book. I would have done all of the author’s problems and perhaps gone beyond the book itself to understand all the music theory, technical issues and science. I still would not have understood it all. What is puzzling is that this work is not presented as something for only mathematicians or scientists or experts in music theory to read. Even if it was, I suspect that experts in one of these disciplines might get in over their heads in the areas in which they are not specialists. The depths that Hofstadter plumbs in regards to these subjects are astounding. On one hand, such detail seems unnecessary. On the other hand, the very deep dives into these subjects make the book strangely attractive. This level of complexity seems to be what drives some of the cult status of this book. I should mention that Hofstadter is no crackpot and my understanding is that experts in the respective fields generally respect the information in this work.

My take on Hofstadter’s ideas is that I think that he examines some real phenomenon involving loops and self-reference that cut across both nature and human endeavors. Some of this does relate to the human mind. I am not sure if I agree that these things are central to consciousness and the human sense of self or not. Reading what people have written about this book online, it seems that many take in the grand tour of all of the covered subjects with joy while almost ignoring the author’s take on consciousness. 

Hofstadter has written a follow up to this book called I Am a Strange Loop. Perhaps it goes with the odd character of this book in that I read it in an odd way.  After reading about one quarter of this work, I put it down and read I Am a Strange Loop as the latter book presented Hofstadter’s ideas in an easier to digest way. I then returned to this work and finished it. I will be posting commentary in that later book soon. I actually found this odd reading sequence to be beneficial. The concepts in I am a Strange Loop were much easier to grasp, and reading that work helped me a lot here. 

No matter what, this is a really unique book. In some ways it is a crazy, unpredictable trip through a hodgepodge of ideas. It seems to have influenced many of today’s thinkers. I would only recommend it to those who do not mind a challenging read full of technical material, some of which they may need to skip or skim over. I would recommend it for anyone who is curious about the list of subjects referenced. People who are very interested in mathematics might enjoy this a lot, but only if they have an interest in the other subjects. Though written at a later time, it might be a good idea to read I Am a Strange Loop. In the end, a difficult and strange, but in some ways, rewarding read. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Goodreads and Bookish Memories

There are a lot of very good things about Goodreads. In this entry I want to talk a little about entering books read in the past on one’s bookshelves. This feature allows a Goodreads user to catalogue a lifetime of reading on the site. Over the past year or so, I have been slowly, and at times not so slowly, adding books to my shelves that I have read over the years. 

Engaging in this cataloging has gotten me thinking about books that I read in the past. I find myself remembering books that I read decades ago that I probably would never have given another thought about. When I first started doing this, I would easily recall books that I read in years gone by and then enter them into the site.  I added scores of books. After I entered the easy books to recall, things became a little more challenging. I now search my memories to remember books.  Sometimes I will remember a plot but not remember the title or author. I then began to Google search. Sometimes it takes me awhile but I will usually find the name of the book. A good example of this was Norman Spinrad’s Songs from the Stars. I remembered that I read it when I was 17 years old just before I started college. I also remembered that it was very lighthearted and involved a kind of hippie-utopia that existed in California long after the fall of civilization. I just could not remember the author or the title. It took me awhile, but I found it through internet searching and promptly added it to my Goodreads list. Sometimes when searching for a seemingly forgotten title, especially when poring over a particular author’s bibliography, I am reminded of other books that I read long ago. One case where this occurred is when I searched through Robert Silverberg’s bibliography in an attempt to find a particular book. I realized that I had read some other books of his. I now find myself waking up in the middle of the night and remembering a novel that I read long ago. 

Goodreads also has an ongoing discussion thread called What's the Name of that Book? On this thread one can post a description of the book that one is looking for and others can chime in with ideas on what the title of the half-forgotten book is. Thus far, I only used the thread once but have not found the name of the book. However, looking at other people’s posts, it seems that the thread has worked for many in their quests to find book titles. 

Several people that I know online have maintained reading journals going back years or even decades. In these journals, they record all of the books that they finished in past as well as when they finished them. I wish that I had the foresight to do this. Finish dates of books read would have been very valuable. 

This brings me to the date-read feature on Goodreads. Using this option, one can enter the date he or she finished a book. Thus, if one remembers the date that one completed a book, one can enter it when they enter the book, even if the book was read years ago or decades ago.  However, for me, determining the date that I completed most books is impossible, but there are a few titles for which I can come very close to determining when I finished reading them. There were a few books that I read almost immediately upon publication. This is true about some science fiction that came out in the 1980s. I mentioned Songs from The Stars above. I remember finishing the book shortly before I started my freshman year of college. Thus, I know that I completed that novel in July or August of 1985. It is neat that I can date a book like that. My Goodreads profile and bookshelves can be found here.

Goodreads seems to have a lot of other appealing features. There appears to be many forums where all sorts of interesting bookish conversations take place. Alas, I am unable to explore these forums due to a lack of time. 

There are many social media platforms that people are using to enhance their love of books. Though I do not have statistics, I suspect that Goodreads is the most popular of these. I will continue to use Goodreads to catalogue the books that I have read. Without a doubt, I will also continue to remember books that I read a long time ago that would have otherwise have been lost in the mists of time. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

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

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

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

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

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

And a little later, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 28, 2018

Independence Lost by Kathleen DuVal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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