Category Archives: Book reviews

Classics Review: Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

Framley-Parsonage

Framley Parsonage is the eleventh Anthony Trollope novel I have read, ten of them just in the last couple years, so I think I am getting the hang of his style. The man could sure crank out some novels! I never get tired of them. They are character-heavy and as addictive as “Downton Abbey” (but make no mistake, waaay better than “Downton Abbey”). Sure, British Victorian culture might be weird and alien to a 20th to 21st century American, but lately my own culture has become so weird and alien that the Victorians are beginning to look sane and rational.

In Framley Parsonage we are introduced to Mark Robarts, the good-looking eldest son of a financially successful physician. Doctors have an interesting position in Trollope novels. They are generally a respectable bunch and can become wealthy, but their status among the aristocracy is lowly, I suppose because they work for their living. Young Mark gets to go to school at Harrow and Cambridge where he becomes friends with Lord Lufton, and eventually receives the patronage of his friend’s mother Lady Lufton and an excellent living (900 pounds per year) as a parson in the village of Framley.

Mark Robarts is one of Trollope’s tribe of charming, likable (at least Trollope likes him), but flawed young men. Trollope does not like all of his flawed young men (Ferdinand Lopez in The Prime Minister comes to mind). The ones he does not like come to a bad end; the ones he does like are rescued from their difficulties and learn their lesson. Such is the power of the omniscient author.

At the strong suggestion of Lady Lufton, Mark marries a sweet girl named Fanny and by age 26 is established in his career, happily married, and already has a couple of kids. And he is bored. He wants more and suffers from the flawed thinking that, although he has had the best of fortune, he is destined for more. His buddy Lord Lufton (Ludawig) has already gotten into all kinds of debt trouble and cost his mother all kinds of money, mostly through his association with a dissipated Member of Parliament named Mr. Sowerby. Soon enough Mark also falls into the snare of Mr. Sowerby, stupidly signs his name to a paper, getting himself deep into financial trouble.

Trollope likes Lord Lufton, so he becomes the supporting hero of the novel. Since our hero Mark is already married, Lord Lufton must provide the romantic interest. There are two ladies in his life: Griselda Grantly, the beautiful blonde daughter of Archdeacon and Mrs. Grantly (who we have met in The Warden and Barchester Towers) and Mark’s feisty younger sister, Lucy Robarts. Lady Lufton is doing everything in her power to fix her precious son up with the Grantly girl, but (of course) Ludawig goes for Lucy.

It is a delight to see how the main characters from Trollope’s other novels weave themselves into the plots as we read through the Chronicles of Barcetshire. We get to enjoy some absolutely delicious backbiting and vicious rivalry between Grantly’s and Bishop and Mrs. Proudy. These two clerical families have not yet recovered from the bad blood created in Barchester Towers and now both have daughters in marriage market. Also in Framley Parsonage, Plantagenet Palliser makes his first appearance. I did not realize how much continuity there is between the Chronicles of Barcetshire novels and the later Palliser series.

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For readers who have not yet had the pleasure of delving into these two series of six novels each, I will provide a list in chronological order. I cannot get enough of them. I’m so sad that after this one I have only two to go. But except for a recent production of The Way We Live Now I have not even begun to tap into the films and TV based on Trollope’s novels, so I know I have many delights in my future.

The Chronicles of Barcetshire

The Warden (1855)
Barchester Towers (1857)
Doctor Thorne (1858)
Framley Parsonage (1861)
The Small House at Allington (1864)
The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

The Palliser Novels

Can You Forgive Her?(1864)
Phineas Finn (1869)
The Eustace Diamonds (1873)
Phineas Redux (1874)
The Prime Minister (1876)
The Duke’s Children (1879)

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Classics review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

imageI vaguely remember reading My Ántonia back in high school AP English but in the decades between then and now, which included getting a degree in English + 21 hours of graduate studies, I did not read anything else by Willa Cather. Until reading O Pioneers!  last week. How could such a thing happen?  Isn’t that like living in Washington DC and never visiting the Smithsonian? I guess it’s just mathematics: so many books + so little time + busy life = not getting around to Willa Cather (and too many other great authors to count).

Oh well. I will focus on the wonders of the books I have read and not on the mountains of books I have not. A climber of Mount Literature faces a task far more daunting than a climber of Mount Everest – but certainly a far more pleasant one. What climber of Everest gets to wrap of in a warm blanket drinking hot coffee while climbing?

But if we are to get around to talking about  O Pioneers! we must leave all mountains behind and descend onto the stark plains of Nebraska.  This novel, the first in Cather’s Great Plains trilogy, is about the hardy people who set out to farm the American plains in the 19th century  – that is, the first settlers of European ancestry. Native Americans do not appear in O Pioneers! but I understand they play a role in the next in the series, The Song of the Lark.

My first reaction to this book was a feeling of cleansing, as if I were showering off all the layers of technology and infrastructure that have accumulated since the late 1890s: highways, strip malls, cell phones, televisions, Wal-marts, income tax forms, junk food, top forty songs, Hollywood, and super models. It felt so refreshing to transport my mind to a place where none of these things exist, a place where people’s minds are free of most of what occupies our minds in this era. If the mind is stripped of all this 21st century clutter, what can be left to fill it up? In the Nebraska of this novel it turns out there is more than enough to occupy the minds of the characters: things such as eating, weather, harvests, family conflicts, hopes and dreams, and the rarest human necessities, love and friendship.

Willa Cather was born in Virginia and moved to Nebraska when she was nine years old where Her father tried farming for 18 months, and then moved his family to the town of Red Cloud and opened a real estate business.  The vast flatness and stark beauty of the land as well the character of the people, mostly recent European immigrants, made a huge impression on young Willa.

The story is told in a plain-spoken third person narration, suitable to the strong simple characters and the hard realities of their lives. The story focuses on the Bergsons,  a family of Swedish-American settlers.The main character, Alexandra Bergson, is able to succeed where many people fail due to a combination of intelligence, perseverence, and quality of strength that is hard to describe, but which Cather captures beautifully. I liked that through her difficulties Alexandra never becomes hard or unkind, but remains a cheerful kind person, always seeking the best for everyone but strong enough to avoid letting people take advantage of her.

Alexandra’s extraordinary character contrasts with that of her brothers Lou and Oscar, both of whom have their good points and good intentions, but who simply do not possess the necessary traits to succeed in the challenging new land, at least without the good sense and business acumen of their sister. When story begins, Alexandra is about 20 and has come to town to pick up some supplies. She has brought along her five-year-old brother Emil and runs into her best friend Carl Linstrum, a skinny teenager who lives on a neighboring farm. We also a meet charming little girl in the general store named Marie, a Bohemian child dressed in “Kate Greenway” style. Marie later plays a major role in the plot.

Carl accompanies them part of the way home and Alexandra tells him how worried she is about the future. Her father is dying. Later that night her father tells her brother Lou and Oscar, 19 and 17, that Alexandra is to be in charge if the business-end of the farm and is no longer to work in fields.

I loved the way the novel deals with the core basics of life – working the land, erecting houses on the bare land, and the basic needs even among the strongest for love and friendship. How many families do we know in which one person plays the part of the “strong one” or the anchor so that everyone else can be weak, neurotic, adventurous, and foolish. Alexandra is the poster child for that strong family member; for the next 20 years she puts her needs on hold for the sake of family and farm in loyalty to her beloved father. But she has her limits and life eventually brings her to edge of her emotional endurance.

When she faces the worst does she fall apart, triumph, or a little of both? This is not a saccharine story. There is both great joy and crushing heartbreak, just like real life. There are elements of naturalism and elements of the Victorian omniscient narrator, but Willa Cather’s voice is her own. The Great Plains trilogy was very popular but later Cather faced a lot of unkind criticism for not get on board with the modernist movement of the 1920s and ’30s. I’m glad she didn’t. My writing/life lesson from this novel is stick faithfully to your own voice and style, even if it does not happen to be trendy.

 

Classics review: Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

doctor thorne.jpgThe title character of Doctor Thorne is a humble country doctor, but the author/narrator tells us: “Those who don’t approve of a middle-aged country doctor as a hero, may take the heir of Greshamsbury in his place, and call the book, if it so please them, ‘The loves and adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the younger.’” Dr. Thomas Thorne is descended from an old and respected family and is a distant relation of the Thornes of Ullathorne, a highly respected family in the region. However, his particular branch of the family has fallen to a low rung on the social ladder.

Family pedigree, or what they call “blood” or “birth”, figures prominently in this novel as it does in all of Trollope’s novels. In Doctor Thorne some of the characters are absolutely obsessed with it. As an American whose family history prior to my grandparents fades into sepia-colored rumors of trips across the Atlantic from the vague mists of Eastern Europe, this obsession with ancestry is an alien and mysterious concept to me. But I am always fascinated by it. I feel sure that the whole family connection thing has moved history along in ways I have not yet realized.

This doctor has a ne’er-do-well brother named Henry, a real dissipated wretch. Henry is not in the book long and does not rate deep sympathetic psychological analysis. We are simply assured that he is bad. However the doctor does his best to support and care for his wretched brother. Why one brother turned out so badly while the other became a near Saint we are not told. It is what it is.

Well Henry Thorne seduces a village girl and get her pregnant. When he gets shot to death by the girl’s brother, Dr. Thorne arranges things for the village girl to marry a local tradesman and emigrate to America, adopts her baby girl, and mitigates the sentence of the brother, Roger Scatchard, so that he gets only six years (justifiable homicide, you know….) Dr. Thorne provides for the child, Mary, to be secretly brought up in the country and then sent to school and taught to be a lady. When she is 12 years old she comes to live with her good uncle, after enough time has passed that the villagers do not draw the connection between the scandal and the sweet little niece.

Some modern readers might be annoyed by Trollope’s frequent authorial commentary, but as a writer I love the insight into his novel-writing process. For example:  “I quite feel that an apology is due for beginning a novel with two long dull chapters full of description. I am perfectly aware of the danger of such a course. In so doing I sin against the golden rule which requires us all to put our best foot foremost, the wisdom of which is fully recognised by novelists, myself among the number. It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages; but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise.”

The main subject of the book, besides the foibles of various kinds of Victorians, is the hypocritical attitude of the Victorian aristocrats toward money. No one is worth the aristocrats’ time unless they have good birth. Until, that is, they need an infusion of money. Then they are eager to marry their son and nephew off to the daughter of a patent medicine huckster. The  patent medicine heiress in this novel is Miss Dunstable, and she is the funniest and most entertaining character I have yet come across in all my Victorian novel reading. Her wealth and therefore desirability for marriage gives her the rare freedom to say anything she wants to say. Therefore she gets to play the role of court jester, loudly pointing out all the hypocrisy with good-natured humor.

The story centers on the Gresham family, the landowning gentry in the village of Greshamsbury. The father, Mr. Francis Gresham starts life with a healthy income but marries young to a rather foolish girl, Lady Arabella, the daughter of the old and very snobbish de Courcy family and then makes some foolish decisions early on which result in getting into debt. Also the couple has 10 children (!), one son and nine daughters. Several of the daughters are sickly and require expensive medical care, and sadly, four of the children eventually die. I understand that dying in childhood was so commonplace in Victorian times that it was almost expected, so apparently this is realistic. The death of the children gets only a paragraph or two in the backstory.

The real action begins with the 21st birthday of Frank Gresham, the son and heir. By this time, the property is heavily mortgaged and the Greshams are on the brink of ruin. The only hope is that young Frank will “marry money.” Accordingly, his mother and aunt, Lady de Courcy, set out to do everything in their power to make that happen. Unfortunately for the family debt situation, but fortunately for our plot, Frank is already in love with his respectable, but penniless neighbor, Mary Thorne. Both Frank and Mary are wonderfully likable characters who grow and change during a four-year span, Frank in particular.

As for Dr. Thorne himself, he is sort of the mechanism that moves things along and smooths things out, the voice of sanity, and the glue that holds the whole plot together. He is also a lovable character, one of those saintly characters you run into in Trollope novels and also occasionally in Dickens, belonging to the species I call the “disinterested scientist.” This character is primarily interested in his “work” – usually science, engineering, medicine, or anything selflessly academic. He always does the right thing because he is never interested in accumulating wealth and is generally not interested in love and marriage until is he is middle-aged or beyond.

Doctor Thorne is the third novel in Chronicles of Barcetshire series, but it has only a tenuous connection with the first two novels, The Warden and Barchester Towers. If you like the laugh-out-loud humor, the penetrating perception of human nature, and the smooth as silk writing of Trollope, you will love this novel.

Reading a little Chomsky before dawn

understanding powerLast post was a stupid experimental thing about doodling while reading Chomsky, so I thought I’d follow up with a more conventional post now that I’m nearly finished with the audio book. I can’t guarantee this one is much more intelligent, but at least it doesn’t involve doodling. After this I promise I will get back to the serious business of discussing Victorian novels.

And by the way, Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Sorry I don’t have a more St. P’s oriented post. The closest thing I have to something Irish is a post on Phineas Finn Redux by Anthony Trollope.

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I am driving to work so early that the sun will not rise for another two hours, listening to an audio book called Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, a collection of talks and discussions by Noam Chomsky the famous MIT professor of linguistics. I have never read anything by Chomsky before except one article – an interview by David Barsamian in the June 2014 issue of The Sun called Noam Chomsky: On How the U.S. Breeds Inequality at Home and Instability Abroad. The article interested me enough to seek out a Chomsky audio book. I read for one purpose: to further my understanding of truth. I do not read to relax – reading always stimulates me. If a book relaxes me I fall asleep. Nor do I usually read to entertain myself, although entertainment is almost always a fringe benefit.

I am 97 percent done with the audio book, which is like 22.5 hours long, and I must say it is causing me to see the world differently. The world Chomsky describes is scary and getting scarier all the time. These talks occurred in the late 1980s through around 1999, so it is interesting to hear his perspective on events and decisions that immediately preceded the world we are living in now. As Chomsky describes it seems there is a web of power spreading like an interconnected cloud of darkness over the political globe made up of an insulated class of rich and powerful people getting fatter and fatter while 99 percent of world’s population slowly declines into more or less hopeless poverty. The vast majority of people outside the web of power are considered to be cannon fodder or “consumers” or simply disposable, as in the exploding U.S. prison population. A dark vision indeed, but Chomsky gives too much evidence and speaks with too much plain common sense to simply disregard it.

Very early morning is my best time to contemplate. I contemplate if all the disposable products that are marketed at us tend calibrate ours minds to disposable mode – disposable people, disposable time. Or if we are conditioned to think of all things, even time, as product – i.e., those neatly scheduled blocks of quality time we are supposed to plan with our children. It makes me think of Erich Fromm, his concept of having vs. being. Everyone has part of the puzzle. Perhaps the puzzle is not that hard. It’s just that – perhaps – and God knows I am not quick to leap to judgment – the web of power has an interest in obscuring the clear truth from the 99 percent. Because the truth would make us angry, as in French-Revolution angry.

I may be mistaken, but I get the idea Chomsky believes this world is all there is. He seems to see religious faith as a symptom of lower, less advanced society, at least when he talks about the American south. He thinks the only hope is for the people of the world to organize social activism groups and international unions. I do believe there is a power higher than the world’s web of international finance but I understand where Chomsky is coming from. It’s like people sense they are getting screwed. We know there are powerful organizations working daily against our personal interests, as evidenced by all our conspiracy theories. But most of us do not understand the details: things like how international currency values work and how trade deals are made that further enrich the wealthy while shutting down factories in towns or how deals are made that enable the manufacture of chemicals for short-term profit that destroy the atmosphere and God knows what else.

pulaski

Town of Pulaski Virginia. Photo by Aaron Apple.

Even when we do understand the outlines of how these things work we feel helpless to do anything about it. We don’t have the money or the access to the fancy dinners and golf courses and conferences and schools where these deals are made that are sucking the life out of our little economies. So some of us go to church and pray. Chomsky might say this faith energy would be better devoted to organizing some action. And who am I to say he is wrong? That might be exactly God’s intention. My guess is that doing while praying would be the most productive plan.

So far I think the book has lived up to its title. It is furthering my understanding of power.

Finally read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but made mistake of seeing films first

I decided about a month ago I needed to finally read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. These novels were published in 1954 and 1955 and the films came out in the early 2000’s, so long ago that the action figures are now collector’s items. But hey, I work on my own timeline, and 2016 turned out to my personal LOTR year. Maybe it has something to do with what’s going on in the world – horrible wars and the feeling of a spreading darkness, and being an election year with its spectacle of people clutching after that ring of power.

Certain members of my family, who have been Tolkien fans for years, have watched the LOTR movies repeatedly so I have caught parts of them multiple times. I did go to see each of the films when they they first came out, and honestly, I did not like them all that much. Not that they are half bad as film adaptations go. As such they are quite good. It’s just that these kind of action productions are not to my taste and haven’t been for quite a while. As I get older I seem to be developing a sort of strange resistance to this business of “being entertained.” The thought of going to a concert or watching a movie is steadily losing what appeal it ever had.

The books, of course, are a whole different experience. I must have
read The Fellowship of the Ring before, because once I began reading it, parts of it came back to me.  And I remember reading The Hobbit. The Two Towers and The Return of the King seemed new to me. Now that I have read the entire trilogy I am not sure how a true Tolkien fan can love the films. The Lord of the Rings is all about words and language and histories passed down through poetry, song, and legend. The books have rhythm, depth, and towering height. To do them justice it seems to me you need to devote the time and mind-space to reading them.

I must say I love Howard Shore’s soundtrack, even though the main theme sounds just like an old hymn called “This is My Father’s World.” (Which is so appropriate maybe it’s deliberate.) Apparently the LOTR soundtrack has won a “Best Soundtrack of All Time” award for like six years in a row from some organization called ClassicFM. It’s possible that the experience certain literature can be enhanced by a good instrumental soundtrack. (For that matter some lives could be enhanced by a good instrumental soundtrack.) But maybe even music limits the mind by overlaying a structure the mind wouldn’t otherwise impose on itself. My reading experience is also affected by picturing the characters as their film counterparts. It’s always a mistake to see the movie before you read the book.

But maybe in this case it is not a big deal. I am not upset about it. I did it to myself.  I think that on the whole it is a good thing that books are adapted to film, as long as the filmmakers make a good faith effort to be true to the book to the extent the limitations of their medium allow. There have been many book adaptations that seek to appeal to current values and tastes rather than trying to be true to the book. You could make a case that even this is healthy – literature reinterpreted to speak to the culture. But when the movie actually reverses or debases the spirit or theme of the book – I find that sort of thing abhorrent.

For example the main theme of the LOTR is that you cannot compromise with evil. You cannot keep just a little bit of evil and think you can use it for good. The nature of evil is such that it wants to devour and make everything part of itself. If the films had changed things just a little bit to let the good guys keep the ring of power, that would have destroyed the story. But these films, although they adapted much, did not change that most important thing. So they are tolerable.

In my next post I will talk about which LOTR character I most related to and which part of the saga really got to me.

What’s Wrong with the World? by G.K. Chesterton. Some notes….

imageI have just finished listening to What’s Wrong With the World? by G. K. Chesterton. This is actually my second reading of this book. I have learned a few things since the last time I read it a couple years ago and have come to see things in a different light. GKC speaks from a Catholic point of view and last time I read the book I was seriously considering returning to the Catholic Church. I needed a sense of continuity in my life I suppose, and also a spiritual home. I thought the Catholic Church might fulfill both purposes. I liked that it was rich in tradition, music, and history and it might have the right balance of structure and space to support my spiritual needs.

That was in 2014. In 2015 I decided against the idea. I can’t say this is my final decision. Until this life ends there is always the possibility I will change my mind. I sometimes wish I could just commit to an idea and stay with it. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, I wish my soul could select its society and shut the door. My soul seems to like to hang out with a society for a while and then sneak out the back door that it always leaves ajar.

In reading What’s Wrong I realized I pretty much still agree with GKC’s version of the Catholic point of view. But maybe GKC’s version of the Catholic point of view does exactly jibe with the point of view the Church has expressed through the last few centuries. GKC thinks the Church accommodates the moral needs of human nature and is a good institution for broad spiritual guidance. This is the ideal, but it seems to me the Church has too often gotten wrapped up in protecting itself as an institution and has not always stood for the rights of the individual vs the state. It has sometimes been an agent of the state and of state-sponsored violence when it should have been a voice for non-violence and love. That’s one of the reasons I decided against committing to it again.

GKC disagrees with Leo Tolstoy’s assertion that violence is always wrong, at least if you profess to be a follower of Christ. GKC seems to accept that violence is sometimes needed to protect what is good and part of being human is the desire to protect what is good. There are huge problems with admitting the necessity of certain categories of violence, but this is not the post to go into that. Obviously the world agrees that violence is a necessity for the human race. I think I agree that we humans do want to protect what is good but more often we want to protect what we think is our own, which, as far as most of us are concerned, is exactly the same as what is good. GKC would agree, but he thinks we need to get clear on what should and should not be our own.

What is wrong with the world, according the GKC, is that everybody needs to have a very specific something of our own – a house with a door and a small patch of earth, perhaps three acres. In early 20th century England, a small segment of the population had taken over all the property and the vast majority of souls were left to scramble and scrape to get by on scanty mine or factory wages. Instead of a house with a few acres they had to live in slums, the workhouse, or the streets. In this series of 49 essays GKC talks about what led to this state of affairs and why it is so difficult to fix.

GKC is always funny and charming but in this book I actually perceive some anger coming through, such as when he talks about a certain law that required girls of poor families to cut their hair short to control lice. Why, he asks, do we not address the conditions that lead to little girls living in lice-infested conditions rather then demanding that children adapt their hair to the conditions? Parliament, he says, would not dare to demand such a demeaning thing of children of the rich.

Chesterton was a proponent of distributionism, a social theory that was neither socialism or capitalism. It said that everyone who wanted to should be able to own a private home and a little land. It advocated distribution of land but not by force – rather landowners should be encouraged to bequeath their land to the poor upon their death. Not sure if the idea ever took off.

GKC skewers socialism of the type that tells people they do not want what they want, the type of socialism that tries to engineer society to benefit the state. The exploitation of people for the benefit of industrial profit fairs no better. These interests are represented in the book by two hypocrite politicians named Hudge and Gudge who, as it turns out are really working together, against the interests of poor “Jones”, the ordinary man who simply wants to live a peaceful life in a home of his own.

This quote, I think, expresses the heart of the book’s message:

“Whether we can give every English man a free home of his own or not, at least we should desire it; and he desires it. For the moment we speak of what he wants, not what he expects to get. He wants, for instance, a separate house; he does not want a semi-detached house. He may be forced in the commercial race to share one wall with another man. Similarly he may be forced in a three-legged race to share one leg with another man; but it is not so that he pictures himself in his dreams of elegance and liberty. Again, he does not desire a flat. He can eat and sleep and praise God in a flat; He can eat and sleep and praise God in a railway train. But a railway train is not a house, because it is a house on wheels. And a flat is not a house, because it is a house on stilts. An idea of earthy contact and foundation, as well as an idea of separation and independence, is a part of this instructive human picture.

I take, then, this one institution as a test. As every normal man desires a woman, and children born of woman, every normal man desires a house to put them into. He does not merely want a roof above him and a chair beneath him; he wants an objective and visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses. This is the normal appetite of men; I do not say there are not exceptions.”

What’s Wrong With the World was first published in 1910 so I am sure some readers will have problems with Chesterton’s discussions of women and the suffrage movement. It seems absolutely stone-age when you read of a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote. But it’s also interesting to enter into new insights about that time. The State and its doings were not always considered all that important to the mass of the population. Chesterton discusses the importance of the private home to men, women, and children and why its importance ought not to be superseded in importance by the demands of either the government or commercial industry.

Note: I have long since made the decision not to be offended by points of view popular in the past that are widely considered insensitive now. I just don’t want anything (such as anger) to stand in the way of gleaning what wisdom the past has to offer. Attitudes have changed dramatically in the past few decades, mostly for the better. Heck, I wouldn’t even want to be women in the 1960s, especially after watching Mad Men, but it was what it was, and I want to be free to seek understanding of the world wherever and whenever it can be found.

A question occurs to me. Why do I feel compelled to read social theories from 1910? In  this book GKC actually provides an pretty good answer to that question – the question of why we might want to look to the past for answers to current problems. I may need to talk about that topic in the next post.

Favorite Einstein quotes about God and America

Einstein - His Life and UniverseEinstein: His Life and Universe is a treasury of Einstein stories and quotes. Einstein was a very quotable guy and this surely enhanced his popularity. Here are a few of my favorites:

In an interview shortly after his 50th birthday, a journalist named George Sylvester Viereck asked Einstein if he accepted the historical existence of Jesus. Einstein’s response: “Unquestionably. No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

I was just impressed that Einstein had taken the time to read the Gospels. In the same interview, Veireck asked him if he believed in God. He was asked this question or some version of it many times during his life; this was one of his best answers.

“I’m not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written this books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.”

About America he most admired the freedom to express individual ideas, even unpopular ones, without fear. “From what I have seen Americans, I think that life would not be worth living to them without this freedom.”

Einstein’s appreciation of freedom, his natural tendency from birth, was greatly energized by his experience of living in Berlin and witnessing the rise of the Nazis. He publicly announced that he “would not live in a country where people were denied the freedom to hold and express their own thoughts.”

Review of Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

Einstein - His Life and UniverseEvery now and then I get the urge to read a biography, and every time I do I think I should read more of them. I find biographies especially rewarding because they give me a close-up view of history and always remind me that history was once the here and now and very personal experience of the people who lived it. I suppose I chose this Einstein biography primarily because of that face, the face that has been present all my life attached to some fascinating quotes and forever associated with the quintessential brilliant and eccentric scientist.

I once read a book that attempted to explain the theory of relativity to children and learned that the theory has something to do with the continuity and unity of time and space and that it shows that time is not some static thing that we move through but actually varies depending on the observer’s speed and orientation. Also I once read a children’s book about young Albert’s childhood to my son. This is just to give you an idea of how little I really knew about Albert Einstein before reading Walter Isaacson’s fantastic Einstein: His Life and Universe.

As I read Isaacson’s skillful narrative that weaves the personal, political, philosophical, and scientific strands of Einstein’s amazing life into a deeply moving portrait of his character and the world in which he lived, that iconic image with the crazy hair and the kind wrinkly face transformed into a real multi-dimensional person. Of course the central and anchor strand of Einstein’s life is the scientific and I was impressed by how the author manages to make theoretical physics somewhat interesting even to a non-scientific reader. Like me.

The theory of relativity – either special or general – is not easy to explain even in a book of its own, so I’m sure it was quite a challenge to work Einstein’s most significant achievement into the story of his life. The facts surrounding the publication of his landmark 1905 paper however are fascinating even without knowing what the paper said: how even with a Doctorate in Theoretical Physics he could not get an academic job and actually worked out the theory of special relativity while working in the Swiss Patent Office. The “Swiss Patent Office” story is legendary, but Isaakson brings it to life by showing who the young Einstein was, how he got the job, and what the job was like. (For example, it was no drudge job, it payed pretty well, and Einstein actually enjoyed examining patent applications.) In fact, much of popular lore about Einstein’s early failures, such as flunking math, are either false or exaggerated. He was, in fact, brilliant and intensely curious about the forces behind reality from early childhood.

It literally took the help of the heavens for Einstein and his theory to capture the public imagination. He needed a total eclipse to verify the theory but the first eclipse opportunity was lost by complications caused by the outbreak of World War I. This proved fortunate because a calculation was wrong and Einstein was able to correct it by the time the next eclipse opportunity came around. When his astronomer friend declared that the eclipse proved the theory about the bending of light the news media took it up and Einstein’s international fame took off at the speed of light, helped along by his eccentric appearance, charming personality, and quote-ability. The truth is he took to fame and attention like a fish to water, an unusual quality for the scientists of his time who tended to try to stay above the public fray. Against the backdrop of his times, you begin to see clearly just how singular a person Einstein was.

Between his scientific adventures and complicated love life there is plenty of drama, but what about the theory itself? What is it so important? What was its real impact on physics, philosophy, and even world history? Isaakson explains all of these complexities in various ways, so that even if the reader does not fully understand ho the theory works (and who does?) you begin to understand its tectonic effect on he popular perception of the nature of our universe and popular imagination as well as how it affected world history in the 20th century. For example, it indirectly lead to the development of the atom bomb, to pacifist Einstein’s great regret.

The book, written in 2007, is 551 pages long plus 125 pages of end notes and indexing. So there is too much dense info to summarize in a short review. However none of it drags when you are reading. Here are a few points that really affected me:

  • I loved the story about how Einstein got semi-expelled from an authoritarian high school. One of his most consistent qualities throughout his life was his anti-authoritarianism, all the more amazing for a kid growing up in a hyper-militaristic late 19th-century Germany.  One of his professors said that young Einstein undermined his authority in the classroom by his very presence. “When Einstein insisted that he has committed no offense, the teach replied, ‘Yes, that is true, but you sit there in the back row and smile, and your mere presence here spoils the respect on the class for me.'” And so Einstein was apparently asked to leave the school.
  • He was not a particularly monogamous man and did not seem to suffer from undue guilt about that. He was never unkind to anyone expect perhaps his first wife Mileva Marić. She was the only female student at Zurich Polytechnic and in the beginning their relationship was beautiful, intellectual, and idealistic. It lasted for many years. They married in opposition to their family’s wishes and had two sons. But his growing fame and her professional disappointments worked against the ultimate success of the marriage, and finally they divorced, another unusual thing at the time. Isaacson presents this highly complex relationship, including Einstein’s extra-marital relationships, with special sensitivity and fairness.
  • I was impressed with Einstein’s resistance to the many extreme political positions of his time. He was a socialist but did not support the Soviet Union, a pacifist but supported the second world war, recognizing early the dangers presented by the rise of the Nazi party. (Living in Berlin as a Jew made this recognition fairly easy.) In his early life Einstein saw no conflict between being both a German and Jew, but as event developed he came to identify fully as a Jew, becoming a leader of world Judaism to such an extent  that he was eventually offered the position of Prime Minister of the new Israel.
  • Most fascinating to me was Einstein’s attitude toward God. He was never a practitioner of any particular religion but believed deeply inn a higher power, which he tended to see as a non-personal principle being the existence and nature of the universe. Even this conception of a God raised eyebrows among his scientific peers. But in this, as in all things, he was a non-conformist.
  • I think what I liked most about Einstein was that his guiding principle was that individual freedom of thought and expression was the most important thing and above all things that freedom must be protected. He thought socialism could protect freedom again authoritarianism but as soon as socialism itself turned into tyranny, as in the USSR, he withdrew his support.

In the end I loved this book. The story of Albert Einstein’s amazing life and its impact on the 20th century and beyond is told with grace, depth, and excellence. I also love the subject. Besides Einstein and I have the same birthday.

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Next post: Einstein had a pithy way with words and was very quotable. Next post I will share a few of my favorite Einstein quotes, found in Walter Isaacson’s biography.

Classics Review: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

barchester towersThis year, 2015, has been my year of Trollope. I finished reading all of the Palliser series and then went on to the first of the Chronicles of Barsetshire The Warden, which was a delight, and have most recently finished Barchester Towers, which is, as Victorian novels go, practically perfect – especially if you like a good helping of wry humor in your novels. This second novel of the Barsetshire Chronicles has the added benefit that we are familiar with the core group of characters and are happy to find out how things have turned out for them after the traumatic upheavals in The Warden.

About five years have passed since the end of the previous novel, and we find kindly old Bishop Grantly on his death bed with his son the Archdeacon by his side. The Archdeacon loves his father but the old man has been in the process of dying for several weeks and the Archdeacon is hoping to be appointed his replacement as Bishop. It’s pretty much a sure thing unless a new Prime Minister and his party come in. That would mean the new gang of liberals would want to appoint a liberal clergyman to the post. The old Bishop hangs on to life just long enough for a new government turnover and the unfortunate Archdeacon loses his chance at the plum gig by moments.

The new regime appoints a certain Dr. Proudie to the post and into the cozy town of Barchester comes the new Bishop and his entourage, which includes the domineering Mrs. Proudie – “the real Bishop” – and his odious chaplain, the slimy social-climbing Mr. Obadiah Slope. This group belongs to the new evangelical, less traditional, wing of the Episcopal Church. It is strange reading a novel in which the liberals, who want things like Sunday schools for poor children and more inclusiveness in the church, are cast as the villains, but such is the case in Barchester Towers.  These people have scant respect for tradition and are perceived by our more conservative friends as vulgar busybodies. I found myself perfectly happy to root for the old guard against these obnoxious upstarts, even though generally I tend to sympathize with the oppressed masses. Mr. Harding, his daughter Eleanor, and even the Archdeacon, are just more likeable.

At the end of The Warden Eleanor Harding marries the young reformer John Bold but in Barchester Towers we find that he has, alas, died. It is apparent that Trollope never quite warmed up to John Bold, whose reforming zeal is the impetus for driving poor kind Mr. Harding out of his comfortable job as Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, the local alms house, so it is no surprise that he kills the poor guy off. Besides, Bold’s early death leaves Eleanor a rich young widow who is available for romantic adventures.

Also newly arrived in town is the bizarre Stanhope family. The father, Dr. Vesey Stanhope, is a clergyman who went to Italy to recover from a sore throat and stayed there for 12 years, allowing proxies to take care of his clerical duties. His three Bohemian young adult children, two daughters and a son, both charm and scandalize the town. Bertie Stanhope, the ne’re-do-well son becomes one of Eleanor’s unwanted suiters; but he causes her little trouble compared to the odious attentions of Mr. Slope.

Trollope uses some unusual narrative devices in this novel, from time to time allowing the authorial voice to interrupt the flow of the story. For example his assures his readers that we need not worry that “his” Eleanor will marry either Bertie Stanhope or Mr. Slope. She has too much sense to allow such a thing to happen. In the process Trollope clues us in to his philosophy of novel writing: in a good novel this sort of information should not interfere with the reader’s enjoyment. And indeed it does not.

The pleasure of this novel is in the perceptive humor and the characters, none of whom is perfect, but all of whom are either lovable or interesting or both. Trollope somehow makes even the scheming Archdeacon lovable. I think the secret is that Trollope really likes these characters and makes us like them too. In real life when we like someone we like them in spite of or even because of their imperfections. It’s that way with the Barchester characters. I found myself affectionately shaking my head at the antics of Archdeacon Grantly even though he is the kind of man I probably couldn’t stand in real life.

It is Archdeacon Grantly’s scheming that brings another key character into the story: the handsome intellectual Mr. Arabin, former professor of poetry at Oxford University, who, at Dr. Grantly’s invitation, accepts a position as vicar of a quirky local parish called St. Ewold. Mr. Arabin is a conservative and Dr. Grantly needs an ally in his political struggle with the Proudie/Slope faction. Mr. Arabin is also single, and as it turns out, rather lonely. So Eleanor Harding soon has a third suitor, this one much more suitable.

Other interesting characters are Wilfred Thorne, squire of St. Ewold’s and his spinster sister Monica Thorne. This pair are evangelical about preserving the tradition of their Saxon heritage. Then there is the poor clergymen Mr. Quiverful, his wife, and their 14 children, who desperately need Mr. Harding’s old post as Warden of Hiram’s Hospital so that the children can have decent shoes to go to church. And there are also variety of townspeople who get the light of literature shone upon them so that we get a glimpse of ordinary village life with its jealousies, its passions, and pretensions. I look forward to soon reading the third book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series: Dr. Thorne.

Classics Review: The Warden by Anthony Trollope

the wardenAfter completing the Palliser series, I decided I might as well start on Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles, Trollope’s earlier and more popular six-novel series. I actually did read the first two of the series, The Warden and Barchester Towers a long time ago, so long ago that I really didn’t remember much about them, probably because I found them so strange at the time that I could hardly understand what was going on. Wardens, bishops, archdeacons, and all the strange culture of Victorian life in general were all but incomprehensible to the younger me. This was before the Internet, so I could not then do what I can do now: go to Wikipedia each time I need background information. Besides making books themselves more available, the Internet greatly enhances the reading experience by making it easy get educated on historical and cultural context. I think that is a gain for humanity.

The Barchester Chronicles take place a century and a half ago before motor vehicles, telephones, mass communication, and women’s liberation. Things like writing letters and going to church were essential to staying connected with other human beings. One of the most valuable benefits of reading Trollope and other 19th century authors is simply an understanding of what life was like before the modern era. Stories of humans, stripped of the now ever-present technology and its accompanying cacophony, give me a clearer idea of what our strange species is all about.

The Barchester novels begin with The Warden, published in 1855, in which we meet Mr. Septimus Harding, a sixtyish clergyman who lives a charmed life as warden of an almshouse in a lovely picturesque home on a generous salary of 800 pounds per year. This means he is the caretaker of a facility called “Hiram’s Hospital,” home since the 14th century to 12 worn-out old working men. A certain medieval landowner named Hiram bequeathed his land for an almshouse and its maintenance. The will specifies that the almshouse would provide for 12 elderly wool carders who could no longer work and had no family to care for them in their old age. The rents and products produced be the surrounding land were to be used for the support of the facility. Over the centuries the will was carried out but the wool carders evolved into 12 poor working men in any field and the wardenship evolved into a very comfortable living for a clergyman appointed by the bishop.

Mr. Harding is a gentle soul who plays his violoncello for the elderly residents, keeps his gardens, and writes books about hymns. His younger unmarried daughter Eleanor lives with him and his older daughter Susan is the wife of Dr. Grantly, the energetic archdeacon, and fierce defender of the rights of the Church. The old men love their warden and he loves his life. Everyone is happy. Of course this paradise cannot last, at least if we are to have a novel to read.

The spirit of reform is in the air and questions are popping up all around England about the disparities in income between the clergy and the poor they are supposed to be serving. One of these busybody reformers, a young medical man named John Bold, has come to live in Barchester and begins to question why the warden gets so much money and the poor workmen get only a tuppence a day plus room and board. The busybody reforming newspaper The Jupiter takes up the cause, portraying poor Mr. Harding as a greedy parasite living off the money meant for the poor.

Dr. Grantly’s father is the bishop, who is a close lifelong friend of Mr. Harding, so we truly have a cozy arrangement in Barchester. Dr. Grantly has no patience for the liberals and their meddling with the time tested institutions of the Church, so when John Bold files a lawsuit against Mr. Harding, Dr. Grantly gets his own counsel, Mr. Abraham Haphazard, and goes to battle with full force. The Bishop, another gentle soul who hates conflict, only wants peace. But Mr. Harding is tortured by the very suggestion that he might be taking money that he has no right to. Though he has been warden for ten years, the idea that he was doing anything wrong never occurred to him. The 12 old men split into warring factions: those wanting their rights to 100 pounds a year and those supporting their beloved Mr. Harding and the status quo. As if this isn’t enough, there is another complication: Eleanor Harding and John Bold, the young reformer who stirred up the trouble, are romantically involved.

The Warden holds its own as a brilliant novel 160 years after its publication. The issues are the same: the haves and have nots – one group of people living at the expense of another. In this novel, however, the people with the power and money are so charming and the world they run so sweet and stable, that the reformers seem like the evil ones. Right and wrong are not easy to discern, and Trollope’s message seems to be that it would have prevented a lot of suffering to have just left well enough alone. As George Orwell put it, “A time-honoured abuse, he [Trollope] held, is frequently less bad than its remedy. He builds Archdeacon Grantly up into a thoroughly odious character, and is well aware of his odiousness, but he still prefers him to John Bold, and the book contains a scarcely veiled attack on Charles Dickens, whose reforming zeal his found it hard to sympathize with.”

Mr. Harding is confronted with a hard choice and this most mild-mannered of men makes a decision so unheard of at the time that it send ripples of shock and surprise through Barchester and the whole clerical world. I found The Warden to be irresistible, I think because Trollope writes with razor-sharp perception about the foibles of human character and the flaws of our social systems but also with genuine warmth, affection, and humor. The most horrible characters have their good points – he makes a point of defending Dr. Grantly despite his harsh insensitivity and greed – and the good characters are never too sugary sweet (as you often find in Dickens). Trollope may perhaps have an underlying agenda to defend tradition, but his main focus is in simply telling a compelling story of people caught in the traps laid by the world and by their own decisions.

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