Monday, March 12, 2018

Crucible of War by Fred Anderson

Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 is Fred Anderson’s comprehensive study of the French and Indian War and its aftermath. For those unfamiliar with the conflict, the French and Indian War refers to the war in North America that was part of the larger world conflict known as The Seven Years War.

The conflict pitted Great Britain and her Native American allies against France and her Native American allies. It mostly occurred in lands west of the original thirteen English Colonies as well as in Canada.

Though I found this book interesting and worthwhile for many reasons, my initial reason for reading it was that the French and Indian War had a great influence upon the American Revolution, which broke out about twenty years later. I wanted to read a book on this earlier conflict. I did a little research to decide which book to read on the subject.  There are several respected histories out there. This one had a reputation of being the most comprehensive. Some reviews described it as being too academic. I did not find that to be true. Instead, I thought that this work was very accessible and understandable. With that, this is a long book. My edition was more than 700 pages in length, not including endnotes.  

This book is mostly a political and military history. Those not looking to read a lot of military history might want to avoid this one. Personally, I found this work engrossing. The structure of the book is little unusual. The first two thirds or so is an account of the war itself, with a heavy emphasis on military history. The policies and politics of Great Britain’s government are also covered in some detail.

The final third of the book covers history after the war. It is fairly heavy on analysis and makes a strong point that the French and Indian War led to the American Revolution. I found the combination of these two parts to be a little odd. The mix of a detailed political and military chronicle, with a targeted history attempting to prove a point, seems unconventional. With that, I loved reading about both the history of the war itself and the tie-in to the American Revolution.

The nature of the major fighting that occurred during this conflict is explored in some detail. Most military activity centered around British and French forts located in wilderness areas. Each side assembled small armies that traversed the wilderness in an attempt to reach, besiege and capture the other side’s forts. Native American support was key to each side. The British better managed to cultivate Native American allies, which gave them a major advantage. In the end, however, it was control of the sea that gave Great Britain her final victory as French troops and resupply to North America were eventually cut off.

As mentioned above, Anderson explores many connections between the Seven Years War and the American Revolution. Great Britain ran up an enormous national debt during the Seven Years War. She was still expending large sums on protecting Canada and the other territorial acquisitions that were taken during the war. As a result, Parliament levied taxes on the thirteen colonies to help pay these expenses. These taxes were a major cause of the revolution.

New territories were also taken from France to the west of the thirteen colonies. The colonists were eager to move out and settle those lands. Great Britain, wanting to avoid conflict between the colonists and Native American tribes, attempted to close off these western territories to the colonists. These restrictions caused enormous friction. Anderson’s analysis of this issue contains his take on the philosophy that related to British ideas of Empire and colonialism. I found this line of inquiry intriguing.

 Tensions between British troops and the colonists actually began during the French and Indian War, when British generals demanded that the colonists provide quarters to British troops. Also, British troops and Provincial forces served together. Instead of harmoniously working together, this only added to the friction.

The colonists, having fielded large military forces and expended great resources during the conflict, came out of the war feeling that they had sacrificed and done their part. They felt that they had contributed to the world victory that Great Britain achieved. The British on the other hand, generally had the impression that the colonists were unreliable and hesitant to fight.

For these reasons and others, Great Britain and the American colonists were set on a collision course. Anderson writes,

The Seven Years’ War had reshaped the world in more ways than anyone knew. But the lessons both Britons and Americans derived from the conflict would prove inadequate guides when men on opposite sides of the Atlantic tried to comprehend what those changes meant, and dangerous ones when each tried to understand the actions of the other.”

This book may not be for everyone. As mentioned above, it is heavy with military history. There is an incongruity to its two parts. With that, I loved this work. Both segments were of great interest to me. I found it to be a comprehensive chronicle of the conflict. In addition, Anderson digs deeply into the reasons for the American Revolution. This is a subject that fascinates me. The book’s length provided me with a level of detail that I often look for. Ultimately, for those interested in these subjects, this is an extremely informative and fascinating book.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is a very a famous work. Surprisingly, I had never read it before.  For those unfamiliar with the story, the novel tells the tale of thirteen-year-old Jim Hawkins. Most of the tale is told in first person from Jim’s point of view. Captain Flint, an old pirate, lodges at the inn owned by Jim’s parents. Flint dies of a stroke just when his old shipmates show up looking for a treasure map that Flint possesses. After Jim, his mother and local authorities fight off Flint’s old pirate friends, the map falls into Jim’s hands. Jim quickly shares the map with a local doctor named Livesey and a local Squire named Trelawney. The adults outfit a ship, bring Jim along and set sail in search of the treasure. Unbeknownst to them, most of their crew are ex-associates of Flint and are themselves pirates. When the ship reaches Treasure Island, the pirates begin to battle with the noncriminal members of the party, including Jim. A violent battle of wits and arms ensues on both land and sea. Though written as juvenile literature, a lot of people die in the fighting, and Stevenson describes the violence with some degree of detail.

I found this book to be fun and entertaining.  Stevenson is a master at depicting action and suspense.  Though his characters are not too complex, many of them are colorful and engaging creations. This is especially true of the pirate leader, Long John Silver.  I think that adults as well as young adults will find the novel enjoyable.  As an adventure story, the book holds up very well after all these years.

So much has been written about this novel that it is difficult to come up with anything original. Something I read about Stevenson on Wikipedia struck me as interesting, however. As part of the argument that Stevenson was not a lightweight author and that his works deserve serious consideration, some critics have noted that Stevenson was an influence upon Joseph Conrad.

I usually read commentary about a book only after I have read the book itself. However, I read the Wikipedia snippet before reading the bulk of this novel. As a result, I was on the lookout for similarities with the writing of Joseph Conrad.  Most obviously, both authors explored nautical themes.  However, the similarities go further.  I found the parallels between the two writers most apparent when it comes to descriptions of nature. In particular, certain descriptions of the jungle in Treasure Island bore a resemblance to the descriptions of some things that I read in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The following is a description of the landscape of Treasure Island,

"Grey-coloured woods covered a large part of the surface. This even tint was indeed broken up by streaks of yellow sand-break in the lower lands, and by many tall trees of the pine family, out-topping the others— some singly, some in clumps; but the general colouring was uniform and sad. The hills ran up clear above the vegetation in spires of naked rock. All were strangely shaped"

and later,

"the look of the island, with its grey, melancholy woods, and wild stone spires, and the surf that we could both see and hear foaming and thundering on the steep beach"

Compare this to Conrad’s description of the African jungle in Heart of Darkness.

"There it is before you— smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, 'Come and find out.' This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam. Here and there grayish-whitish specks showed up, clustered inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps."

 and later

"the great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not."

 I wrote about these passages in Heart of Darkness here. I do not find that Stevenson is as skilled a writer as Conrad. Nevertheless, his descriptions of nature are excellent and atmospheric. There seems a certain similarity between the authors that manifests itself in these quotations.  It is interesting that Stevenson uses adjectives like “melancholy” and “sad” to describe the vegetation. There is also something “strange” about the hills. Conrad also ascribes various attributes relating to emotion to describe the jungle.  Conrad’s jungle seems more complex, however. He endows the jungle with all sorts of human emotions.  His use of the words “monotonous grimness” seems similar to Stevenson.

As I have previously written in my commentary on his works, I think that Conrad is delving deep into all kinds of symbolism as it relates to human psychology. Though Stevenson, writing at an earlier time, may not match Conrad’s intricacy, he also was interested in humanity’s tendency to have a light and a dark side. That was prominently displayed in Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde. I detect a little of this duality in Treasure Island as the good and bad of the various characters is compared and contrasted. In the passages that I posted above, Stevenson does not seem to be highlighting anything evil about the nature or the jungle, however. Instead, he is exposing the sad, the melancholy and the strange. Is this a reflection of the mind of Jim who is viewing the jungle? Is it a reflection of the world?

In the case of Conrad, I have little doubt that he is trying to reflect something about the human condition in his description of landscapes. In the case of Stevenson, I am not sure if this was intentional or not. Either way, he seems to have influenced Conrad.

I think that fans of either one of these authors will find something worthwhile if the give the other a try. Both of wrote compelling works. Both were very skilled at describing nature while delving into the mysteries of human nature.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Anthony Trollope's Palliser Series

I have now read all six books of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser Series. I thought that the books ranged from very good to outstanding and that all were worth reading. My favorite of the series was Can You Forgive Her? 

Though not the focus of all the novels, the Palliser Books are more or less centered upon Plantagenet Palliser. There is so much to be said about his character. As I have written in my other posts on these books, the Duke is outwardly stiff and seemingly cold, yet he displays inner depth, warm emotions and integrity that show up at unexpected moments. His relationship with his wife, Lady Glencora, is complex and fascinating to read about. Early in the series, at a low point in their relationship, Glencora observed, 

“We were told to marry each other and did it. When could he have learned to love me? … he requires no loving, either to take it or to give it. I wish it were so with me." 

Readers should not be fooled by the above quotation. Much of the remainder of the series involves the Duke showing that the above is not true. He did come to love his wife and yearn for reciprocal affection, all the while remaining outwardly stoic and very controlled, almost ridiculously so. 

There are some themes that run through most of The Palliser books. There is a lot of political philosophy in these novels. Politics is often corrupt, and politicians are often self-serving. However, a minority of honest and dedicated public servants keeps a nation strong and on an ethical course. These honest public servants spring up among both conservatives and liberals, but tend to be moderates. Phineas Finn is a good example of this noble public servant. He is a liberal who nonetheless rejects the more radical legislation. He is also honest and is willing to buck his party for what he thinks is right. 

Themes of marriage and romantic relationships are displayed throughout the series. The conflict between wealth, class and true love is everywhere. Sometimes, motivated by class and money issues, relatives successfully destroy relationships between mismatched couples, but sometimes the couples hold out. In typical Trollopean complexity, sometimes the relatives are right and one half of the couple is of questionable character. This was likely the case with Lady Glencora’s first engagement with Burgo Fitzgerald, as well as when relatives unsuccessfully tried to stop the marriage between Emily Wharton and Ferdinand Lopez. Other times, the relatives are wrong, as was the case with several couples in The Duke’s Children. 

As I have written before, in some ways The Chronicles of Barsetshire and The Palliser books are one big series. There are crossover characters. In fact, The Palliser Series’ central figure, Plantagenet Palliser, was first introduced in The Chronicles of Barsetshire. With that, the two series have different focuses. Where The Chronicles of Barsetshire centered on religious figures and middle society, The Palliser Series centers on politicians and is more upper class centric. 

The Chronicles of Barsetshire was written before The Palliser Series and seems less cynical and world weary. There are villains and people who act immorally in the earlier series, but they seem less vicious and inhumane. For instance, Ferdinand Lopez, a classic narcissistic abuser, is highlighted in book five of Palliser, The Prime Minister. There is nothing funny about him. In contrast, the maleficent characters in The Chronicles of Barsetshire, such as Mrs. Proudie, are often portrayed comically and are given some humanity. Links to my commentary on all of the books of both series can be found below.

In a perfect world, I would recommend reading all of the books of both series in order. However, Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn and The Eustace Diamonds can be read as standalones. 

In the end, I liked this series a little less than The Chronicles of Barsetshire. The earlier series, for the reasons mentioned above, seemed to be little warmer. Some of the politics in The Palliser Series also became a little tedious, especially in the books that focused on Phineas Finn. However, I am quibbling. The Palliser Books are filled with Trollope’s keen insights on people and relationships. They exude subtlety and nuance. They are often funny and always entertaining. The political philosophy here is also worth pondering. This is a fine series of books that I am glad to have read. 

My commentary on Can You Forgive Her? is here.

My commentary on Phineas Finn is here.

My commentary on The Eustace Diamonds is here.

My commentary on The Eustace Diamonds and Anti- Semitism is here.

My commentary on Phineas Redux is here.

My commentary on The Prime Minister is here

My commentary on The Duke’s Children is here.

My commentary on The Warden is here.

My commentary on Barchester Towers is here.

My commentary on Doctor Thorne is here.

My commentary Framley Parsonage here and as it relates to gender roles here.

My commentary on The Small House at Allington is here.

My commentary on the Last Chronicle of Barset is here.

My commentary on the relationship of Lily Dale and Johnny Eames in The Chronicles of Barsetshire series is here.

My general commentary on The Chronicles of Barsetshire is here.

My commentary on Trollope’s unusual Point of View is here

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Duke's Children by Anthony Trollope

The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope is the sixth and the last of The Palliser books. When this novel was originally published, more than 200 pages were removed from the original version, probably at the demand of the publisher. In 2015, scholars released the restored, unabridged version. This unabridged version is the one that I read.

The story centers on Plantagenet Palliser, who is the Duke of Omnium, and his three children. His sons are Lord Silverbridge and Lord Gerald, and his daughter is Lady Mary. 

The story opens shortly after the death of Lady Glencora, the Duke’s wife and mother of the children. The Duke’s sons and his daughter are acting in ways that displease the straitlaced Duke. Both of his sons get thrown out of college for misbehavior, and both incur large gambling debts. Both Silverbridge and Mary enter into engagements with people that the Duke disapproves of. Silverbridge wants to marry Isabel Boncassen. This is problematic as she is an American. Mary becomes engaged to a man named Frank Tregear. He is a commoner whose family is no longer wealthy. This leads the Duke to forbid the marriage. 

Some of the old characters from previous books in the series are back, particularly Phineas Finn and his wife, formally Madame Max Goesler. However, I think that the end of the series would have been more satisfying had more characters returned. 

Like most Trollope novels, there is a lot going on between the covers of this work. The restored version that I read is just short of 800 dense pages in length. I could devote entire posts to various characters and relationships.

I want to write few words about the Duke’s attempt to break up the relationship between Mary and Tregear. There are all sorts of ghosts and emotional time bombs tied to this aspect of the narrative. The fact that this book is part of a fairly long series of novels adds to the effect of the past coming back. It is revealed in the text that prior to her death, Last Glencora supported the relationship between the two young people, even though it was clear that the Duke would not approve. There are parallels to Lady Glencora’s own past here. In Can You Forgive Her? it was revealed that Lady Glencora’s first engagement with Burgo Fitzgerald was broken up by relatives who found Burgo’s social status and character unacceptable. The marriage between Lady Glencora and the Duke was subsequently arranged. It turned out that Palliser quickly fell in love with Lady Glencora, and she came to return much of his affection and respect. However, the scars remained. 

It is revealed that Lady Glencora wanted to avoid the same outcome for her daughter. The Duke is simultaneously haunted by the past, though he believes that things were done for the best. He knows that his wife loved Burgo first. There is one important difference between the situations; Burgo was shown of very questionable character, and Tregear is decent and responsible. Again and again, it is said as well as implied that if Mary were forced to give up Tregear, she would spend all of her future days depressed and despondent. These two romances and ensuing conflicts bookend the entire Palliser Series neatly. They pack an emotional weight and show how Trollope is capable of presenting life’s complexities. Relatives interfering with romances can prevent catastrophe as they did with Lady Glencora. However, such interference can also be overbearing and oppressive and has the potential to ruin lives as we see with Mary.

The Duke is not unaware of the contradictions. At one point he contemplates the situation, 

"The mutual assent which leads to marriage should no doubt be spontaneous. Who does not feel that? Young love should speak from its first doubtful unconscious spark,— a spark which any breath of air may quench or cherish,— till it becomes a flame which nothing can satisfy but the union of the two lovers. No one should be told to love, or bidden to marry, this man or that woman. The theory of this is plain to us all, and till we have sons or daughters whom we feel imperatively obliged to control, the theory is unassailable. But the duty is so imperative! The Duke had taught himself to believe that as his wife would have been thrown away on the world had she been allowed to marry Burgo Fitzgerald, so would his daughter be thrown away were she allowed to marry Mr. Tregear. Therefore the theory of spontaneous love must in this case be set aside. Therefore the spark,— would that it had been no more!— must be quenched. Therefore there could be no union of two lovers”

There is more going on in this book. The resistance to Isabel and Silverbridge’s marriage is also very interesting as Trollope uses it as a vehicle to analyze the British aristocracy. Another character, Lady Mabel Grex, is a woman who rejects the man that she loves for a chance of marrying into wealth. Her ties to the book’s other characters and themes are fascinating. 

This is a very good book. With that I think that the end of this fine series could have been a little stronger had more of the characters from previous books been introduced and their stories wrapped up in neater ways. The last book in Trollope’s The Barchester Chronicles, The Last Chronicle of Barset, did that in a much more effective way.

Despite a few shortcomings, this is a worthy wrap up to the series. Since the events in this novel are related to past entries, I would only recommend reading the earlier books first. Like most of the author’s books, this novel is full of Trollope’s insights into human nature and his exploration of characters. In fact, this is a must read for anyone who has made it this far into the series. So ends the Palliser Series. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

My Favorite Books

My list of all time favorite books is below. I shared some of my thoughts on what went into this list here. This is a relatively short list. For every book on this list there are also many near misses. I have listed the below books in alphabetical order as I do not necessarily rank any one above any other one. I should note that I am using the term “book” loosely as I am going to include plays, novellas, etc. in my list. 

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope – I love Trollope. Several of his books are “near misses” and come close to being included in the list. For me, this particular novel represents a perfect combination of the author’s keen observations on people and his subtle but very effective humor. 

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker - I make reference to this book all the time. This is the author’s argument that over the course of history, violence has been declining and that the world is getting better in a lot of ways. This book want a long way to helping me organize my understanding of history, psychology, human rights, etc. It helped me to understand the world. 

The Plague by Albert Camus – I tend to like existentialist novels. This one is my favorite. The narrative is essentially a search for life’s meaning in a world of suffering. Helping others and alleviating suffering is presented as the answer. The book contains lots of interesting philosophy as well as meditations upon Christianity. These are all things that I love in a book. 

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan – This is a philosophy book that argues that reason and science are vital to humanity’s well being. It also examines rational thinking in detail. The work is full of valuable insight and wisdom. Sagan is clear about his views and what he agrees with and what he disagrees with. However, unlike more recent works by more  controversial and outspoken atheists  such as Richard Dawkins, Sagan takes a much less antagonistic attitude towards religion and towards those who disagree with him. This is another book that helped me to understand the world. 

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick - The film Blade Runner is based on this book. However, though I think that the movie brilliant in its own right, it is a very different work and not something to compare to the novel. The theme of good verses evil is explored here a unique, profound and moving way. The novel is also full of other important and interesting observations about humanity and technology. The characters and the plot are also fascinating. 

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë - I think that this work touches upon the duality between the masculine and the feminine in an aesthetically marvelous way. The story and the characters are sublime. The book packs an enormous emotional impact for me. 

Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare - This may be the most pleasant great work of literature ever written. It includes a wonderful story, wonderful characters, and imparts a wonderful atmosphere both when reading and or watching a performance. It includes all this while saying something important about the human condition. 

A Passage To India by E.M. Foster – Folks talk about how this book examines colonialism and the interaction of cultures in brilliant way. I agree that it does these things. I also think that the metaphysical and existentialist meditations in this novel are magnificent. All this combined with a great story and great characters make this one of my favorites. 

The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence – I think that this is a brilliant story. I find that the portrayal of the book’s protagonist, Ursula Brangwen, to be one of the greatest character descriptions in literature. Her rebellion against convention and the constraints of society is portrayed in a very unique way. She is a magnificent literary creation whose inner transformation is a wonder to read about. The way in which Lawrence unifies Ursula’s journey of self - discovery with his philosophy is near perfect. 

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse – This novel is many things, but one aspect of this book that attracts me a lot is the theme of an individual’s search for balance. This book passage that involves an attempted suicide that brings tears to my eyes every time that I read it. This is a marvelous story. 

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – I first read this book when I was in my early teens. At the time I found a lot to relate to in the book’s young protagonists. Now I am only a few years younger then Charles Halloway, the adult protagonist in the book. This all ties together in a special way for me, as book’s themes are closely intertwined with aging. The combination of these elements, and others, make this book very special for me.