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.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

My Favorite Books may not be The Greatest Books

When I decided to post a list of my favorite books I first had to come up with the actual  list. As I began to think about the list I needed to ask myself if I thought that my favorite books were best books ever written. It turns out that the answer is no, my favorite books are not necessarily the greatest books.  I have different criteria between what I consider my favorites and what I consider the best.

My all time favorite books touch me in a particular way. They have had an impact upon me because I have unique experiences, opinions and feelings that others may or may not share. Thus, my favorite books have had a profound effect upon me but may or may not have such an effect upon others.

Furthermore, some of my favorite books also have flaws that are so significant that they are disqualified from being among the greatest ever written. Because of who I am these flaws do not prevent me from loving these books. Hermann Hesse’s works are a good example of this. Several of Hesse’s books are among my all time favorites. However, I recognize certain flaws in his novels that prevent me from considering among the all time best books ever written.  I believe that all the books that I will list among my favorites are great literature and/or philosophy. However, many just do not meet the criteria of all time greats. With all that, if I were to put together a list of all time best books, a few of my favorites would also be on that list.

There are also some books that seem monumentally important and universal to me, but that do not touch me in such a way that I can call them favorites. These works would be included on my list of best books however. For instance, some of the Shakespeare tragedies fall into this category. 

I should note that I am talking about lists that are the crème of the crop; lists that would include something like the ten best books ever written, or my ten favorite books.  If I were to make a list of the 100 greatest books ever written, many of my favorites would make that list. An expanded list of best 500 or best 1000 greatest books ever, would probably cover most of my favorites.

I was originally planning a separate post dedicated to what I think are the greatest books of all time. However, at least for now, I have abandoned this idea for several reasons.  First, I have not come close to reading all the books that a reasonable person might consider to be good candidates for this list. Secondly, a lot people who are a lot more knowledgeable and qualified then me have produced a large number of such lists. These lists are all over the Internet.

I wanted to differentiate between these two concepts before actually posting my list. I think that such a discussion is interesting enough in its own right that I decided to post a separate entry on this topic. I will shortly be posting my actual list.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad was originally published in 1900. It is the story of a young Englishman named Jim. The tale is narrated by Marlowe, the ship captain who also narrated Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as well as other works by the author.

Jim is a young sailor who dreams of engaging in brave and heroic acts. After a short career at sea, he becomes the first officer on the passenger ship Patna. The vessel is transporting pilgrims on their journey to Mecca and is packed to the brim. When the ship collides with an unknown object, water rushes in, and it seems like sinking is imminent as an old bulkhead is put under great stress. The cowardly captain and most of the crew prepare to abandon the ship and passengers. At first, Jim scorns them but at the last minute he jumps into a lifeboat with the fleeing crew. In the aftermath of this, Jim’s merchant marine license is revoked, and he experiences an existentialist crisis as his illusion of himself as a brave adventurer has been shattered. 

For a time, Jim wanders from place to place all over the Pacific region. Eventually, Marlow and some other friends find him a place at a remote trading station in a fictional country called Patusan. There, Jim shows great courage and character. He sides with one faction in a multi-sided civil war, but he ultimately helps to bring peace and stability to the nation. He becomes a local hero and wise man. He is even attributed to have mystical powers. Further complications ensue when Patusan is invaded by brigands from the outside world. 

The novel is full of dense descriptions of people, nature and objects. I find the prose to be sublime. Marlowe provides a torrent of philosophical observations relating to life and human nature as well as Jim’s character in general. 

There seems to be a lot here about what is hidden and illusionary in the characters of people. In Jim, we see someone who has built up a self-image related to fantasies of romantic adventure. When that image is destroyed, he falls into a mental and moral crisis. Later, in Patusan, he rebuilds an image of himself. 

This dive into human character and psychology is complemented by the book’s descriptions. These play into the theme of illusions and under-the-surface psychology. In passage after passage, landscapes, nature and objects are described in detail. Often, lighting plays a big part of the descriptions. Unusual forms of illumination and tricks of light are often highlighted. Scenes are drawn in the moonlight, in twilight, in the mist, etc. Scenes described in unusual lighting conditions seem to be reflective of the hidden and hard-to-see aspects of people. 

In one remarkable passage, moonlight is described: 

“after we had watched the moon float away above the chasm between the hills like an ascending spirit out of a grave; its sheen descended, cold and pale, like the ghost of dead sunlight. There is something haunting in the light of the moon; it has all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul, and something of its inconceivable mystery. It is to our sunshine, which— say what you like— is all we have to live by, what the echo is to the sound: misleading and confusing whether the note be mocking or sad. It robs all forms of matter— which, after all, is our domain— of their substance, and gives a sinister reality to shadows alone.” 

I think that the above prose is magnificent. I find that this passage can be read as an allegory about what lies underneath the typical human being. Just as the moonlight reveals things about reality that we do not usually see, the narrative reveals things about Jim, other characters and humanity that may not be apparent on the surface. Sometimes, what we see is misleading and confusing. Sometimes, it is mocking or sad. There may be a terrifying reality to our shadow selves. The novel is full of passages like the above.

At one point, a ship’s captain named Montague Brierly commits suicide when he comes to understand things about his own inner character. I get the sense that he saw into the “sinister reality” that the above passage attributes to shadows. 

There is also something else going on in this book. The actual narrator is not Marlow. Rather, it is an unknown man who Marlow is telling a story to. The nesting of the story is even deeper. Marlowe’s tale has many accounts of people relating their own stories. Thus, the story often consists of the unnamed narrator describing Marlow telling a story. The story Marlowe is telling is often about someone else telling a story. I think that this adds to the message that the nature of people is inscrutable. We seem to be seeing only a fictional version of people. The real self may be several layers down. 

This is a superb novel. It is full of wonderful prose and symbolism. It is deeply philosophical. It is a fascinating and unique character study. The book contains an interesting and engrossing story. I highly recommend this to folks who like philosophical character studies. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

6 Years Old!

Babbling Books is six years old today. In past years on my blogiversary I have extolled the virtues of the book blogger community. I will again acknowledge my fellow book bloggers.  The community is indeed the best part of book blogging. This community  is what has kept me blogging over the course of years. 

When I started blogging six years ago I wanted my site to be more then just book reviews. I wanted to explore history, social issues, politics, religion as well as a plethora of other topics and ideas.  I wanted to approach these concepts from a bookish point of view. I hope that to some extent I have succeeded. I try to tackle these topics both in my commentary on individual books as well as in standalone posts.  

In a perfect world I would blog more. I would like to put up more posts related to ideas, social issues and perhaps politics. Books and reading relate to all these things. Time constraints unfortunately limit me. With that, though I am not big on New Years Resolutions, I will endeavor to post more in the coming year. Of course, I also want to read more books. That, in the end needs to be my number one priority.

Many of my fellow bloggers have posted lists of their planed reads for the year. I also have a lot of tentative reading plans. There are so many great books waiting in the wings. There are so many fascinating topics to explore. Thus, the coming year promises to be great year for blogging. I hope that will be the case for all my blogger friends as well as for myself. 

Happy reading everybody!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was written in 1925. This is an unconventional book that is filled with nuanced character depictions as well as all sorts of observations about life. The prose is presented in stream of consciousness style. The narrative shifts between the thoughts of many characters. Clarissa Dalloway is the main character, and most of the book is focused upon her. The novel takes place during one day of her life, though much of the story involves flashbacks and reminiscences. 

Though written in stream of consciousness style, the sentence structure of this book tends to be conventional. I have read a little commentary on the Internet, and I have found that this book is lauded for its innovative style. Woolf’s mix of the conventional and the unconventional does seem unique. Because of the conventional prose and the absence of a chaotic narrative, I found this novel to be the most understandable and accessible stream of conscious narrative that I have ever read. 

Not all that much goes on in this story. Much of the book takes place in the characters’ minds. Thus, this novel is, above all else, a character study.

Clarissa’s mind and past are explored in great detail. This is also true of other characters. Richard Dalloway is Clarissa’s husband. Peter Walsh is an old romantic interest of Clarissa who has just returned from India. Septimus Warren Smith is a World War I veteran suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. We also meet other interesting characters. The peek into the minds of these people is moving and often sublime. 

There are certain themes that recur over the course of the book. Aside from that of PTSD, the role of women is explored. This book is often called a feminist novel. Gender is examined in all sorts of ways in this book. These explorations are complex and nuanced and are in no way simplistic. To do them justice would take a separate blog post. The themes of communication, isolation and time are also presented. I could also devote separate blog entries to each of these subjects. Throughout the story, these various issues are bouncing around in all of the characters’ heads. 

In addition to the above, many of the characters ponder death and aging, as well as meaning-of-life issues. I want to write a few words about the work’s meditations on what seems to be life’s futility in the face of inevitable death. As multiple characters in this narrative are in their early fifties, they are aware that they are not yet old, but that death is not as far as it once was. 

Clarissa is very thoughtful and complex. She contemplates the meaning of life in the context of death at several points in the narrative. Here, Woolf’s writing, characterization and philosophizing are very strong, 

“what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom? An offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled Armenians and Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense: and to this day, ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know. All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was!— that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all”

There is a lot going on in the above quotation. Clarissa is wondering about the purpose of life. She finds fulfillment in bringing people together through the numerous parties that she throws. Clarissa’s need to bring people together may be a defense against mortality. Finding and creating meaningfulness in life like this reminds me of the themes that existentialist writers, like Albert Camus, explored later in the twentieth century. 

I think that it is also significant that Clarissa highlights her own shortcomings. Perhaps that is indicative of a self-esteem issue. Finally, she realizes that it will all end in death and no one will remember the joy and the meaning that she has found. This is typical of a fatalism in the above that pervades the entire book. Unlike more hopeful stories, none of the characters experience epiphanies where they come to terms with mortality or accept death. Instead, the realization that life will eventually come to an end, wiping out much of what there is to life, hangs over the entire work. 

I think that the above look into Clarissa’s thoughts encapsulates a certain grand level of thinking that ordinary folks often engage in. I find that Woolf captures this kind of thinking both realistically and in a very aesthetically pleasing way. 

I also think that it is striking how much character development, as well as insight into life, is packed into only a couple of sentences. Much of the book is like this. 

This is a curious work. It is in many ways a brilliant book. It is a stream of consciousness narrative that is more accessible than most. It is a fascinating and unique character study. It is not for everyone, as it is mostly a look into characters minds and an exploration of various themes. This book is so packed with ideas. For those interested in innovative literary styles or who like to explore what makes people tick, this book is filled with fascinating things to explore.