Sunday, July 23, 2017

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope


This post contains spoilers.


Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope is the fourth novel in the Palliser Series. The book can be properly called a direct sequel to Trollope’s Phineas Finn. It can be read separately from the other Palliser books, but I would only recommend doing so after reading Phineas Finn, as the plot almost presupposes that the reader is already acquainted with the earlier book’s major characters and events. 

The last we heard about Phineas was that he had left English politics, married and settled down in Dublin. As this story begins, Phineas’s wife has died and he is being urged to reenter politics by his friends and former colleagues. Phineas returns the world of politics and begins to associate with his old friends and acquaintances. Lady Laura, one of the most interesting characters from Phineas Finn, is back and plays a major role in this story. Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser (Planty Pall) from earlier books play a major part in this novel. Lizzy Eustace, the colorful main character from The Eustace Diamonds also plays a minor role here.

As the plot progresses, multiple threads involving multiple characters slowly unfold. The primary plot concerns itself with the false accusation and trial of Phineas for the murder of a political rival. The narrative also involves Lady Laura, whose husband dies mid - plot, and Madame Max Goesler, both vying for Phineas’s affections. The fact that there is a love triangle involving two women and man seems fairly unusual for Trollope and for Victorian literature in general. Because both women, while flawed, are essential noble and decent, the book ends on a very bittersweet note as one inevitably has her heart broken. 

Like Phineas Finn, this novel is also packed with political philosophy. There are pages and pages of politics and political machinations contained in this work. Elections, government meetings, Parliamentary debates, etc. are all described in great detail. Some readers, even those interested in politics, such as myself, may become a little bored with this. 

The political and legal philosophy within this book and its predecessors is complex and multifaceted. There are many subthemes explored. Trollope’s general view of both politics and the law is worth noting. He paints the picture of a world filled with corruption, unfairness and nonsensicalness. The political and legal professions are skewered.

At one point Phineas’s attorney is talking about how he plans to get Phineas acquitted. Even though the young man is truly innocent, it is not facts that are going to save him. Instead we are told, 

“Juries are always unwilling to hang…. They are peculiarly averse to hanging a gentleman, and will hardly be induced to hang a member of Parliament. Then Mr. Finn is very good-looking, and has been popular”

Later, Phineas describes how he has become disenchanted with the English Parliament,

“I doubt whether patriotism can stand the wear and tear and temptation of the front benches in the House of Commons. Men are flying at each other's throats, thrusting and parrying, making false accusations and defences equally false, lying and slandering,— sometimes picking and stealing,— till they themselves become unaware of the magnificence of their own position, and forget that they are expected to be great. Little tricks of sword-play engage all their skill. And the consequence is that there is no reverence now for any man in the House”

I find it interesting that the above quotation can be applied to so many twenty-first century democracies. This novel is full of examples of the above, all relating to politics and the legal profession.

However, Trollope is not a hopeless cynic. What shines through within both systems is the work of a few good individuals who are ethical, selfless and competent and who keep the world on the right track. Phineas, who is honest, principled and hard working is one of those individuals. 

Plantagenet Palliser, who is present in all of the books in this series, is another example. Though stiff, outwardly repressed and overly serious, at various points in the series, he shows that when it comes down to it, he is a person of decency and substance. In Can You Forgive Her? he showed humanity, love and made a great sacrifice for his wife when everyone least expected it.  In this book, he is shown to be honest, hard working, competent and willing to sacrifice for his country. When his uncle dies, he is to be elevated and will become the Duke of Omnium. However, this means that he must give up his vital, technocratic position as Chancellor of the Exchequer, where he believes he is doing great service to his country, 

"To him his uncle's death would be a great blow, as in his eyes to be Chancellor of the Exchequer was much more than to be Duke of Omnium, Planty Pall had  come to the throne, and half a county was ready to worship him. But he did not know how to endure worship, and the half county declared that he was stern and proud, and more haughty even than his uncle. At every "Grace" that was flung at him he winced and was miserable, and declared to himself that he should never become accustomed to his new life. So he sat all alone, and meditated how he might best reconcile the forty-eight farthings which go to a shilling with that thorough-going useful decimal, fifty." [The numerical references are an allusion a major financial project that he was spearheading]

Later, Mr. Chaffanbrass, another one of Phineas’s lawyers, expresses his dedication to the legal profession and his belief that everyone deserves an attorney, regardless of guilt or innocence. Furthermore, he begins to show real admiration for Phineas’s integrity. He comments, 

"I never did,— and I never will,— express an opinion of my own as to the guilt or innocence of a client till after the trial is over. But I have sometimes felt as though I would give the blood out of my veins to save a man. I never felt in that way more strongly than I do now.”

By showing decent and honest people working for the betterment of their country, society and individuals in a world of corruption, Trollope seems to be showing how he views the world. He is always a realistic writer. Here he realistically shows both the good and the bad. 

All of this fits in with Phineas’s emotional state. After he is acquitted of murder, he falls into despondency and depression. The hypocrisy and falseness inherent in so many of his fellow politicians and civil servants has dragged him down. However, by the end of the book, he tries to do what is right and stand on principle. 

The above points are only a small part of makes this book worthwhile. Like most Trollope novels, there is a lot going on in this book. It is a fascinating exploration of multiple complex characters and their interactions. It is full of both big and little insights about life. It is an entertaining story. I recommend that folks who have at least read Phineas Finn to read this book. It is a fine entry in the Palliser Series. 


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Audiobooks

Audiobooks are a controversial for some readers. The issue of comprehension is a oft cited reason for many serious readers to shun them. It is a fair question to ask. Is listening to an audiobook really reading?

I do listen to audiobooks. My number one priority when listening to them is to ensure that my comprehension and understanding is equivalent to my reading of physical books. To accomplish this goal I follow a set of rules when I read them. By sticking to these rules I have been successful. Thus, while perhaps not technically correct, I tend to use the terms “listen” and “read” when it comes to audiobooks interchangeably.

First, I only listen to audiobooks if I also have access to the written text. This allows me to go back and review in passages if I deem it necessary to do so. This also allows me to use quotations for my blog. This usually means that I either read books that are in the public domain, so that I can download a free copy on the Internet or I already own a copy of the book.

Second, I only listen to audiobooks when engaged in activity that does not require concentration. I run and use exercise machines a lot. Audiobooks are ideal listening when engaged in this type of activity. I do not listen to audiobooks when involved in activity like driving where my concentration is needed elsewhere. Listening to audiobooks only during repetitive exercise also allows me to rewind if I lose concentration or if I want to hear a passage again. The newest software for audiobooks also allows me to easily “bookmark” a place in the text if I want to go back to it for further examination. This is another feature that assists my blogging endeavors. 

There are many types of books that may not lend themselves to audiobooks, writers of difficult prose, philosophy, history books where map aides are helpful to name few.  I do not think that I would try to read Plato’s dialogues as audiobooks. Stream of consciousness and other forms of post – modern writing seem to not be conducive to this form of reading either, at least upon the first reading. Though I have not done so myself, I have been told that works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, which rely on stream of consciousness, word games, heavily accented dialog, etc. work very well, and are in fact enhanced, in spoken format. With that, I would not want to tackle such a work for the first time in audiobook form. However, I am intrigued by the idea of trying Ulysses or a similar work in a second or third reading in audiobook form. Thus, I may do so in the future.

By sticking to these rules. I believe that I lose nothing in terms of reading comprehension when listening to books. When I think back to books that I have listened to in the past, sometimes I have difficulty recalling whether or I listened or actually read the book. Sometimes I even think that because I prioritize comprehension, I think that my comprehension might be higher with audiobooks.

All the above rules lead me to read a lot of Victorian Authors via audiobook. They tend to be easy to comprehend, and all are available to download text in the public domain. I read a lot Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and similar authors this way. I find it interesting that Dickens spent a great deal of time reading his own works aloud and was an advocate of having his text listened to.  Some have speculated that he tailored his prose specifically to be read aloud.

I tend not to reveal in my commentary whether the book was via audiobook or not  as I feel that my comprehension of audiobooks has been just as good as the conventional form. When I blog, I think that a side discussion on the format might distract from the book itself.

Not everyone has the opportunity that I do to “carefully” listen to audiobooks. The fact that I run and use gym machines on a regular basis facilitates my ability to do so. But for me, audiobooks have worked. I have maintained a high level of quality reading when listening. They help fill my exercise time and even help keep me motivated.  I also am able to read more because the fact that I have utilized exercise time in this way. Audiobooks have worked well for me.



Monday, July 3, 2017

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke is a reread for me. First published in 1973 this  novel is considered a classic work of hard science fiction. Though flawed, this book is one of the most plausible science fiction novels about first contact with an alien civilization ever written.

Clarke’s vision is set in the 2130s when humanity has moved out into the solar system. Various planets and moons are colonized. Travel between various objects in the solar system takes often takes months and is accomplished in sub – light speed spaceships.   The universe that Clarke has set up is believable and is based on real scientific and technological principles.

A fast moving object, first believed to be a large asteroid, is detected moving though that solar system. Astronomers name the object Rama. Robotic probes soon discover that Rama is no asteroid, but is instead a fifty - mile long cylindrical object that was obviously constructed by an alien civilization.

Due to the fact that Rama is moving so quickly and will soon exit the solar system, only one ship, The Endeavor, Commanded by Bill Norton is able to make a rendezvous. The narrative involves Norton and his crew’s exploration of the enormous interior of Rama. The explorers find that Rama is filled of strange and intriguing phenomena and creatures. 

There is no violence, little romantic interaction, and minimal action to this story. There is some suspense as the crew finds itself in various dangerous situations that develop both inside  and outside of Rama. Despite the minimal drama, as a chronicle of exploration and wonders, this book is a minor masterpiece. There is something to be said about this novel’s simplicity.

This book’s strength lies in its extremely realistic vision of future space travel, as well as a first contact with an alien civilization. Clarke’s universe, where humans have colonized the Solar System is scientifically literate, technically accurate and credible. First contacts with alien type of stories are by definition extremely speculative. Yet these events are presented in a believable way here. Silliness or cringe worthy passages that are so typical in this genre are absent from this book. This work, alongside Carl Sagan’s Contact, are the best fictional accounts of first contact that I have read.

This novel is extremely imaginative and describes a place filled with wonders. It is a mirror to the unrealistic as well as the post – modernist science fiction and fantasy that is fairly popular these days.  I am not criticizing those less realistic forms of storytelling, however I think realistic stories are also important and worthy. Furthermore, unlike so much unrealistic speculative fiction, the characters in this book act intelligently, and are scientifically and technically literate.

At one point, Norton encounters an alien creature,

"Ten meters away was a slender-legged tripod surmounted by a spherical body no larger than a soccer ball. Set around the body were three large, expressionless eyes, apparently giving 360 degrees of vision, and trailing beneath it were three whiplike tendrils. The creature was not quite as tall as a man and looked far too fragile to be dangerous. .... It reminded Norton of nothing so much as a three-legged spider or daddy longlegs, and he wondered how it had solved the problem— never attempted by any creature on Earth— of tripedal locomotion." 

Norton’s speculations about tripod’s biology emphasize the scientific thinking that characterizes the book.

Though written over forty years ago, in terms basics of science and technology, this book has held up amazingly well. Of course Clarke missed some things, such as the utility and ubiquity of mobile devices. However, much of the universe that the author created here still stands up to scrutiny.

This novel is not without flaws however. The characters are terribly underdeveloped. What is particularly frustrating is that as the backgrounds of the characters are presented, many of their attributes and relationships are fascinating and beg for further development. When characters are introduced the reader is given tantalizing details about them that never appear again. For instance, as the backgrounds of several characters are described, it is revealed that polygamous marriages for both sexes have become common. Several of the characters are initially described as being in such relationships along with some interesting twists. Unfortunately Clarke fails to develop these narrative threads.

We often hear that such lack of character development is characteristic of science fiction of this era. However, I would point to many other books and television series, such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, to name just a few science fiction books written around this time, that included interesting and sometimes complex characters.

There is also a common idea found in online reviews of this book, that the stripped down characters are part of this novel’s strength. The reasoning is that the spare character development allowed Clarke to create a lean story focused upon the wonders of discovery. I concede that there may be some truth to this assertion. However, Clarke sets up such interesting scenarios that it is shame he does not develop them.

This book can be categorized as optimistic science fiction. Clarke’s future is one where humanity has survived and thrived. Though common at the time that this book was written, such stories of bright futures are a bit out of fashion these days. Dark visions of humankind’s future, while always popular to some extent, seem to be much more popular as of late.  Once again, I am not knocking these pessimistic stories; humankind is facing threats that may be fatal to our civilization. Fiction is inevitably grappling with those dangers. Yet the possibility of a bright future where humankind “makes it”, is in my opinion, still a very real possibility.  However, my speculations on these matters are for another blog post.

I should note that there exist sequels to this book. They were written years after the original and involved other authors collaborating with Clarke. I have not read any of them. The reviews for these books are generally negative.


Though flawed and lacking in some ways, this work is a fantastic story of exploration. It reflects one of the best speculations about what an encounter with an alien civilization will be like. In its depiction of this encounter, Clarke has a lot to say about the Universe, Human Beings, our history and our civilization. For folks who enjoy such stories and  speculations, this book is highly recommended.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd is a classic novel first published in 1874. It is the story of Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak. The book is set in nineteenth-century England in the fictional county of Wessex. 

Bathsheba transcends gender roles. She is a young woman who shows confidence and competence, often to the surprise of the book’s other characters. Upon the death of her uncle, Bathsheba inherits a large farm. She forgoes choosing a male farm manager and instead decides to run the entire operation herself. Though initially met with skepticism, Bathsheba’s proves herself to be strong and capable, and habits lead her to success. 

Most of the narrative consists of Bathsheba being wooed by three different men. Oak, who is meant to elicit the most sympathy from the reader, is stoic and is always in control of himself.  William Boldwood is a prosperous farm owner who is outwardly a paragon of respectability. Frank Troy is an amoral adventurer who is skilled at manipulating his romantic interests.

As the story progresses, Oak loses the farm that he owns, falls on hard times, and he eventually goes to work for Bathsheba. Though she respects him, she does not love him. He watches the other two men romance her as he exhibits calmness and patience. When she marries the irresponsible and unethical Troy, he watches as the adventurer begins to ruin Bathsheba emotionally and financially.

There is a lot going on in this book. The characters are so well drawn that they are a pleasure to read about. I could devote an entire post to any of the four major characters. 

Bathsheba is a great literary creation. She is simultaneous strong and vulnerable. She is portrayed as an intelligent and capable woman who runs into misery by falling in love with the false charmer Troy. She is self-aware and understands that her emotional reactions are causing her self-harm. 

Boldwood is another well crafted character. He is a bastion of society. Though he is stiff and serious, he initially acts honorably and displays kindness to others. Despite his outward strength, he falls apart when Bathsheba chooses Troy over himself. Later, when Troy disappears and is assumed dead, he begins to act obsessively and becomes terribly overbearing in his treatment of Bathsheba.

Troy, though mostly petty and wicked, reacts oddly when a girl whom he took advantage of in the past, dies, partially as a result of his actions. Uncharacteristically, he descends into a spiral of regret and self-recrimination. 

Though I found Oak to be a little simplistic and too good to be believable, he is interesting to read about. Though he loves Bathsheba, he is rejected by her and must watch as she marries a scoundrel. Yet, he shows remarkable sereneness and strength of character. In the end, his character is integrated into one of the book’s major themes; that long term, realistic love is far superior to quickly developed passionate love. 

In addition to the impressive characterizations, there is something special and important about Hardy’s descriptions of natural scenes. The novel is packed with images of nature. Diverse landscapes, plants, animals, weather events and many more natural features and events are described in great detail using grand prose. These descriptions are often related to the plot or particular characters in symbolic ways. 

One very distinctive passage takes place when a terrible storm strikes the farm. Troy and the farm workers are passed out drunk while Bathsheba and Oak struggle to protect the newly harvested crops from the deluge. The imagery is described in magnificent prose. 

“It sprang from east, west, north, south, and was a perfect dance of death. The forms of skeletons appeared in the air, shaped with blue fire for bones — dancing, leaping, striding, racing around, and mingling altogether in unparalleled con- fusion. With these were intertwined undulating snakes of green, and behind these was a broad mass of lesser light. Simultaneously came from every part of the tumbling sky what may be called a shout; since, though no shout ever came near it, it was more of the nature of a shout than of anything else earthly. “

The fury of the storm seems to represent the tumultuous relationship between Bathsheba and her suitors. It also seems to represent something about human existence in general. The violence of the weather is contrasted to human problems,


“but love, life, everything human, seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe. “

This novel is filled with such passages. The prose is so well written. As these descriptions are often tied to the novel's themes and underlying messages, the book is pulled together in an aesthetically magnificent way. 

There is so much that is good about this novel. There are interesting and important themes relating to gender, passionate love verses long term love, urban verses rural attitudes and more. The characters are skillfully crafted.  The story is interesting and engaging, to name a few more of the work’s virtues. This book rightfully deserves to be called a classic.