Thursday, September 11, 2014

At Ease: Stories I Tell to My Friends by Dwight D. Eisenhower

Pile of books to review

Having read and reviewed a book about one of the British towering figures of the first half of the twentieth century(see review on Churchill),  I then read a book about one of our own, written by himself.

I read Eisenhower's biography in a 1830's log cabin deep in the heart of Texas twenty minutes southwest of Austin. It was June and extremely hot so afternoons were spent inside the cabin.  While I didn't suffer cabin fever (ha,ha) I did enjoy reading about the life of a great man.

Log Cabin in Kyle, Texas

Eisenhower wrote this book a couple of years before he died and after he became president, although he doesn't mention his presidency.  The book can be broken up into a couple of sections.  His childhood in Kansas and Texas.  His time at West Point, time spent in WWI and a little bit of time during WWII.  He states that he didn't feel the need to devote much time to the second war since he had written a whole book focusing on his time as General then.

His childhood is what we have come to know the greatest generation for.  Eisenhower first describes his parents upbringing and how those values shaped his own life.  People were poor back then and life was tough.  Electricity and running water were for the rich, not the common man until the forties and even fifties.  The hard work incurred from running a household from scratch involved everyone pulling their weight.

Ike has nothing but good memories of these times, however, and the greatest respect for his mother and father.  This was a time when families stuck it out, divorce was unheard of, and children came before career or status.

From Kansas, Eisenhower went to West Point.  It was surprising to me to find that he was not the stellar pupil there.  In fact, it took him a long time to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.  The one thing that sustained him was coming from a family that didn't coddle him.  He could take the discipline and hardship that was imposed on him at the Academy.  Other students didn't fare so well.

He spent some time in Texas and in Panama where he read voraciously the books by Greek philosophers and trained a race horse.  He and another general developed a prototype of the tank but were scorned by the Army who saw no need for a tank in war- a short-sighted attitude if ever there was one.

Between wars he became president of Columbia University and helped develop it into a major college draw for brilliant young minds.

While not delving too heavily into WWII he does tell some amusing stories that happened overseas as well as his relationships with Generals Patton and MacArthur.  He gives an interesting perspective of Patton who apparently was quite flamboyant.  According to Ike, Patton love to push the envelop and say or do things grossly inappropriate just to get a rise out of other people, like foreign dignitaries.  This, of course, would cause considerable embarrassment to the Americans.  Ike would have to take Patton aside and reprimand him.  Patton would respond by throwing his arms around Ike and crying that he would never do it again.  Awkward.

Eisenhower also shares his philosophy about running a country successfully and protecting it against nations and people who are hostile to its freedoms.

The book is written in a friendly, chatty format, as though Ike is just sharing anecdotes to friends seated in his living room.  The stories run one into another and I doubt young readers today would get half way through it.  But it is invaluable to read the thoughts of one of the greatest men of the last one hundred years and the processes that made him great.  I fear the culture that produced men like Eisenhower has pretty much disappeared.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Curmudeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, ToughThinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life by Charles Murray

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal by Charles Murray about his book, The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead.  It intrigued me so I put the book on my Amazon wish list.  My parents gave it to me for my birthday.

This is a book that should be taught in every college and probably twelfth grade in high school.  Murray offers realism to today's entitled, sheltered youth.

It's a short book, I read it in a couple of sittings, and it's funny.  Murray is very witty.

But most importantly he's honest.  Here's what he has to say to the up and coming professionals who hope to get a job and promoted:

Most companies are run by white, middle-aged men (and women) and they are curmudgeons.  That means they are old fashioned and have old-fashioned values.  

So when you use the "F-word" in an  job interview (or twice in one young man's case), you're not going to get the job.

If you have visible tattoos or pierced ears (if you're a man), you're probably not going to get the job.

If you dress like a tramp (man or woman), you're not going to get the job.

If you do get the job and act as if menial work is beneath you, you roll your eyes at the boss or display no social skills (for instance, continue talking to friends in the hallway, oblivious of people trying to get past you), or dress as if you're going fishing, or dancing on bar tables, it's unlikely you'll be first choice to get the promotion, if it's ever offered to you.

Murray makes a caveat and says that none of this applies if you want to work in the entertainment industry or I.T. (Why I.T.?  I don't know.)

Here's the kicker and it's very important:  Because our contemporary American culture has made it taboo to even hint that what someone else is doing might be wrong, your curmudgeonly boss is never going to call you out on the behavior he despises.  But you're not going to get the job.  Or promoted.  You just won't know why.

That's why Murray has written this book.  So you can know beforehand what the person who holds that job in his hands is thinking.  Forewarned is forearmed.

Being a curmudgeon myself, I didn't need the above advice, it was just fun to read.  But Murray, who is a journalist, also devotes several chapters to writing skills.  As a writer, this part was especially helpful.

He also tells young people not to move so fast into the professional world right after college but rather get out of the sheltered bubble their parents have created for them and see the world.  This could mean joining the military, where a respect for authority-always a valuable trait-is instilled, or the peace corps, or travel and live some where that you have to learn another language and culture.

Finally, Murray finishes the book with an excellent chapter about religion.  He tells young people that he understands that the professors in college they came to respect and love were atheists.  His were, too.  But he doubts that any of them actually studied religion in depth and before they make opinions about something they should make sure they know what they are talking about.

Interestingly, Murray admits his own agnosticism has become shakier since his wife became a Quaker.

If you're a young person ready to go out and get that job.  Read this book.  If your a Curmudgeon like  me, read it to laugh and feel affirmed in your curmudgeonliness. There's a red squiggle under that last word so I must have invented it.  But it fits so it stays.

Maybe I'll write a book called The Art of Being Curmudgeonly.  I'm certainly qualified.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Jane Austin a Quick Traipse Through Six Novels

I have been horribly delinquent in posting on my blog.  Instead of giving you my harangue of excuses I'm going to jump in and do a fast and furious assault on some of my most beloved books.  There is a Jane Austin marathon going on somewhere that I learned of through Brian's Babbling Books.  I haven't participated in it but it has inspired me to share my opinions about Ms. Austin's works.

I am going to follow the format I used when my son was in speech and aural therapy.  He had to process information and then express it in a concise, coherent fashion, something he struggled at.  So while he was walking figure eights around two posts while jumping rope (yes, it was all a part of the therapy) I would read a story to him.  Afterwards, he would have to summarize  the story in three sentences.  Derek became quite good at doing this and it did wonders in enabling him to organize his thoughts.

Let's see how his dear old mother does-although I don't promise to hold myself to three sentences.  In fact I will not summarize the following books but simply tell what I remember about them.

First:  Persuasion

The BBC production of this book is the most romantic rendition I've ever seen.  Persuasion is Emma's last complete novel.  The heroine is Anne, the daughter of a wealthy landowner who squanders his money away and is forced to "retrench".  He moves to Bath with his eldest daughter, Elisabeth, where he hopes to ingratiate himself to the aristocracy there.  Anne joins them after visiting another sister, Mary, who has married "beneath herself" and doesn't fail to remind her husband's family of it at every opportunity. 

The core plot is that Anne had fallen in love with a man who proposed to her.  On the advice of a friend she turned him down, the main reason being that he wasn't good enough for her, had no money etc.  Anne, however, cannot forget this man and spends the next ten years in a state of depression. 

At the time of the story, however, this man has made a name for himself, is now Captain Wentworth, and has returned.

The story revolves around Anne's family members, both blood and through marriage, vying for the captain's attentions.  Austin gives us a picture of the class divisions, motivations for marriage, and the selfishness of Anne's family contrasted with her own, sometimes too, generous and noble character.  There is a little of the Cinderella in Anne. 

The thing that stands out the most to me is how, as in Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds, people born into money show themselves to be such horrible stewards of it and spend most of their lives conniving how to marry others based on their wealth and social standing.

Anne's character is thrown into sharp relief because she is the only one who wants to marry for love.

Second:  Sense and Sensibility

Marrying to secure financial well being is also a theme in Sense and Sensibility.  This book was Austin's first to be published (1811) and was anonymously attributed to "A Lady".

In this story, two sisters find themselves penniless after their father's death.  The circumstances are made the more dire because being ladies of a certain class, they simply cannot earn their living. This dooms them to starvation unless they can marry men who are of their station and have the money to support them.

The younger sister, Marianne, is emotional, impetuous, and falls in love with the dashing John Willoughby.  Willoughby acts as though he returns her affection, but ultimately needs money himself so marries a rich woman.  Being strung along in such a way breaks Marianne's heart, but never fear!  The steadfast, older Colonel Brandon is waiting in the wings.

Elinor is the older sister and more mature and intelligent than Marianne.  She also falls in love with a man, Edward Ferrars, who returns her affection.  Unfortunately, he has intimated to another woman on a previous occasion that he would marry her.

That is what struck me as the most profound statement in this novel.  There was once upon a time when a man's word was as good as a written contract.  Even though  Ferrars is not in love with the other woman, he is bound by her unless she releases him of his declaration.  This woman, Lucy Steele, is not really interested in Edward either, but she also needs a living so she cannot give up a situation that will keep her out of poverty.

It is interesting how Lucy and her sister, Nancy, spend their lives scheming and conniving their way into the homes and lives of rich people as a way to survive.  While one finds it detestable, they also warrant a certain amount of sympathy because the reader understands that there are not a lot of options open to them.

Thirdly: Emma

My favorite of the favorites!  I love Emma.  Austin said that she wrote a character that only she could like, but I like Emma too.  Although it's easy to see why people would not like her and if she never saw the error of her ways she wouldn't be redeemable.

Emma is a sheltered, spoiled daughter of a wealthy landowner.  Since her mother's death, she largely has been allowed to raise herself.  She has a governess, Miss Taylor, but she is devoted to Emma and doesn't do much in the way of reigning her in.  In fact, what saves Emma from being a deplorable character is that she is genuinely a selfless and caring person.

But she is also young and strong willed.  She takes it in to her head to match make.  She does not have the maturity to understand how ill matched her targets are.  She befriends a young girl, Harriet, who is not Emma's intellectual equal.   Harriet is loved by a local farmer.  Emma believes this match is beneath her friend when in fact it would be highly propitious for Harriet, since she's a penniless orphan.

Luckily George Knightly, a man in his thirties, who has loved Emma since she was a child is around to temper her and help steer her in the right direction.

Men in their thirties marrying teenage girls is a common occurrence in Austin's stories but I suppose that was normal back then.  With the lack of medical care I dare say not many people-especially child bearing women- lived to ripe old ages.

Fourthly:  Pride and Prejudice

Of course everyone's favorite and mine too, after Emma.  In addition to all the social commentary already observed in the above novels, this story is the most light-hearted and witty.  Both the hero and heroine are very human but ultimately overcome their personal prejudices and pride.  

In a nutshell, Elizabeth Bennet overhears Mr. Darcy make a disparaging remark about her at a local dance.  In fact, Darcy was idly expressing his annoyance at being at a gathering he doesn't enjoy.  He refuses to dance, even at his friend Mr. Bentley's insistence.  Elizabeth, like your average woman, refuses to forget the slight.  After Darcy gets a more favorable impression of her, she spends most of the novel refusing to understand anything he says except in a negative light.  Darcy, for his part, is mostly amused by her and also taken with Elizabeth's beauty.  Without realizing it, he gradually develops romantic feelings for her.
These feelings reach a feverish pitch and he finally proposes to Elizabeth.  Elizabeth is blind-sided by his declarations of love which is one of the most romantic proposals in literary history.

"in vain have I struggled.  It will not do...You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."  

She is soon sobered up when Darcy then proceeds to shred his own standing by informing Elizabeth  of his "sense of her inferiority-of its being a degradation"-etc..

The best part is how clueless Darcy is.

"He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security."

Then Elizabeth lets him have it right between the eyes.

 Austin is commenting on the power of the rich man versus the helplessness of a financially needy woman.  Of course she will accept.  She has to.  What other recourse does she have?

And I'm inclined to think that in reality she would have.  This, however, is fiction and Austin no doubt wrote what she would like to have happened.

In fact all of Austin's books are romantic fantasies.  Austin never married, herself, and she died young.  The men in her novels are the product of a woman's mind, which is why they are so attractive to us of the female gender.  In the real world, men think like men and not like women.  This makes our relationships with each other more challenging but not less worthwhile or intriguing.  

In fact, as much as I love Austin's novels I wouldn't trade reality with all the difficulties and even maddening situations I've had with my (newly married!) husband for all the Darcy's, Bentley's, Ferrars and Knightly's in the world.  I never know what's going to happen next.  Marriage is not only romantic, it's adventurous.

Fifthly:  Lady Susan

Lady Susan is an unfinished novel, it is short and- unlike the others- is written through the letters of the protagonist.  Lady Susan is a gold digger.  One sees her plight and that of her daughter's in these letters.  We see how she manipulates her way into households and tries to secure a husband for her daughter.  However, things take an unexpected turn at the end and we find that really all Lady Susan cares about is herself.

And finally:  Jane Austin:  A Family Record (enlarged and revised by Deirdre Le Faye)

This is as good a biography as any out there.  There is very little information on the life of Jane Austin but the authors, William Austin-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austin Leigh give as accurate a record as can be attained. The two men were descended from Jane's nephew James Edward.  They inherited the books, papers and letters of the Austin family and have written down this information in a readable style.

These are not the only Austin books I've read.  I've also read Northhanger Abby and Mansfield Park.  I can't say I enjoyed them as much so I will not attempt a review of them.  I see I was unable to describe each book in three sentences but hopefully I successfully conveyed my own thoughts about Jane Austin and her novels.

For those interested here is the link to Austin in August:

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Nibelungenlied: Prose Translation by Anonymous

After visiting Worms a couple of weeks ago I was inspired to read The Nibelungenlied.  Worms is a medieval town on the Rhine river where legend has it the saga of Siegfried and the Rhine gold took place.  There is an interesting museum in Worms that is housed in a remnant of the old city wall. Josh and I learned of the original tale (not much like Wagner's Ring cycle opera) and saw an eerie silent film of the Nibelung story made by Austrian Director, Fritz Lang. 

As I said in a previous post, I had quite a bit of time to read while waiting in airports.  The Nibelungenlied, however, I read while floating on the Rhine after a day's cycling from one Medieval village to the next.  I thought this was appropriate.

The Nibelungenlied is a very old saga dating all the way back to the fifth century and the Burgundian rule in Northern Europe.  The Bergundians were the people of the "long-haired" kings, where we get our fairy-tale image of kings and queens.

My translation had very good foot notes about the origins of the story.  Originally it was German but over the years, parallel Norse and Dutch stories attached themselves to it.  It is also clear that the story predates any serious Christian conversions on part of the nations but Christian terminology has obviously been inserted at a later date.  As a result it sticks out in an awkward, incongruous fashion.

Because the story was told orally for hundreds of years - the first written source can be traced to the thirteenth century - there are different versions. This is the story based on the book I downloaded from Amazon:

Sigfried, son of King Siegmund of the Netherlands is educated by a dwarf, Alberich, who later tries to kill him.  He fails, however, and Siegfried attempts to kill Alberich.  Alberich promises to show him his gold and give him a cloak of invisibility as well as an indestructible sword.

Siegfried takes these things and Alberich shows him the gold which is guarded by a dragon, who is actually Alberich's brother.  Siegfried kills both Alberich and the dragon and becomes possessor of the gold.

Through his travels, Siegfried learns of Kriemhild, sister of King Gunther of the Nibelungen, which is a part of the Bergundian empire.  Siegfried asks for Kriemhild's hand in marriage but King Gunther insists that he must help him first win over Brunhild, Queen of Iceland. They travel with their army of Burgundians to Brunhild's capital city.  Siegfried poses as Gunther's vassal.

Brunhild. What a battle ax if ever there was one.  Why any man in his right mind would want such a barbaric, violent, STRONG woman for a wife is beyond me.  I came to the conclusion that Gunther was a bit of a dunderhead.

They arrive at Brunhild's domain where she is on a tower throwing boulders and shooting javelins at all invaders.  No one can over come her power or strength. Brunhild challenges Gunther to a trial of strength, the prize being her hand in marriage.  Gunther wins only because Siegfried, wearing the cloak of invisibility that gives him the strength of ten men, actually performs all the deeds while making it look as if Gunther is doing them.

So Brunhild marries Gunther.  But the wedding night is less than romantic.  Brunhild defies that she shall ever lose her maidenhood by Gunther and ties him up and hangs him on a hook in the bedroom.

Again, Siegfried comes to the rescue.  Wearing his cloak he subdues Brunhild, causing her to lose her superhuman strength.

Returning home, Siegfried marries Kriemhild.

One would think that all's well that ends well.  Well, of course not.  What happens next is the pivotel point for the rest of the story.

Brunhild can't abide the thought that her sister-in-law is married to her husband's vassal and she gives Kriemhild no peace about it.  Finally, Kriemhild can contain herself no longer and reveals that Siegfried is actually prince of the Netherlands and furthermore, he is the one to subdue her and take away her strength.

In revenge Brunhild has a man, Hagan, kill Siegfried.  In some accounts, Hagan is Gunther's brother.  In the story I read he appears to be a main soldier or general in his army.  Through cunning Hagan has Kriemhild reveal that there is one spot on Siegfried's back that can kill him.  Kriemhild is apparently as bright as her brother. While hunting, Hagan throws a javelin at Siegfried and kills him. The story is not a third over and Sigfried is out of the picture.

Kriemhild chooses to lament and grieve for years, spending a lot of the gold Siegfried possessed on pious works and prayers in church for him.  This part I believe was inserted later because there's no mention of God or prayers prior to this.  Except the confrontation between Kriemhild and Brunhild which took place at a church.  However, earlier versions have it happen at a stream where the women are washing their hair.  Strangely enough, this is the end of any mention of Brunhild for the rest of the tale. And the story is not half over yet.

This is what happens for the rest of the book:

Some years' later Kriemhild marries Attila the Hun.  Hagan wants the gold which he confiscates and throws into the Rhine river.  Here he meets three mermaids that prophecy his fate to him.

Other than he dwarf, dragon, and these mermaids, there is no other mention of any type of fairy tale supernatural characters in the story.  They seem as incongruous as the occasional mention of God.

The rest of the story is one long tedium of revenge.  Kriemhild offers the gold to the Huns if they will kill Hagan and his army.  They can't do it.  Long descriptions of Hagan's and his comrades' heroic valor and mass murder of the Huns ensue. 

This also seems incongruous and perhaps a not so seamless addition of earlier tales to later ones.  At the beginning of the book, Hagan starts out as a cunning little weasel and by the end is portrayed as some Achilles type warrior that no one can defeat.

On and on the carnage goes.  Page after page. I read through the rest of the book just to see what happened to everybody.  This is what does:

Hagan finally is captured by Atilla and Kriemhild.  Her brother, Gunther, is also captured.  She threatens to kill them both if they don't reveal to her where the gold is hidden.  Neither does, both are killed, Hagan is cut up by Kriemhild herself.

In the end, all are sick of it.  The rest of the Nibelung (those that are left) hack Kriemhild to pieces. Ta da.  The end.

What fascinated me about the story was how it showed the lust for revenge turns people insane.  At first Kriemhild is presented as almost a Virgin Mary type.  She is happily married to a honorable and heroic hero.  When tragedy strikes her, she changes into a she-troll (figuratively speaking) who is willing for armies of men to lose their lives just so she can kill one man who hurt her.  Surely there was another way.  But perhaps this reveals a belief in doom and fate by this old Germanic culture.  Everything must eventually turn evil and never can hope offer peace.  This would certainly make these nations ripe for a Christian conversion.

In Heidelberg, Josh and I took a tour led by a middle aged German lady.  She seemed fixated on telling us how the poor German women were oppressed in the past and aren't we ladies all glad we live today.

Well, yes.  I'm certainly glad I live in a more enlightened era, but after reading The Nibelungenlied, I have serious doubts about the helplessness of German woman of a bygone era.  Their folktales certainly don't reflect weak and helpless females.

 One final point:  William Morris wrote a Scandinavian version of the Nibelungs titled, The Volsungs.  Norse and Icelandic parallel sagas are The Prose Edda; Sigurd the Dragon Slayer.  JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is also based on the Nibelungen legend. And, of course, we've all heard of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.  It lasts a mere three days and is fifteen hours long.

Next I hope to have photos up of our trip along the Rhine.

For those of you that want to see the silent film:
Fritz Lang's Nibelung 1924

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kindle reading at Airports

Want an impetus to read all those books that have been accumulating on your Kindle?  Spend hours waiting for your flights at airports.  The last two weeks I have been traveling to Europe and back with my new husband, Josh.  Thanks to layovers, long flights, cancelled flights, more layovers and rescheduled flights, I had quite a bit of time on my hands.

That's where a Kindle really comes in handy.  I read seven books, five of which I am going to review in this post.

The first book I read was during our layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, and flying across the Atlantic to Ireland.  It was the perfect prelude to our vacation.  Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad describes Twain's own travels to Germany (our final destination) and all the idiosyncrasies of German culture from an American's perspective.  He describes university life at Heidelberg, with the customs and practices of students (they enjoy dueling and have their own prison for miscreants), Wagnerian Opera (he doesn't hide his distaste for what he considers a lot of incomprehensible screaming), the various Germans he meets while he floats along the Rhine, climbs the Alps, and tries to communicate in very bad German.  His funniest chapter is devoted to "That Awful German Language" in which he describes how miserably different German is to English and how long it would take an American to master the German language ("about thirty years").  Twain enjoys mocking other people but he balances it out by mocking himself just as much.

After a couple of days in Dublin, we rushed to the airport at 3
am only to discover our 5:45am flight had been canceled.  Over the next ten hours, in between dozing and conversing with Josh, I read a enjoyable book titled, The Best American Humorous Short Stories, by various authors of the nineteenth century.  Most of the authors I had never heard of but a few like O Henry, Bret Harte, and Oliver Wendall Holmes were familiar to me. It also includes Mark Twain's The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Much of the interest I had in these stories was the time period in which they were set (post civil war).  Some would seem antiquated to a twentieth century reader but I found them funny and many of them endearing.  One such story was about two boys who try to court the same girl but haven't got the nerve and WI Lampton's How the Widow Won the Deacon.  In this story, a widow finally wins a man over by sacrificing her dignity by jumping out of his wagon as he races his horse against another man's in order to lighten the load.

By the time I finished that book we had finally arrived in Frankfort and were on the boat, floating down the Rhine River.  We spent most of our time in Germany biking down the Rhine  and visiting the medieval towns there.  After spending an afternoon in Worms at the Nibelungen Museum I spent the evening on our boat reading The Nibelungenlied by Anonymous.  I want to do full justice to reviewing this book, so I'll save my comments for the next book review post.

Two more books I read while we were in Frankfort and while spending a long, uncomfortable night back in the Dublin airport.  They are by R.C. Sproul.  The first was Five Things Every Christian needs to Grow.  The five things are:  Bible Study, Prayer, Worship, Service and Stewardship.  My own beliefs most closely align with Reformed Theology so I found a lot of useful insight in Sproul's discussion of these various topics and how to implement them in your life.

The other book by Sproul was The Prayer of the Lord.  Here Sproul takes the reader step by step through each statement in the Lord's prayer, what they mean, and how to use each in sentence personally when applying it to our own prayers.

One last book I read on the flight back across the Atlantic was by Ralph Adams Cram:  Black Spirits and White: A Book of Ghost Stories.  This collection, while written by Cram, are based on stories he heard during his world travels.  They include a demon possessed house in Paris, the wandering spirit of a nun in Italy and a horror tale told by a Swede that is worthy of Lovecraft.  Interestingly, Cram was a theologian a hundred years ago, so while his stories are interesting they are from a perspective that the supernatural and evil are real, unlike Lovecraft who attempts to apply naturalistic causes to the horrific beings he creates in his stories. 

One final book I read from Charlotte to Dallas was A Confession by Leo Tolstoy.  This book also deserves a longer review so I will wait to post it as well.

Next post I hope to have photos of our Honeymoon trip to an 1830 log cabin in central Texas and also our trip to Europe.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

This is the first book I've ever read by Anthony Trollope and I thank Brian Joseph at Babbling Books for his interesting reviews of other Trollope novels which propelled me to download many of his works from Kindle (they're free!)

The Eustace Jewels is my kind of story in that it is not propelled by any profound plot but rather by the characters and the psychology behind what makes them tick.

The story starts out with a young girl, Lizzie, who is both neglected and spoiled by her dissipated father who dies greatly in debt,  in no little part to the jewels and clothes he bought for her.  He spent money but no time with Lizzie and when he dies, she is left alone while still a teenager.

An aunt takes her in, not out of pity or affection, but out of a sense of duty.  At least that is what the third party narrator of the story clearly states.  As I came to discover, the narrator misdirects.  He says one thing but shows another.  As I got to know the aunt through out the story, I came to the conclusion that the elderly woman was not so mean as hardened by the rough hand life had dealt her.

That is a common theme in The Eustace Diamonds:  how people survive when their prospects are bleak.  Trollope, through his third person narrator, shows how different people handle the cards they've been dealt.

First, Lizzie who, as I mentioned, has been orphaned and taken in by her crusty old aunt.  Lizzie's feelings toward her father are never described, but she hardly knew him.  She has nothing but contempt for the woman who keeps her from being a penniless orphan, calling her "the vulturess."

It should be mentioned that Lizzie is very beautiful and she does not reach twenty before marrying a rich baronet by the name of Florian Eustace.  He is young but sick with tuberculosis, a condition which is exacerbated by his wild and reckless lifestyle.  The reader finds him in the grave not a year after his marriage to Lizzie.

What Lizzie felt about Sir Florian isn't made known either, although the Sir Florian discovers on his sick bed that Lizzie lied about her feelings for him and just about everything else about herself.   Even though, Lizzie's attachment to the count appears largely to be mercenary, through out the book she exerts a lot of energy sentimentalizing her marriage and her late husband's adoration for her.  But what the reader is made to understand is that Lizzie is a great liar.  We also know that her motives are ulterior.  I believe today psychologists would label her with a narcissistic personality disorder.

When her husband dies, Lizzie is left property in Scotland, four thousand pounds a year (over $500,000 today), and a necklace made up of diamonds worth 10,000 pounds (you do the math).  

Or so Lizzie, now Lady Eustace, claims. The lawyer representing the Eustace family, is of the opinion that the diamonds cannot leave the estate, therefore while they are hers to wear during her lifetime, she may not sell them.

This is a problem for Lizzie because she did not learn the virtue of good financial stewardship from either her father or her husband.  The story's backbone is this contention between Lizzie and Mr. Camperdown, the Eustace attorney.  All sorts of things happen to the diamonds as Lizzie travels with them on her person, not trusting them to a bank or a jeweler.  Each episode makes Lizzie's character clearer to the reader.

Lizzie is a young widow and doesn't really need to marry for money, but she is a great romantic and also opportunistic.  A young man, Lord Fawn, comes to court her.  Lord Fawn, we are made to understand, is not the brightest of bulbs in the room, nor does he have much of a spine.  He is a man with a title but no money.  He must marry money to make a living.  Lady Eustace is rich and pretty to boot.  When he proposes, she accepts, not out of love, mind you.  She wants the title she would acquire by marrying a Lord.

Unfortunately for Lord Fawn, he soon finds he has engaged himself to a woman he didn't really know.  He afterwards is informed of Lady Eustace's shady character through one of his sisters.  When he learns of the necklace scandal he repents of wanting to marry her.  He tells her so.  Enraged, Lizzie refuses to release him of his promise.  

To make things more uncomfortable for Fawn, Lizzie's cousin, Frank Greystock, has taken her side and helps blacken Fawn's character about town (both are lawyers in Parliment.)

Frank Greystock is an intelligent young man who decides to marry for love rather than for money and, even though his family is against it, engages himself to a penniless governess, Lucy Morris who lives with Lord Fawn's mother and sisters.

But this is where things become complicated.  Fawn made a mindless blunder and he doesn't know how to honorably, or even legally get himself out of it. The engagement remains in limbo for most of the novel.

Frank Greystock, on the other hand, clear-sightedly obligates himself to Lucy, a young woman, as we shall see has all the strength of character and honesty and dumb love as any virtuous woman of the 19th century.

Frank, in his noble efforts to defend his cousin ends up spending a lot of time with her.  A naive thing to do on his part, because Lizzie doesn't just want a title, she wants an adventure.    That Frank really has no money, doesn't matter to her, neither does the fact that she is still engaged, at least tenuously, to Lord Fawn.  She brazenly flirts with and manipulates Frank and gets him in all sorts of incriminating situations, some of which, if they were found out, would give Fawn more than enough grounds to break off the engagement.

One would think that Frank would be revolted at his cousin's intentions.  Not only is he not, but he ends up spending most of his time with his cousin and doesn't see his Lucy for months.

This is what I find fascinating.  We're made to understand that Frank is a good man, with a strong and noble character.  He certainly views himself that way.  Fawn is a weak man, though of good moral character.  Frank despises Fawn for how he believes Fawn is treating his cousin.  Yet he doesn't seem to be aware of how he is treating Lucy.

What strikes me the most about Lizzie is that she has no friends.  She has companions, all of whom need her to financially support them.  She has a live in companion, Miss Macnulty, who puts up with all sorts of verbal abuse because she would be living on the streets if not with Lizzie.

There is also a Mrs. Carbuncle and her niece, Lucinda.  They have no money either, but because they are a part of society, they make the rounds of rich people's houses and attend all the best parties and look the part of rich Americans.  Mrs. Carbuncle is a strong, determined and heartless expert at extracting money from people, helping to increase her friends' debts while never diminishing her own.

Her primary objective in the novel is to marry her niece off to a rich man and rid herself the financial burden she causes, as well attaining a secure income for herself.  Mrs. Carbuncle treats Lizzie the way she treats everyone else and when they finally part ways, Lizzie is several hundred pounds the poorer.

There are many aspects to this novel and the commentary on Victorian life that I noticed.  First, there seemed to be a class in English society during the 19th century that was rich, but had no money.  Trollope never explains how they got rich or became poor, except that some of them got there by extravagant lifestyles they could not afford. There were people that were actually rich and stable such as Lizzie's brother-in-law, John, but their part in the novel is peripheral.  

Another observation is on the corrupted and ungodly reasons just about everyone had for marrying.  I know this is not a new theme and one that has been elaborated on from Jane Austin to Downton Abbey.  Still, it is amazing to me how the church was an established part of English culture as the Hindu religion is part of the Indian identity.  Nevertheless, it seems to be delegated largely as a cultural practice rather than a personal one.  

Everyone was a member of the church of England.  No doubt it would be shocking if one wasn't.  But Trollope shows what an empty ritual it is for most of his characters.  On the one hand, Lord Fawn is a cad if he breaks his promise to Lizzie, but no one questions taking vows before God and man with someone you couldn't care less about.  Marriage is reduced to a business transaction.  The fact the Frank's family and all of Lucy's friends find their engagement unrealistic and impractical because all they have is love to recommend it, highlights this point.

On the one hand, I ask myself is Trollope trying to convey an accurate or holistic picture of Victorian society or is he merely accentuating the worst of it?  If so, why?  Do bad characters create more interesting plots?  Or is this all he saw of the culture he lived in?  That would say more about the social circles he associated with than Victorian culture as a whole.

If, in fact, Christianity had become largely a cultural practice rather than a personal, meaningful belief and practice, I can understand how this paved the ground for Nietzsche, Freud, and other secular humanists.  When Nietzsche had the mad man in Thus Spoke Zarathustra say, "God is dead,"  he was not commenting so much on reality as he was saying how Christianity in Europe had deteriorated to the point of meaninglessness.  I think this is what the mad man means when he says, "We have killed Him."

The final thing I noticed is how the British leisure class not only disobeys Biblical truth in spirit but also in practice.  St. Paul said, "If one doesn't work, he doesn't eat." (2 Thessalonians 3:10) England and all of Europe had created a whole society where a group of people had all the money without earning any of it.  They inherited it and, as is usual in such cases when one doesn't work for what they get, they squandered it.

Hence there developed a class of "poor rich" people.  These people were in dire straits because their particular class didn't allow them to work (except maybe in Parliment) and furthermore, they were expected to maintain their place in society by spending money they didn't have to keep up appearances.  I would very much like to know how this class system developed and how it led up to the current socialized states that now exist in Europe.  A state which, ironically, has produced a leisure class at the other end of the class spectrum.  The end result is the same:  people living off the earnings of others. 

The end of the story sees Lizzie finally abandoned by all her friends and relatives.  Her reputation becomes so infamous that Lord Fawn unequivocally withdraws his attachment.  Frank comes to his senses and returns to Lucy, begging her forgiveness, and we already know about Mrs. Carbuncle.  There's more characters and sub plots but I don't want to give everything away.

Lizzie finally meets a man who has absolutely nothing to recommend him and she knows it.  She knows he is shady, greedy, mean, out for her money, and a liar.  He's a clergyman no less, but I guess that is consistent with the social commentary Trollope is making about the church. 

Lizzie sees this man clearly, but she doesn't think clearly.  She has lived in a fantasy world and plans to stay there.  In this man, she tells herself, she has finally found her corsair.  Here the story ends and we will have to imagine the rest.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Churchill: A Biography by Roy Jenkins

Winston Churchill is one of the giants of the twentieth century.  I've heard and read about him all my life.  He's always been a figure that fascinated me and whom I admired.  So it came to me that I needed to buckle down and read a good biography of him.  Where did he come from?  What made him great and how exactly did he run England's government so that they successfully, with the US and Russia, won WWII?

Jenkins biography successfully answers all of these questions and more.

I realized that I knew very little about the man other than the famous photo of him glaring out of the picture with a cigar clenched between his teeth and that he was Prime Minister during WWII. 

I think I had projected too much of my American culture on him.  I assumed he came from an ordinary family, was a self-made man who had the brilliance and daring do to get his country in and out of a war, coming out on top.

Nothing of the sort.  Churchill was born into aristocracy.  His mother was an American, Brooklyn born and raised, nee Jeanette Jerome.  Considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, she married Lord Randolph Churchill, becoming Lady Randolph Churchill.

His mother took away any notions I had that aristocracy equated noble and honorable moral standing.  According to Jenkins and other sources, she had numerous lovers while married to Lord Randolph and, after he died, she married another man who was the same age as her son, Winston.

 She had little to do with his upbringing (who has the time with an active social life?) yet he idolized her.  As an adult he kept up a faithful correspondence with her until her death in 1921.  She encouraged his  prodigious writing and the publishing of his books. 

Churchill was 66 years old when he became Prime Minister the first time and had quite the adventurous life before that.  He fought in the Boer War, became a prisoner of war, escaped and continued to fight.  No one can accuse Churchill of lacking courage.

It was that kind of strong willed and determined character that got him into Parliament where he held several different offices, ultimately becoming Prime Minister.  That and his blinding wit.  Churchill's speeches are still legendary. 

Jenkins describes his complicated relationships with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. The descriptions of how the three of them carefully negotiated and danced around each other in order to defeat the Germans is very interesting.  It was strange to read about England's Prime Minister and America's president wining and dining such a tyrant as Stalin.  But I guess it's easy to judge through the lens of time.

Churchill's relationships with Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower were equally interesting. He worked most closely with Roosevelt, briefly with Truman during and after WWII, and as much as he could with Eisenhower-who didn't care for him- during the Cold War.  In a nutshell, he was thrilled with none of them but wasn't stupid.  He needed them and they needed him as well, although Eisenhower was fairly indifferent. This was largely due to irreconcilable differences concerning nuclear weapons and their place as a war deterrent. 

The book is forty-six chapters long broken up into six parts.  It includes his personal as well as his professional relationships.  Churchill seems not to taken after his mother.  He was a devoted husband and father until his death in 1965.  He loved to vacation in France.  He made many friends in Parliament and also enemies.  His parleys and repartees to his political adversaries are good fun to read.

He is most known for rallying the English spirit by showing the gumption and backbone Chamberlain never possessed in dealing with Hitler.  He had the foresight to see through Hitler's rhetoric of "mutual peace" and understand his real malignant intentions, unlike most of the Western world that was bent on appeasing him.

Churchill ran and won Prime Minister once more in the 1951.  He stayed involved in Parliament and public life even after a series of strokes up until his death in 1965 at the age of ninety.

Jenkins' writing is in a flowing, novelistic style.  It contains a lot of information and it took me a while to read the book because it's so jam packed with detail.  It is only in one volume and is 912 pages long.  I've seen other biographies that are in three volumes.  I'm curious what they could possible include that Jenkins didn't because his biography is so thorough.  Part of me wants to read them to see how they compare.  The other part of me doesn't feel I have the time.  It took me over a year to read this single volume biography.

One thing I didn't know before I read this book was what a prolific writer Churchill was.  I have since bought his History of the English Speaking Peoples (which is in four volumes). Now that I've finally finished Jenkins' book I plan to climb that mountain.  I'll probably have a review ready in a couple of years (insert sarcastic laugh here).

All in all, I liked this book and, though a bit of a slog to get through, it is still a worth while read for anyone who is interested in WWII history and specifically of one of the greatest Prime Ministers (according to Jenkins, the greatest) in English history.