Category Archives: Literature

Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

This expansive book can move at a glacial pace, though, also like a glacier its motion never stops. His pastoral vignettes are as vivid as a painting. His descriptions of what is going on in each character’s head are masterpieces of empathy, psychology, and self-awareness—or not, depending on the character. There are also multiple contrasts. Not just between the battle scenes and the domestic scenes, but also between Russia and the West, as shown by the contrast between the Moscow and St. Petersburg social scenes. Evolution is another key theme. He characters age, mature, and change over the course of the book. Even their language changes, with Russian increasingly displacing French as the language of choice for the more “authentic” Russian characters. The amoral or otherwise mostly unsympathetic characters such as Helene and her brother Anatole emphasize their Europeanness by lapsing further into French speech even as Napoleon’s army marches further into Russia.

Tolstoy also uses the novel to advance his pastoral, peaceful, agrarian philosophy, contrasting the happy scenes in those settings with the horrors of war and the cynicism of city and court life. He also advances a “great forces” theory of history, against which individuals are nearly powerless. This theory does not hold up well against actual history, but Tolstoy sure makes it poetic.

Pierre, the protagonist, is an especially interesting character. Tolstoy modeled him somewhat after himself. In the beginning, Pierre is a brash youth, not quite comfortable with his large physical size and awkward both physically and socially. He feels the need to interject his opinions into every conversation, as many young people do. After a few years of life experience, and entering into a marriage with Helene that he realizes ahead of time is a mistake, Pierre has a spiritual awakening and pursues Freemasonry with the same youthful zeal as he pursued his previous opinions. But with a little more age and maturity, he becomes calmer and less intense about it. At the same time, he becomes physically more comfortable in his own skin and his own social manner, though his large size still makes him stand out in a crowd. By nature he is more an observer than a participant, but eventually gets dragged into a battle despite not being a soldier, and is taken prisoner and goes on a forced march. He emerges

Tolstoy also astutely portrayed the effect that nearness to celebrities and power can have on people. Especially early in the book, in the battle of Austerlitz, one of the characters is absolutely mesmerized by the czar’s mere presence, to the point of near-religious rapture, completely losing himself in a wash of emotion and love towards a person he has never met, and does not know who he is. The young man is otherwise a sane and decent person, but he comes off every bit as poorly as Tolstoy intended in this scene. As the characters age and get worn down by life and war, their power-worship becomes less pronounced. But it also never completely goes away.

These scenes of celebrity rapture reminded me, of all things, of the scene in Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius where Eggers and his younger brother Topher briefly meet Bill Clinton at some event shortly after they move to San Francisco. Eggers goes into a near-reverie both during the experience and recounting it. Clinton, like Alexander I, was neither particularly bad nor particularly good as far as presidents or tsars go. Neither left much of a footprint on history, and were generally unremarkable—often a good thing in their line of work, but that’s a topic for another time. Such men should not have such effects on otherwise intelligent people, and yet they do.

Kim Stanley Robinson – Red Mars (Mars Trilogy, Book 1)

This lengthy 1992 sci-fi novel is the story of the first permanent colony on Mars, founded in 2026. Rather than a Star Wars-style shoot-‘em-up in space, this book is more a mix of science and philosophy. The main conflict is about terraforming. Should the colony be permanent?  At what point can terraforming be said to begin? Is it ethical to terraform a planet that might have native life? What if it is the only opportunity we’ll likely ever have to observe extraterrestrial microbes? Should that life be made extinct, or does it have the right to be preserved? Is Mars a stepping stone to the outer planets, or is this going to be the only colonized planet?

The colony is initially made up of a First Hundred, a mostly American and Russian contingent which includes John Boone, the first man to walk on Mars on a previous mission. Other countries are also represented, though to a lesser degree. His Neil Armstrong-like celebrity give him a high status, and though he is a good person and has a decent head on his shoulders, he at times does have a little but of an ego about it. The extreme pro-terraforming position, called the “Green” or ‘Russell” position, is personified by Sax Russell, while Ann Clayborne personifies the extreme anti-terraforming “Red” position. Other characters take intermediate positions. Another character, Hiroko Ai, who is in charge of many of the farm operations, injects a bit of mysticism into her philosophy of nurturing and spreading life wherever possible.

There is also a lot of science content—much more than one would expect in a novel. I enjoyed this immensely, and for me was one of the book’s draws. Other readers might feel differently. To that point, several explanatory passages run too long or feel forced in, and don’t always tie in with the plot or Robinson’s larger philosophical, social, and political themes. Red Mars is still a great way to learn about radiation, gravity, regolith, Martian atmosphere and geology, and how life can survive in hostile conditions. As far as I can tell, most of its science has held up pretty well, though obviously we now know much more about Mars thanks to the rover missions and growing collections of satellite and telescope data. Red Mars also touches on longevity treatments and genetic engineering. And, of course, the speculative science of terraforming.

Robinson is also interested in how social and political dynamics would work in such a colony—and how they impact things back on Earth. Most of the First Hundred have become household names on Earth, where their daily lives on Mars are daily news. After a rough-and-tumble first few years of construction, establishing infrastructure, and creating a self-sustaining food supply, a rough first few years become gradually easier. A lot of this book’s appeal is in seeing the progress.

Once the hardest of the pioneer phase is over and the habitats have enough room, the First Hundred are joined by more and more colonists, and after a few decades the population has boomed into the thousands. There are now the equivalent of multiple cities, each with neighborhoods and even ethnic enclaves as immigrants from Earth self-sort to be closer to people like themselves. The First Hundred had envisioned a more cosmopolitan growth.

There are also jostling governments and corporations, a space elevator, and a revolution. I liked it enough where at some point I will read the next volumes, Green Mars, where the terraforming has progressed to the point where plants can survive outside in the thickened atmosphere, and Blue Mars, where Mars has warmed enough to have liquid surface water.

Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina

My first exposure to Tolstoy, and I loved it. He writes with a beautiful eye for scenic detail and social dynamics, and how inner thoughts and motives are outwardly expressed in the most subtle ways. But where Anna Karenina really shines is in character study. He explores Anna’s psyche most deeply, but she is not the only character of depth. Nobody in Anna Karenina is without fault in some way. But neither does even the worst character lack redeeming qualities or some sympathetic characteristic or circumstance. Just as in real life, every character has a different balance which changes over time.

The book begins with Anna’s sister distraught over her husband’s dalliance with a maid. Anna helps them to reconcile. Later, Anna, who is married, gradually falls for a man named Vronsky. He is a little more dashing and adventurous than her husband Karenin, and a bit of a womanizer; he had previously been flirting with Anna’s friend Kitty. They begin an affair and Anna eventually leaves her husband, but does not divorce him. Her husband could have also handled the matter better, nor was he a particularly caring husband. And while Anna admittedly isn’t much of mother to begin with, Karenin cuts her off from their son entirely. On the other hand, Karenin also later develops a close bond with Anna and Vronsky’s daughter.

As time goes on, the dashing Vronsky turns out be something of a drama queen, to the point of a failed suicide attempt after Karenin forgives him. As the years go by, Anna and Vronsky’s relationship loses its initial spark. Anna takes up a morphine habit, and is shunned from high society due to her relationship with Vronsky, even as Vronsky faces no such disapprobation. Anna’s husband continues to refuse her a divorce mostly out of spite, though he vacillates on the question throughout the novel. Anna eventually takes a cue from Vronsky’s earlier behavior, and the book ends with the family dealing with the aftermath, though the snubbed Kitty’s eventual marriage turns out to be a vision of pastoral Tolstoyan happiness, which spreads to most of the other characters in varying degrees.

Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre

The plot is absurd, but this book’s value is as a character study. Jane has an early childhood of Dickensian poverty, complete with a kindly uncle and cruel aunt, straight out of Great Expectations. From there it’s off to boarding school, which is slightly better. She stays on for two years after graduation as a teacher, before becoming a governess in a somewhat healthy household and falling in love with the father, who she marries at book’s end, though by then he is blind and crippled. It turns out he is already married, though, which causes them some difficulties getting married on account of bigamy. The man’s first wife has gone insane, and he keeps her shut up in attic with a servant to tend to her. Jane occasionally hears her murmuring and knocking about the house, and doesn’t figure out until later what is going on. Conveniently, the insane wife eventually commits suicide and dies in a fire, though this also disfigures her husband. Jane also gets a windfall inheritance at some point.

So Jane Eyre doesn’t get points for plausibility, despite a surprising amount of it being based on Brontë’s childhood. But Jane herself is an interesting character. She is fragile and stoic at the same time, and has a way of being strong and weak in different ways at different times. Just like a real person, she isn’t entirely consistent. She isn’t particularly pretty, and other characters remind her of this every so often; the reader feels the sting along with her, even though looks are far from everything. She’s reasonably intelligent but not extremely so, is prone to self-deception, and is a little on the meek side. But she also has a strong sense of integrity, which she struggles to maintain throughout the book against all kinds of temptations. I don’t care for her religiosity, but admire her strong, subtle individualism—a somewhat subversive theme at the time, especially for a woman.

Most importantly, Jane evolves over time. The book covers events from her childhood up until about age 20, with parts narrated at roughly age 30, offering a more mature perspective. Jane is always the same person, but learns and grows, and changes just like a real person does, or should. Brontë has crafted a fascinating person in Jane Eyre, and while this is far from my favorite novel, it was worthwhile along several dimensions.

H.P. Lovecraft – The Call of Cthulu

H.P. Lovecraft – The Call of Cthulu

Every October I read something from the horror genre. This year, I chose Lovecraft’s most famous story. A common theme in his work is that humans go about their lives oblivious that they are at the mercy of ancient, terrible gods hibernating in the deep. In this story, the narrator, a young man, retraces the steps of his late uncle, a professor of ancient languages. The people he meet become progressively stranger, including a murderous cult in New Orleans, and he travels progressively further, finding exotic ruins in Greenland with ancient texts describing a city called R’lyeh and something called Cthulu. He eventually ends up in the South Pacific, and meets the sole survivor of a ship that landed at R’lyeh, awakened the sleeping Cthulu, and barely survived the encounter. The man was driven mad by the experience, and his story is filled with nightmare-like imagery of shifting forms, non-Euclidean geometry, running, falling, and the immortal, tentacle-faced ancient Cthulu’s relentless pursuit, and instant recovery from its wounds.

Lovecraft’s tale also inspired at least two Metallica songs; guitarist Kirk Hammett is a noted horror fan. “The Thing That Should Not Be” from 1986’s Master of Puppets features lyrics referring to the story. “The Call of Ktulu,” likely spelled that way to avoid copyright issues, is the closing instrumental track from 1984’s Ride the Lightning.

Herman Wouk – The Caine Mutiny

Herman Wouk – The Caine Mutiny

This Pulitzer-winning 1951 novel is starkly relevant today. When a commander is clearly unfit for the job, at what point is it ok to depose them, and on what grounds? John Locke wrestled with this question. So did the American revolutionaries he influenced—as did their opponents. This book, set in World War II, explores the same question onboard the Caine, a fictional World War II U.S. navy minesweeping ship. The main character, who is something of a privileged twit though with redeeming qualities, enlists in the Navy and finds himself aboard an old bucket of a ship near the end of its lifecycle. The Caine‘s captain is as mediocre as his ship, and is eventually transferred elsewhere.

His replacement, with the Melville-esque name Captain Queeg, quickly establishes his popularity with the crew with his attention to details the previous captain had neglected, and boosts morale. But after the initial wave of good feeling, the mood quickly shifts. He is indecisive and wavering during several critical points of action, and nearly loses the ship and its crew more than once. He isolates himself in his cabin, avoiding both crew and duty. When they enter his cabin to bring him news, he is nearly always asleep, undressed, or unshaven. Captain Queeg resorts to harsh, arbitrary discipline, such as cutting the crew off from all non-subsistence water rations for 48 hours while the non-air-conditioned ship is sailing near the equator. The crew had earlier exceeded their water usage quotas by ten percent. This and other nonsensical measures, along with another panic attack during action induce the grumbling, frightened crew to relieve him of command.

The book is interesting because the case is not so cut-and-dry. During the court-martial trial that follows the mutiny, Queeg never exceeded his bounds of authority under regulations, and gives decent justifications. Despite showing some signs of mental illness, doctors refuse to formally diagnose him with anything that would render him unfit for command. Queeg is also able to give plausible justifications for his command decisions. Meanwhile, the crew clearly had an animus against him. There is clear evidence they conspired against Queeg in a premeditated mutiny, which the crew members admit to. After the trial, both of the mutinying crew members find themselves captaining the Caine at various points before its decommissioning. They find their performance in that difficult job to be not much better than Queeg’s.

The Caine Mutiny presents more questions than answers, on purpose. That is what makes it both an excellent novel and a good lesson for today’s predicament with President Trump. There are clear signs that his temperament is not suitable for the presidency, yet it’s not so cut-and-dry in a legal case. He has little respect for the rule of law, has an arbitrary, uncertain approach to policy, is an alienating diplomatic presence, and deliberately polarizes the electorate. His age and mental state are also tempting to question. But at the same time, does he meet the threshold for 25th Amendment action, or for impeachment? It’s not black-and-white, and both sides have good arguments. Moreover, Trump’s potential replacements from either party don’t necessarily guarantee improvement.

The weighty matter of mutiny is both leavened and paralleled in the main character’s romantic subplot. He comes from an upper-middle class WASP-ish upbringing. In his first post-Princeton job, as a nightclub pianist, he meets a young singer of poorer Italian-Catholic background. They genuinely love each other, but the main character’s reticence to marry outside of his class and religion, along with some mommy issues, complicate things. They are a cute couple together and the reader naturally wants to root for them, but both external circumstances and mutual idiocy keep them apart—though far more his than hers. At the end of the book, as with the question of mutiny, their relationship is unresolved, but it seems hopeful that things will work out.

James Dickey – Deliverance

James Dickey – Deliverance

As a long term project, I am slowly winding my way through the Modern Library’s highly subjective list of the 100 best novels. This entry was on sale for five dollars on Audible, so I took the plunge. I had previously seen the movie, but didn’t much care for it. Many years ago I also once went rafting on the same river where the movie was filmed, and didn’t much care for that. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book wasn’t really to my taste, either.

The reason is likely that Deliverance is essentially sturm und drang that doesn’t let up. Angst and guilt are constant presences, but there isn’t a reason given for why that should be. They’re simply background conditions woven into the fabric of the book’s world. A good story contains both tension and release; this story has too much of one and too little of the other. Whereas I tend to prefer literature, music, and art that contain both light and shade, Deliverance is essentially monochrome.

As for the story, a rafting trip in rural Georgia among four city-dwelling friends goes about as wrong as it possibly can. The characters variously endure being brutally raped by a hillbilly, a broken leg, an arrow wound, and a drowning. The protagonists also kill two people, perhaps justifiably and perhaps not–the ambiguity is easily the most interesting part of the book.

Afterwards the three survivors create a cover story, wrestle with guilt, and arouse some suspicion among wary locals, but aren’t caught. The river basin they went through is dammed and flooded as part of a federal infrastructure project, destroying any evidence, as well as their friend’s body. Back in Atlanta, they go on with their lives as best they can, but never quite return to normal. Two of them ending up buying rural cabins near the area where it all happened. This unsatisfying ending, with no release for the built-up tension, is in direct, and probably intentional, contradiction to Deliverance‘s title.

Robert Harris – Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Robert Harris – Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome

The second volume of Harris’ trilogy of historical novels about Cicero. I read the first book, Imperium, many years ago at my former colleague Gene Healy’s recommendation, and greatly enjoyed it. Harris writes from the point of view of Tiro, a real-life figure who was Cicero’s slave. Tiro was Cicero’s secretary and despite his slave status, a trusted friend. One of his jobs was taking down Cicero’s many speeches and dictations, and he invented a form of shorthand still in use today so he could keep up with his master. Tiro invented the ampersand (“&”), the abbreviations “etc.” for et cetera and “e.g.” for exemplis grata (“for example” in English), and other common shortcuts. Harris’ choice of narrator is a good one.

Conspirata consists of two parts. The first covers the year of Cicero’s consulship, 63 B.C., and the Catiline conspiracy, which was a narrowly-foiled assassination plot by the Senator Catiline against Cicero. The second part covers the next several years, which involved the rise of Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus, the first Triumvirate. Roman politics divided into populist and aristocratic factions, called populares and optimates. Cicero was philosophically closer to the optimates, but as a self-made homo novo (“new man”) without a lengthy noble heritage, he was not fully accepted into their orbit. The book ends on a low note, with Cicero’s exile from Rome, thus setting things up for the third volume of the trilogy.

As with the previous book, the events are dramatized and not to be taken as literal history. But Harris has clearly done his research, and the personalities, settings, and events are authentic, and as far as I can tell he gets most things correct. The value in this book is two-fold—seeing events through Tiro’s eyes, who was both a participant and an observer, is quite a bit different perspective than the usual narrative history. Harris is also a fine novelist, and the book is intrinsically enjoyable, and gives a vivid picture of the times.

Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men

Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men

As CEI founder and Louisiana native Fred Smith likes to say, “In Louisiana, we don’t expect our politicians to be corrupt. We insist on it.” Warren’s famous novel is a lightly fictionalized biography of Huey Long, the famous Louisiana politician. While raucous and entertaining as a personality study, this novel also helps to take some of the bloom off the rose of the type of people who run for political office. Huey Long was an exaggerated character, and Warren’s fictional Willie Stark is a an exaggeration of an exaggeration. But the difference between such men and more everyday political types is more a matter of degree than of kind.

Also revealing is the way people enabled, rationalized, and defended Stark’s flaws and the hurtful things he said and did to people throughout the novel. Similar things happen today with famous people from athletes and entertainers all the way up to presidents.

Hesiod – Works and Days, Theogony, The Shield of Heracles

Hesiod – Works and Days, Theogony, The Shield of Heracles

Homer and Hesiod are generally ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the annals of pre-Periclean Greek poetry. The competition is not a close one, and it does not favor Hesiod. His works still had significant historical influence, and have plenty of merit. The Works and Days takes the guise of a letter in verse to Hesiod’s brother Perses. They jointly inherited a farm, and Perses was something of a wastrel. Hesiod tries to convince his brother of the virtues of temperance, hard work, and thrift, while invoking a love of the land, open air, and the agricultural lifestyle. Hesiod’s poem probably felt almost as homiletic and old-fashioned in its own day as it does in ours.

The Theogony is probably as close as Greece ever came to a definitive family tree for its gods. Greek religion was more malleable than most modern religions, and pantheons varied from place to place, integrating with local gods in hodge-podge fashion as Greek colonists moved around the Mediterranean. This process of mixing religions together, called syncretism (think of it as a portmanteau of “synthesizing creeds”) is an early example of spontaneous order in history. I drew on the Theogony in an unpublished working paper I wrote back in grad school that one day, time allowing, I would like to revise and publish somewhere. Revisiting the poem more than a decade later was a genuine treat.

The other important concept in Hesiod’s Theogony is its deterministic view of history. In this case, the trajectory is ever downward, moving from divine to human. A Golden Age degrades to silver, then bronze, all the way down to a Heroic Age (think Perseus, Icarus, et al.) and today’s Age of Iron, where human beings live. Whereas gold shines forever, iron rusts and breaks over time.

This view of history as a series of stages that progress inevitable and in a certain order was the dominant view all over the world before modern times—though it varied in its particulars from civilization to civilization. Such a teleological view—moving inexorably to a certain end—is also familiar to Marxist thought. The common theme of post-Hesiod history was a rejection of progress. There was stability, the rhythm of seasons or dynasties, and often a gradual decline. But there was no sense of progress. This idea would not enter public consciousness in a meaningful way until the Renaissance, and would play a starring role in the modern prosperity we enjoy today. We should be thankful that Hesiod’s historiography is a relic, rather than current thinking.

The Shield of Heracles is Hesiod’s best literary accomplishment. His descriptions of the illustrations etched onto Heracles’ shield are described in beautiful detail, and allow Hesiod to tell the most famous stories of Heracles’ life and labors. Unlike Hesiod’s other works, instruction takes a back seat to beauty.