Sunday, May 30, 2021

Thomas Jefferson: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall

Let those flatter who fear: it is not an American art… ~ Thomas Jefferson

A thorough, thoughtful, biography of a fascinating, complicated man.


As he neared death, Thomas Jefferson, wrote his own epitaph:


Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom

and Father of the University of Virginia


He apparently didn’t think President of the United States was quite on par with those distinctions.


He was an accomplished violinist, a serious botanist and naturalist, amateur architect, lawyer, horseman, statesman diplomat, and of course politician. He nearly doubled the territory of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase, and was the impetus to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.


He established the republican government of Virginia on Four Cornerstones:

Repeal laws of entail and primogeniture

Religious Freedom

Free public education

Streamline the judicial system and liberalize the brutal penal code


Oh and…he could write. Describing his writing style, the author says…


His writing style gives us the sharpest self-portrait of the man: soft in tone and gracious in sentiment when he spoke of human rights, angry and self-righteous when he catalogued the crimes of a tyrannical king, magnificently Roman when, forging in a single paragraph the creed of a free nation…


His personal life was tragic. He outlived his siblings, his wife, all but one of his children, and many of his grandchildren. His wife Martha died at the age of 33. Thomas outlived her by over 40 years, but would never remarry. 


Of course, he was not without sin. He was a slave owner. This seems a glaring contradiction in the life of the man who wrote


…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…


During his political career, Jefferson would time and time again fight for the abolition of slavery, and decry it with righteous passion:


I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.


It seems grossly hypocritical for a slave owner.


However, things were not so simple as we think. For much of his life, it would have been impossible for Jefferson to free his slaves. Virginia law forbid it until 1782.


Jefferson inherited his first slaves from his father, and Virginia law prohibited an individual slave owner from freeing his slaves. 


To compound the problem, Martha later inherited, from her father, the majority of Jefferson’s slaves. They were encumbered as “property” Thomas held in trust; that had to be passed to Martha’s heirs.


But later in life, the laws changed, and he could have freed at least some of them…why not then? According to the author


…he considered mass emancipation impossible and believed it his burden of duty to care kindly for his slaves, freeing them individually as they became skilled enough to find jobs.


…he considered it irresponsible, indeed cruel, to turn loose his slaves until they were self-sufficient and prepared to remain free. 


I do not endorse his slow methodical approach of emancipation, and in spite of his words, I still suspect some hypocrisy, but I can believe, that in his own mind, he believed it reasonable. He could have, indeed should have done better, but it has taken humanity 6,000 years to collectively repudiate the evils of slavery. I don’t expect a man born to an age when it was a sanctioned institution to have sorted it all out perfectly. 


And then there was the election of 1800. The first true two-party election, and it was ugly, even by today’s standards. It was at times heartbreaking to read, knowing of the close friendship and mutual respect he and John Adams once shared.


But on a cheerier note…Bravo to Jefferson’s lifelong friend Benjamin Rush, who urged retired Jefferson to write his old friend John Adams. The two were reconciled and began a genuine and affectionate correspondence until both of them would die on the 4thof July, 1826…the 50thanniversary of the signing of The Declaration of Independence.



Saturday, May 29, 2021

Recap of Novels 171 - 180

Average rating of novels 171 – 180:  3.3 stars (out of 5)

171.  ★★★★                Wives and Daughters

172.  ★★★ ½               The Country of the Pointed Firs

173.  ★★★                  Herzog

174.  ★★★★               Ratman’s Notebooks

175.  ★★                         Journey to the West
★★★ ½               Devil in a Blue Dress
★★★ ½               Sybil, or The Two Nations

178.  ★★                      Journey to the End of the Night

179.  ★★★★               Hard Times

180.  ★★★                   The Golden Compass



Favorite: Wives and Daughters


Least Favorite: Toss-up between the two journeys: Journey to the West or Journey to the End of the Night, I didn’t like either of them.


Best Hero: Easy Rawlins, the hard-boiled detective from Devil in a Blue Dress

Best Heroine: Molly from Wives and Daughters


Best Villain: Ratman – sort of a sympathetic villain.


Most interesting/Complex character: Herzog


Best subtitle: The Monkey King’s Amazing Adventures (Journey to the West)


Best Quotation: A man could do worse than to love his monkey (Herzog)


Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (novel #180)

“We are all subject to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not,” said the witch, “or die of


The Golden Compass [North American title], was published in the U.K. as Northern Lights. It is the first book in Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials


The Golden Compass, like the trilogy, is often categorized as young-adult fantasy, and although I understand the distinction, I think it transcends young-adult. 


It takes place in another world – another universe – ugh!


Rant coming; little to do with my overall review, feel free to skip this section...but there ARE NOT other universes, alternate universes, parallel universes, multiple universes…there ARE NOT. Not even in fiction; it’s impossible. Universe LITERALLY means everything combined into one. There cannot be EVERYTHING, and then the other stuff besides everything. Universe = Everything. There can be other worlds, other galaxies, other solar systems, but not other universes. It’s me; it isn’t you (or Pullman). Rant over. I feel better. ***deep, cleansing breath***


It takes place in another WORLD, a parallel world, similar to our Earth. It is Earth, but different. It shares geography, peoples, and history, such as London, Germans, or historical persons, but in other ways very different: Such as talking bears, flying witches, and humans all having personal dæmons: an inseparable sentient being, in animal form, that represents the human’s true self. It is implied that there are other worlds still, presumably one being our Earth.


The heroine is 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua and her dæmon Pantalaimon. Orphaned Lyra is well provided for at Jordan College, and is occasionally visited by her mysterious and intimidating uncle, Lord Asriel. Something sinister is afoot, and it clearly has something to do with magnificent discoveries Lord Asriel has made in the far north. Roger, one of Lyra’s friends disappears, rumor has it her uncle is imprisoned, and Lyra is taken under the protection of a fascinating and mysterious woman. 


Lyra and Pantalaimon, who can take different forms often a mouse or ermine, set out to rescue Roger and Lord Asriel and expose the sinister forces. It seems like a big undertaking for a girl of 12, but Lyra has some of the qualities of her uncle, plus she is a schemer and a talented liar. She will receive help along the way from unexpected sources, but who can she trust?


As a fantasy novel, it is an enjoyable read, with some fascinating characters, marvelous settings, and surprising twists. At times, it was absolutely riveting. I have one very minor criticism of the plot: the child of the prophecy trope is getting a little tired. 


The Golden Compass also seems to be Pullman’s indictment of Christianity. Some have called it the antithesis to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia – though I’m not aware of Pullman making that claim. He does make references to Milton’s Paradise Lost, so that comparison is clearly intentional. If it were only a criticism of organized Christianity, I’d say that’s fair, but he goes well beyond this to dispute fundamental tenets of Christianity by misquoting scripture – blatantly misquoting – that’s not fair, and it fails in intent.


I’m often reluctant to begin a trilogy, because once I start, I feel committed. I may not like the writing, or the story, but still I want closure. In some trilogies, single books can stand alone as complete stories, in others, that isn’t the case. The Golden Compass is somewhere in between. The dilemma in this story is fairly well sorted out in the end, only to reveal a greater conflict. But, I doubt I’ll read more.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars


For the original title Northern Lights, this novel satisfies title with reference to outer space in the What’s in a Name 2021 challenge. It hit me when writing this, that the Northern Lights are actually an atmospheric phenomenon – not literally outer space, but I think it satisfies the spirit of the challenge, so I’m going to count it regardless.



Friday, May 14, 2021

Hard Times by Charles Dickens (novel #179)

Hard Times has a slightly different feel from the rest of the Dickens’ novels I’ve read. It still has the pitiful and virtuous orphan – though she is a secondary character. The villains are not so much evil, as they are foolish or boorish, and it wouldn’t be Dickens without some ironic coincidence and poetic justice – BUT, the ending is not so perfectly satisfying; it is a mixture of folly that cannot be undone, and beauty that is reclaimed. 


The heroine Louisa, or more precisely, the promise of a heroine is a blooming beauty, with a sharp intellect, and an immense capacity for love. She is the daughter of perfectly pragmatic Mr. Gradgrind who raises her as all his children to be perfectly pragmatic, devoted to facts, oblivious to passion, pleasure, or whimsy. Louisa learns her lessons, and her duty, well and succumbs to a perfectly practical life. 


The reader weeps, for there is detectible in Louisa the un-nurtured promise of an elegant mind, a compassionate spirit, and a joyful heart.


There is a heartbreaking scene, when Louisa who is fated beyond repair, despairs of her life to her father.


How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? What have you done, O father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here!


She struck herself with both her hands upon her bosom. 


And now alas too late…her father weeps.


Sounds pretty miserable huh? Well that is the Dickens motif, but unlike most if his stories, in this case, all things are not set quite right. 


But…there is still something left to make the reader’s heart rejoice.



My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This novel satisfies “New-to-Me Classic by a favorite author“ in the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge and The Classics Club Spin#26.


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (novel #178)

Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

(translated from the French by Ralph Manheim)


I had tried to lose myself, I hadn’t wanted to be face to face with my own life anymore, but everywhere I kept finding it. ~ Ferdinand Bardamu


The “journey” is that of Ferdinand Bardamu, and courses through the First World War, colonial Africa, the United States, and concluding in the suburbs of Paris, where Bardamu is a doctor. It is semi-autobiographical.


And utterly depressing. Bardamu is a cynic and pessimist, and holds humanity, including himself in contempt. Everything is stupid, worthless, pointless. 


The only person in the book worse than Bardamu is Robinson, a fellow soldier he meets during the war – the two of them trying, and failing to surrender, to avoid further mindlessness of war. Bardamu and Robinson’s paths are fated to cross time and time again – in Africa, in the U.S., and back in Paris. 


My analysis of Céline’s point, though one I admittedly don’t care to waste much time on, I already wasted too much time reading this book, seems to be that life is a journey – a journey of night and darkness, the end of the night is death. The main character, and Céline I presume, consider death a relief from the misery of life. 


Point made – and rejected. Moving on. The first I’ve read by Céline, undoubtedly the last. And the cover's weird.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


This novel satisfies “a classic in translation”, in the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge.




Most people don’t die until the last moment; others start twenty years in advance, sometimes more. Those are the unfortunates.


While the war was still on, the seeds of our hateful peace were being sown.


The plain truth, I may as well admit it, is that I’ve never been really right in the head.


There ought to be some mark by which to distinguish good people from bad.


I’d always worried about being practically empty, about having no serious reason for living. And now, confronted with the facts, I was sure of my individual nullity.


We kid ourselves, people have nothing to say to one another, they all talk about their own troubles and nothing else.


I had cast off all self-respect long ago. That sentiment had always struck me as far above my station, much too costly for my resources. I’d made that sacrifice once and for all and had no regrets whatever. 



Saturday, May 1, 2021

Run for the Roses 2021

I hate to pick the favorite, because it’s too easy, doesn’t pay, and the favorite usually does not win the Kentucky Derby – but in this instance, I have to pick undefeated favorite Essential Quality.



But in defense of my handicapping skill, I’ve been on this horse since he was a 2-year-old, middle-odds runner.


Perfect 6-0 record, including 5 graded stakes wins; versatile – he can stay off the pace, trail the field and close in the stretch, or lead wire-to-wire. Bloodlines – great-great-grandson of Secretariat, and cousin of an ill-fated favorite of mine Qaulity Road.


Esoteric qualities: A beautiful gray – I love the grays, an appealing, lyrical name, and maybe, hopefully, that something unknown. I hope trainer Chad Cox, and jockey Luis Saez get their first Kentucky Derby win in the most exciting 2 minutes in Sport. 


Horses who could beat him: Rock Your World, Hot Rod Charlie, or Highly Motivated

Run for the Roses by Dan Fogelberg