Third Trollope Project Book: An Autobiography

Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography was the third book I read this year as part of my Trollope project. I am committed to read four books by Trollope this year, but the summer is winding down with several especially long novels ahead of me in the Chronicles of Barsetshire. So, I chose An Autobiography primarily because it was shorter than those behemoths. I’m actually very happy that I read it because I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it added to my estimation of Trollope (which is pretty healthy as we head toward the end of this summer).

I enjoyed several things about this book:

1. Trollope overcame a lot. From other sources that I’ve read, I know that Trollope underwent even more than he reports in this autobiography, but he really did have a difficult beginning to his life. His family went through some pretty impoverished spells and were often forced to go running from down in order to escape Trollope’s father’s creditors. In school, Trollope was bullied mercilessly by his classmates, teachers, and brothers. Anthony himself was something of a failure at school. Despite his father’s high hopes, he never got into a college. Anyway, Trollope tells his story in a very casual way, and with a touch of humor, so that it doesn’t feel whiny, and in the end, I found it to be pretty affecting and inspiring.

2. I loved Trollope’s breakdown of his writing process. Trollope famously wrote to a schedule (since he had a day job) and at an enormous pace. I doubt that I could ever keep such a rigorous schedule as Trollope, but his career is a testament to the power of good habits and everyday diligence.

3. I also enjoyed reading Trollope’s thoughts on his art. He was so lacking in pretension. He had no grand theory of his work. He just sought to imagine characters he liked in minute detail, but by introducing you to them, he would have a story. He believe that you should write only if you have a story to tell, and if he didn’t have a good story, he wouldn’t force it. Trollope, too, thought that he had a responsibility to not be sensational, particularly to have heroes who are decently moral. It all worked for him.

4. Finally, I just tend to like Trollope himself. Reading the autobiography isn’t entirely unlike reading his novels. Trollope strikes me as a person who had an essential good humor to him and lived his life pleasantly surprised that it had turned out happy and well. I think that something of his gaiety imbued both his life and his novels, and it makes this a good read.

On the whole, I will admit that An Autobiography has some parts that drag, and I’m not sure I would recommend this book to a lot of people who aren’t Trollope devotees. It added to my appreciation of Trollope, though, and I think I’ll enjoy his novels even more for having read it.

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Second Trollope Project Book: Doctor Thorne

This was the second book I’ve read this year in my Trollope project. Like Barchester Towers and The Warden in the series, Dr. Thorne was another well-plotted romance with interesting characters and Trollope’s enjoyable humor.

In this book, Doctor Thorne has raised his niece Mary–the illegitimate offspring of Thorne’s deceased ne’r-do-well brother. Mary has grown up to be independent, intelligent, and kind, the center of life in the community. And Frank Gresham, the sole male heir of the storied Gresham estate, has naturally fallen in love with her. The problem, of course, is that Mary has neither a fortune nor a good birth. Frank is expected to marry wealth in order to save his family’s property and social status, and so the family determines to throw just about everything in the young couple’s way.

Like the other Trollope novels I’ve read recently, this one was a pure pleasure. I can’t say that I liked it as well as Barchester Towers. Doctor Thorne is a little more predictable and lacks some of the moral intrigue of that more complex story. What is is, though, is a very good, if straightforward, read. I can see how it was turned into a successful show and will eagerly look forward to the next of the Barsetshire Series.

First Trollope Project Book: Barchester Towers

For my author project this year, I’m reading more of Anthony Trollope, and since I’d already read The Warden, this was the first Trollope I read for the project. It was fantastic and really elevated my opinion of Trollope.

Barchester Towers centers around the community of Barchester as it receives a new bishop. Bishop Proudie is a marked by his weakness, and so everyone around him–in particular his wife Mrs. Proudie and her chaplain Mr. Slope–is out to use or influence him. Mr. Slope especially drives the action of the novel. He serves as the Bishop’s mouthpiece in the community, and he attempts to manipulate every situation to increase his power and to get himself into the good graces of one of the wealthy and beautiful women of the town. His machinations throw everything in the novel into chaos. Will Mr. Harding get to be the warden of Hiram’s Hospital again? Will Mr. Slope get to be the dean? Does Mrs. Bold (the widow) really love Mr. Slope? The novel is excellently plotted, woven together by the characters’ misunderstandings and by interesting moral questions.

I found the characters to be compelling and believable. The novel has Trollope’s typical loveable characters (Mrs. Bold, Mr. Harding), ambitious and pitiable ‘villains,’ and Victorian eccentrics (like Signora Neroni), and their interactions build a tremendous amount of suspense that Trollope manages to sustain to the end of the book. I also found Trollope to be surprisingly humorous–both with the absurd situations he crafts and his funny observations of the characters. Overall, I thought this was excellent, one of the very best Victorian novels I’ve read, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

A Review of ‘The Land Breakers’ by John Ehle

When I entered my rating for The Land Breakers on Goodreads, I was a little astonished to see that there were only 354 other ratings, and so I felt compelled to write a review for this wonderful book. Many more people should read it! There are not novels better than this one.

I won’t say much about the plot. This is a cast-of-characters sort of novel about the various humble settlers, would-be plantation masters, European immigrants, and ne’er-do-wells that come to live in a remote Appalachian valley in the later half of the 18th century. It’s about the settlers’ struggles with the mountain and wildlife who don’t want to cede their eminence in the valley to the settlement. And it’s about the messy human entanglements that occur with a group of people trying to become a community. That likely sounds pretty boilerplate, but Ehle’s writing in this novel elevates each scene of the book so that even events that seem familiar (i.e. a bear hunt) are especially evocative and riveting. I told my wife as I was reading the book that in certain intense episodes of the book, it felt as though Ehle had turned a water cannon on me.

The writing was that good, and it varied throughout the book. The Land Breakers had some of the adventurous moments that you might see in something like Lonesome Dove, but it can also have a grim undercurrent and some poetic/nightmare prose like Cormac McCarthy’s. Oddly enough, I’d add that Ehle has mixed in some of the awe you feel at the poignancy of the human endeavor–something like you sense when you read Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Altogether, everything about The Land Breakers works. It’s the best novel I’ve read in 3-4 years, and I’d recommend it to just about anyone.

My Letter After the Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

Dear Senator Cornyn,

I am deeply disappointed, if not surprised, that you voted for Betsy DeVos to be the Secretary of the Department of Education. You were wrong to do so, as she disqualified herself in her incompetent interview for the position and in her prominent role as a critic and enemy of public education. Moreover, you did so despite the clear opposition to her candidacy of the educators you represent. I do not even know a conservative colleague of mine in public schools who supported her!

I wish that you would recall that your oath is to serve the people and the good of the country, not the good of your political party. In this issue, very clearly, you did not do that.

Sincerely,
John Pierce

Letters to Congressmen

I’ve been pretty horrified (though not surprised) by the events of Donald Trump’s first week in office. One commitment I’ve made is to do something each day in response to the incompetent and inhumane policies I’m expecting. Among these is to write to Congressmen, just short, pithy notes on a single subject. I’m planning to post them here, too.

Here is a first:

Dear Representative Mike Conaway,

I would like to call your attention to the beginning of Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

Please note the simple point here, that the things of Creation speak out the glory of God. Indeed, God’s Creation is His first act of love, the first sign of His goodness, and God’s incarnation into this world in the person of Jesus Christ further sanctifies Creation as a holy and good.

The notion to me that the things of Creation speak out the glory of God to all of the earth is an extraordinarily fruitful one. What does it say, though, if humankind does harm to this world that speaks out to all God’s glory? Doesn’t the Creation belong to God, with ourselves as its stewards? Isn’t anything that harms God’s creation a terrible theft? If we destroy God’s possession that speaks to us of His glory, doesn’t that harm our efforts to evangelize?

Donald Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt as the potential head of the EPA, Mr. Trump’s attempts to dismantle environmental regulations, and his desire to reauthorize the Keystone and Dakota Pipelines are all actions that will serve to harm the earth. In doing so, they also harm humankind, and even greater, they represent blasphemies against God the Creator.

I ask you to please stand opposed to Mr. Trump’s moves to harm the environment, in particular his appointment of Scott Pruitt, as deeds that are offensive to the earth and that betray our God-given responsibility to care for the earth.

Sincerely,

Mr. Pierce