Sunday, 13 August 2017

Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

"Winter!  Who ever heard of such a name?"

Set during the great Indian Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Shadow of the Moon follows the life of Winter, Condesa de Ballesteros who is the daughter of a Spanish nobleman and an English mother.  Leaving India for England an orphan at the age of six, she is raised by her great-grandfather the Earl of Ware, but a match is made for her at the tender age of eleven to a man twenty years her senior, and at seventeen she prepares to leave for India escorted by Captain Alex Randall, the subordinate of her betrothed, Conway Barton, the Commissioner of the Lunjore district.  From the beginning, Winter is attracted to Randall’s self-confident demeanour and somewhat brash independence, yet while she appreciates his care of her, she is also affronted at times by his behaviour and the two develop a mutual attraction that is complicated by circumstance and convention.  Although Winter remembers her fiancé as a rather jovial pleasant figure who offers safety and security, Randall is convinced that once she sees the debauched, womanizing lout, nothing in the world would convince her to marry him. 

Yet what becomes more of a concern is the rumblings in India of disquiet and unrest, as the British East India company's presence has long been resented.  A company originally formed for trade and at one point accounting for half of the world's trade, the British East India Company had expropriated not only the goods of the country of India, but its territories as well.  At the time of this story, there is discontentment among the Indian people due to heavy-handed British social reforms, unfair taxes, and the treatment of some of the nobility of the country.  In this case, the fuse that lit the mutiny was Indian sepoy officers being given cartridges smeared with pig and cow fat which they have to bite off, a practice that would be an anathema to both Hindus and Muslims due to their religious beliefs.  In spite of rumours murmured in secret meetings and bazaars of a mutiny so great not one Englishman will be left alive, the British commanders continue to trust their Indian armies, and stubbornly refuse to heed the signs of disaffection and suspicion.  While Randall attempts to convince his British contemporaries of the dangers, there are still parties and gaieties galore among the English ex-patriots and one wonders at their willful blindness.

The ruins of the Residency at Lucknow and the
gunfire it received
source Wikipedia
This historical aspect of this novel was fascinating.  Kaye communicated the various personages and political posturing in a highly realistic manner, from the blind stubbornness of the British commanders, to the insightful planning of Sir Henry Lawrence; from the rebel attacks in Delhi, to the flight of the British characters in their attempts to escape the carnage, the reader is treated to a highly developed and suspenseful plot that keeps him riveted to the pages.  Kaye also weaves a descriptive masterpiece of the settings of India and one can feel the heat radiating from the land, hear the chatter of the people in the bazaars, sense the tension between races and the suppressed passion between Winter and Alex Randall.  

The Sepoy revolt at Meerut
from Illustrated London News, 1857
source Wikipedia
Sadly, the romance in the novel was the most disappointing part.  Randall appeared rather self-absorbed for the greater part of the book, his job and political responsibilities often overshadowing any love or caring or attention that he could have shown Winter, and the uncomfortableness of her situation (a married woman) combined with Randall's independent and sometimes abrasive character quelled any feelings of satisfaction that might have been generated by their love story.  Winter also had a penchant for overreacting with an exaggerated response that would cause her to make unwise decisions which would either damage her position, or needlessly complicate her life. While it perhaps added to the plot, it was often annoying and not necessarily believable. Randall himself displayed a character that was not particularly warm or generous towards women; I could understand Winter's attraction to him, but I also thought their future life would be fraught with discontent and unrest, very much like the India they inhabited.

Here is an article written by M.M. Kaye on her writing of Shadow of the Moon, which I found interesting and illuminating.  In spite of a few reservations about the romance aspect, the rest of the novel was highly enjoyable and I thank Cirtnecce for her read-along.  If you want to read more about the book and the Indian Sepoy mutiny, please see her post on the Company Raj and her post on The Landscape of the Mutiny.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Republic ~ Part I (Book I)

The Republic
Jean-Leon Gerome
source Wikiart

Book I:

The dialogue begins around the year of 410 B.C. at the port of the Piraeus, a town five miles from Athens.  As we read of the overthrow of the Athenian democracy in 404 B.C. in Thucydides’, History of the Peloponnesian War, Socrates begins to ask the questions about the benefits of democracy and builds his Republic on those ideas.  He begins by questioning the benefits and results of Justice.

Returning home from a religious festival with Glaucon (one of the brothers of Plato), Socrates becomes involved in a conversation with Cephalus, an old man.  Cephalus is certain Justice consists of being honest in your dealings with others and fulfilling your obligations, a very traditional Greek worldview.  When Socrates challenges this definition, the son of Cephalus, Polemarchus (who, in history, was executed by the Thirty Tyrants) expands on his father's ideas, yet Socrates challenges his conception that Justice is treating your friends well and harming your enemies.  Man is libel to be mistaken in his assessment of both, and doesn’t harming someone make him less of a person?  Therefore, if you make someone less than they are, how can one be said to be just in his treatment of them?  

The Madonna of Justice (1620-25)
Bernardo Strozzi
source Wikiart
Thrasymachus, a well-known Sophist*, bursts into the conversation, insisting on a different defintion of Justice: the actions of those in power, as they dispense them on their subjects.  Thrasymachus is embodying the view of a relativist where there is no objective definition; Justice is only whatever the stronger imposes on the weaker.  Socrates counters, asking if a ruler always makes decisions in his own best interest, which Thrasymachus admits not.  Socrates then gives an example of physician or ship’s captain; is their interest in themselves or their patients or sailors?  The latter, of course, so “no skill or authority provides for its own benefit,” but for the benefit of the weaker, which contradicts the assertion of Thrasymachus.  I rather think Thrasymachus’ views would be a recipe for chaos.

Now the larger question is tackled by Socrates …. Is a life of Justice preferable to a life of injustice?  Socrates refutes Thrasymachus’ view, concluding that the virtue of a soul is Justice and injustice its defect.  Thus, “the soul robbed of its peculiar virtue, … cannot possibly do its work well ….. and living well involves well-being and happiness,” and therefore, “only the just man is happy.”  However, Socrates has not yet given a fixed definition of Justice.

* in ancient Greece, Sophists were paid teachers who were experts in using philosophy and rhetoric to promote excellence and virtue, yet are often portrayed as using fallacious reasoning and obscuring moral principles

Friday, 4 August 2017

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

"Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it."

Ah, the lovely Landmark editions!  Where would I be without them?  I would have no idea the location of Thrace or Thessaly or Corinth, etc. and therefore have less of a concept of the complicated dynamics that influenced various states in their struggles to fit into the puzzle of Hellenistic supremacy!

Thucydides account of the war between Sparta and Athens falls just after the events recounted in Herodotus' The Histories.  Athens, high on her victory over the very powerful Xerxes, king of Persia, during the Persian Wars, is feeling rather self-important and she appears to be rushing around with her forces, conquering states here and subduing enemies there.  And while Athens becomes more powerful, the Lacedaemonians of Sparta are left to conduct their somewhat mundane and traditional existence.  But Athens' power begins to worry them and while they were allies during the Persian Wars, this brotherhood appears to be heading towards a separation that could prove bloody as well as costly.

Index of Posts:

Book I / Book II / Book III / Book IV / Book V / Book VI / Book VIIBook VIII

Thucydides, indeed, gives a fascinating account of a mega-war between two superior powers that were at the height of their military powers, a war that would not only engulf their nations, but many of the city-states surrounding them and would even spread to Italy with the disastrous Sicilian expedition launched by Athens.  At first, the reader perhaps can sympathize that Athens might want to expand her influence or that Sparta might want to assert herself for balance, but soon the war grows like a cancer wherever it touches, prompting Thucydides to make an insightful observation:

"Think, too of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war: think of it now, before you are actually committed to war.  The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents.  Neither you nor we can see into them: we have to abide their outcome in the dark.  And when peole are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way round.  Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think."

How right he was!  One goes into a war with laudable intentions, but soon enough greed and power and hegemony begins to infect the general purpose and beyond anyone's control the conflict becomes a nine-headed hydra.

After reading Herodotus, Thucydides' narrative at first felt dry and sparse.  It definitely took determination and some plodding through a literary desert to keep going, but the reward was unexpected and quite amazing.  The fact that Thucydides did not colour the actions of others with his own palate (or at least, very little) allowed these actions and decisions to stand out in stark contrast and emphasized the selfless bravery, the strategic plotting, the blind stubbornness of leaders, the diplomatic brilliance, the plain stupidity of many and the various other exploits of all those involved in this lengthy and tragic war.

One wants to catalogue the evils of war, but Thucydides made me realize that war is much more complex that just an event; in fact, it seemed like the war was simply a side-issue that was a symptom of a much larger problem.  The problem of people ....... their greed and small-mindedness and selfish ambition.  It's a scenario that's played over and over throughout history and the actions of these people are always catastrophic at the most and injurious at the least, no matter if the venue is war, or political strife, or family matters, or any other large or small issue that our human faults and failing play into. Next I'm reading The Republic by Plato, a man whose life was coloured by this lengthy war.  It will be interesting to read the conclusions he draws.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

July/August ~ Life Goes By At The Speed of Light

Once Upon A Time (c. 1850)
Carl Spitzweg
source Wikiart

I cannot believe where the time has gone.  It's passed by so quickly that my mind is spinning.  Which is not good.  Lately I've been thinking about balance in life, and how we find it.  Is it only people who live in large cities who have this problem, as events and opportunities are much more accessible?  Or do we all do it to ourselves and are "nuts," as my scorekeeping liaison is fond of calling me?  I have a feeling there are many answers to this question, all of them complex and none of them clear.

June ...... what can I say about June?  Honestly, so many things blur together which, I believe, comes from ...... yes, being entirely too busy. Most of it was spent getting ready for the big international women's softball tournament held yearly in my area.  Usually I help scorekeep but this year was the year they made me head scorekeeper so I had almost 40 volunteers working under me.  Help!  It was certainly trial-by-fire and for 11 days, 14-15 hours per day, I was kept moving, going from diamond to diamond, fixing scoreboards, sound systems, talking to volunteers, altering schedules continuously, grabbing volunteers on the fly for either scorekeeping, announcing or scoreboards, etc. etc.  It went very well and the support and help I received from my volunteers was truly exceptional and very much appreciated.  The tournament was a wonderful experience, but even so, I must admit I was relieved when it was over, as the long days were beginning to wear on me.  Japan beat Australia in the final, which was no surprise as softball is huge in Japan and their teams are nearly always impossible to beat.  After that tournament, I went on to be head scorekeeper for a Provincials tournament which was very enjoyable (and much smaller) but I was pretty much exhausted at the end of it all.  It was nice to fly off for vacation a couple of days later and I won’t be back for at least another week.  Needless to say, I’m sleeping lots, enjoying getting more reading time than I have had recently, doing lots of kayaking, and relaxing in nature.   A couple of days ago, I came outside on the deck to find that Finn (my dog) had caught a mouse; the mouse was traumatized and Finn was looking sufficiently traumatized as well, as he was most likely trying to play with it and didn’t quite realize the consequences.  We put it in a berry box, gave it food (blueberries) and water, and it appeared to be getting better, but sadly something came along last night and ate it, so our nursing was all for naught.  Poor mouse.  Such is the circle of life, I suppose.

© Cleo @ Classical Carousel

Oh, before I forget, I did manage to raise some butterflies, something I’d been planning to do for years and never managed to buy the kit in time.  They were Painted Ladies and all hatched easily except for one.  It was liberating to watch them fly away clothed in their bright painted colours.  I do wonder though, while they're supposed to be native to this area, I never see any.  The occasional Monarch, yes, Painted Ladies, no .....

© Cleo @ Classical Carousel

Some rather distressing news in our province is the unprecedented number of forest fires burning throughout British Columbia.   Today, as I sit outside on the deck, there is an air quality advisory in effect and I'm hoping for winds to breeze the smoginess away.  To date, there have been a total of over 200 fires with 325,000 hectares (803,000 acres) have been scorched and many people's houses have burned to the ground; a friend's cottage at Loon Lake was destroyed by the flames. Firefighters from the U.S. and Mexico have travelled to help out but sadly the hot temperatures continue and there doesn't seem to be much reprieve.  Very tragic and we can only hope for a change of weather soon.


From fires to reading ... did I already mention reading?  Of course, I did!  I would have had very little to report for my July post, but since I didn’t do one and we’re already in August, I have news!  I’m almost finished reading Shadow of the Moon for Cirtnecce’s read-along, a book about the great India mutiny of 1857.  As with all M.M. Kaye’s books, it’s well-written and delivers a comprehensive history of the time, drawing the reader right into the story.  I finished History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides and enjoyed it much more than I expected.  It gets better as it goes along and offers an insightful look into politics, power and war.  I’m also reading Augustine’s City of God (sooooo different from his Confessions) and Plato’s Republic.  I can’t say I’m enjoying the former yet, but the latter is certainly fascinating, not only for Plato’s ideas but for the way in which he delivers them; one often can’t quite tell whether Socrates is being serious, or playful, or ironic.  Otherwise, I need to pick up Dead Souls again by Gogol and finish it off and continue with O’s The Pickwick Papers Read-Along.

And so what does August bring?  Other than the end of my vacation, I have a drive to Saskatchewan planned.  While I’ve seen places in Alberta (Lake Louise, Banff, etc.), I’ve never been further east in Canada by car so it should be interesting.  And yes, (broken record starting….) the food blog is still coming along, yet technically not launched.  I just became too busy over the summer and could not give it the attention it needed.  My partner is being patient (although perhaps it would help if he’d be a little more prodding!  Oooo, but is that nagging?  That wouldn’t be good! ;-) ).  I’m going to try to get something happening on it in August but it might not be until September, if I’m honest.  I’m still thinking about it though …. collecting recipes, ideas, etc. so in a way, I haven’t completely abandoned it.

© Cleo @ Classical Carousel

And books?  I already have so much I’m reading but I do plan to add a couple of others to the mix.  Plutarch’s Lives is ready to go, and I want to start Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  I’ve also been eyeing The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake which looks very interesting.  If anyone has read it, can you give me a positive recommendation?

So .....  as July has slipped almost silently into August, I hope you all are having a wonderful summer!

© Cleo @ Classical Carousel