February 17th, 2018

Reading Trollope On Line

When I mention that Anthony Trollope is one of my favorite authors, I get eye rolls, even among Downton Abbey fans, a series that I don’t care for because I think it is the Gone With The Wind of the British aristocracy.

I won’t get into why I prefer Trollope— any Trollope, even The Fixed Period— to Downton Abbey, but I have many reasons, which I might get into in another post, but not now.

Anthony Trollope was a mid-nineteenth century British Victorian novelist, roughly contemporary with Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, the Brontë’s, and George Elliot. He was somewhat older than Thomas Hardy who wrote well into the twentieth century. Jane Austen preceded Trollope, straddling the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Although Trollope is by far my favorite among the Victorians, I notice that he is not listed among Victorian novelists in the Wikipedia article on Victorian Literature, not even in in the subsection on other Victorian writers. Why is that? I am not an expert, but in his own time, Trollope’s contemporaries accused him of being too prolific and too commercial. He was not ashamed to fret over payment for his books.

Trollope was a bureaucrat in the British postal system and he often wrote while traveling on official business. He kept to a strict schedule, rising early to get in his daily quota of words and said that if he finished one book during a writing session, he started his next without pausing. He kept meticulous records of his number of words per day.

In other words, Anthony Trollope was a novel writing machine. He wrote forty-seven novels in addition to short stories, travel books, a history of the English clergy, an autobiography, and other writings on miscellaneous subjects. Contemporary critics roundly condemned him for being overly prolific. Today, he might be accused of being a hack, of substituting quantity for quality.

Myself, I am profoundly grateful that Trollope wrote every day and turned out books one after another. I have been reading Trollope regularly for thirty years now, and there are still books I am looking forward to reading for the first time and there are others that seem completely new because it has been so long since I read them.

Some things make it easy to become a Trollope enthusiast. Project Gutenberg has made most of his books free in electronic editions. Amazon also has many of Trollope’s works available electronically at nominal price or free. These electronic versions are not perfect— the transcription process introduces a few errors and they are often the product of enthusiasts rather than experts, but they are still very readable. Cheap used paper copies are also easy to find on-line.

For me, however, the gem is the Group Reading of Anthony Trollope , which I call the “Trollope list.” The Trollope list reads a book by Trollope together every two or three months. I think they are unique in that a volunteer member of the group summarizes each week’s chapters. This is startlingly effective. The summaries spark discussion, and busy people who have trouble keeping up with their reading, can keep up with the discussion based on the summaries even when they have slipped behind. I admit to occasionally reading only the summaries during a busy week and skipping a few chapters in my own reading. This makes group reading so much less onerous. You can relax and enjoy Trollope instead of worrying about finishing a reading assignment each week.

I cannot say enough about the group members. Some are academics, some are dilettantes like me, others are just enthusiastic readers. The discussions are wide ranging—some go into Victorian arcana, others apply Trollope’s insights into contemporary society, some revel in the Trollope’s romance and dramatic tension. Anyone who enjoys Dickens or Jane Austen should dip into Trollope. He touches many of the same topics, but with a different style and perspective that I find fascinating.

The Group Reading of Anthony Trollope is an excellent starting point for getting to know Trollope. The group is well into Phineas Finn at this writing, but do drop in, you may find that starting in the middle, “in medea res,” works for you. You must join to participate or read the discussion, but it’s all free. Civility and absence of politics are the rule. There are no trolls on the Trollope list.

If you don’t care for the daily and hourly emails of an active group, opt for “no email” and go to the group website, Group Reading of Anthony Trollope when you feel like it. You only get one email a day if you go for a “daily summary.” My choice is to enjoy the continual conversation of “individual messages.” You can subscribe below.


February 14th, 2018

The Dying of the Light

Dylan Thomas said “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Ben Frerichs did not rage, he kept the light burning.

Ben died Thursday, February 8, 2018. Ben was the third friend who died during the past twelve months. Reach an age and these events get more frequent. The scramble to stay connected intensifies and life goes on.

Our last conversation was less than a week before he died. Ben’s voice was weaker than it was a few weeks before, he slumped more in his wheel chair, and his face was paler. We talked for two hours. His color improved and his voice became stronger as we talked, but he tired, his nurses became impatient, the afternoon rush on I-5 began, and the conversation ended.

Ben talked about Raymond Chandler and Michael Connelly and a piece of mine that he had read for me. He was thankful that someone had given him an assignment to finish. His world was constricting around him. His sprawling body got visibly smaller, he could do less and less for himself, but inside the shrinking perimeter, Ben did not decline, his thoughts were not frail. He talked about community and corporate discussions. How often people with good intention don’t understand the simple mechanics of coming together to accomplish a goal.

Dying men fight against their chains. And chains, Ben had. A plastic connector protruding from his chest, a bed pan to be changed, well he should have roared, scratched, and bit. Ben said he needed less help than most of his fellows in the nursing center and therefore the attendants were not prepared for him. Ben conceived of a course to certify caregivers. The only examination would be oral. The questions would be easy, but the candidate’s mouths would be gently sealed with duct tape.

I met Ben in a writing class. A few students formed a writing group to carry on when the class ended. That was close to ten years ago. Ben was the guiding spirit of the group, finding a meeting place, making sure that everyone knew of the next meeting, and who was up for critique. Over the years the group became less formal, but it still exists, although Ben has not been a participant since he was hospitalized over a year ago.

Until he suddenly collapsed, he was vital. Many friends, offering rides, conducting a session on writing groups at the Chuckanut Writer’s Conference, active in the Bellingham writing community, and talking, discussing, curious, out-going. His life changed dramatically when his respiratory system gave way and he was permanently attached to medical equipment, but Ben himself did not change, and now, he is beyond change.

January 26th, 2018

What We Sow: China and the Opium Wars

I recently read that the opioid epidemic in America has three main sources of supply: prescription opioids from pharma, Mexican heroin, and synthetic opioids from China.

In the official history of the People’s Republic of China, the Opium Wars started in 1840 were the beginning of a century of humiliation for China that ended with the founding of the republic in 1949. The Opium Wars were not glorious for anyone and many Westerners would prefer to forget them, but I doubt that many Chinese will forget those wars soon.

In classical Chinese literature and history, opium is barely mentioned and was generally thought of as an import from India and Arab countries. During the 18th Century, use became more prevalent, supplied by opium imported from India via the British East India Company. Britain and other Western powers had a trade imbalance problem with China in the 19th Century. Westerners wanted tea, silk, and other Chinese goods, but the Chinese were not interested in the West’s manufactured products. However, easily transported East Indian opium could be obtained in exchange for manufactured goods and then sold to China. This opium trade became a major source of wealth for Britain. This wealth was at the cost of huge numbers of Chinese addicts.

A share of the wealth in Britain today came from those Chinese addicts. In the U.S., the fortunes of the Astor family, the Forbes family, and the grandfather of Franklin D. Roosevelt all came from the opium trade.

The last traditional Chinese dynasty was the Qing, founded in the early 17th Century and ended in 1918. The Qing was a dynasty of conquest. The preceding Ming dynasty was conquered by the Manchus, an ethnic group from north of China and related to the Mongols.

The Manchus depended on the Chinese traditional bureaucracy for the skills to govern the vast Chinese empire. They were notorious for corrupt and frivolous spending. One example is a stationary barge that was built as a sumptuous pleasure palace with funds intended for the Chinese navy. The Qing government was both internally and externally ineffective. The Western powers, Britain, France, and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. took advantage of this weakness to force favorable trade agreements. One of these agreements was to protect the sale of Indian opium.

Opium addiction became an epidemic affecting a large segment of the Chinese population. Upright Chinese officials realized the crisis would not end until Western ships, mainly British, stopped delivering opium by the ton. These officials prevailed. Opium imports through Western merchants were banned, confiscated, burned, and dumped overboard.

The British would have none of that. In the name of free trade, the British, with the cooperation of the other Western powers, sent gun boats to ports and up rivers and canals. The Qing response was feeble and put up almost no opposition. Chinese dead and injured were many times the number of Western casualties. China was forced to accept humiliating trade deals and treaties, including ceding Hong Kong to Britain, and forced purchase of debilitating opium. The opium addiction scourge in China continued until it was wiped out in a popular, but brutal, campaign in the early years of the Peoples Republic under Mao Zedong.

Now the sides are reversed. China is selling, and we are buying. Perhaps I have a more tolerant view of China than many Americans after spending years studying classical Chinese. I am left in awe of the cultural, scientific, and economic achievements of the traditional Chinese empire. I see the current regime as both benevolent and draconian. There is much to like and much to deplore. The Chinese people appear to be healthier, more prosperous, and likely happier than they have been since the Manchu conquest in the 17th Century, but the Chinese government is repressive by my standards.

Will we be able to staunch the flow of Chinese synthetics like fentanyl that caused 20,000 of the 64,000 fatal opioid overdoses in 2016? Roughly the number of Chinese who died in the Opium Wars, not to mention China’s own untold numbers of opium deaths. The Chinese memory of the Opium War will color their response to our requests to regulate synthetic opioid exports more stringently.

If the Chinese are not enthusiastic, can we blame them?

We reap what we sow.