Sunday, July 15, 2012

eReadings 19

The Sea-Hawk
Rafael Sabatini
When I started reading this I didn't know anything about it. Later I found that the author was English, in spite of his name suggesting otherwise, and that he was a somewhat prolific writer of swashbuckling tales. Another of his works is Captain Blood.

We can assume that he was fascinated by the early days of sailing, and must have spent some time learning about the history of the time. This isn't a history book, but a novel about a privateer turned gentleman, after having been given a title by Queen Elizabeth for his help in defeating the Spanish Armada. It so happened that I had read, though perhaps scanned might be more accurate, a nonfiction book, How Britannia Came to Rule the Waves, by WHG Kingston, and in it he credits the various privateers for their help in building the Royal Navy and in defeating the Spanish.

But The Sea-Hawk is of course a novel, about Sir Oliver Tressilian, who has amassed some wealth through piracy to go along with his title. It is full of dialog, both between people and the various characters with themselves, and rather verbose dialog it seemed to me.

Nonetheless, this is compelling storytelling, perhaps getting off to a slow start as we read what seems like it's going to be a book about the interfamily goings on revolving around Sir Oliver's plan to marry Rosamund Godolphin, then taking some quite amazing turns, so that we abruptly leave England and head off to the Mediterranean, quite active with Arab corsairs raiding Spanish and other ships. both for the riches, but also for the slave market. Suddenly we are introduced to Sakr-el-Bahr, an infamous corsair with the interesting past.

The story here is interesting, riveting at times, but seemed to bog down with the ever-heavy dialog.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

eReadings 18

Common Sense
Thomas Paine

Yes, this is that famous book, a pamphlet really, published in 1776 as the Revolution was taking shape. You know a book is small when you click to the next page and each Kindle page is 1% of the book.

I'll be honest, it's not such an easy read. The language is a little thick, with some unusual words to be sure, but the sentence structure very heavy with clauses and loaded with commas. One might think that this was the English language of the time, which in some respect may be true, but one can read works by Samuel Johnson or Boswell's Life of Johnson and find a very different readability of 18th century English literature. I read Life of Johnson some time ago and found it quite easy reading.

Look at this passage from early on in the book:

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. WHEREFORE, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows, that whatever FORM thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.
It's not that this isn't understandable, but reading page after page like this is certainly tiring. We have a way of getting to a point much quicker these days.

I would have probably stopped reading early on, but then I realized that July 4th was coming up so I persisted. One of the things which struck me in the early pages was that, if one translated to a more modern English, this was basically a rant such as one might read on the internet these days, or perhaps see on some news report. It becomes quite clear that Paine has no good words for monarchy, and in particular King George.

I did appreciate reading first hand some of the concepts that formed our country and its subsequent government, where he talks about creating a land governed by the rule of law rather than the rule of a man. It becomes a bit repetitious, but he sets out to bring up the many objections to the current state of affairs, the possible remedies, with the only sensible one being secession from England and formation of a new country with its own government, and finally that the time was NOW to do these things.

As a reminder of the history of the time, the thoughts of people at the time, this is a very enlightening book. Be prepared for slow reading of this formal 18th century English.

eReadings 17

The Innocents Abroad
Mark Twain

Having previously read A Tramp Abroad, I was reluctant enough to read this one that I read a bit first with a browser before downloading to my Kindle.

This book predated A Tramp Abroad, being published in 1869, after a chartered excursion to Europe, sailing around the Mediterranean. It differed quite a bit from the cruises popular now, since one might be let off somewhere in Italy and then go travelling for a month to Paris and other inland sites.

One certainly gets quite a bit of commentary of the mercenary nature of travel at the time. Everywhere you go, there is someone to pay some fee to, some guide to hire, and many a beggar along the way.

Not so different from sightseeing now is the pressure one feels and the ease of being shuttled around from sight to sight, and we hear Mr. Twain railing against the fatigue that sets in as you visit yet another church, with its collection of relics, with so many churches professing to have pieces of the Holy Cross or the Crown of Thorns. The artwork, the sculpture, at least for him, became numbing.

It's necessary to remember that this was the world before World War I, so a very different sort of place from today. He lost his passport somewhere in the middle of the journey, but that never appeared to be an impediment to travel. A number of ports were closed due to fears of cholera.

One could no longer travel as he did from Turkey to Syria to Palestine on horseback, camping out in tents as they went. He certainly appreciated the depth of history in Palestine and especially in Egypt, but the terrain and climate were awful. In addition, beggars were everywhere in the Middle East.

In the end, this is a very enjoyable book, full of insights into a time we think we know but have never heard about what it was like from a first-person perspective, hearing not only about the history and famous architecture and art, but the lives of the people in the lands he visited.